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, May 30, 2009

Clarno (poem)

The fossil of the leaf embossed on the face
of the rock forty four million years ago
is no more important than the leaf that dances
on the branch outside the window. The same
dear little ribs. The delicate nets of veins.

The sign said that each step we took on that
trail was worth thousands of years. But so
is every step we take. The man at the casino,
bragging like a frat boy. The beautiful women,
with their honeyed skin. We are all afraid.
We are all running away from our loneliness.

But deep within our bodies we, too, have hearts.
We, too, have bones. Beautiful, clean, white
bones. Like the treasure, buried in the field.

Wild Geese (homily)

May 31, 2009
Pentecost
Acts 2:1-11, 1 Corinthians 12:3-13, John 20:19-23

There’s a poem I love, by Mary Oliver, and I’d like to share it today as a way of talking about the readings. It’s called “Wild Geese,” but I really think it’s about the miracle of Pentecost.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You have only to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


You do not have to be good.

Grace is abundant, it’s flowing all around us, and all we have to do is open our eyes. We can’t earn it. We can’t lose it, unless we want to. We don’t deserve it but we don’t have to because it’s God who is good, infinitely good. All we have to do is turn, even just slightly, and the light will shine into us and the light will fill us up, no matter how sinful we’ve been, no matter how tight and clenched and bitter we’ve become, how distracted, how compulsive. All we have to do is turn.


You don’t have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

Of course we have to repent. We have to repent everyday and keep on repenting. But we don’t have to be heroes to do it, we don’t have to be spiritual athletes to do it, we don’t have to act like monks or martyrs or saints because in a way that would be too easy. Salvation isn’t dramatic. The hard thing is to be kind. The hard thing is to take five minutes to pray, right there, at the breakfast table. The hard thing is to have a little self control in the course of an ordinary day, when no one is looking. That’s the call we’ve all been given, the call to the present moment, and we can answer it. We can all answer it.


You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

Deep down whatever we most want is what God wants. Deep down whatever makes us truly happy is the will of God. The whole idea of “natural law” is that goodness is natural, that the law is written on our hearts, and so, when we are most ourselves, we can trust ourselves. We are like plants that grow towards the light. There are compulsions, too, of course, and sinful impulses, very strong ones and consistent ones, sometimes almost overwhelming ones, but we can tell the difference. We know. We know because following those negative impulses never really makes us happy. We wake up with a hangover. We wake up feeling lonely and sad, and that’s the feeling to trust and to follow, to the deeper feeling underneath, to our natural love of what’s pure and good, to our spontaneous instinct for God. The only mystery is why through our own free will we cover that up, why we ignore it and suppress it. The sin in the garden wasn’t that we were naked but that we were ashamed to be.


Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.

Nothing is more important than realizing that Pentecost didn’t just happen once and didn’t just happen a long time ago. It’s happening now, in the clean blue air. When Jesus ascended and then sent the Spirit, goodness and meaning and light infused the whole universe. An energy was released that both transcends all merely historical moments and saturates them, charges them, enters into them completely. That’s what I think all the hard-to-pronounce place names are doing in the account of Pentecost in Acts, Mesopotamia and Judea and Cappadocia. They’re telling us that God can no longer be restricted to any particular place or time because he is now present in every particular place and time. It’s not that there aren’t any miracles anymore. It’s that we don’t see them. It’s not that the world has changed since the time of Jesus but that we have, that we have lost our capacity to experience the mystery. To repent, metanoia, is to change our minds. To open them. To see and to experience the sun and the rain and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. It’s no accident that the Holy Spirit is often figured as a dove. It’s no accident that scripture is full of birds and of wings, as symbols of the Spirit, of moments of grace, and the geese are such a symbol, too, and such a reality. The sound of their voices is like the sound of the people at Pentecost. They are speaking in tongues.

Yes, we all feel despair. But however sad and wounded we are, there is beauty and there is grace and it calls to us. It is always calling us.


Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, /
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-- /over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.



What happens at Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit enters into the people without destroying their individuality. There is unity in diversity. All the people are made into one and yet they are still speaking in their own languages, in their uniqueness, and that I think is like a family and that I think is like an ecology and that I think is where we really belong and where we really are. “We have to discover,” Jean Vanier says, “that there are others like us who have gifts and needs; no one of us is the center of the world.” And that sounds depressing in a way, I guess, but it isn’t. It’s wonderful, and it’s true. “We are a small but important part in our universe,” Vanier says. “We all have a part to play.” In the beginning we think that we’re special, we’re the hero, we’re the one, and everyone is less than us, inferior, unworthy. Then life hits us hard and life takes us down and we suddenly switch to the other extreme. We think we’re nothing, we think that no one is special and nothing matters. But then, through grace, we reach a higher stage, or can--the stage of Pentecost--when we realize that if no one is more important than anyone else, no one is less. We matter, too. We matter with others. I have my role and you have your role and then we will die and pass away and others will come to take our place, and somehow the very transitoriness of this, the fragility of this, is part of its beauty and its value and its infinite worth. Somehow it all holds together and somehow we are a part of it. “There are different kinds,” “there are different forms,” but “One Spirit.”

It’s true. It’s all true. Our lives make sense and the world makes sense. We have a home and we belong, to something wonderful, to something wonderful and beautiful and good. We just have to see. We just have to listen.


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You have only to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Blueberries (poem)

I have been wanting to say how beautiful I think
the blueberries are, and precious, and soft.
They are like the beads of a rosary, except they give
when you touch them, they keep falling away, and

they are food for the birds and food for us, and
they are countless, there are hundreds and thousands
of them hidden in the leaves. And this one is for me.
And this one. Through all the stages of its pushing

and its striving this one berry in its fullness
has fallen to me. It bursts in my mouth. No one
is more important than anyone else. No one less.
The old man and the child, the lover and the object

of love, the young girls on the beach, shrugging off
their sweatshirts and shaking out their hair. The young
girls on the beach, laughing now and joining hands,
running out towards the waves. About to be beautiful.

Be One (a weekday homily)

Acts 20:28-38; John 17:11b-19

I was pretty upset a few weeks ago when Pope Benedict was in Israel and the press kept talking about how he’d belonged to Hitler Youth when he was a boy--as if somehow the Pope was a Nazi now or something, which is of course ridiculous. My wife’s father is the same age as the Pope, and he grew up in Germany, and he, too, was in Hitler Youth, and then later drafted into the army, as was the Pope. Try being a teenager in Germany in 1932 and saying no.

Both my father in the law and the Pope did what they had to do. Who are we to judge them, or anyone who endures such suffering?

But this is just the kind of oversimplifying that we should be used to when people talk about the Church. Earlier, in February, the Pope was attacked for trying to welcome back several bishops who had been in schism--attacked for seeing reconciliation--and then he changed his mind, he reversed himself, in the face of the criticism, which I also think is admirable and good. That’s what mature Christians do. They think in complex ways. They are open-minded. And the Pope was attacked before that, last year, when he quoted a medieval Muslim leader who had argued for the killing of one’s enemies--attacked because he resisted that idea, because he, the Pope, was arguing for rational and charitable discussion.

Several times recently Pope Benedict has cautioned all of us to remain united in faith and love. In an address this winter to students at Rome’s diocesan seminary, he recalled St. Paul’s warning to the Galatians not to “go on biting and devouring one another.”

“St. Paul refers here [the Pope said] to the polemics that emerge where faith degenerates into intellectualism and humility is replaced by the arrogance of being better than the other. We see clearly that today, too, there are similar situations where instead of joining in communion with Christ, in the body of Christ which is the church, each one wants to be superior to the other and with intellectual arrogance maintains that he is better. “

I really like this. I think this is exactly right. I think that when we call each other names and demonize those who disagree with us we are enacting what the Pope calls “a caricature of the Church,” a cartoon of it. And notice how in response to those attacking him, the Pope turns inward in this passage, calling Christians to account. He calls us to not to demonize each other, and in the process he refuses to demonize those who have demonized him.

“Holy Father,” Jesus prays in the gospel today, “keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.” Wolves will come among you, Paul warns today, and they will pervert the truth, and the truth is always the truth of love and humility.

Let us not, in the name of the Church, fail to obey it. Let us not, in the name of tradition, fail to really study it and understand it, in all its complexity. And when we speak, let us imitate Pope Benedict, who in turn is imitating Jesus, and let us speak with courtesy and accuracy and precision, especially when we claim to be speaking as Catholics.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Junco and the Boy (poem)

Over the weekend I shot a bird. A deranged, obsessive junco
that had been banging against our window for weeks, fluttering
in and up again and again, hundreds of times a day, enraged
by its own reflection. You can’t reason with a bird. And this one
we couldn’t scare away, with flags or foil or glittering strips.

Nothing worked. After a while even Barb wanted me to kill it.
We woke up Saturday at five when it started hurling itself
at us again, for another day, and she said get a gun. So I went
to a friend of mine, our lawyer, a Republican, and he loaned me
a rifle, patiently demonstrating how to load the birdshot

and find the target, and I spent the afternoon stalking through
my own backyard, firing and missing, firing and missing.
It’s been forty years since I shot a gun--at scout camp
one summer, at the lake, when I got my shooting merit badge.
We were the sort of parents who never even let our kids

have toy guns, who wouldn’t let them make sticks into guns,
even though in the end our oldest son became a soldier
and went to Iraq and is on his way there now a second time,
an expert with an M-16 and a 50-caliber machine gun
they call the “saw.” My son. I’d never even been on

an army base until we went to Fort Benning to watch him
graduate from infantry training. We sat in the bleachers
like at a football game, and the loudspeakers started blaring
“Bad to the Bone,” and then these soldiers came out
of the woods firing blanks at the crowd through an orange

and yellow smoke screen. I was kind of impressed at first,
I have to admit, though Barb just wept. What bothered me
was that we couldn’t tell where he was in all the blocks
of marching soldiers, later, on the parade ground, all of them
sheared and pressed and squared, all of them the same. It was

the knob on the back of his head that gave him away, and
even then it was like he was older somehow, older and younger
at the same time, and in a kind of time warp, too. It was like
we were all somehow trapped inside a World War II movie.
Pearl Harbor had been bombed and we were striking back.

I couldn’t shake this feeling. When I finally hit the junco,
on something like my fifteenth try, I think--he had flown into
a magnolia, next to the deck, and maybe it was luck or maybe
I was getting the hang of it again, but I squeezed the trigger
and the rifle fired, and the bird twitched, then dropped,

straight down, into the backyard--when I finally hit it I didn’t
feel guilty exactly. I’m not sure what I felt. I know
I wanted to get rid of that bird. I know how frustrated I was
with all the fluttering and the banging. I know how embarrassed
I’d been all afternoon, firing and missing, firing and missing.

Later I drove our four-year-old grandson into town, to the store.
I haven’t done this in a long time either. He’s our step-
grandson. The woman John married before he left this weekend
for Iraq has two little boys. So we have these instant grandsons
and I’m still adjusting. But it was good to know that I could

do this still. Strap a little boy into a car seat. Talk to him
on the way, looking into the rear view mirror. Bribe him
and pace him and manage him through the aisles of the store
as we got our cereal and butter and bread. All the way home,
driving through the fields, I had this feeling that the Honda

was very light and that my grandson was light, too. Everything
was very light. His brown knees. His arms. His sleepy
brown eyes. I felt very protective of him. I loved him fiercely.
I thought, when we get back home and I reach in to free him,
he’ll be no trouble at all. I’ll be able to lift him with one hand.