by Father Mark Goldasich
Words are funny things.
This past Advent, while preparing a homily, I came across an interesting linguistic tidbit that intrigued me. It had to do with the word Bethlehem and how, over time, it became corrupted and came to mean something totally different.
Here’s what happened: Back in 1247, a hospital was founded in England and given the name St. Mary of Bethlehem. For many years it provided healing and care to patients. But then in 1447, the mission of the hospital changed and it was turned into an insane asylum.
Care for those afflicted with mental illnesses was much different in those days. Apparently, anyone who ventured anywhere near the institution was shocked by the noise, despair and confusion that issued from the place. Because of this, the name of the institution changed, due to people’s contracting and corrupting one word. The place was no longer known as St. Mary of Bethlehem, but became known simply as Bedlam. (Adapted from an entry in Anthony Castle’s “A Treasury of Quips, Quotes & Anecdotes for Preachers and Teachers.”)
So, how’s your year of 2009 so far? Is it more Bethlehem or Bedlam?
Bethlehem is formed from two smaller Hebrew words — beit and lechem — and literally means “house of bread.” For me, that makes it a place of shelter, nourishment, and safety. Just as bread is referred to as the staff of life, so Bethlehem — the house of bread — should be a place where life is nourished.
Throughout the season of Advent, I challenged myself to make those days more like Bethlehem than Bedlam for people that I met. I’ve tried to continue that personal challenge into the new year. What I’ve discovered is it’s harder than I imagined.
Sadly, I find myself more often in Bedlam than Bethlehem. For example, it seems much easier for me to be judgmental rather than understanding. It’s often more in my nature to pontificate on issues rather than listen. It’s more likely that I’ll be loud and demanding rather than quietly patient.
But though my life is frequently Bedlam, still my heart desires Bethlehem. That’s why I’ve resolved in this new year to change things. Whenever I feel that insane pace of the world closing in, I take a moment to whisper, “Bethlehem.” Simply calling that word to mind has an effect: It slows me down long enough to think — about my actions, my words, my attitude, my rushing around.
Our lives do not have to be Bedlam — a noisy, insane rat race. Bethlehem is out there — if we look for it and give ourselves the chance to journey there. Wherever there is healing, wherever there is peace, wherever there is safety, wherever there is nourishment and shelter, there is Bethlehem.
Yes, it takes effort to visit Bethlehem regularly, but the trip is worth it. Look for Bethlehem in a quiet, empty church after the last Mass on Sunday; in leisurely meals with good friends; in donating treasures and talents to those in need; in listening patiently to the concerns and worries of others; in rosaries prayed while driving; in peals of laughter and in a cascade of tears; in brief e-mails and lengthy handwritten letters; in the pages of Scripture and spiritual books; in newspaper articles and novels; in plays, movies and works of art; in gently falling snow and in warm, sunny days.
In fact, the desire itself to find peace and comfort in life is already a taste of Bethlehem. Treat yourself to a few quiet moments after reading this to ponder where you have seen Bethlehem recently. Savor the memories and thank God for them.
And then recommit yourself to journey each day — and to lead others with you — to the true “house of bread,” to the place where Jesus, our Bread of Life, is to be found.