Monday, August 31, 2009

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Deut 4:1-8; James 1:17-27; Mk 7:1-23

About a week and a half ago I gave a presentation at the Benedict Inn on "Eucharistic Devotion outside the Mass." At one point I was summarizing some of the Church’s current regulations as laid out in the Vatican’s documents and some participants began to ask questions like, "Why did they change from genuflection on two knees to one knee?" and "Why did they restrict the number of candles you can use at Benediction?" Finally, one woman off to the side couldn’t take it anymore and said, "Do you really think Jesus would care about any of this?" Actually, he would. Jesus was always concerned that the Temple sacrifices be done correctly. But he was even more concerned that they be done with the right attitude. With Jesus it was always the heart and the intention that mattered most.

But in another sense our frustrated woman had a point. There’s always a temptation in organized religion of getting lost in trivialities. Whether it’s the late medieval conundrum of asking, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" to the modern American bishops’ declaration changing the response to the mass readings from "This is the Word of the Lord" to "The Word of the Lord," the descent into triviality always lurks as a temptation. Then it’s necessary for a jolt of reality to get back to the basics.That’s what our frustrated woman wanted.
One of the ways that the biblical writers dealt with this temptation is to give short, pithy statements that go right to the heart of the matter. Today’s reading from the Letter of James gives us just such an example: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows and to keep oneself unstained by the world." That cuts through a great mass of religious words and actions to give a clear benchmark. It’s akin to that wonderful passage in the prophecy of Micah: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God." (6:8) And, perhaps the prime example is from Jesus himself: "This is the greatest commandment: that you love the Lord your God with your whole heart and whole mind and whole will; and the second is like the first: that you love your neighbor as yourself." All of these are short statements that take us back to the heart of what Christian faith is all about.

We need the same thing in monastic life. We can get too weighed down in trivial matters. I remember one lengthy and heated chapter meeting at St. Meinrad over "at what exact time does noon prayer begin." I think the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers were used in the same way as those short biblical statements: to jolt people back to the heart of monastic living. Antony the Great said: "Our life and death is with our neighbor. If we win our neighbor, we win God. If we caused our neighbor to stumble, we have sinned against Christ." Amma Syncletica said: "You can be a solitary in your mind even when you live in the middle of a crowd. You can be a solitary and still live in the middle of the crowd of your own thoughts."

When we live the faith within large, organized religions, we all need ways and times to take us back to the basics. That’s one of the reasons for the annual retreat. It’s one of the reasons for your desert days. Some of the questions we all ought to ask ourselves today are: what are my ways of getting me back to the heart of the faith and how often do I make use of them?

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