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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Monday, January 08, 2007

Climbing the Ladder (a homily)

Fourth Sunday of Lent
Psalm 23; John 9:1-41

I have a friend at OSU who says she doesn’t believe in God. She’s an atheist.

But when she goes out into nature, when she walks by restful waters, she is refreshed. In the verdant pastures, her cup overflows. She’s a fine teacher and writer, a wife and mother, a moral, compassionate person.

I don’t think it’s that she doesn’t believe in God. I think it’s that she doesn’t believe in the language we use to talk about God. She can’t accept the abstractions, the dogma.

When you and I say that God has spoken to us or that we believe in Jesus Christ, I think we’re really using a kind of shorthand for a subtle series of moves that begins first in our own experience, in our own joy and sorrow and need. Some people actually see Jesus himself, of course, even now, or hear his voice. I believe this happens, this kind of direct revelation, but it doesn’t seem to happen very often, and for most of us it never does. For most of us “the Lord is my shepherd” or “He guides me in right paths” are phrases we decide to apply to subtle, everyday things that other people might not understand in the same way.

One day we are overcome with a feeling of well being. Reading a book something suddenly makes sense to us. Over time a conviction starts to build in us. Like my friend at OSU we walk by a river or hike in a forest or look at the people we love and we have this nameless sensation, this feeling beyond words.

Except that we do name it, we do give it words. Because of our upbringing and our tradition and our life in the Church, we label this experience with a dogma, we describe this experience with the words of the creed, we understand this experience through the scriptures. We’ve made a leap. We’ve moved from the concrete to the wonderful, saving abstraction. We say, this feeling, this glimpse--everything that is beautiful and meaningful and right and real--everything that everyone else experiences in the course of their daily lives--this we decide, very rightly, is Christ. This we give the name to, the name at the sound of which every knee should bend and every tongue proclaim.

We reason from the gift to the giver, from the effect to the cause.

The blind man isn’t healed because he believes. He believes because he is healed. Jesus doesn’t come up to him and say, I am one in being with the Father--I am the way, the truth, and the life. He spits on the ground and makes clay with the saliva and smears the clay on the man’s eyes. Then he walks away. When the blind man is healed and the people ask him how it happens, he has no idea. All he knows, he says, “is that I was blind and now I see.”

It’s only later, after the experience, that Jesus returns and asks the saving question. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus says, “It is I.”

It was the same last week, at the well, with the Samaritan woman. He talks to her first. He drinks the water first. Then, in the context of that actual human experience, that gradual dawning of understanding and joy, he gives the experience a name, he tells the woman who he is, and she accepts this. She believes.

Come, she says to the townspeople. “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he be the Christ?”

Christ tells all of us everything we have done, he tells us all our lives. The story of his life on earth and the record of his enduring teachings make sense of what we all experience everyday. We look into the Bible as into a mirror. And so we believe. First the well, then the creed. First the hot, dusty day. Our deep thirst.


There’s a wonderful book by the great Catholic biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, The Living Gospel, and in it he talks about the resurrection experience. The resurrection, he says, wasn’t just a matter of Jesus being resuscitated physically, coming back from clinical death, and it wasn’t just a matter of visions and appearances. Scripture describes several wonderful, illuminating moments, but the resurrection experience, Johnson says, “cannot be confined to such sporadic events.” No, here’s what Johnson says, and it’s exactly the teaching of the Catechism:

The resurrection faith that gave birth to Christianity was, rather, rooted in a complex combination of experience and conviction. The experience was that of transforming, transcendent, personal power, a power that altered not only the consciousness but the very status of those experiencing it. The symbol for this experience was “The Holy Spirit.” The term “holy” designated its origin: it did not come from themselves, but from the one who was Other, namely, God.

We, too, have had this experience of a transforming, personal power. We, too, now and then, feel our consciousness transformed, our sight restored. Just as my friend does, at OSU. The difference is that we give this experience a name, we designate it with a term, and that term is “holy.” “The conviction accompanying this experience,” Johnson says, for the disciples and for us, “is that Jesus is Lord.”

Could we be deluded? I was asked this last month, after I gave a talk about faith over at OSU, and of course, the answer could be yes. Yes, I could be deluded.

I’m making a leap. We’re all making a leap. That’s what faith is, that’s why it involves our freedom and our creativity and our very selves. It’s not forced on us. It’s not required.


You know the old joke. Bishop Steiner used to tell it. I think Father John has told it. I’ve told it up here at least once. About the man in the flood. A car comes by and the driver says, get in! But the man says no. God will save me. And the water rises. Then a boat comes by and the boatman says, get in! But the man in the flood says no. God will save me. And the water rises. It’s all around him now. He has to climb on the roof. And then a helicopter flies by. It lowers a ladder. Get in, a voice calls down. No, the man shouts back, God will save me! And he drowns.

In heaven he is complaining to God. Where were you? I believed in you, I had faith, and you didn’t come. What do you mean, says the Lord? I sent you a car. I sent you a boat. I lowered a ladder from the sky.

God is always trying to help us. But we have to be willing to be rescued. God is always lowering a ladder. But we have to recognize it first.

And then we have to climb it.

24 (homily)

February 25, 2007
1st Sunday of Lent
Temptation in the Wilderness, Luke

I’ve been in kind of a desert myself lately, kind of a trough, like Jesus in the gospel today. But I’m not doing nearly as well with my temptations.

For one thing I’m going through one of those phases when I’m just sick of the Church. I’m just Churched-out. One more whiff of candle wax and I swear I’m going to go out of my mind. Do you ever feel that way? That the Church is just this huge and ponderous and ridiculous thing and that none of it makes any sense? What are we all doing here anyway?

I need the Church, of course, and I love the Church. I can’t live without it. I recognize these feelings as a kind of temptation. Or not the feelings themselves, exactly. They’re just feelings. They come and they go. The temptation is to do more than just wait for them to pass, to think that they mean something.

And I’m sick of praying, too. I’m sick of prayer. I’m sick of getting up early and I’m sick of the Psalms and I’m sick of journaling and most of all I’m sick of all the junk in my head and all the pettiness in my heart. Prayer just feels so unnatural lately, so forced. I keep thinking that the real me is the me that sits around watching TV and eating ice cream all day and that it’s time to just admit that and stop pretending.

See? That’s the temptation.

The other day I was at this English Department party talking to a colleague about the pilgrimage we’re going on to Mexico and the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and suddenly I was worried that my friend would think that I’m some sort of religious fanatic, that all I ever think about is religion, and I didn’t want him to think that. I wanted to be one of the boys, I wanted to belong. Desperately. For a moment, through his eyes, the Church seemed to me to be full of nothing but right wing nut jobs, nothing but crazy people, and I didn’t want to be associated with it at all.

Whoa. Where did that come from? This can’t be happening to me. I’m way too spiritually advanced for this.

Well, yes it can and no I’m not. I’m a sinner, and I was being tempted, and I was susceptible to being tempted. We all are. We’re all like the new kid in the fifth grade, we’re all weak and insecure, and maybe one of the gifts of a desert time, of a dry time, is to remind us of this again, to force us to confront the spiritual pride that can gradually creep in when the prayer is sweet and the spirit is flowing and we start to think we’re so special and pure. No. I’m an ass, you’re an ass, to quote Anthony De Mello, and the sooner we accept that and laugh it off, the sooner we can move on.

The Church doesn’t exist so that we can construct cozy little identities for ourselves. The grace of the cocktail party and the grace of the desert is to strip all that away. The time that we really start being Christians isn’t when it makes us feel holy and righteous but when it makes us feel like idiots. Like fools.

C.S. Lewis is really good on this, on how our faith and our energies naturally ebb and flow and how these “undulations,” as he calls them, can be used to tempt us away from God. We start to think that the lows cancel out the highs, reveal them as delusions. No, Lewis says. In fact, the periods of barrenness and dryness are God’s way of allowing us freedom. He won’t force us. He won’t overwhelm us, the way constant happiness would. He wants us to choose, to be free to say no. “Hence,” Lewis says, “the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best.” It is “in the trough periods, much more than during the peaks, that we are growing into the beings God wants us to be.”

So what do we do? We step back and observe ourselves having these feelings—we strive for awareness—we say, OK, this is happening in me now, and soon something else will be happening. And then we realize: this isn’t about feelings anyway. Luke doesn’t say a word about what’s going on inside Jesus, whether all this is easy or hard for him. Jesus just acts, he just turns away, though I bet that on the inside he was as worried and anxious as we are. He was human, too, fully human. But he acted, he said no, he kept slogging, and so should we, regardless of how we feel.


The most inspiring thing I’ve seen recently is the movie United 93, the documentary about the fourth plane that was hijacked on 911, the one that crashed in Pennsylvania when the passengers stormed the cockpit. The camera is so moral in that movie. It doesn’t single anyone out, it doesn’t try to make one of those people into a Hollywood hero. It treats them all alike, with equal respect, as ordinary human beings doing the best they can moment to moment right up until the end, and that’s why I want to recommend the movie to you, if you haven’t seen it, as a Lenten meditation, and especially the special features at the end, where they interview the real life families of the victims. I was so moved by the realism of these people, how they didn’t deny their suffering, their desert times, and yet how they’ve gone on, too, and started new lives, worked for happiness. Such kind, insightful, compassionate people.

The most disturbing thing I’ve seen recently is an article in the latest New Yorker about the TV show 24. It seems that the interrogation experts at the Pentagon and the FBI were so concerned about the show and the effects it’s having that they actually came out to Hollywood to talk to the producers. The show is full of torture. There’s only 24 hours to avoid disaster and so terrorists have to be shot or poisoned or waterboarded or something, and when they are, they always crack, always give up the information. The problem, according to the head interrogators at the FBI and the Pentagon, is that soldiers have been watching the show and then turning around and trying all those techniques, imitating the episodes. And the problem with that, they say, is that torture doesn’t work. In real life, it just doesn’t work. It’s the slow building up of rapport that works, they say, that actually yields the information. It’s the establishing of relationships.

Fine, the producers said. Yes. But we’ve only got an hour every week. We don’t have time for rapport building. We need instant results.

I think the devil is tempting Jesus to instant results. I think he’s calling Jesus to be Jack Bauer.

But Jesus says no. No. There aren’t just 24 hours. There are 40 days. There is no ticking clock, just all the minutes of all the days, and all we can do is live them, doing the best we can.

That’s where the real courage comes. Real courage is living faithfully day to day even without apparent results—living so faithfully that we one day realize the results have come, that they’ve been there all along, within us, in the day itself, in the hour, in the minute.

That all of it is grace. All of it.

Don't Let the Turkeys Get You Down (homily)

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Cor 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30

The thing that really strikes me in the gospel today is how indifferent Jesus is to what other people think of him. He cares about other people--he has great compassion, of course--unlimited compassion--but he doesn’t base his actions on the desire for approval or the fear of losing it. He doesn’t play to the crowd. Jesus is who he is when the people like what he says, and he is who he is when they don’t, when they try to run him out of town and throw him off a cliff.

Not most of us. Not any of us, I think.

I’ve really been struck by a conversation I had the other day. This young assistant professor in Engineering was talking about how hard it is for him at this point in his career, how he has to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars every year and how even in his upper division classes he has 150 students. He can’t be the kind of teacher he wants to be, he can’t be the kind person he wants to be, not if wants to get tenure, and this makes him “heartsick,” he says. That was his word: “heartsick.” It’s not that he’s influenced by peer pressure the way a teenager is. It’s that there’s an atmosphere, a weather, a reality out there that’s always pushing in on him. To pay his bills and support his family he has to put up with things that just aren’t right, and doing this day after day and year after year is wearing him out.

We also talked in that conversation about the latest numbers in what the administration calls “student engagement” surveys. They’re down. The surveys show that students at OSU are less and less engaged with their courses and the university, and who can blame them, when every class is too big and even the good professors are pushed into corners?

Receptionists and clerks, truck drivers and janitors, doctors and lawyers--we all live in the midst of such gossiping and cheating and backbiting and profanity, in the midst of such sexism and racism, in the midst of such ugliness and shoddiness and meaningless noise, such subtle forms of violence, of oppression, how can we help but feel trapped and worthless ourselves? How can we help but despair?

But the Lord is saying to that young engineer and to all of us what he says to Jeremiah: “be not crushed on their account”--be not crushed--“for it is I this day who have made you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass.” The Lord is saying: don’t let the turkeys get you down. Love is more important than all the cymbals and angelic tongues, without it we are nothing, and that love is within us, that love is in our hearts, in our deepest, realest selves, where nobody can take it away unless we let them.

I think of another conversation I had, with a English major applying to get into the MFA program, and what struck me was how insecure and afraid she was, as if she could be a writer only if the English department gave her its stamp of approval, as if we own writing, as if the sheer joy of doing it is not enough. She’s sold her soul, internally, or is willing to, and I tried to talk her out of it, in the name of Our Lord. The value of what we do is the value of the thing itself, regardless of whether we make it through to Hollywood.

Listen, I know how hard this is. I’m a poet, I’m a writer, and the definition of a writer is he who is constantly rejected, she who is constantly critiqued, and that’s terribly dangerous spiritually, because it threatens to make approval into an idol, approval into a god. But the whole culture is a culture of judgment. We’re always judging and being judged, and it’s killing us inside, it’s getting to us, and we have to be aware of that and resist that and we have to not forget what’s really real. The soul is real. The heart is real. What happens around this table is real--this gentleness and healing and welcome--not what happens in the conference room or behind the counter or on the streets. The engineer has to get tenure, the truck driver has a mortgage to pay--we all have to do what we all have to do--up to the point that it becomes unethical or unsafe or is so crushing we have to find the courage to lay it down and walk away. We don’t have unlimited choices externally. But we do internally. There, within us, we have unlimited freedom, the freedom that comes from the wild and measureless love of the Son.

As Parker Palmer puts it, even if we have to “stay at our post”--even if we have to stay where we are physically--inside, where it counts, we can choose to be divided no more. The world is full of “divisive structures,” Palmer says, “but blaming them for our brokenness perpetuates the myth that the outer world is more powerful than the inner.” It isn’t. Through Christ and in Christ all fear has been abolished, all death has been destroyed, and through this love and in this love we can all find the strength to endure.

And more than endure.

Because note this, too. Jesus doesn’t just resist the external pressures, he challenges them. He doesn’t stay quiet: he says what he thinks, even when that involves telling people what they don’t want to hear. That’s why they’re running him out of town. And we’re called to that scary moment, too, maybe not now, but someday. Maybe right now we just have to survive, maybe right now we just have to get by, but there will come a time, I assure you, when each of us will be given the chance to resist more publicly, to speak out--I know that moment will come, it always comes, in the course of our daily lives, when we finally have to say no and find that we can. No, I’m not sitting in the back of the bus. No, I’m not going to help you cheat on this test or put up with your language or let you make a pass at me. No I’m not going to let this job drain the life out of me anymore.

I’m going to do something to change things. I’m going to do something to make this better.

A final conversation. A student at OSU, a very pretty woman, had been hanging out with an increasingly nasty and judgmental and gossipy group, a group of girls really into sex and drinking and just increasingly hard to be with, and finally she was fed up enough and desperate enough to say enough. To their faces. This is wrong, she said. I’m leaving, she said. And the people, when they heard this, were filled with fury, and they rose up and drove her out of the group.

And that’s been hard, terribly hard, and it’s taken courage and trust, though she’s starting to get over it. She’s surviving. Like Jesus, she is passing through the crowd now, walking away, untouched finally.

And maybe in some small way she has done something for the souls of her friends, too. Maybe this is how the world gets changed, how the kingdom comes, one conversation at a time, one encounter at a time.

The outer isn’t stronger than the inner. “If we withdrew our assent from these divisive structures, they would collapse,” Palmer says.

Who do you have to speak to this week? Who do you have to stand and face? What do you have to walk away from?

What is God calling you to do?

Handout for the "Moving from the Head to the Heart"

This is the handout that I made for the talk posted just below.


Moving from the Head to the Heart



Letting Go of the Piano

Me on the easy end,
four steps above,
barking my shins
as we bumped it down--

Dad below, at the base,
trying to do it all, as always,
sweat beading, tendons cording
with the effort to wrest that whole
black piano down that narrow,
impossible passage--

as I let it go--as I had to--

the weight of it pulling away
like a great ship
casting off for icy waters,
crowds waving.


Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:24-34


Lectio Divina

Lectio
Slowly reading aloud a short passage from scripture
Meditatio
Free associating: the Spirit is moving at this very moment, in whatever the words have brought to mind--this is your story, here and now
Oratio
Translating these free associations into a prayer, addressing God in thanksgiving and petition
Contemplatio
Waiting in silence and hope for the response of God

One approaches the scripture passage like a love letter, letting the words wash over you, savoring them. Stay with the words that especially catch your attention; absorb them the way the thirsty earth receives the rain. Keep repeating a word or phrase, aware of the feelings that are awakened. Read and reread the passage lovingly as you would a letter from a dear friend, or as you would softly sing the chorus of a song.


Contemplation

In contemplation, we enter into a life event or story passage of scripture. We enter into the passage by way of imagination, making use of our senses. The Spirit of Jesus, present within us through Baptism, teaches us, just as Jesus taught the apostles.
In contemplation, one enters the story as if one were there:
Watch what happens; listen to what is being said.
Become part of the mystery; assume the role of one of the persons.
Look at each of the individuals; what does he or she experience? To whom does each one speak?
What difference does it make for my life, my family, my society, if I hear the message?
Enter into dialogue with Jesus:
Be there with Him and for Him.
Want Him, hunger for Him.
Listen to Him.
Let Him be for you what He wants to be.
Respond to Him.

Jacqueline Syrup Bergan and Sr. Marie Schwan, Take and Receive

Moving from the Head to the Heart: Poetry, Silence, and Prayer

What follows is the text of my talk in the "Ideas Matter" series at Oregon State University, January 18, 2007. There may be a few formatting and spacing errors, as I've copied and pasted this from a Word document.


Moving from the Head to the Heart:
Poetry, Silence, and Prayer

I am honored to be a part of this series and glad to be able to share what I’m going to share today. Marc Borg has been a friend and challenge and model the whole 21 years that I’ve taught at Oregon State, he’s done an enormous amount of good, and I hope that in my comments this afternoon I can suggest a little of the debt and the respect I owe him.

I’m also glad for the license that Courtney has given all of us to do what we want to do, the way we want to do it.

So thank you, Courtney, for inviting me, and thanks to all of you for being here.

My comments come in three parts: a poem and brief lecture, a homily, and several more poems.


(I) Letting Go of the Piano


I’d like to begin by sharing a little poem of mine and then giving a quick mini-lecture about it. Just to set the terms.


One morning I woke up with this image in my mind, this memory, and I felt the kind of attraction, the kind of falling in love, that often leads me to write a poem.


Letting Go of the Piano

Me on the easy end,
four steps above,
barking my shins
as we bumped it down--

Dad below,
on the heavy end,
trying to do it all, as always,
sweat beading, tendons cording
with the effort to wrest that whole
black piano down that narrow,
impossible passage--

as I let it go--as I had to--

the weight of it pulling away
like a great ship
casting off for icy waters.


The first point I want to make is simply this: that I didn’t know what the poem meant until after I wrote it, and I still don’t really. The piano could represent my relationship with my father, or with my old, false self, or a certain notion of the university, or of reason, or all kinds of things, and I think it does. I think the poem is somehow about the kind of letting go that we all have to do. But I didn’t know that at the time. All I was thinking about as I was writing the first drafts was the piano itself, the real one, how heavy it was, and of my father, how angry he was, which is the way all literature works, poetry or fiction or drama or personal essay. First comes the image, which gives rise to all kinds of ideas, but which the ideas can never fully exhaust. Even the author can’t tell you exactly. Even in this little poem there’s something that doesn’t translate, that’s just in there, in the details and in the rhythm of the lines. It’s like the difference between eating an apple and analyzing its chemistry, watching a movie and reading a review of it.

“Story,” Flannery O’Connor says, “renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions. The real meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where these things have been exhausted. There always has to be left over that sense of mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.”

And that’s the way faith works, too, I think.

Jean Leclercq, the great Benedictine scholar, describes scripture as “concrete, full of imagery, and consequently poetic in essence.” He calls the liturgy the “great poem,” and he’s right. Scripture is 80% narrative, is story, not sermon, and so is the mass. People get up and sit down, they kneel and get up again, they sing, they sit in silence, they eat and they swallow. The best thing about it is that we don’t have to talk to each other.

In the same way, in the great prayer traditions of Benedictine monasticism, the emphasis is on lectio divina, or divine reading, and what lectio depends on is free association. The question isn’t “did this really happen?” but “what does this mean?”--and “what does this mean right now, in my life”--and the way we discern that is by letting the words work on our emotions, letting them invoke memory and desire. Something similar is going on in the technique of Ignatian contemplation. Instead of analyzing a passage, we enter into it, physically. Instead of using our reason we use our imagination. It’s gospel improv, really, and like lectio, its goal is to move us from the head to the heart, to get us past what C.S. Lewis calls the “dragons of reason” to the real source of faith, which is within us, deep down.

I’m not saying that ideas don’t matter. I’m saying that they matter in a certain way and at a certain stage. They are not the goal of the process, they are not the desired end, and all good theology, at least, knows and proclaims this. Good theology is always professing its intrinsic inadequacy, to paraphrase David Tracy. “Of course we don’t know what we’re talking about,” Augustine says. “If we knew what we were talking about, we wouldn’t be talking about God.”

Or maybe I’m just saying that I’m not a philosopher, that I look at the world in this particular way, and that this way of thinking and feeling has certain advantages, that it can correct certain tendencies in philosophy, as philosophy can correct certain tendencies in me.

It’s a good thing we’re a university. When we are. We make up and supplement each other.

All I want to suggest is this:

The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come. Mark 4:26-29

This is Mark, of course--the gospel writer, I mean--in the fourth chapter.

Before the harvest we have to fall asleep. Before the harvest we have to surrender.

We have to let go of the piano.


(II) The Way the Wild Flowers Grow

I’d like to widen out my theme a little now, and I’d like to shift, too, into a different mode, the mode of the homily.

I’d like to preach for a while on the Gospel of Matthew.


A year ago last summer, in late June and early July, I spent 30 days on the coast on a silent retreat. I lived in a hut above Nestucca Bay and tried to do the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the man who in the sixteenth century founded the Jesuits. Following the structure as best I could, I meditated on the scriptures and journaled four or five times a day. I met with a spiritual director every morning, a Jesuit, a wonderful, wonderful man and dear friend who died just a few months later--who was dying as we worked together. I walked a lot, and talked to myself, and tried to discern the will of God for me.

And I thought I was going to go out of my mind. I hadn’t realized how addicted I am to television. I hadn’t realized how addicted I am to people calling me “Professor” and “Deacon.” I hadn’t realized how addicted I am to reason, to thinking, or at least to all the busyness of the monkey mind. A lot of those 30 days were like detox for me, long, barren stretches of time where I just had to turn and face my own emptiness, my own need.

And it was wonderful, too. I had no idea God existed. Not really. I’d sensed it, I’d been living my life as if I believed it, but it wasn’t until the 30 days that I felt God crashing down on me and flooding me and overwhelming me, and not in some generalized, generic way either, but by name. I could feel the whole universe bending towards me, as I know it bends towards you, too.

It doesn’t make sense. But I felt it then and I know it’s true.


Now, let me be clear. I am in no way spiritually advanced. What I experienced on Nestucca Bay is something that any one of you would experience, in your own way, with the same opportunities of time and place. This joy is our birthright. It’s our natural condition, what we are all given.

I also realize what a gift my retreat was. It was a gift from my wife, in fact, for my 50th birthday, an enormously gracious gesture. Most people are too tied down, too constricted by poverty or by wealth, to be able to pray like this and think like this and feel like this.

But that’s exactly my point: that the world is crazy, that we’re all lunatics, and that we have to eliminate the violence and oppression and materialism that make it impossible for us to live as we were meant to live.

Jesus didn’t drive an SUV. Jesus didn’t drive anything. Jesus didn’t talk on a cell phone and Jesus didn’t work on the internet and Jesus didn’t have a microwave. There were always animals looking through his windows, with their big, brown eyes, like planets, and there were always fields and hills outside his door, and he was always walking in them, and this isn’t an incidental thing. It’s not just one thread in the gospels. It’s their foundation. It’s not just a matter of scene or setting. It’s the way of life the scriptures presuppose.

Jesus is our model, at least for Christians. We’re supposed to act like him and do what he does, and what he did he did in a world radically different than ours, radically closer to the earth. Slower. Quieter.

It was a world a little like the one I was living in for 30 days, among the alder, above the bay, detoxing--though I had electricity, thank God, and my coffee pot.

Consider the lilies of the field, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, look at the birds of the air, and he’s always saying that, or something like that, always inviting us to consider the world around us, as he must have. Only a person who has looked at the sky and listened to the wind, who has observed what the animals do, can speak in the way that Jesus speaks and preach in the way he preaches, and here, in the sermon that he gave on a mountain, in a meadow, among the flowers and the birds, he makes the flowers and the birds the center of his message. They are his message.

One way to interpret this is to say with certainty that the gospels are radically and without question environmentalist. We have to love the earth as Jesus does, both because it’s made by God and because without it we can’t eat. Christianity is intrinsically environmentalist, for spiritual and moral reasons, for reasons of beauty and reasons of justice.

But the other way to interpret this is to say with certainty that we, too, are supposed to be wild, and natural, and spontaneous, and free. We’re not just supposed to take care of the birds. We’re supposed to be like them. We’re not just supposed to protect the flowers, we’re supposed to read them, and I mean literally.

It’s funny what we choose to focus on in the Bible and then argue about. Why aren’t there any ballot measures drawn from the Sermon on the Mount? Measure 99: One Life, No Television. Measure 100: Slow Down. Measure 101: Hush. Hush now.

The great Jesuit thinker Anthony DeMello gets to the heart of this when he talks about the addiction that underlies all the others. Our babies are born just happy to be alive, just happy to be here, playing and sitting in the sun. But over the years we convince them in a thousand subtle ways that they have to do something, that they have to be beautiful and popular and smart and successful, or they won’t matter, won’t be loved. We do it everyday: we addict our children to approval. I think about this a lot, about the difference between the babies I baptize at St. Mary’s and the teenagers I see hanging around Fred Meyer or tuning out with their I-Pods in my classes. What’s happened? Look at all the loneliness on all the faces, all the hurt. All our babies are crack babies, and we are, too. We live for what other people think and so we don’t live.

Not the Wilson Warblers. Not the Swainson’s Thrush. They sing whether anyone hears them or not. They hide in the branches. They are who they are, beloved by God, tiny things that are yet infinitely important.

The Franciscan thinker Richard Rohr gets to the heart of this when he talks about the wildness of God. The love of God is always pouring down on us, overflowing, but we’re threatened by that. We’re frightened by such generosity, Rohr says, because, “it takes away all our ability to control or engineer the process. It leaves us powerless, and changes the language from any language of performance or achievement to that of surrender, trust and vulnerability.” Life in this sense isn’t about winning battles but about losing them--about not fighting them at all. It’s about recognizing, as Rohr puts it, that “we cannot control God by any means whatsoever, not even by our good behavior,” that to be in relation with God “has nothing to do with order, certitude, clarity, reason, logic, church authority or merit!” God is the wild one, not us. And so, suddenly, he is in charge, not “our explanations of things.”

That’s the paradox of the Sermon on the Mount, the paradox of the meadow: that we are no better than the birds, no more important than the flowers--no less temporary, or fragile, or dependent. Or beloved.

And from this comes all joy. All freedom.

From this comes lectio divina and gospel improv, reading not just with our heads but with our hearts. The head is a much overestimated organ, Joseph Campbell says, and he’s right. Let’s read like a bird. Let’s just be there, in the scene, in the moment, taking it all in with our senses and our intuition and our feeling, setting aside questions of history and hermeneutics, however important they are. Let’s read scripture as if it’s a fairy tale, as if we’re watching Lord of the Rings, or eating an apple. Biblical scholarship is good for a while, it gets us to a certain point, and for that all praise. But then we have to move on. We have to be post-liberal, we have to be post-conservative, which is to say, we have to be wild. Like the flowers. Like Christ.

Luke Timothy Johnson gets to the heart of this when he talks about the radical availability of Christ. “Nowhere in ancient literature,” Johnson says, “do we find an equally accessible character.” Jesus, he continues, “is so defined by his faithful obedience to God that he is free to be available to whatever presents itself. . . .[he] is never distracted. Nowhere--except for those moments when he retreats for prayer--does Jesus give the slightest sense that there is something more important to do than what he is then doing. “ Yes. Yes. I am to be like him. I am to follow him. And this is who he is, radically available in the moment--wildly available--as spontaneous and free as any bird or flower.


I can’t live in a hut forever, of course. I can’t sit in a meadow everyday, and neither could Jesus. But I can go back to the meadow now and then, to remind myself of who I really am. And then, at home, I can turn off the television. I can fast from the news. I can go to bed earlier so I can get up earlier so that I can pray. I can just keep track of my plain, ordinary, garden-variety sinfulness, and not with any sense of self-loathing but with a sense of joy, because these are things I can name, these are things I can do something about--and underneath them, behind them, is my real self, my real identity. It’s like I clean off my glasses. It’s like I feel my little gears engaging the great gears, coming into alignment with the great pattern. I log on.

The problem isn’t God. It’s me. Isn’t that wonderful?


Again, don’t get me wrong. Even the little things are really hard, and in fact, the year and more that I’ve spent since I came back from the 30 Days has been one of the hardest periods of my life. It’s been tougher than I expected, to tell you the truth. After the ecstasy the laundry. That’s the title of a book I like a lot by the Buddhist thinker Jack Kornfield, and it’s exactly right.

But before the laundry, the ecstasy. That’s what I most want to report.

My spirituality before the 30 Days was based as much on the experience of the absence of God as on the experience of His presence. Everything I preached and taught depended on the sense that God isn’t always visible and that our lives usually feel barren and that everything is beyond even our intuitive experience.

But then I reached out and touched the bark of a tree and felt something like electricity passing through my body, right up from my feet through the top of my head, and it felt like tears, and it felt like grief, and it was as real as anything I’ve ever felt in my life. I fell asleep and dreamed and in the dream I heard my name. In the dream I fell in love, and when I woke, I found the dream was true. I watched the clouds form and the weather come in. I watched the thrush lift up his head and sing. I read the scriptures and saw my own face, as in a mirror.

And this wasn’t a dream finally and it wasn’t an idea. It was real, it was happening in the moment, and when I felt it everything else became secondary, everything else became irrelevant, everything else I had ever cared about and striven for was immediately revealed as the object of a form of idolatry, the object of a form of adultery. Because this is one I love and the one who loves me, this is the morning star and the evening star, the wave and the tree and the whole life of the world, flowing through my body and flowing through yours, and when we know this and feel this, when this knows and feels us, this energy that is yet a person, this vastness that is yet a lover, this sadness that is yet joy, this Spirit, this Christ, we are totally free, entirely who we are, entirely who we are meant to be.

And however hard it is day to day to keep our lives in right alignment with this, however hard it is to keep clarifying ourselves, however hard it is to keep from being distracted and covered up, there’s absolutely no doubt anymore: this is what we must do.


(III) The Rosary Confuses My Dogs

In light of my homily, and in light of the poem and the mini-lecture before it, I hope it’s clear why I want to conclude with a few more of my poems--why for me poetry is the best way to share my experience as a believer.

“Poetry is sane,” as Chesterton puts it, “because it floats easily on an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea and so make it finite.”

Not that the Department of Philosophy is always trying to cross the sea, of course. And not that my poetry is always so easily floating.


I’d like to share three of my poems, the first of them very short. It’s a kind of simple summary, in a way, of what I’ve been trying to say.


The Rosary Confuses My Dogs

When, walking in the woods,
I pull out my long black rosary,
the beads loop down and jingle
a little like the leash when I pull it out
to put the dogs back on.

And the dogs, when they hear it,
come running up,
heads cocked, tongues lolling.

No, I say. It’s OK.
And they bound away again.
Morning. Dusky trees.
Dark eyes liquid.


The second poem is longer and in three parts, based on Dante’s poem The Divine Comedy. It’s my very modest version of that great, great work, which I have the honor of teaching every year. I make specific references in the poem to Dante and to parts of The Comedy, but I don’t think that you have to know or remember anything about him to be able to follow it.


My Trip Through the Afterlife

The Inferno

The first time through
the monsters really scared me,
especially the lizards that kept
changing into people and back again.
But the second time I made them pets.
I slipped a leash around Geryon
and suddenly he shrank.
His scorpion tail became plastic.
They all still followed me around,
horns glinting, but every face
looked like mine in the fifth grade.
The rivers of blood were just
my arteries, my veins.

*

I was so happy in hell.
It smelled bad and there was
all this wailing, but I never paid
attention to the punishments,
the whirlwinds and the hackings
and the boiling pitch. I knew
it was just a poem, with levels,
and it was the levels I loved.
I laughed in the Malebolge
when I finally saw everything
fitting together, and I think Virgil
smiled a little, too. He looked
just like Dad did the first time
I didn’t pop the clutch.

The Purgatorio

Climbing the Mountain of Purgatory
was like hiking in the Cascades with Leo--
we talked and talked--except Purgatory
was a lot more structured, and we kept
running into people we knew:
Emily Dickinson, Mr. Crooks. And I kept
getting lighter. At the end of each ledge
an angel would brush my forehead
with its wings and I’d lose a few pounds
until finally I was almost floating.
That’s why we would choose such suffering,
the carrying of the stones or the running
in circles or the wall of flame,
even for hundreds of years: to get in shape. We want to fly.
*
And I slept so well in Purgatory.
I was tired from climbing,
and the stars were out, and each
of the three nights I was there
a figure came to me in a dream,
an Eagle, a Maiden, a Wheel,
pulling me to the next cornice.
In the morning Virgil and I would talk,
like in therapy, but then I’d look around
and see that the dream was true.
I was a whole ledge higher.

*

The other thing I liked about Purgatory
is that there wasn’t any preaching.
People were too busy running around
chanting or singing or reciting poetry
to get into arguments or tell you what to do.
They’d stop and explain things if you asked,
but they didn’t need the explanations.
There was art everywhere, hanging
on the side of the mountain:
The Starry Night, the Elgin Marbles.
They’d just point to one of those.
Or they’d look out from the mountain
at the ocean all around, miles of it,
and the stars. They’d say: see?


The Paradiso

One of my favorite parts was when
Beatrice stopped bawling me out
and we shot into heaven.
I saw the Earthly Paradise recede,
the meadows and trees, and when
I looked up I understood space
isn’t empty really but like water,
silver, then red, then gold,
band after band. I loved being
weightless. My body shot higher
and higher and I was bathed
in light and Beatrice knew everything
I was thinking. People think heaven
is boring but it’s not. Music pours
from the Empyrean. Mr. Rogers
is there, in his sweater. Lincoln.
Grandma Gottwig dances in a circle
of saints, hair just as blue as ever.
Behind her the Big Bang is happening
again, matter is flying everywhere,
and she laughs and laughs.


I think reason is a wonderful thing and I know that there are people who can come to God only through their reason, through the work of their mind. The work of the mind and the life of the mind are essential for any believer, absolutely essential.

I’m simply trying to add my voice to the voice of Flannery O’Connor, in a letter she wrote once to a young writer and struggling believer. “Remember these are mysteries,” she said. “A God we could understand would be less than ourselves.

The novelist and spiritual writer Frederick Buechner puts it this way:

Moses with his flocks in Midian, Buddha under the Bo trees, Jesus up to his knees in the waters of the Jordan; each of them responds to something for which words like shalom, oneness, God even are only pallid, alphabetic souvenirs. ‘I have seen things,’ Aquinas told a friend, ‘that make all my writing seem like straw.’ Religion as institution, as ethics, as dogma, as social action--all this comes later and in the long run counts for less. Religions start, as Frost said poems do, with a lump in the throat, to put it mildly, or with the bush going up in flames, the rain of flowers, the dove coming down out of the sky.

Yes. This is it. This is the point.

“Why do your words fly so high,” Dante asks Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise? Why can’t I understand what you’re saying?


“They fly so high,” she said, “that you may know
What school you followed, and how far behind
The truth I speak its feeble doctrines go

And see that man’s ways, even at his best,
Are far from God’s as earth is from the heaven
Whose swiftest wheel turns all the rest.”

The last poem I want to share is kind of an example of lectio divina, or divine reading, an effort on my part to share in the creative energy of the gospels. In the 13th chapter, right in the middle of his gospel, Matthew groups a series of parables and metaphors describing the Kingdom of Heaven, and I’m just trying to follow suit, in my own terms, in my own way, as I think we are all called to do.

Again, thank you so much for asking me to speak this afternoon.

Seven More Parables of the Kingdom

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a seed.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a net thrown into the sea.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like the room in your dream
and outside is a lake so blue and cold you know
something big is about to happen. Then you wake up
and have your coffee and don’t think about the dream again.

*
The Kingdom of Heaven is like writing fast and not leaving
anything out and the same idea that always forms
starts to form again. You know it’s just an idea, you know
you’re just floating on the surface of Reason, but underneath
the sentences you feel something big pushing up from the dark.

*
The Kingdom of Heaven is like when you’re walking on the docks
and your best friend from high school sees you a hundred yards away
and even after all these years knows it’s you. You have the same walk,
he says. You lean the same way. All this time this man was alive
and you were, too, and you didn’t think about each other for decades,
and now he takes you in his boat to the other side of the lake
and his wife is making jello and the cabin is full of pots and pans
and dog-eared books he has read and reread just like you.
All those cabins in the trees! All those roads winding out to highways
and cities you’ve never been to, with offices and neighborhoods
and parks where kids are throwing footballs.
*
The Kingdom of Heaven is like the spine, which you also never think of.
Most of the time you don’t even know you have one, until one day
the doctor explains how discs darken as you get further down
what for all the world looks like a lobster tail. Segmented. Curving left.
And though the evidence is blurry and gray, like those fuzzy photographs
of UFO’s that always turn out to be dishes, suddenly you know without a doubt
this one is true. This is what you carry, this slippery fulcrum, this meaty device.
*
Walking up the little valley. Morning. Heavy dew.
Suddenly a field of spiders, a field of webs,
every thistle strung like a racket.

*
The Kingdom Heaven is like the ecology of your yard. All these animals
are scurrying around and building nests and entering into all these conflicts
and alliances just like in a Walt Disney movie or a book by E.B. White.
And you never see them usually, maybe a squirrel now and then, a bird,
but you never give them a moment’s thought, never think about them at all,
until one morning you walk out the door to get the paper and nearly step
on a headless mouse, eviscerated, heart and lungs spilling from the breast.
Another gift from the cats, another sign of prowess.

*
Those shiny viscera on the welcome mat.
Those intricate systems, inside out.
That dark red heart, like a coat of arms.

Lift Up Your Eyes and See (homily)

Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

This is National Migration Week, and the Bishops have asked us to preach about the need to “welcome the stranger among us.”

This seems like a no-brainer to me. Lots of things are obscure in the scriptures, but this isn’t: we’re supposed to reach out to the poor and the exiled and to all those in need. This is the heart of Catholic social teaching and of Catholic tradition, the celebration of diversity and life.

What strikes me today, on the Feast of Epiphany, is not just that we’re supposed to welcome immigrants. We’re supposed to be like them. They are the wise men and the wise women. They see what is dangerous and wrong and they flee from it. They see what is beautiful and good and they go to it.

They move, they change, and so should we.

In this sense, too, they are the figure of the scientist and the intellectual, of the critical thinker. It’s almost the beginning of a new term at OSU, I’m afraid, and the immigrant and the wise man are calling us back to our work as students and teachers. We have to be careful and observant and always open to new information, to new data, not so stuck in our opinions that we can’t change our minds and then act on that change. That’s what science is all about, what the intellectual life is all about. We thought the world was one way, but it isn’t, and now we have to move, internally. We have to have the courage and the integrity to sacrifice all our precious preconceptions.

There are new stars. There are new dreams.

I can’t help but think about global warming. Recently, again because the bishops asked us to, I invited the parish to watch the movie The Inconvenient Truth , and it was amazing, really, how strongly some people protested and resisted, even when the overwhelming burden of scientific opinion is that global warming is real and that it’s happening now.

I see it as a teacher myself, especially when I teach the Bible as Literature, how difficult it is for my students to be open to the new and the difficult and the strange. The familiar is so familiar, so safe.

But I’ve got this problem, too. I’m no better. I’m writing something and a new idea keeps intruding in my thoughts but I reject it because it would complicate and ruin my beautiful little structure. Or I have a very busy day ahead of me, I have all these things I’m determined to get done. But then someone calls me and I have to see that person--there’s a problem, they need me--and the whole day is ruined. The things on my check list won’t get checked.

I’ve got to welcome the stranger everyday, and I’ve got to be the stranger: in motion, not stuck.

Think of St. Paul, the oppressor, the Pharisee, on his way to Damascus, then the light and the voice, “the mystery that we made known to him by revelation.” Like the Wise Men Paul had to be able to see and hear a radical new truth and like them he acted on what he learned, he reversed course, he moved, all the way to Jerusalem, all the way to Rome.

My mother and father in law are in their late seventies now. They retired from long and very successful careers and moved to the family tree farm in Aberdeen, Washington to live out their lives in peace and quiet.

But then the foster child of a family in their parish found himself homeless, a 17 year old Native-American boy named Martin, a beautiful, quiet, shy young man, and suddenly the phone at the tree farm was ringing. Martin needs a home for a year. Can you take him in?

And here’s the thing. Here’s why it’s so wonderful to have these two people as my in-laws, and so difficult: they said yes. These two people in their seventies, these two people who had hoped to retreat from the world, these two people with six children of their own and I don’t know how many grandchildren now, and even a couple of great grandchildren, these two people said yes, which has meant not just having a stranger in the house, and a strange teenager, a teenager who eats more in a day than they eat in a week, and who keeps on eating. It’s also meant going to state and federally mandated workshops on Native American culture and child-care policy and emergency medical procedures and all these other things. It’s meant changing their whole life.

We visited at Christmas and played cards with Martin and went to mass with him and I was really moved by how my in laws treated him and what they have done. I was really challenged. Could I be that open to the strange and the new? Would have been watching for that star? Would I have been listening to that dream?

In our culture we too often value stability and certainty and unwavering allegiance. It’s in our metaphors: we want to be rock solid. Ford tough. But the gospel is calling us today to be a river, strong and clear but ever changing, ever flowing.

It’s calling us to be an immigrant.

It’s calling us to “raise our eyes and look about.” To see. To have the humility and the intelligence to recognize the new and to welcome it. “Then we shall be radiant at what we see and our hearts shall throb and overflow.” Then we shall be free. For the further we move from what we thought was home, the closer we get to what we really long for, to our being with the Lord, in right relation with the mystery.

If my 76 and 79 year old mother and father in law can do it, so can we.

We have to.