If You Aren’t About Transformation, Don’t Stop Here

Sir 35:12-14, 16-18 / 2 Tm 4:6-8, 16-18 / Lk 18:9-14

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were camping in the forest. They’d gone to bed and were lying beneath the night sky when Holmes said, “Watson, look up.  What do you see?”

“I see thousands and thousands of stars.”

“And what does that mean to you, Watson?”

“To me it means that of all the planets in the universe, we’re truly fortunate to be here on earth. We’re small in God’s eyes, but very special in God’s heart. What does it mean to you, Holmes?”

“To me, it means someone has stolen our tent!”

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From the dawn of civilization, one question has always loomed large: Who’s in charge of this vast universe, and how do we deal with him?  People imagined gods like the chieftains and kings they knew: Strong and powerful, but cranky, vengeful, capricious, caring for no one but themselves. Gods like that needed to be handled with kid gloves and lots of presents, bribes, incense, burnt offerings, and especially lots of virgins sacrificed with full fanfare. The point of all this was to tame the gods and get them under control, so that folks could relax and get on with their own lives.

It was all terribly primitive, but that’s where lots of people are still stuck, trying to control and manipulate a very small and not very nice God with bribes, promises, and religious observances that have no core. As W.C. Fields once said, “There’s no there there.”

That’s where the pharisee in Sunday’s Gospel was stuck, on the outside of life, in a nowhere place he thought was just splendid. “Thank God,” he said, “I’m not like the rest of men!” He didn’t have a clue about God, or himself, or the core of life.

But that tax collector whom he so scorned had it just right: God doesn’t need to be coaxed, persuaded, or bought off. He already loves us, already wants us to be happy. And he already knows we’ll never grow whole unless he helps us and forgives us a lot. That poor old tax collector, standing afar off with head bowed, understood what praying and worshiping are really about. They’re about OUR getting changed and transformed on the inside with God’s help. And the price of that change is simply telling the truth (that’s what humility is!): Lord, I need to change, and to do that I need your help and your forgiveness in giant portions.

If our praying and our coming to worship together aren’t transforming us, we should stop wasting our time. That doesn’t mean to stop coming to church or to prayer. It does mean to come with a different heart that’s ready to do business with the Lord at life’s core, ready to speak the words that need to be spoken from the heart:

Lord, I need to change … a lot. And to do that, I need you to take me by the hand and not let go, even though I can’t walk very fast, and even though I keep stumbling. I trust  you, Lord. I know you know the way home, and I’m ready to change my course and let you show me the way.  Amen.

  • Guest

    nicely written. This is essentially the point of many athiests though, or people with questions about how to be both happier and better, what kind of life to live they can recommend to their children. That is one of the reasons for cafeteria Catholicism; it's part laziness, part hedonistic, but also part existential honesty. People sense there's something wrong psychologically/morally with the "saintly" and they think a certain transvaluation (they wouldn't use that word) is necessary. There is almost a disagreement with the scriptures insofar as if one can get to the position where they are lukewarm, at least they will not be very bad("very bad" means the psycho/sexual realities that one has scene, has sensed, and has chosen to ignore or forget.) God is the judge and He'd better be, because we can't sort those things out in other people. When we are over-confident we silence all opposition, but the majority of others simply observe, politely say nothing, and are even more convinced that they want nothing to do with us.  

  • Guest

    I vote pro-life and believe in infallibility, and am offended by Catholics who disagree with Pope Benedict, but without respect for him as a spiritual father. I disagree with him as a philosopher. If we are going to criticize some people for thinking too much and other people for believing too much, we have to deal with the particularities and peculiarities of our own historical relationship with reason. Buber is direct answer to Sartre, and John Paul's personalism pays homage to Buber. Existentialism built on the philosophical insights/moral testimony of Romantics like Blake or Nietzsche. In his speech on the dictatorship of relativism our Pope gave an eloquent, and I think devastating response; he said modernism is invalid, not because its premises are invalid, but because it is immature. That is an existential/Romantic response, not an Aristotelian response. Aristotle is wonderful. I wish I were a philosopher. It would be a great life's work reintegrating his insights on virtue, the mind, and language into the insights and testimony of Romanticism and Existentialism and Freud. Too much of reason, even in faith, even in Catholicism, is rationalization, and I don't know if more devotionalism is the answer or just makes things worse.