In January of 1988 a 12-year-old South African boy named Martin Pistorius was sent home sick from school. He got worse. And worse. And worse.
He was weak, he couldn’t eat, it was painful to walk, he became forgetful. Eventually he became unable to move and then less than a year after coming home sick from school one day, Martin sank into a sort of waking coma. Although he could be sat up and fed, he was unconscious. And he remained that way until about the age of 16, when one day he suddenly regained consciousness, having lost all memory of his life to that point. He slowly became more aware until by the age of 19 his mind had fully healed.
But here’s the problem. Although Martin had regained his consciousness and was fully alert, nobody noticed.
For six years. “I was completely entombed,” he wrote of those years in his memoir entitled Ghost Boy. “The only person who knew there was a boy within the useless shell was God.”
Everyone assumed he was oblivious to the world around him. He spent long hours parked in front of a television eternally tuned to endless reruns of Barney the purple dinosaur, whom Martin grew to loathe.
He was physically and sexually abused by workers in the care facility who assumed no one would ever find out what they did to him behind closed doors. He lived in constant terror of being alone with these people.
To save himself from the excruciating tedium, he began to focus on things like daylight, teaching himself to tell time by the direction of the light. He engaged in elaborate fantasies: he was a pirate, a jet pilot, a cricket player. But God was not calling Martin to be any of those things. He was calling Martin to be Martin.
That was Martin’s life for six years until one day Virna noticed something about him. She was an aromatherapist who would come to treat the patients in the care facility. She looked him in the eyes and saw something. “Martin, I think you can understand me.” She was adamant and insisted that he be tested, despite what the doctors and people at the care facility said.
Once he was tested and they found the right tools to help him communicate, Martin began to blossom before his astonished family. The son they thought was lost was returned to them.
You know what? Each of us is like Martin Pistorius during those six dark, nightmarish years when he despaired of ever connecting with anyone. Each of us is still growing in awareness, waiting for that moment of clarity when we will understand ourselves a little bit better. We too are ghost boys and ghost girls.
For Martin, it was Virna the aromatherapist who called him out of darkness. For me, for you, for Lazarus, Jesus is calling us out of the tomb into daylight. To free us from the years of endless Barney reruns that is the inanity of our everyday lives and show us that we can do more. You see, that’s what Lent is for.
Each of us has a secret longing, a call we do not fully hear or understand. Trapped in our everyday routines, we cannot imagine the impact this soft call can have on our lives. It’s like the eucalyptus and mint and ginger Virna used to massage Martin’s flailing limbs. It’s the scent of promise, of imagination, of immense love that draws us. But no one even believes we can imagine such things. And so we ourselves cease to believe we are capable of such things.
Until Jesus looks at us and says, “I believe you can work wonders. Come and bear much fruit! Come out!”
When an interviewer asked him who he was, Pope Francis replied: “I am a sinner.” It’s a good reminder. I am a sinner. Because I did bad things? No. That’s what the devil wants you to think, because it will distract you from how we are the greatest of sinners: because of all the good we didn’t do.
The things we do are easily dealt with. We ask for pardon at the beginning of Mass, the words of scripture and the Eucharist wipe them away. A simple request; maybe confession for things that are a bit more serious.
Sometimes I will hear someone boast, “Oh, if I walk into a church it will cave in because of all the things I’ve done!” Really? The things we’ve done: those are the petty, tedious things. But the things we haven’t done and should? Now there is something to work on!
These things we haven’t done are the light outside the tomb, the world beyond the care home and the Barney reruns. It’s out where Jesus is calling us. Come and bear much fruit! Come out!
It’s a little scary out there. It means change. It means doing things that don’t make sense, that certainly could never really work. For Martin it meant months of dedicated work learning to point at symbols to communicate, then relearning how to read and write, learning to use a computer, and working and working and working until eventually he could fix the computer, and teach others to use it.
Embracing my own reality is hard work.
We often say stories like that of Martin Pistorius are “inspiring.” But inspiration requires something of us. It requires us to act upon it. Otherwise, it’s just a warm fuzzy feeling.
..unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat…
That’s Jesus in today’s gospel, reminding us that it often can feel like dying when we turn to life. Sometimes we don’t want to go. Then maybe we need to let Jesus drag us out kicking and screaming toward something better.
It was scary when Martin realized that Virna believed in him. He had almost given up and was experimenting with ways to shut down his own consciousness.
Jesus tells me I can die to the limitations I imagine keep me confined, I can find a new way of life, even now. But I am afraid. What will it bring? Will it be hard work? Will it be worth it?
I need Jesus to tell me yes, yes, yes. Die, and produce much fruit.
Maybe we each need someone like Virna to help us through. If you help me, I’ll help you.
Ending for the Scrutinies
You and I are in the same situation. We are sinners, being called out of the tomb.
Sometimes we don’t want to go. Then maybe we need to let Jesus drag us out kicking and screaming.
Other times we don’t know how to escape, and we need someone to roll away the stone, just like Virna found a way to call Martin out of his darkness.
Who will roll away my stone? Will it be a chance encounter, someone I’ve know all my life, someone I hear about in the news?
Who will roll away yours? And will you notice?