Joy in the Wilderness

A Homily for the Confirmation Candidates of St. Lawrence the Martyr and Blessed Trinity Church, Toronto, Ontario, 2023

Deacon Doug McManaman

Some people refer to Confirmation as a rite of passage, as we find in Judaism (the Bar mitzva), or the ancient initiation rituals of the Indigenous peoples. A rite of passage is a passage into adulthood. I don’t know how good that comparison is, but having Confirmation at this age would easily suggest that it is. But the indigenous rite of passage was a very uncomfortable affair. The boy would be snatched from his mother, covered in paint or blood, and sent out into the wilderness for a few months, to learn to survive all on his own. Those who did not, died in the wilderness; those who survived, returned to the tribe and were given a new name; they were no longer children. 

Well, our Confirmation preparation classes were hardly comparable to this. However, although we might not send you out into the wilderness, the realm of chaos, there is a sense in which God does. The society in which we live is in many ways a chaotic wilderness. It is no longer a society congenial to Catholicism, as it was in the 1950s. It’s very difficult to be a Catholic today, especially if you are a teenager. 

There’s a lot of good things going on in the world today, but there are also a lot of things that are so contrary to everything we believe in. This is especially the case in the realm of morality, especially issues of sexuality, marriage, the life issues, such as abortion and euthanasia. It’s very difficult for a young teenager to make it through his or her teenage years while remaining faithful to Christ and his Church. But if you do, you are a hero in many ways. This is something that a priest from Washington D.C said to me years ago. I met him while hitchhiking to Nashville, Tennessee back in 1979, when I was 17 years old. He picked me up on the highway just outside of Columbus, Ohio and took me to Kentucky. He was such a joyful priest that I had made the decision to return to the Church that my family had left when I was in grade 3. It was his joy that really struck me. He was celibate, he couldn’t get married, burdened with all sorts of duties and responsibilities, and here I was young and free, I could get married, and yet he was clearly happier than I was. What was the key to his joy, I’d wondered. Well, I figured it out when he asked me whether I go to Church. I said no, I haven’t seen the inside of a Church since the 3rd grade. “Do your parents go to Church?” I said no, not at all. And much to my chagrin, he was so disappointed. I said why do you have to go to Church. And he yelled out the answer: “To receive the body of Christ! And you know, I hadn’t heard those words since grade 3 when I would attend Mass and hear the priest say: Take this all of you and eat of it, this is my body which will be given up for you. That whole world came back to me at that moment, and I knew that this was the way into that world that I once knew, a world I wanted back into. That was the key to his joy. The body of Christ. The Eucharist. And that is what is going to bring you stability during your teenage years ahead. 

The happiest teenagers and those with the greatest mental health, according to studies in Britain, are those teenagers who practice their religion faithfully. Even my university students that I teach now, the ones who radiate joy and who show the greatest resilience and who write with such depth, are the religious ones who are quoting scripture here and there. Their lives are immersed in the Scriptures. They feed off of the word of God. 

Furthermore, the holier you become, the more interesting your life becomes. I don’t know if I told you this story during one of our classes together, but my best friend is a priest of the Hamilton Diocese, and over the years I’d visit him often, stay the weekend, preach for him to give him a break. And I’m an early riser, so I went down one Saturday morning, about 5 in the morning, and I said my breviary. After the Office of Readings and the Morning prayer, I looked up and saw a large bookshelf at the other end of the living room. I noticed Butler’s four volume lives of the saints, the newest version. So, I went up and decided that I would close my eyes and pick a volume at random, open it and put my finger down, at random. Wherever my finger landed, I would read the life of that saint. So, I got some 3rd century unknown saint. Never heard of her before. It was about 3⁄4 of a page in length. When I finished reading, I felt exhilaration. It really woke me up. I thought, what an interesting life. Then I did it again, picked a volume at random. This time I got a 7th century saint, and I read about his life, completely different from the previous, and again, I could feel it in my body, it was like I drank a glass of orange juice. His life was so different from the one before, but so interesting. 

And this is the lie of Hollywood. We’ve been told over and over again that goodness is boring, and evil is interesting. And it is really the other way around. Evil is terribly boring. It is empty. There’s nothing to it. It’s all the same. But goodness is so diverse, rich, and interesting. 

The more you give your lives over to God, the more interesting your life will become. You will no longer know the meaning of the word boredom. Give yourself to God and He’ll take you on a journey that will be full of surprises. There will be difficulties, struggles, challenges, but He’ll provide you with the graces and the fortitude to overcome all these obstacles, and struggle is what makes life rewarding. A life without struggle is soon intolerably boring. A teaching colleague of mine won the Lotto 649 and he decided to quit, to leave teaching. Another colleague of mine met up with him years later, and he said that he looked lost, without purpose. There’s another Hollywood lie, that labour and struggle bring discontent, while rest, leisure, and an easy life is a happy life. Absolutely false. When you are doing what God is calling you to do, you are happy, joyful. 

So, I encourage you to continue down this road. Be faithful to the graces that you are going to receive today in Confirmation. Don’t waste them. Cooperate with God and let Him lead you to where He wants to take you. 

A Reply to Two Questions

The following two questions were addressed to me by a local bible study group.

Why is Mary’s perpetual virginity so important to the Catholic faith?

This is a good question, and difficult to answer. What is the significance of Mary’s perpetual virginity? Sexual union is a marital act, and in marriage, the two (male and female) give themselves entirely and completely to one another. Marriage is a one flesh union, and the sexual act is expressive of that one body union. The sexual act has a twofold goodness: 1) it is an expression and celebration of marital union, and 2) it is procreative. 

Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit overshadows Mary, who says: “Let it be done to me according to your word”. She offers herself, but her offering is complete and total. She gives her body, so to speak, and the result is the conception of the Son of God in her womb. So there is a kind of marriage here (something like a marriage). There is a union between Mary and the Holy Spirit, and that union results in the conception of the Messiah. Mary’s virginity expresses the fact that she belongs completely and totally (which includes her body) to God the Holy Spirit. And so, it is fitting that Mary was not “married” in the complete sense (which would involve sexual consummation). Joseph was the husband of Mary, but we really don’t have a consummated marriage here. But it is interesting because there is a sense in which the Holy Spirit is a kind of Motherhood in the heart of the Trinity (there is a feminine element in God, so to speak). The Holy Spirit is the Uncreated Immaculate Conception, while Mary is the created immaculate conception (St. Maximilian Kolbe). In fact, St. Maximilian Kolbe pointed out that if the Holy Spirit were to become flesh (as God the Son became flesh), we would see no difference between that incarnation and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary is not God, she is not divine, but she does reflect the feminine that is in God. 

So Mary’s perpetual virginity has nothing to do with the false notion that sex is dirty or impure, etc. In marriage, sexual union is a sign of fidelity and complete belonging. When you belong entirely to another, it means that the self-giving was not partial, but total. So married love is undivided love. Mary’s virginity signifies that she belongs not partially, but completely and totally to God. This is not to suggest that married people cannot belong entirely to God. Matrimony is a sacrament, and it is a sign of the love that Christ has for his Bride, the Church, so it is very much a way of belonging to God completely. But Mary conceived Christ as a result of her complete and total surrender to the Holy Spirit, which is a kind of marriage; for it is a union that results in a conception. Her perpetual virginity signifies that perpetual belonging.

If God is almighty, why take 6 days (plus one day of rest) to create the world? Why not do it in one? For that matter, why does He need a day off?

The story of the 6 days of creation is not meant to be taken literally. This story does not mean that God literally created the world in 6 days and literally rested on the 7th. The story is an allegory, and an allegory is a story that contains a deeper meaning besides the literal meaning. In Hebrew, the word ‘seven’ is ‘saba’, which is derived from the root word ‘seba’, which means ‘to swear, as in swearing an oath’. To swear an oath is to enter into a covenant, and a covenant is a sacred family bond. The depiction of God creating the world in 6 days and resting on the 7th day is meant to convey the fact that creation is a covenant. God enters a covenant with humanity. Covenant means ‘family bond’, and the Hebrew word for family is be’tab, which means ‘my father’s house’. Notice that in the first story of creation, God is building a house (my father’s house). We have the creation of time (1st day), space (2nd day), a foundation, and then he furnishes the house. Creation is God’s house or family. Creation is a covenant. God ‘sevens’ a covenant, or ‘swears an oath’ (seven). 

That family or covenant is shattered in Genesis 3, and the entire history of Israel is really the history of the restoration of that covenant.  

But creation is not something that happens in time. God is not “producing” as we produce things like tables or houses. God creates temporal beings, brings them into being from nothing and sustains them in being. This includes bringing into being beings that can cause other things, i.e., material things that can cause other things to move, or material substances that can react with other substances, resulting in entirely new substances (sodium and chlorine, which become salt), etc. The kind of universe God has brought into being is a material universe in which things evolve, move, and develop. But a thing cannot move and develop unless it is brought into being by God and sustained in being by God. Thus, evolution presupposes creation. So, we think the universe is 13.6 billion years old, and the earth is 4.6 billion years old (or thereabouts). What we have today is the result of billions of years of evolution. The creation story, on the contrary, is an allegory that contains a deeper meaning besides the literal meaning. The deeper meaning being conveyed through the vehicle of the story is theological (about God, not about science or the facts of the universe). The truths communicated through the vehicle of the story is that God is the creator, God is one, God is outside of time and space (He is eternal and incorporeal), man exists in the image and likeness of God, creation is good, everything God creates is good, etc. 

To Be Rooted in Christ

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter

Deacon Doug McManaman

Currently I am teaching prospective teachers at Niagara University (Toronto Campus). I taught for 32 and a half years as a classroom teacher and did not move up at all, but my friend who joined me this year to teach teachers became, early on, a vice principal, then a principal, a superintendent, and then assistant director of education. Every week we discussed what and how we were going to teach these prospective teachers. One of his suggestions was that we should have the students read the Gospel of Mark (the shortest gospel) straight through. Of course that’s a great idea; for I always insisted on this for my grade 10s; the goal was to have the students become familiar with the character of Christ; for we often hear only pieces of the gospel here and there, but to read a gospel straight through is very important; it gives us a deeper sense of Christ, his life, his personality, and his mission. So we put together an assignment for them to do that was not too demanding. Anyone can read the gospel of Mark in two sittings, but we got them to read just two or three chapters a week, and all we wanted them to do was to take informal notes on things that struck them. No need for in depth research.

That assignment was easily the most enjoyable assignment to mark. So many of them were nothing short of excellent. It was obvious that actually reading the gospel affected them significantly. 

There is tremendous power in the word of God. There is tremendous power in reading the life of Christ as it is laid out in the gospels. And it needs to be powerful, because darkness also has some power. Falsehood has some power. It has the power to deceive. Christ said that the children of darkness are more shrewd than are the children of light (Lk 16, 8). That hasn’t changed. The children of light often lack shrewdness. They look to the surface of things only. If it glitters, if it sounds good, it must be good. 

But how does a person get to that point where he or she can become more shrewd, less gullible, not so easily taken in by popular trends that sound good on the surface, but on closer inspection reveal a dangerous rot? The answer is to become more rooted in the truth. But, what does it mean to be rooted in the truth? Whose truth? “What is truth?” as Pontius Pilate famously asked Jesus. The irony is that the truth was standing right there in front of him, and he crucified the truth, because he was not rooted in the truth.  

In our gospel today, Christ provides the answer: Thomas said to Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.”

To be rooted in the truth is to be rooted in Christ, because it is not that he possesses the truth or knows the truth, rather, he is the truth. He is the way, the truth, and he is life itself. All life comes from the Father, through the Word, through the Son; for all things were created through him and for him. He is the source of life and truth. It’s all about Christ. It’s not about us. 

This is the wonderful thing about Catholicism. So many people who have left the Church think that Catholicism is fundamentally about us. They leave the Church when they hear news of the disgraceful behavior of the clergy in the past, or they hear of sinful bishops, or corrupt popes in our history, the Residential schools, abusive nuns or clergy, etc. My friend asked me, years ago, to do an RCIA class on the history of the Church, and I remember preparing for it, going over that history, trying to condense it into an hour. I think it was a rather boring session, I’m sorry to say, but I do remember asking him: are you sure you want me to talk about the history of the Church to these candidates. It might scare them away. There’s a lot of sin in our history. Clearly, the Catholic faith is not about us. If our goal is to get people to look toward us, all they are going to be is disappointed. No, just like the icons of John the Baptist or the Blessed Virgin Mary, our hands must point away from ourselves and point to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. It’s all about Christ. Everything speaks of Christ. Every rose speaks of his crown of thorns and his blood poured out for us, every tree speaks of his cross, which is our salvation and stability. Winter speaks of his death, spring speaks of his resurrection, the endlessness of the universe speaks of his divine infinity, the movement of the sun from sunrise to sunset speaks of Christ the bridegroom, coming from his tent, going out to meet his bride, the Church, to redeem her and prepare her for the eternal marriage banquet in heaven. It’s all about him, not us. 

Many of us are like Philip; we spend our lives in the Church, we’ve had 12 years of Catholic education, and yet we turn to Jesus and say to him: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied”. Jesus replies to us the same way he replied to Philip: “Have I been with you all this time and you still do not know me?”

The Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. To see this, we need to be rooted in the scriptures, for we need to become familiar with the personality and character of Christ. The more we are rooted in him, that is, the more we look to him, think about him, study him, look to him to guide us, spend time in silence with him, the more our eyes will be opened. The more shrewd we will become. We won’t be as easily deceived by false prophets and dangerous but trendy ideologies that are constantly popping up every few years. We’ll be able to see through the facade. If we are not rooted in the truth, who is Christ himself, if we allow ourselves to remain ignorant of his life, we’ll fall for anything that sounds good. Cardinal Collins gave a talk to Catholic trustees a few years ago, and I was struck by an image he employed; he spoke of “the meringue Jesus”, a Jesus that is made up of sweet and light meringue, the stuff you put on a lemon pie. It’s a Jesus that has no substance but is all sweet. The reason many people have the meringue Jesus in their heads instead of the real Jesus is that they don’t read scripture; they don’t pray the scriptures; they don’t contemplate the life of Christ in the reading of the gospels. But when you start to focus on Christ as he is revealed in the gospels, you see that he is not so sweet. For example, he is very offensive to the Pharisees, calling them “whitewashed tombs full of the bones of the dead”, a first century way of saying “You’re full of it”. He called them hypocrites. He spoke hard truths; for he condemned lying, fornication, adultery, murder, theft, greed of all kinds. He spoke of damnation. He even referred to certain people as pigs and dogs: Do not throw your pearls to swine, or feed holy things to dogs. He wasn’t talking about actual pigs and dogs. He knew that not everyone is genuine. There are people in this world who love evil. 

But we won’t have the eyes to discern who these people are if we are naive. He said to us: be shrewd as serpents, but innocent as doves (Mt 10, 16). Many of us have the innocence part, but we lack the shrewdness. The children of darkness lack the innocence part, but they are shrewd. Immersed in Christ, we get both parts: shrewdness and innocence.