Apologies all around for blanket assertions at Chicago Catholic News 8/22 about preaching, in which I forgot the importance of loving the sinner while hating the sin.
NOT that we have sin here, NOR people trying to deceive for ulterior motives. ON THE CONTRARY, we have generous souls seeking to elevate listeners to new understanding and commitment. It’s not the people I condemn but the sermonizing THAT COULD BE BETTER.
So how about a few ideas, like:
What about (self-imposed) TIME LIMITS FOR SERMONS, say ten minutes for Sunday, three or four for week days? This calls for TIGHT WRITING, a heavy dose of Strunk & White’s OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS.
That’s onetime Cornell U. English prof William Strunk Jr. and his onetime student, the essayist E.B. White, in their book The Elements of Style, which would make good (spiritual) reading for any preacher.
A few other of the S&W rules, adapted to preaching:
* PLACE YOURSELF IN THE BACKGROUND: It’s the message not the messenger. Not “I was reading a book the other day, and it said . . . ” but “Life is short, says So & So, who died at a young age,” etc. Recital of one’s personal experiences puts focus on the preacher, which is not where it’s supposed to be.
* WRITE IN A WAY THAT COMES NATURALLY: Not forced, but reflecting one’s own reading and listening, one’s own self. Try hard but not too hard. In any case, beware the pedantic, the bombastic, the harsh, the sentimental. Wear yourself lightly in the pulpit.
* REVISE AND REWRITE: Tom Fitzpatrick won a Pulitzer with copy he sent off in a sitting, one page at a time to the city desk. He had just come off the street with “days of rage” protesters in Lincoln Park, cops in pursuit. But he had also come off a dozen years of writing on deadline. Most of us — “even the best,” say S&W — have to take more time.
* DO NOT OVERWRITE: Beware the “sickly sweet word, the overblown phrase,” say S&W. Less is sometimes more. If you lean that way and can’t help yourself, then write something as good as Solomon’s Song of Songs, say S&W. Can you do that?
* DO NOT OVERSTATE: It takes only one “carefree superlative” to trigger a turning off of the rapt attention the preacher craves.
* DO NOT AFFECT A BREEZY MANNER: Ouch, ouch, and double ouch. It’s what we find “across vast expanses of journalistic prose,” say S&W. (In columns, for instance.) It’s not what the worshiper is looking for, we think. We hope not, anyhow.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE THOUGHT FACTORY: Is there room for a little fatalism in the Catholic psyche, otherwise known as trust in providence? A little not thinking you can make a difference but should relax a little and just let things happen? Time for more of the old praying as if all depends on God in addition (naturally) to acting as if it depends on you.
We could do with less self-flagellation in this respect — worrying about the world, the church, our parish, our income, our families, even our immortal souls. “Deus providebit” (God will provide) may have been overdone, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to it.