Monday, March 26, 2018

perfumed oil on the feet of the Lord...

A friend posted this Thomas Merton quote yesterday on Face Book. It comes from... hold on... 1948!

It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of this worldliness [of gratification of natural appetites for pleasure and reputation and power]. And nowhere, except perhaps in the analogous society of pagan Rome, has there ever been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism, where there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money. We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and the rest.

So far as I can tell, life in these semi-United States haven't gotten better when it comes to the manipulation of our artificial tensions or synthetic passions since Merton's time. Indeed, as Neil Postman put it in 2005, "We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares."

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think... When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

One of the reasons I celebrate Saturday's march - and the young heroes who called no bull shit on us all - is that their hope gives us eyes to see: the depths to which we have we sunk, the possibilities for a safe and beloved community, the hard work of organizing necessary to climb out of the muck, and the beauty of solidarity. The gospel for the Monday of Holy Week, John 12: 1-11, tells of a young woman who shared a simple act of love with Jesus - pouring perfumed oil on his feet. 

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,"Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

As this is one of my favorite stories, included in each of the four gospels, it has guided my heart for decades. First, Mary shared an act of extravagant beauty out of pure love with Jesus. Love was far more important than someone's bottom line. Second, her generosity upset some at the feast because they refused to grasp the sacredness of loving relationships. And third, Jesus replied that humanity will always have an obligation and opportunity to care for the wounded - the poor will always be with you - but there are also gifts given to us that arrive in the form of celebrations, beauty or extravagant love that must be honored, too. Indeed, these gifts empower us to keep caring when it isn't easy. Jean Vanier has written extensively about the importance of simple celebrations and honoring ordinary times of laughter and affection. Recently I read this - and it speaks to my heart:

Maybe the world will be transformed when we learn to have fun together. I don't mean to suggest that we don't talk about serious things. But maybe what our world needs more than anything is communities where we celebrate life together and become a sign of hope for our world. Maybe we need signs that it is possible to love each other.

Tomorrow I leave for L'Arche Ottawa to stay with my friends in Mountainview House for a few days. There will be shared Holy Week liturgies - foot washing and stations of the Cross - but mostly there will be the ordinary blessings of everyday life. It will be my first extended time staying in their home - and their invitation feels to me like perfumed oil poured out in loving friendship - my heart is full to overflowing.


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