In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. It is also the opening day of Dove Season in north Texas. This is a significant day on my annual calendar, both because I enjoy hunting and also because it marks in my mind the beginning of the transition to cooler weather. Dove Season, September 1 through October 23, starts hot and ends cool. Thanks be to God.
In honor of this very important feast, I have decided to take a break from our sermon series on the mass, and talk this morning about this topic of great importance to all of us: hunting and spirituality.
A dimension of hunting psychology, with which anyone who hunts regularly will be familiar, is attentiveness. Sitting in a blind or a stand or on the edge of a field, or walking along quietly, the hunter must be on the lookout for his quarry, and be able to recognize it, be able to differentiate it from other animals if and when it appears. Many times while hunting, I have been so keyed-up, focused, and expectant that I have started to raise my gun to my shoulder, only to realize that the creature that had just flown into my field of vision was not a duck or a dove, but a dragonfly or a grasshopper. I’m happy to report that I’ve never actually shot at one of these insects.
Attentiveness is required while hunting for many reasons. Paramount among them is safety. Many hunters through the years have been maimed or killed because another hunter heard rustling in the bushes, saw a flash of movement, and fired without positively identifying his target. Happily these kinds of accidents have been dramatically diminished over the years. In recent years, with over a million hunters licensed annually in the state of Texas, this happens on average two or three times each year. According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, in the United States a person is over three times more likely to be injured while playing golf than while hunting. The only sports that have fewer injuries per participant than hunting are camping and billiards. This is largely due to hunter education programs aimed at making hunters more careful, more attentive.
But attentiveness is also important for ethical reasons. Sometimes an over-eager hunter, especially an inexperienced one, will kill a bird and realize on retrieving it that he has needlessly taken the life of a killdeer and not a dove, through lack of attention.
But most germane for our purposes, attentiveness is required of the hunter in order to be successful. A hunter heedlessly crashing through the underbrush, puffing a cigar, will likely never even see a game animal, let alone take one. For while the hunter may lack the necessary attentiveness, he may rest assured that his quarry does not. And on this score we see a secular outworking of our Lord’s words from today’s Gospel: the hunter who exalts himself – by decking himself out in the latest expensive camo pattern from Orvis, will nevertheless be humbled – if he is inattentive.
Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset said this:
“[The hunter] does not believe that he knows where the critical moment is going to occur. He does not look tranquilly in one determined direction, sure beforehand that the game will pass in front of him. The hunter knows that he does not know what is going to happen, and this is one of the greatest attractions of his occupation. Thus he needs to prepare an attention of a different and superior style – an attention which does not consist in riveting itself on the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything and in avoiding inattentiveness. It is a universal attention, which does not inscribe itself on any point and tries to be on all points. There is a magnificent term for this, one that still conserves all its zest of vivacity and imminence: alertness. The hunter is the alert man.”
And here we come to the crux of the matter – a terrific analogy for the spiritual life. Scripture, and the Christian mystical tradition, speak of a similar kind of spiritual attention. Commenting on the Song of Songs, for example, Saint Gregory of Nyssa made much of the author’s wakeful attention in the night. When the world is quiet and others are sleeping, the Lover of the Song is awake, listening for the sound of her Beloved’s hand on the latch (Canticle 5.2). Likewise, with respect to his second coming, our Lord says, “Watch therefore – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning – lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch,” (Mark 13.35ff).
And the kind of spiritual attention demanded of the Christian is exactly parallel to that described by Ortega y Gasset, so essential for the hunter: “an attention which does not consist in riveting itself on the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything and in avoiding inattentiveness.” It is a “universal attention, which does not inscribe itself on any point and tries to be on all points.” I often call the lack of presumption in this kind of attentiveness “susceptivity.” We must cultivate a kind of openness – open-mindedness and open-heartedness – toward God, that makes no assumptions about how or when or why God will manifest himself, but rests in the assurance that he WILL manifest himself, and always for our good, for our salvation. I once complained aloud to a friend about not being able to see God in a particular set of circumstances – unable to see his plan. My friend responded, “You’re not supposed to know God’s plan. And if you figure it out, he’ll switch the plan.”
So the Christian’s spiritual attention must also be grounded in faith – in the assurance that God is, in fact, there, whether we can see him or not, and that he has always and only our best interests at heart, and that if we are living by him and with him and in him, then EVERYTHING around us is being used by him for our salvation, our ultimate good. We must trust in God, in order to be able to watch for him and for the fulfillment of his purposes in our lives.
Jesus says: “Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is awake, keeping his garments that he may not go naked and be seen exposed!” (Revelation 16.15). I went on a photographic safari in Kruger National Park, in South Africa, some years ago. After one long, hot day, driving for miles, looking for elephants, we got back to our camp, hung up our cameras, washed our faces and changed clothes. We were just sitting down to dinner when we heard loud crunching and crashing behind the shower tent. Rounding the corner, there was a big bull elephant, snacking on an acacia tree, about fifteen yards from our dinner table. I was too transfixed and dumbfounded to have the presence of mind to get my camera and take any pictures, but I will never forget being taken off-guard so dramatically and completely by this elephant that appeared as soon as we stopped looking for him. I noticed that our Afrikaner guide, whose attentiveness was much more cultivated than mine, was ready with his rifle which, thankfully, was not necessary. After finishing his snack, the elephant disappeared into the night, leaving me shocked and awed.
As in hunting, the reward of spiritual attentiveness is a feast. But of course rather than venison stew or dove-breast jalapeno poppers, the spiritual attention is rewarded with an invitation to the marriage supper of the Lamb, as in the Parable of the Ten Virgins, where the Lord says.
“…at midnight there was a cry, `Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those [wise] maidens [who had watched] rose and trimmed their lamps. [But] the foolish said to the wise, `Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, `Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and THOSE WHO WERE READY went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut.” (Matthew 25.6ff)
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.