Sermon to the saint Louis Priory School on October 28, 2016
In one of the greatest scenes of Western literature, the enraged warrior, Achilles, unbeaten and unbeatable, stands outside his tent on the beach of Troy, while three ambassadors beg him to rejoin the battle. Achilles, unmoved by their arguments and their tears, answers, “I hate that man like the very Gates of Death who says one thing but hides another in his heart. So I will say it outright. Will Agamemnon win me over? Not for all the world…Not now that he has torn my honor from my hands.”
It is a shockingly powerful passage—shocking and heart-wrenching—but also somewhat confusing. After all, we moderns have to ask ourselves, how could anyone steal another man’s honor? Well, scholars have written whole books on the topic, but the long and short of it is this: The Greeks of the Bronze Age measured their honor in stuff and in reputation: time´ and kleos were the words they used—sometimes you hear it translated “honor and glory”.
Time´ was measured in stuff. The more stuff you had, the more honor. And if someone took your stuff, they literally took your honor. If someone stole a Greek hero’s cow, they stole one cow’s worth of honor. Similarly kleos (or glory) was determined by popular opinion. So if someone insulted a Greek warrior in public, he literally damaged that man’s glory.
So when Agamemnon, the general of the Greeks, publicly seizes Achilles’ slave-girl, he literally steals one slave worth of honor, and Achilles never gets over it. Because honor is a zero-sum game. The more of it you get, the less I have.
Now the reason I tell you this story is to give you a sense of how radical Christianity was when it came along. That story, The Iliad—it was the Bible of the Ancient Western World; but when Jesus showed up, he turned their whole system of honor on its head. Jesus said that the poor would rule the kingdom of God and the humble would inherit the earth.
Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Apostles Simon and Jude—two men who owned nothing and about whom we know very little. Saint Jude was confused with Judas so often that he eventually became the patron of lost causes. What’s more, the gospel writers themselves couldn’t seem to keep his name straight: John calls him “Judas – but not the Iscariot!” Luke calls him “Jude the brother of James,” and Matthew calls him “Thaddeus.” Nothing is said about him in any of the gospels except that he asked one question, and not a very good one. He says, “Lord, what’s this?” (Jn 14:22). And that’s it. There’s a New Testament letter that bears his name, but most scholars agree that someone else probably wrote it for him. And we know even less about Simon. Mostly, he goes by “not Simon Peter”. Luke calls him “Simon the Zealot,” Matthew and Mark call him “Simon the Canaanite.” And that’s pretty much it for Simon.
A Feast like this would have baffled Achilles. Simon and Jude died without time´ or kleos. No honor or glory here—not by Ancient Greek standards. And come to think of it, Simon and Jude come up rather short by modern standards as well…even by our standards here at this school. You compete for honor and glory with other schools and in athletic events; you compete among yourselves. Priory is, as they say, a “highly competitive school.” Many of you hope to attend “highly competitive universities.” And that’s a good thing. I mean, no one enters a competition hoping to lose, right?
I remember, though, when I was on the swim team in high school, there was a poster in the locker room that read: “No one remembers who came in second.” And that, in retrospect, strikes me as rather the wrong attitude as well.
So what is the right attitude? Well, Saint Paul says, “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? So run to win.” And Saint Benedict actually encourages his monks to compete with one another. “Let each strive to be first,” he says. Though, as usual, the logic of true Christianity moves in a radically new direction. “Let them strive to be first” says Saint Benedict, “first to honor one another.” They must compete with one another in obedience. No one, he says, should pursue what he judges advantageous to himself, but rather what benefits others.” Imagine a race where all the runners were trying to help each other win. Admittedly, it wouldn’t be much of a spectator sport. But true honor—the honor that comes from a virtuous life—that is not a zero-sum game. Because the prize is infinite. “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way,” says Saint Paul, “They do it to win a perishable crown, but we do it for an imperishable crown.” Heaven is the finish line, and there’s only first place when you get there.
Now, there have been great saints who were famous authors, brilliant scholars, powerful politicians, and successful businessmen. There have even been great saints who were great warriors. [I’m going to go off-script here for a second so I can tell you about one of my favorite saints. His name was Gabriel Possenti, and he was an Italian Seminarian at a time when Italy was more or less run by gangs of armed thugs. Anyway, one afternoon, one of these gangs came into town and started stealing stuff and burning down houses. Gabriel Possenti came running out of the seminary to find the thugs in the middle of the town square torchuring a young woman. So he ran into the middle of the group and started shouting for them to stop. Of course, they wouldn’t listen to him, so he wrestled a pistol away from one of them and said, “I’ll shoot the next man who touches her.” One of the thugs pointed out that there were only six bullets in the gun, so Saint Gabriel (who, it turned out, happened to be a sharp-shooter) turned around and shot a lizard off the wall behind him and said, “Now there’s only five bullets in the gun. Who’s next?” The brigands were so impressed, they went around to the various houses and returned what they had stolen—and helped put the fires out! Now that’s my kind of saint! That’s the kind of saint who would have impressed Achilles.] But today, we are celebrate the Feast of two anonymous saints, and they are just as important. Saint Therese of Lisieux put it this way: “The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of it’s scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness.” Yeah, it’s corny. But it’s also true. Some of us aren’t ever going to be rich or famous or powerful. But we can all be saints. And this feast is for us.