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The Fruitless Quest to Create Meaning
Preparing for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Transfiguration Sunday), One Day before Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 99
Old Testament: Deuteronomy 9:15-24
Gospel: Luke 10:21-24
Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, whose compassion illumines the world. Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who live and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
So I turned and went down from the mountain, while the mountain was ablaze; the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. Then I saw that you had indeed sinned against the Lord your God, by casting for yourselves an image of a calf; you had been quick to turn from the way that the Lord had commanded you (Deuteronomy 9:15-16)
For postmodern people, the universe is not inherently enchanted, as it was for the ancients. We have to do all the "enchanting" ourselves. This leave us alone, confused, and doubtful. There is no meaning already in place for our discovery and enjoyment. We have to create all meaning by ourselves in such an inert and empty world, and most of us do not seem to succeed very well. This is the burden of living in our heady and lonely time, when we think it is all up to us.—Richard Rohr, Falling Up: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, p. 93.
I love this quote by Richard Rohr, though I think modernism suffers from the same problem. C.S. Lewis said that he abandoned atheism not only because it was intellectually unsatisfying, but also because it had no answer for the human need to imagine and wonder. If the universe is not “inherently enchanted” then we must create our purpose, which is not only a fruitless quest, but if we are not careful, it can turn us into our own gods, our own deities where the universe and all that is in it has accidentally come into existence to serve us. We become like the prodigal who goes off on the journey to find himself only to discover that the identity he already had was lost to him as he traveled on the fruitless quest to create meaning. It is interesting to note that when the young man finally decides to return home to his father, Jesus says that “he came to himself” (Luke 15:17). The great irony is that in seeking to find himself, the prodigal son lost himself. He had lost his identity. His fruitless quest was motivated by a self-imposed amnesia. In a divinely created enchanted universe meaning is not created, it is discovered.
Perhaps no one spoke more eloquently of this quest to discover our identity than the fifth century Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine:
Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we men, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you-- we also carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you. How shall I call upon my God, my God and my Lord, when by the very act of calling upon him I would be calling him into myself? Is there any place within me into which my God might come? How should the God who made heaven and earth come into me? Is there any room in me for you, Lord, my God? Even heaven and earth, which you have made and in which you have made me—can even they contain you? Since nothing that exists would exist without you, does it follow that whatever exists does in some way contain you?
But if this is so, how can I, who am one of these existing things, ask you to come into me, when I would not exist at all unless you were already in me? Not yet am I in hell, after all but even if I were, you would be there too; for if I descend into the underworld, you are there. No, my God, I would not exist, I would not be at all, if you were not in me. Or should I say, rather, that I should not exist if I were not in you, from whom are all things, through whom are all things, in whom are all things? Yes, Lord, that is the truth, that is indeed the truth. To what place can I invite you, then, since I am in you? Or where could you come from, in order to come into me? To what place outside heaven and earth could I travel, so that my God could come to me there, the God who said, I fill heaven and earth?
Who will grant it to me to find peace in you? Who will grant me this grace, that you should come into my heart and inebriate it, enabling me to forget the evils that beset me and embrace you, my only good? What are you to me? Have mercy on me, so that I may tell. What indeed am I to you, that you should command me to love you, and grow angry with me if I do not, and threaten me with enormous woes? Is not the failure to love you woe enough in itself?
Alas for me! Through your own merciful dealings with me, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me. Say to my soul, I am your salvation. Say it so that I can hear it. My heart is listening, Lord; open the ears of my heart and say to my soul, I am your salvation. Let me run towards this voice and seize hold of you. Do not hide your face from me: let me die so that I may see it, for not to see it would be death to me indeed.*
*Excerpted from the Confessions of St. Augustine (Book I, Chapter 1)
You can read more on St. Augustine here.