Among the liturgical readings last week we came across St. Paul’s visit to Athens.
Imagine: Here is an educated Pharisee, so devout that not long before he was attempting to silence the evangelizers of the very same good news he himself was now promulgating. Consider the radical change in spirit, the ‘metanoia’ to use his word, he must have undergone not only to tolerate but to embrace this new ‘way’ of knowing God – as the risen Jesus had preached – not as a repudiation of the religious law of his people but as its fulfillment. And then to be so infused with this guiding spirit as to carry the good news of this new ‘way’ beyond the pale of his co-religionists into Athens, a city “given wholly to idolatry.”
There are, no doubt, numerous pedagogical lessons to be gleaned in Paul’s interaction with the Athenians, how he meets them on their own terms, his refusal to brow-beat or condemn, and his willingness to announce the message then walk away with the hope the Holy Spirit will follow up.
What is particularly striking are the words this peripatetic apostle uses as he explains the “unknown God” to the Athenians. He says that God is so beneficent that he plants in all, Jew and gentile alike, a yearning “so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him.” The concept of groping blindly for God is not difficult to understand in our so-called ‘post-Christian’ era.
To experience even minimally a longing to know God is to be human. Even those of us who may be ignorant of revealed truth sense that such truth exists. The problem arises when our humanity – our being human – is vitiated by idolatry. When we individually or collectively give ourselves “wholly to idolatry” whether in the worship of power, pleasure, wealth, or even of ourselves, we allow the dignifying imago dei within us – the very identity that makes us human – to be corrupted. However, even in our corrupted and dehumanized state we are always able, as St. Paul says, to “grope for” and find God.
This is where being “our brother’s keeper,” the “people of God,” or a “shepherd and sheep” comes in. As a community we help each other become more human so that each of us and all of us will be richer soil in which the seeds of the Gospel might take root. To paraphrase St. Eugene de Mazenod, another peripatetic preacher and founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, we have to become human before becoming saintly.
Today, more and more we find ourselves in a desperate world where our humanity is stunted and stultified by consumerism, crass materialism and a “culture” of relativity where circumstance alone dictates the value of life (and of death). But, ‘where sin increases grace abounds all the more’ (Paul again) and the grace is available to empower us to make the world more human.
How do we do this? How do we humanize the world? By providing those who lack it the material wherewithal to lead dignified lives. By providing those who have abandoned or never possessed it the conviction that life is good. By exposing to beauty those who have never experienced her edifying power. By dispelling ignorance by educating. By caring.
Through their ministry and philanthropy in these many wonderful ways the organizations and families who make up the community of the National Catholic Community Foundation are doing this. They are humanizing the world and in doing so humanizing themselves. The more this occurs the more the world will turn from blind groping to guided discernment and become more fully human. Surely this pleases the Lord.
Wasn’t it St. Irenaeus who wrote: “Man fully alive is the glory of God?”