Sheep Without a Shepherd

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I was baptized at 23 years old.  When people ask what I was before I became a Catholic, I say, “heathen.”  That’s not the response most expect, but it’s the truth.

Heathen is one of those words best defined by what it is not.  A heathen is a person who does not belong to a widely recognized religion such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.  That was me before I became a Christian.  I didn’t belong to any religion, but I still had an innate desire to seek out truth and meaning.  Though I did not recognize it at the time, I was also seeking beauty and love.  It’s when I found these things in the Catholic Church that I became a convert.

As with so many words in our language, heathen has ancient origins that shed additional light on its meaning.  The Old English word hǣthen meant “one who inhabits open country” (i.e. lives in the heath).  I thought about this original meaning as I read about the “sheep without a shepherd” in today’s gospel (Mark 6:30-34).

I keep sheep, and this often affords some insight into scripture passages that use a sheep metaphor. Sheep are simple animals with simple needs.  They need grass to eat, water to drink, and a shady spot to find refuge from the heat.  A good shepherd supplies those needs to them.  Those who raise sheep often remark that their real job is growing grass, because most of a their effort goes into making sure the sheep have healthy pastures on which to feed.

Sheep without a shepherd have the same needs, but they must wander about the open country looking for food and water on their own.  In other words, they are heathens.

Mankind shares in the physical needs of the animals but we also have spiritual needs.  Our minds long for truth.  Our hearts long for love.  Our souls long for beauty.  A good shepherd will help us to satisfy those needs.  Without a shepherd, we are also heathens, roaming the wild country, trying to fulfill those longings on our own.

It is often said we live in a post-Christian society.  Post-Christian is another one of those words defined by what it is not — no longer Christian in any meaningful way, but not really anything else either.  It is a heathen society.  And so most of us are sheep without a shepherd, wandering about in this spiritual wilderness trying to find truth, love and beauty.

We only have to tune into the news to be reminder of what a spiritual wilderness it is.  This past week Cecile Richards publicly apologized for the “tone” used by a Planned Parenthood executive when discussing the dismemberment of babies.  The murder of innocents is not considered as offensive as an inappropriate tone.  Meanwhile there is another shooting on a military base, more ideologically inspired violence.  One act of murder is “terrorism,” while another is a “reproductive right.”  Where is truth in any of this?  Where is love?

When we do hear truth from our leaders it is like finding an oasis in the desert — refreshing, but also a bitter reminder of just how dry our wilderness has become.  Our president says what should be obvious to anyone: drugging someone and having sex with them against their will is rape.  Vanity Fair called his statement “striking.”  What I find striking was how many other media outlets used the term “weighed in” to describe the president’s statement, as if the definition of rape were a matter of opinion.  Meanwhile, a television show that glorifies violent sex is nominated for twenty-four Emmy awards.

I think back on my heathen days and how I would have responded to all we see about us today.  Same sex marriage?  People should be allowed to do what they want.  Abortion?  That’s a sensitive issue, best left for the woman to decide.  Pornography?  What’s the harm!  Sadomasochism?  Whatever floats your boat!  Truth?  Goodness?  All in the eye of the beholder.

Yes, I was open minded.  But as G. K. Chesterton wrote in his autobiography, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

Jesus offers solid truth, beauty and love.  For the mind and soul open to Him, this is nourishing food indeed.  Today’s gospel describes people “coming and going in great numbers,” looking for Jesus and what He had to offer.  Jesus “was moved for pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.”

One of the great gifts Jesus left His Church was the authority to teach in His name.  It is the mission of the Church today to venture into the wilderness of our society, to find and feed the lost sheep who hunger for His truth.