Everything is the Path (homily)
Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 2:2-5; 2nd Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6
There’s a pattern in today’s reading, a pattern that’s everywhere in scriptures and in our lives.
Faith is always resisted.
In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul calls this a law, a fact of life that we should learn to anticipate and name: “I find it to be a law,” he says, “that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” It’s causal. Inevitable. The light attracts the darkness. Good calls forth evil.
Grace is pouring down on us everywhere--revelation is “abundant” not just for Paul but for all of us--but whenever we glimpse this, it always has the character of something separate from our ordinary lives, apart from it. Sometimes we’ve actually gone away somewhere, on vacation or retreat. Sometimes we’re just reading or walking or doing the dishes and suddenly there’s this moment that seems to take us out of ourselves, a moment of insight or peace. I think we often forget these experiences, we let them slip away, but they’re happening all the time, and one reason to pray is to fine tune our receivers, to develop the skill of noticing and remembering and cherishing what’s really happening in our lives.
But then we have to come back from the moment. The weekend is over and it’s Monday morning, time to go back to work, to the grind, to the battle. And it is a battle. Very often when we re-enter the world of the ordinary from the world of the sacred, we are immediately challenged , we are immediately threatened and questioned, as Jesus is in the gospel today. This is certainly true for me. Who do you think you are? That’s the message I get, subtly. You’re no one special. You’re just a carpenter, you’re just a teacher. Just Lorna’s son. The secular world is resolutely secular, flattening, and it’s more than that, too, not just indifferent to any feeling I might have of the presence of God but actively resistant to it, at war with it. Haven’t you had that experience, of encountering a sort of force field out there, a negative energy? In a thousand ways I think we are all called by God to be prophets and we are all sent to the nation of Israel and for all of us that nation is stubborn and resistant and rebellious and uninterested.
Cardinal Newman puts it this way, in his autobiography. When he meditates and prays, he says, he feels the grace of God. But then “I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth of which my whole being is so full.” Yes. Me, too. And then, as Newman continues: “the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself.” The world confuses us, in other words. It causes us to doubt ourselves, to doubt God.
Or it’s even subtler. The temptations are even sneakier: in the ads we see on our browsers, in the way the people around us dress or talk, in just the whole material appearance of the world of traffic and shopping malls and affluence. We get sucked in.
Which wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if we didn’t allow ourselves to be sucked in. But we do. There’s great practical wisdom in recognizing that evil is an objective and strategic force working on us from without. But I also think that finally this force is as much in us as outside of us, that the stubborn nation is our own psyche and our own soul. “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,” Paul continues in Romans, “but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Or to paraphrase St. Francis de Sales, if there’s no one else to disturb us, we’ll disturb ourselves.
I feel this especially in prayer lately. I sit down to pray and try to open myself up to God, but all I can think about is cleaning the garage or grading papers or a thousand other trivial things. I’m always distracted. Karl Rahner called this “the marketplace of the mind.” The Buddhists talk about the “bureaucracy of the mind” or our “inner gossip.” It’s as if a kind of mental version of “Entertainment Tonight” is always playing in my head and I can’t get it out.
We just have to pray for the strength to resist this. To endure. Because it’s only through grace that we can escape these voices. We can’t do it ourselves, and in fact, that’s the other reason to pray in the first place: just to be aware of our own smallness and blankness and pettiness. We set aside this time and light a candle and look within. And this is all that’s in there? This is all I am? Well, yes. So have mercy on me God, in your kindness! In your compassion, blot out my offense! It’s in this sense that our weakness is finally even a good thing--this is Paul’s great insight. It’s in this sense that we should boast of our weakness, because it continually reminds us of the greatness and gentleness of God.
This is all grace, finally. There are many reasons for hope.
What the readings tell us today is that we’re in good company. Ezekiel got flattened, and so did Paul, and in a way so did Jesus. Why not us?
What the readings tell us today is that the downs confirm the ups. Paul’s law of the Spirit works the other way, too. We must be doing something right for things to suddenly get so hard. We must have summoned up something good for this much resistance to be occurring.
What the readings tell us today is that the truth of our revelations doesn’t depend on the success of our efforts. Whether they heed or resist, they will know a prophet is in their midst. That’s what Ezekiel says. Whether they heed or resist. When I get discouraged or distracted, I panic. I think, wait, God doesn’t exist. That moment of joy was an illusion. It was false. But no. These ups and downs are just the way life is, and the one doesn’t cancel out the other, and I just have to understand this and accept this and stop measuring grace in terms of winning and losing and human standards of success. However many thorns are stuck in my side, however much resistance people put up, God is still there. God is always there, in ways so beyond what we can understand that there’s no correlation at all between the dreariness of the world sometimes and His enduring, infinite love, his infinite mercy,
Let us persevere, with all practicality and hope. Let us keep praying, or trying to, alert for what moves within us, the good and the bad. But most of all, let us rejoice. For revelation is abundant, grace is abounding, no matter how thick-headed we will always be, and sometimes it even gets through to us. Sometimes we are elated. Sometimes life is so beautiful and good none of the rest of it matters. It’s all bathed in light, a wonderful, transforming light. And this is the truth, this is what is real, this is what gives us hope beyond all hope, whatever happens.
Everything is the path.