Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI recently confided that a mystical experience of God -- not merely illness and fatigue -- was behind his resignation this March. God told him to resign, he says, to devote the remainder of his life to prayer.
The waggish side of my personality says that B's resignation was simply God answering the desperate prayers of his people. My more pious side wonders whether the former pontiff actually had an experience. It could have been as prosaic as a as a dream, or as classically mystical as an insistent spectral voice, accompanied by colored lights and a sensation of a Presence. It could have been as mundane as an old man, achieving his life's ambition, surprised that it was so unfulfilling. Or it could have been a pathos-filled as a man realizing that he was just the wrong person for the job.
I admit to a certain antipathy toward Joseph Ratzinger, the man who became Benedict XVI. Starting his career as a liberal, he was freaked out by the radicalism of the late 1960s and became John Paul II's "Rottweiler," dispensing harsh justice on those who ran afoul of the Church's (read: the Pope's) line. As pope, Benedict hit all the wrong chords. Even smiling, he looked scary-- the Simon bar Sinister of the papacy. There was something creepy about portraits of him with children. He seemed like an ogre ready to eat them. He alienated Jews, Muslims and women with his seemingly innocuous comments. He was unable to grapple with the dysfunction, even corruption, in the Curia. His signature move -- revising the language of the Mass to make it match the Latin more closely -- was met with serious opposition by priests and laity for being unpoetic, clumsy, expensive and unnecessary.
All of this would have made a lesser man crumble. That it took Benedict 5 years to fold is a testament of sorts to his stamina and stubbornness -- the old Rottweiler clamping his jaws onto the papal throne. Until a more appealing treat beckoned.
Kudos to Benedict for having read -- if not glowing letter in the sky -- then the events on the ground. And may he be blessed on his journey
I do believe in mystical experiences - fleeting glimpses of divine truth. But they don't happen in the storybook way, with angels and halos and light and ethereal music. Our messenger angels come in the form of our friends, family and the guy in the tollbooth. Our holy voices come as part of a bad sermon, or an arresting message on a billboard. Our lights come in the form of the unexpected insights, terrifying dreams, and sudden instances when badly fitting facts coalesce into new truth.
For the Pope Emeritus , the new truth came (as it often does) at a moment that might have cause embarrassment and lack of prestige. God doesn't care about our status problems. That he followed the truth's lead says a lot about his character.
Let's follow the example of Pope Francis, and honor the old pope as he grows into a new and fuller relationship with God, more profound, apparently, than the papacy itself.