|Simeon the Stylite|
My friend Robin talks about "preaching ahead of yourself," and while this preaching for a moment far ahead of me in time is not quite what she means by the term, I think I can stretch it to accomodate. I reflected a bit here about the writing of this piece, and homilies in general.
This was written for Sick, and You Cared for Me, the third book in the series by the Homilists for the Homeless. You can read about the series here.
In the fourth century, Simeon the Stylite, it is said, spent more than thirty years living on top of a fifty-foot high pillar on the edge of the Syrian desert, confined to a platform three feet on each side. He was driven up the column, not so much by his desire to get closer to God, though that surely played a part, but to get further from the crowds who clamored for his advice, disturbing his prayers. Still they came, from Constantinople and Antioch, emperors, archbishops and farmers alike clambered up a ladder to have a word with the saintly Simeon, until finally his brother monks built a double wall around the pillar to keep the curious at bay.
There are weeks where my calendar makes a pillar in the desert, guarded by high rock walls and a solid community, seems like a great idea. I imagine the items on my to-do list jumping up and down, yelling for my attention, surrounding me on all sides, scrambling to find a ladder to climb up to the top of the list. It’s tempting to try to quiet the demanding crowd by plunging into the list first thing, crossing off this task, answering that request. But the tasks keep coming up the ladder.
A few years ago I started writing “pray” at the top of my daily to-do list, to be sure I didn’t fail to start my day with God no matter how chaotic life was. I confess I also put it there so I could cross it off, so I could feel productive, even in prayer.
God? Great! Help? Thanks. Bye. Amen.
And I check off God for the morning.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “prayer ought to animate us at every moment…we cannot pray “at all times” if we do not pray at specific times.”  My habit of scheduling prayer on my calendar is not a bad thing; it’s a jumping off point, not just for my day, but for the formation of my prayer life. Writing about living with a religious rule, with its ordered times of prayer, Richard Rohr, OFM observed that it kept “my feet to the fire long enough for the Gospel to become fire, and my feet to become feet.”
My daily reminder to pray holds my feet to the fire, too, until I can pick up the day’s work and walk. Until I can, as fourth century doctor of the church Gregory Nazianzus advised, remember Christ more often than I draw breath. Of late I’ve started to wonder if I should stop crossing it off and simply let it stand at the head of my list, to be more aware of God’s presence as He “guides the beginning of my work, directs its progress, and brings it to successful completion” as Thomas Aquinas’ prayer before study so beautifully captures.
Prayer is not inherently productive, however. “Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer,” wrote Henri Nouwen. Can we waste time with God, even in the face of urgent tasks? Can we practice simply letting God look at us? Saying nothing. Doing nothing.
The Sabbath holds our feet to the fire in this regard. Today’s first reading from Deuteronomy exhorts us firmly to be unproductive one day in seven. Do no work. Let no one work in your stead, not even your animals. Let the world lay fallow for a day and see what happens when you are useless and silent in the presence of God.
Mark’s Gospel offers us one image for what might happen when we give ourselves over to sabbath time. The Pharisees are fussing about the precise limits of the rules, Jesus is letting the disciples flout the rules — fresh ears of wheat are not edible, they were not picking up a snack on the way — and all the while a man with a withered hand sits in the synagogue. Silent and useless.
“Stretch out your hand,” commands Jesus. And the hand is whole again, perfect. I gaze upon you, says God, and you are healed. Did the man notice the moment he was once again made whole, when the bones knit and his muscles responded with strength? How not? But did the person next to him?
Sunday is not the day we flip the week’s calendar over, not merely a day we are obliged to go to Mass, to make a return to Lord for what we have been given. It is not about the rules. The Sabbath is for noticing. For noticing that God is present, for noticing that we have been healed, for noticing that our neighbor has been healed.
The Sabbath is a reminder to sit unproductively, and be alert to what happens when Light shines forth from darkness and God beholds us. Stretch out your hands, and see that what has been crushed has been made whole in Christ’s dying and rising.