Of Lepers and Monks

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Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
11 September 2011
Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle
Tulsa, Oklahoma

When Things are Not as They Seem

In the light of the Kingdom, things are rarely, if ever, what they seem to be. Outsiders on the inside; insiders on the outside. Failure, a triumph; and triumph, a failure. The wisdom of folly; and the folly of wisdom. The knowledge of the ignorant; and the ignorance of those who know.

Liturgy and Conversion

The light of the Kingdom shines where the Gospel is announced, and where the Cross is lifted up. What is the Sacred Liturgy, if not proclamation of the Gospel and exaltation of the mystery of the Cross? In the liturgy, the light of the Kingdom, the light refracted by the Beatitudes, reaches a density--an intensity--found nowhere else, at least, not on this side of the face-to-face in glory. The liturgy, for this reason, is always an experience of conversion.

Doing It Over Again

If we go into the liturgy with our customary and comfortable ways of seeing, doing, being, measuring, judging, and relating, and come out of the liturgy with the same set of securities unquestioned and intact, the liturgy profits us little. Why do we repeat the liturgy? Why do we need always to do it again? We do the liturgy over and over again so that our eyes--the eyes of spiritual insight--may, over time, adjust to the light of the Kingdom.

With Eyes Enlightened

Saint Paul alludes to this in his prayer for the Ephesians. "Having the eyes of your hearts enlightened . . . may you know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe" (Eph 1:18-19). The saints are those who, over time, come to live, and to see all things, habitually, in the light of the Kingdom.

The Ten Lepers

Nine of the lepers in today's Gospel are Jews--men of a respectable and conventional piety. They are not ignorant of the prescriptions of Leviticus 13. "When a man is afflicted with leprosy, he shall be brought to the priest; and the priest shall make an examination . . . . When raw flesh appears on him, he shall be unclean. . . . . But if the raw flesh turns again and is changed to white, then he shall come to the priest, and the priest shall examine him, and if the disease has turned white, then the priest shall pronounce the diseased person clean; he is clean" (Lev 13:10-17).

The Samaritan

One of the ten is a Samaritan. Even within the community of outcasts constituted by the ten lepers, the Samaritan is an outsider. "For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans" (Jn 4:9). As a Samaritan, his doctrine and piety are suspect to the nine others. Nevertheless, the bond forged by a suffering shared by all seems to have pre-empted the dictates of religious discrimination.

Crying Out to Jesus

Encountering Jesus, the ten lepers stand at a distance and, lifting up their voices, cry out, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us" (Lk 1713). Saint Luke makes it clear that the healing sought by the ten is worked by none other than Jesus. He sends them to the priests and, while on the way, they are made clean.

The Kingdom Revealed

Of the ten, only the Samaritan is sufficiently free within to step outside the ritual prescriptions of the Law. What has happened to him opens his eyes to the light of the Kingdom. In that light, it is impossible to go on with business as usual. The revelation of the Kingdom makes all else irrelevant. It is the treasure hidden in the field; it is the pearl of great price. It is that for which one is ready to risk all else.

Conversion

The inbreaking of the unexpected suspends all truck with routine. The encounter with Jesus has effected a shift in values. It imposes a conversatio morum, something that, for us Benedictines, is the object of a vow. Saint Luke tells us that the Samaritan, "when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice" (Lk 17:15). He "turned back" (Lk: 17:15). In this, we see the essence of conversion of life. The Samaritan breaks free of his old community, and looks toward the community of those who live in the light of the Kingdom, "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Christ" (2 Cor 4:6). Already, in turning back, "praising God with a loud voice" (Lk 17:15) he learns the language of the Kingdom, the native dialect of the Eucharist, that is, praise.

Naaman

You are familiar, I am sure, with the story of Naaman in the Second Book of Kings. Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, is another outsider who, in the end, gets it right. The key figures in the story of Naaman are not, I would suggest, Naaman and the prophet Elisha but, rather, the little people: "the little maid from the land of Israel" (2 K 5:2) who waited on Naaman's wife and, later in the story, "his servants" (2 K 5:13), more clearsighted than he. The little serving girl sees possibilities that Naaman, "a mighty man of valor" (2 K 5:1) does not see. Going to her mistress, she says, "Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy" (2 K 5:3). So too, do the servants see possibilities that Naaman does not. They come near and say, "My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you, 'Wash, and be clean'" (1 K 5:13)?

And the Little People

In both instances, glimmers of the Kingdom are perceived, however faintly, by those outside the conventional configurations of power. It is, of course, all to Naaman's credit that he heeds both the little maid and his servants. "His flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean" (2 K 5:14).

Praise and Adoration

The image of flesh like that "of a little child" is profoundly telling. In the light of the Kingdom, its meaning is transparent. "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven" (Mt 18:2). Again, the operative verb is "to turn." The Samaritan, cleansed of his leprosy, "turned back, praising God with a loud voice" (Lk 17:15). Naaman too, turns back "to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him," and declares to Elisha that, "henceforth your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the Lord" (2 K 5:15, 17). In both instances, "turning back" is linked to thanksgiving, to the offering of worship, to praise and adoration.

Monks As Outcasts

From the beginning, monks have elected to live outside the conventional configurations of power, both ecclesiastical and secular. The Church is essentially eschatological, a community of outsiders in the world. Within the community of outsiders that is the Church, the fathers and mothers of the desert constituted yet another community of outsiders. The monastic heart suffers a certain affinity with the outcast, with the person who lives on the edge, with those who question "the done thing," with those who risk intoning "a new song" (Ps 97:1). This is the price of life in the light of the Kingdom.

Seeing Things Rightly

Happily, when the heart becomes dimsighted, and the feet begin to ache for the beaten path of a worldly wisdom, we can return to the Sacred Liturgy. Only there do we see things rightly. Jolted back into the astonishing light of the Kingdom, we too "turn back, praising God with loud voice" (Lk 17:15).


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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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