Road to Sanity
Sunday Homily for January 13, 2008 (1A)
by Fr. Phil Bloom
Sunday Readings: The Baptism of Jesus
Bottom line: The road to sanity begins with attention to moral law. Jesus' baptism shows what else is involved.
A young man once described his experience of sinking into insanity. He was a very bright university student, but he had abandoned his studies in favor of nightclubs and pornography. One night he retired to a hotel room. As he lay in bed, the window appeared to expand until it reached the floor. He heard a mocking voice in his mind saying, "What if you threw yourself out of that window?" The young man wrote:
"Now my life was dominated by something I had never known before: fear. It was humiliating, this strange self-conscious watchfulness. It was a humiliation I had deserved more than I knew. I had refused to pay attention to the moral laws upon which all vitality and sanity depend."*
Well, this young man did begin to pay attention to the moral law. He began to put his life in order - and to experience inner peace. He eventually entered the Catholic Church and went on to become one of the most famous monks of the twentieth century. His name is Thomas Merton.
Thomas Merton recognized that the road to sanity involves the moral law. By the moral law we mean that inner voice, that sense of right and wrong inscribed in the heart. You can find it in any of the world's great religions. When people say that all religions teach basically the same thing, they are referring to the moral law. Jesus summarized it when he told a young man: "You know the commandments. Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not lie, do not steal. Honor your father and mother." You can find these teachings in Confucius, Lao Tse, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, as well as Nordic and Inca traditions - and of course the Greek philosophers. They are universal because God has written them in man's heart.
Even though the moral law is universally known, it is not universally observed. Far from it. In different ways we all fail to observe this basic law and to that degree fall into disorder. As Thomas Merton recognized, the road back to sanity requires attention to the moral law.
That was precisely the role of John the Baptist. He called people to repentance. When they asked him what they had to do, he did not offer any esoteric teaching. No, he told them to do some pretty ordinary things: share your food and your possessions, don't cheat anyone, don't tell lies and do not envy. (see Lk 3:10-14) John simply pointed out the road to sanity.
One day a different sort of man approached John. He was different - radically different from any other man - because he had perfectly observed the moral law. John said to him, "I need to be baptized by you." The way Jesus responded to John indicates the second - and final - step that a person must take on the road to wholeness or sanity. Jesus tells him that even though it does not make sense, "allow it for now." There is a lot to be said about why Jesus, even though he was sinless, asked John to baptize him. The bottom line is this: Jesus did it because it was his Father's will.
Sometimes we experience things which just do not make sense from a human perspective. Recently I talked to a man who experienced a terrible injustice. The injustice was even harder to take because it involved a young child and her future. The man was furious and did not know how he would it explain it to the girl and her parents, why she was denied a wonderful opportunity. Then the man remembered something from the life of St. Pio of Pietrelcina. A woman came to Padre Pio overjoyed because her daughter had been offered a job in a big city. Padre Pio prayed and then told them woman, "Do not allow your daughter to take that job." The woman was shocked, but she told her daughter what Padre Pio had said. The daughter flew into a rage and began to demand why she should listen to "that priest." In the end the young woman obeyed her mom. A few weeks later, the townspeople received some terrible news. Another young woman had eagerly taken the job, but the employer had abused her in way that left her shattered.
Now, the girl who obeyed her mom learned why she was denied a certain opportunity. Most of the time we do not find out. But we can be confident of this: In all the setbacks and contradictions of life, the Father is at work. He has the power to bring good out of evil. He can even use things which on the surface seem totally crazy. Now, I am not saying we do not fight against injustice and irrationality. No, fighting against those evils is part of God's will for us. But when we have done everything we can, we need to say what Jesus did, "allow it for now."
The second - and greatest - step on the road to wellness is to accept the Father's will. We cannot do it on our own. We need the help of Jesus' grace. But in him we can hear those beautiful words: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."