Letter to a Believer Who Complained About My Last Homily (A Note)
Dear friend in Christ:
I wanted you to know that I did hear you today after the 9 o’clock mass and that I respect the depth and intensity of your emotion. You love God and you love the Church, and though the word “she” for God appeared only in a poem that I quoted, though it was only a tiny percentage of all the words that I preached this morning, though I myself only talked about God as “He”--still, for you, that brief use of the word “she” seemed to trivialize and belittle what you care about most deeply, your faith. I understand completely. All I know about God is His infinite mercy, all I know about God is His infinite love, and no image I use, no word, should ever claim to capture and restrict and limit Him.
In fact, the whole point of my homily was that God loves us in ways we can’t possibly imagine--that God forgives us, God saves us, that grace abounds--surely the most orthodox teaching of all, the central thing, the thing that none of us can ever disagree about. If a single word in any homily ever obscures that message, in any way, the homily failed.
As you’ll see, for the 11 o’clock mass, after listening to you and talking with Fr. John and Fr. Lucas, I added a few clarifications before I used the poem. I’ve put them in italics at the end of the homily itself, but here they are, too:
Now, the poet uses the word “she” to describe God, and at the last mass this really upset a few people. I understand. Though the Catechism tell us that God is beyond all gender and that both masculine and feminine images can be used to describe Him, it’s the image of “Father” that is at the center of our tradition. Jesus calls God Father, and he calls God Father, and invites us to call God Father, exactly to help us understand His great love for us, his abiding, unimaginable love. But that’s also the point of this little poem. I read it not to change God’s gender but to celebrate His great mercy, and his humor, and his playfulness. That’s all. But that’s everything!
It was your reaction, and the reaction of several others, that led me to this clarification.
But let me also try to clarify what the Catechism says--not as a way of defeating you intellectually, in argument. No. We’re Catholics. We obey the Church, and the Catechism is the way it communicates all its central teachings and traditions. If you can find a more authoritative source, let me know, because I take the Catechism as my guide, and I never try to preach anything that I think is in violation of what the Catechism teaches. Here’s what it says on this issue, and what I had in mind when I decided to use this little poem:
In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective “perfections” of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband. (370)
It then goes on to cite several scriptural passages to consider: Isa 49:14-15; 66:13; Ps 131:2-3; Hos 11:1-4; Jer 3:4-19. There are many others, including in the Wisdom literature, where Wisdom--later understood as the Holy Spirit--is always addressed as “She.”
Here’s what I ask of you: that you will forgive my own personal limitations and biases, which always creep into my preaching, however hard I try to keep them out; that you not lose sight of the forest for the trees, that you remember my main message, which was about God’s love, not God’s gender; and, finally, that you not assume that your own personal experiences and values are universally true for everyone, or for God. I think this final point is the one you were trying to make to me, rightly. I always need to hear this. You wanted me not to make God over in my own image. With respect and with good intentions, I ask the same of you. God has spoken to you in a thousand, thousand ways, in your experience and in your prayer and in your reflections, and all those ways are valid. All those ways are full of God’s presence and meaning and hope. But they are not the only ways. God is bigger than you, as He is bigger than me.
That’s the advantage of the Catechism and the tradition and the scriptures, that they all keep calling us to transcend our own biases and limitations and to experience the mystery and the love beyond us all--that mystery that came in the form of the man, Jesus Christ, the man who died and rose and is with us now, in the Eucharist, through the Spirit.
Peace be with you, and anytime you’d like to talk, I’m glad to listen--not argue, not try to score points, not play some intellectual game. You’re absolutely right. I have no desire to do that. All I want is to love Him more deeply and enter more deeply into His life.
Again, God’s peace,