Today I would like to focus on two things that come out of the readings: first, the movement from fear to hope; second, the link between listening and speaking. I think they are related.
First, the movement from fear to hope. We read in Wisdom literature that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. However, and I think I have mentioned this before, every time God appears in the Bible, God says to the other person, “Do not be afraid.” However, in today’s first reading, the link between fear and God looks slightly different. We are told not to be afraid because God is coming. This seems to imply that God is not yet here. Indeed, the reason why one is afraid is precisely that God is not here yet. God is coming to save us from what causes us fear. But, there might be another way of thinking this through.
I have mentioned before the two basic forms of truth: 1) the truth of how things are, and 2) the truth of how things should be. These two truths are necessarily connected. The truth of how things are usually points ahead to something more. The truth of how things should sheds light on what is lacking in the here and now. In fact, describing the present without regard for the future is less than true, just like describing the future without regard for the present, that is, how one gets to that future, also rings hollow.
Perhaps then one experience of fear might be connected to the truth of how things are. I don’t think this is a stretch especially during lockdown. Even though we cannot move much at the moment, there is a sense of vertigo. What we have taken for granted no longer applies. The goalposts keep shifting. We also increasingly flooded with information of dubious relevance. Worse than that, our civilisation seems less and less able to determine what relevant means. We are lacking wisdom. We see many symptoms of this around us. People struggling mentally. Our culture treating weak human beings like trash, not realising that everyone is learning this lesson well.
And so I wonder if fear of the Lord in some cases might be precisely fear that God is not here. That is: where do I find meaning; and if I cannot, what does that mean? When I try to make sense of my life, I do not seem able to do so. Might my anxiety or stress or desperation point to a feeling that things have slipped out of my control? That when I look down at the foundations of my life, they seem paper thin, if there at all?
If this is the case, might the beginning of wisdom, that is, fear of the Lord, be precisely being honest about this? Might fear of the Lord be an owning up to what worries me, about how I am lost, about how I don’t know where to go from here? Might fear of the Lord be fear that God feels absent.
But, as I mentioned at the start, fear of the Lord is the beginning, not the end. God says, do not be afraid. God comes to save us. God does not avoid the reality of our lives. He is God with us – we know that from the Cross. But God also gives us a word of hope, the resurrection, so that we can know even if it is beyond us, it is not beyond God.
This brings me to that second point: the link between hearing and speaking. Our gospel today has the man who is deaf who also has a speech impediment. Most of us would be familiar with the close link between these two disabilities. Especially for those born deaf, it is quite hard to speak well, especially before the advent of sign language. There is a deep connection in language between hearing and speaking, a deep connection between listening and expression.
This connection seems very similar to that between fear and hope. Because, in the anxiety, in the confusion, in the maelstrom of data and competing philosophies, don’t we all become a little deaf? It becomes hard to make out the signal from the noise. And because it is hard to hear and understand what is going on, it is similarly hard to know what to say. Indeed, we are all of us, I suspect, all too familiar with people who speak and in doing so show themselves to deaf to reality.
And so, today’s gospel is a beautiful description of turning to the Lord in prayer. What must have this man felt? He has lived these difficulties all his life. He has struggled to hear, has struggled to express himself. Yet, he has not given up hope, evidenced by his appearance in our gospel. He knows the truth of how things are, but has not given up on how things should be. He does not know how to get from the one place to the other, but he has not stopped trying. Indeed, perhaps, he has not given up precisely because of the presence in his life of people who love him and care for him, the same people who bring him before Jesus.
And then we have the moment of prayer, the moment of intense intimacy. Jesus takes the man out of the spotlight, the spotlight his disabilities cast on him at every moment. Jesus even takes him out of the spotlight of the potential healing. As I said, this is a moment of intense intimacy. The man is incredibly vulnerable. He is placing himself in Jesus’s hands, all his hopes and his desperation. This might be his last hope. And Jesus puts his fingers in his ears, and touches the man’s tongue with his own spittle. About as close as it gets.
I was watching a conversation this week between some artists. One of them described the artistic process as an “intimate, private, guarded because-we-are-afraid affair, where we show each other our guts, and we sort through it, and if something has meaning, then we will let the world see it.” This seemed like a pretty perfect description not only of today’s gospel, but of prayer in general. This is what we do in the sacrament of reconciliation, at Mass and in private prayer. We give our mess to God and ask for Jesus in return, at the same time knowing that Jesus is the one who is in the mess suffering it with us and offering it for us.
I cannot remember who said it or whether I read it, but some priest once said something along the lines of, if you don’t pray, then you have nothing to say. In one sense, this is the Mass, and because it is the Mass it is Christ, and because it is Christ, it is true life. It is in listening to God’s word of love that we have hope, that we feel able to hand over the fears and rubbish of our lives, trusting that God will not leave us there. God has come to save us. God will take us to where we should be. And it is only in doing this, in hearing God’s word in our own lives, and responding in the deepest intimacy, that we are kitted out to speak, to speak words that touch hearts, words that give hope.
Let’s pray this weekend then for that renewed sense of hope. Let’s seek out those moments of intimate prayer. Let us pray to know that God, the good shepherd, in giving us the overwhelming truth of where we are, is not only present, but also is somehow leading us on to greener pastures, if we just accept the hand he offers us, by trusting him with it all.