You may have heard about the man who went to his doctor with concerns about his health and appearance. The physician asked, “What's your problem?” “I feel terrible,” the patient responded. “When I look in the mirror, I see a balding head, sagging jowls, a pot belly, crooked teeth, bloodshot eyes…I'm a mess! I desperately need good news to boost my self-image.” The physician responded, “well, the good news is you have perfect eyesight.”
I recently rediscovered an ad for a Lenten skin treatment. For the lips: use the ointment SILENCE—especially good for lips chapped with backbiting, coarse language and untruths. For better hands: employ generosity. It contains a base of love with essences of kindness and thoughtfulness. For clear eyes: try liturgy. It helps you see God, nourishes a desire to practice virtue, and is a preservative for eternal life. And for cleansing lotion: apply reconciliation. It relieves tension, begets grace and restores hope. Take the full treatment; you'll look fabulous spiritually.
Today's word of God challenges us to always look beyond appearances, and with the gift of faith, discover three realities:
Jesus as the light who illumines the purpose of life;
ourselves as a light to others in our attitude and behavior; and
our fellow human beings as bearers of the light or presence of God,
no matter how hidden that presence may be.
The word of God takes us back over 3,000 years. King Saul made a mess of things, perhaps like some political dictators today. God inspired the prophet Samuel to look for another king in a sheepherder’s family of eight brothers. At first, David is overlooked. He’s the youngest, the most unlikely choice. Think of great leaders in our country and how unlikely they appeared to be. George Washington, for example, often looked downright unfriendly with his wooden false teeth. Abraham Lincoln had a homely face. FDR was wheel-chair bound. Yet, despite appearances, they became great presidents.
The unlikely David became king of ancient Israel. God saw in David the incredible potential for leadership that others didn’t see.
The word challenges us not to stereotype people—write them off, so to speak -- but rather to look underneath and beyond appearances to the incredible potential for good that people have, and try to bring out their best qualities by affirming, not criticizing, them.
Paul in his letter to the Christian community in Ephesus in Turkey reflects upon light and darkness. Light can transform a cold night into a warm day. Light enables us to study, to discover, to behold the wonders of God’s universe. In short, light warms, nurtures, sustains, reveals and cheers. Paul urges us to live as children of light, pleasing God in our attitude and behavior.
Jesus is indeed our light.
Blessed John Henry Newman captured Jesus as light in a wonderful poem:
"Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on! ….
lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
So often, people walk in darkness about the purpose of their lives and forget that Jesus is the light who illumines our pathway into eternal life. We too are called to be light to people, to let our life shine forth with virtues such as honesty, integrity, responsibility, courage, perseverance, compassion and faith in God.
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus cures a blind man. He opens the eyes of this blind man so that he can see reality. But notice how blind some of the characters in this story were. The Pharisees, e. g., were blinded by protocol—how dare Jesus heal on the Sabbath! They also were blinded to the power of God working outside their own religious structures. The parents too were blinded by fear. They refused to stand up for what they knew was true.
The Gospel author challenges us to see Jesus, through the lens of faith, as the light who illumines the purpose of life.
I think of a 20th century man, Thomas Merton, who wrote about his own search for light in his best-selling autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” which chronicles his conversion from a carefree university life style to a religious life at the Trappist Abbey in Gethsemani, Kentucky.
Merton, orphaned at 16, lived a sort of vagabond youth. At Cambridge University, he engaged in reckless drinking and carousing, and then moved to New York and enrolled at Columbia University. There he delighted his classmates with his wit and charm, became the editor of the student literary publication and befriended Robert Lax.
Merton's chance encounter with a classic philosophical book about the Christian understanding of God changed his life. He went with Robert Lax to St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York where he became instructor of English (Olean is not the end of the world but you can see it from Olean!) .
Merton eventually applied to join the Franciscan friars but was rejected, perhaps because of his checkered past. Imagine that: Merton rejected and Mackin accepted!
But a friend advised Merton about the Trappists and off he went to Kentucky.
He was based there for the remaining twenty-seven years of his life as a monk, priest, author and spiritual guru. The abbey's mantra was: ora et labora (pray and work). Merton wrote dozens of books and hundreds of poems and articles, and corresponded with religious thinkers and cultural icons all over the world. He gradually moved from the insular world of the abbey to the wider world of politics and religion, in correspondence with political movers and shakers and people of different faiths or no faith. All of us, Merton argued, are children of God. Faithful to his Catholic tradition, Merton was always open to the truth in other religious traditions, especially eastern religions. He died tragically in Thailand at age 53.
Throughout his Trappist life, Merton tried to live a life of prayer or intimacy with God: through the chanting of the psalms during the day, the daily Eucharist and such religious practices as the stations of the cross and the mysteries of the rosary. Above all, Merton sought solitude and contemplation: that inner center within himself where he could feel God's love sustaining him. That's why he sought out Buddhist techniques, for example, to help find that inner stillness. In his work “Seeds of Contemplation,” Merton noted that noise, more than anything else, sabotages contemplation and blocks out the voice of God within us. And so Merton asked for the grace—and it indeed is a grace--to clear his mind of earthly “concerns” so that in solitude he could move beyond thoughts and words into a felt awareness of the presence of God within himself. There he would sit still and listen to God's voice.
Yes, he sought to find his true self in God; God abiding in him and he in God. Moreover, Merton sensed the oneness of God all about him, in all creatures and in all creation. All were holy.
The invisible light of God in all creatures simply had to be made visible.
Our Lenten task, Merton might say, is to let the image of God become manifest in who we are so that we become the very likeness of God.