My conviction is that we who preach the gospel must witness to the truth of what we say by looking for signs of the gospel in our personal experience.
This became clear to me when I was in theology. We studied the question of exegesis and it was a difficult study for me. The question was what can we truly know about Jesus and his words and deeds. I realized through that study that we could not get beyond the faith of the early Christian community. That created in me not a little anxiety.
Later in the study, I realized that there was a thing called hermeneutics that made eminent sense. This study of hermeneutic was basically the intersection of the sacred text with the person who was seeking understanding. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that the gospel lived -- not just in Jesus' time but right now in my own life. The gospel lives in me, if only I allow it a chance to take root.
Hermeneutics is not so much to find a correct interpretation of the text, but to allow the text to interpret us!
For me this was a powerful learning: I will understand the gospel if I find it intersecting my own soul. At that point of intersection, the meaning becomes clear. As I reflect on the text, I can enter into it. I can become part of the text and the text a part of me.
I think I have been able to do that more successfully in my later years than the former. In those days, I preached more from my head than my heart.
We can share the gospel from the heart or from the head. Or someone else's heart and head. But my experience that the word which is shared from one's own heart is of much more benefit to the listener. The faith is built up by "traditio," the handing on of the faith from person to person. That's where the Word gets its power -- because it is witnessed to by one person to another. Think of it, one person at a time down through twenty centuries!
Last Sunday I preached on humility (The first shall be last and the last, first) and I decided to share about my conversion from arrogance to humility. In doing so, I was prompted to narrate, in part, examples of my humiliation that prompted me to embrace humility and turn away from arrogance. I do not make such a frank telling of excerpts from my life in my preaching very often. But it is good to do so once in awhile -- for me at least. In this case, it was effective. A woman came up to me after Mass with tears in her eyes and said, simply, "Once again, I was touched by your words."
Early in my priesthood, the bishops put out a document about the renewal of the American priesthood. In that document, they talked about transparency. The faith of the priest should be transparent to our people. Perhaps we can say that our faith should be apparent to our people. The document went on to apply this to our whole celebration of the Eucharist -- preaching and celebrating. Our celebration on Sunday morning should come from inside of us and on out toward the insides of our people. In this exchange, the faith of our fathers and mothers lives because it is visible and available in us.
But we do not like to reveal ourselves, to expose our inner depths because it makes us vulnerable. Yet, I believe strongly in what Carl Rogers had to say: "That which is most personal is most universal." If we share from our depths, the better chance there is for us to resound with a chord in another person's heart. I have listened to tapes of Dr. Roger's sharings and they are powerful indeed. At times, I have come close to that kind of sharing. Nevertheless, each time I share there is something that goes out of me; this is not an easy thing to do.
I was genuinely interested in what you had to say, brothers, to see if my strategy of including personal revelations, or even basing my text on some personal experience was correct. I was affirmed in my strategy though I want to use it with balance. I want to make such witness sparingly and when it counts. I can see that it is the element that makes For Priests Only unique and effective.
Indeed, from moment to moment when I am preparing upcoming issues the issues that I can write with some power and conviction are those that are found in my own life. I have been wondering how many years can I continue to have something worthwhile to say to my readers. And here is the answer: as I hope to write for many years to come, I must keep having new experiences of the gospel in my life so that I have something new to write about.
Therefore our first task as priests, I believe, is to take the gospel into our heart and be hearers of the gospel ourselves, so that the Word we hear is the truth witnessed to by its intersection in our own heart and soul.
Perhaps, then, the most essential task for us is to reflect anew on the sacred text at hand. I do not always do that. I open the lectionary, find the text and, if it is familiar, I say, "Oh, I know this one," and put the text down. As I write on this magnificent late summer afternoon, I realize that I need to pledge myself to the same thinking I am suggesting for you. We must deal with the text anew each time we use it. Also I am not always pleased by the results of an even deeper attempt at a soul connection between me and the pages of the gospel. Very often, the Word does not resonate with me and I am disappointed. I may be lazy -- not willing to put in the energy and effort it takes to preach well. Perhaps I should make a greater effort. It seems that this season if I preach well one Sunday a month I am doing well. I also would like to know how the congregation received my effort at preaching and that is not always forthcoming. I would suspect that is because I didn't put enough effort or energy into the task.
Perhaps the greater task is not so much the preaching but the effort to reflect on the Word and make it our own. Surely the gospel is powerful enough that there can be something new for us each time we approach a given text.
(I really need to hear this myself and take it to heart. I am not personally that comfortable with the way I am preaching right now: I have done better.)
To prepare the gospel for preaching this way, I must look over the texts early in the week, usually two or three times. Then I wait for it to percolate in my being as I am driving or have other time to reflect. If you are uncomfortable sharing personal stories, it is still possible to preach from the point of intersection of the sacred text with your life by deepening the power and conviction by which you preach. It will become evident to the congregation that we know what we are talking about.
Otherwise, how can we expect our people to resonate with the gospel if we do not resonate with it ourselves? The deeper we go into our souls, the more of a hospitable space do we carve out there for those who come to us for some sense of stability in their lives.
The most powerful technique of meditation on the gospels that I know is an adaptation of the Ignatian method: I call this Imaginative Scriptural Prayer.
First, I read the text to imagine the scene -- What kind of day it was, where Jesus was in the scene, what were the other characters doing and saying. I want to imagine it fully and richly the best that my imagination can muster.
Second, I read the text again and place myself in the scene -- by being one of the characters or a bird in a nearby tree. This reading hopefully will uncover the emotions of the characters and the feeling-tone of the story. Then I can recognize your own feelings and emotions as I have inserted myself into the scene.
Third, I read the text a third time, this time being who I am at the present moment. It is here that an application to one's own life and needs can be made. More often than not, after having done this personal meditation, I find something worthwhile to preach on. The Ignatian method is a powerful tool to really get into the scripture, or rather, to get the scripture into us.
On a similar note, I have noticed that I do not practice my proclamation of the text, for surely the public reading is as important as the homily. I often stumble over words and get the sense wrong of a particular sentence. I am embarrassed about this because our lectors read with a sense of poise and polish. I need to do better.
So you see, I am intersecting with my own text here. I am sharing within myself. And it seems, at this moment, to have a powerful effect. Does it resonate with you?
I only hope that as I think aloud about my own strengths and weakness in preaching, writing and proclamation that "what is most personal is also most universal."