Sunday, March 18, 2018

TEND THE GARDEN OF YOUR SOUL: a homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent year B

            Before I joined the Capuchins I spent a while as a gardener so I like the image our Lord uses of the seed that dies only to give life.  I'm going to stretch that image and suggest to you that our minds, our hearts and our lives, even our families and our society can be understood as like a garden.  If we care for that garden we will weed it and plant it with wholesome and beautiful things.  It is a lazy and stupid gardener who thinks that he can have a beautiful garden without much effort and time.
            Recent scandals and revelations of the abuse of children remind us that the weeds and thorns of sin, evil, do not go away just because some people get caught and punished or because laws and regulations are tightened.  Laws and regulations are of no help if no one enforces them.  Sin, the doing of evil, remains a possibility for all of us.  The price of peace really is vigilance just as the cost of a beautiful garden is hard work and time.  We change only if we work to change.  Families, institutions, society change only if the people within them work to change themselves.
            When I was growing up we lived in two different places.  We lived in one place until I was ten and then we moved to another area.  In the first place we were friends with another family.  We were always in and out of one another's homes.  Yet I spent very little time in their place.  Usually we were outside and my friend would always usher me out if his grandfather was around.  He didn't like kids around I was told.  The truth was that he was a danger to kids.  We learned many years later that he was abusing his grandchildren and I realised only recently that my friend was protecting me.  Others were not so blessed.
            We can, and should, be vigilant to protect children and vulnerable adults from any kind of abuse.  Let me be clear here.  There never was, nor is there now nor will there ever be a situation or reason that can ever excuse the physical, mental or sexual abuse of a child or vulnerable adult.  Such an evil, such a sin, cries out to heaven for vengeance.  Our Lord Himself said that it would be better for a millstone to be tied around one's neck and that one be thrown into the sea than that one should lead another into evil or harm one of his little ones.  Yet we need vigilance even more over our own selves.
            We cannot do anything seriously wrong without we first think or imagine it.  No one robs, lies or kills without thinking about doing such a thing.   No one suddenly commits adultery just as no one commits rape on the spur of the moment.  People do wrong because they have already become accustomed to thinking about doing wrong.  The person who thinks or imagines evil will eventually do evil.  The person who consistently resists the thought of doing any kind of evil will avoid doing evil and if they instead think of doing good they will do good.  The one who watches images of others doing wrong is pouring fuel on a fire.
            This struggle against our ways of thinking, our habits of the mind, is a kind of dying.  When we try to keep our old habits of thought then we are trying to hold onto this life.  When we seek to put our old habits of thought to death and to bring the new man reborn in Christ into being then we are entering into the battle for our own salvation.  We are cooperating with Christ in our own salvation.  We are tending our interior garden so that it can bloom in Christ.
            This battle is what our Lord means when He tells us to take up our cross and follow Him.  The cross is not primarily some exterior suffering though that suffering can be part of it.  The cross is primarily the suffering we must go through to avoid evil and do good.  It is the suffering we endure whenever we face up to the darker, fallen side of our nature.  It is the suffering of the hard work of changing for the better.
            After I made my final vows as a Capuchin I moved to our house in Raheny, Dublin.  A few months later one of the community there had a stroke and began to slowly deteriorate.  It became necessary to care for him more and more as his needs grew and he became more dependent on us.  There are members of this community that were in Raheny then who leapt to help that man and did great work.  I avoided that job for quite some time but eventually I had to take my turn.  By then he had become doubly incontinent.  Now I can handle my own body's fluids but other people's?  I would prefer to be in the kind of suit worn be those guys handling the nerve agents in England!
            Without any training or preparation I found myself a full-time carer for that old man.  I got him up in the morning, undressed and washed him, dried him, dressed him and brought him down to breakfast where another friar would take over.  I would check in on him during the day, bring him for a walk and change his nappy if necessary.  At the end of the day I put him to bed.  Thank God he was usually like a lamb. 
            That task nearly drove me to leave.  I felt trapped.  I did not want to be doing that job at all though I tried to do it cheerfully.  I only had to do it for a few months.  I do not know how anyone does it for years.  That is heroic.
            Yet in that experience I began to face my self-centredness.  I discovered that I could do what was unpleasant and it did not kill me.  In 'dying to myself' in that small way I discovered that I did not die but rather I grew as a person.  I think now that I got more from that experience than the friar I cared for. 

            The unpleasant tasks, the painful moments in life can be a chance to die to our false selves.  They can be moments of self-awareness when we discover that we do not die but grow towards the person we were made to be.  The unpleasant and difficult task of watching our thinking and struggling to correct it leads to the death only of our false self so that our true self can flourish.  As we replace evil thoughts and images with beautiful thoughts as a gardener replaces weeds with flowers, by God's grace, the garden of our mind flourishes and we bring forth the fruit of good deeds.  As our mind and our heart become like a beautiful garden then God comes to dwell in us.

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