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Terrance KleinAugust 03, 2022
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (Wikimedia)

A Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wisdom 18:6-9 Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19 Luke 12:32-48

We tend to shellac our saints, which is probably inevitable once we put them on a pedestal. It is not that they do not deserve the height; it is that, from down here, they are harder to see in their entirety.

Because they were themselves sentinels, taking another look at the saints can help us respond to this command of the Lord:

Gird your loins and light your lamps
and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding,
ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks (Lk 12:35-36).

The church has always seen three senses in this passage of Scripture and in others like it that speak of vigilance. The first is cosmic in scope. History will close in Christ. The second could not be more particular. Our own stories have a final chapter, and, for all we know, we may be writing them now. And the third is even more pressing! It concerns who Christ is in this age of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who gave himself to us and continues to do so if we are ready to receive him.

God is sometimes most present to us when God seems most absent. You would be at peace, and not desire God so, if the Lord were not in your life.

If you read them, many of our saints write of God coming to us in what might be called “a burning absence.” It was St. Augustine who first pointed out that we can only burn with desire for God, chafe at God’s absence in our daily life, when we have already seen, or felt, something of God. So, paradoxically, God is sometimes most present to us when God seems most absent. Put another way, you would be at peace, and not desire God so, if the Lord were not in your life. Our deep yearning for God is the first sign of God’s presence in our life.

Here is how Augustine put it in his Confessions:

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new. Late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong, I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped, and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

To see this play out in the life of a saint—one whom we, sadly, seldom let step down from her pedestal—consider this passage from St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She wanted to enter religious life long before it would have been proper. When her local Carmelite convent denied her premature request, her beloved father took her on a pilgrimage to Rome to comfort her.

If you feel a longing for God, take heart. You are alert and ready to receive the bridegroom. If you were not, his absence would not burn.

It did not. She felt abandoned by the church and by the God who had previously been so present to her. Yet what this young woman, who died at age 24, wrote of this time reveals why she is not only a saint but also a doctor of the church. Who else could understand that the purpose of prayer is not our pleasure, not even our directly experienced fulfillment? No. It is to place ourselves before the Lord, to offer ourselves to him as he gave himself to us. Only 14 at the time, Thérèse rereads her abandonment as God’s amusement.

I had offered myself, for some time now, to the Child Jesus as His little plaything. I told Him not to use me as a valuable toy children are content to look at but dare not touch, but to use me like a little ball of no value which He could throw on the ground, push with His foot, pierce, leave in a corner, or press to His heart if it pleased Him; in a word, I wanted to amuse little Jesus, to give Him pleasure; I wanted to give myself up to His childish whims. He heard my prayer.
At Rome, Jesus pierced His little plaything; He wanted to see what there was inside it and having seen, content with His discovery, He let His little ball fall to the ground and He went off to sleep. What did He do during His gentle sleep and what became of the little abandoned ball? Jesus dreamed He was still playing with His toy, leaving it and taking it up in turns, and then having seen it roll quite far He pressed it to His heart, no longer allowing it to ever go far from His little hand.

We may indeed find great comfort in prayer, but it is more than that. If you faithfully pursue prayer, it will pass beyond consolation. Why? Because prayer is a surrender, a giving of ourselves to God.

Christ’s soul was not suffused with comfort when he died on the cross. Ours may or may not be this way when we come to prayer, which is why that other great Carmelite doctor, St. Teresa of Ávila, suggested that some of our most fruitful prayers are those that seem the driest. They are the purer offering to God. She ridiculed those who can produce comforting prayer experiences on demand.

It shouldn’t be thought that he who suffers isn’t praying, for he is offering this to God. And often he is praying much more than the one who is breaking his head in solitude, thinking that if he has squeezed out some tears he is thereby praying.

If we wander from God, we dull the desire for the Lord written into our hearts. They become lost in the waves of the world, and they do not experience a burning absence of God. If you feel a longing for God, take heart. You are alert and ready to receive the bridegroom. If you were not, his absence would not burn.

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