“Who Do You Say That I Am?”

The Abbey Chapel
The Genesee Abbey Chapel

{This blog excerpts a recent homily from Fr. Gerard D’Souza O.C.S.O., the Abbot of the Abbey of the Genesee, with his permission.  For the link to the website of the Trappist monastery, see the link at the end of this post.}

My wife and I and two good friends, fellow retreatants, attended  Mass in the Genesee Abbey Chapel on the last Sunday of August.  With about fifty other people, we listened to the Gospel proclamation, which was Matt. 16:13-21.  Jesus described Peter as the “rock” upon which He would build his Church.  As if to echo that notion, we needed only to look at the walls around us.

The Lord is present in the beautiful Chapel

The chapel is constructed almost entirely of large rocks which were excavated from the nearby Genesee River.

The Abbot, Father Gerard D’Souza O.C.S.O.,  was the homilist that day.   In his typically disarming manner, he began:

” ‘ But you, who do you say that I am?’  …He hurls the thunderbolt at them.  ‘But you, not the crowds, not your family, you – who do you say that I am?’  I can imagine some of them wanting to hide, some looking down in embarrassment. But the fact is, the Son of God is asking them, each one of them, this question.  This tells us something about ourselves – we truly matter to God.  There is a deep mystery about us.”

Wait.  Didn’t he get that wrong?  Isn’t it Jesus who is the “deep mystery?”  After all, saints and sinners, scholars and college drop-outs have been struggling for two millennia to figure out how Jesus can be both God and man.  Oceans of ink have been spilled in the effort to understand this mystery of the Incarnation.

The Abbot continued;

“Our depths lie in the depths of God.   This is why He looks us in the face and asks us for own answer.  Otherwise, He would not have bothered… we must find our own voice.”

When we hear the Matthew passage, do we personalize it?  I’m afraid it’s far too easy for us to sick back and simply observe.  We let the eleven apostles ‘clear their throats’ until Peter boldly asserts the truth about Jesus.  After all, this is his ‘job description,’ isn’t it?

However, Father Gerard insists that we must answer this fundamental question for ourselves. 

“We must find our own voice.”

What holds us back?  The Abbot has a theory;

“We have been swallowed up by crowd-consciousness.  We find safety in the ‘herd.’ … we are programmed to admire the stars on the big screen and in turn, consider ourselves to be nobodies.  We lose our identity and our personal power…”

OUCH!  Have we lost our identity?  If the answer is ‘yes,’ then how did we arrive at this sorry state?

“…we like the anonymity of group consciousness.   Because solitude scares us, silence frightens us.  We flee from this into noise and busyness. This is why Jesus’ question is very challenging.  He is asking us to stand out by ourselves.  He does not want us to hide in the crowd.  He does not want ‘pat answers.'”

For us, a ‘pat answer’ might look like this; “Jesus is God’s Son, the Savior.  I’m a Christian.  I do my best to be a good person.  I go to Church, sometimes I even open up my Bible…”

You get the idea.  In direct contrast, Father D’Souza offers this perspective on what it truly means to identify who Jesus is;

“To say that Jesus is the Son of the Living God means to live as if He is the Son of God…. our lives are empty without him. That He is not just a universal savior.  He is our life.  This is faith.  Faith connects us at the deepest level to the Risen Christ.  His life comes streaming into us and our lives change.”

Phillippians 3:10-11
Phillippians 3:10-11

Has my life changed because I believe Jesus is God’s Son, who is truly risen from the dead?  Do I really and truly believe that He is “my life?”  My answers “will determine my eternal salvation” the Abbot asserts elsewhere in this homily.

The world we live in is rapidly changing.  The foundational truths of faith that were largely unchallenged for most of our lives are now under serious attack.  Morality is no longer defined by a higher power.  Personal autonomy, the ‘imperial self’ is now firmly enthroned where God formerly reigned.

What we believe about Jesus and how we live in response to the demands of the Gospel will make a critical difference…for today, tomorrow, and for a future yet to unfold.

No less than everything depends on our ‘finding our voice!”

The Abbot will have the last word;

“…. the Lord in His Word is asking each of us this question; ‘You, who do you say that I am?’  He wants you in the solitude of your heart to give your answer.  You must get in touch with the truth in your own heart.  Who is Christ Jesus for you?  You must confront in solitude the resistances…. if you are to answer this.

“Does He matter at all?  Does He mean everything to you?  This answer only you can give.  No one else can give it for you. 

“You must answer with your life, and if you do, it will change your life.” 

–August 27, 2017

To read Abbot D’Souza’s complete homily, click here.  Thus, you can navigate the website for the Abbey of the Genesee, which is recommended.  This monastery is a powerful place to visit and a superb location for a private retreat.

 If you would like to visit a previous blog of ours, from another retreat that we made, “Not That Abbey Road,” click here.

“Information, please”

{Special note to those under the age of thirty;  At one time, you could call “411” and get a live person, who would actually give you a phone number, without charge.   How cool is that?}

When I was working as an information operator for AT&T in 1982, I was instructed that after giving out a phone number, I should never say, “God bless you.”  Yes, thirty-five years ago, this was forbidden language which could potentially offend a customer.  Operators were periodically reviewed by different supervisors every few months.  Of course, they did this without our knowing it.  Since I was defiantly using “God bless you” as my usual sign-off, each time I was reviewed, I was reprimanded and instructed that I should instead use the dull, bland, “Have a nice day.”

I was not interested in wishing a nice day to people.  Instead, I persisted in using “God bless you.”  That is, until the day the head manager discovered to her dismay, that I had been warned about blessing customers on four separate occasions.  She firmly told me that if I persisted in my defiance, I would be fired.

“Okay,” I caved in, ” I’ll comply.”

Which I did.  Until the day came when having tendered my resignation (I was quitting to become a full-time LAMP Missionary in Brooklyn’s inner city), I was working my last day as an operator.  Since the worst thing that could happen to me would be my being fired (ha!) I  returned to my old, forbidden practice…. and blessed everyone who asked me for a number.

Merrily, the day went on like this.  With an hour to go in my ‘stellar’ career at AT&T, a call went like this;

“God bless you,” I said, after supplying a number.

“Did you say ‘God bless you?'” a young woman asked.

“Yes, I did.”

“I’ve never had an operator say that to me!”

“And probably, you never will again,” I should have said.  What I did say at that point, I don’t recall.  However, the call continued, as the woman opened her heart.

It seems that she had had a genuine conversion experience some years before.  Jesus had come into her life, and she had embraced the power of the Gospel of grace.  I was delighted to hear this.  However, recently she had stopped going to church and reading Scripture.  It clearly bothered her.  She used a classic Evangelical term;

“I’ve back-slided!”

For the next hour, we proceeded to dialogue about faith, doubt, and the mercy of the Good Shepherd.  The Holy Spirit used me to encourage her; that she could come back to the faith.   I can’t remember exactly what we said, but I do recall that our conversation was lively, mutually respectful, and filled with joy.  What I didn’t know at the time… I was exercising a Spiritual Work of Mercy known as “Counseling the Doubtful.”

Me as St. Paul teaching on the Spiritual Works of Mercy
Me, as St. Paul, teaching on the Spiritual Works of Mercy

A few times during our talk, the woman (whose name I never learned) marveled that she was talking about Jesus Christ with a telephone operator… and for a long time!

This fact was obvious to one  of my fellow operators.  She was within earshot, and knew that I was conversing with a customer and not exercising the usual restraint.  I whispered to her, “It’s my last day… let them fire me.”

The five o’clock hour arrived, and I had to inform my new friend that it was quitting time.  And not just for that day, I informed her, but for good.  I told her that I was being called into full-time ministry, and that instead of giving out phone numbers, I looked forward to sharing the Gospel in Brooklyn.

This woman, a ‘straying sheep’ if you will, was very grateful both to God and to me, for what was a truly informative, “information call.”

Jesus knew which operator needed to take her call

One take-away from this story; Jesus knew which operator “had her number.”

When I pulled my headset out of the jack for the last time and turned it in, I walked out of the office with a lightness to my step and a wide smile on my face.

You just never know how far a simple “God bless you” can go!!!