A couple of years ago I got to meet Art Garfunkel. As he was singing and playing, he was talking about how much he missed playing together with Paul Simon. You could see the pain in his face and the difficulty and the hurt that he carried for all these years not being able to play with him. Those two voices together sang such a beautiful harmony. As he played his set list, one of the songs he played was “I Am a Rock,” which was written by Paul Simon before the band got together. It really displays some of the pain and difficulty he is going through. I would imagine that Paul Simon has some regret deep down in his heart that they broke up because they were so amazing together.
Fr. Andy gave me the idea for this song. As I was reflecting, it really fit the scriptures of this week in terms of the lepers who are cast out of their community. They are alone. They are isolated. They go through difficult times. It really applies to a lot of us in this time of the pandemic where so many of us have to be isolated. I think about Fr. Larry at my second parish who has been in a nursing home. They have been isolated in their own rooms. They have not been able to leave their own rooms for almost a year now. They have been totally and completely isolated. Sometimes for a priest it is OK because we have made silent retreats. We spend some time alone, but I cannot imagine the average person being that isolated during this whole time. I know families have felt that strain because they have not been able to get together or see their children sometimes, or their parents, or their relatives. There has been this great time of difficulty and isolation and sometimes we like to pretend that we are OK. Sometimes we like to say, “I am fine. I can get through this.” I do not think we realize the difficulty, the stress, the impact, the sadness, the isolation, and the depression that all of us are facing during this time of isolation.
In this song I am going to sing for you, he says, “Gazing from my window to the streets below on a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow I am a rock. I am an island. I have built walls, a fortress no one can penetrate.” Sometimes we do that when we get hurt by life or when we get hurt and project our hurt onto God. We create these walls within ourselves. We isolate ourselves from other people and we make it seem like . . . I am OK when in fact deep down we are really hurting. As the song continues, he says, “I have my books, my poetry to protect me. I am shielded with armor hiding in my room. I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock. I am an island.” Then he ends with the most painful words in the song, “And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.” Deep down, we all feel that pain even if we are not showing it. We try to keep the hardness. We try to block out the pain. If we have been hurt in life by other people, we block them out. We shut them out. We shut God out. Through it all, we become these islands. We become these lone persons when, in fact, we are not meant to be alone. We are meant to be a community. We are meant to be connected with God. We are meant ultimately to let God in to be touched by God.
I will reflect a little bit after this song about the leper. One of the things that Jesus did that is so amazing is that he touched the leper. If you think about it right now, we are going through times where we are afraid to touch each other. A man came to see me who is in an AA program. He said that normally in AA everybody hugs. He said, “Father, I have been without a hug for almost a year.” I could not help it, but I said, “Would you like a hug?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “You hug me as long as you want, and I will hold on to you.” He hugged me for about a minute. Once he opened his arms and I stepped back, he just started bawling. He was crying because he was longing for some kind of connection of touch. As I sing this song, I want you to think about the reality of the isolation that we are all facing and at the same time pretending that we are OK when in fact we do need God to come into our isolation. We do need other people to be there with us. You cannot sing, but I am not going to stop you if you want to sing with this one. You can do that. Feel free to listen. Feel free to close your eyes and listen to the words and reflect on this whole notion of being alone and being isolated.
I Am a Rock
A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island
I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island
Don’t talk of love
Well I’ve heard the word before
It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island
I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries
Songwriters: Simon Paul
That is how the song ends. Sad, is it not? I know that deep down below there is a desire not to be a rock, not to be an island, not to be left alone.
We hear in the Gospel of Luke, “The one who bears the leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’” The leper has this contagious disease and whenever he is in public must cry out, “Unclean, unclean, unclean” and tell everyone to stay away from him. We experience this when we go outside, and we are supposed to stay six feet apart and back away from everybody. And it says, “He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” So, this leper is forced to go out and make a camp outside and dwell apart from everybody.
We hear in the gospel today that there is a leper who comes to Jesus, and he screams out, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” What did Jesus do? He reaches out his hands, touches him, and says, “I do will it. Be made clean.” From that moment, he is made clean.
I invite everybody, right now, to think about anything that would keep you separated from God or separated from the love of others. Are there any walls you have built up in your heart? Is there any place that you have shut God out because you have been hurt? Is there any anger, resentment or unforgiveness towards other people? Can you admit to yourself that this time of isolation has been difficult? Maybe you are watching today online and have not been able to be at mass for almost a year now? Do you feel isolated? Maybe you have been through a divorce, abuse or some kind of addiction. You felt isolation from your family or maybe even this church community. Of course, through this COVID experience, there is a part of us that says, “I am tough. I do not need anyone else. I can do this by myself.” If we have been hurt, we may say, “I do not need the church. I do not need God. I do not need confession. I do not need community.” The reality is that deep down we all do. “When in the midst the leper cries, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’ Jesus touches him, and it leaves him immediately.” I want you to say that to Jesus right now, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”
You probably notice that in the back of the church I have a book that I wrote. The whole reason I wrote this book is to help people connect with God. To help people have an experience of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit that is actually real. I think sometimes when we think of praying, we think of saying prayers. That we just say these prayers to God, and we do not expect to have an encounter with Him. What I have done with this book “Pray40Days” is written 40 days of meditations that I will lead you through. These guided meditations are based on a different scripture passage where you will encounter God. You will go to prayer, and you will learn to hear his voice. I think a lot of us struggle with that. We say, “I talk to God, but I do not hear anything back.” A lot of us have become hardened maybe. We have hardened our hearts to God, or we just expect that he is not going to say anything to us. In fact, he is always speaking to us, but because our hardness of hearts, we have shut him out. These 40 days will help us all soften our hearts, hear his voice, trust him once more and to experience him in a very real way. He wants you to experience him as your Father. God the Father is your daddy, and he wants you to know his love. Jesus wants to be the good shepherd for you. He wants you to see him, to hear his voice, to be held like the lost sheep. The Holy Spirit wants to come upon you and fill you with all the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit.
I invite you to grab a book and join us for the Parish Mission. The Parish Mission begins tomorrow on Valentine’s Day at 5:00 pm. If you have a date, bring a date to the 5:00 pm Mission. There is no better love than God’s love. Go out to dinner afterwards. If you are single like me, that is a great way to spend Valentine’s Day. What else are you going to do? Then on Monday and Tuesday, we will have the Parish Mission at 7:00 pm. Then we begin this wonderful journey of Pray40Days all the way through Lent. We will lead you on a wonderful adventure of prayer. I invite you on this journey. I invite you to open your heart once more to God – to open your prayer once more to God and be willing to be vulnerable and let him in in a new way. Sometimes we are disappointed because we expect something from God, and he does not come through. I promise you that if you really give yourself to God in these next 40 days, you will encounter him. He will break through the hardness. He will break through the stone, and you will experience God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit as real persons – the real God in your life. Hopefully, this will help us not feel like an island anymore. We will not feel like we are alone from each other or alone from God. Instead, we will recognize that we are really in his midst as we pray together.