The 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]

The Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Isa 49:14-15  +  1 Cor 4:1-5  +  Mt 6:24-34
February 26, 2017

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.”

Once they have read them, my parents give me their copies of a national newspaper that they subscribe to.  Last weekend’s edition had a feature article about what the author describes as a “burgeoning movement among traditional Christians” in modern America.  The article gives several examples of those who, “[f]eeling besieged by secular society, … are taking refuge in communities… clustered around churches and monasteries, where faith forms the backbone of daily life.”[1]

Most of the article focuses upon one such community, hidden within the wooded hills of eastern Oklahoma.  This community, consisting of “dozens of families” who moved there from across the United States, have built homes around a Benedictine monastery whose first members only arrived in the area eighteen years ago.

In 2010, Bishop Jackels sent another priest and myself to this monastery to learn how to celebrate Holy Mass in the Extraordinary Form (that is, in the way Mass was celebrated before the Second Vatican Council).  I’ve been back several times since then.  The monks there are traditional not only in the form of their worship, but also in the form of their daily life, marked as it is by penance and simplicity.

The monks’ way of life is reinforced by the physical distance between their monastery and what some would call “civilization”.  From the monastery, you have to drive more than a half hour over winding, rising and falling dirt roads before you reach the first paved road.  You have to drive quite a while beyond that to reach a gas station, and miles beyond that to reach a fast food restaurant, and about an hour and a half altogether to reach Tulsa.  Such seclusion is part of the monks’ way of life, and part of what draws families to build houses on property near the monastery, and to rear their families there.

Many who hear of this phenomenon might think that those moving close to this monastery are older Catholics, who remember and miss the sort of Catholic culture that they grew up with, before so much changed following the Second Vatican Council.  But that’s contradicted by the facts.

Consider a 25-year old man from Portland, Oregon, whose story is recounted in this newspaper article.  After he graduated from college, Sean moved near the monastery in 2014.  He worried about marrying and having children in a place like Portland.  Speaking about his hometown, he says, “There was just too much promiscuity; it’s permeated the whole society”.  “Maybe you teach [your children] one thing at home, but you walk down the street and there’s signs with some provocative image”.[2]

Shortly after moving near the monastery, Sean fell in love with a young woman named Angela, whose family lived there.  For more than a year, they shared dinners at the only restaurant in the nearest town, danced in Tulsa, and tackled farm chores together.

Sean and Angela didn’t kiss until their wedding day.  She explained to the newspaper reporter:  “I told him on one of our first dates that it was a childhood dream of mine to kiss the man I would marry for the first time on our wedding day.”  Sean’s response?  “You got it, girl.”

“The couple, who are expecting their first child, live in a cabin that her parents built.  They have no TV or internet service and are among several intergenerational families that live near each other and help to care for each other’s children.”[3]

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Now those who hear Angela and Sean’s story differ widely in their responses.  Some think that they are inspired.  Others think they’re delusional.  Such responses, and responses of every stripe in between, can be read in the online comments following the article on the newspaper’s website.

Those who fall into the latter group think that Sean and Angela are ignoring reality.  If they were to offer the young couple advice, it would be, “You can’t turn back the clock.”  Such well-meaning advice reminds me of a passage from my favorite author, G. K. Chesterton.

Against the idea of progress, Chesterton explained that “There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying, ‘You can’t put the clock back.’  The simple and obvious answer is ‘You can.’  A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour.  In the same way[,] society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.”[4]

Presuming that Chesterton is correct about this—and the Catholic Church certainly believes he is—the question is not whether others ought to follow the example of Sean and Angela.  The question is in what ways might it be possible to follow their example.  Can their example be followed without moving next to a monastery in the hills of Oklahoma?  If so, what other forms could following their example take?  You really cannot answering these questions unless you see what stands at the heart of their example.

The author of that newspaper article, in summing up the changes made by people like Angela and Sean, states that they are looking for a place “where faith forms the backbone of daily life”.  That’s what stands at the heart of those moving next to the monastery in Oklahoma.  Is that goal worth emulating?  Is that goal worth making sacrifices for?  The fact that you are where you are this morning, listening to this sermon, suggests that you think so.  The fact that the Season of Lent begins in three days suggests that the Church thinks so.

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As you firm up your decisions over the next three days about the prayers, the almsgiving, and the sacrifices that you’ll offer this Lent, it is important that you be serious about the headwinds that your Lenten efforts are going to face.  What are these headwinds?  What is it that we face in society that pushes back against faith forming the backbone of daily life?

Consider just two modern headwinds that you face.  The first is busy-ness.  Or we might call this “activity-ness”.  Or we might call this “Martha-ness”, after the whirling dervish who spun around her home, while her sister Mary sat at the feet of Jesus.  This Lent is an opportunity to seize hold firmly of what Jesus called “the better part”:  that part of life that forms the backbone of a life of faith, and that part of life that busy-ness pushes against.

The second modern headwind that you face is noise.  There’s no end to either its volume or the forms it takes.  Some of this is inevitable, and essential to our vocations:  for example, a baby crying for its bottle, a youngster calling for help with homework, a teenager asking financial help for the weekend’s festivities.  But much of the noise in our lives can be eliminated:  for example, the noise that comes from televisions, radios, and computers.  The season of Lent is an excellent time to experiment with pulling the plug on these devices:  if not for all forty days of Lent, than at least one day each week, perhaps Friday, the day of Our Lord’s Passion and Death.

It’s important in this regard to recognize that not all noise is audible.  Some noise is visual.  Just as audible noise is more harmful the louder the volume, so visible noise is more harmful the more rapidly its images move and change.

Certainly there are other headwinds, as well, that gust and push against you in the midst of everyday life.  During your prayer today, on this last Sunday before Lent starts, consider these headwinds, and consider how your Lenten practices can help you in facing them or removing them from your life.

Make sure that you take home a bulletin this weekend so that you know the times of Masses on Ash Wednesday at St. Anthony’s and St. Mary’s, as well as our Friday evening schedule here at St. Mary’s.  Likewise, make sure you review the most recent issue of the Catholic Advance for the guidelines concerning fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstaining from meat each Friday of Lent.

“No one can serve two masters.”  Lent is our opportunity to make certain that our faith is first in our lives, the backbone of our days on this earth.  Lent helps us to cast aside things and even persons who keep us from recognizing Christ as our Lord and Master.

[1] Ian Lovett, “Wary of Modern Society, Some Christians Choose a Life Apart”, The Wall Street Journal (February 18/19, 2017), C1.

[2] Ibid., C2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (1910), Chapter 4.