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, January 22, 2005

Two Nets

January 23, 2005
Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
Matthew 4:12-23 and Isaiah 8:23-9:3

What nets must we leave to follow Jesus?

It’s amazing how quickly the disciples drop everything and follow Jesus in the gospel today. They’re in the middle of a work day, fishing, and yet they hear the voice of the Lord and leave their nets behind, just as we must abandon all the nets of our anxieties and ambitions.

The nets are like the yokes that burden the people in the passage from Isaiah, and the poles, and the rods. They are all the things that weigh us down and shouldn’t.

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton again lately and I came across this passage:

Fear is the greatest enemy of candor. How many people fear to follow their conscience because they would rather conform to the opinion of others than to the truth they know in their hearts! How can I be sincere if I am constantly changing my mind to conform with the shadow of what I think others expect of me? Others have no right to demand that I be anything else than what I ought to be in the sight of God. No greater thing could possibly be asked of a person than this! This one just expectation, which I am bound to fulfill, is precisely the one they usually do not expect me to fulfill. They want me to be what I am in their sight: that is, an extension of themselves.

I really like this, and it’s really true for me. Of all the nets that trap me and catch me and keep from being myself, concern with reputation is the biggest. Pride is the biggest. Ego is the biggest. When I’m alone and at peace I know deep down what’s right and good, at least in a general way, because God is always calling us in who we really are, in our own actual natures. He calls us in what makes us truly happy. To do the will of the Lord is our delight, Psalm 40 says, and so whatever gives us true delight is always the will of God.

But then we get around other people, or I do, and I hear them talk and watch what they’re doing, and 9 times out of 10, even after all these years and all this prayer and instruction, I find myself getting pulled off my ground. I get disoriented, clouded.

Blessed are you when you are persecuted, Jesus says in the Beatitudes, and Robert Barron interprets that this way: blessed are you when you no longer care what other people think of you. Blessed are you when you are free of the false influence of others.

I think, too, of a related passage from Merton, a longer one that I keep coming back to. “How am I to know the will of God”? Merton asks. That’s the question I’m asking. That’s always the question, the only question. The disciples had the distinct advantage of being able to see Jesus face to face, in the flesh. He was actually walking by them, by the shore. But we’re not so lucky in a way, because here 2,000 years later Jesus is walking by in subtler forms. He’s always walking by, he’s always calling us, but through events and through moments and through the momentum and drift of our lives.

That’s Merton’s point: that in the absence of some sort of particular revelation, some sort of voice coming down from heaven, literally and physically, “the very nature of each situation usually bears written into itself some indication of God’s will.” Life is our call, in other words.

The Lord calls us through the actual facts, through what is possible and what isn’t. If it’s raining, God is calling me to get wet. If I rupture a disc, God is calling me to limp. The Lord calls us through our capacities and our incapacities. I’m really sure that I’m not supposed to be a neurosurgeon, for example, and that I’m not called to be an accountant either. I can’t add, and I pass out at the sight of blood. The Lord calls us in every moral situation we encounter, everyday. “Whatever is demanded by truth, by justice, by mercy, or by love must surely be taken to be willed by God,” Merton says. “To consent to His will is, then, to consent to be true.” Say a woman we know asks for our help. If she’s telling the truth and we have the means, it’s the will of God in that moment for us to help, because helping is the right thing to do and the true thing to do.

The Lord even calls us in the hoeing of a garden, Merton says.

The requirements of a work to be done can be understood as the will of God. If I am supposed to hoe a garden or make a table, then I will be obeying God if I am true to the task I am performing. To do the work carefully and well, with love and respect for the nature of my task and with due attention to its purpose, is to unite myself to God’s will in my work.

Entering data, dry cleaning a jacket, writing a brief. For most of us, most of the time, to stay at our nets is what God wants us to do, if only as a way of humbling us, of teaching us to die to ourselves.

I think the key is peace. I think the key is always to follow what gives us peace, as much as we are able to, at least.

A final passage from Merton, and another one I love:

Unnatural, frantic, anxious work, work done under pressure of greed or fear or any other inordinate passion, cannot properly speaking be dedicated to God, because God never wills such work directly. He may permit that through no fault of our own we may have to work madly and distractedly, due to our sins, and to the sins of the society in which we live. In that case we must tolerate it and make the best of what we cannot avoid. But let us not to be blind to the distinction between sound, healthy work and unnatural.

There’s a lot of wisdom here, and practicality. What we can’t avoid, we accept, of course, but the question is: what can we avoid? How much of the unnatural and anxious work we do is the result of our own sin and not the sins of the culture? And what good does it do to deny the distinction, to pretend that sound and healthy work is an illusion and that we have to forget it? That it’s unattainable?

No. God is calling us to what is sound and healthy and natural, and he is calling us through these things, and to do his will is to do all that we can to eliminate the stresses and the burdens and the distractions that keep us from such work.

I guess there are two nets, the right one and the wrong one. What must we do to put down the one and take up the other?

Whatever that is, that’s what God is calling us to do.






Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Lamb of God at the National Sales Meeting (homily)

January 16, 2005
Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
John 1:29-34

Last week I was in Southern California to talk at the national sales meeting of the company that’s publishing my new textbook. I got to stay in this really nice hotel on the beach in Santa Monica--there were palm trees and everything--and I have to admit I had a pretty good time.

Brittney Spears was even staying at my hotel, at the same time I was!

It was hard, though, to be around so many people who don’t believe in God and don’t go to church and aren’t afraid to tell you why. I was standing at this cocktail party with my name tag on, and somehow it had gotten out that in my other life I’m also a Catholic deacon, and suddenly all these people were coming over and sort of letting me have it, especially the people from Boston and the Northeast, the ones who grew up Catholic but aren’t anymore. One of my editors told me, right to my face, that he left the church when he realized that he “couldn’t be Catholic and a thinking person.”

Well, thank you very much.

This kind of thing used to really bother me, I have to admit, and it still does, but seven years of being a deacon have thickened my skin (a little), and they’ve also taught me that there’s no point in arguing. You’ve just got to stand there and take it. The people who dump on Catholics like that are good people, and their experience is valid and important, too, and arguing isn’t going to change their minds anyway. Faith isn’t a matter of argument, faith isn’t a matter of words at all finally, and that’s the key point. That’s what the gospel is about.

John the Baptist had studied the scriptures his whole life and he knew all the theology and all the ideas of his tradition and he was even called by God to prepare the way, to be the prophet, and even he didn’t get it right away. Even he didn’t recognize Jesus at first. That really struck me. “I did not know him,” John says in this gospel, twice, because faith is an experience, not an idea, because faith is something you can only know in your bones and in your heart when the dove descends from heaven as it sometimes does even for editors and sales reps. There are moments in all of our lives when we feel the lump in our throats, when the intuition grows within us: there is something greater, there is someone else, life does have meaning. Maybe it’s a moment of beauty, when the sun is setting over the ocean, through the palm trees. Maybe it’s a moment of personal contact, when the defenses drop and the real self shows through. May it’s a whole accumulation of moments, day after day building up to this conviction deep inside that yes God exists and yes God is love and yes this is all true, all of it is true, just as John the Baptist knows it’s all true when he finally sees Jesus himself coming down to the river, Jesus himself, a person, not an idea, a reality, not a theory. “Behold.” Seeing is believing: not seeing as in witnessing some kind of miracle long ago but seeing as in seeing what we see everyday if only we open our eyes and our hearts--this glimpse, this love, this hope.

That’s why I became Catholic, because I fell in love, because I went to school and got a job and lived my life, because I held my babies in my arms, because now and then I, too, behold the Lord, for a moment, and I just know, I just know. But this isn’t a knowledge that I can share very well over the voices and the laughter at a publisher’s cocktail party. This isn’t the kind of knowledge that I can put into words with any kind of eloquence in a setting like that, and even if I could, what would be proven? Who would be convinced? If language and persuasion were enough, everyone would be Christian. If preachers ever truly succeeded, the whole world would be converted.

The greatest preacher of all was killed. He was nailed to a cross.

I guess seven years of preaching and being a deacon have convinced me that most of the time words don’t matter, or that mine don’t anyway. And I mean that joyously and with all confidence and calm. I’m not Christ, I’m John the Baptist, as we are all John the Baptist, not worthy to tie the sandals of the Lord who stoops down to touch us anyway. And thank God. Thank God I’m not God. I’m not up to the job. I’m too weak, I’m too selfish, I’m too easily discouraged and distracted, and so I celebrate my weakness and I celebrate my smallness in the full knowledge that Jesus himself will do all the converting that needs to be done. He will attend to all those souls at the publisher’s cocktail party, all those former Catholics who think they don’t believe in God but really do.

That’s why, too, I’ve learned not to judge other people--or why I try not to, at least. It’s hard. I’m still far too critical, in my own mind if nowhere else. But every editor and salesperson at that party has a life and has a soul and is just as loved by God as I am--every person at LAX and at every airport in the world, every single one of those countless people dragging their luggage through the terminals--think of it, every one of them--every single one of the 160,000 people lost in the waves is just as blessed and beloved and taken care of as I am, and it’s absolutely wrong for me ever to think otherwise. I’m really worried about this. I think there’s far too much judging going on right now, far too many groups judging other groups and finding them wanting. We have to stop that. Yes, there will be judgment, absolutely, but we won’t be the ones to do it. God will. Only God will. Every person on the planet, every sales rep, every editor, every soldier, every terrorist, every atheist, every red Catholic, every blue Catholic, every gay and lesbian, every mother and father and husband and wife is a human person with a mystery and a dignity within them none of us can ever fathom or get to the bottom of. So let’s stop trying. Let’s stop worrying about other people’s salvation and worry more about our own. Let’s be John the Baptist, fully aware of how lowly and dependent we are, fully aware of how great the Lord is, and just, and good, and let’s be at peace.

One night a group of people took me out to dinner. I was sitting across from this pretty young woman, in her thirties, I guess, from Kansas City, and she was talking about sales figures and bonuses and the big screen TV she’d just bought her boy friend. But as the evening wore on the conversation changed. Things got quieter. And then I noticed there were tears in this woman’s eyes. She was crying. It was a year ago that her mother had died of cancer. It was a year ago that evening, she said, and suddenly this high-powered sales woman from Kansas City was crying, right there in front of us, a person after all, just like me, just like you.

It was a good thing that I hadn’t said anything. It was good thing I was too tired that night to do more than sit there, because I think this is what she wanted to be able to say, to me, as a deacon, as a believer: that she loved her mother and that she missed her mother and that she hoped one day to see her again.

Let’s stop talking. Let’s sit quietly. Let’s listen. Let’s see. Because across the table from us someone is crying, someone is laughing, someone is telling her story, and it’s our story, too. It’s who we really are.

Behold, the Lamb of God!