Sunday, August 02, 2015

Are You a Grumbler?

Apse of St. Joseph Abbey in St. Benedict, Louisiana

(18th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on August 1 & 2, 2015 at St. Rocco's Church in Johnston, R.I.; See Exodus 16:2-15 and John 6:24-35)

Are you a grumbler?  Our readings for this weekend could prompt us to consider that question.  Do we sometimes find ourselves caught up in the negativity of grumbling, complaining and murmuring when things are not going well in our lives or in the world around us?

In our first reading for this weekend, from the Book of Exodus, we hear about the Israelites and their journey through the desert.  We already know that God has saved them from slavery and what would have been certain death in the land of Egypt.  He brought them out—with great power, tremendous care and unmistakable providence—in a single night.  He has promised to lead them through to the Promised Land.  But now, here in the desert, they have hit a low point.  They are hungry and thirsty, and suddenly they begin to grumble:

The whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.  The Israelites said to them, “Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the Land of  Egypt…”
—Exodus 16:2-3

Moses will go on to explain to the people that they are, in fact, not grumbling against him or Aaron; when they say those things, they are actually grumbling against God! (see Exodus 16:8).  “Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the Land of  Egypt…”  It is as if they are saying, “We would be better off dead than to wait here in the desert for God to provide for us.”  Grumbling is an offense against God, who loved us into existence and sustains us each moment by that same love.

Thankfully, God does not begrudge us when we grumble.  He says to Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites” (Exodus 16:12), and far from withholding His care from them, He desires all the more to give them bread from heaven and food that will satisfy them.  He says to Moses, “Tell them: In the evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread, so that you may know that I, the Lord, am your God” (Exodus 16:12).

If we are honest we can admit that grumbling and complaining are a perennial temptation for us.  Within the Church, in relationships on the human level, we can easily find things and persons to complain about.  Certainly in government—on a state and national level—we are confronted daily with frustrations and failures that are ripe for grumbling; not to mention the experiences among acquaintances, friends and family members that consistently irritate us.

But does grumbling and complaining ever solve anything or alleviate the problems we face?  Does it not, in fact, make things worse?  Isn’t it the case that grumbling can bring other people into that negativity which has already caused us sorrow and disappointment?

Grumbling is a nasty habit that serves no good purpose whatsoever, but have you ever considered that grumbling could actually be deadly?  There is a Benedictine abbey located in St. Benedict, Louisiana called St. Joseph Abbey and it is replete with magnificent murals and paintings.  All of those paintings—in the refectory where the monks eat and in the church itself—were completed by the same monk, Dom Gregory de Wit, OSB. 

Dom Gregory began his monastic life in Belgium, and as a young man he travelled to such places as Italy and Germany where he honed his skills as an artist.  Around the time of the Second World War, when it was obviously not safe for a monk to be traveling around Europe, Dom Gregory found himself in the United States by the providence of God.  It was then that he was commissioned to paint various biblical and religious scenes in St. Joseph Abbey.

In the apse, high above the altar, Dom Gregory painted Christ in glory, reigning in the new and heavenly Jerusalem depicted in the Book of Revelation.  At the place where heaven and earth meet, below the glorious Christ and just above the eight clear windows that pour down light into the sanctuary, are eight sheep representing the eight Beatitudes:  Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are the merciful…Blessed are the pure of heart…(see Matthew 5:1-12).  Dom Gregory wanted to communicate that this is the way that leads to eternal life with God; these are the dispositions and the virtues that draw us into union with Christ.

Just below each of these Beatitudes, however, Dom Gregory painted the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, anger, lust, greed, envy, gluttony and sloth.  These are the things, embedded in an impenitent heart, which can lead to the loss of our eternal salvation.  He wanted to contrast those two very different paths.  But with eight Beatitudes  (plus eight windows), and only Seven Deadly Sins, Dom Gregory was left with one empty niche.  Into that niche he added what could be considered, according to Dom Gregory, the Eighth Deadly Sin: Grumbling!

Dom Gregory takes his inspiration from the Rule of St. Benedict, which denounces grumbling over half a dozen times!  St. Benedict knew that grumbling and complaining could ruin a community; that complaining and murmuring destroys relationships with each other and can even ruin our relationship with God.  He wrote, “Above all, let not the evil of murmuring appear for any reason whatsoever in the least word or sign” (Rule of St. Benedict 34:6).  While it is true that we are not all Benedictine monks, are we nonetheless able to recognize the kind of damage that can happen when we fall into the habitual sin of grumbling?

There is a remarkable book written by C.S. Lewis called The Great Divorce.  It is not about marriage and divorce but about the divorce, or separation, between heaven and hell.  The book begins with a rather unruly cast of characters who board a bus in a dingy, rainy, gray town and make their way towards the mountains way off in the distance.  The further away they get from that dreary town, and the closer they come to the mountains, with the sun coming up in the distance, the clearer and more beautiful things become.  That gray town was hell, and the place they are journeying towards, far up into the mountains, is heaven.

Suddenly the bus grinds to a halt about mid-way there, and the people get out on to the plain.  Persons that they knew on earth, as well as some strangers, come down from the mountains with the purpose of talking these travelers into coming back to heaven with them.  It sounds simple enough, right?  But amazingly many of them choose not to go because they insist on holding onto whatever it was that they were attached to on earth!  They cling tenaciously to those deadly sins, like the ones that Dom Gregory painted in St. Joseph Abbey.   They are angry, and refuse to let go of the unforgiveness that has kept them from God’s mercy; they are proud, and insist on seeing only themselves as the center of the universe; they are envious of all that they felt entitled to on earth, etc.

At one point, however, the main character sees a woman coming towards him, and she does nothing but complain.  After about a page and a half, the reader can easily see why she is referred to simply as “the Grumbler”!  Oh, the awful things that have happened to her; how little consideration she receives; no one understands her; and on and on it goes.

The main character turns towards the good spirit beside him, troubled, and says, “That unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation.  She isn’t wicked; she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling…”

The good spirit turns to him and questions whether, in fact, she is even now a grumbler.  The main character points out that, after listening to her ad nauseum, that should be perfectly clear!  Then, remarkably, the good spirit says:

“Aye, but ye misunderstand me.  The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble.  If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again.  If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it until the whole pile is red and clear.  But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever.  They must be swept up.”
—C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, Chapter 9.

The point that C.S. Lewis is making is that grumbling, like any of the sins that we let take control of our lives, can reduce us to something much less than what God created us for.  We become, somehow, less substantial, less human and very different from the image and likeness of God that we were created in.  In some of his other writings, Lewis insists that each of us has the potential within our human freedom to become either a glorious creature of unimaginable beauty or a monstrosity such as God never intended.  Grumbling can turn us in to the latter.

So what is the solution?  What would God have us consider if we are to avoid the sin of grumbling and to become the men and women God has always created us to be?  The answer is found in our Gospel for this weekend.  It was in last week’s Gospel, and we will hear it again in the Sunday Gospel Readings for the rest of this month.  For five consecutive weekends the Church listens to the Bread of Life Discourse from St. John’s Gospel.  Jesus Christ will announce, over and over again, that He is the Bread of Life come down from heaven.  As He announces this weekend:

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.
—John 6:35

Receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ fills us and satisfies us, giving us that supernatural strength to fight against evil and to grow in the life of virtue and grace.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches of the awesome power of the Eucharist in the soul disposed and prepared to receive so great a gift.  For those who are in a state of grace (who have not committed any unconfessed, grave sins), the Catechism teaches, "Communion... preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism.”  It is that powerful!  Furthermore, receiving Holy Communion in a state of grace “wipes away venial sins” (CCC, #1394) and “preserves us from future mortal sins” (CCC, #1395).  What a tremendous gift God gives to those who long for this Bread of Life!

Therefore, this weekend, the choice is ours.  Will we grumble and complain, over and over again, about all the problems in our lives and in the world around us?  Will we allow that kind of negativity to consume us and draw us further away from God and those around us?  Or will we choose to unite ourselves to Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, who alone satisfies and makes us whole?  Coming to Him this weekend and believing in Him, we discover the great meaning of life and the grace that leads us through this world with great passion, fervor and faith, and that will lead us, ultimately, to eternal life in the world to come.