Wednesday, April 21, 2010

04-25-2010: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 13:14,43-52 / Psalm 100 / Revelation 7:9,14-17 / John 19:27-30
One might agree without need of statistics, on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, that vocations to the priesthood and Religious life have been on the decline for decades. The current sex abuse scandal surely can’t help matters, but the decline was well under way long before the Boston Globe or New York Times (whatever their intent) started reporting stories that have exploded into a major crisis for the Church. Some argue that the decline in vocations is due to the simple fact that no one answers because - no one called. We’re being ushered into a new way of being church, priests and Religious Brothers and Sisters belong to a bygone age, past and passé. Others say that our modern world is just too noisy. Distractions abound and young people are stone deaf to the language of religion as a meaningful experience. We need a return to a more reverent silence, they say, where the voice of the Master can once again be heard. In a new book by George Prochnik, The Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, the author travels from noisy Brooklyn to the crypt chapel of a Trappist Monastery in Iowa, “a place so quiet,” a reviewer of the book notes, “that visitors sometimes find themselves physically unable to remain there.” An observation which raises the intriguing question of whether there is such a thing as complete silence, and further, if anyone would really want to experience it. The metaphor for vocation, meanwhile, comes from today’s gospel of the Good Shepherd: his sheep hear his voice and they follow him. Yes, there are a lot more distractions in our twenty-first century world than in the bucolic settings of a first century Palestine. Problem is: who speaks sheep anymore?

Noise as a metaphor for chaos, as the opposite of meaningful sound, may be somewhat if not wholly a cultural thing. At my last parish in the heart of Brooklyn my bedroom window was about fifty yards from the elevated J train. You would think that might have posed a problem in summertime when open windows were more preferable to the white noise of the air conditioner. But I had no problem with the J train; it was the rooster in the neighbor’s backyard that drove me crazy, until they found him dead one day - of mysterious causes.

I once had the opportunity of meeting Matthew Kelly, an Australian Catholic whose claims of having heard the voice of Jesus have gained him a wide international following. Out of curiosity, or maybe just plain skepticism, I asked him if Jesus spoke with an Australian accent. He couldn’t say. It seems disembodied voices do not come to us in the same way other sound enters our bodies. But Kelly, like others down the centuries who have claimed locutions, heard the voice speaking his (Kelly’s) English language and not the Aramaic of Jesus’ day. In other words, the experience – for all its mystical awe - is a translated event.

One of my favorite episodes from the original Star Trek series is the one where the Star Trek crew comes upon a long lost human who was thought to have perished long ago. The man has not aged but has lived, seemingly alone, on the forgotten planet for centuries. The crew soon discovers, however, that the man is regularly visited by a phenomenon he calls The Companion, an energy field that envelopes the man when he calls upon it and from which he emerges energized and at peace. By the time Captain Kirk and the crew find him, technology has advanced, and they use their universal translator when the man once again enters the field enveloped by The Companion. To everyone’s surprise, the universal translator translates the energy frequencies into a human voice – a woman’s voice. It quickly becomes obvious that The Companion is in love with the man; she has preserved him all this time not simply as an act of altruism or charity – but from attraction, affection and concern.

If, indeed, the Lord still calls, it should be the great work of the Church to act as universal translator of the ancient and ever-new revelation. The translation of Jesus’ call, the ruminations of divine love, will mean little to any of us if it is not grounded in a vocabulary of attraction: romantic in an adventurous sense, seducing us more subtly than the contemporary allurement of sexual gratification, more genuinely sensual than merely intellectual or doctrinaire. The Church fears such an undertaking, understandably so. It is safer, by far, to keep speaking sheep, using the vocabulary and cultural metaphors of bygone days and long-forgotten idioms which eventually ring hollow. The Church must experiment, change the frequency on that universal translator, as it were, so the bleating and bahs of the language of sheep will give way to the probing questions of the young (and the old) who, despite the din and drone, are still - and still listening for meaning in this world of noise.

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