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Monday, July 21, 2008

The Sixth Sunday Homily (Still in Germany)

You have to wonder a little after the Gospel readings for the last two weeks: Why is it that the Apostles keep asking Jesus to explain his parables? Shouldn't they, of all people, know what he's talking about? In fact, didn't Jesus say that they were the ones who were supposed to get the parables, as opposed to those who didn't recognize Jesus for who he was? And if the Apostles didn't get it right away, maybe this means we have to think a bit about where we stand.

I used to teach poetry. Most students hate poetry. And they don’t hate like they hate brussel sprouts, or asparagus, or some other kind of vegetable people tend to dislike. They hate it because it intimidates them. They hate it because when it comes to determining the “right” answer, most have come to one of two conclusions: the right answer is secret or hidden, and it’s too much work to try and figure it out; or, there is no right answer, so what’s the point? To a certain extent, their frustration is justified. Because when it comes to poetry, there is no single “right” answer. However, this does not mean, as some then conclude, that any answer is right, nor does it mean that there are no wrong answers. When it comes to an individual poem, there are many ways in which it might be interpreted correctly; there are other ways which might initially seem correct but, upon further examination, can’t be justified; and then there are many ways which can be easily shown to be wrong, if it is not already obvious. The key to arriving at a good interpretation of a poem—and this is another reason why students are frustrated—is that you can’t just read it once, and then make up your mind what it means. You’ve got to stay with it, read it a few times more, consider how others have interpreted it, look at it in terms of its own historical context, pay attention to how it moves you, consider how it might speak to people today, put it aside, and come back to it again. The key to arriving at a good interpretation is to be open to discovery, being willing to see how you might have gotten some things wrong, so as to better understand and even live in the reality which the poem explores. Unfortunately, in a semester course, in which students are most concerned with what grade they are going to get, few are going to be convinced of how worthwhile such a process of discovery might be.

But our life as Catholic Christians, fortunately, is more than a semester course. And the process of discovering what it means to be a “good Catholic” is not unlike interpreting a poem. Those of us that make a serious effort at living the Catholic life “rightly” will experience some of the same frustrations as that poetry student. At first we might think that we have it pretty much figured out. But then we look at it again and again, and things that we once thought we had right don’t seem to work anymore. We meet other people who have been at it longer who show us a new way of approaching things, or we meet younger people with new understandings which shed new light on our old prejudices about how one must go about things the “right” way. Soon we realize that it is impossible for us to get it right once and for all, and not have to worry about it anymore.

One of the things that should make all this easier, but just as often seems to make it harder, is that we are all in this together. We’re all stuck with each other, all of us at different places in our attempt to live the life that Jesus has called us to as Catholic Christians. We don’t all go to our own private masses on Sunday. No, we all come together here, no matter where each of us in that process of discovery, here to share our common belief in Christ and to worship together, the weeds and the wheat.

This image from today’s gospel of the weeds and the wheat is an image that Saint Augustine was especially fond of. He insisted that there was no other way to live together as the people of God, because in the end only God could tell the difference between the weeds and the wheat. The rhetoric doesn’t seem as prevalent here, but in the U.S. these days there are many Catholics who, unlike Saint Augustine, are not content with this state of affairs. There are people, often good people, convinced that they know what it means to be a good Catholic, who’d rather not have those who think otherwise as part of their Church. They exist among those who call themselves liberal, conservative, traditional, progressive, or whatever. Some may be very direct about it, others more subtle, but you can find intolerance in every corner. But this attitude, no matter which side it comes from, always strikes me as particularly unCatholic. For anyone who has taken the time to come to know the poetry of Catholicism, and I mean not literally poetry, but Catholicism’s history and tradition, knows that part of the beauty of being Catholic is belonging to a diverse community in which over two thousand years people have found so many different and inspiring ways to live as a Catholic. The beauty which one discovers must not be mistaken for the “only” way, as it is only a facet of a complex reality. One need only look at the thousands of religious families—Jesuits, Franciscans, Benedictines, Dominicans, etc. which have grown up with the Church to see that the Church itself has throughout history recognized many different ways of living this life, and this is not to mention the many vibrant movements of lay Catholics which the Church has recognized in just the last 70 years or so.

When we become too convinced with the “rightness” of where we are in the Christian life, and the wrongness of where others are, we run the risk of not recognizing the possibility that we may have placed ourselves among the weeds rather than the wheat. Today’s readings call us not to certainty about our Christian lives, but to humility. Saint Paul, especially, reminds us that we must know our place and be open to the work of the Holy Spirit not just in others’ lives, but especially in our own. The entire text is short, and worth repeating. He says:

Brothers and sisters:
The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
And the one who searches hearts
knows what is the intention of the Spirit,
because he intercedes for the holy ones
according to God’s will.

Let’s pray today that, especially as we endeavor to live together as a Catholic community, that our desire to be right and to live rightly might not interfere with our trust in the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of others, and especially in our own.