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.

My Photo
Name:
Location: Corvallis, Oregon

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lucy (poem)

When I lived for a month in a hut by the sea,
my little red border collie ran away, back home.
I was walking in a cemetery, on a hill, looking
at the gravestones, and the thought crossed

my mind: Lucy has run away. And she had,
Barb wrote me, that very day. She came back
in the evening. It wasn’t an intuition exactly.
It was just a thought. But all those thirty days

I was more porous than usual, more aware of
all the signs that God sends us, or might,
and I often missed Lucy and thought about her.
I kept seeing her face in the faces of the deer,

or the chipmunks, even the birds. I was
aware of how everything has a face. That we
have eyes and so do the animals, all of them.
We have ears and so do they. They kept me

company in my long, lonely month trying
to pray and sometimes feeling thinned out,
opened. Sunsets. Clouds coming and going.
Dreams. Once, touching the trunk of a tree.

Since then I’ve suffered several losses,
and my new vocation, my new emptiness,
has been a lot harder than I thought it would be.
More and more I think life is about giving

things up. It’s about letting things go, or
trying to. It’s about holding things in memory
and believing in them still. The night before
I gave Lucy away, I brushed her long hair

until it shone, combing out the tangles.
In the morning, when she hopped into the car
and my friend drove her away, she looked
from the back like a beautiful young girl.

The Question of Christ (a eulogy for Sue Gifford)

Earlier this summer I turned from the altar to start bringing the cups to the Eucharistic ministers, and there was Sue, one of the ministers for that mass, standing there with that grin on her face, as if we were both in on some private joke. I was surprised--she’d been on vacation, and I hadn’t seen her come into Church--and suddenly I felt this real love for her, this real gladness.

Sue at the altar, a big grin on her face.

Sue liked to gossip and complain, and I like to gossip and complain, and we often gossiped and complained together, and sometimes that was good for us and sometimes it wasn’t. But I always took what Sue said in those moments with a grain of salt. I’d seen her too often, praying at mass. I’d seen her too often, helping a student in crisis. I’d seen her too often serving as a minister of the Church, with compassion and skill.

In a way Sue was one of the least reverent ministers I’ve known, the least liturgical, and yet she planned hundreds of liturgies and was very good at it and loved it. For someone who liked to complain about the priesthood, she sure had a lot of close friends who were priests, and she went to a lot of ordinations, and she worked with a lot priests over the years, faithfully and well.

She liked to kid me when I vested as a deacon. Nice dress, she’d say. But she never failed to say something nice after a homily or to talk with me later over coffee about what I’d said. We often talked about the spiritual life. She was really faithful. She was really insightful. She had a strong, informed theology, a theology of inclusion, a theology of relationship, a theology of community, and she taught it to hundreds of students over the years, calling them to a more mature and complicated and literate understanding of their faith.

Our friendship was complicated, too. It was a real friendship. Sue disappointed me sometimes, and I know I disappointed her. There were times when we had to keep our distance, when we couldn’t help each other, and with most of the other people I’ve known, that would have been it. The relationship would have been over. But Sue was loyal and Sue was faithful, and over the years we came to accept each other’s limitations and to love each other in spite of them and because of them.

Until the other day Sue had never left me, and she still hasn’t left me, not really, and that’s what I want to say about her and that’s what I want to praise: that she brought who she really was to the altar, her humor, her earthiness, her practicality, her wisdom. Her big grin. Her big heart. And she stayed. She remained.

How are you? she’d ask, accent on the word are, and she really wanted to know. You could really talk to her. What can I do to support you? I must have heard her ask this a thousand times. It was her mantra. I can hear her voice right now, clear as day: What can I do to support you? It was a question, a real question, not an easy answer, not a slogan, and I think it defines her whole theology, her whole approach to ministry.

That question is Sue’s gift to us. That question is Sue’s call to us. That question is the question of Christ: How can we support each other? How can we live together, all of us, in all our humanness and brokenness? How can we help each other do this holy and complicated work that we’ve all been called to do?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Watchful Tree (poem)

When the Lord came to me I was looking at a branch
of the Watchful Tree.

I was watching the kettle boil.
I was watching the potter at his wheel.

And the Lord said to me, yes, the wheel is turning
and the kettle sings
and the almond tree is the Watchful Tree
because it is the first to bloom in the spring. We watch for it.

I walk into a room and the woman I meet seems to give
off light.
Something is glowing inside of her,
maybe an emptiness,
and it leaks out the corners of her eyes. I can see it.

I walk into a room and I sit down by a man
and the man has a darkness inside of him, a meanness.
I want to run away.
I seem to see a sheet of oil, sliding down a pane of glass.

Hummingbirds bicker by the feeder, brawling
and buzzing and shooting away. Or they hover there,
in their beauty. Impossibly. Shimmering.

The way every season contains the next. Foreshadows it.
The yellow leaves in the summer green.
The shining branch, deep in the heart of the tree.

The Boy with the Basket (homily)

July 26, 2009
17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
John 6:1-15

I’ve been thinking about the boy in the Gospel today, the one with the five loaves and the two fishes. Jesus could have made it rain fishes and loaves that day, but he didn’t.
He used what was there, in that ordinary moment. He took that one meager basket and that one unsuspecting boy and made them both miraculous.

We keep thinking that spiritual things have to be purely spiritual in some sort of extraordinary, unearthly way, and that we do, too. Choirs of angels all the time. Constant self-denial. But grace builds on nature. It begins in the world. As Thomas Merton puts it, most of us are “warped by the idea that everything spontaneous is ‘merely natural’ and that for a work to be supernatural it has to go against the grain, it has to frustrate and disgust us.” But the truth is quite different. We have to overcome our selfish desires. But once we do, Merton says, “we set free our interior, Godlike self,” and we are able to love God and others just as we are.

We are not called to be monks. We are not called to be spiritual athletes. We don’t have to spend all our time in Church doing Churchy things. Our call is to be the best dental hygienists we can be, the best store managers, the best engineers. “What good” are these fishes and loaves, the disciples ask? What good are the ordinary things of our lives? And Jesus says: they are good and they are very good.

The other day when it was so hot Barb and I took our two new grandsons to the Aquatic Center, to the outdoor pool. We were pretty tired, and we’re still a little nervous about being grandparents, but it was tremendous fun. There were hundreds of people there, and the sun was pouring down, and the water was beautiful and blue. The kids swam and we swam, and sitting in a chair drying off and reading a book, I was for a moment filled with the gentle presence of God.

I hadn’t journeyed to some shrine. I hadn’t performed some tremendous spiritual feat. I’d just put on my swimsuit. Gotten in my Honda.

We don’t go to mass to be made holy but to be shown that we already are, or can be. We are all the little boy, we are all carrying the little basket, and the fishes and the loaves are the things of our lives. And we bring them up the aisle, and they are taken up to the altar, and we are made to know what they are inside: holy and beautiful and good.

***

But there’s a flip side to this, a paradox. On the one hand we are good enough and more than enough. But on the other, we aren’t and never will be. Our baskets are meager, they’ll never be enough, and we just have to accept that.

I know that all the numbers in the gospel today have symbolic significance--the five loaves, the two fishes, the five thousand men, the twelve wicker baskets. But what strikes me is just that they are numbers. What they represent to me is how we all try to control our lives. We count and we measure and we add things up as if by just trying we can earn God’s grace. But we can’t.

It happens a lot in the spiritual life. A person starts out experiencing sweetness and consolation in prayer, and that’s good and to be trusted. But a kind of spiritual pride can also creep in. We can start to think that we’re really hot stuff spiritually. And then the desert happens. It inevitably happens. It always does. The well runs dry. The person enters a period of desolation, a long period, a period that can last for years, and after a while she drops out and gives up.

But really the desolation is a grace, it’s a gift, because it shows us that we’re not the ones who make things happen. We’re not in charge. What desolation demonstrates, St. Ignatius says, is that “it is not within our power to acquire or retain great devotion, ardent love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation, but that all of this is a gift and grace of God our Lord.” What desolation demonstrates is that we shouldn’t “claim as our own what belongs to another, allowing our intellect to rise up in a spirit of pride or vainglory, attributing to ourselves the devotion or other aspects of spiritual consolation.”

When I did the thirty day Ignatian retreat a few years ago, on the coast, I read scripture and prayed in silence all day. You should have seen me. I was pretty hot stuff myself for a while, a real spiritual athlete, conversing with the angels. But then I crashed and burned, nothing was working, I was starting to go a little crazy, and my director said, take a break, go into town.

And sitting in an empty multiplex in Lincoln City, watching Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, I was suddenly flooded with joy. Giant alien machines were destroying the earth, creatures from another planet were sucking the blood out of everyone, and there I was, blissfully happy, eating popcorn. In the midst of all the explosions and special effects, the Lord was with me, he was powerfully present. There in the multiplex. In Lincoln City.

***

And that’s the point and that’s the proof.

Think of it: how do we know that we’re not making all this up? How do we know that it’s God we’re encountering? Exactly because grace comes and goes. As Thomas Green puts it, paraphrasing St. John of the Cross: “the best proof that it is really God is that he is often absent when we seek him, and present when we are not seeking him.”

If religion were just the opiate of the masses, if I were just manufacturing God to make myself feel better, I’d produce him on the spot.

But it doesn’t work that way. It just doesn’t.

And isn’t that marvelous? Isn’t it wonderful?

Desolation shouldn’t just humble us. It should exalt us. It should lift us up. Because then, when the joy comes, when the sun pours down and the kids are shouting in the pool, when the alien machines start destroying the earth, we can simply rejoice and be glad. Because we know: it’s not us! It’s not us! We’re just a boy with a basket. We just happen to be here, on the mountain. We didn’t plan anything. We didn’t do anything. And so when there’s this peace and this joy, we know, we know, it’s the Lord who is sending it, it’s the Lord who is with us. He lives! He is real!

And suddenly there’s enough and more than enough. Suddenly we are overflowing. Suddenly where there was scarcity there’s abundance, where there was fear there is hope, there is grace, there is grace abounding.

Nestucca (poem)

They’ve paved the road
where I used to walk
and God spoke to me
through the yellowthroat.

There is a lookout now
on the hill above the sea
where I watched the clouds
form and the sun set.

Good signage.
A slim young woman
in a crisp khaki shirt.

Now everyone can come
and stand in the meadow
where the owl
whistled over my head
like a shuttlecock.

And I’m glad.
We’re all the same,
just at different stages,
and all I need
is a clear, unobstructed
view of the sea.

That flat, that
endless surface.

Body and Soul: Three Poems

Brothers
with two lines from Jessica Powers

We were brothers.
When we climbed the mountain
we thought the mountain cared.

Blue skies. Bright gulfs of air.
Across from us
a greater, snowy peak.

And then, as we struck camp,
screaming down the valley,
flat gunmetal gray,

wings brutal as knives,
a bristling Air Force F-16,
banking so close we thought

for a moment we could see
the face of the pilot
beneath the helmet and mask.

But we couldn’t.
No soul can view
its own geography.



What Trees Can Do

Every morning I am given all this wisdom
and every afternoon I throw it all away.

I can’t pray.
I can only walk: the forest is my audience.

There is a hill behind me, it has always been
behind me, and it has been given to me to climb,

especially in the summer and in the morning
when it is cool and soft and I can tell the trees

all know and love me.
If I were to die at the top, overlooking

the valley, if my body were to drop,
the trees wouldn’t move.

They would never leave me.
They would just keep rising.


Honor

When you walk in the woods in the morning
you get spider webs on your glasses.
They cling to your temples, sticky and invisible.

But when you arrive at the pond, an osprey
cries from the top of a fir, like a small, pale eagle.
You’ve never seen one there before, above

the modest brown water. Typically you think
of yourself as unimportant, as unworthy. But now
that osprey is looking right at you, stock still,

he’s noticed you, all the way from the top of the fir.
He hasn’t moved. And that’s quite an honor:

to be noticed by an osprey.