Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Thoreau’s Conscience

Every time I turn to the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, I always find the wisdom that I need in my life and is so sadly lacking in our world of experts and talking heads. Here is a sampling from my perusals today.

In his journal entry for August 18, 1854, he describes in great anatomical detail a Blanding’s turtle, Cistuda blandingii, and its movements. But then he concludes this journal entry with this paragraph:

I have just been through the process of killing the cistudo for the sake of science – but I cannot excuse myself for this murder, and see that such actions are inconsistent with the poetic perception, however they may serve science, and will affect the quality of my observations. I pray that I may walk more innocently and serenely through nature. No reasoning whatever reconciles me to this act. It affects my day injuriously. I have lost some self respect. I have a murderer’s experience in a degree.

This is how deeply Thoreau cared about the life around him – not just human life, but the life of all living beings in nature, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Every time I see magnificent animals in the wilds of Africa and Asia killed by poachers for profit and to satisfy the immoral desires of rich Americans and Chinese; every time I see images of wounded and abused animals here in our towns and neighborhoods; I wonder how horrible human beings are. Nothing of his troubled conscience troubles us, as we place the needs of our “lifestyle” above the survival of the very planet that is our home. No wonder Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “I pray that I may walk more innocently and serenely through nature,” Thoreau wrote to himself. Who among us prays such a prayer?

On June 10, 1857, Thoreau observed a snake:

In Julius Smith’s yard a striped snake (so called) was running about this forenoon and in the afternoon it was found to have shed its slough – leaving it halfway out a hole, which probably it used to confine it in. It was about in its new skin. Many creatures – devil’s needles, etc., etc. – cast their sloughs. Can’t I?

Indeed, Why can’t I? Why can’t I cast off the old nature and put on the new? Isn’t that Christ’s teaching? Aren’t those the words we pray at the Sacrament of Baptism? Are they just words? Is baptism just a ritual, just a photo op for a baby and godparents and parents? Does anything still have meaning in what we do as a church? Why can’t I? Why can’t we cast off the old and put on the new? Are we really Christians? Or just pagans in church disguise?

And one more entry, this one for August 21, 1851. A beautiful philosophical reflection on our bond with nature and all life – though Thoreau sees it more in animals rather than human beings. How do we relate to the animals and plant life that we feed on?

It is remarkable that animals are often obviously manifestly related to the plants which they feed upon or live among – as caterpillars – butterflies – tree toads – partridges – chewinks – and this afternoon I noticed a yellow spider on a goldenrod. As if every condition might have its expression in some form of animated being.


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God is Working Still

Jean Vanier introduces his meditation on chapter 5 of John this way:

The first time Jesus journeys with his disciples to Jerusalem he goes to the Temple, his “Father’s House.”

The second time he goes to an asylum where rejected people are lying around unwanted. This is also his Father’s home.

Jesus is calling his disciples to follow him as he goes towards the most rejected of people. He is revealing that he comes to heal the paralysis of our hearts and to lead us all into life.

That is an excellent way to introduce the Gospel pericope of the paralytic’s healing in John 5:1-15. The pool of Bethesda with the magic waters evokes picturesque images. But an asylum is what it really was – a place of abandonment, where parents left their children when they could not cope with their illnesses or handicaps. In that time, children born with a severe handicap were seen as punishment from God. People today still believe such things. People believe that God punishes people by bringing illness or other disasters into their homes.

The man has no friends, no family. He has no hope, even when Jesus asks him if he wants to be healed. He lives by superstition, belief in magic. Abandoned, loveless people resort to magic and superstition. Jesus wants nothing to do with that. He heals him. But the man is still not truly healed, as I will explain.

At the heart of this Gospel pericope is humankind’s struggle for liberation and wholeness. The obstacle to this yearning is always the old – especially the old structures of politics and religion. We see this in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4), a conversation that reaches its climax when Jesus says to her: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth… God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

This is always the struggle. We want to worship God in spirit and truth, we want to step out into the wide open spaces of healing and wholeness, but we are held back by religious boundaries, political walls, and superstitions. We are afraid. The man in today’s reading was afraid, even after his healing. When Jesus says to him,  “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse happen to you,” he is not implying that he was paralyzed because of sin. He is saying, You are whole; don’t go back to the fragmented ways of old beliefs and superstitions. Does he understand Jesus? It’s questionable. He goes right away to the religious authorities that had questioned him and revealed Jesus to them. That’s how strong allegiance to politics and religion can be. It’s questionable whether he was really healed.

The Gospel of John is about darkness and light, old life and new life. John declares this at the very beginning of his Gospel (John 1:1-17), that we read at the Liturgy of Easter night: “In the beginning was the Word… In him was life, and the life was the light of human beings. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The darkness is still around us – and not all from outside sources, as our politicians and religious leaders would have us believe. But Jesus is still working. Immediately after the healing of the paralytic at the pool, John goes on to tell us how Jesus answered the religious leaders who were hounding him, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” Knowing that Jesus is still working, keeps me going. He is still the light that shines in the darkness; he is your life and my life.