Pastor Dick Dahl gave us this homily to reflect on last Sunday–may you be inspired as was I.
David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote an opinion-piece this week entitled “The Age of Reaction.” In it he stated: “The more serious problem is today’s pervasive and self-reinforcing pessimism, which feeds the reactionary impulse.
Brooks’ view is that “The belief systems that used to reinforce a faith in progress have become less influential.
First there was moderate religiosity, the belief that God is ultimately in control, that all things are ultimately fashioned toward the good and that the arc of history bends toward justice. This was the mind-set that made Martin Luther King Jr. fundamentally optimistic, even in temporarily dark times. Then there was humanism, the belief that people are learning more and more, inventing more and more, and so history is a steady accumulation of good things. Brooks concluded, “As humanism and moderate religion have withered, gloom has pervaded that national mind.”
David Brooks’ words about the way many people think today seemed to reflect the way many were thinking at the time of Habakkuk in today’s first reading: “I cry out for your help, O God, but You do not hear me…Why must I see misery? Desolation and violence are all I see?” These words would seem to be more appropriate today in the dreadfully besieged city of Allepo in Syria, than in the United States, yet many here also feel besieged and overwhelmed.
In the second reading Paul writes to Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God bestowed on us…the Spirit…that makes us strong, loving and wise.” Although Paul is in prison, he urges Timothy “never be ashamed of your testimony to our Savior…but with the strength which comes from God, bear your share of the hardship which the gospel entails.” Do so “with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.”
Even the Gospel reading is a challenge to have faith and to do our duty and not expect life to be easy.
As I thought about these scriptural challenges, I was helped by a book which I am reading for the second time, “My Life with the Saints,” by James Martin, S.J. After six years in the business world, James Martin left his job at age 28 to enter a Jesuit novitiate. Once there he was struck by the deep devotion many of his fellow novices had to various saints. At first he found the idea of praying to the saints rather superstitious. He wrote, “What was the point? If God hears your prayers, why do you need the saints?”
Then he started to read about them, such as “The Story of a Soul” by Therese of Lisieux or “The Long Loneliness” by Dorothy Day. He began to see them as models of holiness relevant to contemporary believers” and perhaps even more important, he began to understand better the remarkable ways that God acts in the lives of individuals like you and me. He realized that none of us are meant to be like anyone of the seventeen saints he wrote about in his book. As he put it, “We’re meant to be ourselves, and meant to allow God to work in and through our own individuality, our own humanity.”
First of all, he breaks through the image of “saint” that is a barrier for many of us. These were not perfect people. They were not all the same. Many of them felt disappointment, frustration and anger with organized religion. Dorothy Day liked to quote Roman
o Guardini’s saying, “The Church is the cross on which Christ is crucified today.”
All of them encountered suffering of some kind. When we undergo similar difficulties, it’s consoling to know that others went through similar trials without giving up. In knowing their lives, we can avail ourselves of their hard-earned wisdom.
Therese of Lisieux, was a simple young French girl who wanted to become a Carmelite nun like two of her older sisters. Six years after entering the convent at age fifteen, she developed tuberculosis and died after enduring a painful illness. What does she have to offer us? Why has this young woman, secluded as she was throughout her brief life in a French convent, become a beloved, inspiring person to millions throughout the world?
Therese’s illness was a barrier to the missionary life in Vietnam she had hoped to live. Once ill she knew she would be unable to great things for God. She decided she would do the small and insignificant acts of her life with as much love as possible. Father Martin writes, “She suffered small indignities at the hands of her sisters and strove to be as generous as possible even during her illness. The sisters in the convent who showed the least kindness to Therese were the ones she tried to love the most; the most vexing and disagreeable sister was the one she chose to sit beside during recreation.”
In contrast to Therese, as a student at the University of Illinois, Dorothy Day became interested in a career in writing. She also became interested in the pressing political issues of the day: poverty, radical social change, and organized labor. She took assignments as a journalist in New York City with radical papers and covered socialist movements, the International Workers of the World, “bread riots,” unemployment, protest marches on city hall, and child labor laws. During a suffragist march in Washington D.C., she was arrested and thrown in jail alongside many other women protestors. Her time in jail left a lasting impression. She and her companions began a hunger strike to protest the treatment of the imprisoned. She deepened her identification with the poor and abused in society.
She became pregnant from an affair with a man she had met while working in a local hospital and had the child aborted. But she eventually came to see herself as one person in a long line of forgiven sinners. When in 1926 she became pregnant again, the event gave rise to a kind of natural religious experience. The pregnancy awakened in her an appreciation for creation and a desire to be in a relationship with God. She had the girl baptized. Her partner, the father of their daughter, whom she loved deeply was an anarchist with absolutely no interest in organized religion. He could not tolerate her newfound religious faith. As a result they parted a year later, a painful experience for Dorothy who feared being left along with her child. She had also become Catholic and thus paid a stiff price for her conversion.
With the guidance of Peter Maurin, her mentor, Dorothy founded a newspaper, “The Catholic Worker.” The first issue was distributed on May 1, 1933, May Day and later the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. It sold 2500 copies for a penny a piece (as it still does). By the end of the year it was distributing 100,000 copies. Dorothy started “houses of hospitality” for the poor in NYC. These centers offered food and shelter for hundreds of men and woman during the Depression. The Catholic Worker movement gradually began to spread throughout the United States. Many years later, in 1973 when she was 76, Dorothy was arrested and jailed for her participation in a United Farm Workers rally supporting Cesar Chavez and the rights of migrant workers.
Father Martin writes, “Dorothy Day stands for many values: the importance of solidarity with the poor in living out the gospel, the value of nonviolence as a way of promoting peace, the importance of community in the life of the church. She also stands for those who think themselves too damaged or sinful to do anything meaningful for God.”
Like her good friend, Thomas Merton, Dorothy had an expansive view of prayer. She maintained that people can pray through the witness of their lives, the friendships they enjoy, and the love they offer and receive from others.
One of Father Martin’s favorite passages in Thomas Merton’s autobio-graphy, “the Seven Storey Mountain” is when Merton is speaking with his friend Robert Lax shortly after Merton’s baptism. Merton tells his friend that he wants to be a good Catholic. “What you should say,” says his friend, “is that you want to be a saint.”
Merton tells the rest of the story: A saint? The thought struck me as a little weird. I said, “How do you expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to,” said Lax simply….All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe God will make you what he created you to be, if you consent to let him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”
Father Martin’s book helped me to recognize that there is a vast community of people whom we can come to know, who can offer us comfort and examples of discipleship, and help as we discover our own individual ways of being a saint. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “With the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, bear your share of the hardship which the gospel entails.” The saints encourage us to “stir into flame the gift of God, the Spirit, that makes us strong, loving and wise.”
In closing, I want to share a conversation I had on Friday with my daughter Stacy who lives in Vienna, Austria with her husband and two children. On Friday Stacy took her younger child, Luca, who is turning nine in two days, to a dance class which he loves. On the way home they were riding in a very crowded train. Luca said very loudly, “Mama, I now know what I want to be when I grow up.” He got everyone’s attention. Stacy asked him what that would be. Luca said “I want to be a street sweeper and to take care of the homeless. In my spare time I want to take care of the world’s problems.” I think everyone within earshot went home feeling a little lighter in their heart. Saints are not perfect but they come in all sizes and shapes and in all times. Each of us can be one.