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

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Norma Rudinsky

June 18, 2012

I didn’t really know Norma. She was ending her career at OSU as I was beginning mine, and I didn’t think about her very much. I was the one doing the important things.

And now I’ve been at OSU for many years, and the younger faculty are looking at me the way I looked at Norma, and Norma is gone, she has passed away.

She was a fine teacher and scholar. She had authority. She was someone who commanded respect. But really, in the end, does any of that finally matter? Do any of us finally matter?

But our faith says yes, and our tradition says yes, and the scriptures say yes, because the Spirit is always moving, and we are always doing the work of the Spirit, whether we know it or not, and however fleeting we are, however small, we are all precious in the eyes of the God who follows the flight of every sparrow, who counts even the hairs on our head.

“We serve to complete the work of creation,” Teilhard de Chardin says, “even by the humblest work of our hands: a thought, a material improvement, a unique nuance of human love, the enchanting complexity of a smile or glance—the spiritual success of the universe is bound up with the release of every possible energy in it.”

A humility is required here, a surrendering of our ego: we are no different than anyone else.

But at the same time: we’re no different. We belong, too. We all have our own small part to play. As St. Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthians: “there are different forms of service but the same Lord. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”

And a second idea comes to me this morning from Chardin, the twentieth century Jesuit scientist and theologian. It’s the idea of death as grace. Death as gift.

This humbling we have to do is really hard. This dying to the false self is impossible, really, at least in this life, whatever Church we go to and whatever prayers we pray. We’re all too competitive. We’re all too distracted. We’re all too anxious and afraid.

The grace of death, Chardin says, is that it forces us to surrender. The grace of death is that it forces us to let go. It removes all those barriers we can never really remove on our own. “God must in some way or other make room for Himself,” Chardin writes in The Divine Milieu, “hollowing us out and emptying us, if He is finally to penetrate into us,” and only death can do that once and for all. Only death can make us “undergo the required disassociation”—can finally “break the molecules of our being,” as he puts it, so that “the divine fire” can descend upon us.

It’s hard to watch someone fade away. It’s hard to watch the body fade away, by degrees. It’s hard to watch the mind fade away. It’s like watching a birth, except in reverse. The one we once knew seems to get smaller and smaller, to become more and more helpless, until finally there’s nothing left, or there doesn’t seem to be.

But there is. The real person is still there. In fact, it’s only now that the real person is revealed. That the real person is freed.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “it remains just a grain of wheat.” But if the grain dies, if we let it return to the earth, “it produces much fruit.”

Death as a breaking down of who we are--and then a gathering up, an expansion. Death as a dissolving---but a dissolving that somehow takes us in and makes us a part of something vast and beautiful and mysterious.

Or makes us fully aware that we always were.

And so I pray in thanksgiving for Norma’s life, for all that she did and all that she was. But I also pray in thanksgiving for her death, for the peace it has given her and the perspective it has given us.

And I pray in the faith that Norma still lives, that she is loved and cared for now, as she was always loved and cared for—and more than that, that she has been transformed, that in dying she has risen into Christ--has been united, finally and completely, with God and with all of creation.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

To the Sky, then, to the Wind

Matthew 6:1-18


     Spiritual pride is the most insidious kind. When we want people to admire us for being humble. When we want people to see us for being hidden.
     In the fall the Archdiocese clarified its policy on deacons and clerical garb. Deacons are allowed to wear roman collars, the bishop said, when we preside at weddings, baptisms, and funerals and when we’re doing hospital or prison ministry, and for the first time I’ve been wearing a collar myself now and then, partly for practical reasons, partly because I think it can help and reassure the people I serve.
     But partly because I really like wearing a collar. I really like it. I like people seeing me as special. I like people knowing that I’m clergy. I like people looking at me in that way, and that’s a real problem. A tremendous temptation.
    The church is full of wonderful signs and symbols to help us deepen our spiritual life, wonderful tools, and we should all use them. But we have to be careful. We have to keep asking ourselves what our motives really are. When we wear a crucifix. When we put on a bumpersticker. When we pray in public or speak in public. Are we doing this to proclaim the name of Jesus, or are we doing this to proclaim our own name?
     The other day I happened to see an American nun on the Colbert Report. She was dressed in a simple blouse and skirt and Stephen Colbert was pretending to make fun of her. Where’s your habit? What’s the deal?
     And this sister said, wait a minute. A nun’s habit is really just the ordinary dress of a medieval woman. Nothing special. That was the original idea: not to stand out but to blend in. And besides, she said, it’s not important. It’s trivial. We’re here to do the work of the gospel. We’re here to do what Jesus told us to do. We’re here to serve the poor. All the rest is just a distraction.
      I really admire that. I really feel challenged by that.
     A collar or a crucifix can tempt our inner Pharisee, and we all have one. We all do. A collar or a crucifix can provide us with still another way of building up our false selves.
     It’s a lot easier for me to wear a collar than to sit alone in my chair and face my own inner loneliness and need, my own sinfulness, my own emptiness. The word “hidden” is used a lot in the gospels, the word “secret.” It’s central. We’re supposed to ground ourselves in prayer, and in private prayer, and that means entering into the desert, into the wilderness, and that means facing our own fantasies and facing our own falseness, and that’s really too hard sometimes. It’s frightening.
     Though it’s also in those moments of loneliness, those moments of silence, that we feel the Spirit moving in us, too. We feel the joy seeping in. We hear the still, small voice and we know it’s not our own voice. It’s the voice of the Lord, and it’s calling us simply to be who we are.
     We don’t have to be ashamed. There’s nothing wrong with being naked. We don’t have to cover ourselves up, because deep down we are all made in the image and likeness of God.
     I’ve been reading the new collected poems of Wendell Berry lately, this wonderful Kentucky farmer and poet and spiritual man, and I came across a passage that really speaks to me. The poet is burying ashes and the waste from his outhouse. He’s alone in the woods. And he feels this need to confess his sins, to look up and confess:

To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.

Let us all go to our rooms alone and pray. Let us all go into the woods and pray. Let us all bury our refuse and look up at the sky and confess what is really in our hearts.