"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
During the years I was in seminary, we spent a lot of time sitting around tables. Sometimes the fare was food; sometimes it was ideas, but for hours, we sat, staring into one another’s faces, trying to figure out who we were, what nourished us, and what we were all doing there.
As much as I loved seminary, it was also very hard. It took me a very long time to convince anyone that God was really calling me to the priesthood, leaving me to work toward a degree in a field I had no assurance I would ever be able to practice. It’s a deep story of learning humility, but it is not the story I am going to tell you today. Today, I am going to tell you the story of someone that I met along the way.
I’ll call her Helen. Helen arrived at CDSP during my second year. She was a very large and imposing woman with a face set into what appeared to be a permanent scowl. She favored sitting in corners. It began to be whispered around that Helen came with an interesting history. She had been a nun. Now she wanted to be a priest. And, some said, she was really, really angry.
Anger was kind of cool in those days of liberation theology, and because of my troubles with my vocations committee and my own nature, I had a bit too much fondness for holy rage. I wanted to know Helen’s story. So one day I approached her, and after some preliminary greetings, said, with not a little admiration, “I hear you were a nun.”
“I was,” she retorted in a strong voice. “But I left. It was a totally abusive experience.”
In the language of that time, abusive was the worst thing you could call anyone. We thought a lot about how we used things and people, and to be used badly, which is what abuse means, was the ultimate violation of our contract with the universe. “I’ve been abused!” was the cry of all of us who felt hurt by members of our family, by circumstance, by the dominant culture. Abuse was the 1990’s answer to Original Sin. The idea that we might be here to do something other than use people and things had yet to occur to most of us.
This was the spirit in which Helen told her story.
It was the week she was stuck with kitchen duty. She had spent two hours scrubbing the kitchen floor on hands and knees until it gleamed, and was just knocking off, when another sister, wearing muddy boots, turned up at the back door. Helen was about to ask her to take off her boots, when the other sister walked right in, tromped across the sparkling floor, and left a trail of muddy prints behind her. “Just look at what you have done.” To which the other shrugged and said, “That’s your problem.”
“She did it on purpose,” Helen said. “It was at that moment that I realized that this whole place was dysfunctional and abusive, and that I could not take it any longer.”
“That’s terrible,” I agreed. I could certainly feel her hurt and her rage, and knew I would be quite furious in her place, but for some reasons, her story left me very unsettled.
“It’s all a matter of intention,” said my husband when I shared the story with him yesterday morning. “If the other sister was just being thoughtless and uncaring, then it was wrong. But if she was making a point about patience and humility, then, that would be a different matter.”
I thought about it for a moment, and knowing what I know, said, “I suspect that it was a little of both.”
Since then, I have read a lot of monastic literature from both Christian and Buddhist traditions, and I can tell you that Helen’s was not the first floor to have been wrecked. You may know the teaching about the Zen monk who rakes the garden path perfectly and the moment it is done, in walks the teacher, messes everything up and orders the monk to start all over again. Or the Tibetan saint Milarepa who had to build an entire tower three times because his master Marpa kept knocking it down. The point of these stories is that we don’t do these things in order to be finished with them, but to keep doing a difficult and menial task until the act becomes more important than the accomplishment, and emptied of ego, the mind may at last see clearly. To take pride in doing what is expected is false pride. True humility, which is the ability of see and hear without self-interest, is gained by overcoming attachments to the ego and living in the simplicity and fulness of the moment. This is what monastics practice. The wise teacher often instructs by driving his pupil to the very brink.
All this sounds very romantic when set in the contemplative world of the mysterious East, but none of our professors in seminary appeared to be that kind of teacher. Quite the contrary, most of them came across as little more than versions of ourselves with advanced degrees, and thus upsets and disappointments typically felt more like abuse than parables.
From which I derived two pearls of wisdom:
The first is not so pleasant. I think that, whatever the circumstance, it may be impossible to learn humility without feeling humiliated.
The second is more fun. I think that wise teachers in real life are more invisible than wise teachers in books.
Was there a wise mother at the monastery who sat down with Helen and helped her sort out her conflicting emotions? Was the wise mother disguised as the thoughtless sister? Did Helen even ask? Or like most of us, was she protecting herself in a winner take all world?
And what of today’s Gospel? Are we meant to catch Jesus making a mistake when he refuses the Syro-Phonecian woman’s request? Is it important that Jesus be shown up by a woman? Is this even a story about mistakes and comeuppances? I’m always tempted to read it that way, but then, inevitably, I remember Helen jumping to conclusions about her kitchen floor. Maybe Jesus is appearing to make a mistake in order to show me my own.
Maybe Jesus is being a wise teacher and refusing a good request in the hopes of hearing a better one. Maybe the teaching is less about Jesus and the Syro-Phonecian woman and more about the dogs under the table. Maybe what I take for my own vast spiritual depth is nothing more than the crumbs and leavings of a far greater banquet. Or maybe this story is a counterpoint to last week’s story, when Jesus teaches that it is not outer things that define us, but what lies within. The Syro-Phonecian shows great purity of heart. She also proves herself a wise teacher. In a world that denigrated women’s minds, this is significant. The mother’s wisdom, not Jesus’ hand, cures the daughter. After that, Jesus heals a deaf person who is cut off in another way. Outwardly he is fine, but his inner life is truncated because he cannot hear any Word of God.
There’s more. In both stories, Jesus insists on a level of secrecy. After healing the deaf man, “Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure.”
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is always telling the people he heals not to say anything about what happened. Is this, too, like the kitchen floor that we have just mopped, a provisional moment? Are we to keep quiet about our spiritual transformations until others have had the chance to cross over them with the muddy boots of life? That’s what my vocations committee was doing for me when they held me back. They were thwarting my best laid plans, and they were right.
To jump to conclusions, says the author of the Epistle of James, is to show partiality, and “if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” We are not to make distinctions between rich and poor, between ourselves and the Syro-Phonecians, between our hard work and the sister in the muddy boots, between the city and the natural world. This sounds great in theory, but is nearly impossible in practice. I’ve never been able to walk into a room without making distinctions. It’s very human.
The mystics tell us to proceed with caution. They have cleaned enough floors, raked enough gardens and built enough towers to know that even the things we believe with the most intensity might not be true at all. Religion exists to help me to turn my mind away from appearances and toward a deeper, more generous truth. Away from judgment and more toward simple observation, away from talking about things off the top of my head and more the hard work of understanding.
After decades of wrestling with this, I think nature is the ultimate monastic kitchen. Nature makes no distinctions. You can’t bargain with a thunderstorm any more than you can bargain with God. That is nature’s beauty and her terror. Like God, Nature gives, and nature takes away. One of the gifts of living in Marin County is that we still have large swaths of the natural world from which to learn, but even here, we are human, and temptations of wealth and prestige turn us away from nature, and its limits, to pride in our own ability to surpass limits, to invent and tweek endless possibilities. We run for the cure, forgetting that all must eventually die. We are so busy that it gives us all an excuse not to think.
Until the late 19th century, all of California was so rich in life that it took people’s breath away. To come here in the spring was to encounter carpets of wild flowers as far as the horizon, what John Muir called “bee pastures.” One could see the snowy Sierra from the Berkeley hills. One old timer, Bill Barnes, who died in 1954, remembered when 2000 antelope came to drink at a water hole, when millions of birds congregated on Pelican Island to raise their young, when inland otters were plentiful and playful. Others remember a living water table so rich and so high that even with our dry season, the trees were huge, their branches raised toward flocks of migrating birds so thick that their passage darkened the sky. Today, I feel blessed if I see twenty geese flying overhead on my way to work. Being human, we made a distinction between those gifts and the wealth that could be leeched from them, and today, the great valley at the heart of our state is slowly dying, the living waters turning saline from evaporation, the soils laced with pesticides. Our ancestors encountered divine mystery, but their eyes were blinded by gold, as if seeing their faces through a glass, darkly.
Mirrors are universal symbols of illusion. Of confusing my image with myself. Paul writes of mirrors. James writes of mirrors. Teresa of Avila writes of mirrors. And so does Mohawk shaman Okhi Siminé Forest. Like the psalmist, she believes that God has delivered us to a place of reckoning, a wall of mirrors at the edge of existence.
“To go beyond the wall of mirrors,” she writes, “the final challenge is to pass through a tiny door. To do this, we must make ourselves very, very small. To be very humble. On the other side is a clear pond. There, for the first time, we’ll be able to see our true reflection.”
This is amazingly Biblical. Jesus tells us to follow the Narrow Way. He transformed himself into bread and wine. We end up beside the still waters. Earth becomes floor beneath our feet, upon which our sacred table rests. The Syro-Phonecian woman reminds us that can have no salvation without the otters, the pelicans and the dogs at our feet. We can have no salvation without the Other. We can have no salvation unless we are willing to get dirty. AMEN.