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

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Gary, Linda, and Aurora (Homily)

November 25, 2007
Christ the King
Luke 23:35-43

The other day someone made a comment to me that really got under my skin. I don’t think he meant it to. But I took it as a criticism and it really bothered me and I spent the whole weekend doubting myself and questioning myself.

And at a certain point I stepped back and thought, wow, how easily I fall apart! How much I still care about what other people think, even after all this time!


The next week Jim Dewey shared this quote with me, from Thomas Merton:

“How do you expect to reach your own perfection by leading someone else’s life? You must have the humility to work out your own salvation in a darkness where you are absolutely alone. It takes heroic humility to be yourself and to be nobody but the person that God intended you to be.”

Jim didn’t know about my recent inner struggle. He didn’t know that he was God’s word to me that day. But he was.


And this is my way into the feast of Christ the King and the gospel today. Because whatever else is going on on the cross, whatever else it means, Jesus is leading his own life up there. He is working out his own salvation in a darkness where he is absolutely alone, with a humility that’s finally not just heroic but divine, and he’s doing that entirely ignoring the taunts and the sneers of the people around him, entirely ignoring the thief on his one side.

He’s not living the story that the people want him to live because he knows it’s not real. It’s the story of power, and that’s not his story. The people label him. They call him names. But those names are not his true name and he knows that. He knows who he really is, and who we are, too.


I think of this friend of mine, in my yoga glass, Gary. He’s in his early sixties, a retired bus driver who lives with his mother. And he’s a wonderfully gentle and caring man, the kind of man you just want to be around.

I think of the lady who cuts my hair, Linda. She’s single, too. My age. Just a hair stylist in a little town in Oregon. But she’s full of stories and kindness and insight, full of faith, and she’s a very good hair stylist, too, and like Gary she seems to me to be an example of someone who not only serves others but who is first of all herself. Not what anyone else wants her to be. Herself. That’s where her joy comes from, and her freedom, and you can feel it when you’re around her.

I think of one of the secretaries in the English Department, Aurora. A woman in her early sixties, I guess. She doesn’t have a Ph.D. She never calls attention to herself. She never gets her name in the department newsletter. But she seems to me to be completely at home in her own skin and so open to others when they come to her. She has, again, a gentleness. A kindness. She is, simply, who she is, and because she is, she calms the people around her. She encourages them.


And then there are all these other people out there, all these other people we’re supposed to admire, supposed to think are “kings” or “queens,” the people the media celebrate, football heroes or movie stars or whatever, all the type A’s and all the successes, in any fields, the hard chargers, the alpha males and the alpha females, all the taunting thieves on the wrong side of Jesus, and we let these people get to us, we let this story of power and all this hype about power distract us and co-opt us and tell us who we should be, too. And we ignore the Gary’s and the Linda’s and the Aurora’s, the people we actually might want to be around, the people we should really be like--the humble ones, the caring ones, like the thief on the other side, the one who asks Jesus to take him to paradise.

I guess the question is, which side of the cross do we want to be on? Which thief do we want to be?
Which voice do we want to listen to in our heads? The voice of cynicism and self-doubt, or the voice of confidence and hope?


I know I’ve already talked about this at least once and probably more times. But Anthony DeMello makes this striking analogy. He’s says that we’re all like drug addicts and that the drug we’re addicted to is the drug of approval. What we fear most deeply are the taunts of others, however politely disguised, and we live our lives trying to avoid those taunts, trying to be who other people want us to be.

Think of how happy we are when someone compliments us. They say they like our sweater. They laugh at our joke. And somehow, irrationally, we let that change our whole world, as if the air is different or our task is different or the day is different because of those silly words. As if somehow we are the sweater we’re wearing or the joke we made. As if somehow we don’t matter except in someone else’s eyes.


A good definition of an enlightened person, according to De Mello: “a person who no longer marches to the drums of society, a person who dances to the tune of the music that springs up from within.” That’s Jesus, on the cross. Even on the cross.

At the top of the mountain of Purgatory, purged of all his sins, Dante is “crowned and mitred Lord of himself.” Jesus is crowned and mitred on Calvary.

He is the King of Glory because first of all he is the king of himself. He knows who he is and he is who he is. Which is to say, he knows that God is in charge, not that jeering thief, not the newspapers, not CNN, not the gossip, not the performance review, not the divorce lawyer, not the model with the wavy abs. He is the king because he knows God is the King, the Father is the King, and no one else. And nothing can divert him from this knowledge, nothing can distract him, nothing can discourage him, not even death. Death on a cross.

This winter, as we enter into the darkness, as we approach Advent, let’s take the time to reflect on who we are trying to be, what other person, what hero, what idol, what false image. And then let’s try to let that go. Just let it go. Let’s reflect on the jeering and the taunting we experience, and admit to it, acknowledge how it hurts us and diverts us, and then let’s ask God to lift that burden from our shoulders, to free us from that influence.

Because underneath all of that is our real self, the person we really are, the person God is calling us to be. And it’s his voice that matters. Only his voice. His voice is our voice. Only in Him do we become who we are.

And only by being who we are do we find Him.

I Will Smile at Your Hidden Face Always (Homily)

October 28, 2007
Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Psalm 34, Second Timothy 4:6-18, Luke18:9-14

About a month ago I got a call from my brother-in-law, Joe. He wanted to tell me that Mother Teresa was on the cover of Time magazine. A book of her letters has just been published, letters full of doubt and despair, and this was big news to Time. The editors were shocked. How could this saintly woman, this symbol of faith, be so tortured within?

Joe was surprised, too. He’d never heard anything like this before. But more than that, he was excited and inspired, he was encouraged, and I am, too. I went out and bought the book and I think it’s great.


“Lord, my God,” Mother Teresa writes to her confessor,

Who am I that You should forsake me? You have thrown me away unwanted, unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no One to answer. The darkness is so dark. I am alone. Unwanted, forsaken. Even deep down, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness.

In the beginning, she says, when she first felt called to her work in India, “there was so much union, love, faith, trust.” But now that’s gone. It’s all gone. The sisters and the people around her think her faith must be filling her being. “Could they but know how my cheerfulness is the cloak by which I cover the emptiness and misery.”


Wow. The Gospel of Prosperity is filling the mega churches. People are being told that if they’re only righteous and good they’ll get rich. They’ll always be happy. The only problem with this is that it isn’t true. It isn’t true to the gospel itself, to the real gospel, and it’s not true to life, either, to the way things really are in the world.

In another, heartbreaking letter Mother Teresa talks about a young boy who died in her arms, in horrible pain. At the end she says, “he was sorry to die because he had just learned to suffer for the love of God.” Any gospel that ignores the suffering and dignity of this child is false and arrogant and cruel. Did he suffer because he wasn’t good enough? Did he suffer because he didn’t work hard enough? Did he suffer because he wasn’t American?

What’s so inspiring to me and to Joe and to many others about Mother Teresa is that she does take this boy into account, and into her heart. She doesn’t try to explain him away. Her Christianity is deep and compassionate and it embraces all the complexities, in the world and in her self, and this is a Christianity we can respect. This is a Christianity we can sustain.

There’s a paradox here. A saving paradox. Suffering and pain don’t cancel out faith but exist side by side with it. This is what Time magazine doesn’t get: that it’s not either/or. It’s and. Always and. Mother Teresa never gave up her work. She never stopped serving the people and she never stopped praying and even in the midst of all her doubts, her fear that God didn’t exist or didn’t care, she didn’t stop crying out to him. All the letters attest to this, again and again. She holds on. She believes in spite of the pain.

No, deeper: she believes in the heart of the pain. In the center of it. “Here I am, Lord. With you I accept all to the end of life, and I will smile at Your Hidden Face, always.” Mother Teresa understands what all the saints understand. Suffering itself is revelatory. Christ is present not just in our joy but in our sorrow. In our suffering and our doubt the Passion of Christ is “imprinted” on our hearts, to use her words. This is what she keeps coming to, by the end of each of these letters. This is what she keeps realizing. It’s not just that she holds on but that like Christ Himself she is emptied out. She is humbled.


It’s this humility that so moves us, I think. This is what persuades us. Converts us.

She is so “small,” Mother Teresa says. She is just a “child.” She says this over and over again. In her own eyes she is the unworthy tax collector in the gospel today, begging for God’s mercy. Nothing is because of her, all is because of God, and that’s what’s so different from all the nonsense we hear. The Prosperous Christians believe because they’re prosperous. They think they deserve this. They think they understand this. But not Mother Teresa. She knows that God is greater than she is. Her doubt only confirms this. It’s exactly because she doesn’t understand that she understands. God is greater than knowledge, greater than sorrow, greater even than joy.

That’s the definition of a saint, according to Chesterton. The saint is the one who doesn’t think she is.


Yes, this is encouraging, and it’s challenging, too.

If we’re feeling joy, if our life is going well, if we feel close to God, Mother Teresa and all the saints are saying: rejoice. Trust this, this is real, this is God’s gift. But we can’t think for a minute that we deserve it or understand it or control it or can make it happen again through any behavior or goodness in us.

And if we’re feeling sorrow and emptiness and loneliness, we shouldn’t lose faith and hope, we shouldn’t assume that God is absent, because the sorrow, too, is grace, the sorrow, too, is meaningful and has content, the sorrow too, is the way that Christ becomes intimate with us.

“Blessed are the brokenhearted,” the Psalm proclaims, and we nod and go on. We don’t believe it. When we ourselves are brokenhearted we give up, we turn away. We think the Lord has deserted us. But he hasn’t. God isn’t some sort of sugar daddy or CEO, but the Lord of all mercy and the Lord of all hope. All we can do is surrender. All we can do is turn towards the darkness as we turn towards a wave.

All we can do is get on the phone and call the people we love. Joe calls me and I call you. I share this wonderful book with you today. I say, listen, this is news. It’s the Good News.

For we are in good company. We are in the company of the saints. We are in the company of each other.

Without Anger or Argument (Homily)

Twenty Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
1 Timothy 2:1-8

We went to a big family reunion this summer, on Barb’s side of the family, and it was wonderful. But there was one tense moment, before dinner the first night. Some of the cousins wanted us to sing an old Christian hymn, as a grace. But I said, no, we can’t do that. Remember, Katie and Monte.

Katie is Barb’s youngest sister. She married a Jewish man and is converting to Judaism, and I was worried that they might be offended. In fact, several other people in the family are a little iffy about faith these days, a little sensitive. Religion has been the cause of some intense arguments lately, and anger, and hard feelings, as it has been in many families, and I just wanted to avoid an incident.


There are truths, of course, there are limits, and sometimes we have to take a stand. But I think we take too many stands. We fight too often and we pray too little and prayer is what we should always being doing.

The saying of grace was the problem at the reunion, but I mean prayer in a deeper sense, in the sense of certain habits of mind and of heart. As a matter of faith, in all that we do, we should “lift up our hands in prayer, without anger and without argument,” as St. Paul says to Timothy.

Most of the time when we argue and fight we’re talking off the top of our heads. What we say is selfish and afraid. Knee-jerk. But in prayer we discover what we really mean and who we really are. We slow down. One ancient writer says that prayer is like a fisherman waiting for a storm to pass. When the waves are high he can’t see the bottom. He can’t see the fish. But when the wind dies and the sun comes out, the water is crystal clear. Or the soul is like a wild animal, Parker Palmer says, fierce, but shy. We have to sit quietly, for a long time, before the truths of the self emerge.

Prayer is the waiting, prayer is the seeing, and if we prayed before we talked, if we reflected first, our arguments would be a lot better, more complex and grounded, kinder, more compassionate. But we’d also argue less, I think, a lot less, and that’s the real point. Many of our arguments would just disappear. Because in prayer we experience our own sinfulness and confusion, our own need for mercy and forgiveness. In prayer we experience the pouring out of that mercy and the pouring out of that grace, a grace that binds us and transforms us in ways we can’t finally understand.

In the face of such love, who are we to defame and define? In the face of such love, who are we to assume that we know what the truth should be for someone else?

As Richard Rohr puts it, “there is an almost complete correlation between the degree of emphasis one puts on obligations, moralities, ritual performance and one’s lack of any real inner experience.” This is certainly true for me. Whenever I get strident and judgmental, it’s because I’ve let my prayer life go. I’ve cut myself off from an awareness of my limitations. I’ve cut myself off from the mystery of God’s grace.


Besides, have you ever had an argument about religion that did any good? Have you ever sat down with a Bible and convinced anyone of anything? I never have. Never.

I have had many good discussions, at “the proper time,” as Paul puts it, when people aren’t proceeding first from abstractions but from their own inner experience of the presence of God. Lex orandi, lex credendi, the ancient Church said. The order of worship or prayer leads to the order of faith or dogma. First prayer, then thinking about what we experience in prayer--and thought always understood as tentative, as always aware that the reality of God is beyond all thought.

As Pope John the 23rd was fond of saying, “in necessary things, unity. In doubtful, things liberty. In all, things charity.” And I would add: charity is the necessary thing, and the only thing.

Prayers are to be offered “for everyone.” The Lord wills that “everyone be saved,” Paul says. Everyone. Not just the people on our side. Not just the people with our particular positions.


So let’s all of us pray together for a minute. Let’s take a minute right now.

Think of a problem in your family, with religion or anything else. A problem that causes you heartache. That breaks your heart. That weighs your spirit down.

Hold that problem in your mind. Hold that person in your mind.

Now: pay attention to your breathing. In and out. In and out. Count to ten. Count to a hundred. Count to a million. And silently, in your head, ask God to take this burden from you, to somehow, in some way, solve this problem for you, in his own good time--and if not, to give you the patience and the compassion to accept the situation as it is. To let it go. Lord, help us to let go. Help us to let go.


Again and again I have seen things change: either I change, somehow softening or opening up, or the other person changes and moves towards me. There is a light. A new possibility. And it’s never my doing. It always seems to happen in spite of me, not because of me.

I have a terrible temper. I know all about how sinful our arguing can be, firsthand. But again and again I have felt forgiveness flowing into me, from my wife and my children, my colleagues and friends.

People get mad at me. People argue with me, fairly and unfairly. But again and again these people have come back and tried to work past our differences--they have accepted me anyway, at a deeper level--and their compassion has given me courage and their compassion has given me strength, and that’s what we all need. We can’t live without it.


And that’s what happened that night before dinner, at the reunion.

Katie, my Jewish sister-in-law, was fine with us praying the hymn. She happened to overhear me, and she came up and put her arm around me, and she said, thanks, but it’s OK. Let’s sing. And so we did, all of us in the family, in a big circle, Katie and Monte, too, the meal laid out before us. We all joined in and sang the grace. And because this was Barb’s family, and people can actually sing, we sang in harmony, four parts. It was beautiful.

Let’s all sing together now, in or out of tune, and then let’s join in the feast that will soon be prepared for us, at this table. Let’s sing and let’s pray and then let’s eat of this banquet, all of us, in spite of our differences, and because of them.

This is our family. This is who we really are.

Sixty Four Moms (homily)

Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Luke 14:1, 7-14

In July I took a road trip into Eastern Oregon and Idaho on the way to Spokane to see my dad, and I stayed for a while with the sisters of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood, Idaho.



It’s a beautiful place, rolling wheat fields in front, the Clearwater Mountains in the distance, and behind the monastery, up a hill, a forest of ponderosa pine. The sisters have a deep, ecological spirituality. Recently they commissioned a series of five fabric sculptures depicting the “Passion of the Earth,” the Passion of Christ seen as applying to the planet we live on, from the Big Bang to Eden to our environmental gluttony and lust. I was really impressed.


But what impressed me even more was how the sisters welcomed me, how they gave me a place at their table. The first evening, when I went to the church for Vespers, I found a place set aside for me in the choir, with a book laid out to the right pages--in the choir, not in the congregation, right there, among all the sisters.

The sisters are Benedictine, but they haven’t worn habits for a generation. They were all in print blouses and jeans and sensible shoes. It was like I was surrounded by sixty four moms, some of them with walkers, some of them pulling oxygen carts behind them. During prayer I could hear the little, regular gasps of the oxygen machines.


The sisters eat with their guests, too, no division there either, and at lunch one day I sat across the table from an elderly sister, Sister Barbara. I thought, well, I’ll give her a thrill. I’ll talk to her.

“How long have you been here, Sister,” I asked.

And she replied, with a sly, little smile: “since 1944.”

My God! Since 1944? The more I talked with these women the more impressed I was, not just by their Ph.D.’s and their history of teaching and travel and service, but by their simplicity and their humility.

I don’t want to romanticize the monastic life. It’s the job of the sisters to pray every day and it’s our job to come and stay with them now and then, so we can return to our lives with more energy and focus. That’s all. But that’s everything. To be with those sisters was to touch in to the central teaching of the gospels, the only teaching, really, the call to humility, to surrender, to putting others first. We get that today in the gospel. We get that everyday in the gospel.


For Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, the call to humility is the gospel, not to desire wealth or poverty, fame or obscurity, even life or death, as long as we are close to Christ, as long as we are with him--in fact, if it is the will of God, to want and to choose poverty. This especially rings true to me when I think of poverty in the broadest sense, not just material poverty but poverty of reputation, say, poverty of influence and power.


“I bet you’ve seen a lot of changes in the Church,” I said to Sister Barbara, and again she smiled that little smile. Of course she’s seen a lot a changes in sixty years, a lot of controversy, and she has pretty definite opinions herself. But I got the distinct impression that for her much of what we all fight about is trivial and silly, one way or the other. It’s on the surface. Whatever the headlines, she’s going to get up in the morning and pray. Whatever the latest dogmatic dispute, she’s going to keep on living the life she’s vowed to live.

On the hill behind the monastery, in the forest, there is the cemetery, simple white stones in simple white rows, all these sisters who lived a life of prayer and died unknown.

This is what Sister Barbara finally cares about. This is her goal. Because in the end the women in that cemetery were not unknown. They were deeply known, they were known by God, and they are with him now, they are in union with him now, and this is all that really matters. This is what our hearts most desire.

How free we would be, in our families, in our careers, in the Church, how wonderfully free, if only we believed this, too.


So let me invite you to do something this week.

My mom used to say that the most invisible people in our culture are elderly women. We don’t see them. We don’t value them.

So my invitation to you this week is to seek out an older person, a woman or a man, and to listen. See who this person really is and who this person is calling you to be.

Or just wait. God will send someone, I’m sure, someone you know, or someone on the street, in the pew.


And not just an older woman, but a younger one, too, maybe. A girl.

In the spring, when we went on pilgrimage in Mexico, I was sitting in another monastery church, the Queen of Angels Monastery in Cueunavaca. It was Sunday mass and lots of families had come up the hill to join the Benedictine men. There was a family next to me, with a girl of about 12, with very black hair and dark skin, shy at first, but more and more friendly as the mass went on. Suddenly it hit me how the tables had turned: how this girl I wouldn’t have paid attention to in Corvallis, this girl I wouldn’t have seen, this girl I would have avoided, how suddenly she was the one with the power. She belonged and I didn’t. She knew what was happening and I didn’t. I didn’t know anything.

Then she took my hand, at the Our Father, and we prayed--or she did, since she knew the words. Then she turned and offered me the Sign of Peace, smiling this very sweet and innocent smile, and I thought, what asses we are! What asses!

And how blessed we are. How blessed!

And I thought how power doesn’t matter, and position doesn’t matter, or the color of our skin, or how old we are, or how educated we are, or even if we can speak the language or speak at all. Because this is the table of the Lord. This is the Eucharist, and we are all invited to recline here, we are all equal, we all belong. We all belong to a reality deeper than culture and deeper than words and deeper even than our sinfulness. A reality of love. A love who can free us, if only we will let Him..