It’s so you – Br. Mark Brown
1 John 1:5-2:2/Psalm 36:5-10/Luke 12:22-24, 29-31
St. Catherine of Siena
Oscar Wilde has said somewhere that we ought not to destroy legends. It is through legends that, as he put it, “we are given an inkling of the true physiognomy of a man”—or woman. Even if not strictly factual, legends reveal something of the truth about a person. Since we are profoundly social in nature, the energies we generate in those around us are part of the truth of who we are as human beings.
So, here is a legend about St. Catherine of Siena, whose feast we keep today. Catherine happened to be in Rome, when she fell ill and died. There were people from her home town of Siena in Rome at the time, who wanted to return her body to Siena for burial. They were afraid that they would never be able to get her body past the guards. And so, they removed her head from her body and put it in a bag. When they left the city with this bag, they were, indeed, stopped by guards, who insisted on seeing what was inside. Opening the bag, they saw that it was, miraculously, full of rose petals. When the people of Siena returned home, the rose petals were gone. In place of the rose petals was St. Catherine’s head. End of legend.
If you go to Siena today, to the Basilica of San Domenico, you can see Catherine’s head on display in a glass reliquary. And with very little assistance from the mortuary arts, as far as I could tell when I was there about twenty years ago.
Be that as it may, Catherine Benincasa was deeply religious from a very early age and given to mystical visions. She consecrated her virginity to Christ at the age of 7, a decision she clung too, even when it was strenuously resisted by her parents. She eventually overcame family concerns and affiliated with the Dominicans as a third order lay sister. She served heroically as a nurse among the poor, even during a time of plague. She is also remembered for her interventions in church politics during the time of the schism, when there was one pope in Rome and another pope in Avignon. She died in Rome from a stroke at age 33 in a state of paralysis and physical exhaustion, possibly exacerbated by her extreme asceticism.
Catherine was, of course, extraordinary—extraordinary enough to inspire such extraordinary measures at the time of her death, extraordinary enough to inspire such legends around these extraordinary events.
But as extraordinary as Catherine’s life and work were, they were the manifestation, they were the embodiment of something quite ordinary: the love of God. There is nothing more ordinary than the love of God. God is love and God is ordinary.
There’s a word that comes up three times in our Psalm this evening. It’s a great big word in Hebrew, one that I keep coming back to in my own devotions and in my preaching. The Hebrew word chesed. It can be translated different ways. “Your love, O Lord (your chesed) reaches to the heavens.” “How priceless is your love, O God.” How priceless is your chesed. And, “continue your loving-kindness to those who know you…” Continue your chesed. In other Psalms chesed is translated “steadfast love” or “mercy”. “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his mercy (his chesed) endures for ever.” Mercy, steadfast love, loving-kindness, love: it’s all chesed.
Psalm 136 uses the word chesed in a very emphatic way. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures forever.” His mercy, his chesed, his loving-kindness, his love endures forever. And, for emphasis, this is repeated twenty-six times, once in each verse. A closer translation would be, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his loving kindness is always and everywhere.” L’olam in Hebrew: always and everywhere—all time, all space. L’olam. The loving-kindness of God is always and everywhere. Always present, everywhere present, to the edge of the cosmos and beyond, to the edge of time and beyond. Always and everywhere, ever-present to us and for us—and in us and through us. Which is to say, ordinary. Permeating all time and all space. Perfectly and completely ordinary.
The saints we commemorate have manifested this ordinary thing, this ordinary love of God, in some extraordinary ways, even heroic ways. It is right and good to remember these people. But there is a danger, or at least a temptation in the veneration of saints. The temptation is to recognize sanctity in these powerful personalities, but fail to see our own. To celebrate the saints’ manifestation of the loving kindness of God, but to fail to celebrate our own. We can be so dazzled by the heroic and spectacular deeds of the saints, that we forget that we have, within us, the very same thing, this absolutely ordinary thing we call the love of God. Whatever the saints have, we also have. I think they’re just more aware of it. The loving kindness of God is not something “out there” to strive for, but something “in here” to become aware of.
We all, each and every one of us, embody this love, this profoundly ordinary thing, in countless ways. It may be spectacular or heroic. More likely, for most of us, most of the time, it is in simple, homely ways. The smile, the gracious gesture, the thoughtful word, the modest gift, the gentle courtesy, the listening ear—even these ordinary, everyday things are motivated by “the love that moves the stars” [Dante].
Such an ordinary thing, loving-kindness. So “always and everywhere”. So, so ordinary. Ordinary sanctity. Ordinary loving-kindness. The chesed of God. L’olam. Always and everywhere. The loving kindness of God. It’s in the air we breathe. In the ground we walk on. It courses through our veins. It courses through the stars and everywhere in between. “Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens.”
The loving kindness of God. It’s so always and everywhere. It’s so here. It’s so now. It’s so you. It’s so you and you and you.
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This is so inspirational – to be reminded of chesed, and L’olam, and to imprint them upon my heart , implement them in my life, . . .
And to be inspired by Catherine of Siena. So I pray every morning for my distant grand-children, two girls and a boy. The littlest girl told (at age 7-8) her mother that all she wanted to do is to sing and to go to church, so she is. Her mother arranged for her to join a Sacred Choir and this will be her second year. When I ask by telephone, she says it is “awesome!” and she tells me of her vestments, her medals for attendance, learning a new hymn in Latin, etc. Maybe each (chesed and L’olam) are for the ordinary and that, before God, we are all and each “ordinary” until we hear the “call” . . . and answer it . . . . This littlest “I’m just a ‘baby'” girl persisted, insisted, and is there now. . . . .
I’m amazed how we seem to be beautifully made to glorify Him right from our conception – Catherine devotes herself to God 7 years of age, and holds firm. Imagine the courage of conviction she must’ve had as a young woman against her parents and beyond. These are truly the wondrous Godly inward gifts He gives us. The ability to love and serve Him beyond all the dark forces that can distract us. No mean feat.
Thank you Br. Mark thoughts like this have been forming in my mind for weeks and it has been so wonderful to here it expressed with such clarity.
Thank you for the beautiful message. It is very much appreciated.
A marvelous teaching. One that I have not heard often. Barbara Crafton, at geraniumfarm.org today put up a painting of Catherine receiving the stigmata, with commentary. She also put up a picture of the head of Catherine, as you describe it. My comment was “We missed that when we were in Siena, but gee thanks.” 🙂
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Thank you for these words today, they were much needed.
(Addition to ordinary awesomeness discussion) When that baby became a man he did ordinary things like feed people, touch the untouchable,notice the ostrocized ,and shared the pain of the sick. And the ordinary crowds and his all too ordinary disciples thought this was extraordinary , miracles, awesome. Then he did the most extraordinary thing: he let himself be executed by the powers -that-be and yet the miracle happened yet again and he became alive again in the hearts and souls of his ordinary followers which continues to this day.
A few random thoughts re ordinariness and awesomeness .I wonder if this might be one of the central paradoxes of Christianity ? The heart of the incarnation? That the totally awesome , untouchable , so-not-us came into our world as an ordinary baby, born to an ordinary woman and her ordinary working class partner.
Thank you, Mark, for defining “chesed” in a way that explains the crowd rushing to help the victims of the Boston Marathon on April 15th. So many have been asking why so many people put the victims first.
Two good words to qualify the grace of God: The chesed of God. L’olam. Ordinary loving-kindness. Always and everywhere.
How wonderfully and beautifully God’s chesed suffuses the cosmos and the material world. Seeing it in and through us–coursing through our veins–is magnificently incarnational! Thank you, Br. Mark, for the insight: the chesed of God–always and everywhere.
I have just gone back and re-read your sermon and have a doubt about the word ‘ordinary’ in relationship to God.
Nowadays, we bandy our adjectives around so willly-nilly that it is difficult to come up with one that is meaningful. For me, God is awesome (in the old sense); his creation, his presence in our world and within us, is miraculous; his chesed is hard for me to comprehend – I refrain from saying, ‘unbelievable.’
I find, increasingly, with many thanks to all of the SSJE brothers daily readings, that like those in the New Testament who were ‘amazed’ by Jesus, I too am constantly ‘amazed’ by the presence of God in my life. I receive responses to my ‘ordinary’ day-by-day life from my extraordinary God.
Blessings to all the brothers, and all of us around the world who receive your chesed.
To me, Brother Mark, “perfectly and completely ordinary” comes across as
an oxymoron. Ordinary in my vocabulary means regular or common, below
the extra-ordinary. God is above all that we can think or imagine, extra-ordinary in the best meaning of the word. Thanks for the word. You stirred
my thinking. REW
Thank you, Mark. You raise your readers, we ordinary souls, even as you did your hearers, to a blessed state, inspiring an armful of the “fruits of the Spirit” in each of us.
This was firstpublished in 2008.Now it is late September, 2012,and “chesed” couldnt be more appropriate as during the High Holidays of the Jewish tradition,between the festive Rosh Hashhanah, to the somberness of Yom Kippur. Thank you,dear Brother, for posting this.
John McCann,parishioner of Trinity Wall Street and St.Paul’s Chapel in New YorkCity.
Greetings Brothers, although I read the sermons posted on the web quite often, the last two I read It’s You by Mark Brown and Missio Deo by Kevin Hackett were insight affriming and inspiring.
Thanks for the time you invest in preparation
I want to hold on to these words of chesed and bring them out again, especially in an hour of need. Thank you, Brother Mark.