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

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The One Thing Necessary (poem)

I thought I saw a river of light and two men in a boat,
working against the waves. But I was wrong.
It was just a log, caught in the current. Several birds.
Blinding sun. Andy’s such a minimalist,
especially now that he’s dead. So I fell asleep,
and when I woke I was standing on the estuary,
down at the salty margin. And there, in the shallows,
was a heron. I watched him a long time. How he crossed
his skinny legs, one in front of the other, walking
sideways. How he kept pulling back his feathered head.
A little. A little more. But never struck. Not once.

To Believe is to Remember (homily)

July 8, 2007
Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Isaiah 66:10-14; Luke 10:1-20

Not long ago, I was on the coast. I had a new cell phone I wanted to test, and I knew that no one was home back at the house. So I decided, on a whim, to call my office at OSU. And when the call went through and I got my own answering machine, without thinking about it, without planning what I would say, I left myself message.

That evening I was having one of those moments we all have of sudden, unexpected peace and joy. The sun was setting in the ocean. Birds were hopping on the branches. I was feeling the abundant love of God all around me, like the abundant love of a mother, as Isaiah puts it, permeating everything, and I felt free of the pressures and the worries I usually feel. I had shaken that dust off my feet. I was eating what was set before me: living in the moment, accepting what was given, in that instant.

It was a wonderful moment, one I didn’t earn or deserve but that was just given to me, as such moments are given to all of us. And this is reality. This is the way things should always be and the way they really are, if we’d only keep our focus, if we’d only not get distracted.

So when I left myself a message, I told myself this. I said: remember, Chris, you are loved by God. I called myself by name like this. I hadn’t planned to. It just came out that way. I said, Chris, remember this Structure, this Ecology. Remember.


And then, of course, I forgot. I came back home the next day and time went on and I had various jobs to do and promises to keep. And about a week later summer school started. I went to school that first day. Walked into my office. Put my briefcase down and my mail. And then I saw the message light blinking on my phone.

I have a friend who is feeling attracted to faith again and thinking about going back to church, but who is burdened by the thought of what other people will think of this, by her friends’ skepticism and their stereotypes about Christianity, and I want her to let go of all that, not to live her life by what other people think of her, not to let that be her reality, because it isn’t real, I want to tell her. But I’m just the same way. I exchange the truth for a falsehood, a reality for a fantasy. The sheep of my joy get devoured by the wolves of the day. Or it’s a kind of idolatry and a kind of adultery. There, at the coast, in the sound of the waves, I had fallen in love again. But then, I betrayed her. I forgot her.

So what a shock it was when I picked up the phone and suddenly there was my own voice speaking to me and calling me by name. My real self, calling from my real place. Except that at the same time it didn’t feel like me. It was me and not me. It was like I had been in a time machine and had traveled into this future and now the former self was speaking to my present self, except that somehow something larger and other was involved, too. I sounded so wise and calm--and believe me, that’s very unusual. What I said to myself sounded so true. It was so helpful. It was like I was my own spiritual director and the advice I was giving myself was just exactly what I wanted and needed to hear. It was me and not me. It was the spirit, really, working through me in the past moment of peace and joy, when my defenses were down, when I was in the moment, not in my head, in the moment, not in the future, as the Spirit works through all of us in such moments.

Remember, you are beloved by God. Remember. And everything came flowing back, the ocean and the trees and the light.

To believe is to remember. That’s what the mass is about, in a way. Do this in memory of me, Jesus says. Do this. Because long ago in the past, around a table, we felt a wonder and an excitement and a seriousness that lifted us out of the ordinary and carried us up to an intense and privileged awareness of the presence of God and of the infinite value of our own given lives. So remember that. Never forget it. And if you remember it vividly enough and often enough, the past won’t be the past. Memory will become creative. I will be here, with you, Jesus says. Because I am here with you. Time doesn’t matter. The past doesn’t matter and it doesn’t limit us anymore. I have transcended all that, I have transcended time, and I am here, I am with you always.

Remember this.

To believe is to remember.

This is why I think it’s a good idea to keep a journal or do something like that everyday. Leave yourself a message. I really want to recommend that--some version of what the tradition calls the examen of conscience. St. Ignatius thought it was the most important kind of prayer of all. Do it at the end of the day, or the beginning of the next, and just remember what’s happened to you, just remember, in your head or on the page. Where was the light this day, the moments you felt joy and peace and rightness? Praise God for those, and pray that you can keep following the light, going deeper and deeper into the light, going where it leads you. Then think back on the moments of darkness, the moments when you didn’t feel right and didn’t do right, when others hurt you and you hurt others, when you felt angry or afraid or confused. Ask God to forgive you for what you’ve done and failed to do and ask God to give you strength to avoid these temptations, to resist the evil that is always in us, too, and in the world around us.

Do that every evening, or every morning, and your memory starts to sharpen, your perception starts to focus. There will be two narratives now, two stories, the external story of what you did on the surface and your accomplishments, what might go on your resume, what other people can see, and the inner story, the real one, the story of grace, the story that matters.

Because God is always speaking to us. Always pouring out his grace. And we just don’t know it.

And because we are all sent out, everyday. We are all of the 72. We have our moments of peace, our moments of being with Jesus, but then we have to take our peace on the road, back into the world. Jesus himself sends us. Peace itself sends us. It’s our mission: to be who we really are in the presence of so many people who aren’t being who they are, who are lost and lonely and angry and afraid, who don’t remember. That’s our job. To remember. To believe is to remember, and we must believe.

And with grace, we can do it, as the 72 did. With grace, with remembering, we can cast out all the demons, we can be not distracted or defeated, and the demons we cast out will first of all be our own.

We Are Nothing and We Are Everything (homily)

June 23, 2007
Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist
Isaiah 49:1-6, Psalm 139, Acts 13:22-26, and Luke 1:57-66

The figure of John the Baptist embodies a paradox that we embody, too. Or should.

On the one hand John the Baptist knows that he is nothing and nobody. He is not God. He is not Jesus. “I am not he” is the sentence that defines him in every story in scripture and it should define us, too, an absolute humility, a sense of our own insignificance and our own radical dependence on something and someone greater than ourselves.

How our lives would change if we really knew this and acted on this. We’d talk less and do less. We’d do less damage. We’d be more open to others and more open to the moment. We wouldn’t be pushing all the time and straining and trying to make the world over into our own image, at any cost.

But on the other hand what John the Baptist knows is that he is infinitely precious, too, formed to be the servant of the Lord even in his mother’s womb, from the beginning of time. He has been made “a sharpened arrow.” And so are we. God creates all of us in our “inmost being.” God loves all of us in our own particular lives for who we are, distinct from everyone else, even though we are in another sense nothing at all and in a sense because we are. It’s the powerless he loves the most, the fleeting and the weak, and who is more fleeting and powerless and weak than an infant in the womb?

How much our lives would change if we believed in our own self worth and acted on it. We’d say less and do less. We’d do less damage. Because it’s when we feel worthless that we lash out at others. It’s when we feel worthless that we turn to the false substitutes and the idols.

This is the mystery of God, that He is both infinite and intimate. This is the fact of the human person, that we are nothing and everything in the sight of God, completely dependent and entirely beloved. This is what John the Baptist knew deep down, what gave him his power and his freedom. The two truths go together, he realized: exactly at the moment that he surrendered to God and gave up his pride, he found his own voice in the wilderness, he found his confidence and his joy. We all must be humbled to be exalted. Die to live.

A couple of years ago I spent some time on the Oregon coast where two Wilson Warblers were nesting. They’re little yellow birds with black caps, very common--you hear them all the time--but you rarely see them. They’re secretive in that way, but the great thing about this time I spent was that after a while they seemed to become less afraid of me, these two particular birds. They’d hop on the branches of the trees right in front of me. They’d look right at me, cocking their heads. I had the feeling that I was getting to know them, and this last weekend I was there again, in the same spot, and saw two warblers again, hopping on the branches. It could have been the exact same birds, in fact. They live six to eight years, and the thought of that was thrilling to me.

Warblers are insignificant, of course. In a way. Six to eight years is nothing. Those particular birds, those two, don’t have names or separate identities--I could have been seeing two entirely different individuals for all I knew. And yet they were beautiful, whatever and whoever they were, and seeing them filled me with joy, and I knew as I saw them with the waves behind them and the sky that they are loved by God as even the sparrows are, scripture says, that they are precious in his sight, they are a beloved part of this great and intricate ecology that we are a part of, too. We are the same, fleeting and yet cared for, tiny and yet somehow crucial.

Last weekend, too, a friend of mine died, Scott Chisolm, a poet and a deacon from Utah who moved up here in the last few years of his life. I’d had the privilege of getting to know him and his wife, Linda, a little, and I visited him the Wednesday before he died, in his home, when his wife and a hospice nurse were bathing him. He couldn’t move on his own. He was very frail. Could barely speak. It was obvious that he was about to die, and as I stood there in the room with him I looked around at the books on the book shelves, some of them his, and I thought how unimportant we all are in a way. We are not him, we are not God. The world will get by perfectly well without us, and it’s getting by now, unchanged, in a way, without Scott.

And yet as he was being bathed and as he looked at me I thought how beautiful he was. Like a child in a way. I could feel how much his wife loved him. I could feel how infinitely precious he was.

We are nothing and we are everything and we have to believe both of these truths and we have to act on them, everyday.

And to do this we have to surrender ourselves. We have to get a head start on dying ourselves.

There are two annunciations in the gospel of Luke, you know, and the first one is when the angel Gabriel visits Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Luke seems to want to contrast the two, Zechariah’s and Mary’s, and to suggest that Mary handles the angel’s words in the right way, Zechariah in the wrong way. Because when Gabriel tells Zechariah that he will be the father of the herald of the Christ, that his elderly and barren wife, Elizabeth, will bear a child, he doubts. “How can I know this is true,” he asks, and the Greek word for “know” here suggests scientific knowledge and precision, human possession and control of what is divine and unknowable. It suggests the kind of rigorism and arrogance that I’m afraid is too typical of believers, and it’s a pretty radical thing in Luke, to suggest this. Zechariah is acting the part of priest when the angel comes to him, after all, he is in the temple, he is the man, but he is the one who doesn’t get it, he is the one who in his arrogance rejects the angel’s words--we know this because of how the angel responds. Zechariah’s question, “How can I know this?” must be the wrong answer, because Gabriel strikes him dumb, and that’s always a sign. When the angel strikes you dumb, you know you made a mistake. It’s Mary, the woman, the powerless one, the marginal one, it’s Mary who responds to her Annunciation in the right way and so makes all Salvation history possible. Let it be done to me.

It takes Zechariah until this scene, in today’s Gospel, to get it right. The men in the gospels are always behind the women and it’s only now, month’s later, that Zechariah, who has been mute, finally gets the point. He writes only one word on the tablet, says only one thing, and it’s the only thing we should ever presume to say. He writes the name of his son, he writes the name “John,” and what the name John means is: “God is gracious.”

As He is. As He always is.