This is the text of a homily by Brother Thomas at a Mass of the Holy Spirit at our annual Chapter on May 14, 2019:
In 1966, the Nobel prize winning poet Seamus Heaney wrote this poem entitled Digging.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awakened in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
It is easy enough to look at this poem as the recollections of a man who was unable to follow in the footsteps of his father, who failed to continue to do what the men in his family had done for years; working the land, using a spade, handling the harvest of potatoes and sod. But there is another side of this narrative. There is the side where the man has come into his own, understanding that his path in life was something different. It involved a pen rather than a spade, and with that pen he would work a different type of ground and handle a different type of harvest. His sort of digging would be different, and uniquely his own. This could be read as one man’s way of remember where he had been, and a statement of where he is now.
I have heard it said that we were born out of the laughter of the Trinity. And through choices we make and things that we do, we find ourselves separated from where we began. The faith that we live out is how we are making our way back to the heart of the God that loves us. Looking at it in these terms makes it sound like a hero’s quest, and in a lot of ways it is. It is what we are challenged with, making our way to the heart of God along a path that is fraught with trials and hardships, questions, doubt, triumphs and beauty, aching silences, and the wonder of world around us. And like all journeys, it cannot be done alone. So God has sent the Helper, the Holy Spirit to be our guide, the one will lead us home.
Home is a tricky word. It is a word that resonates differently with each person who hears it. For me, like Heaney alludes to in his poem, home is a place where I have disappointed others, it is a place full of challenge and history and expectation. It isn’t a comfortable place, and not a place I often want to return. But thankfully when the Spirit leads us home, we are being led deeper into ourselves into the person that was born out of the laughter of the Trinity. Because in the deepest part of ourselves, there is where God lives. There, in the heart of our authentic selves, is home.
When I was younger, we lived in a small house in an older, poorer section of town. On occasion, I would travel to my grandparent’s house which was on the Central coast of California. It was a large two-story house two blocks from the ocean, with plenty of space and windows and light. I often thought about why we lived in our cramped little house, when they lived in their large beautiful house. As I grew older, I started to shift that comparative thinking to thoughts like why I have experienced this or that when others were able to experience something different, or why I was only given these options when other seem to have an endless supply of opportunity. As I look back, I have come to realize that I have spent too much time believing the grass is greener on the other side.
And it goes much deeper as well. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians that there are a variety of gifts granted to us, shaped specifically for us that will help lead us to wholeness as well as help others along their journeys, but I have spent too much time wondering why I am only a teacher and not one how offers healing. Or why I am often so strongly committed to things that I crush others around me with the weight of the expectations I put on them. Or why I am whatever combination of attributes that I am instead of what I perceive to be the perfect combination. So much of my life has been trying to find my way home in any other place but myself. This isn’t wholeness, that is avoidance. It is the fear of engaging and developing the gifts and desires God hand crafted for me, it is the fear that if I do live into them I will find them wanting. It is a fear that they won’t live up to the hype.
This perspective, this living out of scarcity and believing that we are not good enough or capable enough or beyond help or too damaged, ripples outward. It takes root in our communities and tells the story that we are a group of people who have to cope to survive, that by using duct tape and twine, we may be able to make it a few more years. That if we live as small as we can, perhaps we won’t fade away. All the while the Helper stands on the side shouting that we are more than enough, that the configuration of these individuals with the gifts and desires that are in their hearts have the capacity to help lead each other to wholeness. And by doing that, our community can help lead others. And suddenly there could be crowds of people dropping what they are doing and heading home. This living out of abundance, caring for and cultivating the precious gifts we have been given is how we are asked to live out our faith. Because once we begin to live out that faith, it too begins to ripple out, offering wholeness and healing to the world around us. Then like the narrator from the passage in Isaiah, we can begin to bind the brokenhearted and releasing the captives, comforting those who are mourning and bring good news to the oppressed. It is how the kingdom of God is built brick by wondrous brick. “To be a saint,” Merton writes, “is to be myself.”
Ask, Christ said in the gospel, ask and it will be given to you. If you honestly seek, you will honestly find. Those very doors that have kept you out will be thrown open, but only if you knock. We serve a God who knows how to give gifts to his children. They are not arbitrary or random. They are specific to our needs and desires. They are crafted for us, fashioned with us in mind and with the Helper we will learn to use them. Think back to the words of the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 139: “O Lord you have searched me and known me…You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.” And a bit further down that same Psalm, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Does this sound like a God who does not know his children?
The man in Heaney’s poem put down the spade and with that action, he began making his way home. He stopped trying to be the man that his family expected him to be. He admitted that his authentic self looked different than that of the other men in his family. And I am sure that in that admittance, there was a grief. He would not be a farmer like the generations before him. But he would be what he was meant to be. So instead, after putting down his spade, he picked up his pen and began to write.
Everything we need is at our fingertips. Time, help, space, teachers, trainings, opportunities, courage, faith, willingness, band-aids, kleenex’s, paintbrushes; whatever we need to help cultivate that which is planted inside us, we have access to. Raise your hand and ask the question, knock on the door you think is a bit too frightening. Seek- look under your bed and in your pockets, and deep within your heart and you’ll find it. And the Helper is standing by as the Spirit did in the beginning when it hovered over the deep. Poised, eager, waiting for us to make our journeys home.