My theme this morning is "forming disciples for the third millennium," and, of course, we've already started into it through the back door of The New York Times. I'd like to talk briefly about three key ideas in my theme, and then we'll have time for questions and discussion.
Let's talk first about the idea of "forming." Forming is not the same as informing. It's not just a matter of providing choices to another person, and then standing back to see what happens. I'm a Capuchin Franciscan, and I was formed to think and feel, act and pray, in the spirit of my community, which is rooted in the life of St. Francis. I was molded. Spouses mold each other in the covenant of marriage, guided by God's grace. Friends form each other through the joys and sorrows of their friendship. And parents form their children through their encouragement and discipline. In every case, the goal is a deepening of communion, love, joy and maturity but the means to that end can be experienced as pressure and suffering. Real love can sometimes feel like a hammer.
My point is that all formation involves a shaping of the one who is formed. It's an act of creation which also involves a kind of "healthy destruction" the cleaning away of what's useless or unnecessary. Let me explain.
Most of us know C.S. Lewis as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Screwtape Letters. But he was a teacher as well as a writer and in his lectures, he often described God as a sculptor. For Lewis, the suffering in a person's life has a very special meaning, which is echoed again and again in Scripture.
Proverbs tells us, ". . .Do not despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of His reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom He loves, as a father the son in whom He delights" (3:11-12). And the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that in suffering, ". . . God is treating you as sons, for what son is there whom a father does not discipline?" (12:7).
And this is why the Letter of James tells us, "Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials . . ." (1:2). Suffering is a tool. God uses this tool to shape each of us into the saints He wants us to be. God sees the shape of our holiness in the marble of our humanity. Then He cuts away the stone of sin to free us.
It's a great metaphor. Anyone who's seen a photograph of Michelangelo's sculpture of the Pieta or viewed it in person, up close at the Vatican knows exactly what Lewis meant. The figures of Jesus and Mary have a detail and a humanity which are alive. The smoothness of the skin, the elegance of the limbs, the sorrow on Mary's face these things are so real that you forget they came from a slab of dead marble. The sculptor saw the beauty in the stone . . . and he set it free with a hammer and a chisel. Nobody remembers the hammer blow; that was over in an instant. They're too moved by the beauty of the results. The beauty lasts forever.
Now, people aren't blocks of stone. They're living tissue, with the freedom and dignity of children of God. And teachers aren't chisels and hammers. Or at least they shouldn't be. They are active, cooperating agents in God's plan, not merely His instruments. But we can still draw some lessons from the sculptor and his work.
First, the great sculptor is motivated by love, not merely technical skill. The sculptor loves the beauty and the truth he sees locked in the stone. In the same way, the great teacher loves the possibilities for beauty and truth the hint of the image of God she sees in the face of her students.
Next, the great sculptor has a passion for his work and a confidence in his vision. In like manner, no Catholic teacher or parent can form another person in the faith without a passion for the Gospel, a personal zeal for Jesus Christ, and an absolute confidence in the truth of the Church and her teaching. No teacher can give what she doesn't have herself. If you yourself don't believe, then you can only communicate unbelief. If I'm not faithful myself, then I will only communicate infidelity. Who we are, is part of the formation we give to others.
Finally, we need to recognize that people, unlike marble, have free will which must be respected. A person can freely reject the Gospel. The person who forms another in the faith must rely, therefore, on persuasion and never coercion. At the same time, though, the teacher should never lose sight of the fact that real freedom, Gospel freedom, is a very different creature from secular ideas of liberty, and choice for choice's sake.
Real freedom emerges from self-sacrifice, not self-assertion. That's a radically counter-cultural message today. But of course, it's the truth. If we believe God created us for a purpose, then some choices lead to beauty, truth, dignity and joy. And others do not. Real freedom consists in conforming ourselves to God's plan. St. Paul reminds us that in our suffering and self-sacrifice, ". . . this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor 4:17). But it means letting God shape our lives, so that the beauty He sees in us emerges and shines. We don't have to allow this. But we should think carefully about the alternative.
Michelangelo could find the beauty in nearly any piece of marble. But he also left us a reminder of failure. Most of us know Michelangelo's wonderful sculpture of David. But he also produced a collection called "the Captives." The name is a kind of grim joke. Each piece of sculpture in "the Captives" collection is a crude, half-finished form of a person, roughly cut from the marble, whom the artist simply could not complete . . . because the marble would not surrender the shape. Whatever Michelangelo saw in those stones is still trapped in them today, unfinished. It's held captive by the marble, more than four centuries later. And that's our alternative to God's love. Persons who reject God, remain captive in their own stone without beauty, without form, and without real freedom. That's why we help God shape those whom we love.