I love the candor in Thomas Merton’s journals. I love it that someone who has helped me so profoundly in my spiritual formation could himself go to Mass and grumble later about how frightfully dull and vapid the liturgy and homily had been.
So then I am struck by this entry (in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander), from a Palm Sunday in the 60’s: “Father John is one of the few men in the monastery who have anything to say in a sermon. When it is his turn to preach, everybody listens. What he preaches is really the Gospel, not words about the Gospel or knowledge of the Gospel, or yet knowledge of Christ. It is one thing to preach Christ, another to preach that one knows Christ. I know the integrity of this man is very costly to him. He suffers very much in order to be true to his own heart, that is to the heart which God has given him, and which has in it a mysterious command that no one here is able to understand.”
I think I want to grow up to be like Father John. I think. I wonder how much of my preaching is about the Gospel, or knowledge about Christ. I preach Christ. I’m a little wary actually of preaching that I know Christ. My faith and piety aren’t so amazing anyhow, but I want to be sure the sermon isn’t about me and my faith.
Maybe Merton means something different though. Maybe it’s that Father John exhibits, somehow, behind his eyes, beneath his voice, maybe in a subtle gesture, or emanating quietly from his pores, an intimacy with Christ, a love for Christ, a relationship with Christ. Maybe my dream is that instead of loading energy into sermon preparation, I fix my gaze more on Christ, and let others peek into that circle, even if the relationship with Christ is a struggle or a bit hazy at times.
Do I suffer for my preaching? I know at times I do, and it’s because of the malformation of the people listening. They are fully bathed in the rancor of our society, so they quite reflexively get mad at me when I don’t mirror back to them their biased thinking. I know at many other times, I suffer for my preaching because I’m out of sync with the Gospel. I am plying them with my pet ideas and preferences, or venting my frustrations with them.
I shiver over Merton’s suggestion that the preacher should be “true to his own heart.” Feels like we're saying whatever is in my heart is holy, or that simply expressing myself is my highest calling. Merton’s clarification corrects this: Father John preaches his heart, but it’s “the heart which God has given him.” Is my heart my own? Or have I thoroughly, repeatedly, painfully and expectantly asked God to “create in me a new heart” (Psalm 51)? I want to preach what is in my heart, but then I am still on some waiting list for the heart transplant required before doing so. Or maybe I’ve had some partial heart surgery. Maybe a ventricle or a chamber of my heart is of God. How do I preach from there, and not from the unconverted chambers of my heart?
I’m going to ponder Father John, and Merton’s admiration of his preaching some more, and see where that leads me.