Geoff Wood for July 27, 2014

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft / against the inside knee was leveled firmly . . . /  By God, the old man could handle a spade.  (From the poem by Seamus Heaney: Digging)

            I have recently mentioned my having entered a minor seminary (like a high school) in my mid teens – with a view to becoming a Franciscan friar within the Graymoor community in the Highlands of the Hudson River.  There we went through the usual high school and even early college curricula of the secular world – but in a monastic environment that kept us from “temptation”. 

            One of the tasks I had on summer Sundays was the sale of religious articles at the monastery’s gift shop.  Every Sunday the whole mountain was crowded with pilgrims from the New York metropolitan area looking for a beautiful location – with Mass, prayer and cafeteria included – if only to get away from the heat of the city.   They came up in busloads and were soon poring over the counters of our gift shop for medals, rosaries, prayer books, statues large and small, holy cards – all under the supervision of Brother Oliver Sheridan, a roly-poly image of Friar Tuck himself. 

            I myself was always assigned to stand behind the cheaper articles.  The counter I served was covered with all those rosaries, medals, St. Christopher clips, Infant of Prague statuettes, slim prayer books with silver edged pages and pious prose; you name it.  One practical result of this weekly assignment was: I learned a basic American requirement in life, how to make change.  What brings all this to mind is today’s Gospel passage about a merchant who is shopping for valuable pearls and is apparently not too confident of finding any amid the display on a counter.  And then: surprise!  He spots one – a pearl so perfect he hurries off to sell all that he has (his house? land? stocks? bonds?) to own that pearl. 

            Which brought me back to my days behind that counter.  Before my eyes was every kind of holy object – made attractive to pious eyes, even to pious fingers (some people were thrilled just handle the merchandise).  And yet, for all the accumulation of pious items, savored for their power of edification or even guarantee of security, did my eye find anywhere upon that counter the essence of Christ’s Gospel, the sublimity of Paul’s concept of grace, the drama of New Testament parables and Old Testament poetry – the real pearls of our great tradition?

            Or did I dare catch a glimpse of my own face peering up at me – a vision of myself as a pearl of great price hidden amid the cheaper stuff of my heritage?   Do you catch my drift?  Is the pearl of great price toward which Jesus would direct your attention – you hidden as you are behind your fear, your low estimate of yourself, your acceptance of whatever heartless rank or mask this world would impose upon you?  

            Or what about that treasure hidden in a field – that, if discovered, is worth everything else you’ve ever thought yourself to be?  Is not that treasure yourself with all your Christ-like potential – toward which Jesus would have you dig relentlessly?

            The Gospel of Christ is good news – news better than anything you have ever heard.  It’s about you – and God’s willingness to sell all that he has, even his human life, to possess you, to share with you his eternal worth

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