Baccalaureate Sermon 2008

"Desire, Love, and the Good Life"

The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel
Cornell College

The seed of God is in us.  It often lies dormant, untended and unnoticed.  But its there, just as the gates of heaven are everywhere and all life soaked through with the divine.  The Breath or Spirit of God—the  Advocate, Holy Comforter, and Peace which the world won’t always give dwells inside at the root of your being.  In the inner sanctuary or garden of your soul.   Many spiritual wisdom traditions speak of it, inviting us to slow down and abide there. To awaken this seed from slumber, tending it so your being can be anchored amid the shifting moods you often mistake for being you.  So that amid conflicting desires, difficult decisions, desolations, and daring leadership you are rooted in the life force and Ground of Being which many of us call God (though I know that word has been so often misused and abused).

Living mindfully from the root of all you are and all that is.  Practicing the Sacrament of the Present Moment—awareness of the divine coursing through your veins and life itself.  Even amid the seemingly mundane and in those you struggle to love.  That isn’t always easy, is it? A luminous, sacramental way of seeing and being in the world is up against our post-Enlightenment habits of perception.  We often see and live opaquely, with religious and non-religious folk alike hacking up the world into the secular vs. the sacred.  Somewhere along the lines we flattened the world, losing our ability to see life’s poetic depths beyond the literal.  Still, there are moments when opaqueness recedes:  When standing in awe before the knee-buckling beauty of ocean, mountain, or prairie beneath an Iowa night sky thick with fire flies and stars.  When beholding a newborn.  Or losing yourself in the embrace of your beloved.  Or deep belly laughter.  In images from outer space.  When enveloped into something larger as your relative, teacher, or friend breathes his or her last.  In time of remembrance for the fallen--be they soldiers, firefighters, or social justice prophets whose sacrifices hallow the ground of humanity.   In those moments the membrane separating heaven and earth thins and collapses.  We wake to glimpsing the Beyond in our mist.  Mysterium Tremendum.  What poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning described as “earth crammed full of heaven, and every common bush afire with God.”   But we zoom around so much that often live unaware.  As the growing counter cultural Slowness Movement explains, our society is too pre-occupied with hurry and high speed—and I’m not just talking technology.

For your generation, maybe that looks something like the following:  You’ve just come back to your dorm room after practice to do homework for that double or triple major since one major couldn’t possibly be enough.  You turn on the TV and study as you scarf down fast food you really aren’t tasting as you pause to check email.  You text message a friend, then remove your iPod plugs so you can answer your cell phone because deep down you don’t want to miss a thing.  Meanwhile, like the slogan on Power Puff underoos some of you wore in childhood, you long to help “save the world before bedtime.” So before that Student Senate or other meeting—you rush off to help the fundraiser or petition which the chaplain or some other beggar put you up to.  I barely had to ask.  You all are so dang nice.  Without question, your class gets it about your education being for a purpose larger than self.   In fact, your generation desires being connected and at one with everything—the very essence of spirituality.

But there’s a problem.  As a professor recently noted about your generation in a Higher Education journal, the Dali Lama and every other spiritual advisor would tell you this:  Amid your multi-tasking attempts to do all, be all, have all, succeed in all, and stay connected with—as fast as possible, you are not fully present to anyone.  The quality in all that quantity falters.  I could bore you with all the studies which prove it, but I think you already know this.  And that bit I said earlier about mindfully Practicing the Presence of God amid daily living: Well, we may say we believe in God.  We may even pray.  But as Parker Palmer notes many of us operate like “functional atheists.”  We operate as if we believe “ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me.”

In Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, a proud black woman and jazz singer living in 1938 speaks of the divine life.  With the name Shug, this character speaks of sacred goodness, shug--or sugar, coursing through life’s veins including her own.  Though church goers condemn her as a sinner, she is often the voice for God.  With an Incarnational lens, Shug goes around saying things like "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it."  And Shug is darn near Orthodox or Augustinian in her thinking when she declares “Here’s the thing…the thing I believe.  God’s inside you and inside everybody else.”

On that note: You know that whole Early Church argument over Christ’s nature—whether Jesus was fully human, fully divine, or both? Well, to the disappointment of fellow DaVinci Code fans, it’s not true that the Church Fathers wanted to deny Jesus’ humanity.  Actually among their worries was the Gnostic claim that Jesus wasn’t human at all.  The theological argument that won out--namely the union of human and divine, mattered for each ordinary person’s spiritual life as he or she participated in the life of Christ, the Incarnation, and their being made in the image or likeness of God.  Their putting on Christ therefore helped them know God’s presence was one with their original nature, including amid sorrowing and suffering.  It resulted in spiritual resistance and dignity for the enslaved, poor, powerless, abused, and weak throughout the centuries; for being made in divine likeness, and as beloved son of God, or daughter of God meant no slave master, abuser, other earthly authority, life condition or personal cross carried could define them otherwise.

Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great medieval Jewish mystic--He too spoke of the holy mingled with us; of Holy sparks within us all.  Demonstrating that spirituality means social justice and caring for the world, Luria held that we are to gather the scattered shards of the divine back into one.  How we need to come back together as one into the One.  How we are to help God with tikkun olam—the repair, healing, and transformation of the world.

But I digress.  Alice Walker’s jazz singer, Shug, says, “God is inside you and everybody else. You come into the world with God.  But only them that search for it inside find it.  And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you’re looking fors.  Trouble do it for most folks…(p.177).”

Perhaps you think all this, like the word “mystic” itself, sounds like a whole lot ‘a mist and ick.  But that’s not a bad way to put it.  Amid life’s great unfixables like death, divorce, and desertion, it’s often amid the “ick” and unknowns that folk seek grounding, hope, and Oneing with the Source of Life in the very sinew of their souls.

“I am everything and everything is in me,” says Lord Krishna in The Gita.   “Be filled with the fullness of God” says Paul in Ephesians. “Let the god who dwells within you command,” wrote Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, as note to self for choosing right action and remaining grounded while besieged on all sides as a general, administrator, legislator, judge, husband, father, and son. “Dig down within yourself,” he writes. “The fount of goodness lies within and will keep flowing as long as you keep digging (p. 86).”

“Remember the deep root of your being, the presence of your Lord,” says Rumi.  “Abide in me as I abide in you,” says Christ.  “I am the vine and you are the branches (John 15:5).”   This all sounds lovely. But perhaps Shug is right. It’s often not until sorrow comes, when naïve confidence in life always being fair and pain free are gone, that one awakes to it.  Those who tap this deep root amid life’s adversities and pruning do so because there is often little other choice.  Funny thing about pruning, though.  As gardeners among us know, pruning causes the branch to tap deeper into the life giving shug of the root.  Pulling up more life giving sap makes for more abundance.   As a fellow priest said concerning a friend’s vine yard, the best grapes come from judicious pruning.  That, and occasional periods of drought, make for the best wine.  It helps make the most concentrated flavor.

It is said that the majestic jack pine only gives up its seed when the cone is subjected to concentrated heat.  As one Canadian forest ranger pointed out to the late great Howard Thurman, the majority of British Columbia’s jack pines are the result of forest fire.  “The fire wakes the tender seed, stirring life within it so what is deepest in the seed reaches out to what is deepest in life itself.  The result?  A tender shoot and roots until at last, there stands straight against the sky the majestic glory of the jack pine (p.  )”

Howard Thurman was a civil right activist, Christian mystic, theologian, poet and Dean of the Chapel at both Howard and Boston Universities.  There he served as spiritual advisor and mentor for students like Martin Luther King Jr and Pauli Murray (1910-1985)—granddaughter of a slave, a civil rights leader, attorney, poet, and at the age of 67, one of the first female Episcopal priests.  And that was in a time in the late 1970s when female clergy were few, often unwelcome, and even clawed until blood was drawn while distributing Communion at the altar rail.  In their young adult years, Thurman advised these social justice prophets to do what I’m telling you today: Tend to the inner life of leadership, that still sacred center and power to uplift which catastrophe and cruelty cannot disturb.  Cultivate that sacred seed which reaches out in Oneing with God and the world; to what is deepest in life itself.    And choose right action toward your neighbor, even if they hate you, for they too bare the sacred seed and belovedness of God.

Thurman also said something for those less civically engaged whose lives have not yet awakened like that seed of the jack pine.  Folk like German industrialist, Oscar Schindler.  We think Schindler a hero in that he spent his life fortune shielding hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. But let’s remember he was a mix of saint and sinner—oak of righteousness and weed—just like the rest of us.  And I think that’s why we love him.  He was an opportunist and profiteer, a gambler, drinker, and a faithless husband.  As Robert Ellsberg notes, it’s because Schindler was the last man anyone would suspect of heroism which may have allowed him to get away with it.   Yet something from the heat of those horrors we call the Holocaust released something inside.  He aptly fits Thurman’s words about the jack pine seed when Thurman writes:

“It’s not too far a field to suggest that there are things deep within
the human spirit that are firmly imbedded, dormant, latent and
inactive… there they remain until our lives are swept by the forest fire:…the mindless tragedy, some violent disclosure of human depravity or some moment of agony in which the whole country or nation may be involved.  The experience releases something that has been locked up within all through the years.  If it be something that calls to the deepest things in life, we may, like the jack pine, grow tall and straight against the sky! (pp. 82-83, Meditations of the Heart).

With all that has befallen the world and little Iowa this past month and week: Human disaster in Burma, China, Postiville Iowa with hundreds of traumatized immigrant workers, their children and spouses; the tornado destruction of places like Newhartford and Parkersburg; flooding homes; and last week’s burning of our local Presbyterian Church: There is ample heat.  But in the heat of difficult times I good seed is growing.  Folk like you whose loving help declares “The spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the broken hearted, and to repair the ruined cities, the devastations of those who mourn.”

Friends, there are so many things you can do with your lives.  You all luminous and so talented. So I want to shift a bit to tell you something.  Something about how all this spirituality talk just might help you navigate the sea of shifting desires and conflicting notions you may have of happiness and what makes for “the good life.”  So you keep your wits about you.

In her book The Wounding and Healing of Desire, theologian Wendy Farley says this precious Oneing we have with God doesn’t live on the surface of our minds and shifting longings, wants, and needs.  It surges beneath our ordinary desires.  She goes on to say that belief in the sacred pervading all, while also being more than all, means we neither have to reject nor attach to the goods of the world.  We delight in them as they are lovely, perishable, temporary, and full of faults.  …When the goods of the world are recognized for what they are, they neither hold the key to our happiness nor require rejection or hatred.  Attachments to things like work--for us workaholics, over eating and drinking, or shopping as stress reliever are therefore a problem not because the object of the desire is inherently bad.  Our attachment is bad, in part, because it conceals our deepest wounds the way pain relievers keep us from recognizing and healing our injuries (p41).

It’s like the exhaustion I felt the week of tragedies at Virginia Tech and Grinnell College as they impacted lives here and beyond.  While impact here was scant in comparison, after a week of helping organize and provide crises response, pastoral care, vigil, forums, and dealing our own shock and fears as college educators and care providers, I was fatigued. The next thing I knew, I was standing in The Gap at a mall buying bras.  As my step-mother the psychologist explained, that’s one way to get support.    But as Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron would also explain, things like shopping as escape is like covering cement over the soft spot—it can’t really heal (True Happiness, cd).   Yet Eastern and Western wisdom traditions both hold that entering the soft spot is the doorway to enlightenment.  Under that cement wall of fear and the soft spot we try to hard to shield there is that sacred seed. There is life stirring with majestic jack pine.   Slowing down.  Moments for mindfully exchanging “doing” awareness for “being” awareness.  Meditation and contemplative prayer where you do nothing but relinquish and quietly let God praying inside you—these and other spiritual practices clear the concrete so that stirring, healing, and transformation of life are possible.

I’d like to share one last thing related to soft spots, desire, love, and discerning what’s meant by the ‘good life’ because it’s all quite hazardous if you’re wired with “be all, achieve all, do all” tendencies.   That was the wiring of one of my favorite love gurus, Fr. Henry Nouwen.  Fr. Nouwen was the clergy equivalent of American Idol if there could--or ever should, be such a thing.   You know how in the movie Keeping the Faith Ben Stiler’s character collects rabbi hero trading cards instead of baseball cards ("Wow, a Rabbi Schlomo Shnerson rookie card!")?  Well, Fr. Henry Nouwen would make my spiritual guru stack any day.  And that was part of his problem.

Nowuen was a world renowned Harvard professor of pastoral theology and psychology. He was a prized author of forty books on spirituality, and a highly sought after spiritual advisor and speaker.  In the eyes of the the world that often measures a person’s worth in terms of accomplishments and applause, Fr. Nouwen had “arrived” at a highly sought after destination.    He had recognition, respect, fame, and a global network of relationship that would match your Facebook friend list any day.  Yet after twenty five years in the priesthood and academic world attempting to be all, do all, and for all, Fr. Nouwen was burned out and his prayer life dry.  Everyone was saying what a great job he was doing.  But not his inner life.

Nouwen’s students and others would have been shocked to know that the only prayer Henry could muster—a prayer you may have used lately, was:  “Lord, I’m tired and unsure about what I’m suppose to be doing with my life.  Show me where you want me to go and I will follow, but please; be unambiguous about it!”  And God was.  In the person who founded L’Arch, a community for people with developmental disabilities God said “Go live among them and they will heal you.”  So he did.  The great Rev. Dr. Henry Nouwen moved from Harvard to  L’Arche, from the overly ambitious and supposedly best and brightest--from those Henry described as desiring to rule the world, to a people of little power, prestige, and few if any words.

There, living among people in the Daybreak L’Arch community, Henry learned that his identity and value had nothing to do with accomplishments or applause.  Since nobody there could read his books, he impressed no one.   This priest’s great ecumenical skills were also of little use.  He recalls how during supper when passing a plate of meat, a housemate replied, “I don’t eat meat.  I’m a Presbyterian.”    That his skills which once proved useful in preparing students for ministry in a broken world now appeared ineffective became a source of anxiety.

Henry was being stripped down to the unadorned self.   It was like heat releasing seed from the casing of pine cone--the archetypal pattern of every spiritual transformation in which purgation leads to illumination.  Nouwen was purging the casing of false self or surface self which clings to accomplishments, appearances, approval, and applause—a casing so exhausting and time consuming to uphold.  He was examining the motivations and insecurities or soft spots hidden behind his attempt at “be all, do all, for all, and everywhere” when that job description was already taken by God.   After all his shedding and examining motivations for overdrive, what was left for Henry was knowledge of his very being’s relevance, sacredness, and belovedness without the adornment. Just like the developmentally disabled he lived with.  It didn’t have to be earned.  The going out and being an agent of healing love was a consequence of his worth and precious Oneing with God.

It’s the same message of Jesus’ baptism according to Mark’s Gospel.  Unlike the other gospel portrayals, here Jesus is called beloved son with whom God is pleased before he even lifts a finger to care for the forlorn, broken, and oppressed.  That’s our story too.  It’s that precious Oneing with the Holy Lover which causes the love in us to spill out into Oneing with the World.

Jesus’ temptations in the desert are also our story.  Nouwen described the three temptations as these: To prove his relevance (turning bread to stone), to be spectacular, and to be powerful.  In other words, we often attempt to prove our worth and belovedness though we had it all along.  Even vocations of being servant leaders for a more humane world are fraught with self-deception and peril if we do not remember our true identity and mindfully watch ego’s attempt to hook the world with insatiable desire for things like power, applause, heroic greatness, and wanting to please or be liked by everyone.  Of course, beneath all the hunger for greatness, infallibility, and fame is the need to know oneself treasured and infinitely loved--flaws and all.   But as the young St. Therese of the Little Way put it amid her own restless ambition, “Suppose God wishes to have you as feeble and powerless as a child?  Do you think that you would be less worthy in God’s eyes?  Consent to stumble, or even to fall at every step, to bear your cross feebly; love your weakness. Your soul will draw more profit from that then if, sustained by grace, you vigorously performed heroic deeds which would fill your soul with self-satisfaction and pride.”  Seems wise.  Just like an anonymous Medieval mystic who in humble yet beautiful words admitted, “I am an ass, but I carry my Lord.”

At least in  Jewish and Christian scriptures, God seems to call not the mighty to lead—not the infallible nor the self-righteous who lord it over others, but the humble, small, and flawed.   God summoned Peter to be the rock of the Church, even though the cock crowed.  But maybe God needed him to fail in order to qualify for the job description; so he’d have the humility to qualify as leader for a fallible Church and rely on a strength larger than his own, in order to do it.

Friends, faith is not for invincibility and self-serving salvation and prosperity.  The consequence of our union or precious Oneing with God is our union and Oneing with all.  That includes God’s beauty, goodness, and suffering in the lives of those in the margins of society.   In those pushed aside, dismissed, left out, underfed, unhoused, and unheard.  That’s why spirituality and mystical desire for Union isn’t just this [praying hands], it’s this [embrace] and its this [protesting first]— addressing the conditions and policies which treat folk as if they are irrelevant yet who bear the face and seed of God.

“Do you love me?” asks Jesus.  “Then feed me sheep.”  “Did God not find you an orphan and give you shelter?” asks the Prophet Mohammed in the Qur’an. “Did God not find you in error and guide you?  Find you poor and enrich you?  Then don’t wrong the orphan nor chide away the beggar.”  “Loosen the bonds of the oppressed,” says the prophet Isaiah.  “Comfort those who mourn, exchanging their ash for garland.”  
I hear the voice of the Lord saying “Whom shall I send to do this?”  I think it’s you.  Borrowing Rev’d Warnock’s words while speaking here last month, you are part of MLK’s unfinished business with America.  Rev’d King knew the work was so huge that he’d leave it to you.

So keep your wits about you, friends.  Watch the temptations, including the one about you being powerless or irrelevant.   Amid any depression, rejection letter, or fear watch for that devil of a voice playing with your head saying “You are nothing, you are nothing, you are nothing.”   Listen instead—deeper down--to the still, small voice whispering “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.  You are part of me. You are luminous.  A potent seed offering for the world.”

Class of 2008, go make manifest the glory of God that is in you.  Go forth burning with the holy fire of love.