Monday, November 2, 2009

10-18-2009: 29th Ordinary Time (B)

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 53:10-11/Psalm 33/Hebrews 4:14-16/Mark 10:42-45
Suffering and honor seem mysteriously related. The gospel today has the sons of Zebedee seeking a place of honor near Jesus. Can you endure what I will endure, asks Jesus. No problem, they seem to answer rather nonchalantly. How bad could it be, they seemed to be thinking.

The link between suffering and honor, patient-endurance and redemption, is often understood through military metaphor: “soldiers of Christ,” we Catholics once called ourselves in Confirmation. And even the Buddhists are not immune: to become a “bodhisattva warrior” is no affront to the doctrine of do-no-harm. To live with awareness, some might say, is to be immersed in the heat of battle. Dorothy Day, the Catholic pacifist who protested all things military, would enigmatically claim Joan of Arc, the girl-general, her favorite saint. She kept a statue of St Joan, clad in military armor, at the side of her bed.

When Mark Twain completed his novel, Joan of Arc, he claimed it his best work and declared Joan to be “the greatest woman who ever lived.” (And that, despite Twain’s deep-seated anti-Catholicism and fervent disdain for Old World majesty). Twain repeats a phrase throughout the novel – perhaps a direct quote from Joan – that helps us see Joan’s take on suffering and honor. In obedience to the voices she claims to hear, Joan successfully leads the French army against the English and enables Charles, the Dauphin, to be crowned King of France. At the Mass of Coronation, when the nobles and generals have placed their banners in the sanctuary near the altar, Joan insists on placing her banner there as well despite her obvious lack of noble blood. The others object but Joan continues to insist, claiming “it has borne the pain; it has earned the honor.”

Suffering, never sought for its own sake but nevertheless endured for a great cause, engaged for love of something beyond oneself, borne for love of another, is what makes the ordinary life extraordinary; and, for which, we can only employ the language of glory, majesty, honor, nobility. It seems a universal archetype, a human conviction that transcends culture and language. There’s a hint of this truth found in, of all things, historical linguistics: the discipline of tracing connections between disparate peoples and cultures through shared language. It sounds at first a bit far-fetched but here’s how it goes: some 4,000 years ago the ancient Aryan peoples left their homeland somewhere on the great Russian steppe and migrated both east and west. Before Hitler co-opted the name Aryan for his warped racial policies (forcing subsequent scholars to re-designate the Aryans as the Indo-Europeans) the name Aryan was discovered to be both the root of the name “Iran” in the East and “Eire” or “Ireland” in the West. I wonder (and here I am only guessing) if it were not also connected to St. Joan’s birthplace as well -- that village of Arc where she first heard those ancient voices inviting her to embrace a remarkable destiny. Because, you see, the root “ar” of the name Aryan means ‘noble’; sometimes translated “noble-warrior.” A linguistic proof, so to speak, for the innate connection between the patient endurance we call suffering and the nobility of the human spirit which, by engaging life’s inevitable sufferings with courage, is lifted into the realm of majesty.

Like James and John, filled either with illusions of grandeur or promises of glory (who really knows) - and some old-fashioned chutzpah as well - we too might entertain the possibility of suffering and hardship for the sake of that glory or that grandeur (euphemisms for the encounter with the divine) which attract so powerfully.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting supposition about Joan's name Arc reflecting her attribute of being a noble warrior which she certainly was however she was born in the small town of Domremy. d'Arc was her father's family name and its origins are not completely known.