Round Pegs in Square Holes
October 21, 2007
1 Timothy 3:14—4:2
Catholics believe in saints. Who are saints? Saints are holy people? And who are holy? All of us. We believe that through faith and baptism we become children of God and a part of God’s holy people. Not only do we believe that we are saints, but we also believe we can help one another through prayer. We ask our fellow saints in this community and those who we know to pray for us in time of need. When someone dies and is with God, we continue to ask for their help. Perhaps we pray to a deceased parent or friend who we know is with the Lord. All of us can pray to the saints who are a part of the Catholic tradition. We pray to saints not because they can answer our prayers. Only God can answer our prayers. But we pray to one another to ask one another for help, because we believe we can support one another. We can help one another in our way to God.
Now it is out of this belief that we derive the idea of patron saints. Because just as we believe we are good at some things and not so good at others, we also believe that our fellow saints have particular abilities that can help us in particular situations. Those abilities usually come from some incident in the saint’s life. A particular saint becomes recognized as the person you turn to when you face a particular need. For example, Saint Anthony of Padua is the patron saint of lost or stolen articles. Why? He had a favorite prayer book which a thief stole, and so he prayed to God that he might find it. The next day the thief had a change of heart and returned it to him. St. Joseph of Cupertino is the patron saint of students. Why? Well, he was not very bright, and the only way he passed his exams was by praying. St. Clair is the patron saint of television. Once when she was sick in bed she received a vision of her friend St. Francis celebrating mass in the church down the street. (By the way, St. Sebastian is the patron saint of sporting events—although it is unclear whether he is an Indians fan or a Red Sox fan.) But you get the picture. For some reason a particular saint develops a specialization in a particular area. When we find ourselves in a particular need, we turn to that expertise for help.
This brings us to today’s liturgy. Because today we celebrate the feast of the man after whom our parish is named, St Noel Chabanel. What is St. Noel the patron of? He is the patron of people who do not fit well into their own lives – or as sometimes said, he is the patron of round pegs in square holes. St. Noel was a Jesuit missionary. He felt called to preach the gospel to the Native Americans living around the Great Lakes in our region. But you would be hard pressed to find a person more ill suited to missionary work than St. Noel. He was a refined French gentleman. When he came to the New World he deeply missed the culture of Europe, the music and the literature. He was unable to eat the primitive food of the Indians. It made him nauseous. He was frail in health, so time and time again he became deathly sick. His superiors recommended that he give up on missionary work and return to France. But Noel felt he was accomplishing something good and God was still calling him. So he persevered being a missionary to his death.
Now what do we learn through the example of St. Noel? St. Noel’s life leads us to gratefulness and perseverance. If we are people who fit well into our lives, if we are round pegs in round holes, then the example of St. Noel asks us to be grateful. It is a tremendous blessing to know that you fit into the life you are leading, that you are exactly where you should be. If you love your job, if your marriage is easy and life-giving, if you can simply use the gifts that you have for your own benefit and the benefit of others, then the life of St. Noel reminds us never to take an easy fit for granted. There are many people throughout the world who struggle with their lives, and you are a fortunate person if you are not one of them.
On the other hand if you do not fit easily into your life, if you are a round peg in a square hole, then the life of St. Noel calls you to perseverance. If you’re in a good marriage but that marriage is so much more difficult than you imagined, if you are in a productive job but it does not meet your deepest desires, if you love your family and friends and yet are often disappointed because they do not meet your expectations, then the example of St. Noel says focus on what is good an push on.
Now of course, if you do not fit at all, if your life or your relationships are destructive, then do not persevere, change something. But for most of us the fit is not an impossible one but an uncomfortable one. In those circumstances we are called to maximize the good and persevere. As today’s second reading from Timothy says, “Be persistent both in circumstances which are favorable and unfavorable.”
Since we believe we are saints and we can ask others to pray for us, I would like to conclude today’s homily with a prayer, a prayer to our patron. So I ask you to close your eyes and follow my words in your own hearts.
St. Noel, patron of our parish, you were able to serve God in difficult circumstances. Make me thankful for all the ways I fit into my life. And in all those ways in which I do not quite fit, lead me to persevere. Allow me, like you, to continue in God’s service. Amen.
Trust and Community
October 20, 2013
Today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus is problematic in several ways. First of all, it associates God with violence. God seems to be party to Joshua’s military campaign that mows down his enemies, the Amalekites, with the edge of the sword. The text also carries a magical component. As long as Moses keeps his hands raised, the Israelites have the better part of the battle. But, when Moses drops his hands the Israelites begin to lose. These characteristics of violence and magic are best explained by the primitive culture that created this story. But, if we could for a moment set these aspects aside, we can find in this passage from Exodus an important message for us today, because this passage speaks of our trust in God and of the importance of community.
The position of Moses’ hands in the story is not accidental. Holding one’s hands aloft is the traditional Jewish gesture for prayer. We use this gesture at mass during the Lord’s Prayer. So, Moses’ prayerful position is an indication that our ultimate trust must always be placed in God. When we have to face any kind of evil, when we have to prepare ourselves for any kind of battle, we need to believe that God is with us. But this is not always easy. There are times where we simply cannot understand why bad things happen to us. There are times where we try over and over again to break a habit of sin, to forgive someone who has hurt us, to become less judgmental and more patient. And yet, despite all our efforts, we do not succeed. We can grow disillusioned. We can tire of believing. Our hands, lifted in prayer, fall.
When this happens to Moses in the story, he calls upon Aaron and Hur to hold up his hands. When Moses’ faith is too weak, he calls upon the strength of others. We need to follow his example. Often, we are not able to believe on our own. When we experience trouble in our marriage, we need to reach out and seek counseling from someone who has wisdom. When we discover that we have an addiction, we have to find a twelve-step program. When we receive a frightening medical diagnosis, we need to depend on family and friends for support. When our faith is too weak, we need to depend upon the faith of others. This is why we have a faith community. We do not always have the strength to keep our hands raised in prayer by ourselves. So at times we must depend upon other believers to hold up our hands for us.
Whenever we come to Mass, we celebrate our connection to one another in a faith community. What we celebrate today is the way that our faith, one with another, gives us the strength to trust and to believe. We do not come here every weekend to pray in the presence of others. We come to pray with others, as part of the same community. We are, in fact, sacraments to one another, signs of the presence of Christ among us. The people sitting around us are not just the atmosphere of our prayer. We are connected to one another as members of the same community. Together, we form the body of Christ. It is when we join with one another that we can display our faith and raise our hands in praise of God.
Not Growing Weary
October 16, 2016
What a peculiar parable Jesus presents us today in the gospel. A widow keeps going to a judge in order to secure a verdict, but he is unwilling to grant it. But because she keeps coming and wears him down, he gives her what she wants. What is the meaning of this parable, and, more importantly, how does it apply to our lives?
It all depends on how you interpret the characters in the story. Usually we see the widow as good and simply seeking what is right. This is a logical interpretation because the scriptures are full of devout widows who seek God’s will. But not all widows are the same. And this parable gives us no information about this particular widow or the validity of her cause. Therefore, it is possible for us to imagine that what the widow is seeking in the parable is not justice but retaliation. Her request to the judge, which in our translation is: “Render a just decision for me against my adversary,” can just as easily be translated: “Render vengeance for me against my adversary.” From this perspective the widow is asking the judge to help her get even and punish someone she does not like. The judge knows that this is wrong. For a long time he holds out against her request. But over time she wears him down and he gives her what she wants.
How does this parable apply to us? We are to see ourselves as the judge. We are people who try to do what is right and avoid what is evil. But we also know that people and circumstances can wear us down until we give in. Why do we give in? Here the parable is very helpful, for it tells us that this judge neither feared God nor had respect for any human. So here is a judge trying to do the right thing on his own without the help of others. This parable tells us that trying to do the right thing alone is dangerous. If we do not call upon the help of God and others, it is likely that life will wear us down and we will throw in the towel.
We know that we should be patient with others. But our pre-school children have so much energy and so many demands that they wear us down and in time we explode. We know that we have a responsibility for our aging parents, but their needs multiply time and again, and we begin to wonder whether we can carry the burden. This parable tells us that we cannot be patient people on our own. We need to reach out to God and to others. We need to say to our spouse, “Speak to me. I’ve been living in a four-year old world too long. I need adult conversation.” We need to say to a friend, “Take me to lunch. I need a break from the responsibilities I bear.”
In a larger sense, we know how many things are wrong with our world and should be changed. We understand the effects of poverty, drugs, and crime. But if we attempt to correct these things on our own, it is likely that we will become exhausted. That is why we depend upon the help of others. That is why we have community. This is a particularly fitting truth today as we celebrate our patronal feast. We exist as a parish community so that together we can make a difference. This is why our parish embraces programs of charity and advocacy so that we can join with others and attempt to improve our society.
It is difficult to do the right thing. If we try to do what is right on our own, we, like the judge in the parable, will likely be worn out. But if we call upon the help of God and others, we are more likely to become patient, generous, and just people—disciples who do not grow tired of building the kingdom of God.