‘There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day. And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even came and licked his sores.’
Our material, physical well-being is a sensitive issue. We feel it every time we pass a beggar in the subway or street. Aware of our privilege, for a moment, we forget our normal complaints and problems: it could all be much worse, we think. If we keep the thought for more than a few seconds we might consider the not impossible scenario in which our roles could be reversed. The mighty are sometimes pulled down from their thrones. But then we think, do we give something? Why are we really doing it? Who are we being kind to? Does this brief encounter with the other side of society have lasting impact on our way of living, our lived values?
Once on a lovely summer day I came out of a building into bright sunlight. Everyone was looking happy. Even the young man sitting on the pavement with his hand out. Our eyes met and without thinking I said, ‘what a lovely day’. He nodded enthusiastically and said, ‘yes fantastic…hope it lasts.’ It was a momentary confusion of roles but still part of the lovely day.
In today’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus we hear of ‘a great gulf (that) has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours.’ It refers to the karmic consequences of self-isolation, being so preoccupied with improving or protecting our own well-being that we, in effect, wilfully ignore the opportunity to improve the condition of those in greater need or even to simply relate to them. The ‘great gulf’ in the karmic (afterlife) realm is visible and tangible every day to those who have a minimum of sensitivity. It is a major cause of the instability and turmoil of the modern world – the protest of the humiliated. ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ Jesus said but the size of the gulf has become our big issue.
In our Lenten practice – giving something up and doing something extra – we hope to re-sensitise ourselves to reality. Unfortunately, we tend to be selective about the aspects of reality we recognise and relate to. Some bits we highlight and enjoy. Others we deny or choose to forget: ‘deliberate hebetude’ (choosing not to see) is a phrase of TS Eliot’s that exposes our mind games and exposes the fragility of any false peace built upon it: The serenity only a deliberate hebetude, The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets. Useless in the darkness into which they peered. Or from which they turned their eyes.
We cannot be selective about reality without compromising everything. Essentially the ‘holiness’ we aim for in Lent is not a moral virtue but a matter of perception, how we see the whole we belong to. And saving ourselves is not about avoiding the punishment of eternal hell-fire but saving time now. (Springtime begins today).