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Taking the first steps

First slide

“If I take the wings of dawn, and dwell beyond the sea, even there your hand guides me, your right hand holds me fast” (Ps 139).

The feeling of "newness” began to define my life in a significant way several weeks ago as I boarded the plane at Dulles Airport for the flight to Rome. Never having been abroad, I scanned my passport for the first time, received a plastic container with some kind of chicken stew as my meal during the flight, downloaded a couple of movies on my phone, and then marveled at the realization that airlines have already invented in-flight entertainment. All of this, of course, was even before landing in a new country, meeting hundreds of new people, learning a new language, and studying at a new school. I have been totally awash in fresh experiences for two months now, and I’m sure they will continue for the next year, and long after.

There is something funny about being new to Rome; “new” is certainly not the word one would use to describe this city. The patrimony of the church has belonged to me and my family for generations; it has been here all my life and then far, far longer. My home state of Virginia is the oldest one in the United States, and yet, the most venerable traditions and historic buildings in the Old Dominion are as nothing next to the antiquity of Rome. The only sense in which anything here is “new” is when I compare it to my own narrow experience. From a broader perspective, we live on top of a glorious, messy, beautiful, chaotic heap; wreckage piled up over centuries of scoundrels and martyrs, corruption and holiness, death and life.

The new and the old collide with a force that creates excitement, anxiety, hope, and fear, and the Lord steps into this dynamic admixture to do his work. The old and the new are alike in that he uses them both to lead us closer to him. Stripping away the familiar and comfortable, God invites us to rely more fully on him; all the while reassuring us with his constant guiding hand. Overwhelmed, stressed, and thousands of miles from home, he asks us: Will you let me be your surety? In the Blessed Sacrament, that stalwart presence of the divine Son, which is the same across all time and space, he reassures us: I am still here with you. 

I am reminded of the newly canonized St. John Henry Newman’s “Lead, Kindly Light”: Keep thou my feet, I do not ask to see/the distant scene; one step enough for me. 

Sometimes, the darkness of desolation through which Cardinal Newman begged guidance is brought on by the fact that the things around us are so new, we do not know where we are yet. The only way forward is the way in which each step is illuminated by the Ancient of Days.

Courtney, who is from St. Rita Church in Alexandria, is in his first year of theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. This article originally appeared in the October 2019 ‘Roman Echoes,’ the quarterly magazine of the Pontifical North American College.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019