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The Power of the Word

Like me, you probably get bored by the offerings presented for our viewing pleasure on cable, satellite TV, and streaming devices. When I’m channel surfing, I occasionally stop and watch an evangelist. Depending on my mood, I might listen to what he’s preaching. Other times I just marvel at the big hairdos, the heavy makeup, the well-cut and perfectly tailored suits—and that’s on the preachers, not on their wives!

As I listen to an evangelist preach and as the cameras pan the audience, I see all sorts of reactions to the preached word. Many people clap, some wave their hands in the air, others cry, and some just sit still, intently listening.

As I watch this show—and I must say it comes across more as a show than a worship service—I could conclude that it portrays the power of the preached word of God. I could observe that each listener’s reaction is a demonstration of how the word is being received. I could look at each reaction and decide if the word has fallen on fertile ground, on ground that seems receptive to the power of the word, or on ground that will never yield fruit.

But I could also decide that no definitive conclusion can be made from each listener’s reaction because each person’s experience is different. The final harvest of the preached word is rarely fully expressed in the reactions of the people on the screen. Their behavior may not even accurately predict how they’ll harvest, or use, the word in the long run.

In the spiritual journey, as in all human excursions, most often there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. If we were able to look at pictures of the journey at each step of the way, we’d notice changes and development.

Some changes would be dramatic choices and actions, events, and experiences that may speak for themselves. Other changes will be subtle and not easily interpreted or understood. However, both the dramatic and the subtle compose the journey, and we need to consider all events and experiences if we want a true picture and if we seek a full understanding and appreciation.

It would be a mistake to assume that it’s possible to understand the entire journey by looking at a single part of it. It’s essential for understanding to look at the big picture, to appreciate each event and the experience that contributes to the whole, and then make a judgment or an interpretation. This ability to embrace the big picture is one that’s well worth the effort to develop, especially for people with scrupulosity who seem to gravitate naturally, as a result of the illness, to a smaller reality and let that small experience define the bigger reality for them. We’re not talking about sin or even about deliberate choice, but rather we’re observing what the manifestation of scrupulosity often leads to.

This dynamic and measurable contrast is one way to speak about my observations when I watch a television evangelist preach. Most of the time, the evangelist is trying to explain a point or convince his audience of a specific point of view, often identified as the word of God.

But each member of the audience hears the preached word differently. Audience members seldom are focused on the point in the way the preacher hopes for, but instead they’re listening, reacting, and interpreting the word for themselves, applying it to their life and circumstances, all of which reflect where they are on their spiritual journey.

I can’t tell you how many times people have commented after church about my homily, referring to a point I didn’t make. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone quote back to me, often in great detail, a particular sentence I preached that had great meaning for him or her, and I know I never said it. Nevertheless, that’s what the parishioner heard, and perhaps more to the point, that’s what he or she needed to hear, and that’s the nourishment the word of God gave that individual at that moment in time.

Today the word of God comes to us in many different ways. Much like the audience on TV listening to the broadcasting evangelist, each of us is also on a spiritual journey that’s unique to who we are. The word we take in at any given time when we hear a sermon or a homily will speak to each of us in a different way. None of us can know for sure or accurately predict what the final result of that word will be for us, or for the community of the people of God. That’s the power of the word of God, and that’s the power and the grace that each of us share.

Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

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