2 Timothy 1:8-10
Have you ever suddenly found yourself in a divine space, utterly removed from the world and in the presence of Heaven? Have you ever encountered angels or perhaps received loved ones from the greater life in the middle of your bedroom at night? I have, and I have met reliable, stable people who have spoken with the Lord Jesus Christ including a past-president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. But this should not surprise us. Jesus has been speaking to people on earth from Saul of Tarsus on a dusty road to Damascus to Margaret Mary Alacoque to Faustyna Kowalska to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whom somebody in this room met and spoke with, and to people around us today. Indeed, God has been speaking to His human creatures from the time of Eden. As our Mass readings revealed last week, He spoke to Adam and Eve, and in this week's readings we find Him speaking to Abraham.
We tend to think of encounters with God as happening on a grand stage that is far above and beyond us .... until we stand on that stage ourselves and realize that it is no different from any other aggregation of humans. All places are the same in God's eyes — from the great Prophets to our next-door neighbors, God's human creatures and their God. Famously constant, God is always the same for all of us. After all, we might be impressed by the difference between a king and a ditch-digger, but what is that to Him? God is very near to us. All of us.
What does distance His human creatures from God is something far more ordinary and well within the capacity of human powers: we are reluctant to share our divine experiences with anyone. People who have been blessed with divine encounters lock them away among their most closely guarded secrets. As time passes, they might even begin to wonder if this otherworldly meeting had ever happened in the first place. Consider the case of Abraham and Sarah. God calls them away from the princely city of Ur of the Chaldees to live in one wilderness after another. Abram, as he was then called, was seventy-five at the time. Sar'ai was sixty-five. We can easily imagine, after decades passed, that Sar'ai asked Abram, "Are you sure that it was God Whom you heard?" And we will understand if she, still without child at age ninety, asked, "Are you sure that He used the word 'descendants'"? Indeed, would we begrudge Abram if he doubted these experiences himself. Isn't that how humans behave?
Upon seeing Jacob Marley's ghost, Ebeneezer Scrooge says, "You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato." Or following Simba's divine visitation of his father, Mufasa, in The Lion King — You see, I've raised children and grandchildren — the wisdom figure, Rafiki, says, "Strange weather we're having!" A towering question is being posed here: How many of us have the courage to receive God? Even among the faithful who cherish these divine favors, most people are reluctant to tell anyone, for they fear they will not be believed. And we call to mind Mother St. Teresa's advice about revealing holy encounters: "Do not cast your pearls before swine."
I believe that encounters with Heaven are commonplace and that hiding them in absolute secrecy is no less common. During the 1990s, I was a seminarian serving as lay chaplain to a large public university. Among my duties was the privilege of offering a homily every other week at a parish church just off-campus. (I should add that I had ministered and preached for several churches in the community for about ten years before that.) I had this responsibility for two years, and it had become set in my routine and schedule. The period leading up to one of these preaching dates, however, was unlike the others. The Holy Spirit seemed to be pushing me to reveal very private things about my life in the pulpit — my own encounters with the divine. Lections during weekly Mass, a short story I had heard on NPR, things people said to me in random conversation, .... it seemed everywhere I looked every day .... seemed to conspire and persuade me and they spoke with one voice: "Step up and speak clearly and boldly! Do not be ashamed of the Good News!" (as we call to mind St. Paul). And, yet, I previously had been reluctant to discuss this with anyone. I was not ashamed really, but I was afraid, afraid that I would be laughed at or mocked or even fired from the parish for preaching on outlandish subjects. And I kept thinking about my duty to guard the holy.
With all of this on my mind, I built up the courage to approach a seminary professor, an older priest, with my dilemma. I recounted the details of what seemed to be a divine appointment, and he agreed that it did seem to be of God and that the Holy Spirit did seem to be pushing me in this direction. And then he said something that completely surprised me: "But you had better be prepared for what will follow this homily. You will give many people permission to talk about something they never shared before." I was so caught off-guard by this comment, that I didn't know what to say. Far from thinking my homily off-beat, he had suggested the opposite, that this subject was common, widely held, and not outlandish at all.
Then came the feared Sunday morning. The prayers were said; the Collect of the Day was prayed; the lessons were read. And I trod my slow, fateful path to the pulpit. When I opened my mouth, I discovered a strength and timber that I had never experienced before. The Holy Spirit was elevating my poor homily to a new level of reverence and import. (You could feel it.) And I watched as people all over the church remained absolutely fixed upon me, as if hanging on my every word. There were no rolled eyes. There were no indignant whispers. There was no buzz around the nave. There was only silence ..... and holiness.
Afterwords, once I had vested in a black cassock for coffee hour, I saw a crowd of people waiting for me. I never even got to the coffee urn. I was mobbed, and I would remain standing on that same spot for more than an hour as people stood in line to talk with me, many of whom I had never met before. There were older ladies, some with tears streaming down their faces, telling me stories of visitations they had had with blessed grandmothers or aunts or mothers coming to them, it was said repeatedly, just before a crisis or tragedy became generally known. Older men spoke with me saying, "I have never breathed a word of this to anyone until now ...." One after another, people were unlocking their secret treasures, hidden for decades, and now so grateful that they finally could be shared.
I walked away that Sunday morning with one thought on my mind: Christians live in a big, beautiful space with Heaven's light pouring down upon us and upon our loved ones both "quick and dead." Those in the greater life are praying for us, watching us, and loving us. We are joined around the Altar every day praying with Angels and Archangels and all the Company of Heaven. And yet, we feel we must lock our wonderful faith away, not under Heaven's light, but in a vast dark prisonhouse, remaining solitary and refusing to share, of all things, Heaven. We are not tied. We are not gagged. This is all of our own free will.
At this point many may be thinking, "But why hasn't this happened to me?!" And I share now what I voiced aloud to God when the many miracles that have marked my life began: "Why me?! I already believe with all my heart, my soul, and my mind! Why not someone who does not believe?!" And, over time, two realizations came to me. First, I remembered a passage from the Proverbs that I first saw engraved in stone over a church doorway: "The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God." As a boy I wondered, "Aren't all souls in the hand of God?" but learned as an adult that we become separated from God. Not ultimately from God's love, for nothing can separate us from God's love, and He is swift to bless when we return to Him. But we do become separated from Him, and we must understand if our Father finds that He cannot bless everything that we do. The second revelation came as I recalled the Lord's words related through a parable: the rich man suffering in eternal flames and pleading, "Let me go back and warn my brothers!" We all know the reply: "They would not believe you. Did we not send them the Prophets?"
These two passages combine to form an all-important principle: God does not use miracles to convert unbelievers. Indeed, when He entered history in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, He forbade anyone who discovered His identity and bad them remain silent, as we read in the Gospel this morning. Heavenly blessings are reserved for His friends, for those who have given Him their hearts. It a love affair, you see. Could any of you give yourself entirely to someone who will not share their heart? Moreover, who else but those who look for Him will find Him? I have seen Him offer plain and obvious messages to people who refuse to see them! If we do not look for Him, we shall never see Him.
And now we hear His voice: "This unbelieving generation will not receive a sign, save the sign of Jonah" (Mt 12:39). The sign of Jonah! The greatest miracle of human history! The Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ! Do you believe this? The turning point of all human history? The reason we call this very moment the Year of our Lord 2017? If you do not believe this with all of your heart, soul, and mind, then neither would you believe the Prophets .... nor a loved one returned from the dead. And neither will you discern the thousands of messages He has sent to you throughout the brief span of your life.
"Today if ye hear His voice, harden not your hearts" (Heb 3:15). Day by day He makes divine appointments for each of us that He expects us to keep, for we are His hands and His feet and His eyes and His heart on this earth, and He comes to us not to be served, but to serve (Mk 10:45); He is in the midst of us as One who serves (Lk 22:27), and now this ministry depends upon you and me.
And the divine appointments? Yes, they will lead us into service, but, more important, they will lead us to Him. We must keep our hearts and minds fixed on the knowledge and love of God. As St. Athanasius has written, our salvation depends upon our contemplation of Him. St. Theresa of Avila reminds us to be in conversation with Him always. For it is only then that we begin to notice the details, both great and small, through which He speaks into each of our lives. We will notice uncanny coincidences. We will with meet with people whom He has sent to us. We will find, it seems, our whole world ordered to our own spiritual journey. And we will discern our divine appointments, perhaps even a vocation to religious life.
Needless to say, everyone misses some portion of these appointments. I am sure that I have failed many, many times. And I grieve to confess that I did not act upon those I plainly saw. But we must not fall into such grave sin. It is not as if we could back to that very place where we refused Him. That now is lost forever. But we must not go on ignoring Him, insulting Him, rejecting Him. For these appointments are nothing less than our path to Heaven, to friendship with God, and alone constitute our own fulfillment and happiness. He knocks. Open the door. For that door leads to life.
Yes, the experience of the divine can be overwhelming.
When the time comes that you behold angels,
you will understand why they always say first,
"Be not afraid,"
for their very appearance is awe-inspiring.
But they are not more inspiring than the reality
of a God Who has created our entire lifeworld,
Who numbers the hairs upon our heads,
Who was hung on a Cross that we might live.
Be not afraid!
Be not afraid of the angels who surround you.
Be not afraid of the God Who loves you.
And be not afraid to be one who dwells in the midst of all this,
for such is the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.