Called in Grace; Serving Gracefully

I was invited by Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of the Diocese of Long Island to preach on Saturday, September 12th at the ordination to priesthood of Maxine Barnett and Diane DeBlasio.  I was honored to be asked and did the best I could.  I was blessed to be able to reflect on the many experiences I have had as a priest since ordination on June 11, 1983.  Here is the text of what I preached:

The Ordination as Priests of Maxine Barnett and Diane DeBlasio

By the Right Reverend Lawrence C. Provenzano

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City, New York

Diocese of Long Island

 

Christ at Emmaus, by Rembrandt.
Christ at Emmaus, by Rembrandt, 1648 (Louvre)

Scriptures:

Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 100, Philippians 4:4-9; Luke 24:13-35 

My father worked as a school custodian for over 35 years. Sometimes in the summers he used to take one or the other of us to work with him. I remember doing a free-range exploration of the school while Dad was working in another part of the building.

One year around this time, just before school opened after summer vacation when I was between grades 4 and 5, I wandered into a classroom which the teacher had already prepared for the opening of the new year. It was neat and silent and clean, all the desks in strict rows, the blackboard looking like it had never yet been used. Between the two classroom doors was a bulletin board decorated, and on the board I read these words:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge |&| shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast |&| with ah! bright wings.

I hardly understood what I was reading, but in some way those words sent a thrill through my mind and heart and body. They were words that spoke somehow of a hope that could and would endure no matter how messy or pained or seared or bleared or smeared the world became. They were words that spoke of divine faithfulness to this creation and to human beings within it. Always, always, in God’s East light is born and reborn and close to the surface of the earth breathes the Holy Ghost.

I didn’t find those words again for years. And when I did, I discovered that they were words put down by a priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). They were words penned by a man who spent most of his life doing the work that most of us women and men do over a lifetime, whatever be our own special calling. He worked to understand the world around him, himself in it, and the relation between the two. Who am I? Who are you? What are we doing here?

What is the call of a priest? What is the call that Maxine and Diane have felt in the very marrow of their bones and that they have been willing to move heaven and earth to answer? What is this call that Augustine describes as the inner voice of God like this:

Thou didst call and cry aloud, and didst force open my deafness.

Thou didst gleam and shine, and didst chase away my blindness.

Thou didst breathe fragrant odors and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for thee.

I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. . . .

 (Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book X, Chapter XXVII)

 What is that call? In part, it is to do what Hopkins did in that poem he called God’s Grandeur. The priest’s call is to speak haltingly but faithfully of the often hidden and always real presence and action of God among us. It is to attempt to translate into words that sound that broke through Augustine’s deafness, that light that opened his closed eyes, that breath of something that is like nothing else, that changed his life – and still changes lives – utterly and forever.

What is the call of these our sisters, come here today in ancient rites to have their lives re-ordered to a particular place in Christ’s Church?

Is this call not to stand with a terrified Isaiah before the living God? To stand knowing with him the unworthiness we all share and the divine invitation that at once ignores and heals that woefulness? Is it not to stand completely vulnerable before the unsurpassable divine power, that power which expresses itself fully at last by self-emptying and becoming as vulnerable as we, right here on the surface of this planet? Is this call, in a place even of divine voice and smoke and confusion, to yet decide to say, without knowing what lies even one day ahead, “Here I am, send me”?

What is the call that strengthens Diane and Maxine as they answer it?

Is it not heard in the words of the apostle Paul, writing from prison, writing to a community persecuted for its faith, and yet proclaiming joy, joy, joy as he writes? Is that call not echoed in the apostle’s assurance that gratitude, a constant attitude of thankfulness in all and every circumstance, is the key that ushers us into God’s presence?

In whose voice and accents do the hearts of these our sisters hear this call?

Is it not the voice of the Stranger who approached Cleopas and friend somewhere between big-city Jerusalem and village Emmaus? Is it not the Voice of One ready and willing to listen to their story, but also ready to challenge and correct and teach them? Does their call not become tangible, concrete, ready to be touched and even taken up as food and drink, when they willingly invite that Stranger to table and allow him to serve the meal?

They are called, these sisters of ours. They have heard what Isaiah and Paul and Cleopas and friend heard. And like them, they have answered. And so they are here today. And because they have answered, because that moment is always a moment profound and moving, we are drawn here with them.

There is a wonderful statement embedded in the middle of the Gospel of Luke’s 24th chapter, from which our good news comes today. In verse 22, the two refugees from Golgotha, broken-hearted, afraid, and on the road away from the death they know Jesus suffered say this:

 “Moreover, some women of our group astounded us.”

Look at these two women with whom we gather in prayer today as they come to be ordained as priests. You who know them well, consider their own Emmaus road which has led to this place and to this time. You know what it has taken in faith, in commitment, in courage, in prayer, in steadfastness, in amazing grace for Maxine and Diane, our sisters, to come to this day. So can we not also speak this day, with absolute truth, with joy, with hope and gratitude the words of Luke 24:22?

“Some women of our group astounded us!”

Diane DeBlasio and Maxine Barnett have astounded us. And likely will astound us again as they take up the ministry of Word and Sacrament, of action and love, of self-sacrifice and grace which is theirs from this day for the rest of their days. The wonderful Greek word in the background in that lucan verse is existemi – to be amazed, to be astonished, to be beside oneself with wonder. This is what women did by giving witness to what they saw on the day of Christ’s Resurrection. And this is what these our sisters are doing for us today. We are beside ourselves with wonder here and now, based on witness given here by these two to Christ’s risen life. We are called today to let that joy, founded firmly on Christ’s life-giving encouragement and energy, flow wide and deep among us.

Now.

Now.

Now. After the final blessing of this Eucharist has been given, and the last hymn sung, and the last piece of cake consumed and all the first blessings given, what follows? What follows then?

I think perhaps something like this.

Like all those who have trod this road before them, Maxine and Diane are given tools this day with which to work. The tools are two: word and gesture. Just as in the sacraments. In baptism there is a word, the invocation of the triune God and a gesture, the pouring of water. In the eucharist, there is a word, the word of Christ over the bread and wine; and the gestures of taking, blessing, and sharing.

These new priests will go forth from this place carrying a word which is not their own, but which has been given to their hearts. It is a word which transforms them first, and invites them then to share that revolution freely.

These new priests will go forth from this place given the responsibility to find gestures – actions, signs, signals, symbols, traces, movements – proper to these times that will carry to those whom they lead and serve an urgent alert that this is our time – our only time – and our opportunity – our one opportunity – to do what Isaiah and Paul, and likely Cleopas and his companion did in their time.

As prayerful and beautiful as this liturgy is, it will be made into something of lasting significance when into the world and onto the streets are carried that word and those gestures.

It will be simple, but it will not be easy. As in every generation, Isaiah’s fear will live again. Paul will languish in prison again. Cleopas and the other disciple will flee again – all in this world now. In this world in which Maxine and Diane, with us, will live and minister in Christ’s name.

There will be times, many of them, that seem to call for extraordinary strength, for creativity, for willingness to step into the breach, for deep compassion for the profoundly poor, for courage to speak an unpopular or worse, ignored word about this seemingly distant figure called Jesus. There will be many times when the world, as Hopkins saw it too, will appear seared and bleared and smeared again. There will be moments when the voice that brought Augustine to wakefulness seems silent again, and the light he saw dimmed, the fragrance he followed faint. I say it again: this is not going to be easy. Nor always done with plenty of supportive company. Living the life of one who went to the cross is not meant to be easy. Following One who held nothing back, but rather gave it all, is never easy when it is genuine.

And you will go at it, Diane and Maxine, with the massive tools of word and gesture! Seems a bit thin on the equipment side, doesn’t it?

How can this be done?

It is possible by only one way: by grace.  As a dean of our school of theology here at Garden City wrote in sweeping, radical, all-out words a generation ago:

Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting – no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you – you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. . . . it is Jesus who is your life. . . . You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead – and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.

(Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three).

If I might put it a little less grandly. You will find, if you pause often to look for it, that the Kingdom of God is present in every moment, not only those bright and beautiful. You will find that any road can be the road to Emmaus, the road to encounter with the risen Christ, the road to abiding nourishment and astounding news.

Emmaus is the point of arrival, at table with Jesus. That is where word and gesture, rendered well, will bring us all. It is fascinating to realize that no one knows exactly where the village was to which Cleopas and the other walked that Sunday evening. We only know it was linked to Jerusalem by road. By word and gesture we invite and lead our contemporaries to that place in the company of Jesus, to that village which now can be anywhere and everywhere, to that village that we build up by our commitment to Christ and our ministry in His Name.

Our part: bring them to Jesus. Despite our weakness, despite what we lack, despite our failures, what we can do is to introduce them – all those we encounter over a lifetime – to Jesus. Bring them to his table. Invite them to sit and get comfortable. The rest is God’s work.

So it is not easy, no. But it is simple.

The work my Dad did for 35 years, like yours, was also a calling. Our word ‘custodian’ comes from the Latin custodi – one who cares. One who protects, escorts, guards and attends.

Maxine and Diane, be good custodians of the treasure that is placed in your hands and hearts. Be loving companions of all God’s people along the road from death to resurrection. Be channels and avenues of God’s ever-generous grace. Entrust your weakness to divine care and speak and act with confidence beyond yourself.

So you will see this world charged ‘with the grandeur of God.’ You will find words to speak of it and gestures to show it. You will see God’s dawn breaking in the east of life and you will be upheld on the ‘bright wings’ of the Holy Ghost.

So may it be!

~ John P. McGinty+

Morning Praying. The Joy and the Challenge.

I really value the first hours of the day – the gradual transition from darkness to light, the increasing sounds of the town waking up and beginning to move, the opportunity to take initial nourishment both in the form of a little breakfast and a time of quiet prayer and meditation before diving into the fray.

As everyone who has written on interior prayer/meditation whom I have read have noted, I find the ‘fray’ mentioned above is going on in my mind even as the day gently opens up around me. It continues to astound me as I sit quietly that my mind, only just returned to post-sleep consciousness, bounces merrily (or un-) from one memory, concern, worry, point of uncertainty to another. As John Main OSB and others who have taught on centering prayer over the past generation have noted, the best response is simply to stay there, to keep praying, to (using Main’s phrase), “say your word.”

I can fairly enough say that the best evidence of my faithfulness to all this is actually bodily. I sit down and stay in one place for the period of prayer.

How much life does it take to bring the beauties and wonders of heart and of mind into consonance with one another? I have come to believe that I will be entirely at rest only about a half hour post my eventual taking leave of the world!

Still, pray on!

Yes.
Yes.

Aylan, Humanity, Sorrow, and the Call to Be More

Last evening after I arrived at the pond I paused long enough to see online, first in a Facebook posting by Jim Martin SJ and then in several different settings, the photo of the tiny 3-year old Syrian boy in his sneakers and colorful clothes lying dead on the shores of Europe. I have been living – at the periphery of my consciousness – with an awareness of the increasing refugee crisis pressing on Europe; on the thousands coming in desperation from North Africa and Syria, from places that have been called ‘home’ for generations, but which in this generation have been renamed ‘mayhem,’ ‘constant danger,’ ‘no hope,’ ‘death.’

The photo of Aylan Kurdi brought all this from a mind-thing (at best a distant one) to a heart thing as well. These can and should go together. I will admit to you that I cried. And then I cried again. And then I cried more. Some have said that this photo should not have been shared. I believe it is vital that it has been. I pray that none other like it will ever be there before a camera lens. But as long as these very real, reprehensible, humanly excruciating situations endure, these photos must be taken. And must be seen.

Why?

I will speak only for myself. This photo of the end of Aylan’s short life, brought about by the violence and stubbornness of some and by the inaction and paralysis of others, is needed to finally begin – just begin – to move me out of the lethargy and indifference and lack-of-understanding that is mine.

I think back over my years. I think of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. I was teaching at Saint John’s Seminary in Boston. I was putting my all into the work that was mine. I was seeing and feeling it as a ministry, as a call from God, and so I still believe it was. But it was startling to me, deep in my heart, years later, perhaps when the film Hotel Rwanda was released, that I did not remember knowing anything about that horror during the brief and intense period it was going on. I do not remember being involved in a conversation about it. I do not remember learning what was going on effectively from the news media at the time.

Where was I?

Last evening, today, when I see the photo of Aylan, I wonder at how much it takes to bring me to pull me out of my own little world, to broaden my vision beyond the concerns that take up 98% of my consciousness from day to day, to wake me up.

That’s why, I at least, need to be bludgeoned out of my comfortable ignorance and apathy by the tender horror of that photo. Aylan’s body was surrounded by others. I am surrounded by living bodies and minds and hearts. I have to ask myself, and you …

When will I fully realize what has always been true and is revealed more fully than ever perhaps in these our times?

The well being of humanity is the shared responsibility of every human being.

There are no strangers at last.

There are no children that only belong to others.

There are no elderly whose stresses and pains and fears are only their own.

There are no women in danger anywhere who are not my sister, and yours.

Yesterday my 3-year-old and 5-year-old sons died in the Aegean Sea. I pray the Gospel of Jesus Christ and I know this is literally true. So what will I do today?

Aylan, his brother Galip, and their Dad, before yesterday.
Aylan, his brother Galip, and their Dad, before yesterday.

Receive the gift given every day.

The new month opens her eyes here into beauty. This day of prayer for creation focuses hearts and minds, I hope, on something so fundamental and obvious:

We receive this world as a primordial gift. At birth, indeed before birth, each of us becomes a stakeholder in the health and wellbeing of the planet, the galaxy, and all stretching out beyond.

Our attitudes, words, and actions all have a real effect on the present and future of creation. A call to prayer in this regard is a foundational starting point. For those who believe everything is, in fact, a creation – something that once was not and now is, something brought to be for a reason – turning to the Creator to give thanks and ask for the good of all that is makes eminent heart-sense.

May this be part of our prayer every day.

___________________________________

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!

All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.

No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,

especially through my lord Brother Sun,

who brings the day; and You give light through him.

And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!

Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;

in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,

and clouds and storms, and all the weather,

through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;

she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,

through whom You brighten the night.

He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,

who feeds us and rules us,

and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;

through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,

for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,

from whose embrace no living person can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin!

Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.

The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,

and serve Him with great humility.

~ Saint Francis of Assisi

_________________________________

“Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972)

Sue Kouma Johnson suekoumajohnson.com
Sue Kouma Johnson
suekoumajohnson.com
Categories Uncategorized