In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s readings set before us accounts of vocation: how it is that the Lord calls us.
In the Old Testament lesson we hear about the call of the boy Samuel, who would grow up to become the first great prophet of Israel, and who would anoint Israel’s first kings, Saul and David.
The passage begins by saying that “the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; and there was no frequent vision.” And we learn that even the old priest, Eli’s, “eyesight had begun to grow dim.”
The lesson to be drawn from this passage is that even when you find yourself in a time of desolation or spiritual draught, it is important to serve the Lord anyway.
I think the lives of the Lord’s conscientious disciples often feel this way. Trying to serve God, to live as Christ, seems to invite desolation and confusion into the lives and consciousnesses of the faithful. And even within the contexts of our corporate life, both in the Church and especially in the world, it can seem that there is, as in Samuel’s day, “no frequent vision.” Yet like Samuel, even though we may find ourselves in the midst of such a time, our task is to “minister to the Lord” – to serve him with assiduity and dedication within the context in which the Lord has placed us, even though it be dark or desolate, in fidelity to what has been handed down to us. We have to serve the Lord with the best heart we have, however good it may or may not be.
The passage says that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out and Samuel was lying down within the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.” Its difficult not to see in this passage a foreshadowing of the presence of God within his Church – not just spiritually, but his sacramental presence in the tabernacle, indicated by the perpetual burning of the sanctuary lamp.
One lesson to draw from this passage, is that despite the fact that the Lord may at times SEEM to have abandoned us, though he seems to be silent, he is in point of fact, always with us, always HERE, although indeed sometimes we may experience his presence AS absence, for any number of reasons. But the fact is that he has promised never to fail or forsake us (cf. Heb. 13.5).
When we are going through times of great difficulty, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that God has forsaken us, or that God has allowed catastrophe to come upon us, or that he has fallen down on his main job which is to protect us from this kind of thing. But this attitude – into which we are all prone to fall – betrays a latent tendency to idolatry in our hearts.
If, for example, when our money runs out, or our circumstances are somehow diminished, if we then conclude that THE LORD has forsaken us, what does that mean about what we thought of the Lord? It means that we had misidentified him with those things that we now find absent – that their presence constituted the Lord’s presence. And of course nothing could be farther from the truth. And so desolation can be, for us, a tearing down of idols, an invitation from the Lord to examine our priorities, to ask who or what REALLY has been ruling us: who or what has really hitherto been our Lord?
But the lamp of God, and his tabernacle, should be a constant reminder that “the Lord is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold” (Psalm 46.7). Several years ago, the following illustration occurred to me, and it remains an apt one: I sometimes walk or drive by the church at night, when all the lights are out, and I look in the window out there, and I can see the flame of the sanctuary lamp flickering in the darkness. In fact, the darkness only serves to make it seem brighter. The lamp is burning all the time; it never goes out. But when the church is lit up by all this artificial light, you don’t really notice it. But when its dark, when there’s no other light, the sanctuary lamp can suddenly fill your vision, and draw out the otherwise unnoticed or unremarkable contours of your surroundings.
The Lord is like that. We should remember the Lord calling Elijah at Horeb, that the Lord “was not in wind… not in the earthquake… not in the fire”; but he was in the “still, small voice” – the Hebrew can actually mean that the Lord was in the stillness and silence. And scripture says that “when Eli’jah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out” (1 Kings 19.13).
We’re prone to missing the call of God in our lives because we cannot hear him over the din of our circumstances. And things can get so bad that when our circumstances begin to fail, we are apt to conclude that the Lord himself has failed. We can be a “foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but see not, who have ears, but hear not” (Jer. 5.21). We are often like Samuel, who, according to today’s reading, “did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” And one wonders whether it wasn’t precisely because Eli was physically blind that he had such keen spiritual sight, and was able to open Samuel’s heart: “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak Lord, for thy servant hears.’”
We can begin to see how it is that DETACHMENT is such an integral part of the Christian vocation. Throughout the Gospels, when the Lord calls, we see his disciples abandoning whatever else had occupied their lives, and following him. Andrew and Peter and James and John leave their nets. Levi leaves the tax-office. The degree of Christian perfection that is open to us is in direct proportion to our detachment from competing claims. In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter says to Jesus, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.” And Jesus says, “every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life,” (Matthew 19 passim).
Likewise, and relatedly, if you want to hear the voice of the Lord calling you, you have got to learn to listen for it. And in order to listen, you have got to be quiet; to enter into the silence of your heart, and to close your eyes to the light that reflects so insanely off of the material world with which we are surrounded every day. As one of the Psalms (63) puts it: we have to learn to meditate on the Lord “in the night watches” – in darkness and silence. As you may know, I am a member of a priestly society called the Society of the Holy Cross. The rule of life which priests of the society promise to live by enjoins us to incorporate silence and stillness into our lives in a systematic way. We are enjoined to spend a little time each day in silence, and once a month to keep one full day of quiet recollection, and once a year we are enjoined to go on a (silent) retreat for at least four days, and next week I am going to do just that. I will spend my days in silence, take my meals in silence, and spend time alone and apart from the daily round of activities – necessary though they may be, but which nevertheless have a propensity to clutter up my consciousness and make it difficult to hear the Lord’s voice. And I must say I look forward each year to this concentrated time of listening for the Lord’s voice in quiet prayer, and in the Blessed Sacrament.
This is not as easy as it sounds. There is so much in our lives that clamors for our attention – and very often rightly so. But we have to take time to reorient ourselves, to clear our schedules and our MINDS, and to listen closely and intently for what the Lord God is saying to us.
As a spiritual exercise, I would encourage you, some time this week, to go to a place where you cannot be disturbed, and to pray. Ask the Lord to speak to you, to open your heart, and to call to you, as he called to Samuel in today’s OT lesson, and to Philip and Nathaniel in today’s Gospel. Then close your eyes, and be silent for five minutes. Do nothing but listen in your heart. Just five minutes. Its not as easy as it sounds. But I encourage you to do it. And do it again. Make a habit of doing it. And every once in awhile, withdraw from the world and from your busy-ness, and go to a place where the sacrament is reserved – like here – “surely the Lord is in this place!” – and spend a whole day alone with the him and LISTENING.
By degrees the Lord will open your heart, and open the eyes of your spirit, until one day “you will see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” Just imagine: YOU are capable of seeing such a sight! But you are. We were made to see it. And our hearts are restless until we do.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.