Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Walking and Thinking: A Theology of the Unexpected

6 September 2011
Opening Service for Faculty
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel

The lessons you just heard come from the readings specifically assigned for Labor Day.  Matthew’s gospel is about the choice between the spiritual and the material, the dividing paths between God and Mammon, the divine or wealth.  Material treasure is contrasted with spiritual riches: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  Is this a lesson for labor or against it?  Matthew is really getting at the deeper notion of vocation.  What is your vocation, deep in your gut?  What is the purpose in your life, the vision you have been waiting for?  There will be a moment this week when you’re ready to begin.  Maybe you’ve already had it.        
For me, the vocation of the educator is the active choice of thinking and contemplation.  This is my purpose in life.  Thinking is very important, and not enough people are doing it.  It takes more time and space than you imagine to really think.  For my birthday this summer, someone gave me a small book, with just sixty pages of wisdom.  It was Henry David Thoreau’s essay called “Walking,” which is really about so much more.  It is a religious meditation.  The essay is about truly giving yourself room to think, room to explore your mind and nature, the spiritual and the material.  In the essay, Thoreau talks fondly about remembering particular walks long after they are over, even many years later.  I too have been on hikes like that.  How extraordinary to remember clear details of walks in mind’s eye.  Something or somebody beyond yourself is surely met on the open road.      
Thoreau makes the spiritual objective of walking completely clear: “It comes only by the grace of God.”

So the first message tonight is this: Take a look at your legs.  Your legs.  They are beautiful.  Right down to the two feet and the little toes on each side.  We weren’t made for sitting.  Thinking and walking are intrinsically related; because we’re bipeds, or we used to be.  You know what I hate?  I hate reading those New York Times articles on my computer while sitting down, and then the article says that it’s actually bad for you to read New York Times articles on your computer while sitting down.  I also do not believe our addiction to technology has helped our mental and spiritual powers of concentration.  Quite the opposite is happening, actually.  This sermon is not a Luddite Manifesto, and I really like JSTOR.  But I will quote Science Department member Michael Greene, from his chapel talk last year. 
“If Emerson had been alive today, with our technology, he would have lost his mojo.”
This area where you live is not just made for walking; you are living in a hiker’s wonderland.  You are in a paradise that calls out to be explored; it beckons like a bride.  I also encourage you to get out and explore what happens here at Kent, in every classroom and nook and cranny of this beautiful campus.  I love that I teach Theology in the science building—and I take the time to visit the science labs.  Of course, when I do, I always have to borrow a pair of safety glasses for the rest of the day.  When I wear them in my Theology and English classes, I remind my students about the power, even danger, of great ideas in the Humanities.  They can still change the world. 
Thoreau calls us to transform our minds, bodies, and souls in partnership with the higher power that created us.  We can truly be in communion with God, like in church.  The Earth herself is an open cathedral, like the mysterious rocks of Stonehenge charting the heavens.            
 “If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life.”
“I walk out into a Nature such as the old prophets and poets, Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in.  You may name it America, but it is not America…” 
The tradition of Celtic Christianity is quite comfortable with Thoreau’s transcendental vision of nature as the text of God.  Irish Christianity, which lost doctrinally at the Council of Whitby in 663, held little emphasis on Original Sin.  It rather expressed the original blessing of creation and saw God’s beauty in the human body—male and female, along with equality between the sexes, and spiritual consciousness in animals.  It is also clear that the early prophets and Jesus saw the Wilderness as a temple of the Most High God.  Like the shaman in the Native American tradition, the prophet and the messiah had to get out of society and up to the mountain for the sacred vision, or to hear the still, small voice.  Read the gospels with Thoreau in mind, and you will find that Jesus is always on the move, engaging and then withdrawing, moving and walking, seeking the ineffable Creator that was so near and accessible that he called that ultimate reality his Father, the beloved, papa.  Sometimes his disciples can’t find Jesus, and Jesus knows this.  People would have killed him sooner had he not been such an avid walker. 
Ok.  So far tonight, I haven’t even mentioned the students.  They’re here, sort of.  But I think they are the easiest part of this week and the next.  They will fill your life and your heart, and you will love them.  Most of them, anyway.  But to love your neighbor as yourself requires that you first love yourself.  How do people miss that part?  If you do not value and care for yourself, you are not likely to value or care for others.  I have been at the edge of burnout too many times to count in my career.  When you get there, and I hope you don’t, you will find that no one is applauding, because it’s not an accomplishment.  Take care of yourself.  Take care of each other.  Love your neighbor as yourself.      
Every time you go with Thoreau and Jesus into the woods, you are invited to live in the moment, at the spring of life.  You are invited to eat when you are eating, and to sleep when you are sleeping.  You should love when you are being loved.  But you should not eat when you are sleeping.       
“What business have in the woods, if I am something out of the woods?”
“There is something suggested by it that is a newer testament,--the gospel according to this moment.”
Along with the slim book by Thoreau, I was also given another gift by a book recommendation from Joe McDonough: Waiting for Snow in Havana, by Carlos Eire.  I always take recommendations seriously when they come from a great walker, one who is spiritually committed to perambulation.  If I see you drive your car to the fitness center, I won’t read your books, and I do keep a list because I live next door to the gym.  But back to Joe.  He has a fantastic walk, and Waiting for Snow in Havana reads like a dream.  The author Carlos Eire is a Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.  He is also a Cuban. 
“Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am a Cuban.”
Eire says this often in the book, which teems with theology like a like a rainforest teems with life, like a child’s science experiment searches for truth and approval.  The book is about his childhood growing up in Cuba before and after the Revolution led by Fidel Castro.  If Thoreau disconnected Nature from Original Sin, Eire brings it back in a theology of Cuba and exile, in new theological terms.  But Original Sin isn’t the fault of women this time, and it certainly isn’t the fault of lizards.  Like other Cuban men, Eire knows that the creation of women is just about the most delightful thing that God has ever done.  Original Sin is rather something that human beings do to each other.  The book is a crazy and joyful meditation on loss and grief--how Carlos Eire loses his home, his family, his identity, his country, and his childhood.  But Carlos refuses to give up his mind and his God to Castro: “Loss and gain are Siamese twins, joined at the heart.  So are death and life, hell and paradise.  I struggled to deny this axiom as a child, and strain against it still in bad days.”
The book is subtitled “Confessions of a Cuban Boy. “  In it his family and childhood come alive again.  Carlos was raised by highly eccentric parents.  His father and mother believe they were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, respectively, in their past lives, so that is how Carlos refers to them.  Carlos himself is very much a religious mystic; as a child, he has regular visions of Jesus, both in his dreams and while awake.  The Jesus who comes to see him is the Jesus on the Cross; he calls this regular visitor “Bloody Jesus.”  I have read and studied Latin American literature for years now, and I have come to the conclusion that what we outsiders call Magical Realism is really a kind of supernatural normalcy.  It doesn’t represent a world that might be, but it rather portrays authentic spiritual events that do not have a rational explanation outside of the divine.  It’s all real.  Jesus literally shows up to Carlos Eire.  If Original Sin is real, so is the redemption of the cross by Bloody Jesus in these showings.        
            “Who knows what might have happened if God had become incarnate in a place with really tasty cuisine, such as Cuba?  Questions like that have made me realize that Jesus was there in my dreams to say an infinite number of things.  Messages too vast in number to be understood all at once, or even in a whole lifetime on earth.  Vital messages, such as:
            ‘Behold your mother.’
            ‘Lipstick is wonderful.’
            ‘Lizards are beautiful.’
            ‘Demons are doomed to fail: I have defeated evil, and so shall you.’
            ‘Fear not death: You shall live forever, in a wondrous body, just like Mine.’
            ‘Drink champagne, and blow it out your nose.’

In the wild and whirling stories of his childhood, Eire presents a loss of innocence.  His Theology of the Fall has a living pulse; it is on fire with truth, goodness, and beauty.  Original Sin was not caused by the lizard Serpent and beautiful Eve, but by a totalitarian regime.  If you have ever romanticized Fidel Castro, well, you won’t do it again after reading Waiting for Snow in Havana.  Personally, I like to romanticize Che Guevara, because he was so much better looking than Fidel.  And I loved The Motorcycle Diaries.  But when you find the people who disagree with you, or maybe think independently of you, and you line them up, and you shoot them in the back of the head, you are always wrong.  Even after taking away all your property, and your God, they still want to take away your mind.  Big Brother gets to do the thinking for you, even then.  Waiting for Snow in Havana is a theological witness about the spiritual refusal to just go along.  And it doesn’t take a totalitarian regime to do this to the human mind—Americans can do it too.  Original Sin is nothing if not creative. 
I will close tonight with the last religious vision that Carlos Eire has in the magical land of Cuba, the lost paradise of his childhood.  So that the Science Department will let me continue teaching in their building, and to wear their fancy safety glasses, I will add that this religious experience is completely explainable, scientifically.  Eire has the vision while looking out to sea from a beach in Cuba, just before becoming an orphan in a new land, America. 
“It was a miracle.  It had to be.  You can’t doubt what you see.  If this wasn’t a miracle than nothing else could be.
The color of the sea was changing, as if some giant brush were being applied from beneath.  Or was it from above?  I stared long and hard at the wild cloud-shaped rainbow in the water.  There were splashes of tangerine in there too, little bits of sunset at midday, along with splashes of blood red hibiscus blossoms.
And it moved.  The colored cloud inside the water kept moving to and fro, twisting and turning with great speed…
I thought surely this was the vision sent from heaven—one that spoke to me without scaring me to death.” 

Waiting for Snow in Havana is a meditation on how rich you can still be, even when everything is taken from you.  In this last religious vision, it turns out that Carlos is watching a school of parrot fish in the ocean.  A school of fish.  But it was a revelation of the Living God to him, as potent and consecrating as the presence of Bloody Jesus. 
Your choices haven’t gone away on the first day back.  Your choices have just become more important; they have become theological.  God or mammon?  God is the choice of what feeds your soul, whether you call it nature, the wild, or the Great Spirit.  Choose the miracle of the parrot fish, when you find them on your own, in the liturgy of nature, arranged perfectly for you to worship in the beauty of holiness. 
This is a lot to think about on the first day back in early week.  Please forgive me.   
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am a Cuban.”

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