Like many other post-Jurasic boys who have gone before me, and many who will come after, I passed through a geo-philiac phase in my life. I loved rocks. I loved them so much that, in association with Jimmy Thielken, I formed “The Rock Club.” To be honest, in part, this club was established as a home base for excluding younger brothers, and tormenting older sisters who had, in turn, always tormented and excluded us. But in addition to creating a forum for the transmission of this particular brand of original sin, Jimmy and I really did like collecting pretty rocks.
In our collections, the prize above all others was the coveted, “geode.” On the outside, geodes are common stones that are normally overlooked. To the untrained eye, they appear to be nothing more than your average, good for nothing, run-of-the-mill-crush-them-for-your-driveway,…rocks. Their outer exteriors are normally rough and stained by layers of dirt, lichen, or minerals. But when broken open, a geode glistens with diamond-like formations of colorful quartz. Many were the thumbs made purple and throbbing by a hammer that glanced off of a round stone thought to contain an inner-store of sparkling quartz jewels.
Well, a boulder lives forever, but not so little boys. Like my careers in oceanography, and professional basketball, my interest in geology eventually scattered along with my shoe-box full of precious stones appraised by the discerning eye of a seven-year-old gemologist.
Father Charlie (“Chuck”) Bolzier must have been a rock collector as a boy. He had a way of looking past the rough exterior of things and seeing the possibility of something sparkling inside. By the time I met him, he was a teacher in our all boys high school.
Some instructors had a way of collecting the kids that showed up pre-polished, and already shiny with obvious gifts of intellect, or athleticism. The concatenation of kids that hung out in Fr. Chuck’s classroom came in all shapes and sizes. Some, like me, were covered over with the layers of sediment that seemed to stick to some kids as they made their way through high school. In his room, there were no pre-requisites to smooth off the rough edges to gain his acceptance. His “come-as-you-are” approach had the effect of gradually opening up the hidden, sparkling dimensions of his geode-boys.
In the days before mandatory high school retreats, Fr. Chuck was a conveyer belt that fed geode-boys into a local teen retreat/faith building program. In the warm context of acceptance, and no-nonsense care, many boys who appeared as hard as rocks softened and began a process of fully uncovering their gem-like qualities.
In this Sunday’s Gospel passage (Luke 19: 1-10), the reader was introduced to a character whose goodness was hidden under layer after layer of accumulated debris and sediment. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. He worked for the foreign occupier (i.e. Rome) against his own people. That made him the Twentieth Century equivalent of a Nazi sympathizer in occupied World War II France. As the passage continued, Luke made it clear that this unsavory character abused his fellow countrymen by using his position of power to extort money from them.
In this famous story, Jesus demonstrated his ability to spot a geode. His approach to uncovering Zacchaeus’ inner goodness took me back to Fr. Chuck’s classroom. Jesus didn’t look up into the tree where Zacchaeus was perched and demand that this public sinner change his ways as a prerequisite to relationship with Jesus. Rather, like my old teacher, he showed care for that sinner just the way he was. In the context of this warm acceptance, Zacchaeus began a process of deep and lasting change.
This Sunday’s readings pointed a finger toward the profound reality that nothing ever changes unless and until it is loved. Moral outrage, and righteous indignation might feel good in the short run, but they seldom lead a sinner toward conversion. The first step in the process of getting to the hidden inner-goodness always begins with acceptance and love. Like Zacchaeus in this Sunday’s reading, the process of chipping away the stone of misguided behavior comes second, and is usually a response to the initial experience of the love.
No child ever became well-behaved as a result of harsh criticism. Stern discipline alone is too blunt of an instrument to open up a geode-child. In a similar way, even our bodies are programmed to respond to the universal law of love. No one has ever lost weight, and kept it off by hating his or her body for being too rotund. The first step in an effective program of life-style change is to begin loving your body just the way it is.
As Catholics, we believe that love is the most effective tool in cracking open a hidden world of beauty.