Like any good prophet, Jeremiah was a reluctant servant of the Lord. And like any good prophet, he protested his unworthiness to preach the word of the Lord to those who needed to hear it. He didn’t know how to speak well. He was too young. He was afraid of how people might react. He wasn’t exactly sure about what he was to say.
In the last few days the first readings at Mass have come from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, and they present a dilemma that is both ancient and modern. Jeremiah felt torn between what God might be asking from him and what he himself might prefer to do. Jeremiah tried to beg off, but in the end none of his objections mattered. The divine mind had been made up. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I dedicated you; a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” What could Jeremiah say in response? What could any of us say to a commission like that?
In the long run God supplied all the words that Jeremiah needed. To his own surprise. Jeremiah opened with the simplest of invitations, and God seemed to take it from there. “Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah!” Then the words flowed freely, and Jeremiah must have marveled at how God had taken possession of him and accomplished great things through him.
In his Rule Saint Benedict opens with an invitation that parallels Jeremiah’s words. “Listen” is what Benedict encourages his disciples to do, and he promises that listening will transform their lives. But of course the big challenge is to dispose ourselves to listen in the first place.
Listening takes a bit of work these days, simply because there is way too much stuff bombarding our ears. It’s a challenge to sort through it all, especially when the marketers draft appeals that can be tough to resist. We cannot blame them, of course, because that’s their job. Whether it’s political posturing or aggressive pitches for products we might not need, the advertising is constant and almost militant.
Neither Jeremiah nor Benedict urges on us a passive listening, however. It’s easy enough to cede personal responsibility to live good and thoughtful lives when we merely surrender to the flow. In fact, however, it is our responsibility to sort through the mass of appeals and distinguish between the junk mail and what is truly life-giving. Then it is critical to realize the consequences of our choices.
It’s amazing how little things have changed since someone first told the story of Adam and Eve. Those two made their choice and then blamed the serpent for false advertising, when in fact they only had themselves to blame. They had listened to the promise of the serpent, but they’d not listened critically. They seemed oblivious to any consequences that might follow, and they would have to pay the price for what they’d decided to do with their lives.
That, it seems to me, gets to the core of the listening that both Jeremiah and Benedict urge on us. This is neither “easy listening” nor “listening as entertainment.” Instead, this is the sort of listening that determines the direction of our lives. This listening requires a mulling over of sometimes difficult choices, but that’s the whole point. It’s all challenging because our very being matters — if not to the marketers, then at least to God.
There’s a wonderful lesson to draw from Jeremiah and Benedict, and it’s this. They practiced what they preached. Each listened to the word of the Lord, and each let it percolate in his mind until listening became inspiration, and inspiration led to action. They were anything but passive listeners, and the experience was transformative.
Like God did with Jeremiah, so God does with us. From before our birth God has fashioned us and dedicated us. God destined us to be more than consumers of products or political zealots. Instead, God created us in the divine image and means us to live noble and thoughtful lives. All we need do is pause and listen to what God has to put to us. Then, if we can respond in the affirmative, we open ourselves to the great things God will do with us. That, it seems to me, is the real reward of a life well-lived.
+On July 21st I attended a reception for alumni and friends of Saint John’s in San Francisco. It was a wonderful gathering, which was preceded by evening prayer at Grace Cathedral. In attendance were Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University, as well as alumni chaplain Fr. Don Talafous.
On July 21st and 22nd Brother Paul Richards staged a massive rummage sale in Guild Hall at Saint John’s. He has done this for several years now, and the proceeds benefit the Benedictine Volunteer Corps. In August some twenty recent alumni of Saint John’s University will depart for year-long postings at Benedictine abbeys in Africa, South and Central America, Europe and to one site in the US — Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ.
+Through the winter I was remarkably fortunate in that travels generally went smoothly. Not so this week, when storms at the Minneapolis airport managed to transform a three-hour flight into a European-length adventure. We boarded in plenty of time, and just as we were ready to push back a big storm came rolling through. There we sat for a while. And then we sat some more. Then we taxied out to the runway, only to discover that we no longer had enough fuel to complete the flight. So back we went to the gate to get more gas. Then another storm rolled through. It was three hours, cooped on the plane, before we took off. Then we went east for forty-five minutes before going west. Altogether we were on the plane for over seven hours. Remarkably, people took it all in stride, and no one got irate about it. But we were more than ready to run off the plane on arrival.
+In the last few weeks I’ve heard hints that many did not receive mailings of this blog. Some readers thought I had given up or lopped them off the mailing list. In fact, as I discovered this week from one reader in Los Gatos, CA, the blog site WordPress was simply overwhelmed with too much business. Hopefully they have added capacity. In the meantime, all those posts are still there in the archive. In case you missed something and have nothing else to do on a delayed flight, they are waiting to be read.
+The photos in today’s post hark back to a gentler time, when the sound of birds and streams tended to tickle the ears rather than cable television. I took these two summers ago in a village in the Cotswolds, to the west of London.