Sunday, February 22, 2009

Welcome to the working weak

The discovery of penicillin as an antibiotic has been called the most important medical discovery of the last thousand years. The extraction from mold of the genus Penicillium has saved at least two hundred million lives so far. Penicillin has been around for millions of years but its antibacterial properties were noticed for the first time on September 28, 1928, when Alexander Fleming saw bacteria-free mold in a laboratory dish which he had retrieved from a pile of rubbish in St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington, London. He paid attention. No one until then had.

Fleming was the son of a Scottish farmer and, learning Latin as a Catholic student, he knew the meaning of "age quod agis." As a maxim, "do what you are doing" means to pay attention to ordinary things and extraordinary things may result. When Jesus walked among men, most did not pay much attention to him precisely because he seemed ordinary. "He sighed from the depth of his spirit" and said, "Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation" (Mark 8:12). The truth behind miracles is in the often unnoticed details. For instance, the miraculous feedings of the five thousand and four thousand were not as important as the twelve and seven baskets of fragments left over, which represent the Apostles and the sacraments. "Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?" (Mark 8:17-18).

Lent is a time to increase the power of perception. Small acts of penance and good confessions in this season are meant to increase that power. Instead of attempting extraordinary things, it is better to do more intensely the ordinary practices of Christian life: prayer, almsgiving, study, and evangelism. "Age quod agis."

Jesus asked, "Have I been so long with you, Philip, and do you still not understand?" (John 14:9). Shortly before Cardinal Dulles died last December, he reflected on how "doing what you are doing" with love in the normal process of living can lead to the most remarkable discoveries of God's power in human weakness. It is simply a matter of paying attention:

"Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be accepted as elements of a full human existence. Well into my ninetieth year I have been able to work productively. As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. 'Blessed be the name of the Lord.'"

The above is the "From the Pastor" column of the February 22 bulletin of the Church of Our Saviour, reprinted by permission of the author. If you enjoy it, please consider making a donation of any amount to the Church of Our Saviour.