Sunday, August 07, 2005

Walking on the Water

(19th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 7 August, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

We had one just the other night. There is one in this morning’s Gospel; and, chances are, you’ve seen more than a few in your own life. Storms. We can usually see them coming. But they can happen quite unexpectedly, like in the Gospel we just heard.

Peter and the other disciples are on the sea when suddenly they find themselves in the midst of a storm. Now, it’s important to recognize from the beginning that this would not have surprised Peter. The sea was home to him. He worked on it, made a living off it. But what does come as a surprise is the test of faith he is about to undergo.

Jesus comes out to the disciples, in the very midst of the storm, walking on the sea. Their initial reaction, far from being comforted, is one of complete fear. They think it’s a ghost, and only the words of Christ will comfort them: It is I; do not be afraid (Matthew 14:27).

And then, Peter’s faith is tested; Jesus invites him to come out to Him on the water. It’s a crucial moment for Peter, and he fails. But he learns an important lesson that he will never forget: whenever our faith is tested, whenever we experience the storms of life, we can depend on Christ to come to us, and even though we may fail, He will never fail us.

From time to time we all experience the storms of life. In a certain sense, you could say that our culture is obsessed with them; at least the storms of others. There seems to be no end to the stories in the tabloids about people in the movies or on TV whose lives have fallen apart. It can make us cynical. We can ask ourselves, “Does anyone survive in Hollywood? Is it even possible to be a person of faith there?”

I read an article recently about a woman who was able to: Dolores Hart. Her story is remarkable. At a very young age, while she was still a freshman in college, she was given the opportunity of a lifetime to star in a movie with Elvis Presley. It was the beginning of a whole new life, and yet throughout her time in Hollywood she never lost her Catholic faith.

In that recent interview, she talked about how strong friendships with other people who shared her faith helped her to weather all the storms that have ruined the lives of so many others. She said the Lord had His hand in it from the beginning, helping her to find all the right people and guiding her life and her faith.

Yet the crisis of faith came for Dolores Hart in quite a different way than for most people in Hollywood. One day a friend offered to introduce her to a group of nuns, and her immediate reaction was: “Nuns? No. I don’t want to meet nuns”. Eventually she went anyway, to a monastery called Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut (about 2 hours from here) and she was captivated. The experience was one that seemed to draw her in.

She continued to make movies, continued to grow successful in Hollywood, but she never forgot that experience in the monastery. She eventually began filming another movie about the life of St. Francis of Assisi. She was playing St. Clair, and since the movie was being filmed in Rome, she had the chance to meet Pope John XXIII.

She introduced herself to him and said: “Holy Father, my name is Dolores Hart and I’m playing Clair in the movie we are filming.”

He replied, “You are Clair.”

She thought the Pope had misunderstood her, so she repeated, “No, Holy Father, my name is Dolores and I am playing Clair in the movie.”

The Holy Father smiled and repeated again: “No, you are Clair.”

Before long she began to realize that God was calling her to become a cloistered nun, like St. Claire of Assisi had been.

Her story really is incredible; she left Hollywood and joined that monastery in Connecticut, and she remains there to this day as a cloistered nun. I had the opportunity to meet her just a couple of days ago, after having read about her in that article. It’s a small world that we live in. Each year, as a fundraiser, the monastery puts on a big outdoor theatre production.

Dolores Hart, who is now Mother Dolores and the Prioress of that Benedictine Monastery, was sitting on the front row and I was sitting right behind her. She is a woman who is so filled with joy; she’s radiant. And you would never guess that she is experiencing another storm of life even now.

She has been diagnosed with a debilitating disease that causes her a great amount of physical pain, yet she smiles all the time, she’s so joyful. And you could say that she is facing that storm the same way she faced all the other storms of her life: with a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ.

Now, obviously, most of us have never been to Hollywood, we’ve never been in movies with Elvis. And most of us have probably never been to a monastery. But in our own lives we will all face some of the same storms that Mother Dolores faced.

All of us will experience the temptations and struggles that this world so often throws at us. We don’t have to go to Hollywood to encounter these same challenges. We will also face some of the same struggles in our own vocation, whether that be religious life or—for most of us here—marriage or the single life. However we experience the call of God in our lives, it is always a challenge to answer that call. No vocation is easy. We all experience—at one time or another—the storms of life.

But how will we respond to these storms when we experience them? Will we have the same faith and trust that Mother Dolores had, knowing that in the midst of the storm, Jesus is present. Jesus comes to us, walking on the water, walking towards us in the midst of the storm, and He says to us what He said to Mother Dolores and to St. Peter before her: “Do not be afraid. It is I.”

May we walk on the water with Jesus this week, and every day of our lives, knowing that He is always present, always near us. And when we fail, as we sometimes will in the testing of our faith, may we never forget the lesson that St. Peter learned in the Gospel this morning: that even if we fail, Jesus will never fail us. What a comfort and a consolation to know that we are never alone in the trials and the storms of life.