When Jesus asks, as he did with the Apostles, “Who do you say that I am?”(Mt 16:15), I have to say that lately my response has been: “You are my Good Shepherd”.
As the Good Shepherd, I know that he has accompanied my steps since I was conceived in the womb of my mother. Psalm 23 has been indeed my favorite for a long time, a place of refuge in times of distress and fear. I recite it by heart whispering it to myself and to his ears. What a source of consolation and strength! But never like in this past year has Jesus revealed himself to me, and have I perceived him, as the Good Shepherd with so much clarity. Through these months I have discovered and cherished two main qualities of this Shepherd: his tenderness and his strength.
This true God and true man who walks with the rod and the staff along the roads of our existence, who knows us to the depths: goodness, limits, sins, desires and all, who never loses sight of us, has the capacity to call our names like only a mother, a father, a lover would do, and to come close to our wounds with a tenderness never experienced before. He is not disgusted or afraid to look at them and to touch them. On the contrary, he yearns to do so because he made us for wholeness, and as the Healer he has come indeed for us, the sick.
In the parable of the lost sheep, when he leaves the ninety-nine and finds the one, he lifts it up to his heart and carries it on his shoulders. Right there, in the midst of wounds and misery, intimacy with him takes place. Why then do we run away when we are dirty, injured, lost? We just need to lift a feeble cry and let ourselves be found.
I think of the cry of Peter walking on water, when, taking his eyes off Jesus he started sinking: “Lord, save me!” (Mt 14:30). He didn’t have to say it twice. The strong hand of Jesus was there, stretched out and ready to grasp him. No storm is stronger than the Good Shepherd, be it external or inside our soul.
St. Ignatius of Loyola speaks of the evil spirit, always at work against us, and with this term he means the flesh, the world and the devil. Interestingly enough he uses one term for the three of them, and doesn’t distinguish who is at work. In my experience I have come to understand that it is so because the three always go together. Even if there is a prevalence of one over the others according to the situation, they still join forces. But no matter how strong the evil spirit seems to be, the Good Shepherd is stronger. As much as he is tender with the sinner, he strongly opposes sin and our enemy. If there is in our soul a stronghold which belongs to the evil spirit (an area of our life that we want to keep to ourselves, closed off from Jesus’ presence and action), he will go against it. Against it, but not against us. He can’t, though, and doesn’t want to do it without us. We need to do our part. He gives us his strength. Just when we feel weak and at the mercy of the enemy, if we stay close to him, his strength will shine in us.
What makes the whole difference in fact is the presence of the Shepherd.
I had the opportunity of reading an interesting little book this year, “A shepherd looks at Psalm 23”, whose author, a Protestant pastor, was a shepherd for many years. He gives a deeper insight into that Psalm, sharing a knowledge about sheep that I honestly didn’t have. I now understand why Jesus used that image.
To start with, sheep are the livestock that require the most detailed and constant care. Left to themselves they just can’t make it. The Psalm speaks about resting by quiet waters, but the sheep cannot even rest unless the shepherd makes them do so. And in order to achieve such a goal he needs to free them from fears (anxieties, worries, dangers), frictions with others, parasites (daily burdens), and hunger. More than once the author noticed that his simple presence among his sheep in the field would make the difference and give them peace. It’s not about how big or small our problems are, or our strongholds, but about how close we stay to Christ.
Something else that struck me about the author’s experience was how tirelessly the shepherd labors for the good of his sheep. This is what I see in Jesus. His love never tires of caring for me, and because he loves me, he doesn’t hesitate to lead me through dark valleys, which are the best ways to the higher pastures. He permits trials and hardships for us to grow in trust, to become stronger, to have the merit (always supported by grace) to choose to follow him. But we never face them alone, nor does he give us more than we can bear. What a gift it is to ask and to receive the grace to lift praise and thanksgiving also from those dark valleys.
So the Good Shepherd loves me, he is tender and strong, he knows exactly what is best for me, he never asks me to go anywhere he himself hasn’t been first, and above all he lays down his life for me. The green pastures where I feed, the water of the Spirit that quenches my thirst, the rich table prepared for me – symbol of the Eucharist – come through the Cross, through the pierced heart of my Good Shepherd. His death wasn’t an accident. Rather, it was a desired act of sacrificial love. The Cross is the way of and to love. Will I follow him there?
The most important things asked of us sheep are in fact trust, surrender, and perseverance. We are called to lay our life in his hands and to follow his lead. “Jesus, I trust in you” is the invocation that accompanies and helps me, especially when I don’t understand, when I walk through the dark valley. Even there we can experience then the sweetness of his presence and his faithfulness to his promise. The author of the book explains how those valleys are chosen because water and food are found there. It is true that we are called to do what we can to improve a situation, but once that has been done, I think it is key to learn how to surrender and to live out suffering with Jesus. Great treasures can be found there. I have received the most beautiful graces in my times of pain and sorrow. And when we stop fighting against them, we suffer less and we taste the presence and the goodness of Jesus.
The dark valley is not the final destination, but rather a place of passage. After it the joy of life comes, life received from him, life that we can give to others.
“I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (Jn 10:10)
– Learning and praying Psalm 22 (23), having recourse to it in times of distress
– Naming and giving thanks for those moments in our life when we have experienced the presence of the Good Shepherd in his tenderness and/or his strength
– Praying using the invocation “Jesus, I trust in you”