November 20, 2005

Thoreau & Today's Homily

The story told at the homily was of two priests who went to a restaurant for breakfast. The owner stopped by several times. The younger priest read the newspaper, and barely listened to the owner, while the older priest listened intently and spoke with him. After the meal, the owner said it was "on the house" even though the younger priest tried to offer him money. Afterwards, the older priest said the younger stole a meal from the restauranteur. "How so?" asked the younger, "I tried to pay but he would not let me."

"He did not want money. He wanted to be listened to and for you to talk to him." It was not what he did that was sinful, but what he failed to do.

When I was a young adult I had the unfortunate habit (in effect, if not knowingly doing so) of treating literature as canonical if it "spoke to me". In other words, instead of trying to become what Scripture said I should become, I treasured works that explained me to me as I already was. (I'm sure that was clear). One example is Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in Walden that "we meet at too frequent intervals" and give each other only the "stale bread that is ourselves". He went to the woods perhaps in order to ensure he'd meet others at less frequent intervals or, more charitably, to gather wisdom that he might have more to give. That passage resonated, as did his recommendation that we have a "large margin to life" (though it would seem that most saints live off slim margins of free time).

So, to answer Thoreau's first point, there's no reason to think that God can't make something of what seems to promise to be a mundane encounter. We've all experienced times when we think we have nothing to offer someone - and yet we do - or they have nothing to offer us - and yet they do. But that utilitarian view is beside the point. Even if nothing meaningful seems to occur, our conscience, unlike the young priest's, is clear and our openness is itself an act of obedience.

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