come and teach us the way of prudence.
O Adonai and Leader of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses
I am a Catholic Deacon and a Professor of English at Oregon State University. I've created this BLOG as a way of sharing my Sunday homilies, for anyone who would like copies, as well as some of my poetry. I'm also very glad to continue the conversation, over email or in person. Just click on "profile" and then onto my email address. Peace be with you and the Lord be with you. Also visit me at my website.
September 1, 2013
Twenty Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sirach 3:17-29; Luke 14:1-14
Barb and I were wedding guests this summer, at a really lovely wedding, for the son of family friends. It was in Spokane, where we both grew up, at St. Aloysius Church, Barb’s parish church as a girl, and because we weren’t in charge and didn’t have any responsibilities, we could sit back and take everything in. The obvious joy of the groom. The way the light filled the church.
There was a fine reception afterwards, at a mansion north of town, on the Little Spokane River. We sat at a table in back, away from the action, but because the food was so good and the families so welcoming, we had a great time. There was music and dancing. A full moon came up over the trees.
Maybe part of what Jesus is talking about in the parable today is seeing. “The one who humbles himself will be exalted,” he says, and maybe part of what that means is that whenever we are not the center of attention, we can pay attention. We can enter into the world around us.
“What is too sublime for you, seek not,” Sirach says. “Into things beyond your strength search not.” This is another dimension of the readings today, and maybe part of what it has to do with is the problem of abstraction.
All summer I found myself again in conversations about religion and faith, at the wedding and at parties and at family gatherings, and, as always, people never wanted to talk about their own prayer lives or their own inner struggles. They wanted to talk about what’s wrong with the Church as an institution, or they wanted to question why, for example, God allows such suffering in the world, and these are really important issues, of course, and it’s really important for us to keep thinking critically about faith and about God. But I can’t help feeling that talk like this is often a way of evading the real work.
I met a confident young man this summer, in his late twenties, who told me that he’s left the Church because of the Church’s teaching on certain social issues. I hear that over and over again. I just can’t be a part of an institution that teaches those things, he said, and I respect that.
But I’d respect it a lot more if this man had joined some other church, or committed himself to some other cause, or entered into some other discipline or kind of spiritual practice.
But he hasn’t. He’s just having a good time. He’s just doing whatever he feels like doing.
Once I got a call to visit a dying woman in the hospital. She wanted to talk to a Catholic but not to one of those priests, and when I got to ICU she just railed against the Church. Hierarchy, she said, patriarchy, and I listened and nodded.
But she could barely breathe. She was hooked up to a half dozen machines. There were tubes everywhere.
This was a wonderful woman, and we became good friends the last few months of her life, but in that moment, the first time I met her, I looked around, and I paused, and I said to her: but you’re dying. Why are we talking about this?
Even if the Church matched up with every one of our political positions, even if the Church were perfect, in our terms, whatever those terms happen to be, we’d still have to face our own mortality. We’d still have to face our own sinfulness.
In fact, I think our lives would be a lot harder.
We wouldn’t have any more excuses.
On the way back from Spokane we stopped at Multnomah Falls to stretch our legs, and I found myself climbing that paved trail to the top of the falls--with hundreds of other people.
It was so crowded I couldn’t move sometimes, I was shoulder to shoulder with other people, and I really resented that at first, how out of shape they all were, and slow. Their dogs. Their screaming kids.
But the higher I climbed the more I started to join in the flow. Our heads were all bobbing and our arms were all swinging. I heard Chinese. Farsi. A tall black man about my age fell in beside me, dignified, with stiff knees, and I thought, where else should we all be going but to the top of a waterfall, deeper and deeper into the woods?
It started to feel like a procession. Like a liturgy.
Whenever we feel judgmental, as we so often do, whenever we feel contemptuous of other people, whenever we feel indignant because we’re not getting exactly what we want when we want it, I think we need to stop and ask ourselves two questions: what challenge are we failing to meet, and what beauty are we failing to see?
Because finally we got to the top of the cliff, where the stream falls over the edge, and we stood there together and looked down at the water leaping and shining, and out into the Gorge, at the Columbia and the hills beyond it, and it was all so beautiful it took our breath away.
And no one of us was any better than anyone else. No one of us was any less important, any less valuable. We were all just people, in our bodies, and we were all just standing there. We were all of us together, looking out at the beauty that is in the world.
And feeling the beauty that was inside us. The beauty that’s inside us all.
And this is Jesus, this is Christ, this is the Bridegroom, calling us all to the wedding banquet, calling us all to become one with Him.
June 30, 2013
Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Galatians 5:1-18; Luke 9:51-62
If you’re someone who finds prayer hard. If you’re someone who struggles in prayer. If nothing seems to be happening, there’s just emptiness and boredom, or your mind wanders, or worse, you start to feel anxious and agitated as you pray, or angry, or afraid.
Don’t panic. Don’t give up. All the saints report the same experience, all the mystics. Sometimes prayer is lovely and sometimes prayer is sweet but anyone who’s done it a long time knows that often it isn’t. And that’s OK. In a way the struggle is necessary. It’s good.
The person in the gospel who wants to follow Jesus is a beginner, I think. He’s in the first flush of faith. He thinks of following Jesus as a way of being happy and at home forever, free of all pain, but Jesus is saying no. To follow him is to never be at home, to have nowhere to rest. Jesus is using hyperbole here, deliberately exaggerating. He doesn’t literally mean that we should ignore our families and give up our jobs, and in fact most of us are called to be Christians in our families and in our jobs, following our own particular charisms in the world. What these striking images suggest is that sometimes the life of faith is hard, however we live it. That the life of faith and the life of prayer involve giving up our fantasies and entering more deeply into what really is.
In the beginning we often experience consolation when we pray, Thomas Keating says, the Cistercian monk who founded the Centering Prayer movement. But after several years, as he puts it, “we always find ourselves in the desert.” Always. The longer we pray the more we begin to experience all the pain that we bring with us: “our own wounds, our own limitations, our own personality defects, all the damage that people have done to us from the beginning of life until now.” It can feel like the end of the world, to feel these things, and in a way it is. What we’re experiencing is the cross. What we’re experiencing is the peeling away of our false selves. As Keating puts it, “every time we move to a new level of faith, there is an initial experience of disintegration, distress, confusion, and darkness. If we are not forewarned about the spiritual journey, it feels like something has gone wrong.” But it hasn’t. Our old assumptions just won’t work anymore--something new is happening, within us--and I think that’s what Jesus is trying to tell us today. He’s forewarning us about the spiritual journey. He’s challenging us to move to a deeper level.
No wonder people turn away. It’s really hard to face these truths. It’s much easier to stay in the abstract, focused on external structures and ideas—to spend all our time complaining about the institutional Church, for example, trying to make it responsible for the inner work we don’t want to do.
It’s too hard to face our own inner hierarchy. Our own inner bureaucracy.
Or as Pope Francis has been gently reminding us again and again in his first hundred days, it’s far easier to set up some simplistic view of the Church and to cling to that. But Jesus, he says, “doesn’t tell the apostles and us to form an exclusive group of elite members,” but to go out and serve the poor. The idea isn’t for everything to be “well-organized—everything in its place, everything beautiful, efficient.” Faith is messy. It’s continually engaged.
Keating’s image is of a spiral, of us moving ever upward in widening circles, encountering our sins and our problems again and again but on our way towards something higher and greater, on our way to the freedom Paul talks about in Galatians today.
“For freedom Christ set us free.” “For you were called to freedom.”
Freedom from the fantasies. The falseness.
And we achieve this freedom, I think, by recognizing that we never will, on our own, by in a sense simply accepting that we’re flawed human beings and learning to name and acknowledge our issues and problems—not repress them, not deny them, but see them, really see them, and then to ask our Lord for his grace and his forgiveness. Sin can only work on us when we don’t think it is. It has to stay small, a little snake, not an elephant. But as soon as we see it, as soon as we identify the fear or the self-loathing, we can say yes, that’s there, but I’m not going to let it determine my behavior. I’m not going to blame other people for it.
And as Paul says, at the heart of this, too, is the decision not to let the outer world be stronger than the inner world, not to let the world of the “flesh” be stronger than the world of the Spirit. If we’re in right relation with God, if we’re in contact with the good that is deepest in us, with the Christ who is in us, nothing that comes at us from the culture or the world can ever really hurt us.
That’s the source of the freedom, and then, sometimes, of the sweetness and the consolation we feel, all of us, at every stage of the journey.
I’ve been reading the journals of Dorothy Day, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, and I think of her again, today. I think she knew exactly what this is all about. “No matter how we try to change things, clean things up, make order,” she writes, “it essentially stays the same”—and she writes this in the sixties, when she’s been at this for years, when she is in her sixties herself. “It is hard to keep from heaviness of heart,” she says, and that sounds depressing, but it isn’t finally, because by having the courage and the faith to admit to these feelings, to acknowledge them, Day is able to understand suffering “as work, as spiritual weapon,” as she puts it, and to keep spiraling her way towards the joy and fulfillment she often feels, too, the satisfaction, the freedom. All of it.
Dorothy Day died in New York, November 29th, 1980, at the age of 83, and in her final diary she inserted a little prayer card with this simple, fifth century prayer, from St. Ephrem the Syrian. I think it’s a true prayer, a profound prayer, all the truer and more profound because it was the prayer of this wise and holy woman, and it’s really been helping me lately when I get stuck in my own prayer life, as I so often do. Maybe it can help you, too: to make this inner turn we all need to make. To open yourself up to the grace and the joy we can only find in Christ:
O Lord and master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power and idle talk. But give to thy servant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for Thou art blessed from all ages to ages. Amen.
June 16, 2013
Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time
Second Samuel 12:7-13; Galatians 2:16-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
Once at a retreat we were asked to put ourselves at the foot of the cross and really see Jesus hanging there, in his body. But all these movie images kept getting in the way for me, all these Hollywood actors with beards, so I started substituting people I know and putting them on the cross as a way of feeling a deeper connection to our Lord.
I put Barb’s grandfather on the cross. I put a woman I know. And suddenly I saw my youngest son hanging there, in his red and black soccer uniform. He was about ten then, this wonderful little boy, and suddenly he was hanging there, nailed to a cross, and for a moment it just overwhelmed me.
I thought, so this is what God the Father felt that day.
I don’t know why when we think of the metaphor of God the Father we always think of power, of God as tyrant or dictator, because my experience as a father hasn’t been of power at all. Not on the nights when I used to wait for my kids to come home. Not when I have to watch them struggle and suffer now, as adults, and there’s nothing I can do.
“Another word for father,” says the poet Li-Young Lee, is “worry.”
All three readings today give us perspective on fatherhood, here on Father’s Day.
Fathers should be like kings in a way, they should have a certain authority, as mothers should, too, and I really worry when I see how reluctant many fathers are to set boundaries, and how little respect children show their fathers, and what misery results, for everyone. But the first and second books of Samuel are in part a critique of kingship, of how power can corrupt, as it has corrupted King David, who is guilty here of adultery and murder and deception, and what’s most kingly about David, really, what’s most manly, is how quickly he humbles himself and admits his sinfulness, how sincerely he asks for forgiveness.
Paul’s great insight in Galatians is that the pattern of the life of Christ should be the pattern of our lives, too, and what defines this pattern is powerlessness, is the crucifixion. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul says, “and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Christ who turned manhood upside down. Christ in his gentleness. Christ who gave himself away.
What’s so interesting about the gospel reading today is that it’s the woman who is finally the model, the sinful woman who bathes the feet of Jesus with her tears.
This isn’t Mary Magdalene. The story doesn’t name the woman. Mary Magdalene is elsewhere singled out in Luke as one of the women who “accompany” Jesus and the twelve apostles on their journey, “providing for them out of their resources,” and in all four gospels she is the first person at the tomb, the first post-resurrection disciple. It’s only later tradition that makes her the prostitute, and maybe as a way of trying to diminish our sense of the power and authority of women.
But even if Mary is the prostitute here, the point is only stronger. Matthew was a tax collector. Peter was a liar, a traitor. In the gospels everything is inverted, everything changed, and what this woman does, Jesus says, we should do, too: we should welcome, we should serve, we should get down on our knees.
I think of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, this great twentieth century Catholic leader. I’ve been reading her diaries the last few weeks, and what strikes me most is her realism and honesty—how she is willing to admit to her fatigue and her discouragement, in her work for the poor—and how she always sees these challenges as graces:
I need to overcome a sense of my own impotence, my own failure, and an impatience at others that goes with it. Such a sense of defeat comes from expecting too much of one’s self, also from a sense of pride. More and more I realize how good God is to me to send me discouragements, failures, antagonisms. The only way to proceed is to remember that God’s ways are not our ways. To bear our own burdens, do our own work as best we can, and not fret because we cannot do more or do another’s work.
Being a father is a wonderful thing, too, of course, happy and fulfilling most of the time. I love being a father. But I think any family is a lot like one of the Catholic Worker houses Dorothy Day founded, and I think her attitude here is exactly the attitude Christian fathers should have. We should surrender our pride. Bear our own burdens.
Last week I had lunch with a young father. He was a student of mine years ago and has now become a close friend--he’s a good, kind man--and he was worried because his ten year old son had been lying to him about a series of little things. My friend was angry at the lies, and that made him feel guilty, and he knew that there had to be some kind of punishment, though he hated the thought of making his son suffer.
What I told him was not to feel guilty about anger. Sometimes fathers need to get angry, if they do it in the right way. What I told him was not to feel guilty about punishment—he had taken away his son’s computer for a couple of days—that was good, I said—stick to it—though I liked even more that he was planning to soften the punishment after the first day, to let his son have the computer back sooner, once the point was made.
But what I really wanted to say was that to be a father is to feel love and pride, yes, but also worry and doubt, and that in our worry and in our doubt we share as fathers in the suffering of Christ and in the suffering of God himself. What I really wanted to say was that as fathers we of course want our children to be happy and we will of course do anything we can to make them happy, but that we need to give our children the freedom to suffer, too. We need to allow our children to join us on the way of the cross.
I wanted to say something about the great mystery of free will. That God the Father doesn’t compel our obedience. That God the Father gives us the freedom to disobey, to turn away, and that in that space, in that gap, is all our humanity and all our grace and all our opportunities to learn and grow and to become the men and women we can truly be.
I wanted to say what Li Young Lee says, in his lovely poem.
Another word for father is worry.
Worry boils the water/ for tea in the middle of the night.
Worry trimmed the child’s nails before / singing him to sleep.
Another word for son is delight. / Another, One-Who-Goes-Away.
So many words for son. / But only one word for father.
And sometimes a man is both. / Which is to say, sometimes a man
manifests mysteries beyond / his own understanding.