On this First Sunday of Lent, I want to tell you about the conversion of a scientist named Niels (Nicolaus) Stensen. You may not have heard about him, but after I tell you his story I think you will agree that he deserves to be better known. The scientific world knows him as "Steno,“ (STEH-noh) the Latin version of his name. He was a young Danish physician, eager to advance human knowledge. Although only in his late twenties, Steno had performed remarkable investigations. Some were relatively small, like his discovery of parotid gland which produces saliva.* Others were far reaching; for example, he demonstrated that the heart is a muscle (not a "furnace" as Descartes and others argued). In addition to anatomical studies, Steno became fascinated by the natural world, especially the question of why we find seashells at high altitudes.** His account of geological strata earned him the title father of modern geology.
Brought up a Lutheran in Denmark, Steno had been taught that Catholicism is a corrupt form of Christianity and that, as a result, Catholics tend toward personal corruption. However, while carrying out his geological investigations in Italy, he met Catholics who upset his stereotype. Desiring to know the truth, Steno studied the Bible in its original languages and read the principal early Christian writers. He became intellectually convinced of the truth of Catholicism, but he had a difficult time separating himself emotionally from the faith he had imbibed as a child. Walking down a street, he heard a woman shout from a window, "Go not on the side you about to go, sir, go on the other side." The woman meant it as practical directions, but it struck him on a deeper level. Soon after this incident, he approached a priest who received the great scientist into the Catholic Church.
This Sunday Jesus invites us to "go on the other side." He says to each of us, "Repent and believe in the gospel." It might literally involve walking on a different side of the street. Suppose (as is the case here in White Center) that one side of the street has an adult bookstore, a tavern and pastry shop. On the other side, you might find a library, a vegetable stand and a Christian bookstore. Of course there is no sin in walking past a tavern or pastry shop, but for some people they could be an occasion of sin: Better to walk on the other side.
But, you know, even the library or the vegetable stand could distract you from your goal. The point here is that we need to purify our hearts and lives. There is no way to do that except by going into the desert with Christ. Søren Kierkegaard (like Steno, a Danish Christian) said "purity of heart is to will one thing." That should be our aim this Lent: that God purifies our hearts of those things which distract us from our true purpose. Purity of heart begins with going on the right side of the street - avoiding those temptations which can destroy one's life, one's soul. But once one is on the correct path, keep your eyes on the final goal. You can sum up that goal in a single word: Communion. That is, union with the Triune God in the Communion of Saints.
This past Wednesday many of us received a black cross on our foreheads and heard those beautiful words, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel." It reminds us to get back on the right track, look to Jesus and the peace only he can give us.
This does not mean Satan will leave us alone. As we hear in today's Gospel, the devil tempted even Jesus when he was in the desert. Jesus of course triumphed over those temptations. You and I have a different record. But we can join ourselves with Christ; repent of the ways we have wandered from him.
Like Nicolaus Steno, we ask God to get us on the right path. For Steno it not only led to entrance into the Catholic Church, but eventually to ordination as a priest and bishop. In 1988 Pope John Paul beatified the great scientist. As we begin Lent, it should encourage us to know that people like Blessed Steno intercede for us. They want our friendship now - and forever in the Communion of Saints. As we search to understand the meaning of our world and our lives, we would do well to make this invocation: Blessed Steno, pray for us.
*Steno was the first to observe the tiny duct which supplies saliva to the mouth. To this day it is known as the ductus Stenonianus or Stensen's duct. He also discovered the tear-producing glands. Previously, scientists thought that the force of grief squeezed tears out of the brains.
**Dr. Alan Cutler, a geologist, has written a worthwhile biography of Steno, The Seashell on the Mountaintop. Although the book deals mainly with the scientific achievements, it does provide a short account of his conversion and struggles as a priest and, later, as a bishop given responsibility for the few stray Catholics in Northern Germany and Scandinavia. Dr. Cutler has a paragraph which deserves to be quoted in full:
"Conditioned by the familiar story of Galileo's persecution by the Catholic Church and by the modern-day clash between scientists and Protestant fundamentalists over evolution in the classroom, we often assume antagonism between religion and science is inevitable. But as much as their methods and ideals differ today, over the history of both there has been easily as much cross-fertilization as conflict. Until very recently, religious and scientific arguments were advanced by both sides in every important scientific controversy. Too often what filters down to us in the history books are the scientific arguments of the winners and the religious arguments of the losers. Thus the picture of a long-standing rift between the two."
From the Archives:
Complete List of Homilies for First Sunday of Lent ("Temptation Sunday"):
Ash Wednesday homilies:
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Lenten News & Activities, Ron Belgau on "Homosexual Marriage")
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