Advent and, once again, the power of words

Yesterday, I heard an outstanding sermon. Coming from me, that says something.

As some people are coffee snobs or music snobs or clothing snobs, I am a sermon snob. I’m one of those people who feel that, although I go to Mass to participate in communal worship, I also go to be spiritually fed, and half of that feeding comes from the preaching. Add to that attitude the critical listening that comes from being a professional writer and more than 15 years as an active member of the Catholic press and you’ve got someone programed to “edit” from the pew. Additionally, I’ve been blessed through my work to have heard some of the best preachers in the country and everyone knows that once you’ve tasted the best of something, its really hard to accept less than that without noticing that, well, it’s less.

The problem with most preaching – and this is as true of Protestant ministers as it is of Catholic priests – is that most preachers are so love with the sound of their own voices and so convicted that their words needed no editing, that they go on long after the sermon’s natural ending point. People squirm in the pews, look at their watches, glance at the door, check the football scores on their cell phones — anything to escape the horrific feeling of being a pew prisoner during a too-long (or too-rambling) sermon. Still, the preachers go on. And on. And, all too frequently, on.

This practice ignores fundamental facts about attention span (between 7 and 10 minutes for listening, depending on the age and education of the listener and apparently shrinking every second due to linking, linking, linking) and the ability of remembering a point when it is surrounded by too much exposition.

Yesterday, however, the priest knew the end and stopped when it came, which, coincidentally, was less than seven minutes after he started. Then he did something brilliant: He sat down and stayed silent for about two minutes, letting people process what they just heard. The sermon was on the need for silence in a world of noise and “connection,” especially during Advent, the four-week liturgical season preceding the Christmas season (which, by Christian standards, is not the month after Thanksgiving but the weeks between Christmas Eve and Epiphany.) The priest used a recitation of a Liffey River full of words to demonstrate the noise blocking out the one Word that matters. His point was made without him ever having to say: You guys need to spend more time in silence so you can hear the still, small voice of God. (Best line about societal blabbering was something to this effect: I update my FaceBook status via Twitter using my Blackberry smart phone.)

So, if you’re the believing sort, you might consider the priest’s advice. If you need a jump start, here’s Beliefnet’s annual Advent cool stuff page – with their (yuck) new page design, you have to scroll halfway down to get to the calendar, but its a good tool if you want to enrich your celebration of the season. And on this page, also if you scroll down, is info on all the other December religious holidays of other faiths.

And a postscript about the power of words: This from the NYTimes about the newspaper winning their seven-year battle to get documents about the clergy sex abuse scandal released from the never-accommodating Cardinal Edward Egan, once the bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., where the abuse occurred. Note Egan’s words of (still!) denial and shape-shifting compared to those of Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, when addressing the crime in his archdiocese. It is easy, IMHO, to see the one Word in Martin’s words … and the shameful absence of same in Egan’s.


3 thoughts on “Advent and, once again, the power of words

  1. Just this past Sunday the visiting priest came to a clear stopping point and then rambled on and on. His homily had at least three false stops.
    Personally, I think the average attention span is shorter than 5-7 minutes. I wish more homilies clocked in at around 3 or 4 minutes. That would be easy to follow, and when they’re regularly short, you know you gotta stay tuned in the whole time.

  2. Renee, thanks for the feedback on my homily. I am always hesitant to publish the text of a homily because I consider a homily more of a spoken artform than a written and homlies tend to fall flat as text on page.  That is doubly true for Sunday’s homily, which was intended to be “performed” after the manner of  a “beat poem” – nonetheless, at a number of requests, I have made it available on Facebook at
    -Fr. Bart Hutcherson, OP

    1. Thanks for leaving the link to the homily, Fr. Bart – there were some readers here who asked about it as well.

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