06 May 2013

A deadly business

NB. Adapted from a 2008 homily

6th Week of Easter (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, NOLA

Good writers hate clichés, or they should. Clichés don't tell us anything new or interesting. But they do have their uses. For example, in polite conversation, clichés free us from potential embarrassment in social situations. Let's call these “formal noises.” A phrase like, “Hey, how you doing?” Phrases and words that we hear so often that we no longer hear them as requiring anything of us other than that we play the game and politely utter another formal noise. We can find examples of formal noises in scripture. We’ve heard them a thousand thousand times. Clichés in polite conversation are one thing, however, allowing scriptural language to become cliché, allowing the words of the Word to become dull with use or to utter biblical language like a formal noise is dangerous. We have an example this morning. Let’s see if we can reclaim a clichéd phrase and restore it to its proper luster! 

Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, is attending to one of Paul’s homilies. Scripture tells us, “[She] listened, and the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying.” How many times in your life as a Catholic have you heard someone use the phrase “open our hearts”? Don’t you hear this phrase as white noise? Just formal speech, meaningless filler? We pray all the time: “Lord, open our hearts and minds …” And we do this very casually, very matter-of-factly. When, in fact, this is an incredibly dangerous thing to say! How much more so to pray it! But the habit of repetition, the pattern of sound and occasion has dulled the sting of the fire in these words and so we mouth them too easily and expect little to happen b/c we did so. 

Let’s take a moment to look a little closer at what the heart is for us as believers. In the Catechism we read, “The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live…the heart is the place ‘to which I withdraw.’ The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others…The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as the image of God we live in relation : it is the place of covenant” (CCC 2563). For us then our heart is that place where who we are most fundamentally rests. To open this place and offer it to another is an awesome, perhaps fearful task. And because we are no one unless we are in a relationship, in a covenant, we are defined essentially by the one who rests in our heart…whoever He or It may be. 

Lydia’s heart is opened by the Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth promised by Christ as he says farewell to his disciples: “When Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father…he will testify to me.” Paul testifies. Lydia listens. Her heart is opened. And the Spirit of Truth seizes her. She and her household are baptized. This is very dangerous. Dangerous? Yes. Jesus goes on to tell the disciples that b/c they have listened to his Word, received the Spirit of Truth from his Father by his agency, that their hearts will be opened. This is a good thing? Yes and no. As a result of this gift they will be expelled from the synagogues and killed as act of worship by those who have not listened to Word, have not received the Spirit of Truth, by those whose hearts—perhaps wisely in this case—remain closed. 

As a prayer, “Lord, open our hearts,” means “Lord, let us be killed for knowing Your Truth.” Will we be so quick to mumble this religious cliché in the future? I hope so. But we should do so remembering what Jesus tells his disciples: “…the Spirit of Truth [I send you from the Father]…he will testify to me. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.” Even as we pray to be killed for knowing his truth, we remember: Christ is with us, then, now, always. 

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe and DONATE ----->


  1. I picked up the term "lettuce" somewhere, to refer to the words spoken in prayer that don't have any particular meaning to the speaker or listener. ("Lord, let us....")

    As you point out, we run the risk that something in all that lettuce has meaning to God.

  2. "To open this place and offer it to another is an awesome, perhaps fearful task." For me, best line of the homily.

    I'm enjoying how you are making me think about phrases/words we might sometimes use without thinking.

    Interesting with the last couple of homilies, and noticed especially with this one, is that my reading revealed some minor criticisms that disappeared when I heard it. Since homilies are meant to be heard, I won't worry about the criticism ! Thanks!