25 March 2009

Being/Not-being: there is no question

4th Sunday of Lent: 2 Chr 36.14-16, 19-23; Eph 2.4-10; Jn 3.14-21
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Have you given much thought to the difference it would make in your self-understanding if you chose to believe that you are a cosmic accident rather than a created being? Assuming, of course, that you think of yourself as a creature—a wholly made person, made by a Maker—a creature gifted with not only biological life but an immortal soul made for life eternal; assuming you think of yourself in this way, how different would your life be if you decided this afternoon to believe that you are nothing more than the fortunate consequence of cosmic circumstance, an admittedly freakish development wrought from chance chemical reactions, advantageous climatic conditions, aggressive genetic survival, and the heir to all the fortunes an opposable thumb gives this world’s more advanced primates? Would you think, for instance, that this world, this universe needs you? Needs us? Would we have any reason at all to believe that we are any more necessary to the other biological accidents of this planet than if we believe ourselves to be creatures made for a purpose? I would say, we would have less reason to believe ourselves necessary, fewer good reasons for thinking ourselves particularly important. Accidents are accidents; by definition, random clashes of things tossed at one another by chance in circumstance. If you don’t think of yourself as an accident, what difference does it make to you then to read Paul writing to the Ephesians: “. . .we are [God’s] handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them”?

The great German poet, Rainer M. Rilke, in what is arguably the greatest modern elegy, the “Ninth Elegy” of his Dunio Elegies, asks my question this way: “Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely/in the form of a laurel[…]: why then/have to be human—and, escaping from fate,/keeping longing for fate?...” His question is not an easy one; however, rather pointedly, Rilke is asking: since we have escaped fate by being human—our human choices design our futures not fate—, why continue to long for fate, for destiny? Why do we yearn for a purpose, a story already written out for us? He says, “Oh not because happiness exists,/[…]But because truly being here is so much; because everything here/apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way/keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.” Fleeting though we are, we are gifted with the use of words. Rilke argues that the ungifted things of this world need us to say the unsayable, to name those things that cannot name themselves, and not only name them but praise them as well, and in praising them, change them: “[…] transient,/they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all./They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart,/within—oh endlessly—within us! Whoever we may be at last.” Whoever we may be at last. . .

Who are we, at last? Paul says that we are God’s handiwork. This is who we are now and at last. Rilke tells us that “truly being here is so much.” And he is right. Truly being is so much. Too much, perhaps. Just being here is overwhelming—even as rational animals crafted to live immortally and knowing it to be so—simply being so, no more than being so, just this one thing right now, this can be too much. Forget doing. Forget thinking. Forget past and future. Just being exactly who and what we are—just being this here—can be too much. Being God’s handiwork, being made, created in Christ Jesus. . .each one of us composed, molded, drawn, built; from nothing, generated and blessed with breath and memory and intellect and will. And why? Why are we made? To name our inanimate cousins in creation? No. To take them into ourselves and change them? No. To propagate our DNA like herd animals, breeding like livestock? No. None of these is too much. None of these is truly being. Why, then?

Paul writes, “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us [. . .] brought us to life with Christ [. . .] that in the ages to come He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” We were brought to life in Christ so that our Father might show us His infinite kindness through Christ. We were created in love for no other reason than to be loved. And we know that are loved by Love Himself when He shows us “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness…” The oft-repeated and much-loved gospel reading says this perfectly: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” The ultimate demonstration of the Father’s infinite mercy, His immeasurable kindness. . .is His Son dying on a cross—a death that gave us birth to a new life in Christ. Prophecy and history meet to fulfill God’s will. That was no accident, no random clash of free-floating events!

So, if you don’t think of yourself as an accident, what difference does it make to you then that you are a creature created in love by Love? At the very least, you must think of yourself as the recipient of a divine gift; not only life itself, but every good thing that can given to one who lives faithfully in Christ. Read Paul again: “. . .we are [God’s] handiwork, created in Christ Jesus FOR the good works that God has prepared in advance, THAT we should live in them.” We are creatures created for the good works of Christ so that we should live in these good works. Do you live in the good works of Christ? If you do, then you do not live an accidental life, a life of chance, but rather a life of truth, as Jesus teaches us, “…whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” Live in the good works of Christ, do these same good works, and your good works are seen as holy works done by God’s will.

Notice, however, what happens when someone begins to think of himself as the product of random processes. Paul says that we are created in Christ Jesus to live in his good works. But if you hold that you are a product rather than a creature, then you will not acknowledge Christ or the good works you were created to use and imitate. Jesus says, “Whoever believes in [Christ] will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned…” Already been condemned. How so? Random products of natural processes have no purpose, no end. Random products are not good, true, or beautiful. They just are. They cannot truly be as beings loved by a Lover. For them, there is no Lover. No love. Random products can feel passion, think rational thoughts, enjoy art, literature, and music. But can they do truly Good Things if they will not acknowledge they are the handiwork of Goodness Himself? To what—beyond their chanced, mechanical lives—does the true, the good, and the beautiful refer? What can love be but the pre-determined firing of neurons in the proper sequence to produce the physiological effect most often labeled “love”? Is this condemnation? Yes, of a sort. Life in Christ is life lived knowing you are living out a divinely-gifted purpose. Life without Christ is life lived knowing you are living until your body parts fail you—a very limited warranty indeed.

We can end with Rilke. . .knowing that we are creatures who “live and move and have our being” in God Himself, our God “who is rich in mercy [and] brought us to life with Christ,” knowing we are not products but sons and daughters, we can shout with Rilke: “Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future/grows any smaller. . . .Superabundant being/wells up in my heart.”

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  1. First homily I've ever read using Rilke as a source. Gotta love it!

  2. Euboxic,

    This is my second "Rilke homily."

    Check out: http://hancaquam.blogspot.com/2008/08/what-tempts-saint.html

  3. This is wonderful, powerful, provoking, hopeful, needed... so so many things, Father.

    It's similar in content and energy to another writing which I would like to recommend here if you don't object. Like yours, it's a very very good read.

    It's called the 'God Memorandum,' written by Og Mandino. It can be read at various sites. One I just found now, is this one: http://www.wowzone.com/godmemo.htm

    I found the bio on Og Mandino at Wikipedia to be interesting, also.

  4. p.s. Along with the similarity in content and energy, they both are also solid, sweeping and tactically relentless. I thank you for this homily.

  5. Father: I have left a comment as well on a previous post of yours regarding the wearing of the habit.

    Since I do not know if you have time usually to go back to previous posts, I tell you here of it. I hope you and others will read it! Thanks...from this New Orleans University of Dallas...and Thank God for that...graduate of long ago...still everyday using as habitus all that I learned there by the grace of God!

  6. Aspiring,

    I'm always happy to find someone out there who enjoys my more...shall we say..."weird" homilies. Thanks!

    Patty, I do read the comments though I don't always have the time to comment on each...