What Gina Teaches (Homily)
May 22, 2005
Exodus 34:4-9, 2 Cor 13:11-13, John 3:16-18
The week before last was very intense for me.
Wednesday night there was a meeting in the Upper Social Hall where a fair number of people got pretty worked up about dogma and doctrine. There was a lot of passion in the air. A very committed group of parishioners seems to think that we at St. Mary’s are too timid about the Truth, too wishy-washy. We need to be clearer, they think. Firmer.
The next day I was sitting in Withycombe Theater at a Faculty Senate meeting when the English Department secretary came in through a side door looking for me. The missing OSU student had been found, dead, on an island in Lake Shasta, and I needed to change the prayer service I’d been asked to do that night. Gina had been a student of mine, and she was Catholic, and her sorority had asked me to help them pray for her safe return. But now I had to race home and get the rite of Christian funerals, and race back to meet with Sue Gifford, who was leading the service with me, and when we got to church I had to read a statement for the television reporters swarming around. Then Sue and I took a deep breath and watched as dozens and then hundreds of students started pouring in, the men in suits, the women in dresses, many of them crying. In the end maybe 800 people packed this church--it was standing room only--and again there was great emotion in the air, great energy.
But this energy was different. The meeting in the Upper Social Hall left me feeling tense and frustrated, though I think it was necessary and I admire Father John very much for risking it. But the prayer service was enormously moving, enormously beautiful.
My students at OSU spend so much of their time primping and preening and worrying about all the wrong things, just like we do. There’s so much nonsense and junk. Suddenly it was gone. There was deep silence and deep shock and suddenly the faces of all those young men and women looked like real faces, like real people, vulnerable and uncertain. It’s terrible that Gina had to die for that happen, just as it’s terrible that Jesus had to die for that to happen. And it’s sad that the moment couldn’t last, as of course it couldn’t. But it was real while it did, it was profoundly real, and what rose out of it seemed to me like genuine love, genuine grief, genuine compassion. We were one. Not everyone was Catholic--most weren’t, in fact--but that didn’t matter, because we were sharing something deeper than that. We were sharing reality, and it wasn’t just a sad reality, a tragic reality, though of course it was sad, enormously, terribly sad. But it was more: it was a transcendent reality. I could feel it. I could feel my love for all these people and my connection to all these people and in that love and connection the Spirit was so strong it nearly knocked me over. God was there, with us and in us. I know it.
And the other thing I felt, very strongly, was a deep gratitude for the Catholic Church and for my own ministry as a deacon. I felt myself rooted to the floor. I felt myself going all the way down. I felt that this Church and this altar are more thoroughly and completely my home than my house on McDonald Circle or any house anywhere--that the prayers are my home and the readings are my home and the enormously beautiful liturgy of the Vigil for the Dead, which one day will be said for me and for you and for all of us here. Of course the prayer service was beautiful, but that wasn’t because of me. The words are all there, in the funeral rite, those ancient and beautiful words. All I had to do was lift up my hands and read them. I was so proud of the Church in that moment, if I can say that. I was so proud, because we really know how to do this, we really know how to do a funeral, we can really offer the words of comfort and hope and peace that people long for, simply and sincerely and powerfully, and what could be truer than that, more fundamental?
It’s not just in the Catechism that we find the true teaching of the Church and not even mostly there. Theology is secondary, as the Catechism proclaims, as all valid theology proclaims. It’s in the scriptures and in the liturgy itself that we get closest to the mystery, in the sacraments. It’s in the actions and words of the eucharist, for example, or in these words from the liturgy for the dead that I prayed two weeks ago: Lord our God, the death of our friend Gina recalls our human condition and the brevity of our lives on earth, but for those who believe in your love, death is not the end, nor does it destroy the bonds that you forge in our lives.
You want me to teach the Truth of the Catholic Church? You want me to give it to you straight? OK. Here it is: Our lives are brief. Our lives are often sad. But death is not the end. The bonds of love and friendship never, ever end.
Now I certainly have other things to say about the death of Gina, as a Catholic Deacon, as a servant of the Church. I think Shasta is a travesty, and all that it represents. For every student who dies each year there are hundreds who die inwardly, who discover through bitter experience that sex and alcohol can never satisfy the deepest longing in them. And we are all complicit, all of us. That’s what I have to say: that we are all complicit in this, in turning the other way and not opposing this and not providing better alternatives to this.
But somehow that didn’t seem like the thing to say in that moment. That’s why I read a prepared statement before the cameras, because I was mad, too, because I didn’t want to say something publicly that I’d regret. Railing against the sins of others is almost never the right thing, or never the first thing, because for right action and right relation to happen, love and acceptance and fulfillment have to come first. There has to be a reason. Morality flows from experience and commitment.
Here’s what I believe is the Truth of the Church, the first truth, what I know is the Church’s deepest and most profound teaching: that God so loved the world, that God is a God of steadfast love, that the unity and activism of the Trinity have to be our unity and activism, too, that the Trinity should define us, not power and judgment and dominion but creative, self-sacrificing love.
Because it’s not just in the liturgy and the scriptures that we get the closest to God. It’s through action. Orthodoxy flows from what we do, not from what we think or say. It’s best expressed and only expressed through charity, through kindness. God so loved the world: the fundamentalists are right to put that on the banners and spread them behind the goalposts. We should, too. It’s the only thing. It’s the only Truth we know, and we should act on it, not talk about it. We should love the world, too. We should give ourselves away.
And here’s what else I think is the teaching of the Church, what I know is the teaching of the Church, what I know is most central and before anything else: that we are not God and that we can’t understand God and that we should stop pretending we can. Humility is the first thing and the last, not clarity. Nothing could be clearer than that. Nothing. Let me not mince words. Let me be as unequivocal as I can. Let me read you the words from St. Paul that define and animate all Catholic doctrine and dogma and that we must always come back to before we open our mouths to tell other people what the Truth is. They’re words from the vigil service, too, the final prayer, maybe the most beautiful prayer of all. I prayed it for Gina two weeks ago and I pray it for you now, as doctrine, as truth, as hope, for us and for all the Church: May the peace of God, which is beyond all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the teaching of the Church. Make no mistake about it. The deep and abiding peace that we feel is beyond all understanding and all language and all theology. The truth that we know beyond all doubt is so embedded in our hearts and minds and so purely the gift of God that what it should do is silence not embolden us.
God keeps us, we don’t keep him.
And to say otherwise and to act otherwise, to start pointing fingers and start making judgments, is ignorant and sinful and blasphemous and wrong.