It’s easy to breeze through the gospels and miss some of the message behind the words; and that was certainly the case for me with the passage from Mark 5: 1-20. For years it seems so straightforward. Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee, and on the other side he met a man possessed by a legion of demons. He cast them out, sent them into a herd of swine, and the latter ran headlong into the Sea and drowned. Word spread, and people filed out of the town to satisfy their curiosity. Then they encouraged Jesus to hit the road and move on, and he did. So ends the story — or so at least it seemed to me.
The absurdity of the story finally hit me this time around, and I think that’s exactly what Mark meant for us to take away from our reading. For one thing, this seems to be the only instance when Jesus teamed up with a herd of pigs to make a point, and it came in the form of an unspoken question: “How in the world does a Jewish village get comfortable living next door to a herd of pigs?” Ironically, not a single person thanked Jesus for removing this ritual pollution from their midst. Equally significant, they may even have sympathized with the owners of the herd. They’d likely be the first to affirm their dislike of pigs, but they’d also be quick to point out that Jesus shouldn’t go around destroying other people’s livelihood.
The same is true with regard to the possessed man. Not one person thanked Jesus for the cure he had worked, and no one seemed to appreciate the positive impact this would have on the village. By implication, Jesus had upset their apple cart, and it would be better for all concerned were Jesus to work his wonders elsewhere.
Then the awful truth of the story hit me: we are those villagers. Just as they learned to live alongside a herd of swine, so do we get used to living with alls sorts of abnormal situations. Just as they adjusted to the demon-possessed man at the edge of the village, so do we learn to live with our own demons. To put it in modern terms, they and we find it easier to live with disfunction that to deal with disfunction. So it is that the Jewish community in this gospel story preferred to see Jesus move on and work his wonders elsewhere. The same, sadly, can be true for us.
It’s amazing what we can get used to in our lives. When things could be better, we content ourselves with “good enough.” We satisfy ourselves with the thought that “not so bad” is preferable to taking risks that could bring great benefit. And when we do that as monks, we fall prey to the temptation that Saint Benedict warns against in his Rule. It’s all too easy to call “good” the things we like, and “bad” the things we don’t. Such is a life of self-delusion, and lethargy.
To nobody’s surprise this gospel story ends when the cured man decides to follow Jesus. Ironically he was the only one in the entire town who’d seen the absurdity of his former way of life and wanted something better. He’d had a taste of what Jesus could do for him, and he wanted more.
You and I each have our demons, and into every life a little bit of disfunction creeps. But Jesus offers us a choice. With the people of that village we can ask Jesus not to tarry and to keep on moving. Or we can welcome him into our lives. True, he may lead us into uncharted territory, but it could be exciting territory. Jesus offers us the choice between “not so bad” and “extraordinary.” Given those options, perhaps we’d all be better off to cast aside our demons and walk confidently with the Lord, wherever he might take us. The choice is ours to make, and choose we will.
[I delivered this reflection at the Abbey Mass today, February 1st.]
+Last week I went to Chicago and Detroit, and while there I visited two Cristo Rey Jesuit High Schools. We have begun to enroll students from the Chicago school at Saint John’s, and hope for the same from Detroit. At the school in Chicago I was delighted to discover that the athletic director is an alumnus of Saint John’s University, while a young Jesuit scholastic on the faculty is an ’08 graduate of Saint John’s.
It might be worth noting that I actually do have a day job, and one of my primary goals is to raise funds to provide scholarships for First Generation college students at Saint John’s. These are students from families in which neither parent has gone to college. Pride of place in my efforts to date have gone to a program that we have begun with Immokalee High School, outside of Naples, FL. This is among the poorest communities in the country, and through the generosity of two donors we now have our first two students from Immokalee. The students are doing well as freshmen at Saint John’s, and we hope to have a steady stream of additional students in the years to come. This project will be a life-time’s work for me, and my supervisor has already told me that I can never retire. But if enough people step up to help in this project, I just might be able to retire — someday, but not too soon!
+On January 30th the monks at Saint John’s held a silent day of reflection. This was the first in what we intend to be a monthly event for the foreseeable future. By coincidence we also had the funeral for our deceased confrere Fr. Allen Tarleton.
+On January 31st I visited the Alice R. Rogers Gallery at Saint John’s, which is hosting an exhibit of the art of Sadao Watanabe (1913-96). Watanabe was a noted Japanese artist who became a Christian and was a good friend of our monks when they lived in Tokyo. The exhibit, entitled Beauty Given by Grace, features works by Watanabe that derive from themes in the Bible. Over the years our monks in Japan commissioned several works by him, and we have quite a few of his prints in our collections at Saint John’s. The photos in today’s post illustrate the exhibit.
+I am normally loath to toot my own horn, since it smacks of pride. In this case I will, since the director of the Spiritual Life programs at the Abbey Guesthouse asked me to do so. On March 4-6 I will be giving a Lenten retreat entitled The Challenge of Holy Week. Space for participants is still available, and for more information you can call 320-363-3929 or email email@example.com.