Monday, May 26, 2008

Monday in the 8th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Philip Neri, Priest
The Furnace of Divine Possibility

Readings: 1 Peter 1:3-9; Psalms 111:1-2, 5-6, 9 and 10c; Mark 10:17-27
Picture: CC Uiruriamu

Today’s Straits Times carries a picture of a man in a wheelchair struggling up a very steep slope. The image may, at first, evoke sympathy for the poor paraplegic, until you realize that it’s part of an advertisement for a local university, and is meant to illustrate the institution’s desire and ability to help its students achieve the impossible. At that point, the feelings change. Sympathy is replaced by admiration.

Perhaps something of the same dynamic is intended by our readings today. The image that is first presented to us is that of a fearsome fiery furnace, representing all the terrible trials and tribulations that we might have to encounter on life’s journey. The negative feelings evoked by such an image, especially when we connect it with our own experiences of suffering, will likely be varied: pain, sadness, anger, resentment…

But, like that wheelchair warrior from today’s paper, the furnace needs to be seen as part of a larger whole. It’s deeper significance comes to light especially when it’s placed against the background of the gospel reading, where we find the moving account of Jesus’ call of the rich young man. Notice the substance and motivation of the call. Although Jesus seems, at first, to be sadistically beckoning the young man to a life of hardship and deprivation, the invitation is really a generous offer of fullness of life. And Jesus’ motivation is made quite explicit in the reading’s description of how he looked at the young man and loved him. But, in spite of all this, the call remains too difficult for the young man to take up, precisely because he is so rich. Even so, all is not lost. The passage ends on a hopeful note. For men it is impossible, but not for God…

It is against this background of a powerful divine response to human impossibility that the fearsome furnace is situated. The fires of the furnace are the effective means by which God renders the impossible possible. For, as the first reading tells us, the furnace serves only to purify the gold of our heart’s deepest desires. The heat of our sufferings can help to burn away our inordinate attachment to our riches, in whatever forms these might take. The impurities are stripped away, leaving behind the pure gold of a heart humble and submissive to the will of God, a heart that is able, finally, to hear and heed the call of Christ to follow him unto the fullness of life. In the fearsome fiery furnace, human impossibilities are rendered divinely doable.

Seen against this wider context, perhaps the feelings evoked in us by the furnace might change. It may not happen today or tomorrow. But perhaps, as we heed the advice in the first reading and continually ask God for the grace to see the searing heat of our present sufferings in the brilliant light of eternal glory, we might gradually come to accept God’s gifts of courage and strength, so as to heed the call of Christ.

What feelings does the furnace evoke in you today?


  1. What feelings does the furnace evoke in you today?

    Fear! Dread! Why me? BUT if God really says it's good for me (or it's His will), I'll pray that He'll stay close to me while I give it my best and my all.

    By the way, my Serendipity Bible has a few very interesting questions on the gospel passage today: “How does the rich young man’s question (v.17: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”) compare with what Jesus had just taught about the kingdom (v.15: “accept the kingdom of God like a child”)? What was his assumption about how one gains the kingdom? What is Jesus trying to drive home by responding to the way the man addressed him? (v.19-21: “You know the commandments… You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have and give to the poor… then come, follow me.”)

  2. Worms, blood, hearts pierced with thorns, fiery furnace... what next?

    No wonder St Teresa of Avila said to God, “If this is how you treat those who love you, no wonder you have so few friends!”