34th Wednesday in Ordinary Time
In Shakespeare’s play King Lear, Gloucester says to the king, “O, let me kiss that hand!”. And the king, who is mad with grief, replies, “Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality”. His mind is only half-crazed; he can look at a hand of flesh, and can tell what will become of it. King Belshazzar in the first reading is not nearly so lucid as Lear. His hand is around a drinking cup, and he can think only of the gold and silver vessels his father looted from the Temple in Jerusalem. His hand tells him nothing of human frailty, or how his life will end, and therefore the fingers of a human hand will write it on the wall for him, a human hand that smells of mortality. “That very night”, we are told, “Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed”.
It is not only royal hands that smell of mortality, nor is human folly confined to a palace. The supreme folly is to live as if death will never overtake us, like the condemned prisoner in Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory. It was the day of his death, and Greene writes that:
He crouched on the floor with the empty brandy flask in his hand trying to remember an act of contrition. ‘O God, I am sorry and beg pardon for all my sins…crucified…worthy of your dreadful punishments’. He was confused, his mind was on other things: it was not the good death for which one always prayed. What an impossible fellow I am, he thought, and how useless. I have done nothing for anybody. I might just as well have never lived.
His parents were dead – soon he wouldn’t even be a memory – perhaps after all he wasn’t really Hell-worthy. Tears poured down his face: he was not at the moment afraid of damnation – even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all.
It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted – to be a saint.
Graham Greene’s prisoner was right. To be a saint is the only thing that counts in the end. We must not be afraid to look at things in this light and to direct our lives accordingly. All we need is good will and grace (which is God’s good will). These are the two forces that make saints. The hands of the saints will still smell of mortality, but also of the glorious wounds of Christ, of the bread which human hands have made, and of wine, the work of human hands. Mortal hands will offer us the Bread of life, and mortal hands will take the chalice of salvation, the medicine of immortality. As we receive the Body and Blood of the Holy Immortal One, let us ask him to make us know the shortness of our days, that we may gain wisdom of heart, the wisdom that knows how brief is every problem, and how lasting is immortal joy.