Reflections on the readings from Fr. George Berendt, PIME
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (Isaiah 49: 3, 5-6; 1 Cor. 1: 1-3; John 1: 29-34)
This year at the Vatican Pope Francis will declare Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II saints along with several other men and women. A saint, as I have said so many times before and as so many other people have also said, are not perfect people. Saints are people whose lives are worth imitating, people who are good role models and worthy to sculpt our lives after. They were called to holiness and they stepped up to the challenge. If it’s perfection you’re after, look to God, because only God is perfect. Saints are just better than the rest of ours.
It’s not only the Catholic Church that hold people up for us to imitate, to respect, and to mold our lives after. Do these names ring a bell: Carlos Santana, Shirley MacLaine, Morgan Freeman, James Cagney, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, Stevie Wonder, or Placido Domingo?
Every year at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts several people, from various backgrounds, are honored, wined and dined, and given an award. They are held up before us as people who have made a notable contribution to the United States. The names I read off received this prestigious award from the Kennedy Center. This year is the 36th time our nation will do this. If I’m not mistaken something like 180 men and women have been recognized by our nation for the contributions they have made to our lives.
All of them endowed and blessed with talent have used their gifts to transform their lives and our lives. Through their genius we have seen what it means to be human with a new vision. They have made us feel more deeply, weep more bitterly, laugh more lustily, love and care more sincerely. They have lightened our hearts, tickled our funny bones with their twist of words, have soothed our anxious hearts with a song from their throats or the strings they plucked.
As artists, singers, writers, actors, musicians, or opera stars they have enriched our lives, stirred our souls, inspired us to greater heights in our lives, and hopefully, made each and every one they touched better people. They have called us out of the commonplace and pulled us out of the muck and mire of this world to see reality with new eyes and hear the ruckus and din of this world with different ears, and helped us rise above the humdrum of human existence.
This year, once more, the beautiful milieu of the Kennedy Center will become the stage where a group of our fellow citizens will be ushered in before us to be honored and praised and offered as models to imitate. Why are these people singled out? For the simple reason is that they have transformed our lives and our world by what they have done with their own lives.
Soon the backdrop of the Vatican’s beautiful Saint Peter’s basilica, where saints are introduced to the community of faith, will become the stage where our Church gives it reward to fellow Christian citizens: the “halo awards.” The men and women who will be honored at the Vatican took to heart the words of Saint Paul in the first reading from the Corinthians where Paul reminds his readers then and now that they are “called to be holy” (1 Cor 1:2). This call to holiness, this vocation given to each and every baptized Christian, means something and doesn’t mean something.
First, to be holy doesn’t mean one has to spend countless hours in a church on ones knees praying the night away as so many mystics have done. It doesn’t mean offering your life as a substitute to save somebody else’s life like Saint Maximilian Kolbe did in Auschwitz. Nor does it mean that you leave behind family and friends and takeoff for the Orient as a missionary only to die on a small island off the coast of China as Saint Francis Xavier did. Being holy does not mean running away from the world like Saint Anthony did, living in the desert, rejecting all the material things the world offers, denying oneself food, drink and human companionship.
No! The call to holiness is simpler. To be a saint, to be holy, is simply to be in tune with God and God’s two great commandments: love God above all things and love the other as you love yourself.
I like what Saint Francis de Sales said: “…true devotion hinders no one. Rather, it perfects everything. Whenever it is out of keeping with any person’s calling, it must be false.” This saint knew that each of us must serve in a way that is appropriate to our needs, talents, and worldly obligations. A mother on her knees praying all day long in front of a Blessed Mother statue and not preparing supper; a father who is in Church more than he is with his wife and children who is not mowing the lawn; a child refusing to play sandlot baseball or soccer with school chums because he wants to be near the cross for endless hours saying prayers; this is not what God wants from us.
The call to holiness is what I read in Rediscovering Catholicism (p. 64) by Matthew Kelly. He wrote: “holiness is simply the application of the values, principles, and spirit of the Gospel to the circumstance of our everyday lives, one moment at a time. It is not complicated; it is disarmingly simple. But simple is not the same as easy.” Or perhaps Blessed André Bessette of Canada said it in a more appetizing way: “God doesn’t ask for the impossible, but wants everyone to offer their good intention, their day’s work, and some prayers.” In the end, attempting to be holy doesn’t change our world. It changes the person who will change the world.
Second, holiness does not transform us into passive, plaster-like images of the saints that decorate our churches. Any saint that we have ever read about is always dynamic. Holiness makes us alive. It’s like what Saint John wrote in his first letter (1 Jn 2: 6): “…whoever claims to abide in him ought to live just as he lived.”
What does living like the Master look like? Well, Gandhi can give us some help here. One day he said to his audience: “There are many things to do. Let each one of us choose our task and stick to it through thick and thin. Let us not think of the vastness but let us pick up that portion which we can handle best.” Long before Gandhi came on the scene Saint Teresa of Avila said: “the Lord doesn’t look so much at the greatness of our works as at the love with which they are done.”
Finally, beauty attracts and so we enjoy looking, listening, and contemplating it. Ugliness, on the other hand, revolts and we find it difficult to deal with. We turn away from it.
To seek that which is holy is to embrace that which is beautiful and God-like. There is too much ugliness in our lives and in our world. We need more seekers of beauty. The call to holiness and the call to the fine arts are one and the same. Both callings attempt to lift us up to a better level in this world. Both callings attempt to transform the “wanna-be” saints and the “wanna-be” artists into people who are more caring, more feeling and more sensitive to the world and people around them. Both callings made them reach down into the deepest recesses of their humanness, changing them into people they didn’t even know they could be. Both callings gave to our world the best a human can offer.
In the end, I always found it amazing how a simple dab of paint, a note plucked or sung, a stone chiseled, a slab of wood shaved, or a string of letters joined together can become something so beautiful causing a heart to flutter or an eye to water. In the end the art of living a holy life that every disciple of Jesus is called to is the best form of art that any person can ever create on this planet. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem A Psalm of Life says:
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
“Life is but an empty dream!”
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act to each to-morrow
Finds us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, – act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.