The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Immortal diamonds

NOTE: Posted below is the homily given by Fr. Harry Hagan, O.S.B., in the Archabbey Church on Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Here, he reflects on the Mass readings Job 7:1-4, 6-7 and Mark 1:29-39. It is a message of hope amid chaos, the perennial human condition--the rough that the Risen Christ transforms into diamonds. After all, the hardness, purity, and beauty of diamonds result from extreme temperature and pressure. -- Br. Francis
Today’s first reading comes from the Book of Job—a famous book. When people learn that I teach Old Testament, they will sometimes ask about it, and I think that they do that because they know that Job is dealing with some basic absurdity of life, some basic problem that we all must face. Job has lost everything and is trying to make sense of life. As if this were not enough, Job must seek this sense amidst his so-called friends who accuse him of hidden sin. And so he says:
            Remember that my life is like the wind;
                        I shall not see happiness again. (7:7)
John of the Cross calls this struggle with absurdity the “dark night of the soul.” It is a common struggle—not always of such epic proportions, but many people, indeed most of us, struggle at moments to make sense of it all.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was such a person. Some of you will recognize him as a Jesuit priest and famous poet, and you may know his poem:
                        The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
                        It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
These lines are easy compared to much of his poetry, which does not reveal itself easily because of density, hard vocabulary, unexpected turn of phrase and tight, strange craft—all used in his attempt to bring out the inwardness of things. People of his day had not seen poetry like this and thought it very odd. The Jesuit magazine The Month declined to publish what would become his great poem: “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” His literary friends, particularly Robert Bridges, a poet in his own right, realized that something important was happening in Hopkins’ poetry, but even Bridges thought that, ultimately, Hopkins failed. 
From the Poets Corner,
Westminster Abbey.
Fr. Hopkins was a good and faithful Jesuit but not a very successful one. Though in a parish for a while and good to people, he was an odd pastor. Bright and strange enough to be brilliant, they had him teach Latin and Greek, but he was not a practical teacher. Sent to Dublin to teach at the new Catholic university, he found himself at odds with the country and its politics. There, during the mid-1880s, he wrote what have come to be called “the terrible sonnets.” These poems describe Hopkins’ struggle with what we might call depression, at moments approaching madness, but the struggle was larger than that: “world-sorrow.” He struggled with what it meant to be a human being and to go on living even though despair tempted him to give up. And so we read:
            NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
            Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
            In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
            Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
Of loneliness and the night he writes:
            I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
Then describing the bitter taste of self, he says:
            I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
            Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
How these words of Job or John of the Cross or Hopkins touch you, I do not know, but they are witness that this battle against chaos is common to the human heart and forms part of the ordinary human struggle. So if you know something of this darkness and temptation, you are only human.
Today’s Gospel takes us in a different way. Jesus, immediately on leaving the synagogue where he has driven out an unclear spirit, enters the house of Simon Peter, where they immediately tell him that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever. Our text says: “He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up.” The word “helped her up” is the Greek word egeirō which can also be translated as “lift up,” “raise up.” The word appears often in Mark’s Gospel and in several places with the word “hand.”
When he brings the daughter of the synagogue chief back to life, we hear: “He took the child by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha koum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise!’”— egeire (5:41). Following the transfiguration, Jesus cast out a difficult demon out of a boy and then “took him by the hand, raised him, (ēgeren) and he stood up.” The most important use of egeirō come in 16:6 where the young man in white at the tomb said to the women:
            “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified.
            He has been raised
(ēgerthē); he is not here.
            Behold the place where they laid him.”
This word egeirō is a resurrection word, and the hand of Jesus which he extends to Peter’s mother-in-law and to the young girl and little boy and others beside, represents both the power and the care of Christ.
The Gospel tells us that Peter’s mother-in-law, now raised by the hand of Jesus and freed from the fever, “waited on them.” The response is surely significant. Her rising up leads to service which stands against sickness, against worthlessness and despair.
As the Gospel tells us, this healing was only one of many, and soon the whole town was gathered at his door. But early the next morning he is up and off to pray, and when they come looking for him to say that “Everyone is looking for you,” he tells them that they must be off “to preach… For this purpose have I come.” Again, the question of purpose: Jesus clearly understands his purpose in a way that the disciples do not. He has come to preach, to preach the cross and resurrection
The Gospel then raises for us the question of purpose—“Why have I come?”
On the one hand, we could say that our purpose is the same as that of Jesus—that we have, like Christ, come to preach the Gospel—if in our own way. Surely this is true, and at the same time it is surely true that we do not always feel this. Sometime we feel like Job: “my life is like the wind; /I shall not see happiness again.” With Job, Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets” attest that at times, we feel this chaos deeply.
Hopkins feels this dilemma and deals with it in another late poem called “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection,” There he surveys our frail humanity which he calls “mortal trash,” and then asserts:
                              In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ‘since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd,’ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
Hopkins asserts that Christ, by his resurrection, by his rising up, has made us rise with him. By his resurrection he has caused “a beacon, an eternal beam” to shine on our brokenness and make us “immortal diamond”—the hardest material in the world and yet filled with fire.
For Hopkins, this is his purpose and our purpose as well: to become—in the light of Christ’s rising from the dead—“immortal diamond.”

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