10 February 2007

In praise of curses

6th Sunday OT: Jer 17.5-8; 1 Cor 15.12, 16-20; Luke 6.17, 20-26
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Luke’s Parish, St. Paul’s Hospital, Church of the Incarnation


Praedicator primum sibi praedicet!

How can we be cursed? Let’s count the ways! We can be cursed with an inattentive spouse, rebellious children, busybody in-laws, impatient creditors, sickly and lazy co-workers, an over-stuffed schedule, a small salary, bad insurance coverage, no retirement plan, insomnia, depression, binge-eating, binge-drinking, another form of emotional illness, another form of addiction, repair bills, tax bills, grocery bills, tuition bills, car payments, house payments, and so on and so on. We can also be cursed with spiritual apathy, a hard heart, a weak will, an easily fooled intellect, a bag of vices and not many virtues, a love of money and all the seven cardinal sins. So, we can be cursed physically, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, financially, and domestically. And how does this happen? How do we end up cursed? Jeremiah says, “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the Lord.” When we expect our blessings to come from the flesh—other people, other flesh—we, in effect, turn from God and look to a creature to give us what only the Father can give: abundant, fertile blessings, everything we need to live and thrive. Blessings may come through other flesh, but they always originate with God—He is the only source, even if one of us might do the heavy lifting.

If I were to ask you to name your blessings, to call out the great things that God has done for you, how many here I wonder would call out: God has blessed me with poverty! God has blessed me with hunger! God has blessed me with mourning and tears! God has blessed me with hateful neighbors who exclude and insult me! How many here could lift up their curses in thanksgiving and praise God for their troubles? Are you prepared to give God thanks for your failures, your diseases, your daily crashes and crippled faith? It is no easy thing to celebrate weakness, destitution, illness, emptiness, and despair. It is no easy thing to lift your eyes to heaven and say, “Thank you for my trials, Lord, thank you for my suffering!”

No doubt you are thinking about now: Father is cracked! He’s gone off the rail and is running on his last rim! Not at all. I’m preaching the gospel. And sometimes that means starting with the strange and racing head-long into the stranger still. Jesus teaches the Twelve that all those we routinely think of as cursed—the poor, the hungry, the mournful, the despised—all of them are, in fact, blessed with riches, satisfaction, laughter, blessed by the Christ of the Father and made holy in their imperfection. Jesus plainly teaches his apostles that on the day we are excluded and insulted and denounced for his name’s sake, we are blessed. And so, on that day we must “rejoice and leap for joy…!” In other words, we must give God praise and thanksgiving for how we have suffered, how we have failed, how we have been injured and diseased. And not only that—we must thank Him for our enemies, for those who made us suffer, for those who injured us or dis-eased us.

This is the Way of Perfection: to surrender to God wholly, entirely, now and forever, your curses and blessings, your health and your death, your goods and all your debts; to submit your strength, your courage, your stamina and grace, all of your mistakes, successes, your warts and your shiny smile, your wallet or purse and checkbooks, your children, grandchildren, and anyone else you love: place them and place yourself under the eternal strength and sheltering love of the Father, trusting and hoping in His Word to us—Christ Jesus—that we are freed in His grace, perfected in His love, and brought to Him in His power and glory. And that no VISA bill, car payment, nosey mother-in-law, surgery, or toothache possesses the power to poison the blessings that come from His hand to your heart, if (if!) you love…and love excessively, wastefully, painfully all that and those you have willed (up to now) not to love. Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is in the Lord!

Defending to the Corinthians the truth of Christ’s resurrection, Paul writes, “If for this life only have we hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” In other words, by saying that Christ did not rise from the dead on the third day, they are saying that they do not believe in a life with Christ in heaven. Paul says that this is a pitiable waste of hope if this life is all we get. Why hope at all? Why trust? Paul’s question is powerful. If all we get is what we have and the few years left, then hope and trust are pointless existential exercises in self-delusion. They serve merely to numb our twitchy consciences with promises of pie-in-the-sky. Religious distraction and empty P.R. for Church, Inc. But Paul reasserts what he knows to be true: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” To trust that this is true defines us; I mean, to hold that Christ was resurrected from the dead is an investment we make into helping God shape us, giving us form and function and planting ahead of us a seductive end, an attractive goal. We trust and we flourish. We hope and we shine. When we trust and hope to the end, we live with Him forever, rejoicing and leaping for joy!

On easy days, trust and hope are, well, easy—sometimes doing as little as avoiding distrust and hopelessness is enough. And that may be enough for awhile. But at some point that spiritual sloth will have to erupt into an apostolic purpose, an evangelical movement toward actively praising God and giving Him thanks for your blessings and then going out to use your gifts, your blessings to help someone else, to bless someone else with what you yourself have been blessed with! Jeremiah tells us that those so blessed will be like trees planted next to a stream: evergreen leaves, carefree blossoms and fruit—even in drought years the leaves and blossoms and fruit will come abundantly! This tree’s beauty and bounty are best shared not hoarded, put into service not left to rot. It is the cursed bush, the barren desert shrub that stands in a lava waste—a salty, empty soil—that dries, cracks, stands without blossom or leaf or fruit: this is the heart that has turned from God!

Keep your hearts rich and pliable, strong and generous by surrendering to the Lord with joy and rejoicing. Give thanks for blessings and curses. Yes, even curses! How else will you turn that which threatens your heart into a benefit, a salve? Do you imagine yourself fighting the realities of day to day misfortune and willful failure by yourself? How will you fight? Willpower? Your personal goodness? Good luck. The longest spiritual tradition of our catholic church tells us that total surrender to the will of the Father—complete obedience—, a prayer life of constant thanksgiving in praise, and persistence in making a sacrifice of our service for others will transform what curses us into what blesses us. Fight the curse without God and feed it. Give thanks to God for the curse and starve it.

One last question: will you suffer those curses in silence, or will you open your lips, proclaim the Lord’s praise, and give Him thanks for everything you have and everything are?


  1. Father: Personally, this homily could not be MORE timely. Thank you.

  2. I am somewhat confused by the direction of the homily. Am I being too literal in questioning thanking God for the malformation of what is good?

    I understand thanking God for the ability to learn and grow and overcome that which is a curse, but it seems that thanking God for something that is a curse would imply that God has somehow caused evil?

  3. Contemplative,

    Thanks for the insightful comment...

    The question for me is: what do I do with my suffering? It's there. It's not going away. I can fight it. With what? My goodness? My own strength? Hardly. The best weapon is prayer and the best prayer is one that increases humility (see section four of the CCC). There's no better prayer for increasing a healthy sense of humility than a prayer of thanksgiving. You aren't necessarily making any claims about the origins of the "curse" you are giving thanks for. In fact, origins are pretty much irrelevant here.

    Fr. Philip