Sunday, January 27, 2013

Life-Survival Strategy (2013-01-27)

This is my homily for SUNDAY 27 January 2013. I am a Catholic chaplain in Teaneck at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) campus and for the FDU Newman Catholic Association and at New Jersey City University (NJCU) in Jersey City. We celebrate Catholic Mass - during Fall and Spring semester - every Sunday Evening (5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.) at the FDU University Interfaith Chapel, 842 River Road, Teaneck, NJ.

[__01]       We use the word ‘metaphor’[1] to describe a likeness or similarity, one often very powerful.

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the love-struck Romeo’s metaphor for the beloved Juliet is a star at night or at dawn.  Seeing Juliet, Romeo says, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east and Juliet is the sun.” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II)

Juliet is the center of his life, of his solar system.

[__02]       What – or whom – would you and I place in the center of life? What would be the metaphor?

In 1st Corinthians, Chapter 12, Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to represent our communion, our Church.

Though remaining the object of Romeo’s great affection, Juliet is really not the sun. It is really a metaphor, a symbol.

St. Paul, on the other hand, introduces the “body of Christ” as more than a symbol, but a reality.

We have experienced this in relationships, have we not?

In a family, a marriage, if a person were missing – or lost due to death – we would experience physical and emotional pain, body and soul.

And, we also know mother and child form a unit. Both are independent, persons of their own. But, they also form one body.
I’d like to use this human body/body of Christ to explain how we understand our dignity of life/respect life teaching in our church.

This past week – January 22 – is the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision – Roe v. Wade – which legalized abortion and on this January anniversary, thousands of people go to Washington not simply to protest and say no, but to say YES, to life all stages

For when we speak of protecting life at all stages, we are also protecting the body of Christ made up of many members, many parts, many individuals.

Sometimes, it may be difficult to determine how we should proceed – or how far this protection should extend.

I’d like to use one example from a recent biography, a bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand.

What we read in this biography is how one particular individual is protected but how this protection turns out to be the Good News for those carrying out the safeguard.

[__03]       Louis [Louie] Zamperini of the United States Air Corps in World War II, a young soldier in Hawaii and the Pacific in the 1940’s, is the subject of a 2010 biography by Laura Hillenbrand.

This biography – this non-fiction book – is titled:
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”,  a New York Times bestseller.

The biography of Louie Zamperini, Louie, shows – one the one hand -- his skills of adaptation and endurance:

David Margolick, in The New York Times review, writes – “[Louie’s life] is one of the most spectacular odysseys of [World War II] or any other war, and “odyssey” is the right word, for with its tempests and furies and monsters, many of them human, Zamperini’s saga is something out of Greek mythology.

To survive in wartime, in the Pacific, strength is necessary. The body is important to Louie who as a young man in his 20’s, is also an accomplished runner on the track:

Zamperini grew up in Torrance, Calif., and thanks partly to a bout of juvenile delinquency — he became adept at breaking into homes, then fleeing the police — he developed into a world-class runner. He ran the 5,000 meters at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (even Hitler – [in Germany] -- commented on him) and later, [on the track] [at USC] at the University of Southern California, flirted with a four-minute mile. His coach said the only runner who could beat him was — you guessed it — [the thoroughbred horse] Seabiscuit.”

This comparison to Seabiscuit is quoted in the book – intentionally – by the author. Laura Hillenbrand also wrote a historical account of the thoroughbred horse, Seabiscuit.

Louie is fast; Louie is strong.

And, this is going to help him, in World War II, in the Pacific.

[__04]        On the other hand, speed and strength are not enough.  There is also the will to live, the will to survive. There is a desire for life within each one of us.

When we speak of being pro-life, or supporting the dignity of life at all stages, we are affirming the God-given presence of life in each of us.

And, this life begins well before we are born or before we demonstrate strength or gold-medal speed.

And, this life endures after our average speed – or velocity – is calculated in single digits, after we have slowed down. This God-given life endures during an illness, a disability, advanced age.

[__05]       The Unbroken  journey of Louie demonstrates not only speed and strength but also the will to survive and to protect others who are vulnerable.

And, it is not easy to maintain this protection – to keep your guard up for the most vulnerable – amid threats and dangers on the battlefield. Louie is on an odyssey of his own.

[__06]  One particular mission is a test of Louie’s endurance – both physically and spiritually.   It is also a test of his regard for the life of another soldier.

On this mission from Hawaii, where they fly hundreds of miles from inhabited regions, the aircraft malfunctions and crashes in the Pacific.

Of the approximately 12 airmen on board the plane, only 3 survive – Louie, Phil (the pilot) and MacNamara.

And, of the survivors, Louie remains the physically and emotionally strongest. MacNamara is, by far, the most severely injured, the least able to help, and the most traumatized.

They float on a raft. And, in this chapter of the odyssey, the storms overhead and sharks below them are many.

They have very few provisions – a few pints of water in canteens, and 3 bars of chocolate.[2]

The very first night on the raft, while Louie and Phil, the pilot, are sleeping, MacNamara panics, eats all the chocolate, drinks all the water.

[__07]       Discovering this , Louie and Phil are upset, but manage to restrain themselves and only Louie says it…and only says it once to MacNamara aloud, “I’m disappointed in you.”    “Disappointed”– that’s an understatement!

[__08]    But, could we not say that this restraint, this attempt at patience is also a manifestation of respect toward the vulnerable and weak MacNamara.

Later, Louie will acknowledge that MacNamara’s efforts – while small in magnitude – were in fact a critical part of their survival.

Louie reflects later, had Macnamara not survived the crash, Louie and Phil might well have died themselves. Macnamara himself will die of his injuries.

And, in respecting his life, body and soul, Louie and Phil give him the most dignified burial at sea possible under the circumstances.

Up until the end, it is MacNamara’s will to live, to redeem himself afterwards that allows him to work, to contribute, to put an oar in the water.

But, first, it is their sense of the body – of unity, forgiveness, that allows them to work as a team.

Or – as we pray in the Our Father – “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Forgive him for drinking all the water, he know not what he was doing.

[__09]    We read in 1st Corinthians, Chapter 12 this Sunday:  “Now you are Christ’s body, individually parts of it.”  (1 Corinthians 12: __)

There are many parts but one body.

This is not simply an ethic – or personality characteristic – for West Point, the western Pacific, or World War II.

It is an ethic for how we guard the sanctity, the dignity of life at all stages.

As we read in Matthew 25:

I was thirsty and you gave me drink … whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”  (Matthew 25)
We are called to guard the God-given presence of life in every person.

This is true in protecting our own lives, the very young, the unborn, the elderly, those in advanced stages of illness.

This treatment – this protection – strengthens the whole body of Christ.

Louie Zamperini offer this protection to his teammate in a difficult match.   He offers this protection to Macnamara who is troubled, even physically disabled. 

By doing so, Louie is saving himself.    Louie invites – welcomes -  the weak Macnamara to do whatever he can.

And, it is also true that in our ethic of protecting life at all stages --  It is by caring for the weakest that also the strong will survive.


[1] Merriam Webster: “metaphor” = (1) a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as drowning in money) (2) an object, idea treated as a metaphor: SYMBOL.
[2]  I could add that the Hillenbrand reports that the chocolate was designed to lack flavor so that no one would eat except in an emergency … or would not eat too much at one time ?  This does not stop MacNamara.

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