Recently, Sister Helen Prejean gave a talk in our area on the death penalty and the dignity of every human life. Sister Prejean wrote the book, "Dead Man Walking." A movie was made with Susan Sarandon starring in the role of Sister Helen Prejean. To everyone in that prison and everyone involved in that case, the death row inmate featured in the book was a monster. That's all they could see. Here was a monster who had brutally murdered two teenagers.
When Sister Prejean began to minister to this man, she was able to look beyond the monster and find inside there, locked up, a spirit crying out for forgiveness for his crime and reconciliation with the families of the young people he had murdered. But only she was able to see beyond this facade of evil that was in front of her. Jesus once encountered a man with an unclean spirit, a violent person. What's interesting is that he didn't encounter this man in a back-alley brothel. He found him in church, in the synagogue. And to all the people in the synagogue, this man was an evil influence. He was disruptive, a blasphemer, a general nuisance. And they wanted to get rid of him. But Jesus came along and saw something different. He saw beyond the thrashing, blaspheming, violent, cursing, swearing person in the synagogue. What he saw inside was a spirit that was trapped, a man longing to emerge from the prison he had somehow gotten himself into. And Jesus released that unclean spirit and changed the man's life.
I'd like to tell you a story about a 15 year-old girl. For the sake of anonymity, we'll call her Debbie. Debbie was a ward of the juvenile court system. She was filled with self-destructive rage at her absent father and her totally irresponsible mother. Debbie was given to violent tantrums like the man in the gospel. And when I say she threw a tantrum, I mean she was bouncing off the walls, both physically and emotionally. I first encountered Debbie in a group home forty years ago, and we have been friends ever since. Debbie went on to become a registered nurse. She married and had a wonderful marriage. Her husband, unfortunately, died in mid-life, but he was totally devoted to her. They had a boy and a girl, who turned out to be terrific kids. I'll tell you a little bit later how Debbie changed from the violent, self-destructive 15-year-old to the middle-aged woman she is today, and the spiritual, I would say holy, woman she is today.
These three stories, the gospel story of Jesus releasing the man with the unclean spirit, Sister Helen Prejean looking beyond the monster into the heart of a man crying out for forgiveness, and the transformation of a violent young girl into a wife, a mother, a nurse, a very wonderful human being.
These three stories remind me of the novel and motion picture titled, "Message in a Bottle." Perhaps you've read the book or seen the movie. The author was Nicholas Sparks, a graduate of Notre Dame University. Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn played the starring roles in the motion picture. Essentially the story line goes like this. A young divorcee is walking along the beach one day. She sees there a wine bottle with a cork in it, bobbing on the surf. Other people have walked by and kicked it or just passed it by without bothering to look at it. But, for some reason, she stoops over and picks up that bottle and sees that there is a message inside, a letter. She uncorks the bottle, fishes out the paper with the text on it, and what she finds there is the outpouring of the spirit of a man who has recently lost his wife, his total grief, his absolute bereavement over the death of his wife and the loss of this treasure who had sustained him through his adult years. The young woman reading this says to herself, "I have to find this man." So, she sets out in search of this person, taking a leave from her job to do so, and ultimately, she finds him. They fall in love, and through their mutual love, they heal each other's pain. She is able to heal his grief. He is able to heal her hurt over the failure of her marriage. When I think about these stories and that book, it strikes me that at times we are all corked bottles.
We have this feeling that the true st, best person we can be has not yet gotten out of us. It's still locked up somewhere inside and we just don't know how to set it free. I feel that way a lot. Jesus came along and uncorked the possessed man and found inside that bottle the true person that was longing to be set free. Sister Helen Prejean found a key to a death row inmate's soul.
And now let me finish the story about Debbie, that raging 15-year-old, was set free by a woman named Mae Rogers, now deceased. Mae ran the group home that Debbie was sent to. Now, Mae was one of the toughest but saintliest women I have ever known in my life. It was she who looked at that violent, self-destructive teen-ager and saw the future nurse, the wife and mother and great human being that Debbie was destined to become. It was Mae's vision, patience, and counseling that saved Debbie from God knows what kind of life, to become the woman she is today. In the Gospel, Jesus gives us a model for our ministry.
Whether we are parents or teachers, grandparents, counselors, friends, clergy--whoever we are. We are called to look deeper than the surface of the people that we see and encounter every day. And we encounter some pretty unloveable people at times in the course of our day. But what Jesus is saying by setting free the spirit of that man in the synagogue is that we must look deeper. We must see in every unlovable person we meet, in every raging, pot-smoking, drinking teen-ager, or adult--everyone who does anything that we find really offensive, we need to look beyond what we see into the heart of that person and find the spirit that is longing to become a different human being.
Let's think about our own life experience first. Who was it who played the role of Jesus, Sister Helen Prejean, and Mae Rogers in our life? Can we think back--and perhaps we don't have to think back too far--who it was who saw in us qualities that we didn't know were there? Who, at the most difficult moments of our life, when we were banging off the walls, either physically or emotionally, who was it who saw something in us, that spirit that we wanted to set free, and helped us achieve that?
And the second question is: Is there anyone dead or alive today who would point to us and say, "Thank you. You saw something in me that I didn't see in myself, and you helped to set me free." Have we ever played that role for somebody else? What greater ministry could there be than to do what Jesus did, what Sister Helen Prejean did, or to be Mae Rogers to someone and to help free a spirit that is trapped inside?
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