A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Vow of Poverty

Vow of Poverty

Today's sermon is a sort of combination "Confession" cum "Apologia". The general theme is "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God," but you will quickly ascertain that I am using myself as an example of the rich man who "went away sorrowful" although I hope that by the end you will see that my sorrow is my joy.

Now, to begin.
I am a professional failure. I mean that in two senses of the construction:
1. I am a failure in the professional world, that is the world of reputed, money-making wise men (whose identity will be clarified later in a quote from Nietzsche), and
2. I have made failure an avocation, a commitment to a philosophical and value system in which money is very much a side issue; that is to say, I have chosen worldly failure as a path whose value I "profess" to be ethically superior (for me) to that other path that would have garnered me riches and reputation on earth.

One wonders about the idea of "choice" in the fate that has unfolded before me, because I have the definite impression that if I had truly had any choice in the matter I would have "chosen" to be famous, influential, and financially well-off. True, I did make conscious choices, each of which contributed to sustaining my state of poverty and anonymity, but when I stand back to take in the big picture, the grand design of my life seems to have been plotted out by hands other than my own. When I see the people I care about (and feel responsible for) suffering because I am incapable of supplying their earthly needs, I feel guilty for making those "choices", but, then again, there is something in me, some kind of self-love, that always "chose" to put the salvation of my own soul ahead of theirs. This calls to mind the end of the Mahabarata, (the long story of warring families that comprises the cornerstone of the Hindu Bible, so to speak), wherein the king of the victorious family, Yudhishthira, rejects heaven in order to join his family members in Hell. A classy choice, to be sure, but I just couldn't do it, I couldn't make that huge of a sacrifice; and although I have my regrets, it is really pretty easy to forgive myself because I feel, in this regard, the calling of fate was way beyond my power to choose or not to choose. (Anyway, after Yudhishthira chose Hell, it was then revealed that they were really in heaven, that this illusion had been one final test for him. Whew!)

Anyway, it just goes to show that every choice we make impacts all those around us, and choosing the path of poverty definitely had deep repercussions in my life and the in the lives of my loved ones. It is very easy to attach negative connotations to many of those repercussions, to wonder if I did the right thing; and so I turn to Holy Writ to seek justification and comfort.

The pertinent scriptures are these:

Mark 10:21-22
 21Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.
 22And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions. . .
25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Luke 18:18-23
18And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
 19And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God.
 20Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.
 21And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up.
 22Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.
 23And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich.

Matt 19:24
And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

There is some controversy over this expression, "the eye of a needle".
The traditional interpretation says that when Jesus was speaking of a camel going through the eye of a needle He was speaking of a gate in the wall to Jerusalem where only by getting on its knees could a camel go through it.

The writer on the The Straight Dope website disagrees. He clearly has an axe to grind, and his "Gospels for Dummies" style is kind of off-putting, but he has a point worth presenting:

"First, the text itself. According to Matthew, a certain rich young guy comes to Jesus and asks what one thing he has to do to have eternal life. Jesus says it's fairly simple: keep the commandments. The young man asks which particular commandments and Jesus says the ones about not murdering, stealing, lying, or committing adultery; honoring your mother and father and loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself --those commandments. The kid persists and says that he has *always* done those things, even when he was a child; there must be something else he needs to do. Jesus says, "Okay, I'll tell you what: if you want to be perfect, go sell what you have, give the proceeds to the poor and you come follow me." This is thought to be a suggestion that the rich young man was kidding himself if he thought he had kept the law perfectly. Odds are, like most of us, he loved himself a little bit better than he loved his neighbor.
ANYway, the kid hears that and goes away sadly "for he had great possessions." (Matthew 19:22) Then Jesus utters the famous line (Matthew 19:24) about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Next, the history and archaeology. The notion your Baptist friend has picked up apparently comes from a single ninth-century commentary which asserts that in first-century Jerusalem there was a gate called the Needle's Eye which a camel could only get through on its knees. (Sort of like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: "only the penitent man will pass...") A cute allegory, but there's no archaeological or historical evidence for the existence of such a gate."

Considering that Jerusalem has been conquered, destroyed and rebuilt numerous times since the 9th century, this factoid is neither surprising nor compelling; such a gate may certainly have existed in Jesus's time and then ceased to exist before proper "archaeological evidence" could be compiled. Also, as we shall see in a moment, Jerusalem was not even the original location of the needle's eye, nor the main inspiration for the expression. This is an example of how committed people are to bending facts to support their own agenda--but never mind--going on:]

"There's a good brief discussion in the article on "kamelos" in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, pp. 592-594 (one of the standard works on New Testament language.) TDNT, and other commentators with an interest in history, point out that there are several parallels in later rabbinic language about the impossibility of getting an elephant through the eye of a needle: it's a way of describing something which is so impossible that it's grotesque."

This is the author's main point, "it's a way of describing something which is so impossible that it's grotesque," and it is a perfectly valid point, except for the fact that such figures of speech often have their basis in fact. I feel a little petty arguing about this fine distinction, but, as you will see, in a moment, there is one aspect of the needle's eye, the real physical, not the figurative, needle's eye, that is of no trivial significance.]

"So the "Gate of the Needle's Eye" notion has no firm historical basis. It looks like a way of getting around the plain (but inconvenient) meaning of the text.
Setting the text in the whole New Testament context, wealth is consistently presented as a *problem*. I suspect the modern notion owes less to the Bible than to the Puritan theory that success in economic life was a sign of God's blessing.
Now, the theology. The message was viewed by the disciples as pretty bleak. In 19:25 -- just after Jesus uses the comparison -- the disciples respond "Then who can be saved?" "By human power, it is impossible," says Jesus. Then adds hope: "With God, *anything* is possible." Even the salvation of the rich. As a miracle."

Hooray! God can squeeze a rich man through the eye of a needle, just like Santa Claus can come down the chimney. Thus the miraculous justifies the spiritual reality! Blah, blah, blah. I swear these fundamentalists and their commitment to miracles as their own excuse for being really pisses me off. It's as though these people take a perverse pleasure in believing in things that demand faith; it's a passive aggressive, superior, elitist posturing that seems to point to the Bible as a Disneyland of special effects, whose inexplicability somehow makes them true. I have said before, that miracles are my stock-in-trade, a part of my daily routine, so I am not nearly as impressed by the miraculous events in the Bible as I am by the eternal realities, to which the Bible points a patient, steadfast finger--realities above and beyond the world in which miracles are unusual.

This quote about the eye of a needle is taken from a website conveniently entitled: The Eye of a Needle.

"...the eye of the needle, a small door fixed in a gate and opened after dark. To pass through, the camel must be unloaded. Hence the difficulty of the rich man. He must be unloaded, and hence the proverb, common in the East. In Palestine the "camel"; in the Babylonian Talmud it is the elephant".

This is the point I am driving at. The image of a camel going through the eye of a needle need not necessarily refer to some grotesquely impossible magic trick, but merely to the necessity of UNLOADING our worldly goods. Remember the Zen story I recently quoted from the age-of-the-sage.org website:

"A University Professor went to see Nan-in, a Zen Master, to find out more about Zen.
  As their meeting continued Nan-in was pouring Tea and continued to pour even though the cup was overflowing.
  The Professor cried. "Enough! No more will go in!"
  Nan-in replied "Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?""

As usual, the admonition of Jesus to His disciples is expressed in language that is both elevated, and poetic, yet of composed of extremely down-to-earth imagery. In order to enter the Kingdom of God we must UNLOAD. We don't need a MIRACLE from God to shrink us down to size, we need to get shut of our worldly attachment OURSELVES; we must perform an act of will OURSELVES; we must UNLOAD OUR OWN CAMEL.

This is why I was willing to quibble with the previous website author's leaning to the miraculous interpretation of this text: because people often use FAITH as an excuse for not taking responsibility for their own opinions. To me, Jesus' instruction to give away all you have is of practical import; he does not refer to the needle's eye to inspire wonder, but rather to plant the image in His disciples' minds of the mundane ACT of unloading the junk off their camels' back that keep them from getting through the gate. True, faith is involved, but this seems to me to be much more an issue of discipline, rather than faith--perhaps it describes some common ground where faith and discipline meet. People like to face a problem, then throw up their hands and give up trying to solve it, and turn to FAITH for their answers. Thus, whatever their peer group has determined, as a matter of policy, to be true becomes, not an article of mental laziness, but FAITH. Jesus has offered His help, but he NEVER said, "Take up thy cross and put it on MY back." Jesus says, "Take up THY cross and follow Me." Your cross is uniquely yours, and must not be mistaken for some idealized, or, rather, conventionalized communal cross. Conventional opinion is constantly confused with faith. Balderdash--that is not faith, that is weakness, for which the reward in heaven will be slight.

From New Advent: The moral doctrine of poverty, we read:

"Jesus Christ did not condemn the possession of worldly goods, or even of great wealth; for He himself had rich friends. Patristic tradition condemns the opponents of private property; the texts on which such persons rely, when taken in connexion with their context and the historical circumstances, are capable of a natural explanation which does not at all support their contention (cf. Vermeersch, "Quæst. de justitia", n. 210). Nevertheless it is true that Christ constantly pointed out the danger of riches, which, He says, are the thorns that choke up the good seed of the word (Matthew 13:22). Because of His poverty as well as of His constant journeying, necessitated by persecution, He could say: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests: but the son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20), and to the young man who came to ask Him what he should do that he might have life everlasting, He gave the counsel, "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor" (Matthew 19:16-21). The renunciation of worldly possessions has long been a part of the practice of Christian asceticism; the Christian community of Jerusalem in their first fervour sold their goods "and divided them to all, according as every one had need" (Acts 2:45), and those who embraced the state of perfection understood from the first that they must choose poverty."

Indeed, "Jesus Christ did not condemn the possession of worldly goods, or even of great wealth; for He himself had rich friends." The question is who is in charge--do you possess your possessions, or do they possess you? Spirit demands freedom from ALL earthly attachments not only "stuff" like cars, and houses, and VCRs, but more ephemeral "stuff" like reputation, position, social standing, etc. Wealth is assessed in terms of many different kinds of currency, and the wealth of fame can just as condemning as wealth of dollars.

In this quote from C.S. Lewis we hear:
"In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, [Lucifer] could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige."

We have spoken many times of the dangers of a too-compressed ego-definition. Clearly, Satan is the paradigmatic ego-maniac of all eternity, a black hole of ego definition that blocks out the light of God's love to all those who join with him in joyless self-involvement; and every time we indulge in ego-centric thoughts or behaviors, we are aligning ourselves with his demonic camp.

Anything that binds you to the physical dimension limits your potential for spiritual advancement. If you let your "stuff" take possession of you, you become like Marley's ghost, earth-bound, heavy, and imprisoned. You become IDENTIFIED with your "stuff" and lose your true self in its carnal bonds. And, obviously, the more "stuff" you have, the longer it will take to unload.

--in Lewis's The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader' we read:

"Sleeping on a dragon's hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself."

On a different note, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis says:

"It is by human avarice or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork."

Here we have a redefinition of the word "poverty." To Lewis, poverty is not a physical condition, but an ATTITUDE, and a STUPID ATTITUDE at that. Only the small-minded man need come to the conclusion that the absence of STUFF in his life is necessarily a bad thing. Thus, poverty is much more a state of mind than a physical condition. Or, if we think of our CAPACITY to POSSESS ANYTHING as limited by the size of the camel's back, perhaps Jesus is saying that we can only load SO MUCH on our camel, and if we have the camel loaded with spiritual treasures, there is simply no room left for worldly treasures. Perhaps a rich man has simply chosen the wrong "stuff" to load up his camel with.

--in The Problem of Pain Lewis points out that:

"He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself..."


"Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire."

This quote is from Barack Obama:

“Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.”

The question is whether this is an earthly realization or a heavenly realization.

From Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

"It was ever in the desert that the truthful have dwelt, the free spirits, as masters of the desert; but in the cities dwell the well-fed, famous wise men--the beasts of burden. For, as asses, they always pull the people's cart."

I rejoiced when I read that because it helped affirm my impoverished self as a cool dude. I have long thought of myself as a voice crying in the wilderness, and it felt good to have that image validated. Nietzsche's "well-fed, famous wise men" are referred to sarcastically; they are figures mentioned in a previous long section of the book, about men the world upholds as wise, who they are really only pompous. These "wise men" pull the people's cart; they serve the low visions and aspirations of common men who have no loftier goals than to think themselves better than their neighbors. Now, much of Nietzsche's writing is, quite frankly, sour grapes--clearly not ALL great men are without acceptance by the world--and yet the desert must ever be the dwelling place of true greatness because it will always remain inaccessible to the common man. The great man who is also successful has merely brought his desert to the city with him.

What follows is a piece I wrote when I first created my freemantlemusic.com website:
Escape from Success

"The Freemantle Music Conservatory just presented another baroque music concert
on June 13. The presentation was an artistic success; all the performances were solid technically, and very listenable by any standard. I played two concerti, the Bach Am Violin Concerto, and the Telemann Viola Concerto in G. I was once again asked the question that I have been asked many times since I came here, "What the heck is a musician of your level doing in this tiny, insignificant, backwater town?" It is a question I stopped asking myself years ago, but it is one that deserves an answer, because it is basic to what I am about, and what I am trying to do with my life.
One of the hardest lessons I have learned in life is that success depends not on what you can do, but who you do it for. In other words, success is only possible in the big city where all the main cultural venues are situated, and where, for better or worse, all the best people are forced to live. It took many years, but I eventually decided it was more important to me to live my everyday life in a place that was sane and safe. I'm sure my Asperger's condition has a lot to do with it, because I have never been comfortable with people in social situations; an over-populated environment was always a constant reminder of my inadequacy as a person, and an agonizing stress which, with age, became more and more unbearable. I had to choose between success before the footlights and a walk in the woods in my back yard. It was that simple.

I began my musical life in Chicago where I played with the Chicago Youth Symphony, and heard many top international classical music stars; my high school class boasted at least ten students who went on to major professional careers--my best friend, not one bit more gifted than I, is now recognized as an important American composer. After four years at the University of Illinois, where I studied with some of the world's most well-known composers and teachers, I went to Los Angeles.
In L.A. I worked with another group of front-line musicians, including David Raksin, the composer of the jazz standard, Laura, one of the most recorded songs in history; Raksin was taking me under his wing and recommending me for low-budget film music gigs, which, if I had followed through, would have given me a solid foot in the door of the film music business. After getting my M.A. in music composition from UCLA, I turned my back on an assistantship offered to me, an opportunity that would have permanently ensconced me in the sheltering arms of academia, for the balmy beaches of Santa Cruz, a place, which was, compared to L.A., a haven of calm. In Santa Cruz, once again I rose to the top of the heap, and was pretty well-known as a composer, conductor, and performer; I played with and wrote for some of the top musicians in San Jose and San Francisco.
And, although I enjoyed the notoriety and the recognition, not of the public but of these few famous people who respected me and considered me one of their own, I was still not satisfied with the world I lived in--a world of smog, traffic, noise, and psychic pollution; eventually I couldn't even walk to the beach anymore without being assailed by an army of skateboards and flying frisbies. When a high-speed police chase ended in a smashed car right in front of my house, just yards away from where my infant son was playing on the porch, I knew I had to escape further into the backwoods, and further away from success. I went to the Northwest, Pullman, Washington, and began another chapter in my flight from fame.
I admit that there is an element of arrogance involved in my escapist behavior. I was a child of the 60s, a long-haired hippy, and it was easy for me to reject all the established values of the 50s, including social respectability, and material acquisition. I placed a higher value on my freedom than on acceptance. My Asperger's condition already had condemned me to an outcast state, and the social rejection I suffered at the hands of insensitive, judgmental people colored all my ambitions--I felt there was no hope, so why try. I also realized that my gifts were extraordinary and that, for better or worse, I was ever so slightly ahead of my time. As my compositional accomplishments developed, it became clear to me that my work was beyond the ken of most of the people in bureaucratic positions who might have helped me if they wanted to. I didn't even enter composition competitions, which is the way many composers make their reputations, because I was sure that my music, outside the mainstream, would not be accepted.
Shortly after I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I stumbled into several activities that renewed my interest in success. Through my connection with the Spokane Symphony (I got a job playing section viola) I had a piece for piano and strings played by Stephan Koszinski, a pianist and conductor who has achieved some national fame. I met and collaborated with Portland composer Jackie T. Gabel, on several performances of my music, in exchange for my performance of his piece Hellenic Triptych for viola and electronics; Gabel also included a set of piano pieces of mine on a CD put out by his recording company, North Pacific Music. But most importantly, I hired on at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston Idaho as adjunct faculty. I taught there for eight years, establishing several community ensembles, including the college/community orchestra. By the end of my stay there I was doing much more teaching than either of the so-called full-time faculty, and had people traveling more than a hundred miles to study with me and play in my groups.
Unfortunately, when I dropped out of the Spokane Symphony, my opportunities in that town dried up, and my success at LCSC inspired me to do the singlemost stupid thing of my career--I left town to get a doctorate. I figured that if I could do so well teaching adjunct, I might as well get an advanced degree and get a REAL job. Little did I know that my Asperger's personality would condemn me once again to disappointment and failure. I distinguished myself in many ways at the University, and got many job interviews on the basis of my adjunct teaching experience, but when the smoke cleared, nobody would hire me for a permanent position and I wound up back in Pullman without even an adjunct appointment to show for my pains.

Alaska blew into my life on the winds of fate, and here I sit an anomaly of the Chugach Mountains. Here, I experienced the worst personal disaster of my entire life, but I also found myself a home. Many people have advised me to go to Fairbanks or Anchorage, as if that represented a move to the big city, but I remind them that I have already been to the big city--that's why I'm here.
Since leaving the Copper River School District I have begun several outreach activities, the most significant one being this website. But, in 2007, I also sent out e-mails to music teachers all over the state, and the result was a lovely performance of a piece I wrote for the Fairbanks Flutists, Dorli McWayne's flute choir, Aurora; this was the first quasi-professional performance of my music I had had in over five years. Through an odd stroke of luck I got connected to another flute choir director, Gail Edwards, and she played Aurora, in San Francisco in 2009, and again at a national flute conference in 2010. I also entered a few composition competitions; I received an Honorable Mention from an international flute composition competition in San Jose, and won a prize from the National Marimba League, resulting in my first and only publication. It seems that the world is catching up to me, and my musical style might actually be entering the mainstream at long last. I have always thought it would be possible to make it in the big city via long distance, and connections are now being forged with big city musical entities that appear to be hungry for what I have to offer. This after I had given up all hope. Go figure.
But let's face it, most of you out there in Mooseland couldn't care less about the struggles of a composer trying to carve out his niche in the temple of fame--you care about what he is doing for you and your kids. It is the most startling surprise of my life that I became a teacher and not an ivory tower recluse like my afore-mentioned best friend. That my highest ambition these days is to create performing musical organizations in Glennallen, Valdez, and Anchorage is astonishing beyond reason. And yet, it makes so much sense: I have always thought it was the man who made the music, not the music that made the man; and my sense of responsibility to distribute my gifts where they are most needed is the moral center from which the humanity of my music springs. Therefore, it is not for my career that I remain here, but for you, and you make me more myself. This can only result in better music. And if I never achieve the reputation of my peers in the big city, I know that in the daily activities of my life I am justified, and in heaven my reward will be great."

Thus, my vow of poverty, my PROFESSED FAILURE, has given me a sense of well-being; it has affirmed my best self as a SERVANT of God, and my camel's burden of mundane goods is light, while spiritual treasures crowd my world and point me toward heavenly immortality instead of a temporal reputation which, at the most, might stake a claim for me in the temple of fame worth mere minutes, or hours, or years by anybody's reckoning. Years, in a landscape of eternity--what a crummy deal! I thank God for sparing me the temptations associated with worldly success, because I have always thought of myself as weak; if God had not intervened and denied me the recognition I no doubt deserve, in one sense anyway, I might have traded my integrity for money, and that would have yielded a life of self-loathing instead of self-exaltation. If God knows my worth, what greater reputation do I need?

As to my physical necessities, I seem to be hobbling along okay--my family is not starving, and they all seem to be doing something worthwhile with their lives. I which I could have given them more, but perhaps that would have packed more "stuff" onto THEIR camels. I think that Jesus and the Saints habitually provide their workers in the field with JUST ENOUGH, and just enough, for me, is enough.

Let us pray: Jesus, thank You for all You have given us, and for all You have NOT given us. We commend ourselves to Your protection, and accept our daily bread in humble gratitude. Amen.

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