Trinity Sunday • Father’s Day • Prov 8:1-4,22-31 • Rom 5:1-5 • Jn 16:12-15 • 6/16/19
I’m preaching in place of Joe Wiesenfarth, who had a schedule conflict. I preach whenever I can because it strengthens my faith.
I know I’m not the only homilist who feels that at some point while the homily is being written, Something Happens, and the work is no longer only mine. You may recognize this experience from something you like to do—making things, gardening, teaching, playing… As John puts it, it’s like being guided from an authority beyond one’s own. Preparing and making room for that Something to happen can be a struggle and even, as the Sunday approaches, a game of chicken. Yet in its own good time, helpful insight does arise, and the struggle becomes a dance with an unseen yet real Other working for our good.
What is this mystery Other that brings inspiration? The Holy Spirit seems as good a name as any. Even before Jim quoted Gerard Manley Hopkins last week, a Hopkins poem about the Holy Spirit was haunting my prep. You younger listeners, please bear with this 19th-century Brit, for whom “man” includes all of humanity and “reck”, with no “w”, is short for “reckon”, or pay heed to.
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 and 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 and with ah! bright wings.
I can’t hear this poem the way I used to, with its line, “nature is never spent,” now that we seem to be spending down nature on earth as we know it. And yet, the Holy Ghost is never spent. God is always creating and renewing, pulling morning out of night, life out of death. And God is not done with us.
How do I know this? I see it in the season’s new plants, springing up full of that holy freshness deep down things. I hear it in the singing of frogs, insects, birds, and our own spirited choir. I feel it in the joy and communion that were palpably present here last week, and in the healing, the learning and the growth that continue to occur in and around me. I sense it in the beauty that artists, musicians, and writers create. The Holy Ghost is still guiding and nourishing us.
As the first reading says: Wisdom delights in the human race. Despite our mistakes. Despite the things that infuriate us. Despite everything that pushes toward despair and cynicism…
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
It’s been pointed out that “the bent world” has a double meaning. It means the earth, bent round like an egg, and also our human nature that bends away from being true to the Spirit’s guidance. Still, the Holy Ghost nurtures us under her wings, and somehow miracles occur. We learn, we grow, we forgive one another and ourselves, we bring meaning and beauty out of loss, we find new beginnings.
Have you ever known someone—human or canine—who loved and affirmed people into being better than they were? The first time I noticed this was magical. I could see the recipient soften and want to be the person she was being treated as. Maybe that’s how the Holy Spirit broods over us.
At first sight, this contrasts with Paul’s nurturing strategy. The phrase, “endurance produces character,” makes me want to dig in my heels and say no, thanks. The next part is even more confusing: character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, but not because we get what we hope for. How does that make sense?
Actually, it’s very Tibetan of Paul. Tibetan Buddhist teachers such as Pema Chödrön and Mingyur Rinpoche describe a process of training oneself to maintain equanimity in the face of increasing challenges. It’s like building a muscle, lifting gradually heavier weights. Rinpoche calls it adding wood to the fire. As best I can tell, the point is to detach inner well-being from outer conditions, which may after all change at any moment; and to cultivate a centeredness that can carry us through harder times by connecting us with a deeper reality.
Buddhist writers call the result a wide-open, unconditioned awareness or spaciousness. I’m not sure I know what that means; unlike some here whom I deeply respect, I don’t have a Buddhist practice or teacher. But the spaciousness seems to imply resilience and peace, and to correlate with what Paul, describing his reason for hope, calls “God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” That love, too, is unconditioned. We can rest in it no matter what. If Paul is right, the paradox is that our ability to remember and trust in this love can increase with the trials we endure. In effect, it increases when we consciously practice under more and more trying conditions.
So here are two ways to foster spiritual growth. Affirmation creates warmth and willingness. Challenge builds resilience and strength. According to St. Benedict, good abbotts and prioresses, like good parents, know just when to apply each strategy to each of the monastics in their care. Since I’ve never been a parent, this is way above my pay grade. I can only bow to all the fathers and mothers here, especially the parents of ____________, whose baptism we celebrate today. And to our heavenly Father-Mother, whose spiritual parenting of us is sometimes palpable and sometimes as inscrutable as the Trinity itself.
But when it feels inscrutable, just maybe, sometimes, Paul and his Tibetan friends can help us find our footing. It would be heartless to maintain that all suffering is sent by God on purpose to strengthen us. Still, when suffering finds us, we can remember: first, that there is dignity in suffering, for Jesus chose to partake in it with us; and second, that we might be in circumstances in which, through conscious practice,
suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not disappoint us,
because God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.