This Sunday’s Gospel ends with a very familiar statement, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” This was often told to us in our early years in the seminary, the grace of vocation, the call to the priesthood.
I do not contest this, but I would like to broaden our perspective. Reflecting on this within the larger context of Christ’s story and mission, let us consider that the few who are chosen are the ones who choose to follow Christ. It is the choice we make that defines us. This is our first point for reflection.
As scripture will bear this out, we pass judgment on ourselves by our choices, and the most basic choice is to accept Christ as the Risen Lord and our Savior, and to follow him in the way we live our life.
The second main point for reflection is the consequence of not responding to the invitation. There are two sub-points here in the parable. One, some of those who did not respond to the invitation and missed the wedding feast had good reasons to miss the feast. As the parable tells us: “Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.”
Two, there was no punishment for nonattendance. However, the consequence was those who did not attend missed the joy of the feast. It is not just punishments that are the consequences of our “sins of omission,” but defaulting on a fuller experience and meaning of life.
‘Hound of Heaven’
Let us go deeper with our reflections on these points.
There is a famous 19th-century poem by English poet Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven.” It is probably one of the most beloved Christian poems that celebrates the fidelity and constancy of God who relentlessly “hounds” us despite our “hiding” from him.
Writer David Scott in his book, “The Catholic Passion: Rediscovering the Power and Beauty of the Faith,” has a chapter on this poem intertwined with the story of Dorothy Day, journalist, social activist, co-founder of the Catholic Workers’ Movement in the US, whose cause for canonization has been started.
Scott reflects on the meaning of the poem, applying it to the life journey of two famous persons, Day and Eugene O’Neill, four-time Pulitzer-prize winner and Nobel laureate in literature.
“’I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years…’
“The words fell out in a dour sigh, all booze and smoke. Long after hours in the back room of a Greenwich Village bar called the Hell Hole, the man who would become America’s most celebrated playwright seemed to be straining in a hell all his own. He was reciting from memory ‘The Hound of Heaven,’ a long poem about the ways of God and the evasive maneuvers of the human soul:
‘I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him…’
“On that cold winter night in 1917, Eugene O’Neill’s audience was a crowd of self-styled freethinkers and artists, free-love bohemians and hangers-on. At his side was Day, a 20-something reporter for the nation’s largest socialist daily newspaper.
“Dorothy Day parted company with him not long after that night in the Hell Hole. O’Neill went on to fame—winning four Pulitzers and the Nobel Prize in Literature—but not quite happiness. His plays were studies in loss: He wrote of a God who failed to deliver, of sin and guilt and the burden of memory, of the search for satisfaction and the terror of death.”
Making the choice
As the story goes, Day followed the same “hell hole” path of O’Neill until a decade later in 1927 when she chose to surrender to the “Hound of Heaven.” She became a Catholic and dedicated her life to the advocacies that became part of the American social movement landscape—care for the poor and the homeless, championing the workers’ rights and the non-violent direct action.
Both O’Neill and Day were invited, but only one chose to respond.
There was a young man I accompanied briefly in his journey a few years ago. At that time, he was very successful in his career, but he knew there was an invitation that needed his response. He started to tell me “the real story,” his story.
One thing that struck me in his story was the consistency and constancy of his desire to know and live out his mission from God. As a young man, he tried twice to serve God. First by applying to be a seminarian and second, years after, wanting to be a lay missionary. Both times, he was turned down.
Responding to the invite
In one of my last conversations with him, I told him to trust God’s call and respond to the invitation by making a choice to follow it. Like some of the guests invited to the feast, he has chosen to do other things that are good and fruitful, but his mission remains unlived with great love and passion.
Thus, if I am correct here, he will not be “punished,” he will in fact live a good and “successful” life as he is living now, but he will miss out on the joy of a life lived in excellence because it is lived with fidelity to and constancy in living out God’s invitation.
Such is God’s invitation to the wedding feast. It will not change. It will hound us no matter how much we avoid it. We can pretend it does not exist, “deadma,” as we would say. We can even do good and fruitful things.
We can even be “great” like O’Neill’s four Pulitzer wins and a Nobel prize, but like him we too may go “on to fame… but not quite happiness” or the joy that comes from a life of meaning.