Tuesday, January 18, 2011

CALL AND RESPONSE - Fr. Damian Feeney

image from google

Homily given by Fr Damian Feeney, vice principal of St Stephen's House, on Epiphany II,16th January 2011. (Readings: Isaiah 45.1-7, 1 Cor 1.1-9, John 1.29-42)


At some point we who follow Jesus are called to examine the nature of that call and its origin. The stories of others who have had the courage to follow someone or something beyond themselves in the search for truth are a great encouragement, and so I offer you two people quite outside the structure of the churches who have articulated thoughts about vocation which have struck many chords. Dag Hammarskjold, the former Secretary-General to the United Nations who was killed in a place crash in 1961. He wrote:

I don't know Who -or What- put the question, I don't know when it was put. I don't even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone - or Something- and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal. ... As I continued along the Way, I learned, step by step, word by word, that behind every saying in the Gospels stands one man and one man's experience. Also behind the prayer that the cup might pass from him and his promise to drink it. Also behind each of the words from the Cross[1].

Our sense of vocation, if we are blessed, diligent and careful with it, grows and blossoms throughout our lives. It can also be blighted by the all too human failings of frustration, impatience and envy. We can so easily forget the fundamental truth that our vocation often leads us into places and situations we had not imagined, and if we are not sufficiently grounded we can waste much time and energy in thinking that our response would be so much better if only we were somewhere else. In his book Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, the Romanian author Mircea Eliade tells the story of an obscure Jewish Rabbi, Isaac ben Jekel, who several hundred years ago, lived in great poverty in a single-roomed house in Cracow. One night he dreamt vividly of a treasure buried beneath the bridge leading to the royal palace at Prague. Three nights running he dreamt the same dream and, unable to dismiss it from his mind, he determined to make the long journey to Prague on foot in search of the treasure. But when he reached the city he was bitterly disappointed to find the bridge guarded by soldiers and the treasure, if indeed there was a treasure, totally inaccessible. As the Rabbi stood there in dejection, the captain of the guard took pity on him and asked him what his trouble was. So he related his dream. The captain of the guard laughed.

'You should not pay any attention to dreams. Why, only the other night I had a dream about treasure. It was buried in the house of a man I had never even heard of, a Rabbi named Isaac ben Jekel, who lived in Cracow. But no sensible man pays any attention to dreams’.

The Rabbi listened with inward astonishment; he bowed low and thanked the Captain. Then he set off with all haste back to Cracow and when he reached home, he at once began to dig in the corner of his room behind the stove. Eventually he unearthed treasure sufficient to end his poverty.

We grow up with our treasure; it is near to us all the time, but so often we do not recognize its value.

This has many implications. First of all, whatever our situations, and our feelings about them, one things is sure. God has called each and every one of us, by name, to minister for him to others. It is so tempting to look at the gifts of another, the achievements of another, the situation of another, and pine, if not with envy or jealousy, then maybe with a certain degree of wistfulness, for the things others can do, achieve or enjoy. We waste a good deal of time looking for our treasure in unrealistic places, places where it is not accessible to us. One result of this fruitless journeying is that we become unhappy with who we are, our regard for our own gifts diminish, and we become less and less fruitful for God.

Our treasure is within us. It is so often what we grew up with. If God has called me, then I know at least that there is something within me that God can use. George Herbert alludes to this in his poem ‘The Priesthood’

...only, since God doth often vessels make
Of lowly matter for high uses meet,

I throw me at his feet,

There will I lie, until my Maker seek
For some mean stuff whereon to show his skill:
Then is my time.

‘Our time’ – our calling, our life – is now. Our treasure is within ourselves, the gold of the gospel and our gifts - and it has been gathering and collecting every day of our lives. Rowan Williams earths this understanding of the paradoxical nature of God’s call when he writes:

‘God chooses where he wills: there is no set of conditions for his grace. We are to rejoice in the fact that, weak and sinful and silly as we are, God has chosen us for the privilege of loving and serving him.’

But with that rejoicing comes a balancing responsibility, a pain, if you like, when our loving and serving becomes unbalanced and we are unable to hold on to the burden and privilege of this calling. Rowan Williams continues:

‘And so our crises occur at those points when we see how unreality, our selfish, self-protecting illusions, our struggles for cheap security, block the way to our answering the call to be’.

The treasure is under our feet, it is within us, and therefore it is the very thing most likely to be taken for granted. I gain tremendous encouragement from that passage in Mark 6, where Jesus returns to Nazareth, to be greeted by those who knew him when he was but a lad – and they decided that no-one who came from their town could possibly be anyone special (‘We knew him when he had nowt’) – ‘and he could work no miracle there….and he was amazed at their unbelief.’ In my native Lancashire, it is said that the reason people go to church is to to stop other people going; some people, without realising it, manage to limit God and limit others at the same time. Perhaps they – and we – have every right to be concerned. Jesus came among us, and through him we discover a very human side to God that we had never suspected, and wonder whether God can really do this thing this way. For those on the way to faith this particularity can be hard to fathom, and how we preach it and proclaim it a most sensitive issue.

But this, after all, is the treasure at our feet, carried in these earthenware vessels. What we have to offer the world is Christ crucified and raised from the dead – the action of a God who will stop at nothing to redeem his people, redeem his creation. That miraculous action continues this morning and every day in the Mass and its outworking in our daily living, as we seek to discover and rediscover the treasure at our feet.

Damian Feeney
Vice Principal, St. Stephen’s House

[1] http://chippit.tripod.com/markings.html