Sunday, December 18, 2011

Learn to Read the Bible, Learn to Pray

4 Advent B #11

2 Sam 7, 1-5. 8b-12. 14a-16
Ps 89
Rom 16, 25-27
Lk 1, 26-38

December 18, 2011
Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.

Tom Cornell

This wonderful story, the Angel Gabriel and the young Virgin Mary calls to mind so many beautiful paintings of the Annunciation. What really happened that day in Nazareth? If there had been a movie camera in Mary’s room at the time recording the scene, what would it have captured? Mary was deep in prayer, so deep that she had this Annunciation experience in her innermost soul. It was real. She understood and she said yes to God’s will for her, and for all of us. Even if a shining guy with wings doesn’t show up on the film, we have to picture it, and so we do. ¬

How rich we are, we Catholics. The most beautiful music ever written, the most beautiful statues and paintings, the most glorious buildings are ours, poetry and accumulated wisdom; and yet there’s more to the spiritual treasure each one of us has within, the very image of God. I know about poverty, probably better than anyone in this congregation. I’ll spare you the details. Our family was the poorest we knew. But we were happy. We had an Italian mother and family and the Christian faith and St. Peter’s Church down the block with stained glass windows and Christmas carols, even in public school! We were rich! Cold, but never hungry, and rich beyond measure. Some people say that religion is an opiate. It’s not just an opiate, to ease our pain, this faith. Survey after survey shows that people who pray are happier, healthier and better educated than those who don’t, and live longer.

I was trained as a high school teacher, so I think of the young. Most of them know more about science and accounting and any number of things than they know about our Catholic faith. Too often, when challenges to faith confront them they are ill prepared. You can’t get what you need, my dear young people, you older ones too, you can’t get what you need to bolster and deepen your faith from Sunday sermons alone, as excellent as they are in this parish. You have to read, you have to study, and you have to pray. You have to learn how to read the Bible or you’ll be subject to ridicule. And you have to learn how to pray, I mean how to pray deeply.

Let me tell you a story. A young woman friend of mine was living with a jazz musician in Harlem. He was quite well-known, and one of his jazz albums was dedicated to her. One night the two of them drank more than was good for them. The next morning, Mona woke up with a hangover. She went to a nearby drug store for Alka Seltzer. It was Saturday; she had the day off so she thought she’d just settle back in bed with a book. On the paperback rack she spotted something that looked interesting, a book with dancing girls on the cover, and champagne bottles and bubbly glasses, and a file of hooded monks in the background approaching a church of some sort. So she picked up The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton’s story of his life in the fast lane, his conversion and his becoming a Trappist monk. By the end of that book, Mona was converted herself, joined the Catholic parish at New York University and quit her job at Esquire magazine to come to work with the Catholic peace movement for much less pay. That was a generation ago. We are still in touch. Read anything by Thomas Merton. Or any good spiritual writer, Martin Laird, Basil Pennington, John Main. But read! You have to learn to pray and to experience the Mystery in silence. Then you will be prepared for anything.

Another story: the late Professor A. J. Ayer at Oxford University in England did his best to undermine his students’ religious faith, if they had any. Two of them were friends of mine. Professor Ayer argued that propositions like “God exists” and “God does not exist” are equally meaningless. The only statements of facts that are in fact, fact, are those which reflect concrete experience. We have no concrete experience of God so anything we say about God is nonsense in the literal sense of the word. One of my best friends fell for that line. Leon’s faith was destroyed. He went on to a successful academic career but he was really impoverished, poor in the deepest sense of the word. My other friend, Wilfred, let Professor Ayer’s argument roll off his back. He had an advantage in life though: his father and mother were Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward. You may have heard of them. They owned a Catholic publishing house. Wilfred grew up with some of the best minds of his time around the kitchen table. He was on first name terms with Hilaire Belloc and Ronny Knox. G.K. Chesterton was his godfather. He knew that there are more ways of experiencing reality than putting it in a test tube, weighing it on a scale and fixing it in time and space. He had experienced God in the only way possible, by God’s own gift and by receiving it in nature and Scripture, in music and art and poetry and story and especially in the people he met, in a lecture hall or a soup kitchen or on a city bus.

In the end, by the way, Professor Ayer had an unexpected experience, a “near death” experience, as they call it. He wrote a little essay about it, “What I Saw When I Was Dead.” He claimed he saw a tunnel, and a light at the end, and that he felt a sense of welcoming, and in one account, the presence of “a divine being.” From then on, the professor said that he could no longer, with absolute certainty, say that there is no such thing as life after death. Good for him! But bad for all the many students whose faith he had destroyed.

God is good and merciful. God may see Professor Ayer as a man who intended to do good but was mistaken, tragically wrong, but in good conscience nevertheless. Wherever he is, I wonder, does Mr. Ayer regret, does he feel sorrow that he has impoverished so many by undermining their belief in God? We take with us into the next life what we have made of ourselves here in this one. Will all that loss weigh on him for all eternity, a never ending sorrow? Or will Christ at the last wipe away those tears too? Let us hope.

I know that God has care of us, from experience. I can have no doubt: too many blessings, it can’t be chance. I have to thank him. To do otherwise would be to throw back in his face so much beauty, so much love. At every step of my life he has been there, at every turning point, at every step where faith might have faltered or failed, there he was, even in darkest days of grief and bewilderment when he seemed to be hiding. He was there, not surprisingly in Monica, or a saintly pastor, or a teacher, even on a soup line and in a prison cell and on a city bus.

The Quakers say there is that of God in every one. We say the image of God is in every one. We adore God in prayer and in the Blessed Sacrament. What if we saw clearly the image of God in the beggar? Might we not fall down on our knees and worship right there in the street?

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