Homily for Alan Sullivan
by Msgr. Robert Laliberte
Before I begin my theological reflections, a word about the color black… We live in a culture that identifies or associates black with death, and those who celebrate death clothe themselves in black. You need to know that this is not the meaning of this color in the Christian tradition.
When Pope Innocent III chose four colors to be the primary liturgical colors back in the eleventh or twelfth century, he chose four – white and black, green and red. Black is associated with penitence and repentance, because in the Old Testament people would repent with prayer, fasting, and clothing themselves in sackcloth and ashes. It is a certain expression of our awareness of our unworthiness; it is a kind of a conscious putting ourselves in our true place in the great scheme of things, to ask God to put us in His place in His great scheme of things. The color is the color of turning. It means a turning away from the earth; and even though in the Book of Genesis it says “We are from dust and to dust we shall return”, we know in our Christian faith that what is the natural course of things—“we are from dust and we will return to dust”—that natural course of things has been reversed by the resurrection of Jesus.
Black also is the symbol of petition, and it’s used in the Requiem Mass to represent our own humble and fervent petitioning to God on behalf of one who has died, asking the Lord – as all prayers do – asking the Lord to do for him what God already wants to do for him, and the first fruits of which he has already revealed. God, who has begun the good work in him, intends to bring it to completion. But we must remember what St Augustine taught so clearly: that even though God created us without our cooperation, He will not save us without our cooperation; and we Catholics further believe that that cooperation is not merely my individual cooperation, but it is the cooperation of the entire church, that all of us will always be collectively implicated in the salvation of each one. There is no such thing as private salvation.
Our religion began with the faith of one woman, our Lady Mary. God when he wants to do something for all, always begins with one: one Abraham, one king David, one mother of the Savior: and when she said “Let it be done to me according to your word,” she spoke on behalf of all of Israel, of all the preceding generations, and so collectively we all spoke in that one voice.
Now, Alan Sullivan is a recipient of a colossal amount of grace that has come to him, through the ages, on the shoulders of great people from the past. He is the fruit of other people’s sacrifices, the fruit of other people’s prayers; and his eventual conversion to the Lord is also the fruit of his own seeking, which—be aware—was nourished primarily, I believe—although I do not know him personally—it was nourished by words. He was a man of words; he heard words throughout his life. He loved language; he was familiar with literature. He translated the great poem Beowulf with Tim Murphy here, and those very words which he was working to shape into his own tongue, into his own understanding of rhythm, those words shaped him, ministering to him from across the centuries.
It is generally true that those of us who are profound seekers are not aware that we are seekers while we’re seeking; and we sometimes are not aware – usually, we’re not aware – of what we’re looking for. We have a vague sense of it. But I’d like to say that built into the very nature of poetry there is a kind of sense of the inner meaning of things.
And here I bring our thoughts back to the color black again. The black soil of North Dakota, the black earth which is a kind of repository of possibilities; those possibilities don’t emerge, as Jesus says in his parable, until the seed gets planted into that soil. And what comes—what the fate is of that seed—is determined by the kind of soil that it is put into. So it is that latent truth, that latent goodness in the soil that makes the seed fruitful, just as the seed makes the soil fruitful.
When I think of poetry, I think of a man looking out into the created world, looking at what can easily be interpreted as chaos and disorder and confusion. We live in a world that celebrates, believe it or not, celebrates the meaninglessness of the cosmos. We have many scientists, self-appointed psychologists, intellectuals of all sorts, who say that the world came from nothing, it is going towards nothing, and in between those two points, there is no meaning. Why do they celebrate something that destroys hope, destroys faith, and destroys our sense of the transcendent value of beauty? I think they do it, perhaps unwittingly, because the world provides them a blank slate, a blank canvas to paint on, and they can paint anything they want. They call it meaningful because it’s arbitrary.
But a poet intuitively knows differently. He knows that this apparent meaninglessness contains, hidden inside it, something beautiful. If I can just bring it out… if I can take the word that is invisibly hidden in the way things are, bring that word out of its hiddenness into speech, and by speaking it in poetry, the one who hears the poem not only rejoices in the beauty of words, but he also has been given a set of eyes through which he can look back at the thing about which the poem is written and see something about it he had never noticed before—and that meaning is in fact contained in that reality.
We celebrate the existence of truth, of beauty, and of goodness, which is objectively present because the world does not come from nothing, it comes from an intelligence and a love. And although the natural course of matter always moves towards dissolution, Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will not pass away.” The eternal purpose and significance of it will continue in a transfigured form; and he has given us the resurrection of the dead, his own person—resurrection as the promise, the signed or (as it were) the stamped document, that guarantees to us that it will occur, because what has happened is certainly possible. As the philosophers like to say: you can deduce possibility from actuality; you cannot deduce actuality from mere possibility. But Jesus’ resurrection is an actuality, and it is the transfiguration of all the grief and all the sorrows, all of those hidden longings that we have, that say in the backs of our minds: wouldn’t it be wonderful if this turned out to be true! The world we live in always uses the expression: it’s too good to be true. And in regard to material things, that always turns out to be the case—everything always ends up being less than you hoped it would be. But in the realm of goodness and beauty, and the realm of the mind, and the realm of the spirit, the opposite is the case. Things are always better than they appear, and it is too good not to be true; because God in his very nature exceeds our own minds, exceeds our intelligence, and so every word that we speak is an approximation, an approach—closely, or at a distance—from the eternal Word. “In the beginning, was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God.”
I have never met this man, but I know how he started, I know how he ended up, and I have read some of the things he’s written. And this is a man who has allowed the Word to find him. He is a man who has been discovered, uncovered, and he realizes that his words, the things he thought he was constructing in his mind, have in some sense come from a more primordial Word, a Word who loved him enough to bring him into being, into this world, and to make him a mouthpiece. And as the Gospel said of John the Baptist, he was the voice and Jesus was the Word. The voice fades away, the Word remains forever. Fortunately Alan lives in his words, but his substance also lives on in the heart of God and that’s what we’re celebrating today.
And so, as we honor this man, let us not only honor him as an individual, let us also honor him for what he represents, some aspect of the eternal body of Christ that perdures. Our faith tells us that not only does your life not end when your earthly journey is finished, but that in some sense its influence on the future increases. As Jesus said: “It is better for you that I go because if I do not go, the Holy Spirit will not come.” Alan, the servant, has died; the Holy Spirit that Alan has unleashed into the world will continue to grow and march until the end of time.
As Jeremiah told us in today’s first reading: “This is the tree whose leaves will remain green; it is not anxious in the year of drought, because it does not cease to bear fruit.”