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 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinAugust 22, 2003 Issue 

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

Bishop Robert Morneau
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 one's life.

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 being" (276).

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 Bay.)

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