28th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Oct. 9, 2016
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“May your grace, O Lord, at all times go before us and follow after and make us always determined to carry out good works” (Collect).
2 weekends ago when I was in New York for 2 days of Salesian meetings and our province-wide celebration of this year’s 22 jubilarians—including Fr. Santa and Fr. Bill—after the jubilees Mass and banquet we had free time, and I went for a short hike in Harriman State Park. Harriman and contiguous Bear Mountain are fantastic parks with more than 52,000 acres of woods, hills, streams, lakes, meadows, and 250 miles of marked and maintained trails—all just an hour away from my old home in New Rochelle and as close as 10-minutes from the Don Bosco Retreat Center. So over the last 20 years, I spent many days hiking and camping there with confreres, Boy Scouts, or just my guardian angel.
So around 4:30 on Saturday afternoon I set out on a very familiar path, and maybe 10 minutes down the trail I saw a large black dog with its back to me in the brush ahead of me, about 5 feet off the trail. It’s not at all unusual to meet dogs, on or off leash, in Harriman, so I thought nothing of that. But I did notice that there were no sounds of voice or footsteps coming from around the bend in the trail, which I thought a little unusual. On the other hand, when I’m solo I tread pretty lightly and I don’t talk to myself (except when I’ve missed a trail marker).
As I walked closer, the dog didn’t turn around or look up. Hmmm. That was strange. I might have been 30 feet from it, and something—I don’t know what—made me think it a good idea to alert it to my presence lest I surprise it. So I gave a little whistle. The large black dog raised its head and turned around, and 2 little black heads popped out of the brush near it. Surprise! Those weren’t dogs but the 1st bears I’d ever encountered in those 20 years of hiking hundreds of miles of Harriman and Bear Mt. trails. Needless to say, I made a strategic retreat—and so did the bears, which was fortunate—all so fast that I couldn’t even get a photo. Too bad I hadn’t taken a shot while observing the “dog” from 50 feet.
We pray often for God’s grace to “go before us” and to accompany us, e.g., as we hike or travel or undertake some project or start a meeting. Whenever we SDBs or the FMAs get into a car, even if it’s just a short trip to get groceries, we say a prayer for a safe journey. I’m sure a lot of us are praying that God’s grace “go before us” as the nation prepares to vote. It may seem that the psalm verse was never truer that reminds us, “Put no trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no help” (146:3)—which isn’t to imply that a certain “mortal woman” should be trusted instead.
The collect, of course, refers to our entire lives as Christians, not just to our physical safety or the nation’s political or social direction. It’s a prayer that God’s grace completely envelope our lives, protecting us from moral harm, leading us to wise and prudent choices, fortifying our determination to follow thru on our Christian resolutions, enabling us to live virtuous lives, pointing out to us the right road to walk on our pilgrim journey toward God’s kingdom.
We need God’s grace to go before us. The initiative of salvation is always his. In one of his sermons, St. Augustine writes:
It is not as if a good life of some sort came first, and that thereupon God showed his love and esteem for it from on high, saying: “Let us come to the aid of these good [people] and assist them quickly because they are living a good life.” No, our life was displeasing to him; whatever we did by ourselves was displeasing to him; but what he did in us was not displeasing to him. He will, therefore, condemn what we have done, but he will save what he himself has done in us.
God has taken pity on us in our sinful misery. We all know that our sins make us miserable. All too often they make other people miserable too. But if our conscience has any life in it, we feel bad—guilty, ashamed, depressed, disappointed in ourselves, helpless, grieved that we’ve offended God or another person—when we reflect on some of the things we’ve done, we’ve said, we’ve desired, or we’ve failed to do: what we confess in the Confiteor when we use the 1st form of the penitential act at Mass.
So we’re grateful that God’s grace prompts us to turn toward him, to be converted, to repent: we’re grateful that his grace goes before us. And we pray it continue to do so.
The collect prayed, too, that God’s grace follow us. If “well begun is half done,” the other half is completing the project. On some occasions—e.g., the rites of ordination and religious profession—the Church prays, “May God, who has begun the good work in you, bring it to completion,” which is a paraphrase of Phil 1:6. One ancient prayer of the Church, which is still one of the liturgical collects, prays: “Direct, we beseech you, O Lord, our actions by your holy inspiration, and further them with your continual help, so that every prayer and work of ours may always begin from you and thru you be likewise ended.” We pray that God help us carry thru on our good intentions, our good undertakings. We fear lest our conversion falter; lest we revert to our bad habits, our old sins; lest our good resolutions blow away in a strong gust of wind or sink into some dark corner of our hearts.
The collect could even be read as a plea to God that he pursue us, “follow after” us, when we wander off the path of righteousness, like a shepherd hunting for a lost sheep (Luke 15:4-6) or like Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven”:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat--and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet--
"All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."
(Those are the 1st 15 of 182 lines of “The Hound of Heaven.”)
The 3d petition of the collect is that the Lord “make us always determined to carry out good works.” When God’s grace gets us started and keeps pushing us along, it strengthens us to persevere in seeking and doing good despite hardships and challenges. Sometimes we just lose heart when people criticize us, don’t give us the help we expect, or oppose us outright. Consider, e.g., what we’ve been up against since 1973 combatting abortion; and it’s discouraging to think that combat’s going to get much more difficult if the presidential polling is accurate.
And sometimes we just get tired. You come to Mass every week, but you know most self-identified Catholics don’t. You’d like to sleep in, too, or go on some kind of outing or watch a game or do some shopping. It can be wearying and hard to be faithful day in and day out, year after year. And then there are the challenges and stresses of honesty and truthfulness and fidelity and control of our tongues and care about where our eyes wander and patience with our spouses and kids, etc.
So we need God’s power to keep going, “always determined to carry out good works,” i.e., to work along with God, who is the ultimate good-doer but wants our cooperation—wants us to be the lamps shining in the darkness of the world, wants us to be his agents bearing Good News to a world that’s even wearier than we are of its own darkness and hopelessness.
In a short while, our next Mass prayer, the prayer over the gifts, will ask the Father that thru our “acts of devotedness”—our prayers and union with this Eucharistic sacrifice, as well as our union with our Lord Jesus in our daily lives—“that thru these we may pass over to the glory of heaven.” May it be so! May God, who has begun the good work in us bring it to completion!
 Sermo 23A; LOH 4:188 (22d Sunday of O.T.).
 Version from Prayer in Salesian Houses (New Rochelle, 1954), alt.
 Cf. Daniel Merz and Marcel Rooney, OSB, Essential Presidential Prayers and Texts: A Roman Missal Study Edition and Workbook (Chicago: LTP, 2011), p. 232.