Sunday, October 21, 2012

Fame in Heaven

Homily, 29th Sunday Ordinary Time, Cycle B
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

In his book, “The Great Divorce”, which explores in story-form the differences between heaven and hell, C.S. Lewis gives beautiful descriptions of heaven. The premise of the book is a man's journey towards heaven, on which he learns through various events what heaven is all about. Towards the end of the book, the man and his “Teacher”, a guide somewhat like a guardian angel, see a large procession coming towards them - what seemed like a river of dancing light. It turns out to be a procession of people, led first by angels who were dancing and scattering flowers. Then following were hundreds of young boys and girls singing songs that, the man describes, would bring eternal youth to the hearer if they could be heard on earth. Then the musicians and other people... and even animals - cats, dogs, horses and birds. And the whole procession is being offered in honor of one woman in the center of it all, whose beauty can’t be described in mere human words. The man immediately suspects that this must be the Virgin Mary and asks his guide, “Is it? ... Is it?” And his guide says, “No, not at all. It's someone ye'll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.” The man protests, “But she seems to be a person of particular importance.” “Ah, she is one of the great ones. Remember that fame in this country and fame on earth are two different things.” “Who are all these people?” “Those are members of her family - every person she met became part of her family through the abundance of life she had in Christ, and the love she had spread like the waves from a rock thrown in a pond - no one knows where it will end.”

St. Thérèse of Lisieux (October 1st), most commonly known as the “Little Flower”, is a “Doctor of the Church.” Though she wrote only one book, a memoir intended for her family and superiors, she is a master of spirituality of the Church.  She has a beautiful story to explain why she considered herself a "little flower" in the garden of the Lord. She writes that she found herself pondering one day how it was that “God has his preferences”, seemingly favoring one person over another - giving one person extraordinary gifts, another only painful sufferings, and still others no visible gifts at all.

Well, she explains it this way: “Jesus has been gracious enough to teach me a lesson about this mystery, simply by holding up to my eyes the book of nature. I realized, then, that all the flowers he has made are beautiful - the rose in its glory [and] the lily in its whiteness do not rob the tiny violet of its sweet smell, or the daisy of its charming simplicity. I saw that if all these lesser blooms wanted to be roses instead, nature would lose the gaiety of her spring-tide dress - there would be no little flowers to make a pattern over the countryside.” She goes on, “And so it is with the world of souls, which is the Lord's garden. He wanted to have great Saints, to be his lilies and roses, but he has made lesser Saints as well; and these lesser ones must be content to rank as daisies and violets, lying at his feet and giving pleasure to his eye like that.” She concludes, “Perfection consists simply in doing his will, and being just what he wants us to be.”

In today’s Gospel, James and John were seeking greatness and importance, “Lord, see to it that we sit, one at your right and the other at your left, when you come into your glory.” And Jesus gently reminds them that the only way to greatness is through service, which he showed through the Cross.

But what strikes me about what St. Therese said and what Jesus says in today’s Gospel is that he does want us to strive for greatness, not in the world’s eyes, but in heaven’s eyes. After all, he says, “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” And throughout the Gospels, Jesus speaks about the rewards that await us in heaven if we do his will on earth by giving of ourselves and serving others. At the end of the Beatitudes, he says, (Mt. 5: 12), “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” In the Sermon on the Mount he says, (Mt. 6:19), “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but store up treasures in heaven.” And he says that when you fast, pray, and give alms, you should do so in secret, without drawing attention to yourself , “And your Father in Heaven who sees in secret will repay you.” In other words, what we do in this life matters. Our actions have eternal consequences. Jesus says that some will be called great and others called least in the kingdom. By our actions now, we determine our greatness in heaven.

The reason St. Therese is a doctor of the Church is that she taught how we can achieve this greatness even in the midst of our daily life. Her secret was that she learned how to do small acts with great love. When she was sick and having trouble walking, she would offer the pain for missionaries around the world. When she was not receiving any consolation in prayer, she would persevere despite the hardships. When she had reason to be annoyed by another nun, she would not be impatient but instead thank the Lord for another opportunity for mortification. If others thought ill of her, she rejoiced, knowing that if she deserved it, she would take it as correction, but if she was innocent, she would delight that she was sharing in Jesus’ suffering.

Now, this great love that she showed in small actions came from her docility to God’s will, but she was no weakling or pushover. She was very strong-willed, it’s just that her will was properly ordered towards the Lord. She had great confidence in God’s help. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, “let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and favor and to find help in the time of need.” There’s a delightful story about her trip to Rome, where along with hundreds of other pilgrims, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals, she attended a papal audience. Most present were allowed to receive the Pope’s blessing and kiss his ring, but they were strictly forbidden to speak. But Therese got up her courage and when it was her turn, she said, “Most Holy Father, I have a great favor to ask you!” She had just turned fifteen and wanted to enter the Carmelite Convent, but she was too young. The Holy Father looked at her gently and told her, “Do whatever your superiors tell you.” But she didn’t give up, “Oh! Holy Father, if you say yes, everybody will agree!” And how could he not give in to such a beautiful child, so he said, “Go… go… You will enter if God wills it.”

And each of us can be filled with that great love and confidence, even in the midst of our daily life. Wherever we happen to find ourselves, we can serve the Lord, grow in holiness, and strive for sanctity. When we are driving, we can be patient and not grow angry with others. When we are at work, we can refrain from engaging in the all too common office gossip that belittles and defames others. With our gifts and talents, we can choose to support the Church and other worthy charities rather than get caught up in this materialistic and consumerist culture. In our families, prayer, weekly attendance at Mass, and seeking the Lord’s will can be an integral part of our lives, rather than an afterthought. When an illness or cross comes our way, we can bear it, imitating our Lord’s Cross.

You know, whether we see ourselves as a rose or lily, violet or daisy in the eyes of the Lord, if we seek joy on this earth and eternal happiness in God’s Kingdom, we need only remember what St. Therese said: “Perfection consists simply in doing his will, and being just what he wants us to be.”