Ampleforth Abbey

25 February 2018

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time 

Homily by Fr Hugh Lewis-Vivas OSB

Life is full of surprises.

Some years ago a group of boys were out for a run in the valley and at one point they found themselves being chased by a young ram.

Fortunately they were able to beat a hasty retreat but I suspect being attacked by sheep isn’t something you think about when you set out for a run.

Just as Simon and Andrew probably had no idea, when they went for a walk by the sea of Galilee, that they’d be so struck by Jesus’ words that their lives would be changed for ever.

But the unexpected does happen, and Jesus’ words carried so much force that the gospel tells us at once they left their nets and followed him.

A bit like you or me leaving our home one morning and just not coming back, abandoning everything we have.

And that call of the gospel doesn’t always make logical sense.

I remember feeling a bit hurt when at the age of 26 I told my mother that I was going to try my vocation to the priesthood, and she burst out laughing .

I give you six months she said.

Probably because up till then, communing with a surfboard every day at the beach was about as spiritual as I got when I was home on holiday.

But as I said, life is full of surprises, and here I still am, a lot longer than six months, still trying to answer my own, particular call.

Many years ago I was doing a set text with an ‘A’ level Spanish set. Some the content was really quite shocking and I wondered about the merit of setting it as a text for study with a group of young people.

The name of the book was La ciudad y los perros by the Peruvian writer Vargas Llosa and when it was first published in 1963, 1000 copies were publicly burnt on the parade ground of the military academy where the events of the story were supposed to have taken place.

Which of course immediately guaranteed its success!

The basic story describes life in a military academy for boys.

There are lots of problems after an exam paper is stolen:

  • Someone gets shot during some military manoeuvres,
  • the authorities try to cover it up
  • and throughout there are frank and harrowing descriptions of a fairly brutal régime in the academy where vulnerable people are taken advantage of and good doesn’t necessarily triumph in the end.
  • Either you become part of it
  • or you stand up to it and transform it.

The story is clearly autobiographical and in writing this account of what he’d suffered, Vargas Llosa said he wasn’t trying to get even with the system which he felt had failed him.

He argued that the writer performed a useful role only insofar as he can make his fellow men confront

- as he put it - the not always welcome sight of their miseries and torments.

In other words it was an attempt to make his fellow Peruvians face up to the imperfect world in which they lived so that they could then do something about changing it.

There are two ways of dealing with the human weakness that we inevitably encounter in all walks of life, either here at school or in the world at large.

I was talking to a VIth former recently about a visit to Oxford, and he commented on the dreamlike quality of the city which hardly seems to have been touched by time in so many ways.

Perhaps those great walls that surround many university colleges do keep the world at bay, but I’d prefer to think that they can also let the world in, although on their own terms.

Or as the reading from St Paul to the Corinthians put it those who have to deal with the world should not become engrossed in it.

It should be like that for us.

As Christians we have to deal with the world, but we should make sure that we do it on our own terms, not on the world’s.

So where does that leave us: you, me, each of us?

We don’t have to look far to see that the society in which we live can be every bit as flawed in its own way as life in the military academy described by Vargas Llosa.

There’s plenty of rivalry, ambition, jealousy and injustice. But there’s also compassion, friendship and concern for each other.

We’ve all been called to make a difference to our world and the gifts we’ve been given help us see how we can do it.

We’re not called to the religious life (though I hope some of you may consider it).

Just as there’s no point setting your heart on becoming a violinist if keyboard skills are your real talent, or on being a cross country runner if you’re built like a prop.

So often we waste energy wanting to become good at things for which we clearly have no real aptitude, just because they attract us.

If however you can work out what you’re really good at, and then and this is the important part – stick at it, that will make good use of the gifts God has given you, will make you feel truly fulfilled, and make the world around you a better place into the bargain.

So don’t be apathetic, try to make a difference NOW. Because, as St Paul told us in the reading, the world as we know it, is passing away. Time doesn’t stand still, so make good use of it.