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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, October 30, 2011
“The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you've got it made."
--Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944)
“Ontological” – now there’s a word with which I can punch my priestly union card! Good for pretentious talk, cocktail parties and job security. “Ontology” – the philosophical study of “being.” How we are. What we are.
There’s supposed to be an implicit link between what we are and what we do, but that subtlety is often lost in modern Christianity. The apostle Paul assures us that God’s word is at work in us. He also wrote, in a moment of joyous ecstasy”
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
Some theologians explain this by saying that through some celestial machinations in heaven, we have obtained a new status with God. Personally, I think this is theological happy talk: Wow! God has fixed me! It doesn’t matter what I do or how I act, God has fixed me! I am a new creation!
God has, in other words, made an ontological difference in my life. That I’m still doing the same old stuff -- different day -- hoping for a different result, is irrelevant, apparently. It’s sort of like having an invisible childhood friend.
What has been left unsaid is this: if we are, indeed, “new creations,” then maybe, just maybe, we ought to start acting like it. Recovering alcoholics, for one, seem to know the difference. They’ve had a “moment of clarity” in which the jolting, devastating truth of their situation can no longer be denied. For the first time, they’ve seen themselves clearly. And it is this experience that requires them to not only be ontologically different, but behaviorally different as well.
Alun Anderson, author of After the Ice: Life, Death, and Geopolitics in the New Arctic, had an insight. He suggests that our species might well be renamed Homo Dilatus (“the procrastinating ape”). In the Golden Age of human evolution – when the reptilian brain reigned supreme and men were men and fight or flight were no-brainers, we had developed an uncanny ability to deal with crises.
Ah! The Good Old Days. Now, however, things are different. We don’t deal with saber-tooth tigers or rampaging wooly mammoths so much as corroding 401(k)’s and gradually decreasing lake clarities. So, if we are, indeed, “new creations,” how ought we to live that out?
This is where our brains are not exactly our friends. We’ve been pretty well programmed to act responsibly – or at least predictably – to insure our survival when faced with that saber-tooth tiger. But what if the nature of the modern crisis is different? How does a “new creation” act in the face of slow-developing, long-term crises? It is just here that homo dilatus doesn’t exactly shine.
[Anderson] "Why act now when the future is far off," is the maxim for a species designed to deal with near-term problems and not long term uncertainties. Cancun follows Copenhagen follows Kyoto but the more we dither and no extraordinary disaster follows, the more dithering seems just fine.
* How much debt do we need to have as a nation before we decide we must do something about it?
* How expensive does gasoline have to get before we decide we must reduce – or end – our dependence on fossil fuels?
* How much of the Arctic ice do we need to see melting before it occurs to us that this might not, after all, be normal? Will millions of square kilometers of white ice turning to dark water feel like a crisis? We are the frog and the water has been boiling for some time now….
“New creations” do not operate on autopilot. Anthony de Mello tells the story of the Great Library of Alexandria. After it burned down, only one book survived. Now that book, dull and uninteresting as it seemed, was probably the most valuable book in the world, for on the inside of the back cover were scrawled in large, round letters, a few sentences that contained the secret of the Touchstone – a tiny pebble that could turn anything it touched into pure gold.
The writing declared that this precious pebble was lying somewhere on the shore of the Black Sea among thousands of other pebbles that were exactly like it, except in one particular – that, whereas all the other pebbles were cold to the touch, this one was warm as if it were alive. The man rejoiced at his good luck. He sold everything he had, borrowed a large sum of money and made for the Black Sea, where he set up his tent and began a painstaking search for the Touchstone.
This was the way he went about it: he would lift a pebble. If it were cold to the touch, he would not throw it back on the shore, because if he did, he might be lifting and feeling the same stone dozens of times. No, he would throw it into the sea. So each day for hours on end he persevered in this patient endeavor.
He spent a week, a month, ten months, a whole year at this task. Then he borrowed some more money and kept at it for another two years. On and on he went: lift a pebble, hold it; feel that it was cold; throw it into the sea. Hour after hour; day after day; week after week…still no Touchstone. One evening he picked up a pebble and it was warm to the touch. But, through sheer force of habit, he threw it back into the Black Sea….
Can a “new creation” consciously click off the autopilot and actually do something to change the world? Margaret seemed to think so. You see, women in 12th century Europe were in an unenviable position. It was common for a 12-year-old girl to be “promised” by her family to a much older (oftentimes 40-something) man. She’d typically be illiterate and condemned to a life of serial births until her body wore out.
In this ocean of patriarchy (just think, “Taliban”), a young woman named Margaret ran away from home, unwilling to subject herself to servitude. She met other runaways like herself and they began to live together communally. Eventually, three to four per cent of the female population of Europe became involved.
We know them now as the Beguines. They taught each other to read, to write, to compose poetry and music. And they developed their own forms of spiritual life, prayer, and silence. Officially, they were treated as female lay persons in the local parishes. Please notice that, having their start as scared, vulnerable, desperate runaways, they became, literally, “new creations”….
There is a spiritual truism that states that contemplation and prayer must issue in greater love for God, neighbor and self or it is a waste of time. We’re not in this, folks, to admire some ontological difference…
…but, rather a real difference.