The Small, Still Voice

(Homily 19th Sunday, Year A)

This Sunday's Old Testament lesson caused me to recall my vocation, the day God made it clear he was calling me to the priesthood. A lot of things led up to it, but the moment itself was one of almost complete silence. I was working at a summer job right before my senior year. With a hand held grass clipper I was trimming the edge of a flower bed. It was beautiful, clear day like we sometimes get this time of year. In a single instant it came over me that I could become a priest. Not just as a theoretical possibility like it is for every Catholic boy, but as a real, actual possibility for me. I felt something very strange: a complete freedom but also the awareness my life was determined. Later I learned words for it: free will and grace. Then it was simply an overpowering experience and I was amazed that each morning I woke up it was still on my mind.

That was thirty six years ago. Since then I have never doubted that being a priest is God's will for me. I have had my good days and my bad days. And I have experienced the things human flesh is heir to: anger, discouragement, lust, laziness and so so. But thru it all, I have carried in my heart the assurance this is what God wants me to do with the existence he gave me.

I mention my experience of meeting God in a moment of silence not because I'm some great mystic. Far from it. But we have someone in our Old Testament reading who truly is a visionary. However, the prophet we meet today was discouraged man. He had good reason. The people were not following Yahweh, the God who saved them and even showed them his name. Instead were going after the gods of the culture. These were gods - and goddesses - whose worship involved making sex as an end in itself. I won't go into all the details. The most horrible part of this false religion was the regular, almost casual infant sacrifice. They would set up an altar to the god Molech, build a huge fire in front of him and then bring small babies and drop them in the fire, This infant sacrifice was common in the religions surrounding Israel.*

Why did the people follow such horrible gods? The reason was simple. It was these gods, they felt, who "delivered the goods." The economy was strong; it was an age of great prosperity, even tho it was unevenly distributed. Some people had beds of ivory; others were forced to sell their children for a pair of sandals. Now for Elijah the most depressing part of all this was that not only the people, but many priests had gone over these false religions. The prophet was so discouraged he stopped eating and wanted to just curl up under a tree and die.

But God did not allow him to do that. He told him to stop feeling sorry for himself, to eat something and to start walking. Elijah made a forty day pilgrimage to Mount Horeb, the place Moses received the law. At Horeb (Mt. Sinai) he found a cave and waited. First there came a hurricane wind, but God was not in the wind. Next an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then a blazing fire, but God was not in the fire. Finally a gentle, whispering breeze. Elijah covered his face, because, yes, God was in that small, still voice.

This was a crucial experience for Elijah. All those dazzling things, storms, fires, earthquakes, which before had seemed so irresistible, now turn out to be empty. He knew the nature gods had no enduring power. Armed with that knowledge he went back to Israel. Those who listened were saved from self-destruction. It is important to see how God spoke to Elijah: not so much in great forces of nature, but in a gentle breeze, a small, whispering voice.

That "small, still voice" has been heard very often in the course of the centuries. One of my favorite examples is Fr. Joseph Fulton. Some of you knew him and the lovely ministry he had for so many years here in Seattle. As a boy back in Brooklyn, he wandered into a Catholic church. It was most strange because Joseph was not a Catholic, but a Methodist. The Church was huge and a little eerie. He sat down in the pew. A warmth, an inner assurance overcame him. It was Jesus calling him first to be a Catholic, and eventually a Dominican priest. Fr. Fulton touched the lives of thousands and thousands of people. It all began with a moment of silence when he allowed God to speak to him.

We hear a lot about the crisis of vocations, the priest shortage. I sometimes feel that the only thing we are short on is silence. Our lives are so full of noise. Some of it is difficult to escape. I read that the average American is exposed to over two thousand advertisements every day, in newspapers and stores, the sides of buses and boxes. Each one, no matter how fleeting, is trying to get us to buy something. Purchase this item of clothing and you will be a beautiful, lovable person. Buy this: it will take away the stress, the pain you feel. This product will make you happy. Not all advertising is bad, but on the whole it creates false needs in us. I have blessed many homes and sometimes the moment of truth comes when people open up their closet. I've seen walk-in closets with fifty new dresses hanging in them! Now I don't want to pick on the women. To tell the truth I love to see a nicely dressed woman and I wish all of us would wear our best clothes when we come to worship God. But does any woman really need fifty new dresses?

Our consumer society is constantly trying to create false needs inside us. The "noise" of our world is relentless, but it does not necessarily have to overwhelm us. All of us have an inner ear which can be attuned to something better. I'd like to give an example which is more positive toward women. I remember once being in a crowded airport. People were coming and going, in and out of shops, constant announcements of arrivals and departures. But then in the distance a baby cried. Every woman's head lifted up. They were attuned to that sound. In the midst of our noisy world we can become attuned to a sound that is softer, but even more powerful.

But first we have to follow the example of Elijah. Find a cave, a quiet place, where God can speak to us. Here at Holy Family so many people have taken advantage of Exposition: all day Wednesday, all day Friday on thru the nite till Saturday morning. There are people who come to the chapel at 2, 3 or 4 in the morning to pray before Jesus in Blessed Sacrament. I am convinced that prayer is not only transforming individuals, but families and our entire parish.

At this point I want to say something very directly because some of you may have gotten the wrong impression from this homily. You may think I am saying we need prayer or contemplation for the sake of something else. If I pray, my life will get focused and I will succeed in my tasks. Or if I pray, I will be able to be a better mother. Or if I pray, our parish will turn around. All of that may be true. But it is putting the cart before the horse. Prayer, contemplation is really the purpose of our lives. We do all those other things to be able to finally enter into that intimate relationship with God. That is why the contemplative vocation is so important and that it stands on its own. Pope John Paul when he was a young man wanted to be a Carmelite. His bishop convinced him that was not his vocation, but the pope always talks about contemplation as the highest calling. So it is. It is what we will do eternally in heaven - and then it will be our greatest joy to contemplate God.

All of us need silence to listen to God. That is the true solution to the lack of love and purpose we often feel. It can get us back on the right road. It is the great source of vocations and deep renewal for our Catholic Church. You may have noticed that here in Holy Family weekend experiences are being offered for young women who perhaps are being called the contemplative vocation. The Church so needs people who will give their lives to the highest activity - contemplation of God. Also for young men next Saturday Derek will be having a vocation discernment. Since food is very important to young men, it will include a barbecue. But the basic goal will be to learn how to discern a calling, a vocation. I'm not talking about career guidance. Hopefully you will get that at school. This is about discerning ones central vocation in life.

In the New Testament the focus of contemplation becomes clear: Jesus Himself who the fullness of God in human flesh. Let me leave you with the image from the Gospel: Jesus calming storm. After our the lightening storms of this past week perhaps we can more easily picture it. One evening Derek and I went down to Lincoln Park to watch the lightening storm come across the Olympics. It was beautiful, but I was glad we were on shore, not out in some small boat. The disciples were in their fishing craft when a powerful storm struck. It seemed like they were certain to capsize. But Jesus came to them. "Be still. Do not be afraid. It is I," he said. He wants to speak those same words to you and to me. "Be still, do not be afraid." In that moment of stillness we can hear his voice.

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*Biblical references to Molech and infant sacrifice include:

"Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed [passed through the fire] to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 18:21)

I will do this because they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of the Moabites, and Molech the god of the Ammonites, and have not walked in my ways, nor done what is right in my eyes, nor kept my statutes and laws as David, Solomon's father, did. (1 Kings 11:33)

They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters [make their sons and daughters pass through the fire] to Molech, though I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin. ( Jeremiah 32:35)

More on this topic can be found by going to Bible Gateway and typing "Molech" in the search. Information about the religions which Elijah and the other prophets combatted can be found in Bible dictionary articles on Molech, Ashtaroth, Baal, Chemosh, etc.

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From Archives (for Nineteenth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2011: Two Tasks For Youth
2008: For the Sake of My Own People
2005: Lord, Save Me, I Am Drowning
2002: Men of Faith
1999: The Small, Still Voice

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