Dark Devotional: The Terror of the Saintly Call

Dark Devotional: The Terror of the Saintly Call October 28, 2016
Photo Credit: Jonathan Ryan
Photo Credit: Jonathan Ryan

At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.
Now a man there named Zacchaeus,
who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man,
was seeking to see who Jesus was;
but he could not see him because of the crowd,
for he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus,
who was about to pass that way.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.” (Luke 19)

I don’t scare easily. Ghost stories told in dark woods are more likely to result in fits of laughter on my part rather than terror. Insects and snakes are creatures that I don’t enjoy (in the sense I wouldn’t invite them to live in my house, to share a bed with me); but I’m not terrified by the existence of creepy-crawlies. “You do you,” I say to these creatures. I’ll stay here.

Yet, I am terrified by God’s resounding call to give my life over to the practice of self-gift. I can only imagine the trembling fear that seized Zacchaeus as he heard, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” (Lk. 19:15). The very Lord of the universe, the Word made flesh, cries out, “Come and see me.”

I often wonder what Zacchaeus would have thought. Once, I had a teacher call me to the front desk in order to give me a discipline slip. Such slips, while now laughable to my mature self, were horrifying to my do-gooder, 8th grade existence.

During lunch, I had thrown a tater tot with some velocity at a friend. It was a senseless sin of the first order. The kind of thing that was often performed by junior high boys but rarely noticed. I assumed that the teachers simply allowed the captives to perform this act in order to keep the peace of the prison (or school depending upon your perspective).

As I walked to the front desk, I prepared to receive my punishment. The teacher had written a discipline slip, except he filled it with various affirmations of my character (this was an excellent way for me, incidentally, to shed my reputation as a do-gooder). He let me know that he was tired of writing discipline slips and wanted to offer praise of a student rather than punishment.

This must have been what Zacchaeus had experienced. In encountering the voice of Jesus, he meets the one who knows all of his sins. All of his faults. All of his follies. Zacchaeus must have expected a good railing. He must have expected judgment.

But he gets something even more terror-inducing. Jesus does not come to chide the tax collector. He comes to give the totality of divine love. The kind of divine love that is so scary because it requires that we change our lives. That we, like Zacchaeus, give not just half our possessions but our whole being over to the purifying terror of the call.

What scares me most is that God is calling me.

In some sense, All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day are twin festivals. On All Hallows Eve, we revel in the terror of a haunted world. We laugh at evil, revealing its powerlessness. For what can the darkness do in a world in which love reigns. In which light shines even into the darkness, and the darkness cannot understand, cannot conquer, will not win.

The real terrifying day is November 1st. For on this day, we hear the divine call that the purpose of human life is not profit, not prestige, not power. But saintly love. And that I’m called to this love. That I, as well as a host of unknown saints, are called to see love, become love, be love.
What terrifies me is not ghosts or ghouls. Elves or werewolves. Snakes or spiders.

What terrifies me is that I’ve been called to be a saint.



timomalleynaalimageTimothy O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He is the author of Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love (Liturgical Press, 2014). He is presently working on a monograph entitled On Praise: Worship and the Eschatological Imagination. This book is a work of historical liturgical theology, unfolding the eschatological dimensions of Christian worship in Augustine, John Henry Newman, Joseph Ratzinger, Jean-Yves LaCoste, and others.

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