a homily for the deacons of Sacramento–and a homily I think applies to all of us
August 3, 2019, Sacramento, California
Today is the anniversary of the death of one of my heroes, the great American Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. She died at the age of thirty-nine, of lupus, in Milledgeville, Georgia on August 3, 1964.
Her short stories are wonderful–challenging, but wonderful–but it wasn’t until her letters were published after her death that we realized how deeply Catholic she was in her thinking—and how she grew spiritually over the course of her life, through her suffering, how she became more and more compassionate, wiser.
In one of her letters she is giving advice to a young writer, and I think what she says is profound not just for writers but for all of us, and especially for those of us who are deacons. Writing is just a metaphor, really, for what ministry is all about:
Writing is a good example of self-abandonment [she says]. I never completely forget myself except when I am writing and I am never more completely myself than when I am writing. It is the same with Christian self-abandonment.
The human comes before art. You do not write the best you can for the sake of art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit. Resignation to the will of God does not mean that you stop resisting evil or obstacles, it means that you leave the outcome out of your personal considerations. It is the most concern coupled with the least concern.
Letting go of the outcome—in our preaching, for example, not worrying what other people think about what we’re saying, or trying not to, not seeking praise or trying to avoid criticism, preaching the best we can with sincerity and directness and trusting God to do the rest, to take whatever words are flowing through us and use them for whatever someone in the congregation may need to hear, at that moment.
Letting go of the outcome in our counseling and our spiritual direction—not worrying about saying just the right thing, not worrying about being wise, not worrying about fixing whatever problem is being presented to us but listening, staying open, trusting God to enter in and do whatever needs to be done. Nothing we do or fail to do can keep the Holy Spirit from effecting its work of love, in that moment and in every moment.
It’s not we who love but God who loves through us, and He will make up for all our failings and limitations.
Look at the example of John the Baptist, so bold in his proclamation, loud and clear and unafraid, so willing to let go of the outcome that he is willing to die, to be killed, as Christ himself is willing to die, to surrender all his power and his glory and to let come what comes, in and through the Father.
Or letting go of the outcome in our prayer life, surrendering, because we never know what the outcome is. Prayer might seem to be pointless, might seem to be useless–we might seem to be sitting alone in our cell not doing anything for anyone–but “for the most part the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible,” as Pope Francis says, in Rejoice and Be Glad. “Certainly the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions.”
For “we have died,” as Colossians says in the epistle for tomorrow’s mass, “and we are hidden now in Christ”–and in fact, Christ is also hidden in us, is at work in us in ways we are not conscious of and can’t be fully conscious of. We may sit in our cells and feel nothing but emptiness and loneliness, or boredom, or the desert. Our prayer might not seem to be “working” at all, but of course that’s not what prayer is. Prayer isn’t something we do, either poorly or well, it’s something God does, and what he does is deeper and subtler and more loving and more tender than simply granting our wishes. He isn’t a genie. He isn’t a magician. He’s not a father who plays favorites. He’s the Lord our God who empties himself out, who gives himself away, and all we can do is try to empty ourselves, too. To stay in the chair, to stay in the room, as the feelings rise and fall in us, as the thoughts pass, like the clouds, like the weather. All we can do is receive, and the rest is God, working mysteriously inside us, inside us all.
Who knows what effect this Eucharist will have on us, and on the world, what love and hope will flow out of it into all those who most desperately need it? Who knows what leaven, what yeast, our inner work will be this weekend, what seeds will be planted and what will grow from those seeds? We have no idea, and we may never know.
In the meantime let us try to completely forget ourselves the rest of this weekend, let us try to surrender ourselves, focusing on the work at hand, on the empty page, on the images in our minds, on the feelings in our hearts, on each other, on our words and our faces. In dying to ourselves, we will rise. In dying we will always rise, for we are hidden now in Christ, and Christ in us, and the work we do is in the service of a mystery greater and more intimate than we can ever imagine.