by Father Mark Goldasich
Cue the eerie music. This issue of The Leaven comes out on 11-11- 11. Be afraid; be very afraid.
At least that’s what a new movie, appropriately entitled “11-11-11,” would have you believe. According to the film, at 11:11 on 11-11-11, the 11th gate of heaven (whatever that is) will open and something sinister from another realm will enter the Earth for 49 minutes. My first question is: In exactly which time zone will this happen and why there? It honestly doesn’t matter, though, because if you’re calmly reading this article, it’s probably later than 11:11 anyway and you should be safe!
What is it about humans and numbers? An article by Natalie Wolchover on msnbc.com mentions the “11:11 phenomenon,” which apparently figures into that horror flick above. Supposedly, people have a tendency to look at the clock more often at this particular time than at any other time of day. The writer reports that some people even feel “haunted” by 11s. (I’d venture to guess that none of them are blackjack players, who would be thrilled with an 11.)
I’ve got to admit that 11-11 does mean something to me: It’s Veterans Day; the birthday of George S. Patton Jr., the colorful general of World War II fame; nine days before my birthday; and the day in 1939 when the singer Kate Smith first sang her famous rendition of “God Bless America.” This date also honors Sylan N. Goldman, who, according to archdiocesan priest and author Father Ed Hays, created the grocery store shopping cart in the 1930s.
But for Catholics, it’s also the day that we celebrate the feast of St. Martin of Tours (316?-397). And it’s here that the best meaning of 11-11 can be found. You might remember the story of St. Martin. He was born to pagan parents in what is today Hungary. Because his father was a soldier, he was required by Roman law to follow in his father’s footsteps. According to a legend, as a young army officer, he once met a shivering beggar on the side of the road during the winter. Martin cut his own cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. Martin later saw a vision of Christ, who was wearing that cloak.
That inspired Martin to be baptized. He laid down his weapons and spent the rest of his life as a “soldier for Christ,” living a life of generosity and compassion. He was the first non-martyr to be made a saint.
When I see 11-11-11, all I notice are the slew of 1s. We live in a world where the only folks who seem to count are those who are “No. 1.” From sports teams to world powers, being the best is, well, the best.
St. Martin, though, can remind us of another way to go through life. We are called not so much to be “No. 1, but to be “no one,” at least in the eyes of the world. In other words, we’re called to pursue humility, to put others first in our life. St. Martin didn’t need to care about that beggar in the cold; he could have chosen to ignore him. But he didn’t. He did what he could for the man. And that’s what all Christians are called to do as well. (It’s no surprise that St. Martin is the patron saint of Catholic Charities.)
The first place to acquire humility is by poking a bit of fun at ourselves, to deflate our No. 1 balloon. If I get to heaven, one of the people I will definitely seek out is Pope John XXIII. In his book, “Between Heaven and Mirth,” Jesuit Father James Martin tells the story of Pope John going to visit a hospital just down the street from the Vatican. It’s called Ospidale di Santo Spirito, or “the Hospital of the Holy Spirit,” and it’s the oldest in the city.
Shortly after entering, the pope was introduced to the Sister who ran the hospital.
She was totally flustered by this surprise visit and blurted out, “Holy Father, I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.”
To this, the pope smilingly responded, “Well, Sister, I must say, you’re lucky. I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”
Such humility and humor from the pope must have put that nervous nun at ease. And humility on our part can make others feel not only at ease, but important and worthy of our time and attention.
I’d like to propose a new holiday season, beginning on 11-11 and running until Thanksgiving. Because St. Martin’s feast is traditionally a harvest festival, ponder all of the blessings that you’ve been given. Try not to leave anything out: from your family and friends to your faith to your finances. Thank God for these many gifts.
Secondly, celebrate 11-11 and its aftermath by making someone feel special, like they are No. 1. Be generous in giving out compliments, don’t rush when visiting others, connect with far-flung friends online or by snail mail, leave someone else the closer parking spot, put away someone’s shopping cart for them, and maybe even drop a coin or two on the ground for some child to find.
Finally, honor St. Martin by “slicing your cloak.” Seek to do something practical every day to alleviate the suffering of the poor — in body, mind or spirit.
You know, now that I think about it, there is a time when the gates of heaven swing wide open: It’s whenever someone arrives there who has understood that anyone who wishes to be first — No. 1 — “shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
And that kind of life is nothing to be afraid of.