Thursday, April 8, 2010


Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”…Clinging to life causes life to decay; the life that is freely given is eternal.  –Principles of the Third Order of St. Francis
Before we left on our honeymoon in Greece, a friend who is a classics scholar gave us this heads-up:  The gods of Olympus are very much alive.  I little understood what he meant until we were ensconced in the highlands of Epirus, near the Albanian border.  We were staying in a little village called Tsepelovo, where the owner of the guest house introduced us to an English expatriate couple who had just opened a tourist lodge in nearby Kikouli. The couple took us under their wing and showed us around their village one evening—separately, to avoid scandalizing any of the kerchiefed matrons with the company of an unknown man.  
As I relaxed in the home of Petros, the village postman, in a living room with Ottoman-style divans, or raised cushioned platforms, lining all the walls in place of furniture, my host reclining on an elbow while his wife brought me a tasty dish of broad beans and spinach, I realized what my friend had meant:  Zeus Xenios, the God of Travelers, still animated these people who had been among the first to embrace the Gospel some two thousand years ago.  The “guest-friendship” of Homeric epic is still, for them, one of “the deep themes that tell the myths we live.”[i]  (I found the same spirit in Turkey; buyunuz, or “help yourself,” was one of the first words I learned there.)  The myths of Zeus and of Hestia, Goddess of the Hearth, are still a motive force in people’s daily lives.

What is the source of a myth’s power?  Not its historicity, certainly; some myths are based in historical events, while others are pure invention.  Nor is it the aesthetic power of the narrative itself; many myths are downright bizarre—even grotesque and disturbing--and while there are legions of beautiful stories, very few of them aspire to the mythic.

I think the power of a myth lies in the contact it makes with our selves, psychologically and spiritually. Myths are universal and eternal, but also deeply personal and subjective—and that subjectivity, the fact that one can actually experience the dynamics of myth in one’s own life, is what makes myths true and powerful. If you have not lived through something, the poet Kabir tells us, it is not true.[ii] Myths become true to the extent that they become true for us.

Anyone who’s ever tried to run a household—especially one that included kids—knows what it is to live the myth of Sisyphus, the king of Thessaly who was condemned for eternity to roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again every time.  The floor is no sooner mopped than it is dirty again, and dinner is never made, once and for all; which of us has never had an inkling of how Sisyphus must feel?

And Tantalus! Every time a piece of my music is short-listed without being chosen for performance, I remember you; every time I think I’ve got the drop on life in the morning only to be discouraged again by dinner time, I feel your pain.  Patron and spirit-familiar of everyone who’s ever had the prospect of advancement, promotion or success dangled “tantalizingly” before them only to have it snatched away over and over again--all of us who wanted to marry but never did, who tried and tried at life but never succeeded, who went again and again to call-backs and second interviews without being cast or hired, all the Willy Lomans and Eleanor Rigbys and Broadway Danny Roses who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory—all of us stand with you in Tartarus, up to our necks in water that recedes when we bend to drink, while the tempting fruit that hangs over our heads withdraws beyond our grasp when we reach out for it.  Your anguish lives in all of us.

A true hero, wrote Garrison Keillor, has the power to give us the gift of a larger life.   And while Sisyphus and Tantalus may be more anti-heroes than heroes, when we allow their myths to be present in our daily struggles and sufferings, those struggles and sufferings become ennobled, “connected to the stars, a part of the mind of God.”[iii]  Our little daily deaths become the stuff of new and larger life.

This is why I like the way Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön describes the difficulties of life as “juicy.”  It reminds me of my undergraduate organ teacher’s explanation of why to hold on to a discord a little longer than its strict rhythmic value indicates:  “You want to squeeze a dissonance,” he told me, “because that’s where the juice is.”  Instead of fleeing from difficulty and discomfort, we can lean into them, squeeze them, because the really nourishing stuff is not to be found in what goes smoothly, but in what grates.

The trouble is that while our lives are plenty grating and painful and juicy, our myths have lost all their nubbliness through un- or over-familiarity, so that we fail to see the stories we are living.  Like most of scripture, the very roughness that made the old stories stick has been smoothed away to the point where they now seem simply outlandish tales—like the Greek myths—or the rarefied stuff of stained-glass windows, whose hagiographies and Bible stories seem to have no relevance to our actual experience.  “The old words of grace,” wrote novelist Walker Percy, “are worn smooth as poker chips and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it has been cashed in.”[iv]  Our myths are all around us, and we never claim them for our own because we do not recognize them and they have lost their sticking power for us.

Of course, sometimes myths do stick--and burn, like slow napalm.  I have long been sympathetic to Cain, for instance, in the Genesis myth. Cain worked hard and gave his best, but God rejected Cain’s offering of produce while accepting Abel’s animal sacrifice.  How is that fair? Why did God accept Abel’s offering of a dead animal and reject Cain’s offering of first fruits? Some scholars believe the prototype of this story goes back to a time of conflict between ancient Sumerian pastoralists and agriculturalists.  So is everyone meant to be a herdsman, and no one a farmer? Commentaries on Genesis 4 do a lot of speculating about Cain, supposing that his heart was not in the right place when he made his offering—or they drag in Hebrews and 1 Peter and say that without blood there is no forgiveness of sin.  But both of these interpretations are examples of eisegesis—reading ideas into the text rather than out of it.  The fact is that the chapters preceding Cain and Abel’s offerings don’t say anything at all about blood sacrifice or Cain’s state of mind.  All it says in the text is that God “had regard” for Abel’s offering, and for Cain’s offering God had “no regard.”  Most of us know what came next:  Cain killed Abel in a jealous rage.

Every time I see some people succeed because they know how to work the system, while others—no less able or hardworking—fail because they don’t know how to ingratiate themselves with the powerful, I think of Cain and Abel.  “The children of this world,” Jesus said, “are more shrewd in dealing with the world around them than are the children of the light.”[v]And while Cain may or may not have been more enlightened than Abel, maybe he killed Abel less because he was evil than because he’d been rooked.

Jesus also told a story about a brother who got the shaft.  One of the Jesuits at the college I went to told me that he hated the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31.)  He said he always felt sorry for the dutiful older brother, who stayed home, worked hard and behaved responsibly—and never squandered the family fortune on prostitutes as his younger brother did .
Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him![vi]
Traditionally pious interpretation of this story says that we are all in the position of the irresponsible younger brother relative to God, and that to identify with the dependable elder brother is a sign of self-righteousness—but I don’t think one needs to be particularly sanctimonious to think that the elder brother got the short end of the stick.

Everyone lives a theology, one of my students once said, whether they articulate one or not.  The life we live proclaims the God in whom we believe, so it is good to pay attention to what we say with our lives.  Likewise, we can gain a lot by becoming aware of the myths we live. 

Sometimes myths work covertly beneath the surface, like the Oedipus and Elektra myths during our sexual maturation (if we are to believe Freud and Jung.)  But if we become aware of them, and of how they intersect with our own reality, we can open ourselves up to them so that they become a source of power, entering into our quotidian lives and lighting them up from the inside, like a candle in a Chinese lantern.  They can make us see the resonance and gravitas of our lives as lived.

The Easter myth should do that for me; the death and resurrection of Jesus is, after all, the main event of the Christian faith.  It’s really what we hang our hats on.  “If Christ has not been raised,” Paul told the church at Corinth, “your faith is futile.”[vii]

Many of my happiest childhood memories are of Easter—the music, the flowers, the return of spring after the long Upstate New York winter, the general good mood of everyone around me and the wonderful story at the center of everything. When I was a kid, the giddy triumphalism of Easter was enough—and Easter still “works” on me:  still fills me with profound gratitude and a warm sense of well-being.  But as I grow older, I find that that is no longer enough.  I want to live Easter—want it to light me up from inside.  If you have not lived through something, it is not true.

“No one takes (my life) from me,” Jesus told his disciples, “but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”[viii] But do I have a life worth laying down?  Is there any meaning in sacrificing what I never really made anything of by worldly standards? 

I built a life for myself—the life of a composer-academic.  I can’t say from this distance why I built that Frankenstein’s monster of a life, but I did, and it took an enormous outlay of time, effort and cash to do it.  Maybe that would be a worthy sacrifice.  But that life never amounted to much, as it turned out, and it didn’t really seem to be going anywhere when I walked away from it almost a year ago.  There’s a Hindu story about a farmer pouring threshed grain out of a tower so the wind could carry away the chaff; when the wind unexpectedly picked up and began blowing away the grain, too, he decided to give the grain to God, since it wasn’t going to do him any good anyway.  Obviously, there is no merit in a “sacrifice” like that.

Besides, something in me still clings to that life.  Though I have turned my back on it, I have never really let it die.  Sometimes I miss teaching fiercely; I still hear things on NPR and think, “I should download a podcast of that for class”—still read things in the paper and mark how useful they would be as teaching aids.  I still fantasize about the university seeing the error of its ways and calling to ask me to accept a fulltime job, with time already served counting toward tenure.  Even though part of me believes that “clinging to life causes life to decay,” while “the life that is freely given is eternal”--even though I dearly want to lay down that life and be raised to a new one--I have not yet pulled the plug on my do-it-yourself life. 

But then, can any of us really give anything to God? Is anything really ours to give? “Everything comes from you,” King David prayed, “and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”[ix]   True, we may have worked for what we have, but even the ability to work is a gift.  “To work you have the right,” Krishna told Arjuna, “but not to the fruits thereof.”[x] How can we offer what is not ours to give?

Those of us who have a Eucharistic understanding of Holy Communion—who believe that Jesus is present in the gifts offered on the altar—actually have this modeled for us week after week:  the best thing we can give to God is God.  That’s what we offer in the Mass:  God in the bread and wine, and “ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice.[xi]  God gives God, Whom we offer back to God wrapped in ourselves.  “God is the offering, the one who offers, and the fire that consumes.”[xii] 

God didn’t raise Jesus the Rabbi from the dead, or Jesus the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, or Jesus who liked to eat and drink[i]—those are all too small, too partial, too incidental.  God raised Jesus the Son of God—the Essential Being, the Absolute Core Identity, the unchanging, eternal, inmost Self.  The other, contingent stuff, what we usually identify as our “selves,” died and was left behind, like the shroud in the tomb—or at least, it took on a less rigid, less definitive, less substantial nature.  Consider:  in two of the best-known post-Resurrection stories—Jesus feeding his fisherman disciples breakfast by the Lake of Tiberias (John 21:1-14) and Jesus meeting another group of disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)—the disciples, significantly, do not recognize their Lord at first sight.  By the lake, the account says the disciples didn’t dare ask Him who He was because they “knew” it was Jesus—a strange thing to say if they simply recognized Him by sight.  On the Emmaus road, the travelers’ “hearts were burning” while he explained to them that the Christ had to suffer before entering into His glory, but they didn’t definitively recognize Him until He asked the blessing and broke the bread at table.  So they didn’t know Him by His appearance, or his gait, or his hillbilly accent;  apparently, he didn’t even have those things any more—or if He did, He held them lightly enough that they didn’t give Him away. 

It seems, then, that the things Jesus did after He rose—bringing about a miraculous catch of fish, feeding people, teaching, charging them with each other’s care (“Simon, son of John…feed my lambs”) are of the undying, central Self, and they enabled the disciples to recognize in Him the Anointed One.  They knew Him when God shone in Him.  But whatever made Jesus immediately recognizable as a Galilean, an itinerant teacher, a person answering to a particular description, had fallen away, or become muted, effaced, attenuated to the point where they no longer took center stage.

There is a Zen Buddhist exercise in which one asks, “Who am I?”, and then replies, to each answer that presents itself, “That is not who I am.” All those answers have to do with what are called nama and rupa in Sanskrit:  "name" and "form," not essential reality. The Risen Christ has no political affiliation, religious denomination, race, ethnicity, country of origin, native language, titles or degrees—none of the things which we regard as the fixed and solid constituents of our identities.  If we would die and rise with Christ, we must hold lightly to those things, too.

I believe that we have so much conflict in this country now because so many of us cling mightily to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves:  I am, I’m from, I know, I believe, I will, I won’t.  If we could loosen our hold on these things, we would hear and understand each other better; we could see more possibilities, and we would have more peace.

Maybe the paste-up life I made for myself-- father, husband, performer, musician, writer, teacher—is what I need to be prepared to let go of, so that the essential kernel of me can bear fruit.  Maybe we all need to be prepared to give up everything that we think makes us identifiable—all those passing-away autobiographical things we have so laboriously put on like stage costumes.  If that’s what needs to die in order for the radiant new creation to be born—if that’s what it will take for the Easter myth to shine in me from within—then God help me to give it.  Let me lay it all down, trusting in the gift of a larger life, so that if any come seeking the old, false me in days to come, Easter may shine through me, saying, Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he is risen![ii]

[i] See Matthew 11:19
[ii] Luke 24:5-6
[i] Moore, Thomas, Care of the Soul.  Harper Perennial, 1994.  (page 11)
[ii] “How Much is Not True,” by Kabir.  Translated by Robert Bly. The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart:  A Poetry Anthology.  Harper Perennial, 1993.  (page 282)
[iii] Keillor, Garrison, “The Babe,” in Stories:  An Audio Collection. Highbridge Audio (1993)
[iv] Percy, Walker.  The Message in the Bottle
[v] Luke 16: 8b (New Living Translation)
[vi] Luke 15: 29-30
[vii] 1 Corinthians 15:17
[viii] John 10:18
[ix] 1 Chronicles 29: 14b
[x] Bhagavad Gita 2:47, as translated by Sri Ramakrishna according to Swami Vivekananda
[xi] Book of Common Prayer
[xii] Bhagavad Gita 4:24a; translation
[xiii] See Matthew 11:19
[xiv] Luke 24:5-6


  1. Beautiful, Scott. I'm sure I've said this before, but thank you for continuing to let us see the personal side of all this. It takes a great deal of courage and humility to reveal the disappointments one's suffered in life, particularly, I think, for those of us who are ambitious in our careers. You give your readers the gift of letting go of your ego, and it is appreciated. Your essays would still be excellent without that vulnerability, but they certainly wouldn't affect us so deeply or provide the same sort of comfort.

    P.S. Are you getting better at this writing thing? I'm not sure, but I think you may be. I know I liked your earlier stuff, too, but this seems even more skillfully crafted. Good flow between ideas.
    P.P.S. Sorry...can't help but talk like an editor.

  2. I agree with Jen (hello, nice to meet you)! You know how I am so ready to be put off by anything too "religious" in any particular cast, but I think you manage to find a way to make your thoughts so universal. Beautiful.


Anyone may comment.