Listen to and live the hard sayings
We cannot allow our faith to be shaken by the Gospel's demands
August 24, 2003 -- Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Bishop Robert Morneau
Questions for reflection:
1. What hard sayings of the Gospel do you struggle with?
2. What hard sayings do you make to others?
3. Have you ever been tempted to walk away from the Lord?
The words that Jesus spoke caused some of the disciples to walk
away. Their comment: "This sort of talk is hard to endure! How can
anyone take it seriously?" Well, in a recent book written by Paul
Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 2003), four people heard the message of the
Gospel and did not walk away. They were Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton,
Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy.
Dorothy Day (1897-1980), co-founder of the Catholic Work
movement, served Christ in the poor and by struggling for peace and
justice. Her faith was not shaken by the demands of the Gospel. In
following Jesus she offered her life by living in solidarity with
suffering humanity. She is quoted by Elie as saying: "We have all
known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only
solution is love and that love comes with community" (189). Love is
a hard saying because it demands everything, even the giving of
Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Trappist monk, was a disciple of
the Lord and knew the hard sayings of the Gospel about forgiving
seventy times seven times, turning the other cheek, and loving
one's enemy. Two passages from The Life You Save May Be Your
Own: But he [Merton] can vouch for the cross with his own
experience - "can say to you that I have experienced the cross to
mean mystery and not cruelty, truth and not deception" (403). And,
"Indeed we exist solely for this, to be the place he had chosen for
his Presence" (403).
What shakes the faith of so many of us is the cross, suffering,
death. Some see only cruelty here; others see mystery and the
working of grace. Jesus' words are truth, not deception, and Merton
came to believe that the Gospel indeed contained words of eternal
life. Merton goes even further in asserting that the meaning of our
lives is linked directly to the life of the Spirit. We are called
and chosen to be the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, a hard
saying for many.
Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), a regional southern Catholic
writer, is known for her unique fiction, stories filled with
strange personalities and the action of grace. She reminds me of
the Old Testament prophets who courageously proclaimed God's word.
She reminds me of Joshua in our first reading who let the people
have it - "decide today whom you will serve!" O'Connor decided to
serve the Lord in her vocation as a writer and Christian.
Elie quotes O'Connor who died of lupus at the age of 39: "In a
sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to
Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where
nobody can follow" (282). A hard saying: "Pick up your cross and
follow me." O'Connor did this by embracing her illness and
participating in the Paschal Mystery. That is why her stories are
filled with hard sayings because she knew that to live truly one
must die to oneself. This dying/rising is one of the hardest
sayings in all of theology and philosophy.
And a fourth disciple, a fourth Christian writer who knew the
nature of hard sayings: Walker Percy (1916-1990), physician,
writer, husband, philosopher. Here is one of his hard sayings: "We
all know perfectly well that the man who lives out his life as a
consumer, a sexual partner, an 'other-directed' executive, who
avoids boredom and anxiety by consuming tons of newsprint, miles of
movie film, years of TV time; that such a man has somehow betrayed
his destiny as a human being," he declared, appealing to the
reader's sense of things. He went on to argue that psychiatry, by
treating the human longing for transcendence as a symptom of
illness, actually compounds such a person's alienation, leaving him
estranged not only from himself and others but from his reason for
In the end we do not save our own lives: only Jesus saves. But
we cooperate in this work of salvation by embracing and living the
hard sayings. No small challenge.
(Bp. Morneau is the auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Green