The Odyssey is an epic that often reads like a contemporary novel. It opens with an intimate portrayal of a terrible but familiar situation — a young man has grown up without a father, and is overwhelmed by responsibilities that he feels totally inadequate to face. So we meet Telemachos, whose father, Odysseus, spent the first decade of his life fighting overseas, and then was lost at sea on his return home. Since Telemachos turned 16, his mother has had many men hanging around all the time who have made themselves masters of the house and treated him as a boy of no consequence. The reputation of his great father is a sorrow and a burden to him, making him feel his own inadequacies even more deeply.
But Telemachos is not alone. Two older men, one a stranger, one a fellow-citizen, befriend and encourage Telemachos as they guide him to take the first steps towards dealing as a man with the many troubles facing him. “Mentor” is the name of the one who encourages Telemachos to begin to take up the leadership role of a man, and guides him on a sea journey to discover news of his father. Telemachos follows his advice, finding the courage to call out his mother’s suitors in public, and to be bold in asking the great hero, Nestor, about his experiences in the Trojan War. He is not entirely successful, but he grows visibly through the experience of taking initiative.
But unlike most contemporary novels, Homer has the divine enter into his story immediately. Homer begins the story by having Zeus complain about how mortals blame the gods for their evils, when they really bring them upon themselves. Athena pleads on behalf of Odysseus, then determines to give Telemachos the mentoring she knows he needs. Mentor, we learn, is really Athena in disguise, as is the stranger who first counsels him. This is Homer’s way – he sees the unexpected help we receive from others in our darkest hours as the divine hidden by thin veils.
I was very touched when I read the opening books early this past Sunday. They lingered with me as we sang Psalm 146, about the faithfulness of the Lord to those in need. The Lord “keeps faith forever”, “secures justice for the oppressed”, “protects strangers”, sustains “the fatherless and the widow”. Homer longed for such a Lord, and perhaps experienced his tender care even through the veils of his devotion to false gods. But Homer also made me realize how it often is that the Lord does all these things – through us. Homer dimly sensed that the unexpected and often unmerited kindness of others was divine in origin. Now it has become clear. We know that the Lord inspires in our hearts care for those who are in need. Through us, He brings them comfort and counsel; they feel His presence through the love that we, who have learned from Him, show them. Through the prayer of Blessed John Henry Newman, which was also a favorite of holy Mother Teresa, we learn to ask to be vessels of the love of the Lord Jesus: “Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Thy presence in my soul. Let them look up and see, no longer me, but only Jesus.”