“What happened to Father Eymard on that hill?” I imagine this must have been the question those closest to the recently ordained Peter Julian Eymard asked themselves. After all, what kind of experience could produce such a sea change in religious outlook? Though considered “holy” by his parishioners prior to this “hill-top” experience, he also carried with him certain Jansenist influences of his day, such as fear of divine judgment and damnation, and a general sense of unworthiness. Not only did he live with these thoughts, but he wove them into his homilies. He energetically strove after what he thought was Christian perfection, in austerity and self-abasement, but these combined with his fiery sermons likely made him a somewhat off-putting character.
Then, on a visit to a neighboring parish with his pastor, instead of socializing with the clergy, he decided to climb a nearby hill, “the rock of Saint Romans,” where there were stations of the cross, a chapel, and a trio of crosses at the summit. Alone in that beautiful natural setting, punctuated by images of Jesus’ passion, something happened within Father Eymard. There was a grace and a profound movement within his heart. He never described it in detail. Perhaps the experience transcended words, or silence was its fullest expression. Whatever the case, Father Eymard drew from this experience for years to come and utilized its inspiration to aid others along their spiritual journeys. Through the spiritual direction he gave others, as he referenced this powerful experience, we can surmise some important aspects of it.
Gone was the focus upon himself and his sense of unworthiness. In fact, in this experience he seemed to have set aside all thoughts about himself. Gone too was any semblance of God as harsh, demanding, or retributive. No, in this profound encounter, Father Eymard experienced only divine love and acceptance. Moreover, he seemed to realize on a deep personal level that God’s abundant love and peace are always present. Without forcing the connection too much, perhaps this is also what he found in the Eucharist.
Popular speaker and best-selling author Richard Rohr observed, “if you examine the accounts of people’s great moments of breakthrough, they usually are not referring to what they see as much as how they see” (The Naked Now, 61). This is certainly the case with Saint Eymard. He shifted from fear and unworthiness to “seeing things first of all under the aspect of God’s goodness to us…” (Letter to Mms. Jordan, July 7, 1851). It was a change in his way of seeing God and himself, and it was truly life-giving. Impressively, it drew him deeper into contemplative prayer and it energized him for ministry!
Father Rohr speaks eloquently about the mystics, saying that one of their greatest traits is the ability to be “truly present” and in turn to recognize the divine presence in and all around them (The Naked Now, 60). Saint Eymard had this ability and interpreted it in a wholly sacramental manner. In fact, he came to see all things, more and more, through a eucharistic lens. This August, as we celebrate the feast of Saint Peter Julian Eymard, perhaps we could ask God to give us the grace to set aside the things that keep us from being “truly present.” Because, if we become “really and truly present” to God and others, we do more than honor this “Apostle of the Eucharist,” we become Eucharist for a world in need.