The Sacred Scriptures are so rich that within the smallest details we can find the deepest meanings. In the story of Naaman in today’s Old Testament lesson, there is a small detail that contains a powerful message. But first, who is this Naaman guy anyways?
Naaman is the general of the Syrian army – the most powerful country in the world at the time. So he is pretty important. But he is a leper, which is surprising for someone so powerful. Naaman has heard about the great prophet Elisha, and goes to see if he can heal his leprosy. Elisha is not impressed by Naaman’s grandiosity, refuses to come out to meet him, and sends him down to the Jordan river to bathe. Naaman isn’t very happy about that – he was expecting something a lot flashier. (Elisha, remember, has raised people from the dead!) But Naaman’s servants convince him to go ahead and give it a try – what does he have to lose? And there we pick up today with Naaman’s miraculous healing and even more miraculous conversion – he will no longer offer sacrifice to any god but the Lord.
It is hard for us to imagine the gravity of Naaman’s exclamation. Ancient pagans had a myriad of gods – they worshiped the sun, the moon, the harvest, gods of fertility, the sea, and so many others. When Naaman says that he will now worship just one god – the Lord – he is saying that his encounter with Elisha and with Elisha’s God has been so powerful that absolutely everything in his life must now change.
Naaman has just one more request: He wants to take home two mule-loads of dirt so that he can offer sacrifice to the one, true God. What does dirt have to do with offering sacrifice? There in a foreign land, Naaman has discovered something real, the true God who has the power even to cure the incurable disease of leprosy. He knows that everything that he does from now on must be different, must be grounded in that truth, and that he must worship nothing else.
In our society, we have lost our appreciation for dirt, for the soil that gives us a sense of place and connectedness to a world that is bigger and greater than each one of us. We increasingly do not have a sense of who we are or where we are from – rootedness, grounding, and identity. Back in 1992, the Supreme Court upheld its tragic decision, Roe vs. Wade, in another landmark called Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Human freedom means the ability to define your own concept of the universe? Justice Kennedy clearly did not consult with any physicists or chemists when he wrote this decision. The universe is a physical reality to be discovered. There is only one universe: Neither you nor I can make it any different because we think one way or another about and no one of less is any less free for our inability to change the laws of physics. Even atheist physicists agree with that!
And yet, this is the world that we live in, a world in which we are increasingly following Justice Kennedy’s exhortation to define for ourselves even what it means to mean something. Each person’s sexual identity is not, we are told, to be discovered and appreciated, but instead to be defined by the individual. A world in which a majority of post-millenials think that the marital act itself has no inherent meaning at all. A world in which the virtual is more real than the physical things and people in front of us. We have no idea who we are.
“The right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” which is, according to Justice Kennedy, “at the heart of liberty,” was supposed to make human beings more free. But has it? Nearly 1 in 3 teenagers meet criteria for an anxiety disorder. 1 in 7 young adults suffers from a substance abuse disorder. In the past decade, heroin use among young adults more than doubled. 9.5% of all men over the age of 12 suffer from substance abuse. 40% of all children are now born to single mothers. In the past 40 years, the percentage of the US population in prison has increased 500%. That wasn’t a typo. After accidents, the leading causes of death for both adolescents and young adults are suicide and homicide.
All of these grim realities point to a society that is longing and yearning (even if we don’t know it), like Naaman the Syrian, for the dirt of the Holy Land, for a sense of connection to something that is real, something that will teach us who we are and what the great mystery of life is really all about. This is real freedom, not defining the mystery of life for oneself.
[If we ask ourselves those grand questions – What is the meaning of life? What is the best way to live? – there are essentially three answers. (The following is a very brief summary of Alasdair Macintyre’s brilliant work Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.) The first is that there is no real answer to the question. Life has no inherent meaning. This is the logic of the redefinition of marriage and now even the redefinition of sexuality itself. It has no real inherent meaning. We can do with it whatever we want. (That this option doesn’t work should have been made obvious by the #MeToo movement. The carnage of the idea that life has no real meaning is all around us.)
The second option – if we are not quite strong enough to look down into the abyss of meaninglessness – is that there is a meaning to these things, but that it is not the meaning that society has attached to it for centuries. All that must be scrapped to re-define the mystery of life on new, modern grounds. The problem with this approach is that it is self-contradictory. It quickly becomes its own tradition, but one that cannot stand for long. This is the logic of those who believe that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, but do not believe that it has to be fruitful or that it has to be for life. With the other two legs cut off from the stool, it falls. The same Supreme Court justice who authored the decision for Casey about everyone’s right to define the mystery of life for themselves also wrote the decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States.
The third option is that of Naaman. It is dirt. It is soil. It is tradition. Ultimately, it is Revelation.] Perhaps the most important task of the Church our day is to dip into that deep well of tradition, that mastery of the school of human nature, and remind us of who we really are.
So how do we go about this vitally important project? How do we find our own two mule-loads of earth upon which to rediscover a humanity that is capable of worshiping the one true God rather than ourselves? A first suggestion that I would offer would be to rediscover dirt. Literally. I do not know very many farmers who are atheists. In her brilliant book, Made This Way, about how to explain the Church’s difficult moral teachings to children and adolescents, Leila Miller talks about laying a foundation for the understanding of natural law with her children. She has two key questions for them: What is this? and What is it for? Watching living things (plants and animals) grow and develop helps us to realize that everything in this world has an identity and purpose to be discovered rather than invented.
Second, we need more time with real people and less time with virtual reality. Children in particular need parents who model appropriate and moderate use of technology. On social media, via email, or via text message we easily say things that we would never say to someone’s face, and we alienate ourselves from others. In a book I read recently about technology addiction, one person explained her preference for conducting conversations via text message like this: “It’s just too awkward in person … I was just in a fight with someone and I was texting them, and I asked, ‘Can I call you, or can we video-chat?’ and they were like, ‘No.’” Another person said that she prefers texting because “you don’t have to deal with their face or see their reaction” (Adam Atler. Irresistible, p. 41). We are assuredly horrified at the idea of intentionally choosing a form of communication that would not moderate our tendency towards viciousness, but I suspect that even though we would shudder to own up to it, most of us are probably still guilty. I wish that I could excuse myself from the charge. Haven’t you too sent a text or an email because an in-person conversation would have been more difficult? With such behavior, we weaken the bonds that hold us together. Man is an essentially social animal. Isolated from others we easily lose sight of who we are.
Third, we need Jesus. In His perfect human nature, He reveals man to Himself. It is by gazing upon the God made man that we will re-discover what it really means to be human. In Christ we find the remedy for a world broken by sin, in a human body likewise broken by all of sin’s brutality.
Our gaze upon Christ happens in many ways – in our families, in the poor and broken of the earth – but it happens most perfectly in the Holy Eucharist. Here, in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we find who we really are. Here we discover the most authentic meaning and purpose of our lives – that we were made for something so much greater than what the world can offer. Like Naaman, we were made to worship the one true God and Him alone.
Just as Naaman needed to take his two mule-loads of dirt back to Syria in order to worship God, so too in order to worship God and not the great idol of modernity – the autonomous human “individual” – our worship needs to be grounded on something deeper. It cannot be simply something of our choosing, and it cannot be a re-construction of a particular era, but it must be a received tradition in continuity with the Faith that has gone before us. This is the reason that we worship the way we do within the Catholic Church and in this parish. Our whole world is longing and yearning for a remedy for the ache of isolation of modernity.
This is why our universal Catholic traditions are so important. They connect us to something that is bigger than ourselves. They have the power to restore harmony within ourselves by putting us in right relationship to God. The best example I can think of this is Gregorian chant. Gregorian chant has been called for by the Church for use in divine services for centuries, and even Pope Francis recently said that it should have a place in every parish. This music has an other-worldly quality that restores tranquility to the heart and reminds us that we are participating in something far beyond ourselves. For centuries, Holy Mother Church – through the messages of popes, Vatican II, and even recently Pope Francis himself – has reminded us that all church music should be measured by its proximity to Gregorian chant. (http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2019/september/documents/papa-francesco_20190928_scholae-cantorum.html) This is not because of antiquarianism or an insistence on a particular style or taste. It is because the Church’s liturgical traditions can help us to discover who we really are in an ordered relationship with God.
I see a desire for a connection with the universal traditions of the Church’s worship particularly in many young people. The world in which we live, and especially the world in which young people live – is not as stable as it used to be. The young people in our parish – as much as I dearly love them – will quite possibly not be here in 20 years. Their jobs will take them elsewhere, and bring others in their stead. In such an environment, it will be difficult to retain a sense of this particular place, this particular parish. The great gift of being Catholic, though, is that we have something deeper to tap into: the universal tradition of the Church. When we build up our worship of God on this rich soil of universal tradition, we ensure a permanence and longevity of our own parish through our fidelity to Christ’s Church and Her traditions.
Each of us longs to know who we really are and what is the beautiful adventure meant for our lives. We saw today how Naaman the Syrian encountered the Lord and how everything had to be different. The very ground upon which he stood had to change. We too need to recover that sacred soil of who we really are in light of God’s revelation and truth. We can rediscover that identity and mission only in Christ, who reveals to us what it means to be men and women – His brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the eternal Father. We will find that true identity in reality, in connection with the people around us, and most especially in the beauty of the Sacred Liturgy and the depths of the Most Holy Eucharist.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXVIII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXIX