04 Jun 2019

St. Catherine Labouré Church, Gymea

In the 1987 humorous detective novel, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the eponymous detective declares that “if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands”. The author, Douglas Adams – best known for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – is here giving a comic spin to the well-known ‘duck test’: if it walks and swims and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

At the heart of this saying is the thought that our external lives normally reveal our inner, our appearance points to our nature. Of course, we sometimes rightly hide from the world what we are feeling inside. Or we dress up for an occasion. People sometimes do things that are ‘out of character’. Some even live double lives, sometimes for years on end. In the digital world, people can assume all sorts of personalities and avatars. So ‘the habit doesn’t make the monk’ – whatever might be true of ducks, when it comes to people what you see is not always what you get.

Nonetheless, the duck test speaks for the wisdom that what you are on the inside will likely emerge eventually on the outside. You can keep telling yourself that you’re good ‘deep down’, but if you regularly rape and pillage you have become a Viking or worse. You can keep up the smiles much of the time, but if you’re dark inside it will eventually show in some way. Human beings are complicated and can be great actors, but in the end identity requires some integration of ideals, character and choices, of the external, acting, seen-and-heard you and the inner, feeling, unseen you. Without such integrity we fragment, we experience troubled conscience, fractured relationships, a messed-up personality.

In our first reading this morning, St. Paul farewells the Ephesians: he knows he’s going to his trial and death (Acts 20:17-27). He doesn’t put on a jolly face and sing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. Nor does he true to excuse his failures by saying his intentions were good or that he loved them deep down. No, Paul knows and has always taught that intentions and feelings are not enough: love must be demonstrated in action. So he says: “Judge me by my life; all the time you’ve known me, I’ve served humbly, told it like it really is, tried to be helpful. My conscience is clear.”

So, too, Jesus in our Gospel today doesn’t say: “Father, I’ve glorified you privately, been obedient to you in my heart of hearts” (Jn 17:1-11). No, Jesus practices the integrity He asks of His disciples; so He says: “Father, I’ve glorified you on earth, [publicly] by my words and deeds, my obedience even unto death. I’ve done the things you asked, made you known to others. Now I pray that those who follow after me will do the same.” The truth of Christian love and the love of Christian truth are not just private possessions of the inner soul: no, on Jesus’ account, we must live what’s true and good and beautiful, we must practice the virtues we admire and the principles we ascribe to, we must truly be what we do and do what we best are. Use makeup and clothing and deeds to reveal the best you, not to hide behind!

Of course, saying that our external life reveals and defines us, is no excuse for inattention to what’s going on inside us. We can we the kindest, sweetest, most passionate person about justice and peace and the rest on the outside, but inside be dead, or seething with envy, or full of self-hatred. That was, in some ways, the error of the Pharisees: not that what they did was bad – in fact it was often admirable – but that they didn’t cultivate generous, holy hearts to match their deeds. So they were hypocrites. And eventually that meant their deeds, too, were not so admirable after all. St. Francis de Sales observed that we are not made holy and wise by greedily multiplying our spiritual devotions, but by doing what we do from a better and better heart.[1] So, too, St. Catherine of Siena wrote that God rewards every good thing we do, great or small, not in proportion to the greatness and smallness of the deed so much as “according to the measure of the love of God” with which we do it.[2] Even the smallest good deed can tell of great love.

Which brings me to a modern rewrite of the duck test: ‘If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but it needs batteries, you probably have the wrong abstraction!’ The point is: that we are not defined by external appearances or behaviour alone, but by the heart or character those externals truly reveals, by the principles, intentions, motives, that we perform by those actions. This was a crucial message of Jesus’ life and teaching.

So today we pray that each of us is becoming a true duck of Christian love, quacking an internal wisdom expressed in flapping wings of good deeds. May people be able to say of us as they said of Christ: ‘To see Him is to see the Father, to know Him is to know God.’


St. Catherine Labouré Church, Gymea, 4 June 2019

Welcome to this morning’s Mass in the last week of the Easter season. It is always a pleasure as Archbishop to have a chance to visit the parishes of Sydney, even if I do have to run off for a blessing at the school straight after! The Pentecostal wind outside reminds us that we are in the last week of Eastertide and join the whole Church in awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit…

[1] St. Francis De Sales, Sermon on the First Sunday of Lent

[2] St. Catherine of Siena, Dialogue, chap. 68