Jesus said to his disciples:
“You are the salt of the earth.
But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?
It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. –Matt 5:1
* * *
My late father was an introvert. At his funeral the joke was that he would have preferred a smaller event, so that he wouldn’t have to talk to so many people. He was intelligent and well-educated, having studied eight languages while working on a PhD in English—but he chose all dead ones, thus avoiding the risk of having to converse in them. These ranged from familiar ones like Latin and Hebrew and Ancient Greek, to Hittite and Sanskrit and Tocharian (which in my uneducated mind was spelled Tolkarian, and which I assumed was something that hobbits spoke—until I had to google it). He tended to stay on the periphery of conversations, only occasionally injecting bits of wisdom, humor or an odd pun.
So it was something of a shock when the phone rang, one day years ago, and it was for him. It was a collect call from a Massachusetts prison, from a young man named Scott, looking for my father. Even more of a shock was that my father stayed on the phone with him for close to an hour, using more than a few month’s quota of words on someone we didn’t even know he knew. This was repeated many times, as Scott had found in my quiet father something of a mentor.
Indeed, my father attracted quite a fan club among surprising populations. This is probably not the best place to mention “Boomer”, another prison inmate, who saw in my father’s Sicilian features an underlying presence, and took him for a Godfather figure. He refused to believe that my father was who claimed to be (ironically at the time, a sales rep for a large stuffed animal company) and thought he must in fact be a Boss. “Let me work for you!” Boomer insisted. “I could be your hit man!” (true story)
At his funeral many commented how my father spoke rarely, but when he did, people listened. I know in my own life, I have held on to these bits of wisdom, which while infrequent had more impact than many longer conversations or even entire courses in theology. And I have come to recognize that this unassuming wisdom was the fruit of a life of prayer.
“One of the greatest evils in the Church today,” my father told me when I was seventeen and on the way to college in Steubenville, “is the number of people in positions of authority who have long since ceased to be holy themselves.” I heard these words long before the Church was rocked by public scandal and had the veneer of public piety removed from some of the most horrifying of private sins. But my father’s warning was not directed at others, but as a caution to me. “It is very easy when you are learning about God, doing things for God, talking about God, to forget to talk to God.” For my father this was the worst possible fate.
“You cannot give what you don’t have.” I don’t think that expression was original to Dad, but it points to the necessity of prayer, and is the heart of today’s Gospel. “If salt loses its flavor, what good is it?” Jesus asks, after telling his disciples to be salt and light for the world. Similarly, one cannot give light by studying it, talking about it—only by being filled with it. And the place we are filled is prayer.
There was one cause which propelled my Dad from the comfort and confines of a hidden life, and that was the prolife movement. In his retirement he went weekly to an abortion clinic, more than sixty miles from our home, to stand alone peacefully offering literature about the help and alternatives available to women as they entered the clinic. But then later in the morning he would stand across the street with a sign, across from the parking lot where they would see him as they left, with a sign that said: “Jesus forgives and heals.”
Many people thought it was “too soon.” That the women were not ready for repentance and thus not ready for Christ’s mercy. But my father believed that being prolife was more than just saving babies, that it was about saving souls. And he knew from the experience of many who shared their personal stories of abortion with him, that memories of the day would come back years later. He hoped that with them would come the memory of that message of mercy.*
I think of this too when I think of salt and light, and how the one thing that they cannot be is hidden. Like my Dad, I prefer quiet and solitude, and more than he, invisibility when it comes to controversy. I don’t like to be the one to speak out, to stand out. I prefer to be one of the crowd. But we all know what the “crowd” does to Jesus.
It is in prayer that I draw both the strength and motivation to step out of myself. Just as improbable as my father’s prison ministry is my own public speaking. I have learned how true it is that “the one who does not speak to God has nothing to say to the world.” That it is only by practicing faithfulness to daily prayer that I have anything at all to say, and more importantly, the courage to step out of myself and my fears to say it.
Let us ask God today that we may be truly salt and light for the world, witnessing by what we are and have received.
Like my father I have only love for those who have had abortions. I know the sometimes unbearable pressures of circumstances, boyfriends, family and friends that weigh into such decisions. I also know that for many, often years later, there is great anguish and pain following that decision. If you know of someone who is seeking healing from an abortion, there are many organizations who can help including the Sisters of Life linked here.