Thursday, October 25, 2012

Essential Things are Invisible to the Eye

Thirtieth Ordinary Sunday Year B

One of my favourite story books, which I only came to appreciate as an adult, was the novella entitled ‘The Little Prince’ (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry. It is a story of how reality collides with fantasy – a tale of how an aviator, who crash landed in the Saharan desert, meets a little boy who introduces himself as a space traveler, not of the E.T. kind of alien but a self-styled little humanoid prince of his own tiny planet or asteroid. The story, as the title suggests, is actually the aviator’s narration of the little boy’s adventures and travels through the universe searching for friendship.

At the beginning of the book, the reader is introduced to the narrator, who is that young aviator. A would-be artist at six years of age, the pilot had that career thwarted by the lack of imagination of grown-ups who could not understand, without explanation, his drawing of a boa constrictor eating an elephant, making him conclude that they are incapable of recognising importance in anything except what lies on the surface. Later in life, the narrator, now a pilot stranded in the middle of the Sahara, meets a soul mate in the person of the little prince. The story of the little prince is also a tale of disappointment. He’s a lonely child in need of a friend. This longing for friendship sets him off on his inter-galatic adventures which leaves a trail of disappointment. There's the rose whom he loves, the absolute monarch, the conceited individual, the drunkard, and the businessman. They are all too wrapped up in their own affairs to consider being the little prince's friend.  Though clearly a children's book, The Little Prince makes several profound observations about life and human nature. Through the medium of fantasy, reality is exposed. In this first instance, we learn that reality is the name we give to our disappointments.

Today, we encounter the blind man Bartimaeus in the gospel. Looking at Bartimaeus, we see a man who’s at the end of his rope. He experiences a flicker of hope when he hears that Jesus, the miracle-worker, is in town. He dreams of the possibility of being able to see; an irrepressible desire for healing. But his quest would not be an easy one. He would have to contend with a gauntlet of sceptics, detractors, pessimists and self-styled realists who try to shut him up. It’s not enough that he’s blind; they wish to render him mute too. These people are not entirely bad or evil. Perhaps, some would like to shield the Master from having to suffer the inconvenience of dealing with every trivial or petty request. Some others may have actually thought that they were being kind to Bartimaeus, to spare him the additional pain that comes from disappointment and false expectations. Our natural tendency when see someone else suffer is to try to make them feel better, correct their idealism by injecting a healthy dose of reality, and help them lower their expectations to reasonable and plausible levels.

This story may resonate with many of us, especially those who wish to find solace, consolation, encouragement and healing from the community of the Church. But instead of encouragement, we encounter only discouragement. The Church is often idealised as a community of saints, but what we often experience is mismatched group of sinners. Our desire to come closer to the throne of grace seems thwarted at every turn. What proves most painful of all is to see people, whom we have come to believe as brothers and sisters in Christ, forming an impenetrable barrier that keeps us from our goal.  Feeling demoralised, unloved and unwanted, many are led to only one conclusion – to give up or quit all together. Very often, we allow disappointment and discouragement that emanates from persons and situations to eclipse our view of Jesus. We mistake human failure for divine apathy.

But Bartimaeus serves as a model for all of us. Where others have turned back, this blind man presses on. He is able to see something where others have failed. He sees a Jesus who will make time for him, a Jesus who will not turn him away, a Jesus who brings healing. He refuses to allow the brokenness of the community, their discouraging words and scepticism to hinder him from his goal. It is ironic that this man does not need eyes to see Jesus. The little prince poignantly makes this observation at the end of the novella - 'But the eyes are blind. One must look with the heart.' What quality did Bartimaeus possess that allowed him to see beyond physical sight? Or rather what possessed him to rise above the discouragement posed by his peers? The answer lies in the virtue of hope.  The icon of the American Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King once wrote: “We must accept finite disappointments, but never lose infinite hope.”

The story of Bartimaeus is a critical reminder that life may be full of setbacks and disappointments, the Christian community and the visible Church may fall short of our expectations, that individual Christians may often appear to be more of the Pharisaic mould rather than the Good Samaritan type, but hope helps us to cast our vision beyond the temporal to have a glimpse of the eternal, to see the pristinely divine in the midst of human inadequacies. Hope is never losing sight of the eternal and never allowing it or us to sink beneath the mire of our present woes. While we sometimes get stuck focusing on the here and now, our present situation isn't the end of the story. St Paul knew how disappointing life could seem—we only have to read his letters to know that. Yet he never quit encouraging his fellow believers to see the big picture in the midst of their trials and hold on to their supreme hope in God. St Paul wrote this to the Church in Corinth:  "So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" ( 2 Cor 4:17-18). God's plans are nearly always bigger than we think. The Church is much bigger than the earthly pilgrim church which plods along on its journey to its heavenly perfection. The sting of our relatively short-term disappointments in no way compares to the ultimate hope we have in Him.

Hope is never a form of idealistic escapism or something which dulls our sense of responsibility in the here and now. In short, our hope, given to us by God, is the key to Christian living. In his homily delivered this year on the Feast Day of the Assumption, the Pope reminds us that Christian hope “is not just nostalgia for Heaven,” but a “living and active desire for God here in the world.” Hope enables us to look to the next life, but it also inspires and purifies our actions in this life. In other words, hope allows us to use heavenly things as a constant benchmark for earthly living.

Hope ultimately fixes our vision on our goal, heaven. It teaches us, as does the little prince, that “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” It requires a vision that sees through the lenses of faith and hope. As our Holy Father says in his opening paragraph of his second encyclical, Spes Salvi, dedicated to the virtue of hope, “The present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.” Christian hope, according to him, is transformative because it offers assurance that "life will not end in emptiness." Hope provides us the strength and courage to endure the disappointments of this life, the tears and sorrows that mark our all too human existence, the weariness that comes with age and finally the dark clouds that dampen our journey, in order that we may live for the eternal tomorrow, to live for the day, so beautifully described in this hymn, where:

There’s no disappointment in Heaven,
No weariness, sorrow or pain;
No hearts that are bleeding and broken,
No song with a minor refrain.
The clouds of our earthly horizon
Will never appear in the sky,
For all will be sunshine and gladness,
With never a sob or a sigh.
Frederick Lehman (1914)

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