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

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Misery, Miniskirts, and Games of Solitaire (homily)

February 8, 2009
World Marriage Sunday
Job, Mark

The other day I talked with a woman who is worried about her daughter. She’s had a lot of trouble and heartache, the daughter has, and now that she’s in college, the mother told me, she’s really angry at God and at the Church, really doubting. She’s not at all religious, the mother said.

But I think that’s wrong. Anger and doubt are religious emotions, too, not just peace and joy. “Is not our life on earth a drudgery,” Job asks. Is it not all “misery”? And this is in the Bible. This is lament, one of the great literary forms in the scriptures, and it’s absolutely fine. There are reasons for it. Two thirds of the psalms are psalms of lament, of sadness, of doubt--My God, my God, why have you forsaken me--and who can blame the psalmist, given the way life often is? Who can blame the daughter?

It’s OK. Let it all out. God can take it.

*

I think about this because it’s World Marriage Sunday, and I think this is one of the holy things that marriage teaches us. It teaches us misery.

Last week there was a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that said that being a virgin is better than being married because virgins worry less than married people. Taken out of context I think that really gives the wrong idea, too, partly because worry is a good thing. Worry is part of what the Incarnation is all about.

The Incarnation, Avery Dulles says, the coming of Christ into the world, “does not provide us with a ladder by which to escape the ambiguities of life and scale the heights of the heavens. Rather it enables us to burrow deep into the heart of planet earth and find it shimmering with divinity.”

Jesus walks right into the house of Peter’s mother in law, and there are dishes everywhere and stacks of newspapers. The TV is blaring. This is a woman who’s been sick, after all. Under the weather. But Jesus doesn’t disdain her. He doesn’t think he’s too good for all that ambiguity and reality. No. He takes her by the hand and he heals her, and then they all have dinner together, the men and the women together, not apart. They laugh and they talk as evening comes and the shadows fall.

I think this is what’s sacramental about marriage, that it plunges us into the real, deep into the heart of the planet and deep into our own hearts, where there’s not just misery and worry, of course, but also laughter and joy. It’s all of it mixed up together.

“We are sometimes so busy being good angels that we neglect to be good men and women,” St. Francis De Sales says. We’re imperfect and we always will be--“our imperfections are going to accompany us to the grave”--and we simply have to accept that. We should keep trying to reform, of course. We should keep trying to improve. We just have to stop thinking that we’ll ever succeed. “Dear imperfections,” De Sales says. “They force us to acknowledge our misery, they give us practice in humility.”

*

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not really talking about misery here, not in the sense of real cruelty or abuse or neglect. Those are entirely different things. We don’t have to suffer these things, and we shouldn’t.

And in a reasonable marriage, in a compassionate marriage, all the mushy stuff is true, too, the romantic stuff. Just off and on. Sometimes when I look at Barb I get the same feeling I got when I first saw her, in the band, in that yellow miniskirt I always talk about. Sometimes I just have to be with her. Most of the time. Just be with her in a room.

So all that is true, all those feelings are still there.

I’m just saying that there are other feelings, too, and that finally it’s not about feelings anyway. It’s about the day. It’s about that particular day and its challenges and its work. The routine. The commitments. Being faithful to the real.

*

The other thing that really strikes me in the gospel today is what always strikes me in this gospel, that Jesus gets up early in the morning and goes off to pray, and I think that this has a lot to do with marriage, too.

When I was a young husband I expected Barb to feel the way I did, at the moment I felt it. I thought we were supposed to like the same things and do the same things. Maybe this is a guy thing. I felt threatened when Barb wanted to be by herself and guilty when I did.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned in 33 years of marriage it’s that Barb and I are different and that that’s OK. Barb likes to travel. I don’t. Barb likes to play solitaire on the computer. I’ve always thought that was kind of strange, kind of sad. When Barb gets mad, she doesn’t talk. She goes silent running. When I get mad I explode--I get in touch with my feelings, and so does everyone else.

But all of that is fine. It’s OK.

What’s most holy and sacramental about marriage is that it teaches us difference, it teaches us otherness, it teaches us to accept the mystery of the human person, especially the mystery of one who is not us.

As the German poet Rilke puts it, “in marriage, we protect each other’s solitude.”

Maybe I’m just talking to the men here, I’m not sure, but husbands, give your wives some time alone. Give them the gift of distance from you, to pray or think or do whatever they want to do. Because it’s not about us finally. It’s about God and about the love that comes from God, and unless our wives can make contact with that love, unless they can open themselves up to it, their love for us will never be enough. Because it never is. We can’t save our wives, and they can’t save us. Only God can.

And husbands, we have to make time for ourselves. Alone. On the mountain. And for the same reasons.

There’s an ebb and a flow here that I think is itself holy and good, that exactly mirrors the life of Jesus, from the chaos of the household to the quiet of prayer, from the shock of the real to the peace of the Lord, back and a forth, day to day.

What husbands and wives teach each other every day is that they are not God. They are not the center of the universe. And this is a good thing. This is the source of our joy. Because it’s only when we accept this, only when we humble ourselves before the fact of this, that we are really free. It’s only when we accept this that we can really love the other, really love, not dominate and use. It’s only when we accept this that marriage begins to make sense, the misery and the miniskirts and the games of solitaire, that everything, all of it, becomes sacramental.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Sam! Dean! Dad! (a homily)

February 1, 2009
Ordinary Time
Mark

All week I’ve been thinking about demons. The demons we all have.

It’s not like demons are just these weird beings that existed long ago when Jesus was on the earth. Jesus is on the earth now, and we are, too, and we’ve got all kinds of demons inside of us.
*

There’s the demon of self-doubt--the voice that says you’re no good, you’re ugly, you’re dumb.

There’s the demon of anxiety--the voice that says nothing is safe, everything is falling apart.
*

Sam and Dean Winchester can kill demons with rock salt and spells. They can tell who the demons are, because the eyes of the demons at some point go black.

Do you ever watch that show? Supernatural?

It’s not like that. That’s too easy.

There’s the demon of lust, there’s the demon of gluttony, there’s the demon of greed, there’s the demon that says what the hell, do it. You know it’s wrong, you know it’s going to hurt you, and others, but you do it anyway.

All these demons, and they’re in us. They’re in us, and yet they’re not us. Somehow they’re separate, too, apart, because underneath is the real self, the self made in the image and likeness of God.

Hasn’t this happened to you? You get all worked up, you get frantic--I’m beside myself, we say--and then something happens and the fever breaks and suddenly you come back to who you really are.
*

Bikram Choudhury is the creator of a kind of Hatha Yoga that’s very popular in this country, a kind of yoga that’s sometimes called “Hot Yoga.” In a new book about this he says something that I think is really true.

Why is it so hard to do the right thing? “Why is it so hard to get off our fat, lazy butts”--this is Bikram’s language--“and go to yoga class?”

The power of negative attraction.

Negative attitudes are like black holes, Bikram says, so powerful they swallow everything. Negative attitudes are nine times stronger than the gravitational pull of the positive, he says.

Overeating, overdrinking, not exercising--all the negative attractions: nine times more powerful.
*

Of course, this is sin and evil understood as coming from the outside, as a force working on us. But in one way at least I don’t think that matters. The point is the same.

“I presuppose,” St. Ignatius says in The Spiritual Exercises, “that there are three kinds of thoughts in me: that is, one my own, which springs from my mere liberty and will; and two others, which come from without, one from the good spirit, and the other from the bad.”

The key is to know the difference. God moves in us, but so do other things, and we have to learn how to tell which is which. And we always can, finally. We always can, even though evil is sometimes very subtle.
*

The demons in the gospel always know who Jesus is. They know and they resist, and we do, too.

We know that many of our actions are wrong. Let’s not kid ourselves. We know. That’s why we don’t want to be around Jesus. That’s why we fear him.

We don’t want to change.
*


Finally it doesn’t matter whether these demons are external or internal. Finally it doesn’t matter whether this is merely a psychological phenomenon or something else, too. These are forces, and they are at work, and they are at work in us, pulling us down, and we need Jesus to rebuke them.

Quiet! Come out of him! Quiet! Come out of her!

Sure they are powerful, sure they are strong, these spirits or influences or whatever we want to call them, but Jesus says, and the Church says, that we have minds, too, and will, and that we can take the first step of admitting that we are possessed and that we have allowed ourselves to be possessed. We can confess our sins and ask for God’s saving grace, and it will always come.

I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned again you, oh Lord, whom I should love above all things.

In the quiet afterwards, we look around and see who we really are.
*

A final caution--a caution about this paradox, of the inside and the outside.

There’s no doubt that evil is a force in our culture and that we have to resist it. It’s also exterior. Of course. There is evil in the world.

But we have to careful. There’s always the danger that we will project our own sinfulness onto an object or person, that we will allow ourselves to judge or to hate other people, and that in hating and resisting these others we won’t pay attention to our own sinfulness.

“Anytime you have a negative feeling toward anyone,” Anthony DeMello says, “you’re living in an illusion. There’s something seriously wrong with you. You’re not seeing reality.”

Be careful of your causes. Be careful of your campaigns. Be careful of praying for the conversion of others.

Because there’s a demon here, too, the subtlest and most dangerous of all.

It’s the demon that doesn’t want us to look inside.

It’s the demon that doesn’t really want us to change.