Fr. Dan Ruff, S.J. – Pastor
Old St. Joseph’s Church – 2/7 and 2/8/09
5th Sunday in OT, Cycle B
5:30 p.m. Vigil and 6:30 p.m. Masses
1932 saw the release of a movie starring George Arliss and Bette Davis entitled “The Man Who Played God.” It was based on a short story of the same name by Gouverneur Morris, great-grandson of the Pennsylvania statesman who authored the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. The protagonist of the Morris’ story is a world-renowned classical pianist named Montgomery Royle. Monty is loved not by one, but by TWO women – an attractive widow named Mildred Miller, and his young student and protégé, Grace Adair (played in the film by Bette Davis).
Grace actually proposes marriage to Monty, who argues that he is too old for her; but he suggests that if, after six months, she still wants to marry him, he will consent. In the interim, Monty’s concert schedule takes him to Paris where tragedy strikes. He agrees to play a private recital for a visiting monarch, and terrorists set off a bomb in an attempt on the king’s life. The king is unharmed, but the bomb blast robs Monty of his hearing.
Embittered by his loss, Monty returns to his New York penthouse overlooking Central Park and becomes a brooding recluse. He allows contact only from his sister, his manservant, and his pupil, Grace, who visits daily. Her reminder to him of Beethoven’s deafness only deepens his self-pity and depression. At his doctor’s suggestion, he becomes skilled at lip reading; but his mood continues to decline; and he eventually abandons his belief in God.
Surprisingly, when Grace presses his promise of marriage, he agrees; but when she leaves for a vacation, he decides to end it all by leaping from the window ledge. His servant, Battle, interrupts the suicide attempt and talks Monty off the ledge. Handing him a pair of binoculars, Battle urges his master to ponder the natural beauty of Central Park far below his window. Quite by accident, as he looks down through the binoculars, Monty realizes that he can lip read the conversations of passersby seated on one of the park benches. He begins to be interested in their problems, and to want to find ways to help them.
For instance, when a young man tells his fiancée that he will die without a rest cure in a warm, dry climate – a cure which they cannot afford – the couple turn to prayer. Monty sends down an anonymous note with Battle offering to pay for the trip. Slowly, gradually, Monty gets a new lease on life as he “plays God” and seeks to help others with their problems. Mildred, the widow who fancies him, visits and is amazed at how happy Monty has become.
One day, Monty happens to spot Grace in the park while looking through his binoculars. She is with a young man; and she confesses her love for him, but tells him that she feels obligated to marry Monty. Monty, knowing the truth, releases Grace when she comes for a visit, thereby clearing the way for Mildred to express her own affection for Monty. Having recovered his belief in God, Monty fulfills an old promise to donate an organ in memory of his mother to the church she once attended. The film ends at the church; Mildred meets Monty there and he plays a hymn for her on the organ.
As disciples of Jesus, we are all called on to “play God.” Not, of course, to think that we ARE God, or to try to “second guess” God; but rather, to love selflessly as God loves. God does not give us faith and health to hide away, or to clutch to ourselves; we are not to “hide our lamps under a bushel basket.” Rather, as followers of Christ who have been freed from sin and transformed, we are called to act as Jesus did – to be light for the world. Peter’s mother-in-law clearly understood this. When Jesus heals her fever in this evening’s Gospel, she immediately gets up and begins to serve the guests in Peter’s household. She exercises the ministry of hospitality. She grasps intuitively that Jesus’ gift of healing and transformation is meant to be shared with others.
The story of “The Man Who Played God” reveals that grace can move in the opposite direction as well – namely, that focusing on the needs and sufferings of others can lift us out of our self-preoccupation and bring ABOUT healing and transformation. Monty, the deaf pianist, does not receive a “cure” for his deafness; but he certainly receives a healing in his life. He gradually allows himself to be distracted from his own sorrows by getting interested in the needs of others. He ceases to focus on the fact that he can’t hear, and he focuses instead on the ways in which he CAN help others. In the process, he finds happiness, peace, and new meaning and direction for his life. He becomes ready to love and be loved again, and he finds his way back to God. In losing himself as Jesus intends for us, Monty finds himself anew, in a deeper, more authentic way. He moves toward wholeness and balance, finding room in his life for self, for others, and for God, who cares generously for Monty and for all of us.
Today’s Gospel illustrates Jesus modeling this same sense of balance in his own life and ministry. Jesus’ mission is to teach, preach to, and heal the forgotten and the brokenhearted; but he knows that to continue this mission, he needs his own spiritual sustenance. It’s not about compulsively “saving the world” in some workaholic way, even for the Messiah himself. After all, he did once remind Judas that the poor would always be with us. Something left for the rest of us to do. And so, in the Gospel today, we see Jesus stealing off by himself before dawn to pray quietly in a deserted place.
We also see Jesus resisting the cult of personality, the temptation to bask in the adulation of being needed by others, the temptation to take personal credit for his success. Thus, when Peter comes to say that everyone is looking for Jesus, Jesus concludes that his work there is done and it’s time to move on. After all, a vital part of Monty’s healing in “The Man Who Played God” comes from his anonymity; he is able, with the help of binoculars, lip reading, and his faithful servant, Battle, to help people without their knowing who he is. Perhaps a better title for the story and the film would be “The Man Who Became God’s Instrument.” As Jesus once reminded us, in our doing good for others, we shouldn’t let our right hand know what our left is doing; we should rather trust – as Jesus did, and Monty as well – that God, who sees what we do in secret, will reward us. Besides, as Jesus reminds Pilate, any power which we may seem to have is given us from above; we are but servants, instruments in God’s hands.
And so, like Paul – and Jesus, and Monty – we balance prayer and service, and we exult in preaching the Gospel in word and deed. We do it not for pay or reward, but freely, for the Gospel’s own sake. Like Paul, we become “all things to all people” so that they might hear and share the Good News. We pray for strength and guidance; but we work out our salvation in the mundane details of everyday life. No doubt that is what St. Ignatius Loyola had in mind when he urged his followers to “find God in all things.”
©2009 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.