The Snake in the Grass
by Fr. Jack McArdle
I want to begin by looking at human nature, and try to understand why we are the way we are, and why we do what we do. I will speak of our human nature, as if it were "out there", apart from us, something we can hold away from ourselves, and examine. In the following chapter I will look at how we are managing our human nature, and how we might be able to do a better job. Let me bring you back many years, to when I was a child.
I was one of a family of thirteen children, and we were being reared during the war—the Second World War, I hasten to add! Anyhow, things were scarce and most items were rationed. In other words, we were allowed a certain amount of bread, flour, butter, sugar, etc., for every member of the family. As most of us kids went off sugar during one Lent or the next, and most stayed off it, my mother still collected her rations of sugar, and we used have a whole lot of home-made jam those days.
Home-made bread was the normal bread available those times, because the loaf, available in the shops, limited as it was, was a brown, sticky, half-baked thing that weighed like a wet sod of turf. Anyhow, my mother baking bread was a ritual to behold in our house. Because of all the kids, there was plenty of flour and buttermilk needed, and the bigger the table on which to work, the better. For me, as a kid, the most exciting part was when the raisins were added. My mother was generous with these, unlike some neighbours, whom we believed, as kids, that they had just put the dough in the oven, and, as an after-thought, a few raisins were thrown in on top.
Let us stop the operation for a moment, to reflect on how I see this now, many years later.
Life is a journey, and the further up the hill I climb, the more of the countryside I can see, in the distance. The mixture of flour, buttermilk, soda, salt, and raisins was called dough, and it had nothing to do with money! That was in the days when software meant cotton underwear, heavy metal was steel guirders on a building site, and B.S.E. meant 'blame someone else'!
If I take the dough, just before it goes into the oven, may I suggest that it represents our human nature, and the raisins represent the weaknessess that are part of what we are. From a health point of view, the dough should have a government health warning on it! There are aspects of our nature that can be quite destructive, like anger, jealousy, or deceit. We will follow through on this idea for another while. OK?
My mother then took a rolling-pin, and rolled out the dough into a large thin layer. Then, with a tumbler, held upside down, and dipped in dry flour, she proceeded to cut out scones. I would suggest that each one of us could be represented by one of the scones. I hope you are not too offended by being compared to a scone! Anyhow, each scone has its own selection of the raisins, just as each of us has our own divide of human weaknessess. The raisins in one scone are obviously different raisins from those in the next one. In a family, one son can be a helpless alcoholic, or drug addict, while his brother still has his Confirmation pledge, and, who knows, he may even still have his First Communion money!
From a very early age, one lad can show signs of being a real book-worm, while the other has never shown the slightest interest in learning, or schoolwork of any kind. Now, it is important to remember, that each has an equal divide of the raisins, that each has his own personal weaknessess, that none has escaped. One lad may be a drug addict, or he may be continually testing authority, and his brother may appear to be a real angel, when compared to him. However, if all the truth was known, the drug addict may have more good nature in his little finger than the other lad has in his whole body. One may be so good at keeping the good side out, and at hiding the shady side, that it might take a while to really get to know such a person, and to discover what sort of person he really is. I have often seen pupils in school, who seemed to always be in the wars. The truth could well be that, such a person is so open, and lacks a sleaky cunningness, and is always getting caught! I have always had a quiet admiration for such people.
It is a generally accepted fact that, if we gathered a group of people in a room, and if we could actually swop weaknessess with each other, that, before an hour is over, all would be demanding the return of their own personal weaknessess! We say that God fits the back for the burden, and we also say that it takes all kinds to make the world! The human race is like a huge mirror, that is taken off the wall, and shattered into many pieces, and a separate piece is entrusted to each individual. Each person reflects a different part of God's creation, even right down to a finger-print, which, in each case, is uniquely different, and can never be duplicated. If we could put all the pieces together, I believe that we would then reflect the face of God.
How impossible it is for one piece of the mirror to imagine what the whole mirror might look like! It is important, however, to remember, that, as a piece of that mirror, I have an equal claim on the whole mirror, on the whole creation, to be on this planet, as much as any other person that has ever lived. That is the great tragedy, and the terrible injustice, when one part of the mirror becomes a tyrant, or a dictator, and assumes the right to destroy millions of the other parts.
In the early story of creation, we are told that, when God created something, he saw that it was good. And, of course, it was good, because, as Herb Barks would say, "God don't make no junk". What happened to that creation, to the dough, before someone added the raisins? We call this original sin. We all have heard the story of Adam and Eve, and their disobedience, in the Garden.
Now, what we must remember about the Bible, and especially the earlier parts of it, is that it is made up of stories that were told around camp fires, for thousands and thousands of years, by a people who were always on the go, from one place to another. The word that is used to describe them is that they were a nomadic people, just as, to this day, there are nomads wandering through the desert lands of the Middle East. They were a people without roots, without a fixed abode, and, of course, they could neither read nor write. The stories were passed from generation to generation, and. of course, those stories lost nothing in the telling. If there was a car accident down at the corner, witnessed by five people, you can be sure that not all five will give an identical account of what happened.
There is one thing about the stories in the early part of the Bible, and, that is, that each contains a truth, even if the description of what actually happened is not literally true. For example, could Noah have built an ark that held two of every animal in the world, at that time, and could he have taken enough food on board to feed both animals and people for such a long time? It is very unlikely. The truth, however, is that God preserved those whom he had chosen, and how that happened doesn't really matter.
Let me put it another way. Suppose there is an accident down the road, in which John Murphy falls off his bicycle, and is killed. Now, the truth is that John Murphy is dead. To tell his wife that he was really lucky, because he was killed by falling off his bicycle, instead of being killed by a bus, is very little consolation to her! The fact is, her husband is dead, and that's the bottom line.
Were there actually two people called Adam and Eve, and did they really eat an apple from a forbidden tree, and mess up all of God's plan? Again, I would answer that it doesn't really matter, because all the story is telling us is that God's people tried to put themselves above him, and outside of his plan and purpose for them, and, in that way, the plan was rejected by them.
The story tells us that Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel, and that Cain killed Abel. Did Cain actually kill Abel? Once again, I say, that what happened was that, when people turned against God, they then turned against each other. That is the truth being conveyed by the story, and it would be wrong to take it as literal truth.
There was film made quite recently about four people wrongly convicted, and imprisoned, for a pub bombing in England. Some people were annoyed with the director of the film, and accused of not sticking exactly to what happened, and embellishing the story here and there. If I look at the film, however, without the need to be exactly correct in every detail, then, of course, it does tell the story that happened, and I end up knowing the story, who were imprisoned, for how long, and what brought about their release.
God's people believed a lie, foolishly letting their pride and ambition get in the way, and, as a result, they came under new management. They came under the sway of the father of lies. We are told, in the story, that up to that time, everything was open, innocent, and there was no fear. When they got it wrong, they hid, because they were afraid. For the first time, fear is mentioned in the Bible. Then they were embarrassed, because they had no clothes, and as part of the hiding, and, literally, the cover-up, they used large leaves from the trees to cover their nakedness. Right from the start of the fall, there was a great need to hide what was considered shameful, and embarrassing. None of this bothered them up till then, and, from that moment onwards, it is part of being human to cover-up wrong-doing, and to pretend that all is well.
In the story Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the devil, and we're doing that since! To this day, it is very difficult for a person to be able to face up to things, and to admit "I was wrong, what I did was very wrong." In an ideal world, if the fall had not happened, and people were totally free to admit to being wrong, there would never be a war, and we wouldn't need our prisons.
With this messing-up of God's plan, people were now in a state of conflict. God had created people with a sense of right and wrong. You may well ask why God had permitted people to mess up his plan? God's most special gift to us is our free-will. If I were created in such a way that I just could not do wrong, if I were programmed, like a robot, so that I could only perform in a certain way, then there could not possibly be love. I can love you, only if I am free to make that decision, and there is no pressure on me, from any angle, to do so. If someone sent me a card for Christmas because he felt he had to, whether he really wanted to do so or not, there is not much to rejoice about in that. I cannot really do good, unless I am free to do evil, and with that freedom of choice, I still decide to do the good.
It is absolutely vital, in God's plan, that we have free-will, and that nothing should spoil or harm that, in any way. Anyhow, people now found themselves in a state of conflict, because when they did wrong, there was a little voice inside which kept telling them what the right thing was. We call this conscience. The word conscience is made up of two words, con and science. Science comes from the Latin verb scio, which means "I know".
In other words, conscience tells me something that I know rightly, even if I convince myself that I don't. When Adam and Eve sinned, they hid, because they knew they had done wrong. When I was a kid, I had a dog that looked very guilty, everytime he did something wrong! One look at him, and I knew he was after attacking the postman, or stealing food from the kitchen table. When I approached him, he would lie on his back, half-expecting to be smacked. When I patted him, he immediately sprang up, and jumped all over me. He knew he was forgiven!
And so, I think it is important for us to know, that, despite the raisins in the dough, when we do wrong, we know it, and all the excuses in the world won't succeed in quieting that little voice of conscience. In fact, I would go as far as to say, that, until I begin to really listen to that voice, I will never really be at peace. I am not talking about sin here, because I will speak later about how we are damaged as a result of original sin, and why we do many of the things we do. All I am saying, for now, is that one of the results of the fall is that, if I am honest, I know rightly when I do wrong, and, as Lady Macbeth said, as she tried to wash away the guilt of murder, "All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand."
There is a story in the gospel that I find very consoling. Jesus talks about a farmer who sowed good wheat in his field. Later that night, an enemy came, and sowed weeds among the wheat. Some time later, the wheat began to appear above ground, and, yes, there were the weeds, as well. His servants came to him, and asked "Was that not good wheat that you sowed? Where have the weeds come from?" The farmer told them that an enemy had done this. They asked if they might begin to pull up the weeds, and he said "No, leave them alone. Let them grow, and, later on, at harvest time, I will take care of the weeds. If you tried to get rid of the weeds now, you would only end up damaging the wheat, as well."
The story has a very simple, and a very important message. When God created us, we were good, and we still are good wheat. However, because of what happened, raisins have got into the dough, or weeds have got into the wheat. That is not of our doing, and if we, ourselves, tried to get rid of our human weaknessess, we would end up neglecting, and, eventually, damaging the goodness that is in us. Our human weaknessess are too much part of us, to be able to remove them. It would be easier for me to amputate one of my arms or legs, than to remove one of my human weaknessess. Even if I could succeed in removing one of my limbs, I would still have all my human weaknessess, because they are even more part of me than an arm, or a leg.
The three pollutants that entered our human nature are sin, sickness, and death. They were not part of what God created. An enemy did this. When I think of sin, I must always remember, first and foremost, that sin is something that happened to me. I am a victim of sin, I am a victim of something that was not of my doing. I will speak, later in this chapter, about the sins that I myself commit, but, for now, I need to say, once again, sin is, primarily, something that happened, that was totally outside of my control. I am damaged, because of it. I would compare it to having a hole in the ozone layer of my spirit, and that damage is something that I, myself, cannot repair.
If God hadn't decided to come back into the equation, and to provide a solution that would take care of the weeds, I would be hopelessly lost. I will never understand personal sin in my life, until I understand that I am more sinned against than sinning. What's wrong with me? An enemy has done this. What am I to do about it? Just don't pretend there are no weeds there, and don't try to live as if you can run the show yourself, and be humble enough to let the creator deal with re-creating what has been damaged.
Let me tell you a story, that may help to explain our condition. A man went to a doctor with a very serious problem, that deeply troubled him. He told the doctor that every part of his body that he touched was really very sore, and he was quite worried about that. If he touched his nose, his chin, his elbow, his knee, all were really painful. The doctor gave him a thorough physical examination, and, when he was finished, the man asked him if he had discovered what was wrong. The doctor said that he had. "What's wrong with you", said the doctor, "is that your finger is broken." Once the man knew that his finger was broken, and that was attended to, the other parts of his body were quite OK. That, basically, is what I am saying in this chapter. It is very important that I know why I am the way I am. If I can really accept that simple fact, then, hopefully, the rest of my life may not hurt as much as it has.
Programmes like Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, have helped to highlight the fact that there can be something within that is not capable of being controlled, or fixed, by myself. There can be a tendency towards behaviour that is insane, even if I fully rejected any suggestion that I myself might be insane. I can be quite sane, in many ways, and be guilty of insane behaviour. A compulsive gambler, or an alcoholic, who keeps doing the same thing, and keeps expecting a different result each time, is guilty of insane behaviour.
I remember seeing a Charlie Browne cartoon one time, in which Lucy told Charlie that what was wrong with him was, that he didn't want to know what was wrong with him. Part of the problem with our damaged human condition, is that it can blind us to the truth of what that condition actually is. For example, an alcoholic is usually the very last person to see in himself what everyone else has been looking at, for years. Part of the disease is that it blinds us to the very fact that there is a disease.
Humus is the Latin word for clay, and we are human, because, traditionally, our bodies were formed of clay, and, certainly, after some time in the ground, our bodies return to that condition. Humilitas is the Latin for "of the ground", and humility simply means that I accept that fact, and know that I cannot lift myself above my human condition, no more than a stone can become a flower, or a flower can become a dog. It's a question of accepting the nature that I have, warts and all. I am no better or no worse than the next person, as each of us tries to come to accept the raisins we have been given, and to do what we can with the strengths that are ours. As a poster I once saw, put it, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade."
Let me summarise what I have said up till now. The wheat is good. You are a good person, just as the wheat is still good, and the dough is still good, despite the weeds and the raisins. What I am stressing is, that, unless I accept the presence of the weeds or the raisins, I will never succeed in understanding the human condition, and I could bring myself to the point of despair in trying to correct something that is outside of my control.
I remember a man, who is an alcoholic, asking someone else where his alcoholism came from. He wanted to know if it was something he inherited, or was it something he himself developed. The other man, a recovering alcoholic of many years, and a much older man, turned on him sharply, and replied, "The question is not really where you got it, but do you have it, and, if you do, what are prepared to do about it." The first part of the answer is the most important part...do I have it? When it comes to human weakness, the answer must certainly be that I have it, and, if I am honest, my own experience of life should convince me, beyond all doubt, that that's the way I am.
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Come 'Ere Till I Tell You copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.