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

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

We Will Do and We Will Hear

December 29, 2010
Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas
1 John 2:3-11; Luke 2:22-35

One of my favorite poets is the 19th century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” he says in one of his poems.

Hopkins was also a Jesuit priest and served in the slums of Liverpool. Once when he was asked how we can better understand Christian doctrine, how we can get a better idea of faith, he said: give alms.

Serve the poor.

To believe isn’t a matter of ideas, Hopkins was saying. It’s a matter of action. And I think that’s what the first letter of John is telling us today, too. We can say “we know him,” but we don’t really know him if we don’t keep his commandments, if we don’t do what he says. And there’s a sequence implied here: not that we think and then act on our belief, but that we first act, we first do what we’re supposed to do, and then, through those actions, come to understand. The truths of faith are the sort of truths we can only understand through experience over time.



I’ve been reading this lovely little book over Christmas break, Jewish Spirituality: An Introduction for Christians, by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. It’s really been nourishing for me, and there’s a fascinating chapter in the book centered on a verse in Exodus. When God gives the people of Israel the Torah, they say in response, “we will do and we will hear.” That’s Exodus 24:7. Again, the sequence. Not, we will hear and then we will do—we will understand first, in our heads; we will get this all figured out first, in the abstract. No. The opposite. In Jewish spirituality dogma isn’t the key. In a way belief doesn’t matter. For the Jews it’s not about what’s in your head but about the life you lead here and now. “Some actions simply cannot be understood,” Kushner says, “until they are performed. By doing, we understand.”


But this is Christianity, too. What Simeon takes into his arms isn’t a theological treatise. It’s a child. He doesn’t exclaim, now I get it, now I understand. He says, “my own eyes have seen.” It’s all about what can be known in the body, in time. It’s all about what no one can finally explain to anybody else. It’s not an idea that saves us, it’s a person.


At Christmas Eve mass I was looking out at the congregation and thinking how many good people there are in this parish. I know so many of the stories: husbands taking care of their wives, wives taking care of their husbands, children taking care of their parents, all kinds of people doing all kinds of selfless things, when no one is looking. They are the models for the rest of us. If we want to understand, we should do what they do, because they are walking the way that Jesus walked (to get back to the letter of John).

And for those selfless people. I know they despair. I know they sometimes feel desolate and empty. But I think the readings today are saying: rejoice. Be of good cheer. For you are with the Lord, even on those days when you can’t think straight, even when you no longer have any idea what’s going on. Yes. Now you’re there. You’re doing the work of the Lord, and therefore, in this, and only in this, the Lord is with you.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Zigging and Zagging

December 26, 2010
Feast of the Holy Family
Colossians 3:12-21; Matthew 2:13-23

When I first became a deacon I was all excited about wearing an alb and stole and being on the altar and everybody seeing me doing all these holy and spiritual things. But more and more I’ve realized that I’m supposed to be a deacon all the time, even in private, when no one is looking, and that the hardest thing of all is to be a deacon in my marriage. And that I hardly ever am. I’ve been married 34 years and I don’t know how many days or hours or minutes I’ve ever really served my wife, ever been a deacon to her.

We think that to be holy means to do all these monkish things or to travel to some foreign country or to be martyred, but in a way those things are too easy. What’s really hard is to sit across from your husband or your wife at breakfast some days. To pay the bills. Clean the bathroom.

I think as Catholics we get too hung up on the specifics of contraception when we talk about sex when the real issue is how in sex we’re supposed to serve the other person. We’re supposed to be mutually obedient in sex, mutually subordinate, the wife putting the husband first and the husband putting the wife first.

Honestly, how often have any of us ever done that? As a man I ask that specifically of the men here. How often? But all of us, men and women both: we’re all deacons, we’re all servants of God, and we serve God not just at the altar but at the kitchen sink. I stand at the right hand of the priest and I elevate the cup, the very blood of Christ. But we all do that, when we stand at the sides of our husbands or our wives, when we reach down to lift up our daughters or our grandsons.

This is what makes Joseph a saint. His path to holiness is as a husband and a father. It’s in serving his child and serving his wife. It’s not in the temple. It’s not out in the open where people can admire him. It’s in private, even down to the privacy of his own dreams, for Joseph is not just a deacon as we are all deacons, he is a dreamer as we are all dreamers, and his holiness lies in his ability to listen to those dreams and act on them. To put himself last. To put others first.


The other idea that really strikes me as I reflect on the story of the Holy Family this year is how messy and disorganized and kind of chaotic this whole experience is.

There’s a book I really like, by a Buddhist theologian named Jack Cornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. The title says it all. I love that title, because I think it’s true. I mean look, Mary and Joseph have just experienced the birth of the Christ child and the coming of the magi. This great, this wonderful moment. And then boom. They’ve got to flee. Everything gets complicated and dangerous and out of control, and they’ve got to get out of town right away.

It’s like the first few minutes after everyone’s opened all the presents under the tree, after all the smiles and thank you’s: ripped up wrapping paper everywhere, the dog eating the Christmas candy, the kids hitting each other with their I-Pods. Except it’s worse, of course, a thousand times worse, because their lives are at stake. They are in great danger.

But aren’t our lives always at stake, in these everyday, ordinary moments? It was on Christmas day a few short years ago, in the middle of Christmas dinner, that Sue Gifford called and asked me to take her to the hospital. She was so sick she couldn’t move. People think that when you’re called by God and you have faith everything is good forevermore, you don’t suffer, you don’t doubt. People of faith think that. I do. I keep catching myself thinking this, when I know better: that happiness and peace and everything going right are the signs of the authenticity of my call, the authenticity of my faith; that when things go wrong and I feel ordinary or depressed or anxious, my call is being questioned. I must be on the wrong path. But no.

Joseph is the stepfather of the Lord, he’s just had the best Christmas ever, and now he has to go to Egypt. No, wait, he has to come back to Judea. No wait, he can’t go to Judea, he’s got to go to Galilee. Two steps forward, three steps back. First this way, then that way. It’s all zig zaggy, it’s all a mess, and that’s the point.

When we find ourselves in Egypt, in our own Egypts, whatever they are, back at a job we don’t like or struggling with money or dealing with our various and terrible addictions, all of us: we’re with Joseph, we’re with Mary, we’re with the Christ-child. This is the path. First this way, then that way. Zigging and zagging. Never quite sure. After the ecstasy, the laundry, and the laundry is the ecstasy, or can be. It’s the call. It’s where we’re supposed to be, up to our eyeballs in the complications and challenges of everyday family life, of our own countless little acts and decisions.


There’s this wonderful Zen parable that Cornfield tells in his book, about this young monk who was really proud of his spiritual progress.

The first month he wrote the master, “I feel one with the universe!” And the master just glanced at the note and threw it away.

The next month: “I finally discovered the Divine. The divine is in me.” And the master yawned.

The third letter: “The mystery of the One and the Many has been revealed to my wondering gaze.” Whatever, the master said, and went back to hoeing his weeds.

When the next letter came--“no one is born, no one dies,” it said—the master just sighed and shrugged and put on the kettle for tea.

Then weeks went by and nothing. Months. A year. Finally the master thought it was time to check in with the novice again.

The disciple wrote back: “I am simply living my life. That’s all. As for my spiritual practices, my fasting and my praying, I don’t know. I’m just doing the best I can.”

And the master looked up, smiled, and said out loud, “Thank God! He’s got it at last!”

And then he went back to hoeing his weeds.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Twelve Million Names

December 21, 2010
Song of Songs 2:8-14; Luke 1:39-45

I love the O antiphons, the seven antiphons for the Canticle of Mary leading up to the Vigil of Christmas: O Wisdom, O Adonai, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the Nations, O Emmanuel. You hear them in the verses of the hymn O Come Emmanuel, and my favorite one is today, O Dayspring. Because it’s so beautiful and so different and so fresh. Because it comes from nature, from the natural world, and from the thing in nature we most long for this time of year, just in our bodies, light and warmth.

That’s who Christ is, that’s who the baby Jesus is. Everything we long for.

I think the conventional language of our faith gets so familiar sometimes we don’t hear it anymore. No pictures form in our minds, no feelings arise. The conventional language and scenes and images are beautiful, too, and sacred, and sometimes their very familiarity is what we most need, but sometimes I think this familiarity is even a barrier to worship, it shuts us down, or it does me. Especially this time of year, when we’re flooded with all these saccharine and commercialized images of the Christ child, this once unbelievably fresh image, inconceivable, rendered hackneyed through overuse.

That’s why I love the O Antiphons and why I love the Song of Songs, where suddenly we have not just the wonderful images from nature again—“the winter is past, the rains are gone, the flowers appear on the earth”—but something striking and unusual and almost scandalous at first, the idea of God as lover, a lover seeking us out in his desire: “Hark, my lover!” And lover not as soft and gentle but as ardent and strong, leaping across the hills, a young stag. It’s like the image of Aslan in C.S. Lewis in a way, Christ as Lion. It restores our sense of the potency and the vibrancy of the divine, its activity, its strength.

I know a lot of people who say they don’t believe in God but who really do. They just don’t respond to the conventional language of God. They say they find Church cold and unhelpful and that they find God in nature instead, and in a way they’re absolutely right. It’s possible to experience God without acknowledging God, and maybe there’s even some spiritual value in us, too, us believers, as Church-goers, trying to get past all the language of acknowledgement to the experience itself.

The striking image in the story of the Visitation today is the image of something leaping up inside of us. Of us being pregnant with God or with something that always recognizes the presence of God. I always think of that as an image of intuition and of joy, of my heart leaping up, in the words of Wordsworth. That’s faith. That’s the basis of faith in us, this feeling, this intuitive recognition deeper than words, and whenever we feel it, and we often feel it, whenever anybody feels it, and everybody does, that’s God. However we name the feeling, with whatever traditional words.

In the last few days as we prepare for Christmas let’s come up with as many of our own names for God as we can, as many of our own O Antiphon, completely personal: O Friend, O Hope, O Everything I Long For. O Dove, the Song of Solomon says, another striking image. O Varied Thrush. O Junco. Let’s take imagery from the world around us now and our actual experience and use it to figure who God is because God is everywhere in our world, not just in a manger but in our own houses, our own hard drives, our own memories.

And whenever we use this language, let’s remember, joyfully, how partial and limited it is, how our lover and our friend so exceeds us. Let’s remember the practice of our brothers and sisters in Judaism, who believe it’s blasphemous even to say the name of God, to say the word “Yahweh.” It can’t be said. It can only be pointed to. Which is why they substitute the spoken word “Lord” whenever the word “Yahweh” appears, “Adonai”—one of the O Antiphons, in fact. In our English Bibles we indicate that move, that substitution, with the word LORD printed out in all capital letters.

Let’s remember that, with reverence and with joy. That finally we can never say the name of the Lord. Never. That it’s not we who call the Lord by name, but he who calls us. He who is seeking us, each of us, who naming us, each of us, who knows us all by our own particular name.

And that name is “beloved.”

Monday, December 06, 2010

Ten Million Advents

Monday of the Second Week of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 5:17-26

I had a chance to go on an Advent retreat this weekend at Mount Angel, with Deacon Owen Cummings, and I’d like to pass along something I learned there.

There are really three advents in the Church, Owen said, not just one. Advent is simply Latin for “coming,” and Christ in that sense has come not just in the Incarnation, at Christmas, in the past, but also in Word and in Eucharist, every Sunday and every day, in the present, and thirdly, in the Parousia, in the future, in the second coming of Christ, which is really the third in this sense.

And these comings are also going on in each of us, the first Advent in our Baptism, the second every time we come to mass or open the scriptures, and the third at our own parousia, our own end, our death, which is something we shouldn’t fear but welcome.

But it’s really even more than that. There are thousands of Advents, millions. They are countless. All of reality is an Advent, because as St. John tells us at the beginning of his gospel, Christ was present at the beginning of the world and even before. “All things were made by him.” “Nothing was made without him.” Advent as the Big Bang. Advent as the creation of the stars, of the galaxies. “He is before all things,” Colossians tells us, too, and “and by him all things consist.”

And that cosmic creativity and purpose and love is still going on, not just in the galaxies but right down to every little moment of our lives. Advent is simply coming and that coming happens “whenever two or three are gathered,” Matthew says, or whenever we act with compassion for the “least of these.” There is never a time when Christ hasn’t come and isn’t coming, for “I am with you always, to the close of the age,” as Jesus says at the end of Matthew.

For “Christ dwells in our hearts through faith,” Ephesians says.

A liturgical season like Advent simply organizes our attention so that we can see what is always already true. It slows down in time what is timeless, beyond all time. We don’t have to wait for the Christ child to be born. We are holding him in our arms.

There is a “highway,” Isaiah says in the reading today, “called the holy way.” “It is for those with a journey to make.” And that’s us. That’s all of us. That highway has always been here and we have always been on it. We are the ones with a journey to make, and we are making it.

Jesus heals a paralytic in the gospel today, and the people are struck with awe. “We have seen incredible things today,” they say. Yes, we have, and we will. Even now, in the darkness and in our own darkness. Today. That’s the most important word in the reading. Today.

We are the paralytic. We are paralyzed by our sins. We are paralyzed by our fear. We are paralyzed by our literalism and our small-mindedness. We are paralyzed by all the junk of the culture of junk, all the death of the culture of death. But Christ has come to heal us and Christ will heal us and he already has. Sorrow and mourning have already fled. Because of this communion. Because of this scripture. Because of all of us here in this place, breathing this air. Because of all that we will go out into the world to see today. To witness. To celebrate. To do.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Rain Fell

December 2, 2010
Isaiah 26:1-6; Matthew 7:21-27

“The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house.” I often feel this way. Buffeted. By the things people say. By the things they do. I come from prayer or from mass feeling centered and good and then I seem to hit a wall or a force field or some kind of negative energy and I’m disoriented, depressed, insecure.

I haven’t really built my house on rock yet.

It’s interesting to me that the image in Isaiah is the opposite of this in a way. It’s about the destruction of the house. The Lord “tumbles it to the ground,” “levels it with the dust.” But that’s the false city, the false house, the lofty and proud one. In this sense the buffeting and the storms are good and necessary. The destruction leads to renewal. We have to start over again.

In Jungian psychology the house is the image of the ego, of the self. If you dream of moving to a new house you’re dreaming of growth or change in who you really are. And I don’t think it’s an accident that Jesus is always using these and other images that are so psychologically resonant, that the whole scripture taps into these images. Whatever else it is the gospel is deeply true psychologically.

We have to die to our false self to rise to our new self.

At the Ennegram workshop last month Father Menniger defined humility like this: to know the truth about who you really are. I really love this. He said: that’s what the gospels are all about. That’s the virtue that Christianity teaches: humility in this sense.

I know a few people like this. People who have the gift of being themselves. Of being who they really are. There’s a professor in history I really admire, an Evangelical Christian, who is just so clear about who he is. Humble and confident. It’s good to be around him. There’s Sister Hilda, who used to be in the parish with us, before she became a sister at Mount Angel. What a powerhouse. She just knows who she is. She just is who she is. Not anyone else.

If we’re buffeted today, if we’re really thrown off this Advent, if we don’t feel solid and secure, the Lord is telling us something. We’re learning something about ourselves.

There’s no way to prove scientifically and historically and beyond a doubt what really happened at the resurrection, and I think that’s a grace, the way the Lord intends it. But history can prove one thing for sure. The ancient historians attest to this again and again, that the early Christians were remarkably confident and happy and cheerful in the face of persecution and adversity. Courageous. Unwavering. They kept going. They stuck to their guns. They didn’t give up.

That courage and that confidence. That groundedness. That’s what I pray for this Advent, for you and for me and for all of us. That kind of humility: to know who we really are. Sons and daughters of God. Brothers and sisters of the Lord himself.