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Thirty-Third Sunday of the Year

He Leadeth Me

It is a sad truth for preachers that we are more often thanked for the homilies we have put little or no preparation into. When I remarked on this to a friend, she retorted, 'Well that's because your brain doesn't get in the way of God!' Her assumption, widely shared, is that the one's braininess can leave little room for the Holy Spirit.

There's a lot of truth in this. We need to ask ourselves, why are we preaching? To be entertaining? To amuse? To receive the praise of our hearers/readers? I don't suppose those temptations ever go away. But I suspect the popularity of less-prepared homilies lies in their engaging delivery, in their spontaneous feel. The trick, according to seasoned preachers, is to be fully prepared and to deliver the homily as though it's entirely spontaneous.

My friend's comment about the brain 'getting in the way' of God can't be true. It's pride that gets in the way. The mind is God's gift to us -- and refusing to use our minds is therefore a great affront to God, the giver of all good things. Yet many people mistrust their own natural gifts.

There was a time when I used to pray with many evangelical and charismatic groups. Something these groups assumed, at least implicitly, was that when someone spoke their prayers quickly, it was a sign that the Holy Spirit was inspiring them, as though the Spirit had snuck in before the person's brain got in the way.

When someone expressed that view to me, it made me wonder, 'Why does the Holy Spirit sound so American?' These prayers almost always included expressions like 'jus wanna', for example, 'We jus wanna praise you Lord'. The putative spontaneous Spirit-led prayers still have to work through the medium of the person praying. And in this case they drew on the culture of such prayers, which still seems largely American.

Perhaps the idea of spontaneity as divine derives from the gospel we hear today:

This will be a time for you to bear testimony. Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.

I was in Hull imbibing a bit of culture when I came across of book I meant to read years ago, by an American Jesuit. When Walter Ciszek SJ returned from imprisonment in a Soviet gulag after twenty-three years, he wrote a book that was expected of him, With God in Russia. Almost ten years later he wrote the book he should have written all along, He Leadeth Me.

The difference in titles is already a clue to the difference in emphasis. In the former book, Ciszek was acting as God's 'agent', like a deputy God had to rely on. In the latter work he is in the hands of divine Providence. In this second book Ciszek describes how he called to mind the gospel quoted above, and hoped to be inspired in order to dumbfound his interrogators. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, under great duress and fear, he caved in and signed a confession to things which simply were not true: that he was an American spy, etc.

In anguish at his failure and angry at his foolhardy bravado beforehand, Ciszek recalled the conclusion of that same gospel passage:

You will be hated by all for my name's sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.

And then his fear left him. When he wasn't trying to be such a great hero, wanting to confound his enemies with his superior strength and wit, when he reached an all-time low of fear and desperation, Ciszek was given the grace to endure.

Our Lord's words are not about a brain-bypassing wisdom most evident in spontaneity. They are about grace, and our reliance on this grace. All we have to do is to endure, to remain faithful, and we can do that only by grace. Is the story of our lives With God in [wherever you live], or is it He Leadeth Me?

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