Saturday, June 13, 2015

Knowing What is Real Today - Homily for the 11th Sunday in OT (2015)

A few months ago, the anchor of NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams, was put on administrative leave. For months—years, even—Brian swore that he really was in the helicopter that was attacked by enemy gunfire in Iraq, for example. This was his reality and he was presenting it as actually Real.

But he was still put on administrative leave.


Because what he said was real was not actually real.

That’s an important lesson for all of us—and not only for news-reporters: sometimes personal feelings and thoughts do not jive with actual reality.

The fact that Brian was placed on administrative leave for either not knowing the difference or respecting the difference proves to us that there is still some expectation that we should know and respect the difference between personal thoughts and feelings (what I call “virtual" reality) and what is actuality (what I call “capital-R” Reality).

When we do not know the difference and blur that line, we are either one of two things: liars who no longer care about reality or we are mentally ill.

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The Nobel-Prize-winning mathematician, John Nash, for example, battled with schizophrenia. (His battle was depicted in the phenomenal, Oscar-winning movie “A Beautiful Mind.”) In his schizophrenia, Dr. Nash would tell others in the mathematics department at MIT that he was receiving encoded messages from foreign governments via The New York Times, and that the encrypted messages were only meant for him and could not be decoded by anyone else. He would experience auditory hallucinations which he claimed were other mathematicians who were against his ideas. John Nash would be hospitalized many times and receive treatment.

John Nash didn’t feel ill. Indeed, he felt… normal. But he was actually ill.

When he received the Nobel Prize, people gave him a standing ovation not only for his work in mathematics, but also and especially because everyone knew that he had overcome mental illness and that was inspiring. It’s why the movie was made.

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The problem with the recent trends in society’s approach to reality is that we no longer know what is a mental illness. Everything is schizophrenically normal.

What do I mean? Well….

Our culture said that Brian Williams’ reality—his personal reality—did not conform to actual Reality. (So far so good....) The culture said that he could not hold his personal reality at the expense of actual Reality and still be considered a voice of actual reality which the NBC Nightly News claims itself to be. (And rightly so).

Yet, at the same time and on the same News Network, our culture was ok when certain cultural icons said that their personal realities—like being a man and claiming to be a woman, like being white and claiming to be black (and saying so because they “feel” like they are such things)—our culture was ok with them holding to personal realities at the expense of actual reality.

In other words, Brian Williams was treated differently for doing the same thing that the other cultural icons were doing: namely, extolling personal reality at the expense of actual reality.

That’s not only hypocritical. It’s the definition of insane.

Insanity is living in such a way that one’s attitudes and behaviors blur any possibility of knowing what is actually real. Everything is possibly marriage, everything is possibly a woman, everything is possibly black. Everything is blurry.

Does anyone know what makes a woman a woman anymore, or a marriage a marriage? or a mental illness a mental illness? Perhaps we don’t even know the difference between dreaming and being awake.

Science and Religion were once the fields that would be believed capable of doing that. But both have been suppressed in recent times; it's schizophrenia in John Nash’s mind closing out any semblance of actual reality, but at a cultural level. And when we think about that, it is terrifying. Where does one go then?

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In “A Beautiful Mind,” there is a scene in which John had experienced another hallucination which nearly killed his only child. After a few moments and after the turmoil has ended, he is sitting on his bed with his thoughts. His wife, Alicia, walks into the room and sees that John is trapped, that he doesn’t know what is actually Real. Alicia sees that John is afraid—scared because he has no criteria within himself to determine what is Real. Everything in him is broken; he doesn't realize that the only way out is through an Other.

Alicia kneels in front of her husband and says, “John, do you want to know what is real?” She then lovingly caresses his face and says, “This. This is real.” Then, she takes his hand and places it on her heart and says, “This. This is real.”

In that moment, there is a trust that is forged, a forging of trust that wonderfully affects John’s reality. The criteria for determining reality is not within himself—not within his feelings or his thoughts—but rather the criteria for reality is only found outside of himself. In order for him to move towards sanity, he must conform his life to this Reality.

So many people need to take this step. When a person is in a rage of anger, for example, how easy it is to forget reality beyond one’s self—we are so wrapped up in the fire of hatred, obsessing over the hurt and the wrong. Or when a person is in the trance of lust and porn, how easy it is to forget reality beyond one’s self—sometimes reality is literally pushed away.

Really, anytime that we sin or rationalize it, we are actually choosing to live in a virtual dream world. To choose against God is literally to choose against Reality. Yes, this is a great definition for sin: sin is insane.

*          *          *

We, as the Catholic Church—all of us need to help people (including ourselves) to take the step of going beyond our powerful passions and feelings and see that reality is not something we simply fabricate—like Brian Williams did or John Nash in his illness experienced. Rather it is something we conform our lives to.

The help that our world needs comes from the trust that we can forge, like Alicia’s caressing hand on John’s face, her words “This. This is real.” We call this actual Reality which is certain “Faith.” Faith is not just an act that we do like "I believe." Faith is something outside of ourselves, something that continues and which people walk in even after we die. Faith is the Reality that we conform our lives to. It is what we walk by and not by our personal reality.

Since our culture has abandoned the Faith, it has abandoned actual reality. It abandoned faith in much the same way NBC abandoned Brian Williams; Brian had lost credibility. As a Church, we need to show that the Faith is credible again and that the world can trust the Catholic Church as being the privileged place where all can discover capital-R Reality.

To do this will take courage, but we are “always courageous” says St. Paul. We are courageous when we place our hands out and say, “You can trust this. This is real.”

When we say: Jesus on the Cross-- this is real. Jesus rose from the dead-- this is real. Jesus is here in the Eucharist-- this is real. Heaven and hell-- this is real. Sin-- and forgiveness-- this is real. My love for you-- this is real!

*          *          *

You will reach out in ways that you might not expect, in simple things like how we genuflect before the God who we say is real here; in how we forgive others and are affectionate towards our children and our spouse.

Perhaps it will come by getting mental help if you are addicted to something or abusing someone or obsessing over something and with anger and so on. Maybe you need to listen to that person who is saying, “You need to speak with a priest or a counselor.”

This is a challenge for me. I realize that I need to conform my life to something more than my own desires and my own criteria for happiness. I need to stop living in my own insane, self-crafted virtual reality and come to God and let him hold me and say, “Anthony, this. This is real.”

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