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

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Seeds


June 14, 2016
Mark 4: 26-32

 
     Sometimes in the midst of our sadness and busyness there are quiet moments of joy.  They’re like the seeds in the parables today.
     We wake up early and walk outside and the stars are shining in the morning sky.  We hear the voice of someone we love, calling from another room. 
     All day there’s a fragment of a dream stuck in our minds.  A line from scripture. 

     But there lots of problems with moments like this.  For one thing, like the seeds in the parable, they’re scattered—not organized and sequential, not moments we can predict.  And they’re tiny like seeds, so small we tend to dismiss them or think they’re unimportant, and once they’re planted they’re hidden anyway, buried deep. 
     And we can’t control them.  That’s a big part of it:  we can cultivate the moments by regularly practicing the examen of conscience, keeping track of the small things and thinking back on them each day with gratitude.  The farmer in the parable doesn’t sit around and wait.  He gets up every day and works, and he scatters the seed in the first place.  But in the end, the parables tell us, “the earth produces of itself,” without our help—“we know not how.”  In the end we are at the mercy of the weather, however hard we work.  The cycles of growth are beyond us.
     But I think the biggest problem of all with our moments of joy is that they take a long time to bear fruit.  They require patience, and with patience, trust, and most of us are really bad at patience and trust.  We don’t want to till the soil and plant the seed and weed the rows.  We want someone to hand us a salad right now, in a bowl, and then ask us, politely, would you like fresh ground pepper with that? 

      When I was in the process of becoming Catholic years ago I didn’t understand Our Lady.  Mary seemed foreign to me, and all the devotions that surround her left me cold.  But the priest who was helping me very wisely said, don’t worry about that for now.  Don’t focus on that.  And he was right.  I had enough to go on—I loved the mass.  I loved the idea of sacrament.   
     You don’t have to know everything about a place to know you want to live there.  You don’t have to know everything about a person to know you want to be with them.
     And I think what my spiritual advisor was thinking is that there are some things you can’t understand except over time.   You have to live into them, and that’s exactly what’s happened to me with Mary over the years, praying the rosary and reading about her and being part of a community that sees her, rightly, as a model for faith.  Now Our Lady is a very important part of my life.  She means a great deal to me.
      Wouldn’t our faith be a pretty shallow thing if we could grasp it all, all of it, in the beginning?     
     Wouldn’t marriage be a dry and empty thing if we learned all there was to know about our beloved on our honeymoon?        

     A few years ago Barb and I bought a tree with the money they gave me when I baptized Stan, who had nineteen confirmed kills in Viet Nam.  He’s an old man now, in a wheel chair, shriveled and pale, but he wanted to be cleansed of sins.  “I’ve been in hell,” he told me, “and I want to be free,” and though he could hardly move, when I poured the water on his head and began to say the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father—“and “of the Son,” he said, “and of the Holy Spirit.”
     We planted the tree in spring—a Paper Maple, a pretty tree—and now it’s higher than our roof, higher than the house.   It fills the bedroom window with leaves.
     When it comes to faith, it’s almost as if we want an artificial tree, plunked down in the yard.  Lifeless.  If we don’t understand everything, if it all doesn’t make perfect sense to us this minute, we dismiss it.   

     We all have serious problems.  Difficult secrets.  Deep hurts.  And we have to do what we can to reconcile with those we can reconcile with, scattering seed and trying to make amends.  But here, too, in the end, the earth produces of itself, we know not how.  In some way or another a higher love enters in and the problem starts to melt or dissolve or take another shape.  There is a kind of loosening.  Or maybe the problem just stays and it always weighs on us, but somehow we are given the strength to move on. 
     I’m saying this as someone with no patience at all.  That’s how I know. 

     Because in the end it’s we who are the seeds, we ourselves.  It’s we who change.  I’m not the person I was when I was 20 or 30 or 40, or 50, and neither are you, and who we will be we can’t imagine.  We’re never just here, never just this one thing, once and for all. 
     Haven’t you known someone who suddenly changed, or showed you a different, better side of himself or herself?
     We need to try to have patience with the people who bother us the most and who disappoint us the most; we need to try to believe that through grace they can change someday; and we need to have patience with ourselves and compassion for ourselves:  it’s not too late for us to become better, to attain a little more to the virtues, through grace.
     In the meantime we just have to endure the discomfort of not knowing everything.  We just have to live with unresolved contradictions.
    And if we die before we attain the virtues, and we will, death, too, is a transformation.  We are the seed, and unless the seed falls into the earth and dies it remains just a seed.  There is all this growth, all this promise, all this change coming in the future, and so no argument can be based solely on the present moment--on the suffering of the moment, on the chaos of the moment--no argument against faith or the Church can be justified purely on the basis of the present or the past, because the Lord’s patience is directed towards our salvation and our salvation is yet to come.     

     In the end we will realize that the voice we heard in the other room, the stars we saw shining in the sky, the line from scripture that got stuck in our heads--all those tiny seeds have grown and changed and become great trees, great branching trees, and the birds are nesting in their branches.  In the end there is abundance and growth and all goodness and beauty, and they come from the seeds scattered now by the Lord, in all our mornings, in all our days, in all our fleeting moments of joy.   

Friday, May 01, 2015

Two Emails


May 3rd, 2015
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:26-31; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8 

     Last week I received two really remarkable emails. 

     The first was from a man who was a student of mine a number of years ago.  We used to talk about spiritual things, and he was writing to say that he’d been struggling for a long time and had finally admitted he was an alcoholic.  For years he “pursued accomplishments and other avenues of escape,” as he put it, until finally he reached a turning point, a moment of desperation, and started going to AA meetings. 
     AA is a spiritual program, he says:  “Cliff Notes for a spiritual life:  follow God, help others, deal with your own garbage, and let God take it away, pray, meditate.”  I can’t think of a better description of the program the gospels put forward, of the teaching of Jesus, and I admire this man very much for his courage in entering into it.  “It's pretty incredible stuff!” he says, “and hard, hard to follow God and not follow your own agenda.  I fail all the time.”
     What impresses me is his resolution combined with his humility, his recognition that he isn’t the vine, just one the branches.  “I’ve been my own God for most of my life,” he wrote—another really striking statement, a statement I think almost all of us could make—but now he understands exactly what Deacon Teo was preaching last week at the 9 o’clock mass, that despite our human desire to be independent, our need to be in control, we can never know real freedom until we surrender to God.  “Without me,” Jesus says, “you can do nothing.”   

     The second email was from a man I don’t know.  I don’t even know where he was writing from.  He had just read something I’d written and reached out to me online.
     He’s in his early fifties, a poet and a person of faith, but although he’s been writing all his life, he’s never had anything published.  By all the usual measures,” he says, “my efforts are a complete waste of time . . . all my words are written on sand. “
      And “it isn’t just poetry--so much of our efforts seem fruitless,” he says, and suddenly the email takes a turn.  It opens up. 
     “I am a father,” he says, and “my daughter was killed by a drunk driver just after she left home to begin school as a university freshman.  All that labor, all that love--for what?”
     I wasn’t expecting this.  I was surprised and moved, and I was wondering what would come next, what this man was asking of me. 
     But he wasn’t asking anything of me.  He was giving me something.  He was giving me his faith and his wisdom and his hope. 
     This is how the email ends:        

All that labor, all that love—for what?  But I quickly realized that isn’t even a relevant question. I wish now only that I had spent more of myself loving my daughter while she was alive.  Something beautiful for God is beautiful even when it remains hidden to every other eye.  God invites us all to die to ourselves  . . . . Love is the only thing that remains, after all.

This is incredible, this is the real thing, the way this man moves, in a single sentence, from hopelessness and despair to the recognition that he was asking the wrong question, that we are all asking the wrong question.  “For God,” as the letter of John puts it, “is greater than our hearts.”   Greater than our loss, greater than our death, greater than our life.

     Notice how the man seems to echo the letter of John when he says that he wishes he’d shown more love for his daughter while she was alive:  for this is what the Lord commands us, John says, that we should “love one another.”
    Notice the word “remains” in the man’s email:  “Love is the only thing that remains,” he says--and in the letter of John, “the way we know he remains,” and in the Gospel of John, “remain in me, as I remain in you.”
     I am the vine and you are the branches.   

     For me the most important question is how we can know Jesus when he lived so long ago and when the narratives of his life and his teachings in the four gospels are so beautifully open-ended.   We use the name “Jesus” all the time, but what does it really mean?
     I think it means everything.
     Because Jesus remains in us and we remain in him, because he isn’t just someone who lived in the past but someone who is living now, because at the end of the days of his post-resurrection appearances he ascended into heaven and then sent the Spirit, his own spirit, to fill all the world and to fill our hearts, and it is through the Spirit that we know his presence and know his will.  “The way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us,” the letter of John says, and this Spirit is something we feel whenever we feel joy or whenever we feel sorrow, whenever we feel something opening up in us and moving in us—when someone sends us an email and we’re sitting reading it and suddenly our heart leaps, it expands, and we know something in a way we can never put into words. 

     Or maybe we don’t feel anything for days and weeks and years, we’re desolate, we’re empty.  Then the way we know the Spirit is through the people around us, through the people who send us the emails, through the people who sit with us in the pews, through the cloud of witnesses that has filled all the centuries since the historical Jesus walked the actual ground. 

     There’s a curious and saving contradiction in the Book of Acts today.  In the beginning of the passage we learn that Paul comes to Jerusalem and tries to join the community but that people are afraid of him, and there’s all this conflict and tension, just as there is in our lives, although in the case of Paul they actually try to kill him at one point.  It goes that far.
    And yet the last part of the passage says that the church was “at peace.”  “It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.”
     How can things be so bad people are trying to kill Paul and yet the Church be at peace?  
     How can the poet who lost his daughter rise to such wisdom and compassion?  How can the alcoholic find himself and grow so much at exactly the moment of his greatest failure?
     Because the Spirit is always moving, if not in you or in me at a certain moment, in others, and those others sometimes sit down at a computer and in their generosity and faith send us an email, to share what the Spirit has revealed in them.  And for a moment, reading it, we know, or we suspect, or we at least glimpse the possibility, that what the gospels proclaim might really be true.  
     God exists, and God is bigger than our hearts, and even in the darkness there is light, there is exceeding light.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Marc Borg and Paschal Cheline


Friday, March 20, 2015
John 7:1-30

        The readings today tell us what we already know:  that there is something in us and in the world that denies Christ, that mocks Him and questions Him.

     But there’s goodness, too, there are those who recognize the Lord and honor Him, and I want to mention two of these this morning, two friends of mine who recently died, two men who loved Jesus in their different ways.

     The first is Marcus Borg, whose memorial is this afternoon, at Oregon State.

     Marc was a professor of religious studies, a very well-known Jesus scholar, a member of the famous Jesus seminar, and someone who was very kind to me years ago when I was first starting at Oregon State.  He invited me to join a men’s group he was leading and for several years we shared some of our deepest thoughts and feelings.  We prayed together.  When I was first asked to teach the Bible as Literature course, Marc helped me figure out what to do and how to go about it.  As a Catholic I disagreed with Marc in some really important ways, but he was a gentle man and a good man and he always accepted me for who I was and took seriously my spiritual search.  He was the first academic I’ve known who took the spiritual search seriously and was willing to talk about it and live it.  And I know he loved Jesus.  I know in his own way he believed.    

     The second is Father Paschal Cheline, whose funeral mass is Monday, at Mount Angel.

     Father Paschal was a monk for many years at Mount Angel and a teacher at the seminary, and we became friends over twenty years ago now when I taught literature for a year at the seminary.  Later, when I was studying to be a deacon, I took a class from him on the liturgy and the sacraments.  He was a sweet, sweet man, a person of joy, someone who loved the Church, loved it deeply, and who loved literature and art, who loved life, who loved people.  Unlike Marc, he wasn’t famous.  Unlike Marc, he was deeply and unreservedly committed to the Christian tradition and to the institutional Church.   I remember the last time I saw him:  he was giving the wine at mass, and he winked at me.  I remember the sweetness and purity of his singing voice. I remember him telling me that he prayed every night for a good death.  I remember once when we were talking about Dante’s Paradiso he just started to cry, at how beautiful the poetry was but even more at how beautiful he knew heaven would be.   

     And now he knows, as I believe Marc knows.  I like to think of them talking together, and I like to think of them looking down at us and praying for us. 

 

     O Lord, we pray for Professor Marcus Borg and we pray for Father Paschal Cheline and we thank you for their lives.  We pray for all who have helped us and taught us.  And we pray for ourselves, that we, too, in our own ways, may be Christ for others.  We pray that we, too, may have good deaths, and that one day we will see You with our own eyes, that one day we will live forever in Your love and Your truth.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What Happens


March 22, 2015
Fifth Sunday of Lent
John 11:1-45 

     The raising of Lazarus prepares us for the raising of Jesus.  It is what John calls a “sign” or a symbol of the resurrection.  And yet what’s so important about the raising of Lazarus is how different it is from the resurrection itself.

     We see Lazarus walk out of the tomb, but we don’t see Jesus.  Jesus is gone by the time we get there.  The tomb is empty.

      When Lazarus walks out of the tomb we know it’s Lazarus.  It’s obvious.  It’s him.  But when Jesus rises and appears to people, even people who knew him before, even his friends, they don’t recognize at first.  Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the gardener.  The disciples are fishing and see a figure by a fire on shore and that’s all they see at first.

     Lazarus doesn’t come through locked doors.  He doesn’t come through walls.  He doesn’t appear and then vanish.

     And he will die again.  Just like anyone else.

     But not Jesus.  Not Jesus.  He will never die.  He will ascend. 

     This is the most important difference of all:  that the raising of Lazarus is good news only to him and to his family.  It doesn’t change anything except for him.  But what happens on the third day after the crucifixion of Jesus radically alters the very nature of reality for all of humanity forevermore.

     “If in Jesus’ resurrection we were dealing simply with the miracle of a resuscitated corpse,” Pope Benedict says, “it would ultimately be of no concern to us.”  “It would be,” he says, “no more important than the resuscitation of a clinically dead person through the art of doctors.”  This is from Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth and it echoes The Catechism in every detail.  “The New Testament testimonies,” as he puts it, “leave us in no doubt that what happened was utterly different.”  The Resurrection of Jesus--and I’m quoting here still--“was about breaking out into an entirely new form of life, into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming but lies beyond it—a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence.”  It was not “an isolated event” but what the pope, in a really striking phrase, calls “an evolutionary leap.” 

     In the Resurrection “a new possibility of human existence is attained that affects everyone and that opens up a future, a new kind of future.”

     Wow.  Powerful, striking stuff.  Not what I think most people assume we Catholics believe.  My friend and colleague the Jesus scholar Marc Borg recently died.  His memorial was just this Friday.  And he often used to say that if we went back in a time machine, if we could actually stand before the tomb, we couldn’t really videotape the Resurrection, we couldn’t actually see it directly, and though as Catholics we disagree with many of Marc’s ideas, I think this is exactly what the Pope is saying, too, and what the Catechism tells us and what the raising of Lazarus tells us.  This wasn’t just a physical event.  The gospel accounts of the resurrection are a kind of literary shorthand for something far more profound.

     But we have to be careful.  We have to immediately qualify this.  Because as contemporary people we are so used to thinking in either/or terms that we immediately think, well then, the Resurrection was just an idea, it was just a feeling, it didn’t really happen.  No.  No.  The gospel writers knew the difference between a dream or a vision and a real event and they don’t call the resurrection a dream or a vision, and we have to take them at their word.  When people did recognize Jesus they recognized him.  When the encountered him after the resurrection they could touch him.  Thomas put his hands in the wounds.  On the shore of the lake he made the fishermen breakfast.  No.  This was real, absolutely real. 

Indeed [the Pope says—and I’m quoting him again because he’s so clear and so authoritative here] indeed, the apostolic preaching with all its boldness and passion would be unthinkable unless the witnesses had experienced a real encounter, coming to them from outside . . . Only a real event of a radically new quality could possibly have given rise to the apostolic preaching, which cannot be explained on the basis of speculations or inner, mystical experiences.

The Resurrection, in other words, was historical.  It happened.  The disciples aren’t making it up.  The Church in all its courage and conviction could never have come from a mere idea and it could never have lasted until now if all there was here was a metaphor.

     What the Pope is saying and what the Catechism is saying is that the Resurrection wasn’t just historical.  It was more than historical.  Again, I’m going to quote the Pope.  Just one more time.  I want to get this right:

Naturally there can be no contradiction of clear scientific data.  The Resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our world of experience.  They speak of something new, something unprecedented—a new dimension of reality that is revealed.  What already exists is not called into question.  Rather we are told that there is a further dimension, beyond what was previously known.  Does that contradict science?  Can there really only ever be what there has always been?  Can there not be something unexpected, something unimaginable, something new?  If there really is a God, is he not able to create a new dimension of human existence, a new dimension of reality altogether?

Well, I know I’ve been risking your patience.  This is all pretty abstract and complicated.  That’s why I’ve been quoting the Pope!  But here at the end of this last quotation we get to the real point, to the wonderful implication, to the astonishingly good news:  something unexpected, something new has happened, and it’s happening in your life right now.  I’m speaking to the RCIA people especially.  I’ve had the privilege of preaching to you at the last two Scrutinies and now at this, the third, and this is what you show us.  This is why you’re here.  Because something new has happened inside of you, too.  Because you, too, are making an evolutionary leap.  You, too, believe that there is more to life than biology, more than the merely physical, more than the digital and the industrial and the relentlessly commercial, more than your sins, more than doubt and anger and violence and greed.  It’s happened in you, a new faith, a new hope, and it’s happened because of the Resurrection, because of what happened 2000 years ago in Jerusalem, because what happened then was real, more real than anything that has ever happened and ever will happen, and it is still real, it is still happening, in you and in me and in the Eucharist and in all of us here. We are the Body of Christ, we are the Risen Lord, He is in us and we are in Him, and like Mary and like Martha we know now, we really know, that we, too, will never die, that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, we will never die, we will live forever, we really know that, we really believe that, because we feel it now, it’s happening now, in this place.  We are already living forever, because the Lord who has risen is risen indeed, is truly risen, and his life and his goodness and his beauty fill all the universe, fill every atom, fill and overflow and transcend every quark, every Higgs-Boson, now and forevermore.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Bars and Coffe Shops


March 15, 2015

Fourth Sunday of Lent, the Second Scrutiny

1 Samuel 16:1-3; Ephesians5:8-14; John 9:1-41

 

     My mother grew up in a Pentecostal church and she was bitter about it.  On Saturdays her father, my grandfather, would take her to the bars to keep him company while he drank, even when she was a little girl.  She’d see these people carrying on, doing the things they do, and the next day, at church, she’d see them again, the same people, all dressed up in their Sunday best and pretending to pray.

     She thought everyone was a hypocrite.  That the truth is always the ugly truth.

     I wouldn’t cross the street to talk to that so-and-so, she’d say.

 

     The other day I was sitting on campus at the Memorial Union drinking coffee and watching people.  And I was watching myself watching.  I was watching how every second I was judging:  that person is too well dressed.  Arrogant.  That person isn’t dressed well enough.  Lazy.  That person is too tall, that person is too short--too young, too old, too this, too that--we do it by instinct, we do it so automatically we don’t even know we’re doing it, in 12 seconds don’t the scientists say, we form our opinions, labeling and dismissing and throwing people away in our minds based on their hair or their clothes or their slightest gesture.

     It’s like we’re swiping them on our smart phones.  That fast.

 

     But not God.  Thank God:  not God.

     It’s true, of course, that we all try to appear certain ways and that there’s sin underneath those disguises and that we have to face that darkness, admit to it, be honest about it, with ourselves and with others.  “It’s shameful even to mention the things we do in secret,” Ephesians says, but we have to mention them and bring them to light or we won’t be free of them.

      But what God sees is deeper even than that.  “Not as man sees does God see,” first Samuel says, “because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart,” and what he sees in the heart, underneath the layer of sin, is a fundamental goodness, a fundamental graciousness.  He sees what he made:  his beloved child.

 

     This is the theme of the gospel today, too, not just what the blind man can’t see but what his neighbors can’t see.  They can’t see him.  They only see a blind man, a beggar.  “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg,” they say?  But Jesus has transformed him:  or rather, he spit on the ground and made clay with the saliva and smeared the clay on his eyes and revealed who the man always was inside, who he really was.

 

     All of Catholic social teaching rests on the faith that each person in the world is made in the image and likeness of God.  This is why we are opposed to abortion, this is why we are opposed to euthanasia, this is why we are opposed to capital punishment, this is why we work for the rights of the poor, this is why we try to protect the beauty of creation and all the little live things of the earth.  We are supposed to love God with our whole hearts and our neighbor as ourselves—everything can be organized around this, this greatest commandment—although we fail at this again and again, every day.

     Or we do love our neighbors as ourselves.  Exactly.  Because deep down, we don’t love ourselves at all.

     Several times when I was studying to be a deacon I panicked and thought, I can’t be a deacon, I’m not good enough, I’m too sinful.  I still feel this way sometimes.  Maybe you feel that way, too, you in the RCIA, you who are becoming Catholic, that you’re just pretending, that you’re lying.  Maybe the voice of my mother is the voice we all hear.

            

      But no.  God doesn’t judge us by how we appear even to ourselves.  He sees deeper than our own self concepts, deeper than on our fear, deeper than our own shame.    

    

     Last week when I was preaching at the first scrutiny, at the five o’clock mass, I quoted from C. S. Lewis’s great sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” and I want to quote from it again:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . . . There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to our as the life of gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, marry, snub, and exploit.  . . . Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

Maybe this seems overstated, maybe this seems like too much, but it absolutely follows, it’s the logic of faith--because we have souls, all of us, through grace, not through our own merit but through the infinite mercy and love of our God, and we are promised eternal life, through that same grace, and this has consequences, dramatic consequences, for everything we say and everything we do.

 

      All we have to do is let God love us.  All we have to do is believe that he does.

 

     The other day through this grace I had a momentary breakthrough, I was able to see past my own small self, and again it was at the MU, when I went to get my coffee. 

     It was just a small thing.  Very brief.

     But when I smiled at the young barista, and she smiled back, there was something about her eyes, they seemed to warm somehow, or open wider, and for a moment I saw her as little girl, reaching up her arms to her father.  For moment I really saw her, and I saw the others around me, the pimply boy with the backpack, the skinny girl on her cell phone--they were all my children.

     This was grace, pure grace.  I don’t have the capacity to love my neighbor as myself, not on my own, but for a moment I did, for just a moment I could do what we are all called to do, to see the other person as God does, at least a little, to ask myself, who is this person for Jesus?

     And in that moment I felt who I was, too.  In that moment I was given the gift of seeing into my self, or I thought I was. 

     You and me and my bitter mother and my drunken grandfather and all the people in all the bars and all the coffee shops and all the churches in the world--we are all beloved, we are all loved beyond measure, we are all beautiful in the sight of God, more precious and more beautiful than we can possibly imagine.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Praying for Parking


February 15, 2015
Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Mark 1

      You know how when you’re running late, and it’s raining, and you can’t find a parking place, you can’t find one anywhere, and you’re just going crazy, you’re completely stressing out, and just instinctively you pray, O Lord, give me a parking place, O God, help me find a parking place? 

     Well, in a way that’s silly, but in another way—Michael Casey says—it’s not.  I take this example from Casey’s book, Toward God—Casey is a Trappist monk, in Australia, and just really, really good—and he says that in moments like this we are forced to admit to what he calls our “inner incompetence,” how really we’re all just children in a way, lost and lonely and in need of help, in need of God’s help.  Sometimes we can’t figure out the simplest things, we can’t just get through a normal day, everything defeats us, and unless we admit this to ourselves and to God, unless we just step back and laugh at ourselves, we’ll never grow in our faith.

      The best thing about the leper in the Gospel today is that he knows he’s a leper, he admits it, out loud, and it’s because he does that, sincerely and simply, that he is able to turn to Jesus and ask him for help, ask him for healing, and that healing comes, it always comes, it’s there, exactly at the moment we acknowledge our need for it.

     This is the hardest thing.  We don’t like admitting our inner incompetence.  We want to look good, even to ourselves, we want to walk around as if we’ve got life completely under control and we’re really wise and spiritual and if we sin our sins are really complicated and mysterious and just in general we’re really advanced, really up there.  It’s hard to face who we really are, inside.  “People will do anything,” Jung says, “no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.”  We’ll eat, we’ll drink, we’ll play with our cell phones, we’ll have sex, we’ll throw ourselves into our work, we’ll exercise until we drop, we’ll buy stuff, we’ll do anything, anything, to avoid this journey and this struggle, to keep from embracing our shadow, and that’s exactly the problem, because unless we do, unless we do, we can never be free.  “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,” Jung says, “but by making the darkness conscious.  There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”

      The other day I was on an interfaith panel for “Spiritual Wellness” week at OSU, and that was nice and good.  Really nice people.  A good thing to try to do.  And of course, we’re all in favor of spiritual wellness.  It’s what the leper wants and what we want and it’s great that OSU is interested in that, too.  The problem comes when, as sometimes happens, a fuzzy or flawed idea of what “Spiritual Wellness” is leads us to seek out only what makes us feel good, temporarily, only what keeps us on the surface, what keeps us from the really hard work.

      The problem isn’t sin, it’s the refusal to acknowledge sin.

     I’m teaching a course in the parish on Dante’s Inferno, this famous journey through hell, and that’s the key idea.  Dante is lost and can’t find his way and he wants to head directly to the light, up the hill, but he can’t.  He has to go down to go up.  He has to go through hell in order to get to heaven, because the hell the Inferno describes is really his own consciousness, his own soul, and he has to confront his own monsters, really see them and name them for what they are, before he can any further.

     And when he does, all those creatures he sees, the three headed dogs and the minotaurs, they turn out to be harmless.  Stupid really.  Sin isn’t complicated.  It isn’t mysterious.  If we resist Satan, the letter of James says, he will flee.  Sin is a coward.  Shine a light on it and it loses all its power.  Nothing in hell can hurt Dante, and nothing in hell, in our own inner hells, can hurt us, unless we don’t admit it’s there.

     This is true even as we advance in the spiritual life.  Even a life of prayer and mass and spiritual reading and good works, even a good, faithful life doesn’t make our sin go away and in fact, as we progress, things get worse in a way.  We become even more aware of our inner nature, our inner incompetence.  We can’t expect the Church to make things easy for us or to make us feel superior or safe forever, not in that sense.  Of course we can improve, we can transcend many of our bad habits, with discipline and effort, and we should try, but our inner nature remains, our inner limits, and it’s good, it’s liberating, whenever we admit that, whenever we see it, because it reminds us that we’re not God, that we need Jesus, that only Jesus can help us.

      I don’t mean this in a woe-as-me-I’m-so-terrible sense but more in the sense of laughing at ourselves and moving on, in the sense of saying of course, what did I expect, thank you Lord, I trust in you Jesus, you’re the one who can heal me, and I will be healed, I know you love me for who I really am, this person running late, in the rain, who can’t find a parking place.

     I’m a good person.  I am fundamentally good.  I am made by God.  But I’m a person, just a person, like anyone else, and I need you, Lord.  I need you.

     “We never graduate from a state of being utterly dependent on God’s mercy and forgiveness,” Casey says.  “The shadow is part of our reality, and so in a spirit of faith, we thank God also for the darkness in our life.”

     Especially notice this in prayer.  If we have a prayer life, if we really try to stick to prayer and pray regularly, we’re going to keep encountering this darkness—not just this, there’s light and joy too—but we shouldn’t be afraid when we see this darkness again and again, or discouraged, or surprised.  We should rejoice:  yes.  We need you Lord.  Heal us.

     I’m talking about the dynamic of confession, of course, of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

     Especially notice this when you’re really mad at someone else, really despise someone else and blame someone else.  That’s always a sign.  The danger when we don’t admit to our sinfulness and limitation is that we end up scapegoating others, blaming them for what’s wrong with us.  Watch for this.  Whenever you’re mad or frustrated with OSU or St. Mary’s or your job or your family or the country, think:  what’s wrong with me?  What am I avoiding thinking about?

     And I want to emphasize how joyous this is, really, and how liberating.  It’s not awful and depressing and it’s not about putting ourselves down all the time, feeling like worms.  No.  It’s raining and I’m late and I can’t find a parking place and I step back and see myself in the rain and see myself late and anxious, and suddenly I’m free.  I laugh.  Of course.  And then, whether I find a parking place or not, it’s good, it’s all good, as people are always saying now, but it really is, because I realize that none of this is important, not really, that whether I find a parking place or not I’m still me and I’m still loved by God and that God doesn’t love me any less because I’m stressed out and frustrated and will never love me any less.  And that I’m not a hero.  I’m not different from anyone else.  However much I’ve prayed the rosary or worked at Stone Soup or done the things I try to do, I’m still a child, I’m still a leper, I’m still a person.

     That’s exactly when Jesus heals us:  when we let him heal us. 

    

 

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.