I will lift high the lowly tree
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar, from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot, and plant it on a high and lofty mountain; And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree

One of the greatest blessings in my life as a Deacon has been the gift of being called to visit the sick, in particular those who suffer from mental illness. Now, I know that a few weeks back your pastor spoke of the hierarchy that characterizes the structure of the Church, and he asked you to consider the image of that pyramid reversed, so that the pinnacle is on the bottom. This is a proper and more accurate image of just what the hierarchy of the Church is. The servants are always on the bottom, and the Pope is the servant of servants. For a while now I’ve envisioned many of these people I visit, who suffer from mental illness, as the special friends of Christ who have been found worthy to share in his passion in a way that most of us, especially myself, are not worthy. The world sees them as on the very bottom of the pyramid, for they are the forgotten, the neglected, and many people find it hard to be around them, they make others nervous and uncomfortable. But if this pyramidal structure of the Church is to be envisioned as turned upside down, then these special friends of Christ, who suffer in ways most of us can hardly begin to imagine, are really at the top. The vocation of mental illness—and I dare say it is a vocation—is indeed a very noble one. Now, I am not referring to a mental illness that is inconsistent with holiness—there are mental and emotional sicknesses that have been brought on by drug use or by a life of vice—; rather, I am referring to organic mental diseases that are consistent with holiness.

Recently I was visiting one of these special friends of Christ who suffers from schizophrenia. She was one of the first I visited, but she had to be hospitalized again, and she was not in good shape. But she recognized me, and I’ve been visiting her for a while now, and she’s improving steadily. This lady loves prayer cards, prayer books, rosaries, etc., and she is really a very good soul, a prayerful soul. One day she begins telling me—as well as two others who were at the table with us—what she experiences when she begins praying the rosary. Now I’ve been studying the great Spanish mystics for about 30 years, and I know what infused contemplation is, I understand it well when it is being described, and I know how it differs from the ordinary peace experienced in mental prayer, and above all how it differs from acquired contemplation. What this lady was describing was a very profound, supernatural and infused contemplation, a profound joy, a glorious peace that is absolutely impossible for us to procure on our own efforts. As I am listening to her, I was astounded at the words she struggled to find to describe her experiences, as well as her demeanor as she was doing so. She had no idea how rare is her experience. And said to her: “Do you know how rare that experience is? You have something that most priests in this world do not achieve. They are supposed to achieve it, but for the most part they don’t.—and there are reasons for that. But what you have just described to me is a gift that is so great that it surpasses in value a life of wealth, health and travel.” She just smiled at me, saying “Oh, really?” I couldn’t get her to see how extraordinarily rare this gift is, which she says she experiences quite often in the midst of prayer. And for her, Mass is a profoundly delightful experience.

Why does this lady with schizophrenia get to experience this? And why do so few of us ever achieve such heights of contemplation? It’s not hard to explain. This is a lady who has nothing. She cannot delight in herself, in her accomplishments—she has none, or none that she has made me aware of. She is profoundly sick and utterly dependent upon the care of others. She is completely and utterly poor, both materially and spiritually. And she prays, she turns to God, and to the Blessed Mother, and she prays without pretension or self-consciousness, she just prays like a child; for she has the heart of a child. And that’s precisely the purpose of the ascetic stage of the spiritual life, to dispose ourselves properly for the gift of infused contemplation, by becoming what we are, which is nothing, utterly poor and dependent, children without guile. And so, of course the Lord will allow her to drink of the life giving water—she’s ready.

But many of us are not, because we refuse to taste such poverty. We are terribly afraid to become children again, we are afraid to behold our own wretchedness before the divine majesty. We hate the specter of our own nothingness. We love ourselves too much. My spiritual director once said that you can always tell a great man, a holy man, because he never talks about himself, and when he’s in your presence, he only wants to know about you, for he’s interested in you, not himself. He sees no point in talking about himself, because he sees himself as profoundly uninteresting. Well, the norm is that most people delight in talking about themselves, even people who should know better, like clergy. You’ll notice how some people very subtly re-direct a conversation around themselves, so as to focus the attention of all listeners onto themselves. I witnessed a Jesuit do this once in a Church sacristy; he just assumed we all wanted to know about him, rather than the old woman who was telling us about her life.

What’s your pleasure? I ask that question because you always get what you want in the end. Why don’t more people drink from the life-giving water that Christ speaks of in the gospel of John, a water that quenches all thirst not temporarily, but permanently; a symbol of infused contemplation according to St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila? Because they have another pleasure. They delight in themselves, in their accomplishments, they delight in being the center of attention, they delight in being recognized, acknowledged, they delight in being “in the know”, they delight in having a position of authority, or they delight in delicious meals, warm weather and the exhilaration of traveling from one country to another, etc. They are too full. They are not empty. So they don’t seek that water. Why would they? They don’t taste their lack. And what’s the result of all this? One consequence is that if I were asked to point to one person in this city who I am relatively certain has experienced the profound and indescribable mystical peace that the world cannot give, I would not point to a bishop or priest, but a humble lady locked up in the schizophrenic unit of a hospital. The last will be first, and the first will be last.

I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar, from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot, and plant it on a high and lofty mountain; And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree.

The only way to reach the lofty heights of infused mystical contemplation is to become that tender shoot. Most people aspire to be the towering cedar tree, and so they are never planted by the Lord on the high and lofty mountain of infused contemplation.