Receive comfort, be comfort; hold everyone in exquisite tenderness, says Fr. Gregory Boyle

“I was last here in 2019, and I wanted to wait to come again until I had published another book,” said Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ, at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday, July 17, service of worship and sermon in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Acatamiento: Affectionate Awe,” and the Scripture lesson was 2 Corinthians 1:1-17. His latest book, The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness, was published in 2021. Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, was flying home from a speaking engagement, and he saw the magenta cover of his book on a tray table. 

“I thought, ‘Someone is reading my book.’ I walked by slowly, and the person was asleep and was drooling. Apparently my book is an alternative to a CPAP machine,” Boyle said. 

Years ago, as Boyle began doing more public speaking, one of the Homeboys, Louis, took it upon himself to teach Boyle how to speak in public. 

“Louis said, ‘You have to capture your audience with self-defecating humor.’ I told him, ‘No shit,’ ” Boyle said. 

In 2 Corinthians 1:1-17, Paul used the word “comfort” 10 times. “I think that must be important,” Boyle said. “God is all comfort. The mystic Meister Eckhart said, ‘It is a lie — any talk of God that does not comfort you.’ ”

Boyle said the theme of his sermon was exploring how to receive comfort and how to give comfort. 

Dylan Townsend / staff photographer Fr. Gregory Boyle, S.J., delivers his sermon, “Acatamiento: Affectionate Awe,” Sunday in the Amphitheater.

“I am asking where we stand, how we stand, that we stand, and what our stance is,” he said.

St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, wrote a meditation, “Two Standards,” inviting people to stand with Jesus or with the way of the world. 

“We see Jesus standing in the lowly place, with the poor and powerless, with the people who have had their dignity denied and their burdens are more than they can bear,” Boyle said. “Jesus stands with the demonized so the demonization will stop, and with the disposable people so we will stop throwing them away. Jesus is not there to comfort the poor in their powerlessness; he reminds them of their power.”

Boyle continued, “I am a Jesuit, like the pope, but the Homies don’t know what a Jesuit is.”

Boyle’s glassed-in office looks out over the courtyard of Homeboy Industries; there are at least six tours a day through the facility. One day, a Homie, serving as a tour guide, “planted a group of 20 people in front of my office, observing the founder in his natural habitat,” Boyle said. “The tour guide said, ‘This is our founder Greg Boyle, and he is a jujitsu priest.’ So I put on a display for them of my best moves.”

In his journal on Feb. 17, 1544, St. Ignatius circled a word, “acatamiento,” from “acata” meaning “to look with attention.”

“ ‘Acatamiento’ is often translated ‘affectionate awe,’ and that is our stance at the margins. We are a reflection of the God of all comfort. It is our contemplative stance to receive comfort and be comfort,” Boyle said.

Boyle was invited to speak in Washington and Boston, and asked Saul, who worked in the Homeboy bakery, if he would like to accompany him and another Homeboy, Brandon, on the trip. Boyle said to Saul, “I don’t think you have ever flown.” Saul responded, “Damn, G, you are a blessing in the sky.”

When they got to Boston, they rented a car, and Saul got in the back. 

“Wow, this car comes with a back scratcher,” Saul said. 

The kid from Los Angeles had found the ice scraper/snow brush. Boyle encouraged Saul to go and discover Boston. Saul stopped in front of a courthouse and took a selfie. From across the street, in a little park, were two homeless men, Louis and Bill. 

“Don’t take my picture,” Louis shouted at Saul.

“He’s taking a selfie,” Bill said, but Louis kept yelling at Saul.

Saul approached them and said, “My name is Saul, and I’m from Los Angeles.” Louis, belligerently, told him he did not care. 

“Don’t mind us, we’re crazy,” Bill said. 

“I’m crazy, too,” Saul responded.

The men talked for a while, and as Saul took his leave, Louis said, “I’ve lived my whole life in Boston, do you need directions or something?”

“Louis felt seen, cherished, held and carried,” Boyle said. “He felt the comfort of the God of all comfort.”

“All the world is barricaded behind a wall of shame,” Boyle said. “Grace, tenderness, acatamiento, is the only way to breach it. Ignatius held out for a movement, not a moment, for us to receive comfort and be a comfort.”

Fifteen-year-old Moreno showed up one day at Homeboy and announced, “Ta-da!” He had been locked up for nine months. He was greeted by Homegirls Emily and Michelle, who knew how to be a comfort, making a fuss over him. They killed “the fatted pepperoni and were eating pizza lavishly with love,” Boyle said. 

Moreno asked to speak with Boyle in his office. He pulled a chair close to Boyle’s desk and fished out an envelope from his pocket. “My grades from probation camp. Straight A’s,” Moreno said. Boyle looked at the card and saw two C’s, two B’s and an A. “Not the straightest A’s I have ever seen, but I told him, ‘If you were my son I would be the proudest man alive,’ ” Boyle said.

Moreno started to cry. His homelife had not changed in the nine months he had been incarcerated. His mother was somewhere on drugs, his father was dead, his grandmother could not cope, and Boyle had done the funeral for Moreno’s best friend who had been needlessly shot.

“You are afraid to be out,” Boyle told him. “It will be OK. I know you think you are in a hole, but really you are in a tunnel keeping toward the light. I can see it because I am taller than you.”

Boyle called Homeboy Industries an organism, a culture of kindness, an atmosphere where everyone is held with tenderness. Saul and Brandon had inhabited their dignity and had a deep sense of their own being in the speaking engagements in Washington and Boston. On the flight home, Saul told Boyle that he wanted to learn more and more, and to learn how to talk fancy.

“What do you mean, fancy?” Boyle asked.

“Where the dad is waving good-bye to the mom and kids and says ‘Ta-ta,’ ” Saul said. 

Saul experienced the God of all comfort and in being a comfort, talked “fancy” with the homeless.

“Acatamiento leads to deepening humility, to learning how to talk fancy,” Boyle said. “Our stance at the margins is with Jesus, who opens hearts with kindness.” 

Nellie is a Homegirl who suffered torture and abuse. 

“This abuse led to an absence of hope, and she landed in prison and had her kids taken away,” Boyle said. She came to Boyle for help when her lights were going to be cut off. “Hey G, I wish you were God. I think you would let me into heaven,” she said. Boyle grabbed her hands and said, “Nellie, if I get into heaven, and you are not there, I am not staying.” 

“Comfort is not a one-way street. It is exquisitely mutual,” he told the congregation. “We are all claimed, so we are all transformed. When we are placed in the cradle of loving kindness, we hold each other in cherished community. God protects us from nothing, but sustains us in all things.”

Boyle urged the congregation to “be sustenance, look with affectionate awe. Be a blessing in the sky, one who chooses to talk fancy and holds all in the cradle of loving kindness. ‘It is a lie — any talk about God that does not comfort you.’ ” 

There was a lone “amen,” then applause.

The Rev. Natalie Hanson, interim senior pastor for Chautauqua, presided. Angela James, who has a ministry providing family portraits for incarcerated people and is the past president of the Chautauqua Bird, Tree & Garden Club, read the Scripture. The organ prelude, played by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, was “Prelude on Slane,” by Craig Phillips. The Chautauqua Choir sang “Be still, for the Presence of the Lord,” music by Indra Hughes and words by David J. Evans. The choir was conducted by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist. Stigall accompanied on the Massey Memorial Organ. The offertory anthem, sung by the Chautauqua Choir, was “The Lord Is My Light,” music by Thomas W. Jefferson and words from Psalm 27:1, 4:14. Special musical guests f were from Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in Buffalo: Rosa Rodriguez-Day, cantor for the Spanish language service, Santa Pizarro, Lidya Rivera and Yolanda Wence. They led the congregation in “O Love of God (Amor de Dios),” music by Bob Hurd and words by Hurd, Pia Moriarty, Ana Victoria Demezas and Jaime Cortez, and “Where Charity and Love Abound,” music by Pedro Rubalcava. Stafford played “Allegro assai vivace,” from Sonata No. 1, Op. 65, by Felix Mendelssohn. Support for this week’s services is provided by the Harold F. Reed Sr. Chaplaincy. 

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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.