Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
This past October Br. David Vryhof and I were among the leaders in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where we explored the development of Christian monasticism in the early centuries. The first monastery we visited was in the desert just outside of Jericho near the Jordan River: St. Gerasimos’ Monastery, a very beautiful, active, welcoming Greek Orthodox community. On that site in year 460, Abbot Gerasimos built the original monastery. Today, when you enter the monastery precincts, the first image you confront is not a cross, nor stained glass window, nor ceramic tapestry, nor an icon – all of those are there – but rather at the entry you first confront a lion, a full-size bronze-cast lion.
Since the early centuries, the story has been told how when Gerasimos was walking one day along the Jordan River, he came upon a lion roaring in agony because of a large splinter imbedded in one paw.1 Gerasimos felt great compassion for the suffering lion. He said a prayer for protection and courage, and then approached the lion, removed the splinter, cleansed the wound, then bound up the paw, presuming the great beast would return to its den in the desert. Instead the lion meekly followed Gerasimos back to the monastery, where the lion became the abbot’s devoted companion. The monks were absolutely amazed at the lion’s seeming-conversion to a serene life – the lion even eating the monks’ diet of bread and vegetables and dates – and the monks were equally smitten by lion’s absolute devotion to the abbot.
Abbot Gerasimos gave the lion a special task: to guard the monastery’s donkey, which grazed along the Jordan. One day, while the lion was napping, the donkey strayed away and was stolen by a passing trader. After searching without success, the lion returned to the monastery, its head hanging low. The monks assumed the lion had finally been overcome by a craving for meat, which was the donkey’s end. As punishment, the monks gave the lion the donkey’s former job: the drudgery each day of carrying water from the river to the monastery in heavy saddle packs.
Months later, it so happened that the unscrupulous trader was coming back along the Jordan with the stolen donkey and three camels. The lion recognized the donkey and roared so loudly that the thief fled in fright. Taking the donkey’s rope in his jaws, the lion led the donkey and the three camels back to the monastery. The monks realized, to their chagrin, that they had misjudged the lion, who was now to be honored with the name, “Jordanes.” And so the lion was once more an inseparable companion to the abbot, until he died. The day of the abbot’s burial, the great lion Jordanes lay down on the grave, roaring his grief and love, and then rolled over and died with his master.
Isn’t that a charmed story? And there’s no reason to think it is not true. This story, like so many enchanting tales and legends we hear going way back to our childhoods, taps our God-given, innate capacity to wonder: to dream and imagine, to marvel and delight, to be astonished and amazed, to be surprised and savor the sheer joy of being alive. Life is wonder-full. Life is also hard, and for some people, some days, crushing. And inevitably, life includes death and dying and diminishment. Life also offers the daily doses of wonder. Remember the delightful prayer poem of e. e. cummings: “i thank You God for most this amazing day…”
The first lesson appointed for today, from the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 30 – ends with a curious charge: “choose life.” It’s as if to say you could live life, biding your time, waking and sleeping and navigating in between, and still miss the real invitation to taste and touch and delight in the wonder of life. Your life. You don’t have to go anywhere to claim the wonder of life. Just take it in, and with gratitude: each breath you’re given, what you can see and sense, touch and create. Life is an absolute wonder. It is wonder-full. The gift of wonder has been seeded into your soul, and that seedling wants to burst through the ground of your being. You don’t have to go anywhere to tap wonder; you don’t have to change; you need only to choose, choose life. Say “yes” to your life. Back to our lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. …Choose life.” The wonder of life is within your grasp.
If you find yourself these days only taking life hard, or taking life for granted, or taking life resentfully rather than grasping the wonder of life, of your life, here’s some clues for picking up the scent on the trail:
- Wake up surprised. If you awaken to yet another dawn, wink as you blink your eyes open. So it seems, God has given you breath for as much as one more day to know God and to love God and to serve God in the corner of the world where you live.2 Whether you delight or dread the day ahead, giggle that God thinks you’re up to it. Take Jesus at his word that he is with you – God Emmanuel, God with you – to the very end. You have what you need. Live your life as a “Yes!”
- Take nothing for granted. Notice life. It is so wonderfully mysterious. If you’re not now in touch with the mysterious majesty of life, look again. It’s just as mysterious as you thought it was as a child. Reclaim that very word in the vocabulary of your soul: mystery. The English word “mystery” comes from the Greek, mysterion, meaning a divine revelation. When the ancient Greek Bible, the Septuagint, was translated into Latin, the Vulgate, mysterion became in Latin, sacramentum, from which we get our word “sacrament.” And you will remember from your Confirmation that a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Life is an amazing mystery; life is to be lived sacramentally. The reason we are celebrating here this Sacrament – the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist – is not just a momentary elevation of what is otherwise a pedestrian existence on a flat earth. Rather we celebrate the Holy Eucharist as a living reminder, as a template, of how to be living life all the time, gratefully, with a sense of wonder and majesty, with the presumption that God is with us and within us – “on our lips and in our hearts” – in the most amazing, intriguing, transformative, mysterious ways. Look for it; watch for it; wait for it. God is up to something with each passing moment. Don’t think for a moment that P. D. James is your only access to mystery. Life is so mysteriously wonderful. Notice life unfold.
- Tell yourself a story about your own life. You might want to tell someone else your story, but first of all, tell yourself a story about your own life. It can be a make-believe story, but make sure it’s your story. Once upon a time there was this little boy… Once upon a time there was this little girl. And she lived in… (Where did she live?) She always felt that… (What did she feel?) When she heard… When she saw… When she smelled… (What was it?) There were some big people in her life. (Who were they? Were they good? Were they bad? Were they silly? Were they frightening?) She always felt safe and loved by… (Who was this? Was it a stuffed animal or a pet? Was it your grandfather? Who was it?) And she decided, “When I grow up, I am going to…” (What? What did you want never to happen again? What did you want to happen always? Who were you going to be and become?) Just keep telling yourself that story until you come to now. And this is what will happen. You will be reminded of how miraculous life really is, and how miraculous your life really is. And you will realize – I’m sure of this – that somewhere along the way God broke through to you. Somehow the story you are telling about your life is actually a story you are repeating; it’s what God whispered into your ear about what your life is to be about. Pick up that story line again: the absolute, amazing, wonder of your life script.
The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says that “to pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living… our gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill.”3 Life is full of wonder. And you are wonder-full. Take it in; be grateful to God for each passing moment, which is so pregnant with God’s mysterious presence and provision and power and splendor. Take it in, and then pirouette your way through the day.
1 The story behind comes from St. John Moschos, a monk of St. Theodosius’ Monastery near Bethlehem and author of The Spiritual Meadow, a book based on his pilgrimages in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.
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