01 June 2011

Whatever is mine, is His

I couldn't possibly begin to express the weight of gratitude that presses down upon me this morning: the last guest homeward bound, the leftovers tucked away, my family exhausted but glowing, a "remember when" soundtrack on repeat in my head, the faces of friends new and old fresh in my mind's eye, a mound of generous gifts and envelopes that would fill the tomb of a pharaoh to overflowing...

... and the faintest trace of chrism on my palms. It is an unbearable weight, but it is a weight of glory.

The anointing of the Spirit, the Blood of the Son, and the loving gaze of the Father be upon you who were present and you who sent your prayers and wishes from afar.

+Ave María Purísima+

For those who inquired, the text of my homily is below.

Delivered at Holy Spirit Catholic Church
29 May 2011
Sixth Sunday of Easter
First Mass of Thanksgiving

Today’s readings are shot through with the Holy Spirit. Which is unusual; we’re not used to thinking about the Spirit or talking about the Spirit, even though He is so deeply involved in every moment of our existence. Even though it would be very imprecise to say that of the three persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the “closest” to us—whenever one is invoked, the other two rise up—still, it is in virtue of the sending of the Spirit that we can say God dwells within our hearts. We are, of course, the Temples of the Holy Spirit. Jesus refers to this promised Spirit in the Gospel today as the “advocate.”

“The Advocate.” It’s an English version of a Latin translation of a Greek word, “parakleitos”. It’s the word from which the word “Paraclete” is derived. That word He uses, “parakleitos,” it means something like “someone who is called up to stand along side you.” It was borrowed from the legal world: a courtroom word for “defense lawyer.” The “paraclete” stood beside you as your case came before the Judge and the case was read out against you. It also has the sense of a fellow mourner, someone who accompanies the grieving, and so “paraclete” is also where we get the word “comforter”. But “advocate” is what I’d like to hone in on this morning.

Recently the news cycle offered a really unexpected case of what it means to be an “advocate” in the Scriptural sense. The army and marines have been training certain dog breeds to serve as living bomb detectors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have proved to be incredibly successful. These dogs are unbelievable assets to soldiers under the constant threat of improvised explosive devices meant to kill and maim them on their patrols, and as you can imagine, the bond that develops between these dogs and their handlers is unbreakable. These animals accompany soldiers into incredibly dangerous situations and often save lives through their obedience and loyalty. They also are often killed in combat alongside their handlers.

One story in particular caught my attention. Last December, PFC Colton Rusk was on a patrol in the Helmand province in Afghanistan with several other Marines and his bomb dog, Eli, a black lab. Private Rusk had enlisted in the Marines right out of high school and had spent several months learning to work with Eli before deployment. War dogs undergo incredibly intense training along with their handlers, many of them learning to parachute out of planes into open water along with paratroopers or dive into tunnels to track down hidden enemy combatants. The training is long and intense in order to build trust and allow handlers and dogs to work together as a single unit before putting them in the field where lives are on the line.

In his letters home, Private Rusk described to his family how he had been eating his meals outside the mess tent with Eli while on deployment. He began this after another Marine had started a fight over the dog always following Rusk around and getting underfoot. They were absolutely inseparable.

So when Private Rusk was hit by Taliban sniper fire that day in December, Eli was the first to be at his side. When his fellow Marines rushed to his aid, they found Eli literally straddling Private Rusk with his body and ferociously driving off anyone that came near. In fact it was quite difficult for them to call off the dog in order to bring this soldier’s body home.

In a letter Private Rusk had written to his family not long before his death, he said of Eli: “whatever is mine is his”. Rusk had gotten to a point with this animal that was so generous that he identified this animal with his own self. And that generosity wasn’t draining or limiting him, but it nourished him, invigorated him, to the point that he regarded that dog as an extension of his own being, his own existence.

The Marines allowed Eli to be retired early in order to be adopted by Rusk’s family, and there was deep consolation for them to be able to love something their son and brother had loved so much. And in their love for this animal, they began to experience his presence with them in a mysterious way that only the heart knows. Private Rusk was 20 years old when he died.

There are a couple ways this seems to help us understand what is meant by an “advocate.” First, in terms of God’s relationship to us: the Advocate, the “paraclete,” does not make me invulnerable. Jesus’ promise is that the Spirit will be with us, not necessarily that it will prevent us from suffering or dying. But that promise extends even if we should die: he is there, with me, covering me with his own flesh and blood.

Second, that shift from a kind of itemized relationship that holds back here and there to one that recklessly abandons itself to giving and surrender to another is precisely the kind of thing the Paraclete Spirit brings about in our relationship with God.

The Goal of our life is to live with God forever. God, who loves us, gave us life. Our own response of love allows God's life to flow into us without limit.

To love God is to keep the commandments, yes. But a calculating, itemized keeping of the commandments is a kind of slavery. Recasting it into terms in which I can say “whatever is mine is His” lets God be a Father again: to provide from his means for my needs; to surprise me with his goodness, with little favors. In that kind of relationship, keeping the commandments isn’t a sacrifice, but just what I do because of who God is to me: a benevolent, caring, generous Father.

To be able to say “whatever is mine is His” and mean it is probably the closest colloquial definition of Christian perfection I know of. St. Ignatius Loyola crafted an intense program of preparation called the Spiritual Exercises that were built around forming people to live this very reality. Many of you are probably familiar with his famous prayer, the “suscipe,” which is a kind of culminating summary of his whole spiritual outlook:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace.
That is enough for me.
If I could presume to supplement Ignatius’ prayer: he mentions the external goods, our material possessions, and our interior ones like our minds and our freedom, but he doesn’t mention a third kind of possession that is both: our relationships. They are with other people, who are exterior to us, but they reach into the profound depths of our own lives and incessantly touch upon our own happiness. Those, too, are part of our offering: my relationship with my parents, my brothers and sisters, my roommates, my spouses, my co-workers, my children, my teachers, my pastor, my neighbors. When these relationships are surrendered to God, they too become animated with his sanctifying presence and caught up into the worship of the whole world. I speak on particular conviction on this point because I saw it happening last night in my own backyard. Believe it: it’s real.

So as we all enjoy this moment of blessed Sabbath rest in the Lord, let’s make our offering count.... as we go about our tasks, we can be known as those who mean it when they say, “whatever is mine, is His.” 

Related Links:


Fr. Shawn said...

I wonder how many priests from 3 North manage to devote the homily at their first Mass to a dog.

Tom Byrne said...

Good dog.