Monday, September 24, 2007

god is in the details

"Indifferent things can go either direction
depending on the desire, will and character of the user:
wealth, power, honor, bodily strength,
health, beauty, life itself and death,
poverty, bodily sickness, insults.
Nothing should be called bad
other than sin alone."
John Cassian Conf. 6.III.2

Today’s Gospel (Luke 16:1-13) presents us with a kind of a two-edged sword. It’s easy to remember the famous one-liner that closes it––“You cannot serve both God and mammon.” This word “mammon” is interesting: it doesn’t just mean money; it signifies wealth when it is an evil influence or, perhaps more important for our purposes, a false object of worship or devotion, in other words, an idol. And yet the whole Gospel story has been about a dishonest servant who has acted prudently with money, and Jesus explains it’s because children of the world are more prudent in dealing with their own than children of the light. That’s us, by the way: let’s assume that we are, or are meant to be, children of the light, those who are in some way supposed to be as good as what we do as others are at what they do, perhaps to say as good at our spiritual duties as others are at their worldly duties.

At the beginning of the spiritual life there is a common tendency to think in terms of black and white––this is good and that is all bad; the soul is good, the body is bad; everything supposedly sacred––church activities, church music, church organizations––are good and everything secular is bad; being holy is good, money is bad. And yet we find ourselves trying to live and survive and raise children in the world that demands that we know how to act responsibly. Maturity brings with it a certain nuance about these things and actually makes us walk an even finer line, a higher road, through a narrower gate. We learn that there is a progression from our duties in this world to our spiritual duties, almost as if how we fulfill our duties in this world is going to affect how we fulfill our spiritual duties. God is in the details! The person who is trustworthy in small matters is also trustworthy in great ones.

This reminds me of the four stages of life in India, how one moves from being a student, to being a householder––with the mandate to make lots of money and raise and care for children and parents––before one moves into the more contemplative phases of life. None of these stages are bad, and holiness is to be found everywhere in whatever stage or station in life we find ourselves.

The nuance that we learn is that all these beautiful created things that surround us have an importance, but they have a relative importance, that’s all. My favorite example these days has been the ego. Sometimes people in the spiritual life think that they have to destroy the ego. But I think that is very dangerous language. The Sufi teacher Kabir Helminski writes, “The ego is a fundamentally positive energy with many positive qualities: aspiration, diligence, responsibility, self-respect, discipline, integrity.” These are the positive qualities that Jesus seems to be alluding to in the Gospel, don’t they? Well, that’s because these positive qualities belong to and come from the divine Source, and then they get reflected in us. And as we develop the positive aspects of ego, we find that the ego can be undergirded and supported by spiritual intelligence and wisdom, and then it can act as an instrument of this greater intelligence and wisdom rather than merely as a proponent of its own self-interest. What is needed is “to establish a subtle balance––the ego in co-creatorship with the Spirit.” Co-creatorship: that is what we are about.

I love this essentially optimistic approach: Whatever exists is essentially good. If there were not some good in it, it would not exist at all. So the ego is not to be destroyed but to recognized for what it is and/or can be: a friend, a servant, an instrument, and not a master, or an object of worship. And the same applies to all our wealth, our material wealth, our talents, our sexuality, music and the arts––they are all our friends! If they were not good they would not exist. And we need to keep them in perspective as friends, servants and instruments, and not let them become gods and monsters.

And part of the function of the talents is that they are to be put at the disposal of the world, so that we too become servants, friends and instruments, instruments of God’s peace for the world. That’s why we also hear from the prophet Amos railing against those who trample on the needy and destroy the poor. All of this wealth we are given––our wealth, our material wealth, our talents, our sexuality, music and the arts––are meant as gifts for the world. We are meant to be co-creators, pro-creative in our world, laying our lives, our wealth, and our talents down for the sake of the world as friends, servants and instruments of God’s peace. That’s why the Eucharistic bread gets broken and passed out, and the Eucharistic cup gets poured out and shared. So do we get broken open, passed out shared; poured out and passed around for the sake of the world. When we know who we are, we know what we are meant to be and do in the world, for the sake of the world.

So let’s pay attention to the little things in our life, recognizing that all these little things are gifts for our use, never letting them become masters and god and objects of worship, but seeing them as instruments, servants, and friends, so that we in turn may be friends, servants and instruments of God’s peace in our world.