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Finding the Sermon

Finding the Sermon

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Published by TheLivingChurchdocs
Throughout the week the sermon grows in my mind. I can hear it.
Throughout the week the sermon grows in my mind. I can hear it.

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Published by: TheLivingChurchdocs on Feb 28, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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By Patrick T. Twomey
here are a few great preachers who, stepping into the pulpit, place their fingers to thepaper’s edge to adjust their written oratory, and then, hoping for Spirit and Fire, speak.Thesesermonsaresometimesgatheredand publishedfortheinstructionofotherpreach-ers and the edification of some small audience of laypeople. Are these the best sermons?Whoknows?Afterall,clergystepinfrontoftheircongregationsweekafterweek,andiftheyhave the good sense to keep their preaching off the internet, the congregation alone seesand hears them. The pope speaks
Urbi et Orbi
. Most preachers do not.
Finding the Sermon in a Storyboard
I tried for some years to preach from a manu-script and had some success in doing so. Like manyothers, however, it seemed difficult to lift the wordsfrom the page. I felt tied to the text, emotionallycommitted to it; I pondered its content long after thesermon was over. I was searching for an immediacyI could not attain. Fortunately, small but importantepiphanies sent me on another way.I had been reading Thomas Merton for at least ten years when I discovered that many of the talks hegave to the novices at Gethsemane are on tape. Iimmediately ordered a few of the addresses and waseager to hear Merton speak. Excitedly, I opened the package, shut my office door, and listened to the voice of Merton. I was stunned. Even more than Ihad expected, he was absolutely riveting. My atten-tion was completely fixed, my heart entirely cap-tured, my mind in flames. And yet Merton is hardlyapublicspeaker.Herambles,tellsjokes,admonishesthe monksover small things, reports on who is in theinfirmary, stops to notice some noise or sight out-side. His voice is thin and nasal. He is not one of thetwelve best preachers in America. What he says,however, is consistently filled with power directlyrelatedtohowdeeplyheunderstandsthematerialheis teaching. Simply, it is Merton himself who is soconvincing,Mertonimmersedinhismaterial,Mertonformed by what he learned in the school of penance,study, and prayer. I could feel the inner question,senseanaddress:Doyouknowwhatyouarepreach-ing? Thus I heard a call to deeper and more seriousstudyandcontemplativesilence.Ibeganexperiment-ing with a mere sermon outline which was the resultof more, not less, preparation. Ascendingthenarrowandwindingstaircaseleadingtomybrother-in-law’sofficeinhisoldLouisvillehome,Inoticedatthetopofthestairs,mountedonthewall,alargeboardwithsmallpiecesofpaperarrangedinsomewhat jumbled order. “Dave,” I asked, “What isthis?” He told me it was a storyboard, a tool com-monly used by writers to arrange and then rearrangetheir narrative. An entire novel, a screenplay, a com-mercial stuck on a board, a narrative not yet commit-ted. I wondered about speaking.
n the fall of 1997, I attended a concert at the Con-servatory of Lawrence University, a fine small lib-eral arts college adjacent to my parish. I heard thewonderful group called the Anonymous Four singingmotets to the Virgin Mary, haunting medieval musicmediated by these beautiful and brilliant women.The concert program included both the Latin textsthey were singing and an English translation. I wasthrilled by what I was hearing, but also inwardlydisturbed. At this point I had been a priest for eleven years, and yet I could not read a word of Latin. Sowhat? Who reads Latin anymore? It was not taughtin my high school or college and was never men-tioned in seminary. But I knew that for a thousand years Latin was the language of the Western Church;it was, in fact, the international language of theProtestant Reformers. I desperately wanted to enter the Christian tradition and I was convinced that thiswas the way.With sometrepidation I returned to undergraduateschool, auditing an introductory course of Latin inthe classics department at Lawrence. Like manyadult learners, I approached the material with seri-ousness and determination. In 1999, 2002, and 2006
(Continued on next page)
I went to Rome to study with Reginald Foster, affec-tionately called “the Pope’s Latinist.” Along the wayI purchased the Vulgate and the four-volume set
 Liturgia Horarum
(Liturgy of the Hours) so that mydaily Bible reading would be from the Vulgate andmy reading of the fathers of the Church (some moth-ers) would be in Latin. This meant, of course, a heavy dose of Romanism, but that was not the pointor ever a temptation. Most of the Christian traditionis shared, and most of the formative material in thewest is in Latin, period. It is no exaggeration to saythat Latin has dramatically changed my life as a  priest and preacher. I sit with Augustine, Gregory theGreat, the Venerable Bede as if with friends. Theyinterpret the Bible and bear witness to wonders.They invite me and then stop me andleave me wondering in my own wayabout the glory and power of God.Why didn’t someone tell me? All thisbeauty!Standing in a bar a mile south of St.Peter’s during a break from class, Ihad a rare private moment with Regi-nald Foster. I confessed that I startedtoo late, and asked what to do.“Patrick,” he said, “You will have tospend the rest of your life in your dic-tionary.” I then asked him how long ittakes to learn Latin. No wonder theygot rid of it. He told me it takes a goodten years to learn it. Learning it doesnot necessarily mean one can readeverything, so I asked, “How long didit take you to get to the point that youcould sight read anything?” Heanswered, “Twenty years.” Life isshort, Latin is long, but taste and see that the Lord isgood.
hese days I prepare sermons first by photo-copying the Old Testament lesson in Latin. If Icould read Hebrew, I would use that as well.Another  penance to perform eventually, I suppose. I thencopy the New Testament and Gospel lesson in bothGreek and Latin. I do not consult an English trans-lation,andthusamtrickingmymindtonoticedetailsin the text which I would not otherwise see. Inci-dentally, when I do read the Bible in English I grav-itate to the authorized version precisely becauseElizabethan English can incite a similar alertness.The point here is to create a certain distancebetween myself and the text, to make the text alien,to see its strangeness, to know that it is “other” andto sense that it is “inexhaustible.” After several read-ings, I ponder, some discursive meditation bangsaround in my head, but nothing is resolved quickly.I use commentaries for background and context,consult lexicons to tease out the meaning of words, pull books from shelves not always knowing why. IalwaysconsultthecommentaryintheRomanOffice,which corresponds to our liturgical Sunday,and thuscan often bring one of the truly great theologiansinto my preaching. The real work begins with scis-sors, a glue stick, a pen, and two highlighters.My storyboard is a piece of paper, 8.5 by 14 inches,upon which I glue the Greek and Latin texts and any-thing I may want to quote. Words or phrases arehighlighted; lines and arrows direct my thought. Thisis all I have. Throughout the week the sermon growsin my mind. I can hear it. I can revise it up until thelast moment. When I step into the pulpit a final andimportant sermon preparation occurs: I see the con-gregation. For just a moment, I look at them. I havelived with them for 17 years of Sundays, sermons,baptisms, funerals, loss and hope. They watched mywife and I struggle for 12 years with a child who wasfrequentlyandviolentlyill,ahorriblesituationwhichan old medication has finally resolved. Allison nowhas a good life. They watched us and helped usgrieve the loss of our dear daughter Hannah, whodied in a senseless car accident when she was 15.Twenty months after Hannah’s death, while return-ing to the parish office, I sensed intense pressure onthe left side of my abdomen. The main artery leadingto my spleen had burst. I survived the emergencysurgery only, as the doctor told me, because myheart refused to stop beating. My platelets went
Throughout the week the sermongrows in my mind. I can hear it.
(Continued from previous page)
Finding the Sermon in a Storyboard

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