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You're Going to Have to Dig

This is the text of a homily given by Brother Damien Joseph SSF for a Mass of Our Founders at our Annual Chapter, May 16, 2019:

A few years ago, one of my former co-workers posted a plea on social media, looking for a solution for getting rid of bamboo in his yard, saying “I really don’t want to dig trenches.” So people began chiming in with ideas. One involved covering the entire area with rubber and tarps to seal out sun and water for the next 5-7 years in hopes that the bamboo would eventually die. One solution involved a team of goats. Most of the rest involved dangerous, illegal, and potentially immoral uses of fire, explosives, and chemicals. But in the end, everyone came to the same conclusion: You’re going to have to dig.

Each time I read today’s gospel (Luke 6:46-49), I first notice the imagery of the foundation, the solid rock. I remember, as a good Methodist boy, singing the hymn: “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.” That imagery of Christ the Rock is deeply powerful, and is, of course, a central image in this parable. But this week, as I’ve been reading the passage, I noticed something else that I perhaps had not paid much attention to before: “…that one [who hears Christ’s words and acts on them] is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on a rock.”

The trick to foundations is not so much whether they’re solid … by definition, they are. The real question is whether you’re on them! Geologically speaking, every place is solid rock if you’re willing to dig deep enough. I noticed as I thought about this that the question of founding on the solid rock is not really a horizontal question at all. It’s not a question of whether we are in the right place, whether we’ve picked the right site, whether we’ve managed to actually “find Jesus.” His presence in the spot is not in question. Its really a question of whether we’ve dug deep enough.

I recently encountered a book called “Dog Psalms: Prayers My Dogs Have Taught Me,” by Herbert Brokering. I apologize to Dan Horan for anthropomorphizing our animals rather than letting them worship God by being what God created them to be! Of course these “Psalms” don’t reflect the reality of dog-ness, in a Franciscan sense, but they offered me some useful images, including this one, titled: “I dig.”

I am dog. I am filled with curiosity. I want to know what is not my business. I dig. I plow under leaves, poke through a toy box, and root out a clump of rags to find the spirit of what is not there. Without any excuse, I ravage a tiny earth hole where there is neither mouse nor bird nor chipmunk in hiding. I am eager to discover what has long been gone, save the scent. I can test a spider from more sides with my paws that Picasso could with a brush. When something is just out of reach, I am overcome with a wanting spirit. I will return again and again and again until my curiosity is satisfied. My need to seek and find is relentless. I have an inquiring spirit.

God, I dig. I want to know. You have made me curious. I want to learn more. I want to know the sky by heart, know the planets by name and point them out to my friends. I want to learn another language to hear the thoughts inside other people. Thank you for those who discover what has long disappeared which we need to know. Give me the mind to stay with things that are important, so I find their meaning and beauty.

If we want to build on a sure foundation, it requires us to dig. It requires us to seek knowledge, not to be satisfied with what’s on the surface. I’ve often thought of the way so many of us “do” Christianity as jet skiing over the Great Barrier Reef. Sure, it’s going to be exciting and fast, and you’ll get plenty wet. But you’ll experience nothing of some of the most incredible depth of beauty on earth, lying just below your feet. How often do we do the same with our faith? We leave it unexamined. But we walk in the tradition of Founders who were willing to dig deep, who were willing to put in study. Men and women of incredible brains, all the way back to Duns Scotus, and Bonaventure, and so many others. We walk in the tradition of those in our own community, like Ramon, who dug deep into the knowledge of God in order to share their contact with the foundation, in order to help us build on the rock.

Sometimes, even when we build on a sure foundation, and the storms hit and the rivers overflow, we discover those places where we weren’t quite as anchored as we thought. There’s loose rock, there’s gaps, and air pockets, and places where we didn’t really contact the foundation as well as we should have, and we need to do more digging, this time beneath an already standing structure. Anyone who’s lived in San Francisco has seen the engineering marvel so common there of raising a whole house in order to seismically refit the foundation, to add a garage or whatever. The whole building has to come up to address a foundation problem, to reconnect to the solid. It would seem like the easier thing to do is just knock it all down and start over, or give up and run. But the developers know that would be a mistake. Saving the existing structure is worth the greater effort of getting at the foundation. What has already been built is very valuable. In our own lives, there will come time and time again when we find that we were not resting on the solid, but on what we sincerely believed was solid, but what turned out to be dirt, a moveable rock, a gap. We might have been resting on false beliefs about ourselves or others or God. We were resting on incomplete maturity, on wounds from our past, on assumptions from our culture that were not really solid rock. And if we want to keep building, we’re going to have to dig. We will have to dig into ourselves: a much scarier task than digging into a book! And we need to see and acknowledge the loose rocks, the dirt, the gaps … all the ugliness and insufficiency that turn up in the basement of our selves. And it may seem here too that it would just be easier to knock it all down and start over, or give up and walk away. But rest assured, what we’ve built so far is worth the effort. We’ll get tired, we’ll get blisters and sore backs, because digging is hard work. But if we want to get back onto the solid foundation, we’re going to have to dig.

If we want to rest on the foundation, we must do so not merely as individuals, but as a community. As much as modern Western Christianity has focused on my faith, my relationship, my beliefs, my responsibility ... that’s not what community is about. Community reminds us of the centrality of our relationship with God, and God’s relationship to all of us. If we want to be a true community, we can’t avoid being involved in one another’s lives. We can’t avoid having to dig into relationships, with all their mess and aggravation. In our lives together we must sometimes push one another and dig together to find those places where another, or where our whole community, can be better founded on the solid rock. And just like when we dig into ourselves, we get blisters, and sore backs, and we get cranky, only this time there’s someone else nearby to hit with a shovel! It’s easier to dig alone. But we are not alone. We have chosen community, and we’re going to have to dig. Together. Ducking shovels and digging on, challenging ourselves and one another to change and grow and settle ever firmer onto the foundation.

Our founders knew this. St Francis knew it when he began digging up the rocks at San Damiano, and stacking them one on another on the old foundation. He knew it when he dug deep inside himself at Laverna and in the caves above Assisi, and when he dug deep into the lives of his Brothers challenging them and the church to examine what they’d come to assume was solid rock. Our Brothers in the Christa Seva Sangha knew it when they dug into the religion and culture of colonial India, not to reject or repress the value there, but to unearth new insights previously unknown to them, corners of the foundation they’d never seen –and they knew it when they set down the lessons they’d learned in the Principles we read each day. They knew it in houses and hermitages around England and here in the US, bringing the fruit of their digging up into the light via books, and missions, and sermons and spiritual direction. And still our Brothers dig into knowledge and spiritual practice: with fingers on keyboards, brushes on canvas, notes on staffs, eyes pouring over books, hearts pouring out tears, hands reaching out in loving service. Our founders dug foundations at Little Portion in Port Jefferson. Today, we dig foundations at Our Lady of the Angels in Kelseyville. The digging goes on.

There is no question that the foundation is firm. It’s not a horizontal question. But if we want to continue on the firm foundation for our next 100 years, we’re going to have to dig.


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