Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Reflection for 28 January 2009 - the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

Shortly after Thomas Aquinas entered the Dominican order, his family, dismayed that instead of becoming a Benedictine, which would have held a good chance of becoming an abbot or bishop, he had chosen to become a Dominican. The Dominicans were still a new order at that point, and still flush with the poverty of their mendicant origins, so the family could not see for their son the prospects for status or influence they desired for a person of his noble birth. The story goes that they were so dismayed that they locked him up in the tower of the family castle for almost two years, to the point that they even sent prostitutes up to him to try to dissuade him from pursuing the life of a ragged friar (the story says he chased her out of the room with a hot poker from the fire).

I feel very fortunate that my parents never went to those kinds of lengths to keep me from joining my community, that in fact they were and still are very supportive of my vocation. On the other hand, the gospels so far this week have looked at the resistance Jesus faced from the beginning of his ministry – being accused of having an unclean spirit, being thought crazy even by his own family, and today being so badly misunderstood by his own disciples. The image he uses in the parable today, of the sower and the seed, is fitting, not only because they don’t get what he is trying to say, but because the farming image used seems to us to be so wasteful. As opposed to our modern method of farming, where we plow up the soil and plant seeds in it, the method being laid out here was to throw seed out indiscriminately and then plow to turn the seeds down into the soil. What that meant was that you couldn’t see what kind of soil you got until after you had already put the seeds out there – like Forrest Gump, “You never know what you’re gonna get.” Any teacher knows that even with the most objective of subject matter, but certainly with the work of the gospel, this is a lot like how teaching works – in a sense, it’s wasteful, because you keep working with whoever shows up, but you can’t tell what the end results are going to be. Sometimes maybe you can tell right up front if a person, like the footpath, is so thick that the seed never has a chance to get through, but just as likely, you just can’t predict it. Like with the rocky soil that has no depth to it, sometimes people can get all fired up at first, either because it sounds good on paper or because people want to win Brownie points with the teacher. Other times people have all the right stuff, but the world they live in is a mindkiller – I think of the talented, enthusiastic students I had in Zimbabwe or the Navajo Nation who could really have gone places, but because of the disaster they lived in or the environmental forces working against them, their potential got squelched. Finally, I have known a few students that I NEVER thought listened to a word I said, who have turned out years later to have put the pieces together, just like seeds going in the ground take a while before they show any signs of life and don’t just look wasted.

In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes, “Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in his or her soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of people. Most of those unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because we are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.” (14) The need for a renewal of attentiveness as central to the discipline of discernment, of not going through life functionally asleep -- as Simone Weil puts it, "Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer."

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