I was blessed to be part of a day-retreat with a Louisiana priest who has to be one of the best speakers I have ever heard. He combined genuine Cajun culture, theological erudition, earthy examples, brilliant storytelling, side-splitting humor and heart-rending spiritual depth. After the retreat, someone mentioned that he blended Jerry Lewis’ humor, Thomas Aquinas mind and Mother Teresa’s love. I can still feel his words resonating in me, and bear a sense of holy fear that “to whom much is given much will be expected,” i.e. the pleasure of hearing such compelling truth places on me a burden of a real response to the truth I’ve heard. Oy vey! One thing was clear to me as he spoke: this man knows of what he speaks, and has tasted of the mysteries of faith he unveiled for us.
I remember one time years ago I was speaking to an elderly Russian woman after Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox Church about the homily that day. A newly ordained Orthodox priest had returned to his home parish to celebrate the Liturgy, and he preached an impassioned sermon about the Passion of Jesus. It was a theological and linguistic masterpiece that really wowed me, and I still wish I had recorded it. As I shared with her my thrill in the afterglow, she said to me very matter-of-factly:
It was pretty, but he does not know of what he speaks. He has not suffered enough yet.
I thought, serious downer. She also added,
You Americans are shallow because you do not know how to suffer well. We Russians, we know how to suffer, and it make us into angels and into demons.
And let me add, if you’ve every taken time to read classical Russian literature, Russian spiritual authors, or study Russian history, you will concur. I think here of the famous statement of Starets Avvakum (1620-1682), who said, “Satan has obtained our radiant Russia from God, so that she may become crimson with the blood of martyrs.” To own that vision is to ‘get’ the core meaning of the paschal mystery, i.e. is to be Christian!
Though that day I thought she was just a overripe kill-joy, as the years have gone by, and I have had the privilege of encountering an extraordinary procession of exceptional speakers and preachers, I have begun to “get” what she meant and have come to appreciate more the singular effect that “suffering the mystery of God” through all of the trials and travails of life has on the impact and power of a person’s words. In fact, one of the most challenging and most useful pieces of critical feedback on my public speaking I have ever received was from a priest who said to me:
Tom, remember that an effective Christian speaker forgets about himself and remembers only Jesus. And that’s not a learned rhetorical trick, but it’s an acquired way of life in which every day becomes an opportunity to die to self. It’s not about the applause or the criticism, it’s about giving Jesus the chance to walk through Galilee or Jerusalem and speak to the crowds again in you. And Jesus cared neither about criticism or praise, but only thought of what was on his Father’s mind and about the good of the people he came to save. Forget yourself.
And as I rehearse those words in my mind, fused to the image of his own care-worn and kind face, the force of those words exert themselves in me yet again — confirming in me yet again that his words were plucked from the “Burning” within him and thrust into my mind and heart.
That was my experience of this retreat master — though you were captivated by his style, his words, his gestures, in the last analysis you realized that he himself was really forgettable inasmuch as he left you thinking about Jesus, Mary and all the holy others he was drawing our attention to. In fact, what it most reminded me of was the very last section of the Ascent of Mount Carmel, where St. John of the Cross is speaking about the need preachers have to detach themselves from the candies of preaching and focus on the quality of their own interior lives from whence flows the power of the homily. In other words, if you want to influence your hearers, cultivate a robust life of virtue that alone is capable of opening in you a portal through which God can roar from Zion and breathe his Spirit into the hearers to empower them to do the very truth that is spoken. In St. John’s words:
It is a common matter of observation that, so far as we can judge here below, the better is the life of the preacher, the greater is the fruit that he bears, however undistinguished his style may be, however small his rhetoric and however ordinary his instruction. For it is the warmth that comes from the living spirit that clings; whereas the other kind of preacher will produce very little profit, however sublime be his style and his instruction. For, although it is true that a good style and gestures and sublime instruction and well-chosen language influence men and produce much effect when accompanied by true spirituality, yet without this, although a sermon gives pleasure and delight to the sense and the understanding, very little or nothing of its sweetness remains in the will. As a rule, in this case, the will remains as weak and remiss with regard to good works as it was before. Although marvelous things may have been marvelously said by the preacher, they serve only to delight the ear, like a concert of music or a peal of bells; the spirit, as I say, goes no farther from its habits than before, since the voice has no virtue to raise one that is dead from his grave.
And let me end by saying that this goes for all Christians, whether they be preachers/teachers or not: the transformative impact of your words flows first and foremost from the state of your soul and not from the erudition or eloquence of your words. Though that is not an argument against eloquence and erudition, it is an argument for what takes precedence. Think: Jesus’ itinerant preaching was eloquent, erudite and incomparably beautiful, but it was in the end those very few raspy and gasping words that he uttered from the Cross, spoken out of a burning love refined in the fires of sacrifice, that recreated the cosmos and gave birth to a new heaven and a new earth.