I recently heard the story of a sultan from Malaysia, whose golf game had gone to wrack and ruin. Impatient, and unwilling to put in the practice to correct a terrible slice to the right, he did the next best thing. He simply ordered that the trees lining the right side of every fairway be chopped down. In one fell swoop he turned adversity to advantage, and by imperial fiat his bad slice had become a brilliant stroke, each and every time.
For most of us such a miracle is beyond our reach. Life’s challenges continue to confront us, and we cannot wish them away. Nor do we have at our disposal a menu of options as extensive as the sultan’s menu. Nor can we abruptly change the rules and declare that our faults are really virtues. When we do so, we may fool ourselves for a while; but our neighbors are not so easily convinced. Sooner or later ours will be the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, because the innocents will see right through us.
Self-delusion has been around for a long time, and we might even make the case that it was the original sin. So while the Genesis story includes Adam and Eve and forbidden fruit, the point was not really about restrictions on certain kinds of fruit or produce. It’s true that God had forbidden them to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; but it was their act of rationalization that did the damage. In their minds they turned behavior that had been a sin into a virtue. Even worse, it became God’s sin rather than theirs. After all, did not God look with envy on their growing knowledge and freedom? Why should they not be able to experience everything and be free to do all? Only a vengeful and jealous God would impose such restrictions. So it was that rationalization led to action, and they soon realized their mistake. This was no victimless crime, because they had hurt themselves first and foremost. They had chosen poorly.
That tendency toward self-delusion has been with us ever since, and we’ve all resorted to it every now and again. It should come as no surprise, then, that it’s imbedded in our cultural mores, or that marketers capitalize on it with great success. As modern surrogates for the serpent, they urge us to “have it your way” and to “just do it.” And lyrics like Sinatra’s in his song I Did It My Way merely affirm that there are only benign consequences when you make up your own rules.
Not for a moment do I suggest that we adhere to rules for rules’ sake, and for this I take my cue from Genesis once again. God certainly gave to Adam and Even boundaries and limits, but with them came the gifts of imagination and curiosity and ingenuity and creativity. What was the point of all this generosity? God intended that we use our wits to sort the good from the evil, and the wise course of action from the foolish. In other words, God gave us wisdom, but there is no virtue in storing it in the cabinet to keep it in mint condition. Rather, there are more than enough occasions on which to roll out our wisdom, use it, and perhaps even wear it out until it becomes an old and comfortable shoe.
I’ve always been intrigued by Saint Benedict’s description of the four classes of monks, because it’s applicable well beyond the cloister walls. But when it comes to the fourth kind of monk, the sarabaite, his description is in effect the embodiment of self-delusion. “What they like, they call holy. And what they dislike, they call sinful.” These are the monks who do pretty much whatever they want, and then they baptize their behavior and call it good. There are no limits on what they can or can’t do, because in their ego-centric worlds they alone matter.
That pretty much describes the little world of Adam and Eve as they reached for the metaphorical apple, and it sums up the little worlds we create for ourselves every now and again. You and I are chips off the old block, and our own self-delusion can be as breathtaking as theirs. But is ours original? Certainly not.
There’s only a few days left to Lent, and it would be a shame to let slip the opportunity to inventory our lives. Saint Benedict urges his monks to live every day is if it were a Lenten observance, but I can tell you from experience that most monks don’t succeed very well at that. So the next best thing is to use Lent as best we can, short though it is, and leave the other days to fend for themselves.
In these few days then it may be worthwhile to remember that how we live does impact the lives of others. How we justify our own actions will not be lost on our fellows, either. Equally important is one standard we ought to apply when we evaluate all our actions: the good we fail to do hurts people just as much as the evil we end up doing. So every bit of our lives counts for something. That’s both a challenge as well as a comfort — just in case you ever wondered whether your life mattered. It most certainly does.
Finally, there are days when I envy that sultan on the golf course, but not many. All in all, I’d rather own up to real talents than to pretend I have what I don’t have. Call it what you will, for example, a slice is still a slice, no matter how many trees you chop down. At the end of the day everyone knows the real score, and no one has any doubt about the value that we add to the people around us.
As for me, I long ago discovered how horrible I was at golf. The day I quit was the day I teed off, sliced the shot to the right and hit a semi on the interstate. I knew I was no sultan and that I could not move the interstate further to the right. So I owned up to the fact that I and golf had no future together. The good news is that I went on to find other useful things to do, and that’s made all the difference.
+On Sunday, April 6th, I presided at the Masses and preached at Holy Trinity Church in El Dorado Hills, CA, outside of Sacramento. The sermon, Jesus is no Superhero, can be found under Presentations. I came to Holy Trinity at the invitation of Msgr. Jim Kidder, a friend and fellow chaplain in the Order of Malta, and while there I gave a Lenten retreat to members of the parish.
+On April 3rd Abbot Primate Notker Wolf OSB came to visit Saint John’s Abbey and spoke on leadership to a gathering of monks, faculty, staff and students at Saint John’s University. As abbot primate he presides over nearly 1,000 Benedictine monasteries around the world, though I cannot imagine he has the time to visit them all. He has recently published a book reflecting his experience over the years. Entitled The Art of Leadership, it is available through The Liturgical Press at Saint John’s.
+Since the waning days of World War II the monks of Saint John’s have been making maple syrup, and the effort is underway in full force. For the sap to run, the temperatures need to be freezing at night and above freezing during the day, and at long last we’ve reached that point. On a recent education day nearly a thousand people took tours of the woods and cooking facility. Brother Walter has led in this effort for many years, and we all enjoy the product of those crisp early spring days.
+There is a great deal of wonderful music that enhances these Lenten days. At the risk of offending a host of wonderful composers and choirs, I recommend one of my favorites, Libera, from the United Kingdom. Their variation on Stabat Mater provides a peaceful and beautiful meditation during a busy day.
+The pictures in today’s post all come from photos I took at Holy Trinity Church in El Dorado Hills. The site of the parish is stunning, perched at 1,300 feet above the valley. From their hill they can see Sacramento to the west and the snow-covered mountains to the east. There is much wildlife on the hill, including lots of turkey. They greeted us at the rectory every morning at 7 am, and at the end of one sermon that I delivered there was a loud gobble from the peanut gallery outside the window. It is a veritable Garden of Eden, complete with warnings about the snakes.