Homilies and Poems

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.

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Location: Corvallis, Oregon

Friday, January 23, 2015

Nets


January 25, 2015
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 1 

      When Jesus walks by, the disciples are working with their nets, for they are fishermen, and I take the nets to be a symbol of the work we all have to do, of our jobs.  They’re not necessarily bad.  Most of us are not called to leave our jobs, the way the disciples were, but to follow Jesus in our jobs, through our work, through our kindness and good will.

     But I also take the nets as a symbol of all the things in our lives we do have to put down in order to follow Jesus.  The disciples “put down their nets and followed him,” and in some way we all have to do that:  the nets of our fears, the nets of our anger, the nets of our ego and pride.

    
      The language of Mark is so brief and condensed that people have often missed what a great writer he is—exactly because of that brevity, exactly because his brief, clear words contain so much meaning.  All Mark says is that Jesus walks by and asks the disciples to follow him and they do.  He doesn’t explain why.  He doesn’t say that Jesus preached a wonderful sermon and that that convinced the disciples, or that Jesus used logic and philosophy and participated in some kind of debate and that this won the disciples over, or that Jesus performed a miracle and that this so amazed the disciples they knew for certain what to do.  But I think there’s something wonderful in Mark’s silence here.  I think he’s saying that conversion is a mysterious thing, that we never know exactly what moves us to change, and that there was something about Jesus and something still that is deeply attractive, deeply persuasive, just in his person, in the tone of his voice, in his physical presence.

     We’ve all known people like this, a few of them, men or women we somehow trust, we believe in, who have a kind of charisma or trustworthiness or wisdom.  We can feel it.  It radiates out them.  Jesus was like this, but even more so.  Far more so.
 

     Except that even then, even within the story of the Gospel, many people ignore him or turn their backs on him, and this is grace, too, that God didn’t make Jesus so obvious and doesn’t make Jesus so obvious that we can’t say no.  The beauty and power of Jesus breaks through into the lives of these ordinary men, as the beauty and power of Jesus breaks through into ours.  They put down their nets because this has happened, because Jesus has gotten through.  And yet I think there also had to have been a certain openness in them from the beginning, a certain readiness in the character of the disciples, a certain goodness, or they wouldn’t have responded at all.  They wouldn’t have listened or let themselves be attracted.  And that applies to us, too.  We have to be ready, we have to be available, and to do that we have to put down our nets in advance, in a way.  We have to free ourselves of what binds us.

 
     Last year a group of us went to the Holy Land, as I’ve said, and we spent several days by the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus lived and did most of his public ministry, where this story is set, and I was struck by how really beautiful it is, even now, two thousand years later.  We stayed at a Franciscan retreat house on what could have been the Mount of Beatitudes and it was like staying at most of the retreat houses I’ve stayed at:  it was out in nature, in the beauty of nature, away from the noise and the pressures of the city and of our too busy lives.  It seems to be the condition of going on retreat:  that we retreat, we get away, and we get away into the natural world in some way, into silence, and into slowness.

     At the Sea of Galilee it was the expanse of that water, of the lake itself, about 13 miles by 8, and the grassy hills and fields all around it, and the hills across the water.

     And the other thing that struck me was how small it all was.  You could stand on the hill and see in one view all the places Jesus taught and did the things he did before he went to Jerusalem.  You would walk it all in a day, from Magdala to Capernaum, and that’s part of the point, too, that people walked in those days, that there weren’t even very good roads for horses and chariots in Galilee then.  Our guide told us people walked about seven miles a day on average.

 
     The Incarnation could have happened anywhere and at any point in history.  God could have chosen to come into history in 1955, in Ohio, or in 555 in Japan, or he could have decided to wait until the twenty-third century and come on another planet, but he chose to come in the first century and he chose to come into this beautiful natural place, in beauty, and in a time before technology had so sped things up that we had lost the ability to see and to feel.

     People lived close to the land, to their crops and their animals.  They lived close to the water, as the disciples did.  They knew nature.  They smelled it and touched and saw it every day, and I think there’s something really important in that.

     Jesus is our model.  We are supposed to imitate his life, and I think sometimes we forget that his life was a simple life and a slow life and that it required this closeness to the natural world, this way of thinking and being so foreign to us now.

 
     So how do we become ready for the call, which is coming to us, too, here and now?  One thing we might do, very simply and literally, is walk.  Take at least a short walk each day, if we can, physically.  Slow down.  Park the car and walk, or open the front door and walk, even just out into the yard.  Jesus is always walking.  The verb “walk” must be used hundreds of times in the gospels. 

     What we do with our bodies changes our minds.  If we walk, we slow down.  If we slow down, we see, and hear, and smell. 

     Try walking down a stretch of road you usually drive by.  How much more you see.
 

     And I want to take “net” here quite literally. 

     A friend of mine, a writer, told me the other day that for a month he made a vow to write in the mornings and not get on the internet until the afternoon, and he was really humbled by how hard that was.  He couldn’t always do it.  He’s addicted.

     The internet is rewiring our brains.  It’s speeding them up and changing how we take in information, and some of that is good but some of that has really dangerous consequences for us spiritually, not just what we take in, but how we take it in.

     Let’s try to limit our time on the internet this next week to an hour a day.  Just that.  But that can be huge.

      I mean our personal time, not however much time we have to spend online at work.

     The word “repent” that Jesus uses here is “metanoia” in Greek.  It’s related to the word “paranoia,” to be out of our minds, but what it means is “to change our minds.”  And that’s what we have to do.  We have to change our minds.  We have to rewire our brains, back to the way they were before.  Otherwise, we might never see him.  We might never hear him.  We might never know him at all.

     We have to put down our nets.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Satan and the Dove


January 11, 2015
The Baptism of the Lord
Mark 1:7-11 

     Last spring some of us in the parish had the great privilege of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  And one day we went to the river Jordan and to a bend in the river where the baptism of the Lord may have actually taken place. 

    This was out in the desert, and on either side of the road we went down there was a barbed wire fence warning us about the danger of unexploded landmines left from one of the recent wars.

     And as one member of our group stood in that shallow, muddy water, she looked up and saw a white dove descending from the sky—an actual white dove, in the sky above the Jordan—and she was filled with joy and gratitude and a sense of the presence of God.

 

     A few days before Christmas I had the great privilege of baptizing a man about my age and his four grandchildren, three handsome little boys and a baby girl with a bow in her hair.  It was a wonderful moment, right here, in the back of church.

     When the grandfather kneeled at the edge of the font, and I put my hand on his back, and he leaned over, and I baptized him with my other hand, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, the tears just welled up in me.  I could feel the love of God, I could feel the energy of the Spirit, in all of us.

 

     Jesus didn’t need to be baptized.  He was entirely without sin.  And he is the creator of all rivers, and the creator of all waters, the creator of everything, come now to this one ordinary river, in the desert, and I think he did that in part to show us what we need to do, but also, I think, as a way of once again diffusing his spirit throughout the world.  In his baptism, says an ancient Church Father, “he sanctified the fountains of waters” and “into the fabric of miracles he interwove ever greater miracles.”  It’s as if in entering the river Jordan Jesus is recharging with his love and his light all rivers and all waters and all places and people forevermore.

     This is why the image of the Holy Spirit in this passage is so important.  The Trinity is here: the Father’s voice coming from heaven, the Son coming up out of the waters, and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down upon him.  And it’s through the Spirit that we are freed from history.  We’re not stuck in the past.  What happened then happened--it did, we can believe it--but Jesus died, and then he rose and he ascended, and then he sent his Spirit, as we say every Sunday in the creed, he sent the dove, and through that Spirit and in that Spirit what happened then is always happening.  Every land is the Holy Land.  Every moment is a pilgrimage. 

 

     This is so, so important. 

     Last week Father Federico talked about the stars we have to follow in our lives, as the magi follow their star—about the signs that are always being given to us—and the Baptism of the Lord is the type of that sign, the model of it.

     On the one hand, in moments like this we are always taken out of ourselves, the way John the Baptist is and the others who are present, entirely caught up in something wonderfully greater than we are.  We forget about ourselves, what we see and feel is so beautiful and right and good.  We transcend our own egos, if only briefly.

     But at the same time, exactly because of this, we find ourselves--our true selves.  In losing who we are we discover who we are:  beloved sons and beloved daughters, cherished by God.  In this sense we are like the Lord himself, and are supposed to be.  He comes to the Jordan to tell us again that deep down we are good.  We are fundamentally good.

 

      It’s not an accident that in the very next scene—we’ll be reading this next week—Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, because this is how the life of faith is, up and down, the high moments immediately and inevitably challenged by doubt and fear.  The word Satan means the Accuser, and what the Accuser always accuses us of is being a fraud, a fake.  We all have this voice inside of us, this other spirit, this darkness, telling us that we’re not good enough the way we really are, that we should be ashamed of our nakedness.  Notice the difference--this is how we can tell if we’re having a genuine religious experience—the voice of the Lord, of the Holy Spirit, is always the voice of reassurance, of joy.  Of self-confidence, even in our humility.  The voice of Satan is always the voice of self-loathing.  Self-doubt.

     Or the root meaning of the word devil:  the divider.  He who divides us from our confidence.

 

     And notice, too, that Satan works on us through a false kind of reasoning, works on us intellectually.  We have these experiences, and then they’re over, they’re gone.  They’re fleeting.  It’s not an accident either that the Holy Spirit is so often symbolized by a dove or by some other kind of bird, because birds fly away, we only glimpse them, we have no control over them, we usually can’t capture them and hold them.  And so the devil says, look, that moment wasn’t real.  It’s over now.  This, this lonely, painful life, this is all there is.

     And notice that in Mark’s version of the story it’s only Jesus who sees the dove.  Luke and Matthew suggest that other people see the Spirit descend, too, in some form—John, that John the Baptist does--but not Mark.  For him this is an interior experience, inside of Jesus alone, as these experiences are almost always interior for us, not something other people can see or verify —“on coming up out the water,” Mark says, “he saw  . . . the Spirit, like a dove.”  And the Spirit descends like a dove.  It’s not a real dove.  The dove is a metaphor, an image, and you know what our culture thinks about metaphors:  they’re worthless.  You can’t buy one.  You can’t hold one.

      But the gospel is always the gospel according to.  According to Mark.  According to Luke.  According to you and to me.  These moments are almost always private, and particular to us, to our own sensibilities, our own imaginations.

 

     It’s like what happened to me once when I gave this long talk as a part of lecture series at OSU on faith and the university, and I poured myself out for about half an hour or so talking about these experiences I had had of the presence of God.  And the first question from the audience, from a professor in another department:  how do you know you’re not deluded?

      Because I’m not, and we’re not.  Because the Lord of all came to the river, and in coming to that river he blessed all rivers, and I have been baptized in that river as most of us here have been baptized in that river, and we know that what has happened to us is true.  We know it.
 
     Because these moments don’t just happen once.  Because these signs are not given just once. 

They are given again and again, they happen over and over, if only we have eyes to see them  and

hearts to feel them.  In the flight of a dove, above the barbed wire fences.  In the little girl with the

bow in her hair.  In the grandfather, kneeling by the water.   Again and again and again.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Joy of the Gospel


December 14, 2014
Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-28
 

     I know a young man who has been blind from birth.  Recently his father died, and he’s grieving about that, and he’s despairing, too, about the future, afraid that he won’t be able to find a job or someone to share his life with. 

     And Isaiah says, in the depths of this, in the heart of it:  rejoice.  St. Paul says:  rejoice always.

     I know a woman who is estranged from her son.  He lives far away, trying to heal from the wounds of abuse, and she is afraid that they will never be reconciled. 

     And Isaiah says rejoice.  John the Baptist says, in his courage and his confidence:  Someone is coming.  Someone is here.

 

     Today is the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, Joy Sunday, and it proclaims what Pope Francis in his first apostolic exhortation, last year, called the Joy of the Gospel, Evangelii Gaudium, and this joy isn’t just a feeling.  It’s a way of looking at the world.  It’s a call. 

     Sometimes the joy just wells up in us.  We feel it intensely:  when we talk with a friend, when we hear a symphony, when we look out on the beauty of the earth.  But even in the darkness, even in the desert, there is a joy beyond measure, there is a tenderness and a love.  This is what we believe.  This is the faith that we have to try to bring to others, to help them and console them in their struggling---that the darkness is itself a grace, is itself a call, to give up our attachments and to die into a new and wonderful freedom. “In all circumstances,” St. Paul says, “give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”   
 

     I know many people in the Church whose faith in this joy is wavering and weak—I look at one in the mirror every morning--and of these people Pope Francis offers a very sharp critique.  We have the right beliefs, in a way, but we don’t live them.  Our faith, the pope says, “is a mere appendage to our life, not part of our very identity.”  We’ve let the media wear us down and we’ve let the skepticism of others wear us down, and though we pray, we’ve developed what the pope calls “a sort of inferiority complex which leads us to relativize or conceal our Christian identity and convictions.”  We want to be like everyone else, and we are, just as attached to money, just as hungry for human power and human glory.  We may be Christians in name but in fact we’re what Francis calls “practical relativists”:  “acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist.”

     The media likes Pope Francis because he seems like such a nice guy, and he is, but the joy he is calling us to isn’t easy.  He’s not saying everything is alright.  He’s saying:  rejoice, but rejoice in the Lord, and you haven’t been.  “In God is the joy of my soul,” Isaiah proclaims, not in houses and cars and jobs.  The reason we feel so listless and despairing, the reason we can’t help and console the people who need us, is that we’ve let ourselves drift away from the one true source.  As Francis puts it, “disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with ourselves, we experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope.” 

     But the truth isn’t relative and it isn’t just an idea.  The truth is a person, and he had a name and he has a name, Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, and when John the Baptist sees him walking towards him, he knows--he knows immediately:  behold the Lamb of God!

     Not:  behold, someone is coming, I’m not sure who--or, behold, I think someone is coming, but that doesn’t mean that I’m some sort of religious fanatic. 

     No, the One Who is Coming is the One Above All Others, he is all greatness and all beauty, and unless we kneel before him as the Baptist does, unless we give up our illusions and organize our lives around him and him alone, we will never be happy, we will never be free.

 

     I know many people who are afraid profess their faith because they don’t want to offend anyone else.  Again, I’m one of them.  The only secular dogma is the dogma that no one should claim any dogmas.  And of course as Christians we have to be humble and we have to respect the beliefs of others.  But we’re talking about joy here, not doctrine, and joy is always gentle and joy never judges, but it’s also never equivocal and it’s never ashamed.  Joy is joy.  It’s overflowing.

     I know many people who are uncertain about their faith because of the scandals in the Church—we’ve all been shaken by what has happened--but in the words of Pope Francis, “the pain and the shame we feel at the sins of some members of the Church, and at our own, must never make us forget how many Christians are giving their lives in love.”  The sins of the Church are real, and they have to be faced, but we’re talking about joy, and joy is joy, it’s overflowing, and joy is at the heart of the Church.  Joy is what the Church is really about.

 

     And patience, too, Francis says.  Patience is necessarily related to joy.

     I’d never thought about this before.

    What Advent proclaims is that however deep and real the joy we sometimes feel, there’s something missing still--these moments are just glimpses of a still greater joy to come, of a still greater future--and so faith is always a matter, too, of what Francis calls “patient expectation and apostolic endurance . . .  a disregard for the constraints of time.”

     Maybe it will be years before the woman is reconciled with her son, before the blind man finds a job, and maybe these things will never happen, at least in this lifetime.  But there’s a larger pattern here, larger even than death, and our joy finally comes from our knowledge of this pattern and our faith in this pattern.

     Something good is coming.  That’s what we have to say, and what we have to believe.  The future isn’t something to fear, the future isn’t something that should terrify us.  Whatever our struggles now, whatever our loneliness now, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.

    

     I know a man who hasn’t gone to confession for years, who hasn’t experienced the sacrament of reconciliation in a long time.  He says it feels foreign to him.  He’s forgotten what to do.

    And to him I say:  rejoice.  Now is your chance, this Tuesday, at our communal penance service.  Don’t worry about the process.  The priest will guide you.  Just go, and before you do, I offer this prayer from the pope as a way of doing the kind of examination of conscience Fr. Ignatio has been asking us all to make, not just before confession, but every day: 

   Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you.  I need you.  Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.  

And He will.  He never tires of forgiving us, as Francis says a few sentences later.  “We are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.”  But God never tires, and his grace is always abundant and always available, and this is what Advent is about, this is what the Gospel is about, grace and grace abounding.  This is the source of our joy and only this, the One Who is Coming, the Child Who Will Be Born.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Passing Away


November 28, 2014
Revelation 20:1-21:2; Psalm 84; Luke 21:29-33      

     These violent and frightening images from the Book of Revelation make me think of all the things I fear in the future, all things I worry about.  I worry about my children and really feel for the things they have to suffer and are suffering right now, and I worry they won’t be able to make livings and have families and be happy.   I worry about growing older, about health issues, about money issues, about being alone, about dying.  The future really scares me sometimes, and the Book of Revelation, I think, is saying yes:  change is coming, violent change, terrifying change, and we need to face it.  Nothing stays the same.  We can’t hold on to anything, count on anything, assume anything is true—but Jesus, but Our Lord Jesus Christ.

     “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  All that holds us in our groundlessness is the Lord.  All that protects us is the Lord.  All that matters is the Lord, and we can count on him, trust him, cling to him, and it’s time now, it’s time, that we let go of all those other, false gods, let go of all those material and phony things, and turn back to him, love him in return, accept him.

     And be not afraid.  Be not afraid.  Because out of the ruins comes the new Jerusalem, a new, heavenly city, glorious and perfect and beautiful.  Change is inevitable and change is frightening and change is coming, but on the other side of that change is a new birth and a new reality.  After crucifixion comes resurrection and new life.

      I know a young teacher who is really struggling with a class of special needs children—violent kids, from a violent neighborhood.  I spoke to him the other day and there’s real desperation in his voice.  He is in that moment of change Revelation describes, in the darkness, in the violence.  But I wanted to tell him, and did tell him or try to tell him, that God is with him in this and that somehow in the end there is a new reality, a new life, on the other side.  I don’t know what it looks like.  It may be radically different than he assumed.  But it’s there.  Out of the suffering comes freedom.  Out of the suffering comes joy, eventually, somehow, and in the meantime, even now, in the middle of the struggle, we are safe, we are taken care of, we are like the sparrow who makes his nest in the temple.  Nothing can finally harm us:  change us, challenge us, but not harm us.  Life is not random.  There is not just violence and suffering, not in the end and not underneath, for the love and mercy and tender presence of Christ are always flowing in us and through us, and that love and mercy are where are headed, are where we belong, are our true home.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Horse and the Bird


November 16, 2014

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Proverbs 31:13-31; Matthew 25:14-30

 

     A horse was trotting along when it saw a little bird on the ground, flat on its back, sticking its legs into the air. 

     What are you doing, asked the horse? 

     I heard the sky was falling, said the bird, and I wanted to help hold it up. 

     That’s crazy, said the horse.  What can you do with those skinny little legs?

     Well, said the bird, I do what I can.

 

     Some of us are horses and some of us are birds--some of us are given ten talents, some five, some one--and that’s OK.  We shouldn’t envy anyone else.  We shouldn’t wish we had more, or less.  We are given what we can handle, each “according to our ability,” as Jesus says in the parable today, and our only task is to do what we can.

 

     And I think Jesus is telling us that the little things are not really little, that if we are “faithful in small matters,” we will share in the end in the master’s joy.  To long for adventure and excitement, to long for attention, is to think in human terms, not in God’s. 

     “A thought,” says Teilhard de Chardin, “a material improvement, a harmony, the enchanting complexity of a smile or glance—we serve to complete the work of creation, even by the humblest work of our hands.”    

     I know a woman who is a financial advisor.  She invests the talents of others, and she does it with integrity, and she treats her clients with courtesy and respect.  She is doing the will of God.  She is doing God’s work.

      I know a woman who is a barista.  She makes each latte with precision and skill, and she knows many of her customers by name.  She is doing the will of God.  She is doing God’s work. 

      I know a woman who is a first grade teacher.  Every day she walks into a room full of six year olds, of all different abilities, and she teaches them to read, and she respects their differences, and she loves them and cares about them. 

      She is bringing Christ to those children, and to their parents and to the people she works with.

 

      I think it’s very, very important that we renew our commitment to the mass, as Fr. Ignacio and Fr. Federico have been saying, that we pray and worship in this beautiful and sacred space, wholeheartedly, with our full attention.  I think it’s very, very important that we return to the precious tools of our tradition, to the rosary and to adoration and to all the rest, that we understand them and appreciate them, because they increase our “density,” as Fr. Ignacio put it last Sunday.  They increase our strength.  They give us the clarity and conviction we need to go back into the world and endure what we have to endure and stay steady for the people around us. 

      Because this is our vocation, all of us.  This is our work:  to be Christ in the world.

 

     We do this work especially in our families.  We go from the sanctuary to the kitchen, and to the living room and to the bedroom, because that’s what the sanctuary is teaching us and giving us the strength to see, that all the world is sacred, that everything we say and do our matters, especially with our spouse and our children.  When one finds a worthy wife, Proverbs tells us, her value is “far beyond pearls,” and I have been blessed with a wife like that, I have been blessed in my marriage, which is a sacrament, too, of course, a visible sign of the presence of God, as is our doing of the dishes, and our taking out the garbage, and our getting the car fixed.

    

     And I think this parable is telling us to be not afraid.  To trust.  The wicked servant acts out of fear, or fails to act.  He admits it:  “out of fear I went off and buried your talent,” he says, and maybe it’s not just fear of failure or fear of risk that makes him so cautious but fear that nothing he can do will ever matter anyway.

     I know a woman who has worked long and faithfully in her life, and yet she told me the other day that sometimes she feels that she’s made a mistake, that she’s missed the boat, that all her work has been for nothing.  And I understand that feeling.  I understand it very well. 

      But later I thought again of this lovely, haunting prayer by Blessed John Henry Newman, a famous prayer.  It’s sad, I think, and wistful—the prayer of someone near the end of his life—and yet it’s sweet, too, and hopeful, and inspiring:

 

     God has created me to do Him some definite service.  He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.  I have my mission.  I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.  I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.  He has not created me for naught.  I shall do good; I shall do His work.  I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments.  Therefore, I will trust Him.  Whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.  If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him.  If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.  He does nothing in vain.  He knows what He is about.  He may take away my friends.  He may throw me among strangers.  He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me.  Still, He knows what He is about.

 

     This is what the parable of the talents is saying to me today.  It’s not trying to scare us, I think, but to reassure us.  It’s saying:  trust.  Do what you have been given to do and leave the rest to God.  Let go of the outcome. 

 

     Fr. Ignacio and Fr. Federico have been giving us homework lately and I really like that.  I’m a teacher!  So here’s my homework for this week: 

     Make the best latte you can make.  Invest your client’s money as wisely as you can invest it.  Do all the things Fr. Ignacio and Fr. Federico have been urging us to do, praying and deepening your attention at mass or in the rosary.  Then use that energy, use that faith:  vacuum the floor.  Say a kind word.   

     And when the tasks of the day become especially tedious and boring and empty, try to think of that tedium and that emptiness as an opportunity for spiritual practice, too, as a spiritual tool itself, a chance to die to yourself and humble yourself and trust in God. 

     God knows what he’s doing.  We serve to complete the work of creation even by the humblest work of our hands.

     This is what the horse doesn’t understand.  It has missed the point, as horses generally do.  The little bird isn’t foolish and it isn’t small.  It really is holding up the sky.

 

Monday, October 27, 2014

As of a Fragrant Aroma


Monday, October 27, 2014
Ephesians 4:32-5:8  

     Be imitators of God, Paul says, be like Christ, who “handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma. 

     Scientists say we fall in love in part because of the other person’s pheromones.  Because we like the way they smell.  We use smell as a metaphor, too, for intuition, for the sense we get of people or of a situation.  It just didn’t smell right, we say.  There was something wrong there.  We could smell it.

     I was at a conference over the weekend, here at OSU, and I saw a lot of former students and friends I haven’t seen for a while, and I could pick up right away, as I talked to them, whether they were happy or sad.  We all do that.  We just get a feeling.  Of course there’s always the possibility that we’re projecting our own feelings, but still, with some people I just got this good feeling.  They just smelled good in a way.

     Jesus is calling us to smell good in that sense, or to give off the right energy or to radiate a light—that’s another image in Paul, at the end, that we are now light in the Lord, we are “children of light”—and to do that we need to ground our life in prayer and the Eucharist, we need to be continually aware of our own sinfulness and our own darkness and not try to hide from it but to ask for the Lord’s mercy and healing.  Father Ignacio talked about this in his homily on Sunday and I was very moved by that, how our love for God overflows into our love for others, and I think what Paul is saying is that we can just feel this when we are in the presence of a loving person and that this is what we should strive for.  That we effect people just by being with them, just by being who we are, and even when we don’t think we’re doing much or matter much, we do, quite a bit.  We add a smell, we add an energy, we add a presence, wherever we go, and as Christians we want what we add to be Christ, to be kindness and compassion and forgiveness.

     Over the summer I read George Eliot’s great nineteenth century English novel Middlemarch.  I never had before.  It was a wonderful experience, and I wanted to share the great last sentence of the novel.  Eliot is summing up the life of her main character, Dorthea:

The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.

O Lord, may we be like Dorthea, may we be like You, may we radiate light.  Through your grace and your love may we be the sort of person who has a quiet, positive effect on the people around us.  May we be fragrant with your love.  May we be conduits of your love.  May we live faithfully our hidden lives, in You and for You.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Mistaken for the Gardener


October 19th, 2014
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21 
 

     One of the things I heard when I was reflecting on this famous gospel passage again was “render unto OSU what is OSU’s.”  “Render unto HP what is HP’s.”

     All we owe our employers is a good day’s work, however meaningful and important that work is.  All we owe is our best effort.  Who we really are is apart from all that, much deeper down.  We render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s but we render unto God what is God’s, and that’s everything.

 

     But what struck me even more this time is not what Jesus says here but how he says it.  Not his argument but the way he makes it.

     Because this is the kind of discussion I get drawn into all the time.  Someone wants to ask me about faith, but not really.  They’re just trying to trip me up, they’re just trying to make me look bad, and I fall for it too often, get caught up in some long theological debate that only wastes my time and exhausts my spirit, and what’s so helpful to me in the reading today is that Jesus doesn’t do that.  He knows better.

     In a way he makes a great argument.  It’s simple and subtle at the same time.  But in another way it seems to me that Jesus refuses to argue with the Pharisees, doesn’t really try to engage them.  When he takes the coin and holds it up and asks them the question, it’s as if he’s saying come on, don’t waste my time, don’t try to turn this into something complicated and mysterious.  He knows he’s not going to persuade them.  He knows there’s malice in their hearts. 

     There’s such a thing as theological reasoning, and great minds have been engaged in it for centuries, and there’s a time and a place to try to share that tradition, as best we can, to help someone reason their way towards the truth, however limited our own understanding.

     But there’s no point in trying unless the time is right, unless the person is really ready and open, and until then, we just have to suffer being taken less seriously, we just have to be kind and courteous and present, we just have to let ourselves be crucified in a sense, in a small way, which of course is what happens to Jesus in a big way, despite his mastery of apologetics.  The new evangelization isn’t just a matter of words and it’s certainly not a matter of coercion.  To be a Christian in the world is to be a Christian in the world, in the presence of others who don’t believe, convincing them if we can by our compassion and our good humor and our confidence—by our actual lives, which is the really hard part, a lot harder than talking—and then living with the experience of being misunderstood or ignored or rejected.

     This is particularly hard when the person who is trying to trip us up or doesn’t want to listen is our husband or wife, or a sibling, or a child, or a good friend.  It really hurts.  But fighting back, trying to win the argument, is most likely not going to work, not in itself, because ultimately reason is limited.  Faith exceeds it.  “For our gospel did not come to you in word alone,” Paul says to the Thessalonians—and word here is lowercase, just human words, just language—“but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”  This is how people come to believe, not just through reasoning, though that can help, and help a lot, especially for a certain kind of person, with a certain kind of mind, but finally, for all of us, through lived experience, through grace, from the inside. 

     I often have the experience of talking with someone who really does want to talk about the faith--there’s no malice in them, they’re not trying to trick me--but they’re just too much in their heads, they’re talking about ideas because they don’t want to face their own emptiness, their own need, and the key then is to listen, and be sympathetic, and to try to explain a few things as best I can, but more than that, gently to move towards the heart, towards experience, towards prayer.

      Again, I’m not saying faith isn’t rational.  It is.  It is smart, it is intellectually coherent, it is intellectually beautiful, and it’s really important for all of us to try to develop ourselves as thinking Catholics, too, to know our own theological tradition.  It’s not as if any of us have this all figured out.  Far, far from it.  I’m just saying that faith isn’t only intellectual and not finally intellectual and that there’s a time and place for talking about it in that way—I think usually after the real moment of grace, the real experience of Jesus, as a way of explaining it and validating it and reinforcing it. 

 

      And there’s another issue here.

     The Pharisees are right about one thing:  Jesus doesn’t care about the opinions of others or about status.  He’s not trying to look good.  But we do care, I think, and we are trying to look good.  I think that often that’s our real motive in arguments like this, not to help the other person but to convince that person and the world and maybe most of all ourselves that we’re just as smart and cool as anyone else.  We want to win the argument so we can win approval, and we shouldn’t.  We shouldn’t care about what other people think of us, only what God thinks of us.

     I quoted a Wendell Berry poem in a recent homily and I’m still reading him, especially this wonderful book of what he calls Sabbath poems, poems he’s written over many years on Sundays and about faith.  Berry is a Kentucky horse farmer and essayist and poet and a wise and gentle Christian, and there’s another poem of his I love and can’t get out of my mind, a poem based on the resurrection account in the Gospel of John.  It’s only a few lines:

            The politics of illusion, of death’s money,

            possesses us.  This is the Hell, this

            the nightmare into which Christ descended

            from the cross, from which also he woke

            and rose, striding godly forth, so free

            that He appeared to Mary Magdalene

            to be only the gardener walking about

            in the new day, among the flowers.

 

“Death’s money” makes me think of the coin Jesus holds up, “the politics of illusion” how we get caught up in the wrong arguments and care about the wrong things.  But what I really love is this image of how Jesus when he rises is so free of all those fantasies and illusions and false values that other people, even his beloved Mary Magdalene, mistake him for the gardener, just a simple gardener.

      And that’s what will happen to us if we follow the gospel where it leads.  We don’t want to be mistaken for the gardener.  We don’t to be seen as simple and plain.  We want to be seen as smart.  We want to win the arguments.  But we’re not going to and it’s not going to matter anyway.  We’re going to be crucified, we’re going to be underestimated, but we’re also going to rise, we’re going to be free, and the garden we’ll be walking in then will be the Garden of Eden, it will be the earthly paradise, our foretaste of heaven.  This is who we can be, and who we should want to be.  All of us, the gardeners.  All of us walking about in the new day, among the flowers, happy and free.  

     And there’s nothing more persuasive than that.  There’s nothing more persuasive than courage.  There’s nothing more persuasive than compassion.  There’s nothing more persuasive than joy.