Saturday, April 2, 2011

Quiet Day: Talk 1

This is the first of three talks I gave on a Sisters of Bethany Quiet Day on 26th March 2011.  The other two talks can be accessed from links at the end of this post.


Its really good to be with you: and I pray that you are going to find this Day of Quiet to be an enriching experience.  I don't know about you, but I find that I don't spend nearly enough time alone and aside from the day to day pressures of life.  My prayer for all of us is that by the end of today, we will find that we've made new connections with God - and that we find that we have eaten spiritual food for the Journey that God calls each of us on.

During the day, I'm going to be offering three talks. Two will be quite in depth - here at the beginning, and then later in the day.  The second talk will be more of a homily - a few thoughts during the Midday Mass.  These talks are, I hope, going to help all of us - myself included -  to refocus on a very important question.  Its a question which undergirds our life and our faith. Its a philosophical question which, if we can answer it well, should inspire us to see ourselves and God in a new light.  What is that question?  Here it is...

Who am I?

That's it.  There are supplemental questions too.  Questions like 'why am I here?'.  And 'where did the Universe come from?'  But at the root, the most basic question that any of us can ask is 'Who am I?'

As I've said, this is a philosophical question.  I imagine that the word 'philosophy' is a slightly nerve-racking word to some of you.  It perhaps conjures up names like Aristotle, Heidegger and Kant...and long, technical words like existentialism.  But please don't worry.  What I'd like to do in the next 20 minutes is share with you something of my personal love of seeking wisdom.   The Love of Wisdom is, of course, an intently Biblical idea.  According to the first chapter of the Book of Proverbs,  "Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice.  At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: 'How long, O Simple Ones, will you love being simple?  How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?"

Let me start by breaking down the word 'philosophy' itself.  It is an ancient Greek word, made up of two separate words.  Philo - which is one of the words that the Greeks used for 'love'.  The second part of the word, 'sophy' - comes from the Greek word 'sophia' which simply means 'wisdom'.  So 'philosophy' is 'the love of wisdom'.  A philosopher is someone who loves wisdom.  That's all it means.  So please don't let the word frighten you!   

Perhaps the best way to approach wisdom-thinking is to ask a few wisdom-seeking questions.  These are the kind of questions which people of every age, and every culture, have always been asking.  Questions like: how was the world created?  Is there any active, living Will behind what happens?   Or is life just a series of random events?  Is there life after death?  Perhaps one of the most important questions that lovers of wisdom have asked is 'How should we live?'  Or put more succinctly, the question we have already asked, 'Who am I?'

For me, that question acts as a focus for all the other questions.  Am I a random, chance event...just a collection of chemicals that have randomly come together to make me?  Or am I the product of a Force, a Will, a Creator who has deliberately desired that I should live now, at this moment, in this time and place?

Studying philosophy can be a bit like a detective story.  Some detectives might think that Smith was the murderer, or Jones, or Green.  Or perhaps they were all involved.  Perhaps they all planned the murder, and were all involved - but only one of them pulled the trigger.  How can you tell?  Sometimes the police can solve a crime - but sometimes they just can't get to the bottom of it.  Perhaps there is not enough evidence.  Or perhaps the evidence is in conflict with another piece of evidence.  But whether the crime can be solved or not, there was still a crime.  It's the same with questions of truth.  There may only be one right answer to a question...or there may be many...perhaps different shades of truth.  But there is a solution somewhere - if only we can find it.

It's the same with philosophy - the love of wisdom.  Some philosophical questions can have only one right answer.  Either there is a God, or there isn't.  Either there is life after death, or there isn't.  The philosopher's task, like a detective, is to sift the available evidence - and arrive at a reasonable conclusion.

One of the greatest Philosophers was called Plato...who based his writing on the thoughts of his teacher and mentor, Socrates.  Plato believed that philosophy sprang out of human beings' sense of wonder.   Over time, humans had developed the ability to think about themselves.  They became, in the words of another philosopher, "the man who knows that he knows".  That's what the term 'homo sapiens' means...and is, in fact a contraction of the original phrase...'homo sapiens sapiens'...the man who knows that he knows. 

Have you every thought about that before?  Have you ever wondered what makes us different from other thinking creatures on this planet.  Consider a dog, for example.  If you've ever owned a dog, you will know that dogs can certainly think.  My dog is very able to think about how to sneak food out of the cat's bowl!  Dogs definitely think - and they definitely feel. You should see how depressed my dog gets when she can't get anyone to give her a tidbit from the table.  And how happy she gets when a certain favourite visitor comes to call...especially one who throws a ball for her.  But the difference between me and my dog, is that I can, sort of, stand outside myself, and realise that I think.  I can think about the process of thinking.  I am a man who knows that he knows.

Once human beings had developed that ability to know that they knew things - many thought that it was astonishing that they had that ability...and astonishing that they were alive at all.  It was so astonishing to be alive that philosophical questions began to arise of their own accord.

According to a modern-day philospher, called Jostein Gaarder, its like watching a magic trick.  We cannot understand how the trick is done.  So we ask: how can the magician change a silk scarf into a white rabbit?  A lot of people experience the world with the same sense of wonder as an audience who watch a magician.  In the case of the rabbit, we know the magician has tricked us.  What we would like to know is how he did it. 

But in the world, it's somewhat different.  We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception, because here we are, in it; we are part of it.  Actually, says Gaarder, we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat - the world, and our very existence is so amazing, so improbable, that we are a kind of living magic trick.  The only difference between us and the rabbit, is that we know we are taking part in the trick.  We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.

Philosophers, throughout the millennia, have tried to help us understand how the magic trick works.  They have tried to expand our consciousness of the world around us, and of our place in the world.  They have forced us to ask the hard questions, the deep questions:  why am I here?  Who am I?  How was the world made?

The trouble is, as philosophers have complained all through time, many people just don't want to do the hard work of thinking about those sorts of things.  Many people are happy to go through life just being told what to think - and what to believe.  Many homo sapiens simply never get to the point of being sapiens sapiens!  Worse still, some people never get beyond working at the level of simple instinct...the instinct to survive, or the instinct to destroy, or to dominate, or control.

Some time ago I walked out of my house to find that a drainpipe from my garage was hanging off the wall.  I thought it was odd.  Perhaps someone had accidentally knocked it with their car while turning in the street? But then, as I walked on down the road, I discovered that the house next door had also got its drain-pipe hanging off.  And the next one.  And the next one.  It quickly became clear that some individual had systematically gone down the street destroying drainpipes. 

Why?  What possible reason could anyone have for mindlessly destroying drainpipes?  Perhaps at some instinctive level, someone had simply decided that they enjoyed the sound of drainpipes creaking and cracking before falling off.  Perhaps someone had lost control over something in their life...perhaps a partner had left them...and this small act of vandalism was a way of showing themselves that they still could control something in their life?  Who knows?  What was clear though, was that this was not the act of someone who has asked the philosophical questions.  Who am I?  What am I here for?  This was someone who was acting at a purely instinctive level of a dog who chases reflections endlessly around the lawn.  Pure instinct.  This was someone with no sapiens sapiens.

Sadly, as philosophers have observed across the millennia, this is the standard pattern for many human beings.  We see it, all too often, in our own streets, and among our own families and neighbours.  People get stuck into the dull routine of getting up, going to work, slumping in front of the box...and then doing it all over again.  They so rarely stop to gaze at the magnificence of a sunset, or the intricate beauty of a flower.  Rarely do many people stop to ask themselves even the most basic sapiens sapiens question - like 'what makes my relationship with my partner work?'.  Even less do most people ask themselves the question 'Why am I here?'.

Jostein Gaarder continues his analogy about the white rabbit by saying that we can see the rabbit as the Universe.  A wondrous thing, brought into existence by forces that look like magic to us.  And yet, most human beings choose to bury themselves in the fur of the rabbit...where it is warm and cosy...where nothing can frighten or challenge.  Lovers of Wisdom are those rare individuals who are prepared to climb up one of the hairs, and to peer out at the Universe.  In Gaarder's words: 'Philosophers are always trying to climb up the fine hairs of the fur in order to stare right into the magician's eyes'.

Plato - that ancient Greek lover of wisdom - used another analogy for this same dilemma.  He effectively said to his readers:  most people live as though they were dwellers in a cave.  Such people spend their whole lives standing in one position - staring at the back-wall of the cave.  Behind them is a light, and in front of the light, other people are moving wooden cut-outs of worldly objects - making shadows on the wall in front of the cave dwellers.  For the cave dwellers, this is all there is to life.  To them, a house is just a shadow of the outline of a house.  A tree is just a long shape with a fluffy bit on top.

Imagine what would happen if one day, one of the cave dwellers turned around, and saw what was happening behind them.  How excited they would be to discover that there was more to life...that, in the first instance, a house was not a shadow, but a firm outline made of wood.  Imagine then that our rebellious cave-dweller realises that the light, behind the cut-outs, is coming from further fact from the entrance to the cave.  Astonished at this discovery, the cave-dweller walks towards the light - and then, in the full glare of the sun, he discovers what a house is really like, and how wonderful is a tree!

Plato suggests that this is the kind of journey that philosophers - lovers of wisdom - can make.  Philosophers are those of us who are no longer content with a world of shadows.  Philosophers want to walk towards the light...and find the source of life.

That is, ultimately, the force that drives me to a life of faith.  I like to think that I am one of those people who climb up the hairs of the white rabbit's fur...and try to look the Magician in the eye.    

The philosopher's road has been a fascinating journey for me so far.  I think that I have only just begun to scratch the surface of the big questions - the 'who am I?' sort of questions.  I believe, for example, that my life has a purpose - and that I am not a random accident of fate.  I believe that there is a Creative Force, out there, something greater than I can ever conceive...and that somehow, I am linked to the rest of the Universe, through that Creative Force.

I choose to make my journey of discovery a Christian one.  I believe that Jesus was more connected to that Creative Force than anyone else who has ever lived...and that he was uniquely in tune with the big questions.  I follow his teachings because they make sense to me, on a philosophical level.  They give me a framework around which I can fine-tune my own, personal understanding of the 'who am I?' question.  Who am I?  I am a child of God, made in the image of God.  What is my purpose?  It is to live for God, and to show God to others.  It is to stand in the door-way of the Cave, and to call back to the other cave-dwellers 'come and see what it is like in the sunlight!'.

However, as a philosopher - a lover of wisdom - I don't claim that I have got all the answers.  Do you remember Socrates...the mentor of Plato?  Socrates was executed by people who didn't like the fact that he would spend all his time going around telling people that they don't actually know anything.  He had an irritating habit of seeking out people who thought they were wise, and then like a child who keeps asking 'why', he would gradually reduce them to having to admit that they didn't know anything.  He famously said, "True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us."  Or to put it more pithily: "One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing"

In a rather longer explanation, at his trial which was recorded by Plato, Socrates related how he came to a conclusion about a supposedly wise man whom he had interviewed.  He said this,

"Well I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know."

There is an inbuilt humility in that line of thinking.  The person who thinks they have understood everything is a fool.  But the man - or woman - who knows that they do not such a person, God can work.  The book of proverbs reminds us, again in chapter 1, that 'the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge'.  

The Christian philosopher takes that as their starting point.  The Christian philosopher knows instinctively - by the gift of knowledge from the Spirit - that the Lord is the magician - who is pulling the Universe out of the hat.  Standing at the tip of one of the hairs of the rabbit's fur, the Christian tries to look into the face of God.   And there, the Christian philosopher begins to ask those very important questions which I am going to leave you to ponder for yourselves this morning.

But before I set you those questions, let me just conclude with a couple more of my favourite quotes from Socrates...

  • What a lot of things there are a man can do without.
  • Ordinary people seem not to realise that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death
  • An unexamined life is not worth living.
  • No man undertakes a trade he has not learned, even the meanest; yet everyone thinks himself sufficiently qualified for the hardest of all trades, that of government. 
  • And finally, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, Socrates said, "By all means get married. If you get a good wife you will become happy, and if you get a bad one you will become a philosopher".

Now.  Some questions.  You are of course at liberty to do whatever you like with this Quiet Day.  Walk in the garden, sit in silence in the chapel.  Leaf through books, or stare at the intricate beauty of a flower.  But let me encourage you to take two questions with you as you do these things.  Two questions which I encourage you roll around inside your head.  

Question 1:  Who am I?  No doubt, you will have a straight answer to that question.  But whatever the answer is...take it further.  Develop the thought, make the thought real, examine it in the light of Christ.  For example, if the answer to the question is: "I'm a worthless worm"...then ask yourself, whether that is actually true.  Challenge yourself to see all the good that your life has accomplished.  All the people you've loved along the way.  Ask yourself how God sees you...and whether God may have something when he says "You are my precious child".

Question 2:  Why am I here?  What is the purpose of your life? What are you here to accomplish?  Are there any changes you need to make in order to accomplish it.

I will be available all morning if you want to roll those questions - or any others - around with me.  When we come back together for the Midday Mass, we're going to think in a slightly more Lenten way about the power of forgiveness.

But for now, go, in the peace of Christ.  Ask yourself the questions, in the presence of God, and conscious always of God's unconditional love for you, his precious, precious child.

To read the next Talk in this series of 3, please click here

To read the third and final talk in this series of 3, please click here
Further reading:  
For those wishing to dip their toe into the world of philosophy, I heartily recommend"Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder

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