It has been a while since one of my children has awakened me in the middle of the night, probably because my three-year-old night owl is still confined “behind bars” in the crib. But when I finally do move Olivia to a big girl bed (when she’s 16) I will remember today’s first reading about young Samuel waking up his poor elderly guardian Eli three times before the old man finally said, “Talk to God – He never sleeps!”
I used to have nightmares when I was a child, and even into high school I would occasionally wake up mom for comfort. I have a vague memory of her advising me that if I was afraid to close my eyes and go back to sleep, I could always talk to God. Sometimes it helped, and sometimes turning on the light was the only thing I could do. But I have to wonder if those nightmares weren’t bricks in the foundation for my prayer life. In any case, the story of young Samuel has always been a favorite of mine because I could identify with the child who talked to God in the dark.
Knowing Sammy’s back story helps me fully appreciate the message of this Sunday’s scriptures. It started well before he was born. His mother Hannah was childless and desperate for a baby, so desperate that when she went to the temple to pray, the priest Eli mistook her for a drunk. Hannah assured him she was completely sober, just overcome with despair. Like many people who are in the throes of grief, she bargained with God, “If You bless me with a son, I will dedicate him to Your service.” Hannah was indeed blessed with a son, and when she had weaned him (probably around three years old, the age of my “baby”) she kept her word and took him back to the temple to live with Eli and his dysfunctional family of rebellious, blaspheming sons.
Hannah’s husband questioned her resolve to keep her promise, so in my less reverent moments as a mom, I have to wonder if perhaps she’d had enough of Sammy’s night waking routine. But in all seriousness, I cannot imagine any mother parting with her little one so young, although Scripture indicates she would visit Sam from time to time and even make clothes for him. We don’t know what age he was in today’s passage, but we can imagine the little boy’s emotional state; frightened, in a strange place, with strange people, and missing his mommy, Samuel is ripe to hear the voice of God and cling to Him for dear life.
What kind of woman keeps a promise like that? Hannah understood a deep truth that most of us would rather overlook – our children are not our own, but His. We are merely responsible for them until they are old enough to be responsible for themselves. St. Paul takes it a step further in his epistle to the Corinthians: “You are not your own . . . for you have been purchased at a price.” As if to drive home the point, today’s Gospel tells the story of how Jesus renamed Andrew’s brother from Simon to Peter. Even the man’s name was not his own.
Last week my First Reconciliation class reviewed the story of the Good Shepherd and the Sacrament of Baptism. We learned in the simplest terms that we belong to Christ, and that He calls us by name. This is the foundation of our faith and our freedom from the power of sin when we call ourselves by the name “Christian,” but do we truly believe that we belong to God, or do we still think that we belong to ourselves?
Our bodies, our minds, our thoughts, words, actions and choices are not ours alone, in spite of the free will we’ve been given. I can make whatever choices I want, but if they are not God’s choices for me, I will inevitably end up in the same place, time and time again – on my knees, in pain. Feeling abandoned and alone.
Like young Samuel, I have the choice to cling to God for dear life and say, “Here I am, Lord. Your servant is listening.” What grace to be able to say those words! If not for the pain of losing his mother, Sammy may never have uttered them, setting him on the path to become the prophet who would anoint David as king. If not for the pain of longing and grief, Hannah may never have made her promise in prayer. If not for the nightmares we have (some of our own making) we might never turn to God. If we had perfect parents and teachers and churches and made perfect choices ourselves, we would have no need for God to care for us and give us direction. As it is, we are not our own; we are called by the name He gives us, and we belong to Him.