speaking (and listening) with authority

(fr. Cyprian)

There was an old priest, Fr. Cudahy, and Fr. Cudahy had a very hard time writing homilies. No matter how hard he tried they never seemed to come out right. Even after thirty years as a priest, he still had such a hard time writing homilies. Well, he was friends with an old usher named Sam, and he and old Sam used to have a beer together every Friday night. And this one particular Friday night Fr. Cudahay was feeling particularly discouraged and he says to Sam, “Wow, Sam, if you only knew how tiring it is to work on homilies!” And old Sam says, “Well, you know, Father, I sympathize with you. If you only knew how tiring it is to listen to them!”

I think that preaching, especially in a parish, is one of the most challenging things a priest does, and I so admire those who do it week in and week out for years. Why I find it hard, actually three reasons: first, I’m a communicator and I really want people to listen to me, and I really want them to understand what I’m saying. So I work so hard to make the point as clear as possible even when it’s something dense. (I know teachers in the crowd can sympathize with that.) Secondly, I can’t sell something I don’t believe in; I really have to understand it myself and accept it in order to pass it on. I’m not good at faking. And third, as I see it, when you stand in front of a group of people and preach you’re not just saying, “Do what I say”; you’re saying, “Be like me.” If you listen to me you can be just like I am. My Dad used to say, “Who you are speaks so loudly that I can’t hear a word you’re saying.” The days are pretty much gone when you got unlimited authority based on your rank––as my Mom used to say, on the other hand, twisting the Gospel just a little bit, “Do what I say not what I do!” Those days are gone, and good riddance! No, people in this day and age are slower just to accept authority based on an external title or initials or fancy costumes.

There is a section from the Vatican II document on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) that offers a subtle but very innovative teaching. Remember, for centuries the Catholic Church had a certain hesitation about individuals reading Scripture without hierarchical supervision and interpretation, which was largely in reaction against the Protestant reformers notion of sola Scriptura–scripture alone, as opposed to the Scripture and Tradition of Catholicism. Dei Verbum taught that the “Tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church…,” and that there is “a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on.” That’s already kind of shocking for the Church to admit, perhaps a legacy of John Henry Newman, that Tradition makes progress and that there is growth in insight into the Tradition. Not static, but an aggiornamento­—updating and even out and out change. But what was even more shocking was how it says this progress and growth into insight comes about. Mind you, I was told that there is always a hierarchy in Vatican documents, and so it is important that the first way this growth and progress in insight comes about, before the hierarchy is mentioned, is “through [the] contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts,” and “from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience.” Progress comes about from our contemplation and study, and from us pondering these things in our hearts; growth comes from our intimate experience of spiritual realities. It doesn’t just come from scholars and theologians pronouncing from on high, but from out of the believers’ hearts, from the sensus fidelium! And only then does Dei Verbum mention “the preaching of those who have received, along with the right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth.”[1] Now this is not to deny the authority of the Church over interpretation of Scripture since it is the Church that wrote the Scriptures, the Church that was the birthplace of the Scriptures (that’s one of the reasons we refer to liturgy as “primary theology”: the scriptures were written to be read there), and it was the Church that decided which books were actually authentic and canonical. But it does ask us to wonder who the church is? You could say that the Church begins, not just at Pentecost, but already with Mary pondering these things in her heart.

There’s a scene from the movie “I Walk the Line” that I just love and I have been waiting for an opportunity to work it into a homily for years. It’s the story of the life of the famous singer-songwriter Johnny Cash. He and his two friends are auditioning before the famous producer Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis. They’re in the middle of singing a kind of insipid, innocuous Southern Gospel song and Sam Phillips stops them and says: “I’m sorry. I can’t market Gospel no more. … Gospel like that doesn’t sell.”Johnny Cash asks, “Was it the Gospel or the way I sing it?”

SP: Both.

JC: Well, what’s wrong with the way I sing it?

SP: I don’t believe you!

JC: You saying I don’t believe in God? …

SP: You know exactly what I’m telling you. We’ve already heard that song a hundred times, just like that, just like how you sing it.

JC: Well, you didn’t let us bring it home.

And Sam Phillips says, “Bring it home? Alright, let’s bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you were lying out in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song, one song people would remember before you’re dirt, one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth, one song that would sum you up, you tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing, that same … tune we hear on the radio all day, … or would you sing something different, something real, something you felt? ‘Cuz I’m telling you right now that’s the kind of song people want to hear, that’s the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain’t got nothin’ to do with believing in God, Mr. Cash; it has to do with believing in yourself.”

Johnny Cash says, “Well, I got a couple songs I wrote in the Air Force. You got anything against the Air Force?” Sam Phillips says, “No.” And Johnny Cash says, “Well, I do,” and then he breaks into the song that would become his first hit.

I know the words “believing in yourself” have a vague air of suspicious New Age feel-good self-empowerment to them, but let me tell you what that means to me. Obviously this all has something to do with believing in God, but the next step in believing is “bringing it home,” believing in who we are, too. I remember once when I had to make a big decision and stand before someone very important and announce what I had decided, and I was very nervous about it––worried about the consequences, second-guessing my decisions, afraid of being afraid, nervous that the words wouldn’t come out right. A friend of mine wrote to me and said, “You just need to stand on your own I AM, on the ground of your being and speak from there.” Now, that to me is the very image of Jesus, back to that image I love from the baptism of the Lord, that the Father had passed that “I AM” that was the very name of God on to Jesus by saying “You are!” And when Jesus spoke he spoke from that I AM. And people knew it! “No one has every spoken like this, with this kind of authority!” they said, And they marveled that God had given such authority to a human being. They believed in him because they believed him. They believed him because he knew who he was; he spoke from the ground of his being, from that I AM.

And God did not give that authority just to one human being. Through Jesus God passes that kind of authority on to his followers, the authority to cast out demons, the authority to forgive sins and the authority to announce the Good News. That same I AM is planted in us: it’s first of all the law written in our hearts; it’s also our Baptismal inheritance. We need to find that authority in ourselves, and we need to believe in that in us and then speak from that in us. And I want to add that not only do we need to speak with that authority––back to Dei Verbum––we also need to listen with that kind of authority. In this day and age when so many people have abused their power, and with so many charlatans and so many caricatures of Christianity and pseudo-spiritualities floating around, it’s okay to ask the hard questions; it’s okay to trust our own intuitions and experiences. The Word spoken to your ear has to match the Word that’s already planted in the heart. Those who are standing on their own I AM can take the hard questions and are not going to be shaken by them. We need to listen and discern with authority.

There’s a reason we use Psalm 95 today: If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts. It’s like what Saint Benedict says right at the beginning of the Rule: Obsculta! Listen! And incline the ear of your heart! Fr. Deiss used to say, “Your heart is the primary preacher.” The Word spoken to your ear has to match the Word that’s already planted in the heart. So we need to listen from the heart where we have pondered these things in our contemplation and our study, and “from the intimate sense of spiritual realities” that we ourselves have experienced. We have to listen from the deepest part of us, the ears of our hearts, that I AM. And we need to speak from there too, but only after we have found that place in us––and it takes a lot of cleaning out before we do, baptismal cleaning, dying to the false self to find the real self, hidden with Christ in God. We need to speak from that heart, from that I AM planted deep within us, because then we will speak—and listen­­—with authority, with the authority that God grants through Jesus.

[1] Dei Verbum, 8.

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