Sunday, September 23, 2018

What’s going on inside of us is ultimately more important than what’s going on outside of us.

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 23, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; Psalm 54; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9: 30-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fifth Sunday 2018]

In early 2015, I made reference in a Sunday homily to a movie that I had just seen, entitled “Unbroken”.  The movie was about the late Louis Zamperini, who was a distance runner on the United States Olympic team of 1936.  But that was not the aspect of his life that the film focused on.  Zamperini also served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the Second World War as a bombardier.  Well on May 27, 1943, his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean, where he spent the next 47 days on a life raft desperately trying to stay alive.  He was finally rescued.  Unfortunately it was by the Japanese, who promptly sent him to a prison camp until the end of the war in 1945.  There he was beaten and tortured mercilessly, especially by one particular guard, nicknamed “the Bird,” who eventually made it onto General Douglas MacArthur’s list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan.

The film focused on Zamperini’s experience on the ocean for 47 days, and then in the prison camp—and it ended with him being freed and coming home at the end of the war.

In that homily I gave in 2015 I said that “Unbroken” was a good movie—as far as it went.   But it definitely didn’t go far enough.  Just before the credits rolled at the end of the film a brief epilogue was posted, and in that epilogue it said that Louis Zamperini forgave those who had treated him so horribly during the war, and that he followed through on the promise he made to God when he was floating on that raft in the Pacific: “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.”

But the viewer was left wondering: How exactly did he do that?  Not only, ‘How did he serve God?’ but also, ‘How did he deal with his anger and with the other negative emotions he must have experienced after all those months in captivity?’  Zamperini’s captors treated him like an animal!  It couldn’t have been easy to forgive them.  It had to have been an incredible struggle.

The film unfortunately did not address any of that—and that was sad. 

But thankfully the sequel did!  The sequel, entitled “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” was released just over a week ago.  I saw it at Showcase Cinema in Warwick the other day.

It picked up, not surprisingly, where the first film ended, with Louis returning home from the war.  He came back, as so many of our soldiers do—as a hero, but a mentally and emotionally wounded one.  In trying to deal with the flashbacks and nightmares and anger that he experienced on his return (what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), Louis Zamperini turned to alcohol, which nearly destroyed his marriage and family.  For a long time he refused to get help, denying that he had a problem.  His wife finally persuaded him one night to attend a Billy Graham crusade with her—a crusade that was being held near their home in Los Angeles.  (By that time Louis had also completely turned away from God, despite the promise he had made to the Lord to serve him.)  

But he begrudgingly agreed to go.  And it was there that he had a conversion experience that changed his life—something like the experience the future St. Paul had on the road to Damascus 2,000 years ago.  At the end of the movie, they showed footage of an interview with the real Louis Zamperini, and during that interview he said that after he gave his life to Christ at the Billy Graham crusade he never had another nightmare about the war, and he never abused alcohol again.

He even was eventually able to forgive the Japanese soldiers who had tortured him during the war—including “the Bird”.

I mention Louis Zamperini’s story today because I think it illustrates a truth that we find in all three of our readings this weekend: What’s going on inside of us is ultimately more important than what’s going on outside of us.

On the outside, Louis Zamperini experienced many horrors during his time in that Japanese prison camp—no doubt about it.  And that was bad enough!  But what was even worse was what was happening to him at the same time on the inside.  As he was going through all these negative experiences, he was being filled with anger and bitterness and hatred (which is certainly understandable).  But those things wreaked all kinds of havoc in his life after he returned home at the end of the war.  Even when circumstances became good for him on the outside, he was still a mess on the inside.

It wasn’t until he dealt with that disorder within himself (in his mind, heart and soul) that he found peace.

Today’s readings remind us of sins and attitudes that can have the same destructive effects in our lives if we don’t deal with them properly.  Our first reading from Wisdom 2, for example, illustrates the destructive power of envy.  Envy, remember, is a lot worse than jealousy.  The envious person says, “I want what you have, and I’m prepared to destroy you to get it!”  Listen to these words again:
The wicked say: Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. … With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test … Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.

That’s envy.  Those words of course were written many years before the crucifixion and death of Jesus, but they express almost perfectly the attitude our Lord’s enemies had toward him. 

Well that very same attitude can also get inside of us, if we’re not careful.  And this is especially true in the United States right now, where envy is ingrained in our culture.  For example, many people run their businesses today on envy (with a desire to destroy the competition), and where envy has become the accepted norm in political campaigning.  Let’s be honest about it, if you’re running for public office these days against an incumbent, it’s no longer enough to tell voters your position on an issue, and how your position differs from your opponent’s.  Those days are long gone.  Now you’re expected to tear down the person you’re running against!  You want what your opponent has, and to get it you try to discredit and destroy your opponent in the eyes of as many voters as possible.  Some call that “the politics of personal destruction”.  I prefer to use a more theological term: “political envy”—because envy is really what’s at the root of it all.

And it operates in both parties.

Then we have St. James in our second reading reminding us of the dangers of jealousy and selfish ambition and emotions (what he calls “passions”) that are out of control.  When these things get inside of us, they almost always lead to conflicts and wars outside of us.  It reminds me of a famous quote of Bishop Sheen’s.  Sheen once wrote:
There can be no world peace unless there is soul peace.  World wars are only projections of the conflicts waged inside the souls of modern men, for nothing happens in the external world that has not first happened within a soul.
Which brings us to the gospel reading from Mark 9, where we hear about an argument the apostles were having amongst themselves one day about who was the greatest.  That argument, which manifested itself “on the outside,” was the result of pride (and maybe even a little envy) on the inside—on the inside of each one of them.  And it was that attitude of pride that Jesus addressed when he said to the Twelve, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

What’s going on inside of us is ultimately more important than what’s going on outside of us.

Today we should pray for the grace to recognize whatever is “going on” right now in us!  Whatever is going on in us that needs to be addressed—especially our sins and the hurts that are often at the root of those sins.  Recall that Louis Zamperini’s sins of anger and hatred, etc., were rooted in the hundreds of hurts he had experienced in that Japanese prison camp.  That kind of thing can happen to any one of us.

And once we recognize what’s going on in us, we need to pray for the grace to deal with it effectively: by getting the counsel, or the guidance, or the medical help we need—or simply by making a good confession.