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How to break out of our shells and swim in excitement of life


Jesus said, "I have come to bring you life to the fullest." But someone else said: "Except for a few gracious moments, we pass our days in little shells called 'our lives' instead of in the breathtaking excitement of Life."

It's true, isn't it? Sometimes the whole earth seems to be one violent spasm of pain, but our little lives leak away in headache and worry. The cosmos is exploding with excitement, but our little lives fizz out like Alka Seltzer.

It doesn't have to be that way. It's not supposed to be that way. We are the highest animal on the chain of life. Our physical happiness consists in being immersed in the stream of life. Our spirits have the capacity to be driven by divine energy. Our spiritual happiness consists in being drowned in the stream of grace. But things conspire to draw us out of the living mainstream into the stagnant, fetid pools of unlife.

Things like work. Work ought to exercise our bodies and stretch our imaginations. Our work should be an extension of our personality, the way we stamp our personal image on the world. But work often diminishes our energy, frustrates our talents, constrains our lives into an occupational hazard that separates us from the rest of life.

That happens when we forget we are united with all the workers of the world. Toilers, thinkers, suppliers, fixers -- all work on the same raw material of the ancient earth. When our work is futile, Sisyphus rolls the rock up the slope one more time with us. If we carry the weight of the world, Atlas lends his shoulder. Our sweat streams with the tenant farmers who plowed other people's fields. Our blood blends with that of the slaves who built pharaohs' tombs. We hung the Gardens of Babylon and grunted the Great Wall across China. We raise the flocks with Abel and tend our little plot of earth with Adam. And, yes -- we work under the direct supervision of God, who stamps his own personality on his work. God, don't let the work mold us into mass-produced shells. Let it break us open into unique works of art.

Love more than anything else opens us up, nudges us outward, plunges us into the heart of life. But it can just as quickly narrow our focus to one person. All our vision and passion and care concentrate on Thou until I and Thou become We -- a two-valved shell that nestles in the bottom of the sea far away from the teeming ocean life.

That happens when we forget that our little love is part of the passion of the throbbing universe. Your young love is reminiscent of Romeo's teen devotion. Your older love is an ember of Abraham's ancient ardor. Your illicit love shares David's murderous adultery. Your lusty love is a tale from Boccaccio or a mystic's erotic vision. Your ambivalent love shares in Don Quixote's misplaced zeal, Don Juan's misdirected longings, Sappho's same-sex desire and Abelard's spiritual marriage.

And yes -- your human love shares in that divine love -- because there is only one love. Your love shares that divine love that sent his Son to die for love. God of love, don't let our love imprison us in mutual admiration. Let it burn us alive in the cosmic conflagration.

Suffering more than anything else can alienate us. Our senses focus on the point of pain. Our imagination rivets on the possible pain. Our pounding blood drowns the cries of other sufferers. Suffering above all melds us together, since all humankind is bound by chains of pain across the centuries. We are alone with the prisoner in solitary. We trudge along with displaced people out of Palestine. Our hunger pangs are shadows of African starvation, our sexual harassment is an echo of Bosnian rape. Our migraine hurts the same as a thorny crown. And, yes -- our pain is part of God's infinite suffering over the agony of his people. Suffering God, let our pain break us open into the redeeming sea of suffering.

Catholics more than anyone ought to be united in worship since we are not whole unto ourselves but just parts of a body. Yet we easily slip into private prayer and individual relations: 300 piping solos instead of one grand chorus. That happens when we forget that we worship the same God as the Jews and Muslims; that seeing God in sacramental signs comes from pagans spying gods in rivers and rocks; that liturgical gestures are remnants of a rain dance; that our sacrifice of the Mass is the perfection of the sacrifice of Hebrew bulls and Aztec virgins. And, yes -- this very moment there are countless angels and saints joining us around this altar. Never restrict your prayer to one time and space. Let it take its rightful place in the cosmic paean of praise.

We humans are the crown of creation. Our happiness consists in being immersed in the stream of life. Our holiness consists in swimming in a sea of grace. Lord of life, don't let us waste our energy in the wading pool. Give us the courage to plunge into the deep, cold quarry of life. Let it take our breath away, to prepare us for the breathtaking life of heaven.

Fr. James Smith of St. Matthias Church, Columbus, Ohio, submitted this homily in response to NCR's request.

National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 1997