Two and a half weeks ago, after 10 years of religious life, I was ordained a deacon. Suddenly, my life includes dedicated, quite public weekend work. Suddenly, I am charged with preaching the word of God at several Masses in three different parishes. It is fantastic, but grinding work. I have been a relentless critic of windy, meandering, irrelevant homilies for many years. As I said in my first homily, I have been to a lot of Masses over the last several years, and I have never said, nor have I ever heard anyone else ever say, “Boy, I wish that homily had been a few minutes longer.”
It takes a great deal of work, a great deal of prayer, a great deal of attention to the world around us, and a great deal of humor to construct a homily that is brief, thoughtful and efficacious in breaking open the word of God. It also takes some excellent resources. For Catholics, Sacra Pagina, edited by Daniel Harrington, S.J., is the gold standard in providing a historical context and critical interpretation of the texts of the New Testament. However, I want to introduce more widely, through the Catholic Book Club, Erasmo Levia-Merikakis’s three-volume meditation and commentary on the gospel of Matthew. Published by Ignatius Press, the books are huge (around 2,284 pages total), and they only cover Matthew’s gospel through chapter 25. It is an immense resource that has enriched my prayer, my retreat talks and, now, my preaching.
Erasmo Levia-Merikakis was a professor of comparative literature at the University of San Francisco for many years. Of Greek and Cuban descent, he earned a doctorate in comparative literature from Emory University. He is an exceptional linguist. He was married and is the father of three and grandfather of six. In 2003, he entered St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. Now, he is a Trappist monk serving as secretary to the Abbot General of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. His has taken the name Brother Simeon. His life and scholarship is truly remarkable. Levia-Merikakis applies a wealth of literary knowledge—French, Spanish, Hebrew, Greek, and English—to Matthew’s account of Jesus. I learn something on every page, and to avoid belaboring my pallid description of an exceptional biblical resource, I will offer three extended quotes from Levia-Merikakis’s work as a sample of the author’s insight into Scripture.
In a meditation on Matthew 3:7 (one phrase within one verse), Levia-Merikakis offers the following quote which has become the core of my retreat preaching:
Our existence must become one continuous flowing toward others and God. Repentance is the heat that melts us so that we can start moving, since where there is no movement there is no life. And this precious movement constituted by the water of our tears is the irrigation that fertilizes the tree of our will that it may yield the fruit of good works. On this subject Leon Bloy [a French novelist] leaves us a dazzling insight when he says: “When you die, that is what you take with you: the tears you have shed and the tears you have caused to be shed, your capital of bliss and terror. It is on these tears that we shall be judged, for [as on the first page of Genesis], the Spirit of God is always borne upon the waters” (Volume 1, 114).
The quote from Leon Bloy demonstrates the breadth of Levia-Merikakis’s literary knowledge and conveys the importance of utmost honesty before God and others.
Here is a sample of Levia-Merikakis’s insight into the Matthean parable of the unforgiving servant of Matthew 18:
Compared to what each of us owes God, our debts to one another are trifling, for we are not each other’s creators, nor can we absolutely forgive sin. Ten thousand talents translate into one hundred million denarii; and, since the denarius was the ordinary wage for one day of work, the equivalent in time is more than 2739 years of work! What we owe God, in other words, cannot possibly be repaid either in this world or the next. By comparison, the fellow servant owed the first debtor a mere one hundred denarii, which is to say three months’ wages – a very reasonable sum that could easily be paid off. The profound irony of the parable lies in the fact that the greater the debt is, the greater the capacity for forgiveness God shows, while the smaller the debt is, the more absolute is the human inability to forgive. (Volume II, 646)
Lastly, many of Levia-Merikakis’s meditations conclude with prayer. In his commentary on the parable of the two sons (Mt 21:28-32) where one son refuses his father’s request yet shows up for work while his brother agrees to work yet never appears in the vineyard, Levia-Merikakis offers the following prayer:
Left to myself, Lord Jesus, I am nothing but endless vacillation, inconsistency, and sluggishness. My instinct is either to say No to every invitation extended by God or by life or to mumble a half-hearted Yes that I do not intend to live out. The only continuity in my will is this desire of mine for you, this dogged yearning for you that will not go away, no doubt kindled by your own unaccountable desire for me. Faith in your avowed desire for me is the only source of my hope. Thank you for not abandoning me to my own ways…Come, Lord Jesus, come, and utter within me the eternal and untiring Yes that is the substance of your being. Inject the blessed energy of your Yes into my heart, for only then will it issue from my lips in praise and from my hands in deeds, now as only one Yes, our Yes, intending only the glory of our Father and the salvation of our world…May the Mother of the Word who is always Yes, give birth to this Word in my heart that I may become an assenting son in the Son. (Volume III, 458)
These words have been a source of consolation and teaching for me. I hope they enrich your prayer as well.
Two questions to conclude:
1. What scriptural commentaries enrich your prayer, your preaching, your relationship with God?
2. Have you encountered Levi-Merikakis? If you have, how has his commentary affected you?