By Patrick T. Twomey
There are a few great preachers who, stepping into the pulpit, place their fingers to the paper’s edge to adjust their written oratory, and then, hoping for Spirit and Fire, speak. These sermons are sometimes gathered and published for the instruction of other preachers and the edification of some small audience of laypeople. Are these the best sermons? Who knows? After all, clergy step in front of their congregations week after week, and if they have the good sense to keep their preaching off the internet, the congregation alone sees and hears them. The pope speaks Urbi et Orbi. Most preachers do not.
I tried for some years to preach from a manuscript and had some success in doing so. Like many others, however, it seemed difficult to lift the words from the page. I felt tied to the text, emotionally committed to it; I pondered its content long after the sermon was over. I was searching for an immediacy I could not attain. Fortunately, small but important epiphanies sent me on another way.
I had been reading Thomas Merton for at least ten years when I discovered that many of the talks he gave to the novices at Gethsemane are on tape. I immediately ordered a few of the addresses and was eager 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 I had expected, he was absolutely riveting. My attention was completely fixed, my heart entirely captured, my mind in flames. And yet Merton is hardly a public speaker. He rambles, tells jokes, admonishes the monks over small things, reports on who is in the infirmary, stops to notice some noise or sight outside. His voice is thin and nasal. He is not one of the twelve best preachers in America. What he says, however, is consistently filled with power directly related to how deeply he understands the material he is teaching. Simply, it is Merton himself who is so convincing, Merton immersed in his material, Merton formed by what he learned in the school of penance, study, and prayer. I could feel the inner question, sense an address: Do you know what you are preaching? Thus I heard a call to deeper and more serious study and contemplative silence. I began experimenting with a mere sermon outline which was the result of more, not less, preparation.
Ascending the narrow and winding staircase leading to my brother-in-law’s office in his old Louisville home, I noticed at the top of the stairs, mounted on the wall, a large board with small pieces of paper arranged in a somewhat jumbled order. “Dave,” I asked, “What is this?” He told me it was a storyboard, a tool commonly used by writers to arrange and then rearrange their narrative. An entire novel, a screenplay, a commercial stuck on a board, a narrative not yet committed. I wondered about speaking.
In the fall of 1997, I attended a concert at the Conservatory of Lawrence University, a fine small liberal arts college adjacent to my parish. I heard the wonderful group called the Anonymous Four singing motets to the Virgin Mary, haunting medieval music mediated by these beautiful and brilliant women. The concert program included both the Latin texts they were singing and an English translation. I was thrilled by what I was hearing, but also inwardly disturbed. At this point I had been a priest for eleven years, and yet I could not read a word of Latin. So what? Who reads Latin anymore? It was not taught in my high school or college and was never mentioned 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 the Protestant Reformers. I desperately wanted to enter the Christian tradition and I was convinced that this was the way.
With some trepidation I returned to undergraduate school, auditing an introductory course of Latin in the classics department at Lawrence. Like many adult learners, I approached the material with seriousness and determination. In 1999, 2002, and 2006 I went to Rome to study with Reginald Foster, affectionately called “the Pope’s Latinist.” Along the way I purchased the Vulgate and the four-volume set Liturgia Horarum (Liturgy of the Hours) so that my daily Bible reading would be from the Vulgate and my reading of the fathers of the Church (some mothers) would be in Latin. This meant, of course, a heavy dose of Romanism, but that was not the point or ever a temptation. Most of the Christian tradition is shared, and most of the formative material in the west is in Latin, period. It is no exaggeration to say that Latin has dramatically changed my life as a priest and preacher. I sit with Augustine, Gregory the Great, the Venerable Bede as if with friends. They interpret the Bible and bear witness to wonders. They invite me and then stop me and leave me wondering in my own way about the glory and power of God. Why didn’t someone tell me? All this beauty!
Standing in a bar a mile south of St. Peter’s during a break from class, I had a rare private moment with Reginald Foster. I confessed that I started too late, and asked what to do. “Patrick,” he said, “You will have to spend the rest of your life in your dictionary.” I then asked him how long it takes to learn Latin. No wonder they got rid of it. He told me it takes a good ten years to learn it. Learning it does not necessarily mean one can read everything, so I asked, “How long did it take you to get to the point that you could sight read anything?” He answered, “Twenty years.” Life is short, Latin is long, but taste and see that the Lord is good.
These days I prepare sermons first by photocopying the Old Testament lesson in Latin. If I could read Hebrew, I would use that as well. Another penance to perform eventually, I suppose. I then copy the New Testament and Gospel lesson in both Greek and Latin. I do not consult an English translation, and thus am tricking my mind to notice details in the text which I would not otherwise see. Incidentally, when I do read the Bible in English I gravitate to the authorized version precisely because Elizabethan English can incite a similar alertness. The point here is to create a certain distance between myself and the text, to make the text alien, to see its strangeness, to know that it is “other” and to sense that it is “inexhaustible.” After several readings, I ponder, some discursive meditation bangs around 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. I always consult the commentary in the Roman Office, which corresponds to our liturgical Sunday, and thus can often bring one of the truly great theologians into my preaching. The real work begins with scissors, 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 anything I may want to quote. Words or phrases are highlighted; lines and arrows direct my thought. This is all I have. Throughout the week the sermon grows in my mind. I can hear it. I can revise it up until the last moment. When I step into the pulpit a final and important sermon preparation occurs: I see the congregation. For just a moment, I look at them. I have lived with them for 17 years of Sundays, sermons, baptisms, funerals, loss and hope. They watched my wife and I struggle for 12 years with a child who was frequently and violently ill, a horrible situation which an old medication has finally resolved. Allison now has a good life. They watched us and helped us grieve the loss of our dear daughter Hannah, who died in a senseless car accident when she was 15. Twenty months after Hannah’s death, while returning to the parish office, I sensed intense pressure on the left side of my abdomen. The main artery leading to my spleen had burst. I survived the emergency surgery only, as the doctor told me, because my heart refused to stop beating. My platelets went through the roof as I was recovering. A hematologist was brought in and soon delivered distressing news about a dangerous and incurable blood disorder. Take your medication and expect a bone-marrow transplant. I step into the pulpit and I look at the congregation.
There is a lot I cannot say. I cannot tell distressing or heroic stories for the simple reason that it will appear that I am talking about myself. So I stay calm, I stay close to the Bible, very close to illustrations which deepen our understanding of the text. I start speaking. It is not all heavy. My personal witness is heavy enough. But what I say is about God and life and death and judgment and inexplicable grace and inexhaustible love and the glory of the Lord. I rant and rave and find the words and sometimes find very good words for all of 15 minutes. My parishioners do their part too; they listen. St. Augustine, commenting on the role of John the Baptist as the voice and Jesus as the Word, says that when people communicate, the word which is in the heart of one is voiced so that it can be heard and understood. After the voice has ceased, the word rests in the heart of the other. The word which my parish collectively and individually holds as a result of my speaking and the inflowing of Spirit is the sermon. Cleaning up after an honest day’s work, I take my storyboard and throw it in the trash.
Every preacher has to find a way into the heart of something deep, into the bosom of the Father. Being a preacher is more about having something to say than the employment of any particular oratorical skill. It also helps, I think, to push the ego aside, to give the encounter of preaching one’s full attention, and then let it go. Start over. Another Sunday is coming — and another opportunity to contemplate and convey the Living God.
The Rev. Patrick Twomey is rector of All Saints Church, Appleton, Wisconsin.