Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Lent

Readings: Gen 12:1-4; 2 Tim 1:8-10; Mt 17:1-9

One day last week I was over at the Hermitage and got on the elevator with one of the kitchen workers. She was irate. What set her off was a billboard she had seen on I-465 as she was coming to work. The billboard read: "You can be good without God." To her that was scandalous and she believed the billboard should be taken down as soon as possible by any means possible. I just listened as she ranted on. I didn’t dare tell her: that’s what we believe as Catholics. And we do. Of course, we would want to put up a billboard right next to the offensive one which would read: "But you can be better with God." The Catholic Christian tradition has always believed that there is a natural law and a natural law morality. One can be good by following the dictates of one’s conscience without explicitly believing that there is a God. Vatican II reaffirmed that point in its Constitution on the Church: "Nor does divine providence deny the helps necessary to salvation for those....who have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God but who strive to lead a good life." (#16) But I doubt any of that would have made any difference to the irate kitchen worker.

This little episode serves to remind us that "faith" is "the effort to seek the deeper meaning." The very act of faith says there is a deeper dimension to the human experience. There are lots of ways to assert and affirm this. One of my favorites is a small piece of literature, a short story by the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, entitled "The Bet." This little story tells of two young Russian aristocrats in the late 1800s who get engaged in an argument during a drinking party about being a hermit. Eventually they bet a million dollars that the one who claimed he could live as a hermit would do so for twenty years without having any contact with another human being. In their drunken stupor they outline all the determinants of the bet—the little hut the man is to live in, how he is to be fed, how he can only communicate by letter with the other young man, and so on. And so he begins. The majority of the short story is about what he reads each year, the things he does. As the twenty years are about to end, the young man outside has become panicky. Through the years he has lost a lot of his money on bad business deals and gambling. What he has left will have to be given to the man who has succeeded in living in isolation for twenty years. Finally he determines to kill to kill the hermit who has lost lots of weight during the twenty years of isolation. As he enters the little cottage to kill him, he sees that the hermit has his head down on his desk and is sleeping. As he is about to smother him with a pillow, he notices that the hermit has been writing a letter. He picks it up to read it. The letter tells his friend that in the years he has been enclosed, he has been able to see through to the deeper reality of things and what really matters in life. Money, luxury, fame no longer mean anything to him. Therefore, five minutes before the bet is to end, he will voluntarily leave the room and so forfeit his right to win the bet. The man who was going to smother him walks out of the cottage stunned. The next day the hermit leaves the room five minutes before noon, walks out the front gate and is never seen again.

This story makes the point that "deep insight" requires quiet, contemplation and solitude. That’s exactly what the season of Lent asks us to pursue. We don’t have years of quiet and solitude to pursue the deep thinking that the season asks us to do. We have to carve it out of busy and often rushed lives. That’s one of the greatest challenges of the season of Lent, finding time to slow down, calm one’s thoughts and feelings, and explore the issue of values—what really matters in our lives. Let’s make a renewed effort this week.

1 comment:

Peg Rack said...

sometimes it's hard to be tolerant