Sunday, May 31, 2009

1-14-2007: 2nd Ordinary Time

Isaiah 62:1-5/Psalm 96/1 Corinthians 12:4-11/John 2:1-11
A news item of no major significance caught my eye last week, reporting that a small object crashed through the roof of a house in Freehold, New Jersey and became embedded in the wall. Experts soon determined it was not (as first expected) a piece of broken aircraft, but a meteorite. Thankfully no one was hurt, but the family who lived there must have wondered …why us.

Historians do not know how long before 621AD another meteorite landed in the Arabian Desert, but they do know that the black stone, about an arm’s length, was soon being venerated by the local tribes who believed it to possess magical and divine qualities. A structure was built around the stone and, eventually, images of the many local gods were brought into the structure, sharing the space with the stone. The structure was called the Kabbah.

It was here, at the Kabbah in Mecca, that Muhammad would organize Islam -- the religion of submission. He would eventually succeed in defeating the tribes who refused to join him and would purge the Kabbah of all graven images of deities. He would, however -- in a flash of religious genius -- leave the black stone within the Kabbah. Muhammad had already conveyed to the faithful how they were to pray and then, in yet another flash of genius, ordered Muslims to cease facing Jerusalem when they prayed and turn right round to face Mecca where the Kabbah which housed the black stone was located. Every year millions upon millions of Muslims make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, to circle round the Kabbah and venerate the meteorite inside. It was a remarkable feat: how Muhammad was able to use this non-religious object as a vehicle to convey the heart of Islam -- the absolute transcendence of God.

There are, as of yet, no pilgrims making the hajj to Freehold, New Jersey. But why not? Since similarly, every so often, the Blessed Virgin is reported to have appeared in a tree limb or on someone’s bathroom window. Some interest is usually manifested by the ardently devout (they seem to see the Virgin everywhere), but it soon dies out. What’s missing from the story of the Freehold meteorite or the tree-limb Virgin is an interpreter like Muhammad – someone who will tell us what it means. In the case of the Freehold meteorite, science has told us what it means – there is an accepted natural explanation. Similarly, the Virgin’s ubiquitous appearances, by and large, can be explained as natural phenomena. Once we accept the explanation from nature, the event ceases to hold any mystery for us. And without the element of mystery, there can be no religious experience.

Much of what was inexplicable to the ancients can now be readily explained by modern science. And, although I believe that there are things that will always remain inexplicable, it doesn’t seem wise to bank your faith on what might or might not be proven of natural or supernatural origin. What intrigues me, though, and which I believe lies at the heart of a rebirth of religious awe in the twenty-first century, is the expected response voiced by the family from Freehold: why us. Mystery, perhaps, is no longer experienced in external objects but in the interior meaning we ascribe to them. The event at Freehold could then have the makings of an authentic religious experience, because the question, why me, is the first step on the pilgrimage, on the hajj to the Kabbah within. It’s all in how you approach the burning (and as yet unanswered) question which lies beneath the why me: Am I here by chance, landing like a meteorite in Mecca or (God forbid) Freehold, New Jersey; or is there a destiny to my existence. Or, perhaps even more mysteriously, is my life an interplay of both?

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