Zeal for Thy House

Zeal for Thy House January 14, 2014

It’s January 1 and the first Mass of the year finds me slouched onto the kneeler, sleepy-headed and negligent. It’s a Holy Day of obligation and I don’t want to start off on a bad foot. Never able to get to the vigil on New Year’s Eve, I always shuffle into the pew the next morning with the same disoriented outlook. I even say the same things to myself every year: I have to start things off right; I have to think about this hard; I wish I felt better.

My mind then drifts towards the football games that will be coming on, and the Hoppin’ John that will be served for good luck, before I rebuke myself and start over again.

The tough thing about it is that all about me I see a bunch of good Christian people. There’s a couple that has a passel of their own children who also take in a passel of foster children. Every service, they spend their time pacifying babies and taking toddlers out to the bathroom. The very sight of them exhausts me. The husband is also a lector and walks with a cane.

There’s a man in the back who has brought his wheelchair-bound mother every Sunday as long as I can remember. He is a farmer, I believe, and works long hours. Today, he is alone, and I don’t know what happened to his mother, though I suspect the worst. Still, there he is.

There’s a doctor up front who gave an entire sound system to the church because the people in the back couldn’t hear the priest. Just ponied up all that cash—and it was a lot of cash—so that folks would not strain so much for an understanding.

There are also those who guild the altar and those who teach the postulants. The Knights of Columbus are selling ribs this year for the Super Bowl watchers, to raise money for the thousands of good things they do. The bulletin is full of soup kitchen cooks, ESL teachers, clothes-closet gathers, and various other ministries.

I look at all of them, read about more, and shamed-facedly recall a huge statue of St. Catherine of Siena that looms over a shrine near where I teach. Written underneath her are the words of the gospel:

“Zeal For Thy House Will Consume Me.”

For although I do my share of good here and there, and write a respectable share of tax-deductible checks, I am not exactly consumed with zeal for God’s house. I’ve got too much to do every week for that. And I do not burn with the fire of love for God’s children either. A lot of them bug the hell out of me as a matter of fact, and I am quick to tell them so.

So on this first day of a new year, which predictably fills me with both resolve and remorse, I am keen for some insight that will change things. Not forever, perhaps; maybe not even for a whole week; but just for a while. As on most occasions, the mercies prove tender.

The priest, who is from India, related a parable from his homeland.

There was a king who sent his two sons out into the kingdom on a mission to inventory the plants of the realms. The first son he told to catalog all the weeds. The young man did his job, taking his time and laboriously listing what he saw. But after several months, he returned crestfallen.

“The kingdom is covered with weeds of every variety,” he told his father. “It’s a wonder that anything can grow for all of the grass.”

The other son the king told to look for flowers. This young man did the same as his brother, going to great efforts to chronicle all of the blooms that he could find. But this son, predictably, came back in a better frame of mind.

“God has blessed us,” he told his father. “The kingdom is awash with blossoms. Every color, every shape, every scent—there must be no realm as great as ours.”

The moral of the story, good because it is simple, was that each man found what he was looking for.

In each conversation, in each meeting, in each experience, finished the good father, we must look for the good and not the bad. But more importantly, in each day, week, month, year, we will find what we are looking for as well.

So I suspect these people who do so much, who find the time and strength for what seems impossible to me, are only finding what they had expected to see.

Something to strive for then: a larger horizon during the next three hundred sixty-five days to come.


A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

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  • Good parable. And most “weeds” I consider to be Nature’s (God’s) fast rescue plants, to cover bare soil fast. Which is why I, as a farmer, have given up Plowman’s Folly.

    • agh

      good point. cheers.

  • Tony Woodlief

    An essay, like so much of your writing, that fills me with appreciation and greater mindfulness, A.G. Thank you for that.