Tuesday, September 7, 2010

An open mind, a willing heart, and an oustretched arm: conditions that allow for the recognition of the hidden workings of God's grace

Homily (Luke 6: 6-11)

I used to hang out with the local Society of St. Pius X when I was in high school. I got very much involved in attending Tridentine masses. And although I eventually stopped attending them, I became a stickler for liturgical correctness when I was in college seminary: follow the rubrics, don’t stray. It also didn't help that my confessor in college would tell us it’s a venial sin to make errors at Mass.

A few weeks after I was ordained in 1998 I was invited to celebrate mass for a group of elderly missionary sisters who had just returned home to retire after years in mission territories. I agreed.

The mass started normally and everything was uneventful—until the offertory. I noticed one of the sisters bringing the gifts was holding something that looked like a rectangular box covered with a white cloth.

When I received it from her, I realized it was a loaf of bread. I asked the elderly priest who invited me what it was for and he said: “It’s bread for mass”. Now, remember I was barely a month ordained; the priest and the nuns there with me had a combined age of several hundred years, not to mention the years they spent in the ministry. What was I to do? Protest?

With a heavy heart, I continued the mass; deep inside I started to get really upset and even angry. I made a mental note to finish the mass then get out of there as soon as it was over. I didn’t want anything to do anymore with these liturgical criminals.

I tried my best to hide the discomfort and tried to pray. When the mass was over, the elderly priest came up to me and said the sisters wanted me to join them for dinner. I said I really needed to leave and hinted at the reason for my not wanting to stay. “I know”, he said. “I was quite surprised myself. But don’t judge too quickly. Come to dinner. You can sit with me if you want”.

Still very much annoyed, I agreed. At dinner, the sisters who came back from the missions began sharing their stories with the community and the guests who were there. One had lost a leg because of a landmine in Cambodia. She was teaching destitute children in a poor Cambodian village. Another had spent a number of years in a jail in Vietnam, another in China. One sister survived an attempt on her life in Congo, and lost one of her eyes. Still another had spent more than 50 years of her life in New Guinea; another worked in extremely dangerous conditions with Muslims in Algeria.

One by one they told their stories. As they did, I noticed the turmoil I had felt earlier slowly subsiding; at one point I was so moved by the story of one of the sisters, I didn’t only feel like wanting to cry, I felt so embarrassed and ashamed—this time at myself.

Mind you, I still didn’t think what they did at mass was right. And I promised myself never to allow myself to be ambushed like that again. But I felt ashamed at the judgmental attitude I had towards these women who were living witnesses of what Sacrifice really meant. I stayed for hours afterwards and tried to get to know them more. Now, when I come home in summer, I make it a point to get in touch with them and invite them out for lunch.

That uncomfortable experience taught me something important. And it wasn’t how not to celebrate mass validly and licitly; but how not to be too quick to judge and thereby close myself to the possibility that God’s grace works in every situation—even in not-so-comfortable ones.

The Pharisees in the gospel were not bad or cruel people who didn’t want the man with a withered hand to be healed. We must not think them to be evil. They were in fact the most righteous and God-fearing men of their day. Unfortunately, they had become blind to the possibility that God might in fact work in persons and circumstances they weren’t accustomed to—like Jesus healing on a Sabbath—which was a blasphemous act for them.

Do I think that what the sisters did at that Mass was right? Of course not. (And when I did become friends with them, I told them what I thought.) But I think that my reaction, especially my attitude of judging them too quickly and too harshly was even worse.

Sometimes, our ways of seeing things—which are not necessarily wrong or bad—can blind us to the fact that God’s grace can and does work even in persons and circumstances we least expect to find it. But we have to open our eyes and our hearts, and as Jesus says in the gospel “stretch out” our hands.

We often come to seminary with many preconceived notions, ways of seeing and of doing things, biases, prejudices, pre-set definitions of what we think God, faith, church, life, vocation, and the priesthood is all about.

In some cases they are good. In others—we will just have learn to let go of them in order for God to mold and form us in the way he sees fit.

“Stretch out your hand”. The words of Jesus aren’t just meant for the man with the withered hand; they’re meant for all of us. “Stretch out your hand and be open. Be empty of yourself”. For then alone can we be filled with Christ.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)