Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Proper 20 B - Sep 23, 2012
Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Brother James Michael Dowd, OHC
Proper 20, Year B - Sunday, September 23, 2012
Wisdom 1:16-2:1, 12-22
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Who is Wise and Understanding Among You?
I find myself intrigued by the Letter of James, part of which was our second reading this morning, because of the question that reading begins with: Who is wise and understanding among you? As the Novice Master, I have the great joy to study once again so many of the foundational texts of the monastic movement along with our novices as together we grow in our vocations. And the section of James that we read today seems, to me at least, to be filled with monastic wisdom.
The answer to the rhetorical question that James begins with is to show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. Show by your good life. That says it all, really. It's not what we say we do, “oh, I'm a great pray-er” or “oh, I really identify with the suffering” or “oh, I'm so detached from everything, I can barely feel my own body!” No, Christianity is about showing, doing, being. When I studied for the theater, one of my favorite classes was Introduction to Play writing, in which, on the very first day you learn the most important rule about either play writing or directing: “show them, don't tell them.” And that seems like a good rule of thumb for the monastic life, indeed, the Christian life.
But it is not just about showing them. It is about showing them with gentleness born of wisdom. And James tells us what that gentle wisdom looks like. It is pure, it is peaceable, it is willing to yield, it is full of mercy and it is full of good fruits. It is, in other words, something that other Christians and non-Christians as well, can see in you.
James also tells us what gentleness born of wisdom is not. It is not envious, it is not ambitious, it is not boastful, it is not filled with lies. There is something quite practical and obvious in both of these lists – and sometimes we need that on our Christian journeys.
But it is the next question that James asks that has had me really reflecting on what it means to live a monastic life, a Christian life. I'd like to read again these few verses to you:
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.
If you think of troubles, conflicts, disputes, wars that rage within your own family, in your community, your parish, your workplace, in our nation this election season, or across the world, it seems to me that this could be a highly instructive lesson for any Christian to contemplate.
But it's the word cravings that most stands out to me. Cravings, James tells us, are at war within us. In fact, cravings can and do kill people – and whole groups of people. This past summer I had the great blessing of taking a vacation with my family in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. On three different occasions, I heard the same story from three different guides on various hikes. They each told us that now that eagles are protected from being hunted, the most common form of death for an eagle out west is by drowning. It seems the talons of the eagle, which are their main tool for hunting, are extremely sharp and dig quite deeply into their prey. When an eagle dives into a river for the purpose of hunting a fish, occasionally the fish is to heavy for them to lift out of the water and, unable to release them, the eagle is dragged under that water and drowned.
And every time I heard that story, I had to think of my own issues with craving. Craving is a theme that is very important to desert monasticism and was in the early days referred to as “the passions” or the “eight principle vices.” In the Middle Ages it would become known as “the seven deadly sins” and very often today they are described as addictions – however many there might be. The first of these cravings, passions, addictions, and the most troublesome for me, is often known as “gluttony,” which in some Twelve Step circles is known as “compulsive eating.”
And ever since my trip to Wyoming, when I think about the eagle drowning because of its own cravings, I can't help but to think of myself and in particular, my own spiritual journey. There have been times, when because of my own cravings, I have been drowning – slowly for sure – but drowning none the less.
This can be agony and it puts me at war within myself. I know that this is not a healthy way to live or a holy way to live, but there are times when the craving overwhelms and I dive for that food that is just too heavy for me to bear. This craving has been such a consistent theme for me throughout my life that there was a time I believed that I would never be able to breathe fresh air again, that I'd drown.
Food is the weapon I choose that makes war on myself, which ultimately causes war to be waged on others as well. While I have never been physically violent with anyone, I have been known, interestingly enough, to wage that war with my tongue. And as we learned from the Letter of James last week, the tongue can set whole forests ablaze. But folks pick all kinds of poison, all kinds of passions – alcohol, drugs, sex, power, work, gambling, shopping, and any number of other addictive behaviors or deadly sins. Whichever way of looking at it you prefer, the result is the same: war rages within you.
But in fact, we are not helpless. There is a path that both our monastic forebears and the disciples of the Twelve Step movement have put forward to help us. James, in fact, enunciates the basics of these steps: “submit to God and resist the devil. And how do we do that? John Cassian, the great monastic teacher, passes down to us in the fifth book of The Institutes that the great Desert Father, Abba Macarius, taught that submitting to God and resisting the devil was to “restrain the movements of the mind (in other words, check your emotions), forget slights, reject sadness, and disdain sorrows and setbacks – as if we were going to die daily.”
In other words, live as Jesus taught us to live. Accept the fact that we do not know when the Lord is coming or when we are going. In contemporary parlance, “live in the moment,” but not “for the moment”. When I have lived in the moment, I have never starved to death – I have never been obsessed with eating. When I live for the moment, I can't wait to get my hands on, and my mouth around, a prepackaged cupcake. The passions, those cravings that are deadly to many of us, are so much easier to be liberated from when we live in the moment, as opposed to living in some real or imagined past when we were drowning because we are so hurt, so lost, so guilty, so adrift.
The control of the passions leads us to cease making war on ourselves and on others. It is a contemplative way of being that is a journey toward health, wholeness and holiness. It is our call as disciples of Christ. And I think this goes beyond the personal to the collective. All of this has implications for not only us as individuals, but as a community, as a nation, and as the human race. Which is something to think and pray about as the shouting of the campaign season nearly overwhelms us. The eagle, our national symbol, can drown when its cravings overwhelm it. As a nation, we crave many things. As I ponder this election, I find myself thinking about that very issue for the nation: what is it that we Americans crave that might drown us? The list seems uncomfortably long to me. As we seek wisdom and understanding, we might want to, as James says, draw near to God, for it is then that God draws near to us. AMEN.