THE SOCIETY OF CATHOLIC PRIESTS
7TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE MEETING IN DENVER, CO
Psalm 112:1-9 • Acts 20: 28 – 32 • Luke 16: 10 – 15
On January 5, 1951, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to a young man named Sheldon Vanauken, an American friend of his whom he had met while Vanauken was a student at Oxford. The letter included a line which stopped me in my tracks. Vanauken, his wife Jean, and Lewis had become friends when the Vanauken’s faith was only just budding, and Sheldon had sought out the Oxford Don as someone he trusted intellectually who might guide him through the tumultuous waters of conversion from atheism. Their story is a fascinating and a tragic one, which Sheldon recalls with poetical prose in his memoir entitled, “A Severe Mercy”. I commend it to your no-doubt ever-growing reading lists, for even if you find you don’t care for Sheldon (his relationship with his wife Jean is a unique one and probably an acquired taste) the letters from C.S. Lewis are priceless.
The letter in question concerned an inquiry he had made of Lewis on whether or not Sheldon, now a Christian, should pursue holy orders. Lewis counseled against it, identifying three reasons, but the principle one was that he thought it might be detrimental to his soul. If you think that’s an overly harsh assessment of our beloved vocation, you might not want to read the book! Lewis thought there was a lot to be said for one’s spiritual interests differing from one’s job. Clergy in particular, he warned, sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the “natural interest in one’s job and the pleasures of gratified ambition might be mistaken for spiritual progress and spiritual consolation.” This might have been one of those lines that catches you up when you’re reading and causes you to put the book down to think for a while, but it was almost at the end of the letter, so I continued. And I’m glad I did, because the real kicker was in the last paragraph. Continuing the theme, Lewis wrote, “’None are so unholy as those whose hands are cauterised with holy things’: sacred things may become profane by becoming matters of the job.” Like I said, I was stopped in my tracks.
Our Gospel lesson today invites us to be cautious about what we love and to be thoughtful about what we choose to prize. Our theme for this 7th Annual Conference is the Heart of Catholicity, and from my perspective, it invites us to consider the same. As priests, deacons, and religious, our hands handle all manner of sacred things on a daily basis. Prayer books worn at the edges with their dirty pages threatening to come loose from the binding. Linens and vestments lovingly set aside for holy use. Sacred vessels of gold and silver in holy tabernacles. And of course, that which those vessels contain: the Body and Blood of our dear Lord, which we distribute at church and carry out to the faithful stuck elsewhere. I remember a time when I would have trembled even to be in close proximity to some of those things, but now, too often, I pick them up like car keys, a necessary tool to carry out my duty. And I wondered, as I read Lewis’ letter, had my hands become cauterized by holy things? As you hear Lewis’ powerful line, do you wonder the same?
My wondering took me deep into thought and eventually, prayer. I remembered someone on my discernment committee before I was an aspirant asking me if I was sure it was a calling, because there are many ways to serve God, most of them as a lay person. Then, I remembered the feel of the holy oil being pressed into my palms at my ordination, and I wondered, has it burned off by becoming a matter of the job? In my prayers, God led me to understand that I was thinking about this all wrong. But don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet, for what God said to me only increased the strength of Lewis’ convicting line. I was deeper in the weeds, not out of them. I was being led closer to the heart of Catholicity.
Linens, vestments, pyxes, candles, cassocks, yes, even thuribles: they’re tools. Important, traditional, sacred. But tools. So, once we realize that, (and I’m not suggesting we haven’t) it’s no wonder we no longer tremble in their sight. Lest you think I’m throwing out the Baby Jesus with the bathwater, let me say this: So long as all those priestly tools remain symbols, pointing beyond themselves to our Great High Priest, then I’m all for them. But, the Sacrament, that’s something different. That’s cause to tremble. And the vessels of the Sacrament as well, but I don’t mean the patens and chalices, the ciboriums and monstrances. I mean the people into whose hands and mouths we have the high duty and privilege of delivering the very Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here then is the heart of Catholicity: that Jesus died to save sinners. Here then is our cause to tremble: that we have been given charge over the souls of some of those for whom Jesus died. When our people become matters of the job, we are like those sacred things become profane that Lewis wrote about and what we have prized above those beloved daughters and sons of God becomes nothing less than our golden calf.
Vanauken never became a priest; I think he trembled at the thought. As priests, deacons, and religious, we are given charge over all matter of sacred things. The most important of those sacred things, though, don’t have names like chasuble or cope, but names like those conferred at baptism where we hear echoing across the ripples on that water the voice of God saying, “You are my child, my beloved…” The most sacred things we come into contact with are they who walk through our doors each and every day, those whose path’s we cross on city streets and country lanes, those we visit lying in great weakness in hospital beds, those who attend our day cares and our schools. Here then is the heart of Catholicity: that Jesus died to save sinners and those sinners, including you and me, bearing the Sacrament within them, over whom we’ve been given charge, are precious in His sight. May we never be cauterized to their holiness.