One of the best parts of working at a seminary, aside from the privilege of forming future priests, is getting to hear some really excellent homilies. In particular, we have a Dominican (i.e. “Order of Preachers”) priest who is just a superb orator. His own favorite quote captures the heart of his style,
A [preacher] who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental; they necessarily are reflected in his theology. —Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
His name is Fr. Philip Neri Powell, and he’s got a sense of humor and a joy worthy of St. Philip Neri. This last Friday he preached a homily that knocked my socks off, and I asked him if I could post it here. Gladly, he said yes. His language in the homily was reminiscent of that other Dominican tertiary, St. Catherine of Siena:
O fire of love!
Was it not enough to gift us
with creation in your image and likeness,
and to create us anew to grace in your Son’s blood,
without giving us yourself as food,
the whole of divine being,
the whole of God?
What drove you?
Nothing but your charity,
mad with love as you are!
So, without further adieu, here’s his homily:
3rd Week of Lent (F)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA
Francis Tarwater finally sees his chance to baptize the “idiot-boy,” and he takes it. Throwing the boy into the lake, he does the deed and in the process drowns him. As with most of Flannery O’Connor’s “preachers of nihilism,” Tarwater is compelled by a prophetic mission, and ruinously haunted by the Devil. This tension explodes when Tarwater tries to fulfill a promise he made to his uncle to baptize the boy. When he tries, the Devil tempts him with disobedience, saying, “If you baptize once, you’ll be doing it the rest of your life.” What the Devil knows about Tarwater that Tarwater doesn’t know about himself is that he loves. He loves his uncle. He loves the “idiot-boy.” He loves the idea of being a baptizing prophet. And so the Devil says the only thing he can to pull Tarwater away from his promise, “You have to quit confusing a madness with a mission.” When Jesus commands us to love as God loves, to love neighbor and self with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, I think, “Madness!” We can’t survive in this world if our mission is to love as God Himself loves. If we’re to survive, we must stop confusing our mission with the madness of divine love. But that’s the Devil talking, telling me what I want to hear.
Hearing God’s word of love and receiving His love as a gift is not easy. Israel, so often on the receiving end of both God’s love and His wrath, knows this better than anyone. The Lord sends Hosea to His people with a message, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord, your God; you have collapsed through your guilt.” Sounds simple enough. Repent, turn around, and go back to righteousness. But repentance requires more than a muttered “sorry ’bout that.” Repentance requires a fundamental transformation of heart, mind, soul, and strength. It requires a new creation, starting over on the right path in mercy. This doesn’t sound so bad until I realize that true repentance is made manifest by an act of mercy: I forgive those who have sinned against me. If my repentance doesn’t culminate in an extravagant outpouring of forgiveness from me, then my repentance is incomplete. How can I say that I love as God loves if I cannot or will not forgive my enemies? Thus, the Devil calls Tarwater’s mission of love “madness.” And urges him to stop confusing this madness for a mission. To forgive those who have sinned against you is a sure sign of repentance, and a measure of one’s distance from the Devil. So, of course, the Devil wants you to nurse your wounds, to glory in your victimhood, to wallow around in self-pity and hurt. He wants us to forget that the madness of love is our mission.
As difficult as it might be for us to love as God loves, to forgive as we have been forgiven, we cannot forget that He promises us His assistance. He says to Hosea, “I will heal their defection. . .I will love them freely; for my wrath is turned away from them. I will be like the dew for Israel.” We also have the comfort of knowing that Christ’s command to love is a command. Not a suggestion, a hint, or just one option among many. A command. Lord, give what you command, and command what you will. But be careful with this prayer. Before you offer the sacrifice of your will to God’s will, know that there is a madness in His love, a madness that will become your mission, a mission that will attract the voices of the Enemy to pull you away from your anointed task. These dis-easing voices have names: Excuse, Entitlement, Vengeance, Petulance, Stubbornness. But God’s healing graces have names too: Responsibility, Generosity, Mercy, Patience, Obedience. And His names – received in absolute gratitude with abundant praise – will turn the madness of our sin into the divine madness of love, a love let loose to bring the world to kneel.