October 24, 2016
Albert Einstein said, "It's not that I am so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." A good example of the fruits of patience and concentration of mind is Sir Alexander Fleming. For countless ages people must have noticed the effects of mould, but in 1928 Fleming paid attention to how a particular mould destroyed the colonies of staphylococci in his small laboratory at St. Mary's Hospital, London, and that led to the discovery of penicillin. Some dozen years later, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford were able to mass produce this, and it saved a huge number of lives in World War II and, as the first antibiotic, has perhaps been the most effective cure for infection in all history. It goes back to Fleming's power of concentration.
There is a poetic symmetry in the fact that an asteroid in the Asteroid Belt has been named in honor of Fleming, because for thousands of years the "Wise Men" of Persia concentrated their minds on the stars. Those who went to Bethlehem were probably Zoroastrians whose religion was based on careful study of the galaxies. As they were interested in the wisdom of the literature of other religions, they figured out by some unknown calculation that the Jewish prophecies of the Messiah had reached the "fullness of time." So they made the long journey to the kingdom of Herod, a man of flighty passions and little concentration, other than his paranoia about threats to his throne. The whole saga, vague in detail, smacks of such romance that impatient minds are inclined to pass it off as a literary embellishment of the Gospel infancy narratives. Albert Schweitzer, whose own star seems to have faded since he was one of the most famous men of the last century, showed a precocious cynicism when as a boy he asked why the Holy Family stayed poor when they had all that gold and frankincense and myrrh. More pragmatic people have suggested that it helped pay for their trip to Egypt. This is an unanswerable question, but even kingly gifts can last only so long. What does last is the perduring power of God's Word through the ages.
Those old people, Simeon and Anna, had waited a long time in the Temple precinct, hoping to live long enough to see the Messiah. Their powers of concentration, helped of course by the Holy Spirit, enabled them to recognize the Holy Infant as Mary and Joseph carried him among the crowds. Epiphany is a time to pray for strength to defeat distraction, in order to be attracted to the presence of God at work in daily life. God is working many miracles, beyond the regular forms of providence by which he supports and protects and guides us. These would be obvious if only we paid more attention.