Road to Sanity

(Homily for Baptism of Lord)

Bottom line: The road to sanity begins with attention to moral law. Jesus' baptism shows what else is involved.

A young man once described his experience of sinking into insanity. He was a very bright university student, but he had abandoned his studies in favor of nightclubs and pornography. One night he retired to a hotel room. As he lay in bed, the window appeared to expand until it reached the floor. He heard a mocking voice in his mind saying, "What if you threw yourself out of that window?" The young man wrote:

"Now my life was dominated by something I had never known before: fear. It was humiliating, this strange self-conscious watchfulness. It was a humiliation I had deserved more than I knew. I had refused to pay attention to the moral laws upon which all vitality and sanity depend."*

Well, this young man did begin to pay attention to the moral law. He began to put his life in order - and to experience inner peace. He eventually entered the Catholic Church and went on to become one of the most famous monks of the twentieth century. His name is Thomas Merton.

Thomas Merton recognized that the road to sanity involves the moral law. By the moral law we mean that inner voice, that sense of right and wrong inscribed in the heart. You can find it in any of the world's great religions. When people say that all religions teach basically the same thing, they are referring to the moral law. Jesus summarized it when he told a young man: "You know the commandments. Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not lie, do not steal. Honor your father and mother." You can find these teachings in Confucius, Lao Tse, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, as well as Nordic and Inca traditions - and of course the Greek philosophers. They are universal because God has written them in man's heart.**

Even though the moral law is universally known, it is not universally observed. Far from it. In different ways we all fail to observe this basic law and to that degree fall into disorder. As Thomas Merton recognized, the road back to sanity requires attention to the moral law.

That was precisely the role of John the Baptist. He called people to repentance. When they asked him what they had to do, he did not offer any esoteric teaching. No, he told them to do some pretty ordinary things: share your food and your possessions, don't cheat anyone, don't tell lies and do not envy. (see Lk 3:10-14) John simply pointed out the road to sanity.

One day a different sort of man approached John. He was different - radically different from any other man - because he had perfectly observed the moral law. John said to him, "I need to be baptized by you." The way Jesus responded to John indicates the second - and final - step that a person must take on the road to wholeness or sanity. Jesus tells him that even though it does not make sense, "allow it for now." There is a lot to be said about why Jesus, even though he was sinless, asked John to baptize him. The bottom line is this: Jesus did it because it was his Father's will.

Sometimes we experience things which just do not make sense from a human perspective. Recently I talked to a man who experienced a terrible injustice. The injustice was even harder to take because it involved a young child and her future. The man was furious and did not know how he would it explain it to the girl and her parents, why she was denied a wonderful opportunity. Then the man remembered something from the life of St. Pio of Pietrelcina. A woman came to Padre Pio overjoyed because her daughter had been offered a job in a big city. Padre Pio prayed and then told them woman, "Do not allow your daughter to take that job." The woman was shocked, but she told her daughter what Padre Pio had said. The daughter flew into a rage and began to demand why she should listen to "that priest." In the end the young woman obeyed her mom. A few weeks later, the townspeople received some terrible news. Another young woman had eagerly taken the job, but the employer had abused her in way that left her shattered.

Now, the girl who obeyed her mom learned why she was denied a certain opportunity. Most of the time we do not find out. But we can be confident of this: In all the setbacks and contradictions of life, the Father is at work. He has the power to bring good out of evil. He can even use things which on the surface seem totally crazy. Now, I am not saying we do not fight against injustice and irrationality. No, fighting against those evils is part of God's will for us. But when we have done everything we can, we need to say what Jesus did, "allow it for now." The second - and greatest - step on the road to wellness is to accept the Father's will. We cannot do it on our own. We need the help of Jesus' grace. But in him we can hear those beautiful words: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."


*From Elected Silence, quoted by Russell Sparkes in his introduction to Prophet of Orthodoxy (The Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton. Sparkes observes, "This mental illness, and its cure, was the same as GKC's."

**In his Address to the Fiftieth General Assembly of the United Nations Pope John Paul II spoke about the moral law as a universal "grammar." Without grammar we cannot communicate. The moral law makes possible the discussion of human rights:

It is important for us to grasp what might be called the inner structure of this worldwide movement. It is precisely its global character which offers us its first and fundamental "key" and confirms that there are indeed universal human rights, rooted in the nature of the person, rights which reflect the objective and inviolable demands of a universal moral law. These are not abstract points; rather, these rights tell us something important about the actual life of every individual and of every social group. They also remind us that we do not live in an irrational or meaningless world. On the contrary, there is a moral logic which is built into human life and which makes possible dialogue between individuals and peoples. If we want a century of violent coercion to be succeeded by a century of persuasion, we must find a way to discuss the human future intelligibly. The universal moral law written on the human heart is precisely that kind of "grammar" which is needed if the world is to engage this discussion of its future.

In this sense, it is a matter for serious concern that some people today deny the universality of human rights, just as they deny that there is a human nature shared by everyone. To be sure, there is no single model for organizing the politics and economics of human freedom; different cultures and different historical experiences give rise to different institutional forms of public life in a free and responsible society. But it is one thing to affirm a legitimate pluralism of "forms of freedom", and another to deny any universality or intelligibility to the nature of man or to the human experience. The latter makes the international politics of persuasion extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Spanish Version

From Archives:

Baptism of Lord 2013: Generous Love
2011: Seven Teachings about Baptism
2010: Saved Through the Bath of Rebirth
2009: The Power of Baptism
2008: Road to Sanity
2005: Most Shocking
2004: With Whom I Am Well Pleased
2003: The Membership
2002: The Grace of Baptism
2000: Limits of Solidarity

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