Monday, November 04, 2013

No Use Trying


 Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

            He was an earnest boy.  Parents punished him for being sassy, and he took their disapproval seriously, little by little conforming to their expectations.  Teachers praised him for his astuteness and studiousness, yet found him irritating in his talkativeness.  He tried to please.  He was pleased when they were pleased.  Peers alternatingly teased and admired him.  He learned to win them over by making them laugh.  If adult voices suggested that he could be patriotic, he set out to be a patriot.  When teachers held out the ideal of being a serious scholar, he vowed to be one.  And preachers, articulating the virtue of goodness, inspired him to be good. 

            Mistakes he made.  On occasion he cheated and lied.  His stubborn streak accounted for his perseverance but also for his pigheadedness.  Anger stored up from childhood sometimes erupted, frighteningly so.  In midlife he came to a crossroads in the midst of a thick, dark forest.  Three things he had become had joined to form a life path which abruptly came to a place where he could not see any road ahead of him but for a pace or two.  Paths diverged.  If he took one, he was sure to lose his career.  If he took another, he was sure to lose his family.  If he took a third, he was sure to lose himself.  So he stood, sweating, staring, remembering all the things he had ever been told, and tried earnestly to choose the right way.  But there was no right way. 

            In the protracted moment of paralysis, an old friend and guide showed up.  What was the matter the friend wanted to know.  The confused and stymied man tried to explain.  “You are trying to be a saint,” his old mentor said.  “Tell me.  Is sainthood something that you can choose, do, achieve?”  The man stood still, looking blank.


            “Why, then, are you trying to be a saint?”

            “I can’t really say.  I suppose I am just trying to do the right thing and there is no right thing.”

            The mentor pressed him.  “Is sainthood a gift?”  The man said he supposed it was.

            “Then trying to be a saint is like trying to be Einstein when you are only an ordinary Harvard physicist,” spoke the guide.

            The man smiled.  Then he laughed.  He laughed and laughed, louder and louder until the whole forest echoed his laughter back to him.  He was on fire with total joy, which shook down to a sense of deep relief.  It took him awhile to recover.  Then he knew which path to follow, and he took the first step.  In a pace or two there was just enough light to see the trail marker.  It read, “Way to go, bud.”  And the initials, “B. U.”

            Maybe you have noticed that the festival of All Saints is a stopping place along a road that leads, as all roads seem to, back to the place where we came from and forward to the place where we are headed.  It is a peculiar spot, All Saints, because suddenly we are attune to memories and voices and the faint sound of heroes we imagine cheering ever louder.  The cheers sometimes come from throats of unlikely persons, none of whom was perfect and few of whom were more than average to good, but all of whom were real.  And they cheer us on, these voices from the past.   “You can do it!”  “Keep it up!”  “March on!”  Like most fans, they can get awfully upset when we do stupid things or blunder unnecessarily.  But they hang in there with us, never stop loving us, though we may not win a Series in a hundred years. 

            By its very nature, All Saints looks at the road ahead of us, not only to that behind us.  As Thomas Merton worded it in a prayer, we have no idea where we are going.  We do not see the road ahead of us.  We cannot know for certain where it will end.[1]  What we do know is that this journey we are taking can be called by either of two names.  We can either name it an exploration of who we are in our deepest selves, or we can call it a quest to find God.  It is all the same thing.  And even if this one journey with two names happens to be two quite different journeys, when we arrive at the destination of either, the end will sit so close to the object of the other journey that we can’t miss it. Search for your deepest Self and you will be sure to arrive at God.  Search for God and you will be certain to arrive at the most profoundly true you. 

            Along the way, we have this thing called baptism that we are living out.  As the author of Ephesians puts it, we “were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” in baptism, and with that seal God has promised us an inheritance towards redemption.  All of that clearly is about the future.  But the future is also about now. We are constantly being shaped by the forces that press upon us, wear us down, erode our confidence, shake us up.  Yet there are countervailing forces that come from our model, Jesus, who is, as Ephesians says, the one in whom God has put divine power to work.  And we are so connected to Jesus in this community called the Church that Jesus lives in us as much as the blood coursing through our veins.  When we allow ourselves to love our enemies, even imperfectly, we cultivate the Mind of Christ in us.   When we return good for the evil done to us, we foster the Spirit of Christ in us.  By praying for those who abuse us, we follow the model of Christ in us. When we choose to live peaceably, we find like Ghandi and King and all those in the company of saints who disavowed violence and retaliation, the power of Christ in us.  When we give coat, shirt, and everything on down to the pure old naked body, we discover that we have only followed the example of Jesus, who, when he had nothing else to give, gave his own naked body on the cross.  And it really all amounts to living by this simple rule:  “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” 

            The journey is about living, not about claiming.  It is about living out of the wellspring of the Self rather than by the playbook of management through determination, defensiveness, cunning, and sheer willfulness.   So the irony of getting to be a saint is that we don’t get to be what we already are.  We only get to practice being who we are to get better and better at it.  And that, in turn, results in our losing interest, more and more, in preserving our façades in favor of paying more and more attention to the core truth of who we are. 

            In the old days—which means any time in the relatively distant past—writers spoke of “the Church militant, the Church expectant, and the Church triumphant.”  We don’t talk so much in those terms anymore, and that is doubtless a blessing.  Yet All Saints reminds us not only that we are compassed about with a great cloud of witnesses, those mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers who have gone on before us and have now become our own cheering fans, but of all the folks around us who are our fellow pilgrims.  There is no sharp dividing line between past and present.  We are all on the same trajectory, moving and moved like stones and water all carried along in the same streambed by the persistent motion that will bring us all one day to the Great Sea from which we sprang in the beginning.  There we shall be embraced in a love that will not let us go, in whose ocean depths our flow may richer, fuller be.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013

[1] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York:  Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1999), Kindle version, loc. 62.

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