20 Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 18, 2019
Last week, I was a guest of my oldest and dearest friends at their summer home on the shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was a wonderful few days…actually a reunion…because over the past years, our lives have been so busy that we haven’t been able to spend very much time together.
One evening, they invited their favorite neighbors over. We sat outdoors in a circle on lawn chairs under soaring pine and spruce and birch trees, listening to the waves break on the shore and watching the sun set. There was no actual campfire burning, but we were having that kind of experience. It was a “campfire evening.” It was perfect!
Except…the next day, I felt a pang of regret.
You see, as I was getting acquainted with the other guests, who are wonderful people, the fact that I am a Catholic priest came up. After a little while, and totally out of context, because we certainly were not talking about spiritual matters, the neighbor lady looked across the imaginary campfire directly at me and said: “You know, I was raised Catholic.” It came out of the blue, those words: “I was raised Catholic.”
It seemed to me that she placed a special kind of emphasis on that word “was.” I heard a tone in her voice as she spoke that single word, “was.” But, as I said, we were not talking about spiritual matters, and I had just met this delightful couple. I wasn’t quite certain as to why she highlighted the word “was,” so I simply replied: “Oh? Is that right?” But her “was” stuck with me. It hung with me like the smell of a campfire clings to your clothes.
So, the pleasant “campfire” conversation continued, and after quite a bit of time, the lady again looked over at me, and once more, totally out of context, said: “I had all of the Sacraments.” She continued, almost as if to prove her point by naming them: “Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation…and my brothers did, too. My parents saw to it.”
Because of the circumstances, I felt uncertain as to how to reply and simply said: “It’s good to give kids a faith life.” Pretty lame, if I do say so myself. My bad!
Finally, just as we were about to get up and move into the house because it was getting chilly — as I said, there was no campfire — she looked right into my eyes and said: “Those were good times. Happy times. Things were better then.” She went on with a few more thoughts that I can only paraphrase. Basically, I understood her to say that she missed the certainty and security that she once felt when she “was” Catholic.
I bumbled through something that I intended to be ecumenical, non-judgmental, even pastoral, without sounding too preachy. But, when I woke up the next morning, I felt the sense of regret one feels after a missed opportunity. I had fallen short. And that feeling was only intensified when I sat down to reflect on and pray with today’s Gospel.
One of the most unsettling feelings we humans experience is: I should have said. I should have taken the opportunity to say to this good woman, With Christ, there is no such thing as “was.”
At the very beginning of the Baptism ritual, the priest signs us with the cross and says: I claim you for Christ! And although some people think of their relationship with Christ and the Church in the past tense, with the Lord, there is only “The present” which leads to a future without end. Once Christ claims us, he never rejects us.
No matter how much time might pass between us because our lives have become too busy, or because our feelings have been hurt and we leave the circle, or because we feel that we have “outgrown” the friendship, no matter how much we highlight the word “was,” Christ always claims us as His own.
So I wonder, if when Jesus tells us that he has come to “light a fire,” I wonder if maybe he is talking about a warm and inviting campfire, a fire far more brilliant than anything that can be lit with a match. I wonder if the Lord is talking about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit — the kind of fire that people can gather around, sitting shoulder to shoulder under a canopy of trees, looking at the sunset and listening to the music of the lake, while sharing thoughts and feelings about “happier times.” Times when we felt totally secure and certain about God’s unconditional love, and the unfailing friendship of Jesus Christ, reassuring one another that there is no “was” with God…only “is” and “will be.”
I should have told that woman all of this…but I missed the opportunity. But now, I am telling you. When Jesus speaks about lighting a fire, I wonder if what he had in mind was a warm and inviting campfire?