Sunday, June 26, 2016

13th Sunday of Ordinary Time

1 Kgs 19:16b, 19-21
Ps 23: 16:1-2, 5,7-8, 9-10,11
Gal 5:1, 12-18
Luke 9:51-62           

Today’s readings and gospel are rich in meaning and symbolism.  They are also dense and complex.  One common thread among them that speaks to us today is the question of our vocations, receiving, living and the cost of accepting them.

The Latin root of vocation, voco, vocare, vocatus means: to summon, to call, to name, to call upon, to invite, to challenge.  The meanings overlap a bit  but each is also distinct. A standard dictionary defines vocation as: a regular occupation, especially one for which a person is particularly qualified or suited, an inclination, as if in response to a summons, to undertake a particular kind of work, especially a religious career.  Then there is the very personal definition of vocation of Mother Dolores Hart, the movie actress who became a nun at Connecticut's Abbey of Regina Laudis 53 year ago: "A vocation is a call from God but not one you necessarily want."

One's vocation may involve membership in a particular order or congregation, vows, or ordination.  Those of us who came of age in the 50’s and 60’s tend to automatically associate the word ‘vocation’ with being a priest, sister, or brother.  ‘Vocation Day’ was always eagerly anticipated in parochial school, if for no other reason than several classes were suspended in favor of vocation talks.  Something like an in-school field trip.  It was certainly better than enduring arithmetic or, God forbid, algebra.  The Church's understanding of vocation has expanded since those days.

Today we speak of:
The vocation TO religious life
The vocation TO marriage
The vocation TO medicine
The vocation TO teaching
The vocation TO parenthood

Ultimately our vocations hinge on radical witness to Gospel values.  That radical witness is summarized in Paul’s letter the Galatians,  “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Elisha’s dramatic summons is fascinating.  Imagine being him. There you are working on a day like any other when a stranger comes up, tosses his cloak over you, and expects you to follow him? It would be odd. It would be frightening.  But that is what happens when we realize:
“This is it." 
"This is the life I will live." 
"This is the path I will follow." 
"This is the one whom I will follow."  

Many of us here probably have stories of how we came to realize our vocations at the most inconvenient time possible, much as it was for Elisha.  But we accepted the summons because in the end, when we realize our vocations, there really is no choice, something Mother Dolores knows very well. 

Jesus tells us of the cost of discipleship, the cost of accepting, following, and living out our vocations with integrity in the last verses of the Gospel.  That cost is very high.  When three men ask or are asked to follow Him Jesus does not respond with a warm and affirming “Great” or  “Welcome Aboard”  or  "Thank you for joining us.”  He gives them a reality check.  The first interchange reflects the challenge of being itinerant.  The demands of a vocation may keep us from being rooted in one place.  Or may force us to leave home for a place far away.  The last two replies seem almost cruel.  The late scripture scholar, Jesuit Fr. Dan Harrington, notes that the statement about not returning to bury one’s father is probably to be understood as deliberate hyperbole meant to shock the hearer into realizing that nothing is to be preferred to following Jesus, not even the solemn obligation to bury one’s parent.  Nothing takes precedence to discipleship and its demands.  Nothing takes precedence to living out one’s vocation.   The interchange with the third man has a modern counterpart.  “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” 

Most of us have never been behind a plow or even on the seat of a tractor.  But we’ve driven cars.   When driving our eyes must be fixed on where we’re going not where we’ve been.  Looking back while behind a plow causes a crooked row.  Looking back . . .  or, to put things in a contemporary setting, texting while driving results in disaster.   As the birthday card my older sister sent a few years ago says, "Honk if you love Jesus, text while driving if you want to meet Him."

To follow Jesus, to accept and live out one’s vocation, requires that we remain with our gaze fixed ahead, not behind from whence we came.  Our freedom to do so is radical.  We are free to accept or reject a vocation.  We are free to love our neighbor or treat our neighbor as a means to an end.  Ultimately we are free to say with the psalmist:

"You will not abandon my soul to the netherworld
Nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption
you will show me the path to life
Fullness of joy in your presence
the delights at your right hand forever."

The readings, particularly Jesus' advice in the gospel, are interesting.  Looking back on two of the marriages at which I officiated that have ended, I wish I'd had the foresight to remind the couples that once the ceremony is over you can't look back.  You can't continue to hang out with your buddies the way you did before being married, you can't put your girlfriends  first.  The relationships will change drastically.  You cannot live the life you did before committing to marriage.  You have said yes to another.  You have said yes to a particular way of life.  This way of life cannot be part-time.  It must be full-time with everything else taking second place.  The same is true when parenthood happens.  Stay behind the plow, keep going forward.  

The same is true for a man or woman entering religious life.  Your old life is gone.  A few years ago while making manifestation to the provincial he asked if I had ever thought of leaving the Society.  I responded that I had, generally once a year, and almost invariably when I was in Philadelphia.  I liked living in Philly during med school and loved it during psychiatry residency fifteen years later.  Whenever I found myself in Philly after entering I would eventually wander over toward the Parkway with the Art Museum at one end (think Rocky running up the steps) and the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul at the other.  And my apartment  with a view of the cathedral nearby.  During the three years I lived there I ran along the Parkway four or five days a week, attended concerts at the Academy of Music regularly (hearing violinist Sarah Chang's debut with the Orchestra remains the most memorable concert), explored restaurants, bookstores, and wandered.  Unfortunately I had not yet returned to photography as a hobby so there is no record.

Each of those times I would wonder about why I'd entered the Society and why I stayed.  And then at one of the medical school reunions it hit me.  I didn't want to leave the Society.  What fueled my thoughts was a sloppily sentimental nostalgia for being forty years-old again.  And THAT wasn't going to happen.  I was looking back at the energy I had then to run five or six miles early Sunday AM and then walk two miles to Mass followed by wandering the city for a few hours on the way back home.  One can look back and enjoy the memories but to recreate and relive those memories is impossible if for no other reason than age.  Once I figured out what drove my looking back the thoughts disappeared.  No, I ain't never gonna be forty again.  Might as well get used to the idea and stay behind the plow.  

Ljubljana at night was fascinating.  Just before I went to Slovenia I acquired 50 mm equivalent f 1.4 lens that allows hand held photography at night as opposed to needing a tripod.  A few days after arriving I went out in the neighborhood.  Am pleased with the results. 

This first is not technically a night shot but it is low-light.  It is the chapel at the Jesuit church.  The church is huge.  Vast.  It would be brutally expensive to heat in the winter.  Thus, the English-language Mass was held in here on Sunday.  The chapel was redesigned by Br. Robert who is an accomplished architect.  The simplicity is breathtaking.  He used/uses light very creatively as seen in the tabernacle that is lit from behind.  The translucent door is etched with the Jesuit sunburst IHS logo.  

This is the street alongside the Jesuit community and church.  It was about 9 PM when I took these.  Ljubljana is very quiet at night.

A little further down on the road leading to the canal. 

The canal runs through a significant swath of the city.

A viaduct over the canal. 

I'd had coffee earlier in the day at this coffee house with two men.  Lovely little place adjacent to the canal.   The table in the window (indoors, unlike most Slovenians I am not keen on sitting at an outdoor café in 50 degree weather drinking coffee.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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