Tuesday, November 15, 2011

thou mayest

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver

I tend to see morality in three stages. First of all there are the Thou Shalt Nots, things that we should not do. I think that we tend to think of morality mostly in terms of them, the Thou-Shalt-Nots. In ancient times, this was only considered the first stage of the spiritual life, the purgative stage of ridding ourselves of bad behaviors. But then there are the Thou Shalls, the things that we should or must do. It's like the yamas and niyamas of Yoga. We start out with the avoidances or restrictions and then move on to the observances. In the Ten Commandments, for instance, there are eight Thou-Shall-Nots and two Thou-Shalls. The Jewish tradition expands them into a system of 613 rules or mitzvot to obey, some positive and some negative, many of them dietary and health codes, purity laws and liturgical regulations. Jesus comes along and narrows them all down to two, and they are both positive: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your soul, and then he adds a second that is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus also emphasizes that loving one’s neighbor as oneself is more important than all those other dietary and health codes, purity laws and liturgical regulations. The ancient Christian writers thought that the surest sign of right relationship with God was charity, agape. And this is what we heard in our first lesson last Sunday from the Book of Proverbs 31. It seemed like it was addressed just to women and wives, but I think that it is equally applicable to anyone: even more important than "deceptive charm and fleeting beauty," and equally important to one’s work being done well are "reaching out hands to the poor, extending arms to the needy." Our circle has to open first of all to include someone beyond ourselves––our families and our friends; and then it needs to open up more and more ‘til the circle of our love and the range of our compassion embrace all we meet. I can say with some authority, especially after this trip to the Holy Land, that I have encountered people in every religious tradition who are outwardly the most religiously observant as well as ardent in protecting their little circle of family and co-religionists, and yet act with great injustice and prejudice toward the poor and the downtrodden, especially people outside of their own tradition or race. This is what the prophets of Israel railed against, and this is what Jesus addresses over and over again.

But then we heard that great parable last week of the master who gave his servants five and two and one talent from the Gospel of Matthew too. Remember it? The one with five made five more, the one with two made two more, but the one with one buried it, which infuriated the master upon his return. And he tossed this wicked lazy servant out into the darkness where there was “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” That parable is suggesting that there is something even beyond what we must and must not do––there are things that we can or may do. I got this idea from a friend of mine who recently told me about this theme in John Steinbeck’s novel “East of Eden.” Steinbeck centers around the Hebrew word timshel as found in the story of Cain and Abel, when God tells Cain that he mayest avoid evil, that he has the power and ability to avoid evil. Steinbeck, through the character Lee, says that this is what makes us great; this is what gives us the stature of gods, that even in our weakness and our filth and our sin, we still have great choice. We can choose our course and fight through and win. We have a marvelous capacity for choice. But I think that that Thou mayest extends even beyond the ability to choose between good and evil. Jesus in this parable isn’t telling us what things to avoid out of a fear, nor is he talking about the bare minimum needed to get by out of moral obligation. He is pointing us to the things we perhaps shouldn’t have avoided out of a sense of fear’ Jesus is pointing toward the can and the could and the mayest.

We learn in the spiritual life that discernment isn’t just a choice between good and evil; it’s a choice for the greatest good, toward the fullness. St Ignatius in his process of discernment is always urging his followers to find the summum bonum, the greatest good. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the fullest, Jesus says. This is an important movement in us, a moment of spiritual maturity. St John calls it the movement from fear to love. I’m suggesting it’s a shift from the end to the fullness. The end of our life is for our life to be full, filled ultimately with the very fullness of God. And I think this is what this parable us pointing to. God has also given us this marvelous capacity for freedom and co-creativity. God has given us this immense wellspring of life-giving water that is meant to well up from out of our hearts. God has given us the opportunity to be participants in divinity, St Peter says.

There is something more––beyond the shalls and shalt nots––for our lives to be full. We need to choose, and we need to choose out of our strength, not just act out of our fear. Make no mistake about it: that choice is a frightening thing, because when we choose to stand on the courage of our own convictions we have no one else to blame. The third servant in the parable avoided blatant evil and he even did something positive in conserving the money by burying it in the ground. But he didn’t take the risk of courage and creativity. I think that if he had said to his master, “I took a risk on something with your money and lost it all,” the master would still have promoted him to a higher position in the household. The crime wasn’t that he didn’t make any more money. The crime was that he didn’t even try, because he crouched down in fear. I was thinking of that Nickel Creek song that I like so much:
You’re staring down the stars, jealous of the moon,
and you wish you could fly.
Just staying where you are, there’s nothing you can do
if you’re too scared to try.

As Nelson Mandela reminds us, our “playing small does not serve the world… We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us…” We can, we could, we may do great things. That's what gives God glory.

So this all made me take a moment to take stock of my life. Have I been working to rid myself of those things that are harmful to me, that are blatantly objectively wrong? Have I been doing those things I ought to do, which I should do, to fulfill not just the minimum obligations of the law, but the obligations of charity as well? But further than that, am I taking the risks, am I walking on the waters of trust and adventure, and calling myself to a fullness of life, of being all I can be for the sake of the world, for the sake of building the kingdom of heaven, for the greatest glory of God?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?