Today I was treated to a truly excellent homily, one that spoke directly to me in a way that made me sit up and take notice (at least as best I could with a sleeping baby in my arms and my lower back seizing up). It felt like a wake-up call to me, a small clarion exhorting me to sleep no longer, but awake, and be about the Lord’s work.
The scriptural readings were noteworthy on their own, and my heart was beginning to stir within me even before the celebrant strolled down to stand in the nave, the Book of the Gospels clasped under his arm, to deliver his remarks. The thrust of all three readings was that the life of a prophet, the life of a disciple, the life of a Christian, is not an easy one. No news flash there. But the three readings — from Jeremiah, the Letter to the Romans, and the Gospel according to Matthew — came together so cogently for me that I could not but feel that I was truly being spoken to, spoken to in a way that was familiar and strange and frightening and reassuring and undeniable. It was good.
And I didn’t really need to wait for him to “break open the Word” for me, either; the words pretty much broke themselves wide open on their own. “Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you,” Paul admonishes in today’s second reading, “but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind. This is the only way to discover the will of God…” (Rom 12:2). In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah launches an intemperate j’accuse at the God who “duped” him into broadcasting an unfailingly-unpopular message. “The word of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach all the day,” he complains. He has obeyed the call he received, and it has brought him a world of hurt. And in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus begins to prepare his apostles for the truth that even He must suffer as an integral part of His mission.
In many regards the homily was a pretty standard response to this type of scripture reading. The priest made some comments about how the life of a prophet entailed “speaking truth to power” (a sort of standard definition of prophecy in many ecclesiastical circles). He spoke of the Christian life being one of inherent suffering, a suffering we should not merely resign ourselves to, but instead seek out, “take up our cross” and actively labour for the kingdom of God. It was all good stuff, but nothing I hadn’t heard before in some venue or another over the years. But today it resonated within me, and I wondered, not just idly but in earnest: why am I not speaking truth, not even to those in power, but to anyone? I have a new mind, I have put on Christ, I know that I am a child of God. So what am I doing hiding my light under a bushel?
I immediately recalled sitting in a plush seat in Orchestra Hall on a blustery October evening back in 1997. Next to me was a friend from high school that I had not seen in over a year. She and I had shared a music stand in the high school orchestra, and we had shared many wonderful conversations during our musical partnership. That I had a bit of a crush on her had gone unnoticed, or at least unremarked. And now here we were, two young adults, catching up on each other’s life before a concert. I, of course, was now a seminarian, which she was understandably very curious about. She asked me how I knew I wanted to be a priest. My reply remains one of my most vivid memories of that era of my life. “It’s not about what I want,” I told her; “it’s about what God wants.”
I recall that she was bemused by this outlook — she agreed with my caveat that “Maybe it’s a Catholic thing” — but she seemed to understand that I truly believed what I was saying. And I did truly believe what I was saying — even if I was still pretty much in the dark about what precisely God did want of me — and, looking back seven years alter, I still believe it. Vocation is real, and the path of discernment is tricky, but it is also grace-filled, and ultimately, if followed faithfully and sincerely, it leads to inner peace and true happiness.
But am I living that belief? No. Just now I had to scrape — not blow, scrape — the dust off my bibles to look up the verses from today’s liturgy so I could quote them here. Nearly six years ago I determined that I was not being called by God to serve as an ordained minister in the Catholic Church. Two years ago this May I married, and I believe with all my soul that this married state is part of my vocation. But one’s state in life — married, single, ordained — is only part of the vocational experience as I understand it. The other part is what you do with that state; what you do for good, and for God. And I have been nothing but spiritually indolent for far too long now.
“What on earth are you doing for Heaven’s sake?” was a catchy little tagline that enjoyed a fair bit of popularity when I was in seminary. I came across it printed on a prayer card just the other day. But behind the triteness lies a pretty pithy concept: Christ expects His followers to change the world, to make it a better place, every day in every way, until the clock runs down on this show we call life and as many souls as possible make it through to live thereal happily ever after. It’s really not a bad touchstone for the Christian life. It can lead to a whole little catechism for me, like the one I ran myself through suddenly this morning: how am I effecting positive change in this world? how is the world a better place for my living in it? how am I showing myself a follower of Christ? The answers I came up with were pretty weak, if I do say so myself.
In my ongoing introspection on the subject, I am struck by the fact that at no point in my spiritual malaise that followed my exit from seminary did I ever lose my faith, as the saying goes. I never felt like maybe all this religious stuff was just buncombe, that maybe God was just a social construct to make us feel better about ourselves, and all the other angsty whiny existentialism that seems to come easily to people when they abruptly drop off a highly religious track and realise they are all alone with no one to lean on but, well, God. Even as frustrated and bitter and lost as I felt in those lonely days and weeks and months after I left my projected path to the priesthood behind, it just didn’t occur to me to doubt the veracity of every mystery I had held to be true. They were still true — I just wasn’t terribly concerned about them at the moment.
I lived like this for two years or so (although it felt like a lot longer), until I met my wife and began the slow crawl back to something resembling a life of faith. I still have a long, long way to go, and today’s homily was a mighty jolt to my spiritless complacency. It is not enough, the priest declared, to accept suffering, to put up with the hard stretches in our lives. In my soul I know that it is not enough anymore to believe casually and quietly. As a Christian, I need to look for, to find the hard road that I am called to walk down, and when I find my narrow path I need to take up my cross, to actively embrace it as an act of will, and walk with it as far as I can, even to my own Calvary.
Now to find my road, and take up my cross.