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, October 18, 2012

Here is Quite Enough

October 21, 2012
Twenty Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Mark 10:35-45

In my last homily I quoted from the contemporary mystic Ruth Burrows, and I want to quote from her again today, because she is so simple and direct, so wonderfully cranky, and because everything she says seems to be a commentary on today’s gospel.

Burrows is in her eighties now, a Carmelite nun living in England.

Here’s a passage that really spoke to me, from her book To Believe in Jesus:

"When we come to the spiritual life, when we bend ourselves to prayer, as often as not what we are wanting is that it will make us feel good, that it will change the whole feel of our life and that an aura will be cast over us and all around us. This does not happen. On the contrary, we are likely to feel even less colourful than before. Can we take this?"

I think this suggests something of the attitude of James and John in the gospel today, their mistaken belief that to follow Jesus means to become spiritually powerful and spiritually important when in fact it means obscurity and hiddenness and suffering. I know this passage applies to me. I want joy in prayer and only joy, and I want people to see me and admire me being prayerful, see me and admire me being humble and serving others. “Over and over again,” Burrows says, bluntly, “we must realize how in what we think of as our love and service of God, lurks a ravenous self-seeking which would use God to inflate self.”

But when God really touches us in prayer, when we really begin to move deeper, we begin to “shrivel up,” as Burrows puts it, to feel like “empty husks,” because we finally, if we’re honest with ourselves, we finally begin “to feel something of our sinfulness and total helplessness,” or we should. This is necessary. This is good. It’s only in moments like this, Burrows says, “that we really experience that we need Jesus,” and “everything depends on our living this out,” on our “letting go of the controls and handing them over to him.”

I mean, do I believe in Jesus or not?

Here’s a simple statement from Burrows: “Faith is a gift that we will be given if we choose to take God at his word and stake our lives on it.”

But then this straightforward question, this challenge: “Do we take him at his word?”

And Burrows’s answer is, no. Again, very bluntly, no: “It is simply not true of the majority of us, and I mean good, spiritual people, that we believe in Jesus and make him the centre of lives.”

The disciples certainly don’t in the gospel today, or they wouldn’t be fighting over who comes first. And I don’t. Too often I don’t. I question. I intellectualize. I try to explain things away and make them complicated and metaphorical, partly because I’m arrogant and want to be in control, but really because I’m afraid. I’m afraid of the emptiness and I’m afraid of the trust it requires. “Everything depends,” Burrows says, “on our believing God is Love, utterly faithful, good and generous. Everything depends, too, on our handing ourselves over to God’s loving designs, asking for no tangible certainties.”

The absence of tangible certainties: that’s the hard thing for all of us, I think, but that’s the fact, the reality, and that’s exactly why all we can do is throw ourselves onto the mercy of the Lord, throw ourselves onto Him. There’s nothing else.

This particular gospel, this gospel today, tells us clearly and straightforwardly that we should be servants. We stop thinking about ourselves and serve others. Well, do we?

Because if we do, everything changes. Everything.

“By nature,” Burrows says, “we stand on the viewpoint of the self and judge other people, things, what is happening from that stand.” Yes, like the disciples today. Me. You. All of us. But faith, in contrast, faith “demands that we deliberately get off that stand and move to another, the viewpoint of Jesus”--and then, from this viewpoint, “how different everything looks.”

And something really practical follows from all this, necessarily, something really down to earth, and it’s what the disciples today are trying to evade. They want something better than they have. They want a more heroic adventure, a bigger stage, and so do we. But as Burrows puts it, “the truth is so devastatingly simple we are tempted to shirk it. The stark, overwhelming reality is that God is giving himself to us in the stream of the ordinary, mundane events of our ordinary, mundane life.”

We die to ourselves by living in the moment, the moment we have actually been given, and it’s sinful to want more.

This is it, this is now, this is what there is.

A few weeks ago, after I preached at the 5 o’clock Saturday mass, a woman about my age came up to me. I thought she was going to tell me what a wonderful homily I’d given, but instead she said that she was homeless and that she and her boyfriend had just hitchhiked here from the coast. Did I know of a place where they could stay?

So I did what any self-respecting deacon and spiritual leader would do. I said, go talk to that woman over there—go talk to Barb Anderson. She’ll know what to do. And she did. The problem was that this involved us piling all of the gear of these two people into the trunk of our little car, the giant backpacks and the sleeping bags, and giving them a ride up to the fairgrounds, where there were some camping spaces, and having to talk to them and be nice to them on the way. And the car started to smell a little different after a few blocks, and I was pretty sure this woman and her friend were manipulating us, and when the time came for them to leave I didn’t know if I should give them any money or not. So I didn’t.

And I should have, of course. I should have, even if they were manipulating us. So what?

“The life of every one of us,” Burrows says, “contains everything that the Holy Spirit needs with which to purify us of our selfishness. There is no need to look for more.”

This is the answer: to live the lives that we’ve been given, and to do the best we can each day with what comes, and to admit when we have failed, in our selfishness and our lack of faith, and again and again to take Jesus at his word. To die to ourselves. To serve others. And first to ask for the grace to die to ourselves and serve others, because we surely can’t do it on our own.

And to give up everything else. All this self-centeredness and anxiety. All this silly, useless striving.

“Divine love,” Burrows says,

"meets us in this real world and nowhere else: in this moment; in this circumstance, painful and humiliating though it may be; in this person; in the daily unexciting round of seeming trivialities which afford no measure of self-glorification. Divine love meets us here in our flawed, suffering, human condition, and nowhere else."

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Adam's Loneliness

October 7, 2012


Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Genesis 2:18-24; Mark 10:2-16



I’ve been thinking lately of Adam’s loneliness. His enormous loneliness.

Of the beauty of the garden. Of the rivers and the trees.

But Adam is alone. There is no one like him, and so the Lord makes animals for the man, to keep him company, all the animals of the earth, and Adam names them and he lives with them and he has this wonderful intimacy with them and with all of nature. But he is still lonely. He is still alone.

And so the Lord makes Adam fall asleep, and He makes for Adam someone like him, a person, bone of his bone, rib of his rib, he makes the woman, and when Adam wakes and he sees the woman, when he lays his eyes on her for the first time, he says the first words anyone says in the Bible, any human being, and those words are poetry. They are words of thanksgiving and praise: at last! At last!

But I think Adam is still alone. I think he still feels a deep loneliness, because we all do, and not just because he and his wife eat of the tree they shouldn’t eat and then are exiled from the garden and must labor and suffer. I think even at the best of moments, even when he and Eve are at peace with each other, when Eve has done all a woman can do for a man and Adam has done all a man can do for a woman, even then they are lonely. Because what they most long for no other person can satisfy. What they most long for nothing on earth can satisfy.

And that’s what I think the relationship between two people is really about. I think it’s about both presence and absence.

The problem with the people who challenge Jesus in the Gospel today is that they’re thinking of marriage just in human terms, in terms of contracts. What Jesus wants them to see is that human relationship is more than that, too, or implies more than that. It has a spiritual dimension, or should, and so it shouldn’t be subject to these petty little loopholes and academic arguments. Marriage is a big deal, Jesus is saying, because in the eyes of the person we love we see not just our own reflection but a hint of God himself, like Dante in the Earthly Paradise when the nymphs lead him to the eyes of his beloved, to Beatrice, and in them he sees the image of the Griffon, the symbol of Christ.

But also not. Also not. There’s always something missing. Something not there.

I’ve been feeling this loneliness myself lately, this long loneliness, even though I’m very blessed in my marriage and feel more and more blessed as I get older. So many people struggle with their spouses and are hurt by them and I feel for these people and don’t know what to say. I certainly don’t think I can take credit for anything here, except maybe for my persistence. Ever since I first saw Barb in the band room, in her yellow miniskirt, I have known a thousand years are but a day.

But lately I’ve been feeling lonely. I’ve felt alone. Maybe it’s because all our kids have moved far away. Maybe it’s because our house is empty. Maybe it’s because we’re all getting older. But I walk in the woods, and the sun is shining and the leaves are falling, and still I feel this loneliness now and then, the loneliness of Adam, the loneliness of Eve, and I think that maybe this is good and right.

Barb herself said it to me the other day. She said: you’re lonely for God.

Yes. That’s it. I am lonely for God.

One thing marriage has taught me, C. S. Lewis says, in A Grief Observed, thinking back on his sexual relationship with his late wife:

"I can never again believe that religion is manufactured out of our unconscious, starved desires and is a substitute for sex. For those few years we feasted on love, every mode of it. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied. If God were a substitute for love we ought to have lost all interest in him. Who’d bother about substitutes when he has thing itself? But that isn’t what happens. We both knew we wanted something besides one another—quite a different kind of something, a quite different kind of want."

Isn’t that a fascinating paragraph? Isn’t that true? I don’t complete Barb and she doesn’t complete me but together we help each other seek completion in God. I’ve been reading Ruth Burrows lately, too, an English Carmelite, and she puts it this way: “Whereas even the richest human friendship, even that which has truly made one flesh of two, is only part of an existence and life, our relationship with God is our very meaning as human beings.”

We can run away from our loneliness and our need or we can try to cover it up or we can try to distract ourselves from it. We can find a new partner or buy a new house or buy lots of other things that make us happy for a while. But that emptiness can never be filled up really and shouldn’t be because that emptiness is the emptiness that only God can fill.

“We have to trust it utterly to God,” Burrows says. “We must be ready to believe that ‘nothingness’ is the presence of divine Reality; emptiness is a holy void that Divine Love is filling.”

Last week I served at the 5 o’clock Saturday mass, and as I was coming into the parking lot I saw a big party going on at the townhouses across the street. There was really loud music and dozens of college kids with very few clothes on playing beer pong and shouting.

I’m all for kids being kids and I’m all for a good party now and then, and these are good kids, I know—one of them is a student of mine, a good guy--but I also know that the partying at OSU is way out of hand. It’s become desperate. And I don’t see it making people really happy and really complete. I don’t see a conspicuous amount of happiness as I walk around campus in the mornings. I see loneliness. I see despair.

God wants us to be happy. The way to do the will of God is to follow our bliss, our joy. And beer pong doesn’t do it, it just doesn’t work, and neither do our own versions of beer pong, all our own ways of hiding.

But what happens in the mass is that a silence is created, an emptiness, and in that silence we can hear our own breathing. A loneliness is created, and inside it we can hear the beating of our hearts. And in that silence, and in that loneliness, we are all Adam and we are all Eve, waiting for the Lord to come walking, in the cool of the day. And He does. He does.

There are no substitutes. There are no alternatives. There are only hints. There are only things that point and suggest and reflect. And then, finally, He is here. He has come, as He is here now. Our Dearest Friend. Our Lover. Our Home. He is with us.

At last! At last!