November 29, 2009


Stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand. Lk 21: 28

There is a fiscal year & a calendar year, & then there is the Church Year, which begins now, with the first Sunday of Advent. Like the best known New Year on Jan 1st, we church folk usher out the old & welcome the new with chaos. It’s bedlam time, time to symbolically explode the old, as it were, obliterate the past, so that we can make a new, fresh beginning. That’s what the apocalyptic images in today’s Gospel do. They are meant to obliterate a sinful past & prepare us to make a new spiritual beginning. That’s what the gospel’s sound & fury are all about. It’s the challenge to live the spiritual life better than we did last year.

But what do we mean by “the spiritual life?” First of all, it is not for wimps. It’s quite realistic & robust. It is a necessity, a goal dearly to be achieved, so we must look at it thoughtfully. How can we know that we are – or are not – a spiritual person? There are five quite sensible signs:

1) We must have the capacity for transcendence. Put simply, it means we are aware that there’s more to life than meets the eye. A thorough-going secularist will insist that there is no God or afterlife, no meaning or purpose to life, which is fundamentally absurd, a cosmic joke. The spiritual person, however, senses hidden presences in every flower, in art & friendship that hints at something more to life. In short, mystery beckons to them.

2) You are a spiritual person if you have developed a sense of vocation, i.e., they see work, not as a job, but as a calling. For them, marriage has a spiritual significance. Their life, however unfamous, counts. They sense they were put here for a reason.

3) You are a spiritual person if at times you experience a heightened state of consciousness, which means you sense a Presence or Nearness, a Harmony that all makes sense. It may happen during prayer, or seeing an awesome sunset, or having a child fall asleep in your lap. All, for the moment is well, & for the moment you are into something higher, something quite gracious. A famous couplet makes the point here: “Two men looked out their prison bars; the one saw mud, the other stars.” Every once in a while we are privileged to see some stars.

4) Do you use spiritual resources to resolve problems? Yes, you resort to natural helps & turn to those whose skill can help you; but you also turn to prayer, seek solitude, perhaps talk things over with a spiritual director. A spiritual person tries to put life into a larger context.

5) Finally & practically, you are a spiritual person if you do decent things, not just occasionally but habitually. You actually show forgiveness, express gratitude, display compassion, tithe, bring your faith into the marketplace. You’re basically honest & tell the truth.

Darryl Hill was the first African-American to play football for the Univ. of Maryland in the early 1960’s. Not surprisingly, he received a lot of abuse from fans in the stands, particularly from a team called the Deacons from Wake Forest , NC . With the pre-game warm up ended & the nastiness in high gear, Hill noticed the Wake Forest captain approaching him. He stopped in front of Hill & said, “Look, I want to apologize for the behavior of my fans.” Then he did an astonishing thing. He draped his arm over Hill’s shoulder, & began to walk openly with him toward the Wake Forest side of the field where the jeering was at its worst. By the time the two of them reached the middle of the field the rude screaming had dropped to a near silence.

Now, that took a lot of courage for that captain. Who was he? He was Brain Piccolo who years later would inspire TV’s Brian’s Song, which dramatized his relationship with African-American player Gale Sayers & Piccolo’s losing battle with cancer. A spiritual person does moral things, even when it hurts.

So here we are at the start of a new Church Year united in our collective weaknesses & yearnings, yet knowing that we are called to be a spiritual person especially when the world’s hotspots (Iraq, Afghanistan, N. Korea, the Middle East) & coldspots (corruption, consumerism, conceit) are threatening to undermine & destroy our lives, even our planet. Becoming a more spiritual person is our goal, our hope, for the New Church Year. AMEN!