Devotion offered before the VT State House

You could say that there are two kinds of philosophers — those who see change as fundamental to meaning, and those who see essence as fundamental. You could call the first group hayathologists after the Hebrew word that God offers when Moses asked God who he should say sent him.   God replied, “Tell them Haya sent you.” Haya means becoming.

The second group are the ontologists. The history of western philosophy is mostly written by ontologists struggling to come to terms with Descartes dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” For them, there is a nugget of being they call essence and they work to rest assured they have found it.

I suppose there is a third group, but it is hard, as a scholar to take them seriously — the nihilist who does not believe that there is anything either to be or to become.

I am the pastor of a church. If you think change in these halls is hard, the church has an even longer view of change, which is stiffened by its centuries long held adherence to the ontologists. Given that I am a hayathologist at heart, you may conclude, rightly, that I am often a frustrated pastor. Nevertheless, I continue to be intrigued by change and the human response to it.

One of the most eloquent expressions of this human response was written last year by the late Tony Judt, the historian and public thinker who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2008, just after the publication of his magnum opus, Postwar. Imprisoned in his body, unable to move, he still thought and thought well.  To ease the insufferable nights when he forced himself not to call for help as the hundreds of itches we all unconciously scratch appeared and grew, he reflected on his life, and more importantly for us the meaning of life.  In the morning, after composing one of these reflections in his head, he would dictate another chapter for his memoir, which was posthumously published under the title, The Memory Chalet.

If I were to offer a reason for you to read the book, in my own words, I would simply say that Judt offers a picture of the good life — thoughtfully regarding the changes that sweep a human here instead of there, but unwilling to be swept willy-nilly.  We do not explore history, we do not ponder the future simply because change is exciting, but because something about the very idea of humanity is grounded in it, and to be peaceful in it is the essence of life.

Let me offer you his words, much more eloquent than mine:

In 2002, in the wake of an operation for cancer and a month of heavy radiation, I took my family back to Murren, [Switzerland].  My sons, aged eight and six, seemed to me to experience the place just as I had, even though we stayed in a distinctly better class of hotel.  They drank hot chocolate, clambered across open fields of mountain flowers and tiny waterfalls, stared moonstruck at the great Eiger — and reveled in the little railway.  Unless I am very much mistaken, Murren itself had not changed at all, and there was still nothing to do. Paradise.

I have never thought of myself as a rooted person.  We are born by chance in one town rather than another and pass through various temporary homes in the course of our vagrant lives — at least that is how it has been for me.  Most places hold mixed memories:  I cannot think of Cambridge or Paris, or Oxford or New York without recalling a kaleidoscope of encounters and experiences.  How I remember them varies with my mood.  But Murren never changes.  Nothing ever went wrong there.

There is a path of sorts that accompanies Murren’s pocket railway.  Halfway along, a little cafe — the only stop on the line — serves the usual run of Swiss wayside fare.  Ahead, the mountain falls steeply away into the rift valley below.  Behind you can clamber up to the summer barns with the cows and goats and shepherds.  Or you can just wait for the next train: punctual, predictable, and precise to the second.  Nothing happens: it is the happiest place in the world.  We cannot choose where we start out in life, but we may finish where we will.  I know where I shall be:  going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever.

Blessings on your journey — here and now, and forever and ever.

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