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Posted July 12, 2007

Preparing to Preach: The Art and Skill of Paying Attention

The spirituality of the homilist begins and ends with paying attention to the scriptures and to life

by Father Robert Schoenstene

Assistant professor in the Department of Biblical Exegesis and Proclamation, and Pre-Theology, University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL

“What is in the law? How do you read it?” These questions posed by Jesus to the young man in the Gospel are basic and important questions to be asked in preparing a homily. The homily is an integral part of the liturgy and a breaking open on the table of the word of God. Before the words can be opened, they must be read. But reading the word is not always the same as reading words. Reading can operate on many levels. How should the liturgical texts be read?

Attentiveness is a basic attitude for any serious endeavor. A person who is serious about the spiritual life has to pay attention to prayer and to the movement of the Holy Spirit in his or her life. A homilist must be attentive to the words to proclaim the Word.

A hindrance to paying attention to the Word is its familiarity. In the three-year lectionary cycle, the same gospel texts are read and preached upon over and over. Familiarity can cause the text to be skimmed rather than to be read or not to be read at all. Attentiveness starts in the will. It may take some more work to really read it, to pay attention to every word. But paying attention can be a form of prayer. The homily understood as praise of God, rather than simply a religious discourse, can be an incentive to help the preacher read.

A technique that may help pay attention is to read the text in another language. The original Greek or Hebrew are naturals for this, but these tools are not available to all preachers. Another modern language or another translation in the same language are also possibilities that may help. When a new turn of phrase is seen, or a word previously glossed over stands out because of different vocabulary or a different place in a sentence, the attention can be grabbed; new possibilities may be seen.

Really reading a text means entering into it, living in its world, seeing its emphasis and view of life. The scriptural texts of the lectionary come to us in a certain form, edited and arranged for the church’s use. But the readings do not exist in a vacuum. Scripture and the Eucharist propose a world for the believer to inhabit, a way of seeing, a way of knowing and understanding the events of daily life. Paying attention to a text means seeing it in its own context. In one way, the three readings and the psalm of the Sunday lectionary provide a context for themselves; in another way, they are part of a larger whole, the world of the Bible and the world as seen by the Bible. To see this, the homilist needs to be at home in the Word; study and commentaries are indispensable parts of the preaching life.

What these texts are saying to the homilist, in reading them on their terms, will provide a homily. If the preacher pays attention to the words rather than trying to force a meaning upon them, the homily often will preach itself. An opened text speaks to the reader. And what it says to the reader, the reader can proclaim to the church.

The context of a parochial homily brings another kind of attentiveness to the preacher. The Father has addressed our world through His Word, Jesus Christ. Finding the Word in the sacraments, in the liturgy, in the Scriptures, in the preacher’s own life, in the lives of the parishioners, in the world, is a spiritual endeavor that needs attention. And when the preacher is attentive to this, the breaking open of the Word is not like Moses breaking the tablets of the Law. It is an integral part of the Eucharist.

We can draw a conclusion from asking, “What is the law? How do you read it?” The spirituality of the homilist is that of paying attention, of praising God by being attentive to the Word of God, by being attentive to the church of God, to a particular parish, to particular human beings who are trying to make some spiritual sense of their lives and their families’ lives. In the homily, the preacher really speaks through his own spiritual life, a relationship in words with the Word who speaks to us in our own words. In some ways, we could perhaps begin to consider that the spirituality of the pastoral life begins and ends with paying attention to the Scriptures and to life.