Seasonal Reflection: St. Irenaeus

Louis McCormick, OFM Features

Next week is the feast of St. Irenaeus, widely-known for his prayer “to make all things new in Jesus Christ,” which is the mission of the Mt. Irenaeus Franciscan Mountain Retreat in Western New York.

June 28 is the feast of St. Irenaeus. Spelling and pronouncing that name are always a challenge to newcomers to Mt. Irenaeus. But when they learn that the name “Irenaeus” means “peaceful” in Greek, there is an immediate connection for them.

A number of years ago, a reporter for The New York Times wrote a short article about the mountain which was titled “Not Much of a Mountain, but the Real View’s Upward.” The author comments that any elevation here is more about spirituality than distance above sea level.

Six Franciscan friars live at Mt. Irenaeus, the Catholic Franciscan contemplative center in rural Western New York. The ministry is named after Irenaeus Herscher, OFM, a longtime and much-loved librarian at nearby St. Bonaventure University, who died in 1981. Fr. Irenaeus was one of the first people to encourage Dan Riley, OFM,in his dream of having a place for students and others to gather and a resident community to welcome them.

Understanding Matter and Spirit
St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who lived from 130 to 200 AD, was one of the early Church fathers and the first systematic theologian in the church. As bishop of Lyons, a major Roman outpost in Gaul, he came to understand that the greatest danger facing the church was not so much from Roman persecution as from heresy. There was a great spread of Gnostic sects, each presenting a shortened and inaccurate version of the gospel. These Gnostic groups had a sharply dualistic understanding of matter and spirit, believing that the realm of the spirit was under attack and challenged by the realm of matter.

According to Robert Ellsburg in All Saints, “It was impossible for the Gnostics to imagine any direct interaction between these two realms, either in terms of the Christian doctrine of creation or in terms of the Incarnation.” For the Gnostics, the goal of salvation was to be freed from the constraints of matter and enter into the greater dimension of the spirit. Aspects of this belief have flowed through Christianity ever since.

The main point of St. Irenaeus’ writings is that matter is good because created by God – that the God of creation is the same as the God of salvation. There is nothing corrupt about creation since it comes from God, but it has become distorted because of sin.

Perhaps Francis of Assisi never read Irenaeus’ classic work Adversus Haereses, but he certainly did catch the idea about the goodness of God’s creation. St. Bonaventure and John Duns Scotus are just several other Franciscans who amplified Irenaeus’ theology. The Franciscan tradition is rooted in its openness to creation in its joy in what God creates.

Making All Things New
A quotation from St. Irenaeus often repeated here at the Mountain is that “God’s greatest glory is the human person fully alive. “Creating a contemplative setting in the midst of a world trying hard to narcotize people goes a long way in helping people become more alive. Getting people to unplug from electronics for a time does help a person become more alive in the spirit.

One prayer of St. Irenaeus is also used here frequently; it sums up fairly well our one line mission statement “to make all things new in Jesus Christ:”

“It is not you that shapes God, it is God who shapes you. If then you are the work of God, await the hand of the artist who does all things in due season. Offer him your heart, soft and tractable, and keep the form in which the artist has fashioned you. Let your clay be moist, lest you grow hard and lose the imprint of his fingers.”The hunger for renewal and redirection continues. St. Irenaeus is one who very early showed us the way.

Fr. Louis, who has been based at Mt. Irenaeus since 1991, is spiritual assistant to the Mt. Irenaeus Secular Franciscan Fraternity that was founded in 2006. He commemorated 50 years as a Franciscan friar in 2009. The HNP Communications Office welcomes submissions from friars of reflections about feast days, holidays and related topics.