Sunday, July 15, 2012

In The Midst Of All That You Don’t Understand, Focus Your Attention On What You DO Understand: What You Know, By Faith, To Be True.

My grandfather, Nick Suriani, smiling (as he so often did) at Christmas, and in his big, green recliner

(Fifteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 15, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ephesians 1: 3-14.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifteenth Sunday 2012]

I call it, “the shrug”.

It happened more than 25 years ago, although in some respects it seems like yesterday.  I was visiting my grandfather—my father’s father—at his home in Barrington (which happened to be located directly in back of Holy Angels Church, my home parish when I was growing up).  Gramps was reclining in his big, green recliner in the center of the living room—sort of like the king in the middle of his kingdom; I was sitting on the couch to his left.  He was in his early-90s at the time, but, by the grace of God, he was still in relatively good health.  Even at that point, he had thick, strong forearms that were the result of many years of hard labor as a bricklayer. 

He lived until he was 98, and my grandmother lived almost as long.  God blessed them both with many years.

Unfortunately, however, three of their four children (including my dad) died before the age of 55—all of cancer.  And it was that sad series of events that we began to talk about that day when I was visiting.  And I’ll never forget it—at one point in the conversation my grandfather stopped talking.  He turned his head, looked right into my eyes, lifted his big arms, and with a sad look on his face did this. . . . (Shrug)

The shrug.

And then he sighed.

It was one of those simple, profound actions that spoke volumes.  It was as if he had verbally said to me, “Raym (Italians usually cut off the ends of words, and that’s the way it was with my grandfather.  He never called me Raymond—or even Raimondo—it was always ‘Raym’.)  Raym, I don’t understand it.  Here we are—your grandmother and I—over 90-years-old.  God has allowed us to live so long, and that’s great.  But at the same time he allowed three of our four children to die at such young ages.  That doesn’t make sense to me.  I can’t figure it out.”

I responded to his gesture by simply saying, “Yeah, gramps, I know.  I don’t fully understand it either.”

At that point, as I recall, I went over and gave him a hug.

And yet, my brothers and sisters, my grandfather was not an angry or bitter person.  Neither was my grandmother.  In fact, if you asked me what I remember most about my grandfather, I would tell you it was his smile—and his pleasant disposition.

And neither blamed God for the tragic events of the past.  They didn’t understand why God allowed certain things to happen as they did, but they never blamed him.  Both were people of deep faith.

Just ask Fr. Giudice.  As I said a few moments ago, my grandparents’ house was located directly in back of Holy Angels Church, and my grandfather would often walk over during the day and make visits to the Blessed Sacrament.  Well one afternoon Fr. Giudice happened to meet my grandfather as he was making one of his many visits, and he asked him, “Nick, what do you do when you come here to church during the day?”

My grandfather said, “I sit here and look at God, and God looks back at me.”

Many of the great spiritual masters would say that that’s a perfect description of contemplative prayer!

So obviously my grandfather found peace and strength by turning to the Lord and praying to him.  But I think there was something else at work here as well.

There were many things about his own life—and about life in general—that my grandfather did not understand.  That was clear from his “shrug”—and his sigh.

But there were also many other things that he DID understand!—things that he knew, by faith, to be true: for example, that God loved him, and that God was with him (even when he wasn’t “looking at the Lord” in church).  He also knew that Jesus died for him—and for his three deceased children—so that he and they could live forever someday in his kingdom.

And it was truths like these that my grandfather must have called to mind frequently (both when he was in church and when he wasn’t)—which gave him that great smile that he had on his face so often. 

I mention this today because I believe this is exactly what St. Paul did in his own life, which was also filled with trials and difficulties that he didn’t fully understand—like the “thorn in the flesh” he mentions in 2 Corinthians 12 (that God refused to take away).

In today’s second reading we have a passage from Ephesians 1 in which Paul lists some of the truths that he understood; things that he knew, by faith, to be true.  He lists them in the form of a hymn—perhaps a hymn that he and the early Christians sang when they gathered together for Mass. 

Listen to some of these verses again (this is from a translation that I think is a little better than the one we use in our Lectionary):

Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has bestowed on us in Christ every spiritual blessing in the heavens!  God chose us in him before the world began, to be holy and blameless in his sight, to be full of love; he likewise predestined us through Christ Jesus to be his adopted sons—such was his will and pleasure—that all might praise the glorious favor he has bestowed on us in his beloved.  It is in Christ and through his blood that we have been redeemed and our sins forgiven, so immeasurably generous is God’s favor to us.  God has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery, the plan he was pleased to decree in Christ, to be carried out in the fullness of time: namely to bring all things in the heavens and on earth into one under Christ’s headship.

There were many things that St. Paul didn’t understand, but he did understand what was most important in life: the mystery of salvation in Christ Jesus.  This hymn, which I’m sure he knew by heart and recited often—even outside of Mass—talks about so many things: that this life has a purpose; that we are God’s adopted children through the sacrifice of Jesus; that we’re called to be holy; that God has a plan for us and for the world; that we have an eternal destiny that’s rooted in what Jesus Christ has done for us.

As was the case for St. Paul, we all have situations and circumstances in our lives that are difficult to make sense of; things that we do not fully understand—and never will (on this side of the grave, at least).

So the message of my homily today is very simple: In the midst of all that you do not understand, focus your attention on what you do understand: what you know, by faith, to be true.

Like St. Paul did.

Like my grandfather did.