John 10:1-10, Fourth Sunday of Easter
In our novitiate in Novaliches, we take care of a flock of sheep. I counted 27 the last time. They graze on the grounds all morning. After lunch, they’re herded back into their pen. Many years ago, it was cows and turkeys that roamed the place. But because our Novitiate is also a retreat facility, you could imagine how sheep and lambs help retreatants in their gospel meditations much better than cows and turkeys do! Sheep fascinate me. Once they’re out on the grounds, they eat and eat and eat. I’ve not seen sheep play or sleep or look up once in a while to see where their friends are. No, they eat and eat and eat, like they have an addiction to grass! Sheep also follow the sheep in front of them. There’s a saying among sheep herders, “Get one to go, the rest will follow.” So it’s pretty easy leading sheep back to the pen or to the shearer or, well, to the butcher, because you just need to get one or two to lead the flock, and the rest follow. But see, not just anybody could get that “one to go” for the “rest to follow.” Sheep keep a “flight distance” around them and I’ve noticed this myself. Whenever I approach a sheep, it stops grazing and walks away. But it never really runs away very far—just a few feet away. It’s like sheep maintain a safe radius that gives them room to run, in case someone or something wants to harm them. But this “flight distance” decreases when the sheep eventually become familiar with someone who turns out to be a harmless, friendly presence.
In the old days, shepherds were mostly unmarried sons of poor families. Very often, the son who didn’t have the skill to do harder labor became a shepherd. Shepherds were wage earners. They got paid to watch sheep they did not own. And since their employers hardly provided decent living quarters, shepherds literally stayed with the sheep all day and night. So Pope Francis was really spot-on with his metaphor: “Be shepherds with the smell of sheep,” he said to priests. That was very, very true, and very, very real: real sheep “felt” familiar with a shepherd who didn’t smell different, who smelled like them, in other words—and I use the word “familiar” in its most fundamental sense, the sense of “familia”. “But they will not follow a stranger,” Jesus says in the g]Gospel. “They will run away from him.”
In my life, the precious few and best people I considered shepherds were those who knew me very deeply, who smelled my “true odor,” so to speak. The best shepherds in my life knew my hungers and thirsts. They were familiar with my disordered attachments and everyday “addictions”. They were the ones who were able to convince me that I suffered from my own share of unfreedoms. The true shepherds in my life didn’t mince words when they demanded that I look up and around once in a while because I was being very self-absorbed, opinionated, passive-aggressive, and arrogant. Thankfully, they also sensed the times when I could use some self-care, when I was compromising my self-respect, when I was too afraid to go the other direction even when my conscience demanded that I do—because I’d rather follow mindlessly whoever was in front of me. Most of all, the shepherds in my life were the only ones I took seriously when they cautioned me to keep a healthy “flight distance” from situations anjd people who could harm me, and when they assured me it was okay to pull the “safe radius” closer inwards, especially in opportunities of forgiveness and reconciliation, care and love.
I guess we can be shepherded only when we acknowledge that we ourselves need shepherding. Because the opposite often happens. The older we grow, especially in religious life—and more so, when we’re promoted to officialdom—the more cocksure we are that we no longer need any shepherding. We, after all, are the shepherds now. “I’ve earned it to be my own pastor, thank you. So, step back. You’re encroaching into my flight space.” I’m sure this is familiar to you, my dear Sisters. For how often have we had to tolerate members in community who consider themselves “venerable” and “untouchable”—even when they’ve become quite burdensome & truly dis-edifying especially to the younger sheep? For all I know, I might have reached that stage, especially at 51 when it’s much sweeter to believe I have no need for any more pastoring whatsoever. We can be sure that a mentality like that is the surest sign of how, all the more, we need to be herded back into our pens, or to be shorn, or even to be led to the slaughter so we could start dying for others again after living too long only for ourselves.
Don’t you find it interesting, dear Sisters, that we describe Jesus as both the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God? Imagine how powerful the Incarnation is, with the Lord abiding by the truly anthropological scheme of humanity: to be a good sheep is a step in the right direction towards becoming a good shepherd. No shortcuts for Jesus even if he was the Son of God. No instant promotion to “shepherd” without requisite membership among the sheep. No; Jesus allowed himself to be shepherded—by the Father through his family and his community.
Even when we do become shepherds, dear Sisters, and good shepherds at that, by the grace of God—we never ever really cease being members of the flock. We have only one true Shepherd, and that Shepherd is not us. And thank God for that. Thank God for that.