Memorial of Saint John Vianney, Priest

Lectionary: 410

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the LORD.All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.

Someone has called Jeremiah the Prophet history's first individual. Singularly blessed by the Lord and cursed with an unpopular message, he had no choice but to tell the king, the priests, and the people what they did not want to hear. For that reason alone he might be called an individual.

But his message also rings with a universal invitation to individuality, especially today's message. If all, "from least to greatest" know the Lord and have no need to teach or be taught, then everyone might speak with authority about God's intentions. But if everyone has authority, no one has authority. And that can be problematic.

From what I understand, much western philosophy is built on Descartes' cogito. A devout man, he wondered how can anyone know anything with absolute certainty, especially given the all-too-fallible means we have of learning things. Can our senses be trusted? Sometimes we see things that aren't there, or that we misunderstand. A firecracker sounds like a gunshot; an earthquake sounds like thunder; or worse, a deaf person cannot be sure of what he is hearing. Even tactile sensations cannot be trusted as we know that amputees complain of phantom pains.

If -- experimentally -- we suppose our senses cannot be trusted and other people cannot be trusted (they might be wrong or untruthful or, in fact, illusions!) what can I be sure of? Descartes answered, "I think!" If I am thinking I must exist! I'm sure that I exist. I think therefore I exist. In Latin, cogito ergo sum.

Believe it or not, we have built an enormously complicated civilization around that principle. You can argue till you're blue in the face using the most cogent and persuasive arguments ever devised but your opponent can reply, "I don't think so." His cogito tells him that you might not exist, your arguments might not be right, and, in any case, he doesn't have to agree with you because the only authority he respects is himself.

The individual might decide for his particular purposes that he is a female, or a Native American despite his European ancestors, or a Christian though he belongs to no church. I had to explain over the telephone one time that, to change your name in the United States, you have to go to court and get a judge to sign onto it. This fellow thought that was un-American, that his right to change his name was being denied by an unjust society.

You might remember Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener who simply replied to every suggestion, "I would prefer not to." Melville never attempts to explain why Bartleby will not work with others. He simply prefers and will not discuss his preference. Neither reasoning nor authority can suade him. His was the last word in individuality.

You have probably had this discussion with someone as you discussed politics or religion or picking up their room. Evidence and facts were dismissed. Reason utterly failed. The individual effectively dropped out of covenant and community.

And that is certainly not what Jeremiah had in mind. God's Holy Spirit, which is bestowed on everyone at Baptism, draws each of us to community. In fact we abandon our isolating individuality to become persons in fellowship with one another. I am not an individual, I am a brother or sister, father or mother, son or daughter; I am a priest, bishop, deacon or baptized lay person. If an impulse drives one away from the sacraments, the Church or the Lord, it is not of God.

In the Holy Spirit, we are willing to listen to others as we form our opinions. We are willing to be changed by every person we meet, as we listen to them and hear their stories. We are willing even to meet our enemies in peace.

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I love to write. This blog helps me to meditate on the Word of God, and I hope to make some contribution to our contemplations of God's Mighty Works.

Ordinarily, I write these reflections two or three weeks in advance of their publication. I do not intend to comment on current events.

I understand many people prefer gender-neutral references to "God." I don't disagree with them but find that language impersonal, unappealing and tasteless. When I refer to "God" I think of the One whom Jesus called "Abba" and "Father", and I would not attempt to improve on Jesus' language.

You're welcome to add a thought or raise a question.