Prayer: Seeing into the Face of Your Fellow Humans

I received the following story from a friend, but was not able to trace its origins.  I really like the story:

Prayer takes place in our relationships: with God and our relationship with our neighbors as well. There is a Jewish story about a group of students who come to their Rabbi and ask, “When will we know that it is morning time, so we will know to begin our morning prayers? Is it when we see a shape in the distance, and know that the shape is a dog or a sheep?”
The Rabbi says, “No, that’s not when you will know.”
They ask, “Will it be when we see a shape and know it is a fig tree and not a pear tree?”
The Rabbi says, “No, that’s not when you will know.”
They ask, “Well, tell us Rebbi. When will we know that it is morning time?”
The Rabbi says, “When you see into the face of your fellow human beings and know that they are brothers and sisters, then it is morning time. Then you can begin your prayers. Until then it is still night time.”
Prayer between us is the ability to see into the other’s face, divine wisdom. Prayer is the ability for one soul to touch another, and connect.  

[Source unknown]

God’s Mercy and Justice

In the history of Jewish commentary and meditation of the Scriptures known as the Midrashim, God is almost always presented as being merciful.  Mercy is God’s natural way of responding to humanity, and forgiveness is the default mode that God uses even in dealing with human failure and sin.  The angels (like many people today) in the Midrashim constantly try to get God to respond in justice rather than in mercy, often because they feel the need to defend God’s honor.   In these writings,  “Satan is not a figure of complete evil here.  He represents the principle of justice and wants to make the claim that Israel does not deserve forgiveness.  ‘In the midrash,’ the scholar of rabbinic Judaism Peter Schaefer argues, ‘the principles of justice and mercy are evenly balanced – the one personified in Satan, the other concretized in the robe of God- and justice was always overtaken by mercy.'” (Gary Anderson, THE GENESIS OF PERFECTION)    It is interesting that in a tradition which equates absolute conformity to the law with perfection, that God is portrayed not as the prosecutor of the lawbreaking sinner (that is Satan’s role, see for example Job 1:6-2:10), but rather as the one who grants forgiveness and mercy to humanity.   It is not God who demands justice but the angels, specifically Satan!  God however rises above the demands for justice and trumps righteousness by His love and mercy.  Our Lord Jesus Christ taught, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners ” (Matthew 9:13).

Knowing God – St. Hilary of Poitiers

A quote from St. Hilary of Poitiers (4th Century AD), quoted by Olivier Clement in THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM ( a book I would highly recommend to everyone).

 “I began the search for the meaning of life.  At first I was attracted by riches and leisure… But most people discover that human nature wants something better to do than just gormandize and kill time.  They have been given life in order to achieve something worthwhile, to make use of their talents.  It could not have been given them without some benefit in eternity.  How otherwise could one regard as a gift from God a life so eaten away by anguish, so riddled with vexation, which left to itself would simply wear out, from the prattle of the cradle to the drivel of senility?  Look at people who have practiced patience, chastity and forgiveness.  The good life for them meant good deeds and good thoughts.  Could the immortal God have given us life with no other horizon than death?  Could he have inspired us with such a desire to live, if the only outcome would be the horror of death?   ….  Then I sought to know God better… I discovered the books which the Jewish religion says were composed by Moses and the prophets.  There I discovered that God bears witness to himself in these terms:   ‘I am who I am,’ and ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you”‘ (Exodus 3:14).  I was filled with wonder at this perfect definition which translates into intelligible words the incomprehensible knowledge of God.  Nothing better suggest God than Being.  ‘He who is’ can have neither end nor beginning… and since God’s eternity cannot contradict itself, in order to assert his unapproachable eternity, God needed only to assert solemnly that he is.” 

The Delightful En-Lightening Bug

Earlier this evening, was very warm and muggy as I took my dog out for our twilight stroll.  The dog does not much care to walk when it is hot and humid, and he was going at a very slow pace, sticking his nose into a spot and enjoying the smell.  (And I will say that the dog and I have a basic disagreement about these walks a lot of which is centered in the weather – rain, snow, heat, cold.  For me these are pure “business” trips – I want him to do his business, so I can get out of the inclement weather.  He though is completely a tourist, and meanders all over the place, always taking time to smell the roses, and sightseeing to his heart’s content). 

As the walk was getting slower and the humidity thicker, my mind was slowing down as well.  Somewhere in the corner of my vision a tiny light flashed without registering in my mind.

“I just saw a lightening bug!”  Squealed a 6 year old neighbor with sheer joy.  “MOM!  I just saw the first lightening bug of the summer.”  She was triumphant and ecstatic.

And her sheer joy awakened my dulling consciousness as her words took shape in my brain and I realized I had seen the same lightening bug as she.  Our eyes had caught the same tiny flash, but it had registered in her mind instantly.  I only became aware as she trumpeted proof that summer is here and my brain connected the dots between the disappeared flash and her gleeful pronouncement.

 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it”   (Mark 10:15).  

Childlike – gleeful, awed, appreciative, wonderment, joy, wanting to share the good news, watchful, expectant, enjoying mystery, thankful, allowing the flash of a firefly to fill her vision and heart as if it were the greatest flash of lightening in a summer thunderstorm

I really don’t have any idea what role the lightening bug plays in the ecosystem or in the food chain.  But it is one of the few bugs that can cause delight (excuse the pun).   Truth be told it is a beetle, and most people, including most kids that I know won’t touch beetles and are not at all pleased to find a beetle in the house, especially not in one’s bedroom, or on one’s bed.  Yuck! 

The lightening bug, gets a break though because of its bioluminescence.  It is one of those oddities of nature – an evolutionary turn which God brought about purely for the delight of it all.   Delight is a real experience that we have – best felt by kids, but enjoyed by all.  And the lightening bug exists also to give us delight, which is a somewhat anti-evolutionary statement, for it suggests this particular bug does exist for us and our pleasure.  It’s that rare beetle that kids actually hope to see more of, and they are willing to collect.

A child really can experience the wonder of the universe, and receives it with the greatest of joy, and announces it as a momentous discovery, the greatest news of all.  Joy. Beauty. Firefly.  Creator.  Kingdom of God.  All experienced in the tiniest flash of light which lasts for a second but opens us to eternity.

Moms, Apple Pie and Evolution: Just for Fun

The human genome project has sequenced human genes and thus is able to compare how humans differ genetically from all other species on the planet.  When compared to the chimp genome, it appears that humans differ in only 1-2% of the genome.  Which confirms what many of us have suspected all along, namely that our ancestors, relatives and children really are very ape like, that isn’t something we just imagined.

In pursuit of the answer to the question, “what is it which makes us human?” Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham has coined a phrase for humans that we are not herbivores or carnivores but rather we are ‘cookivores.’   So it turns out that cooking is what really distinguishes us from our ape relatives.

This means of course that in the process of evolution ‘humans’ evolved into a separate species by cooking.   Thus moms were the first genetic engineers, shaping the human species and genome.

Alfred Crosby in his book CHILDREN OF THE SUN notes that one of the differences between chimps and humans is that chimps spend 6 hours a day chewing their food, while humans through the magic of cooking spend only about one hour a day in chewing food.    So it is not so much that the microwave is saving us all this time preparing food that distinguishes us from the chimps, but the amount of time the food stays in our mouths before we swallow it.

Now we all know that evolution is not a straight forward and ‘progressive’ process, but rather it has jump starts, failures, back tracking and all kinds of slow meandering ways to bring any species into the present.  And certainly anthropologists and others have noted that in the embryonic development of a species there often are stages which are related to the early evolutionary unfolding of that species.  

What the discovery of human as cookivore does for us is help expose some of the potential weaknesses and drawbacks in our current evolution as humans.

Of course as it turns out moms as the first genetic engineers have been replaced by cooks, restaurants, fast food chains, chefs, gourmet chefs and nutritionists in shaping the future of the human genome.   Supposedly, cooking, at least according to the aforementioned experts, by allowing some form of the digestion process to take place before the food was ingested resulted in a smaller gut and larger brain in the process of human evolution.   Fast foods, junk foods, and beer  however may prove to be a significant challenge to that theory or we may simply be seeing devolution at work in the human species in the modern Western world as larger guts and less used brains result from developments in cooking and marketing ‘food.’

 Some trends to watch/fear:

 Nutritionists, health food advocates and moms who want people to “eat their veggies” may actually be under the influence of survival genes whose goal is to preserve old ways which served genetic ancestors well.  They may in fact be trying to reverse the evolutionary process by causing us to spend more time chewing.   But natural selection has a creative element to it, and it remains to be seen whether eating veggies or eating junk food will serve the survival of the species better as the world keeps changing.    Certainly an inability to adapt to new ways has brought to extinction a number of species on the planet.   So since evolution is now a “conscious” process for humans we should not be so certain that returning to the ways of our ape ancestry will best serve us in the world to come.

If one doubts the evolutionary process and cooking, visit any college apartment.   There we realize how ape like humans really are.   Instead of “preparing meals” many college students forage through the mess which is their ‘kitchen’ hoping to find some food to eat.  And unlike primitive humans who left us garbage pits in which we can learn about some of their habits, students seem to make little use of the garbage pit idea and more like the ancient apes simply discard garbage where ever and then eventually move on when a place becomes uninhabitable.

A similar behavior can be observed in teenage girls who seem attracted to foraging behavior –  they scatter their clothes helter-skelter around their bedrooms apparently in order to scavenge and forage for things they want to wear.

The next time you are with your significant other and you notice a kind of blank stare as he ostensibly is mulling over something you said to him, taking extra time slowly to chew it over as his ancient ape ancestors did, and when he begins to scratch himself as he tries to get his evolved brain to actually make use of its extra size, just remember he is only a few genes away from being or becoming a chimp.

To Be (an individual) or Not to Be

Numerous and writers of very diverse perspectives have noted the negative effects of post-modern radical individualism on the psycho-social well being of people.  The effects include alienation, isolation, and divisive separation between people who on the one hand crave independence and yet on the other hand want to belong to something greater than themselves yet cannot see community as a way of achieving this.

I recently read the following:

“The person with a secular mentality feels himself to be the center of the universe.  Yet he is likely to suffer from a sense of meaninglessness and insignificance because he knows he’s but one human among five billion others – all feeling themselves to be the center of things – scratching out an existence on the surface of a medium-sized planet circling a small star among countless galaxies.”   (M. Scott Peck, A WORLD WAITING TO BE BORN)

That quote reminded me of something I read a long time ago, in quite a different literary genre, the book FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palahniuk.    I actually found the book far more interesting than the movie, which I thought was way too graphically and senselessly violent.   In FIGHT CLUB the evil alter ego Tyler Durden offered a rational for why being violently evil actually had a positive effect in overcoming the alienating isolation which causes meaninglessness in life.  

“How Tyler saw it was that getting God’s attention for being bad was better than getting no attention at all.  Maybe  because God’s hate is better than His indifference.               If you could be either God’s worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose?  …   Unless we get God’s attention, we have no hope of damnation or redemption.           Which is worse, hell or nothing?            Only if we’re caught and punished can we be saved. … ‘If the prodigal son had never left home… the fatted calf would still be alive.’       It’s not enough to be numbered with the grains of sand on the beach and the stars in the sky.”  

As Tyler Durden saw the world to be numbered among God’s chosen people or among the redeemed in heaven makes you nothing – one among countless others.  This translated into his totally warped thinking that being singularly evil would at least attract God’s undivided attention to the individual.  Even if God was totally concentrating His wrath on you, at least you would then be the center of the universe and exist as a person!

Such is the result of the alienation/isolation of post-modernism’s radical individualism.

Dr. Peck at least offers a hopeful alternative to violent evil as the way out of the meaninglessness of alienation.

“The person with a sacred mentality, on the other hand, does not feel herself to be the center of the universe.  She considers the Center to be elsewhere and other.  Yet she is unlikely to feel lost or insignificant precisely because she draws her significance and meaning from relationship, her connection, with that Center, the Other.”