Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Oct. 25, 2020
Many of us know Antoine de St. Exupery as the author of The Little Prince. He was a man of many talents, and certainly a brilliant writer and illustrator. But he was also, and in his mind primarily, a pilot; he was shot down by a German fighter late in World War II and was never found.
Much of his writing was about war. In his book Night Flight, St. Exupery tells the story of a man he witnessed dug out of a bombed-out building. Blinded by the light, confused and wobbly, he tries to answer awkward questions from the crowd: What was it like, what were you thinking about—pedestrian questions. And the stunned, dehydrated man, answers in a simple, pedestrian manner—he heard a tearing sound, his back hurt, he worried that his watch that was a gift was broken. Neither the questions nor the answers got at what St. Exupery thought must be the most important one: “Who were you? Who surged up in you?” What St. Exupery wanted to know, and what the crowd wanted to know, was who was he, now that he’d been through this traumatic, life-changing event? But they didn’t know how to ask, and the man didn’t know how to answer. If he answered such a question he’d likely say, “I was only me, myself.”
Time, St. Exupery says, time would be needed to answer that question. Time would allow “him little by little to build up the legend of himself.”
“No single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us,” St. Exupery writes. “To live is to be slowly born.”
St. Exupery says these thoughts came to him as he was flying a solo night mission in the freezing cold with his guns jammed, his oxygen bottles low, and his rudder frozen. What is he learning from war? He wonders. How does this make me a better person? He cannot know now the person this experience is making him. Even if he does gain some new insight, he says, it will not be because of a single moment, but because “I shall have carried my heavy stones” of experience accumulated over years “toward the invisible structure” of who he is becoming. “There is nothing that I may expect of the hazard of war except this slow apprenticeship,” he says.
It seems to me that St. Exupery’s thoughts apply to the challenges we’re facing in the multiple crises that are just part of 2020. Who are we in this time? Who are we becoming? At the present moment, the only answer we’re likely to give is, “I’m only me, myself, my usual self, coping with an unusual situation.”
Most likely, like the bombing victim, we’re more concerned with every-day matters that have been completely upended by the pandemic. I want to go back to school or to church. I’m tired of Zoom. I miss my relatives on the other side of the country.
We don’t recognize the new and, God willing, better person we are becoming because we’re in the process of it happening. As time passes, as experience accumulates, we’ll have time to build up the story of this new person, to bear our heavy stones toward the invisible structure of who God is making us–as long as we don’t remain mired in the past. “There is nothing that I may expect of the hazard of war except this slow apprenticeship,” Exupery writes, and that is true for us as well. But an apprenticeship ends in a skill. If we are open to it, we are learning new ways to survive and thrive and to be better people in this time. But it is slow and patient and hard work, because to live is to slowly be born.
Our passage from Deuteronomy today is the story of the death of Moses. Moses dies tragically unable to enter the Promised Land that he spent forty years of his life leading the people of Israel to inherit. This is the very end of the Books of the Torah, the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. It ends with these words “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” God’s unique, special knowledge of Moses is the counter-balance to another observation in the passage: “Moses was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-Peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”
Torah scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg points out that the whole theme of Exodus is “’to know that I am God.’
The revelation on Mt. Sinai provides that transcendent knowledge. But at the same time the motif of ‘not knowing’ pervades the book, indeed the whole Torah. From Pharaoh’s ‘I do not know God’ mirroring his original description as ‘not knowing Joseph’ to the final description of Moses’ death (‘no one knew the place he was buried’), the consciousness persists of ‘a cloud of unknowing:’ of another world, perhaps adjacent to this one, partially intimated, not mastered.
One of the things for which I am grateful to my college, Hampden-Sydney in Virginia, is the fact that I received a classical education. In that education, I learned some of the ways classicists interpret myths and legends. For instance, it is not uncommon to read the story of a famous classical hero and have the story end with “his burial place is unknown to this day.” Most classicists would understand that to mean that the great hero probably actually didn’t exist—otherwise he would have a grave.
But there is an advantage to being such a hero. That hero is no longer bound by human laws and expectations. That hero is no longer bound by history, the real things that really happened to him. He can become whoever is needed to fit the moment. A hero who doesn’t have a grave could walk into your door at any moment—maybe she’s not really dead! A hero not bound by history can have any story told about her you want to believe. She can be what you need her to be.
Now there are plenty of reasons to believe Moses existed. But his unknown grave raises interesting questions about knowing who Moses was and who Moses continues to be. His unknown grave opens for us the possibility not that Moses is less than what history tells us, but far more. It means there’s so much we don’t know about him and may never know. It makes him never-ending.
But, we are assured, even if we don’t know those things about him, it doesn’t matter: God knows.
God knew—and knows—Moses face to face. Part of what makes Moses such an intriguing and compelling character is that scholars and rabbis and preachers and bible readers throughout the ages have plumbed the depths of his character, the character of this man who knew God face to face, and yet in three thousand years we’ve never reached the bottom. He is still fascinating, surprising, mysterious, and intriguing. Here is a man who came face to face with the numinous, who entered that cloud of unknowing—of another world, perhaps adjacent to our own, partially hinted at, but never mastered. If we can’t know the depths of Moses, we can’t know the depths of God: but if we can at least explore his depths, we can possibly understand both him and God better.
And this is just as true of you and me. You and I have depths unexplored. You and I are never-ending. In a way, we don’t have a grave either, because like Moses, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ we live eternally with the God who knows us better than we know ourselves.
We have selves we have been and selves we are becoming. We are a mystery even to ourselves: we can’t know who we are becoming. Each of us in our own way is a unique portal to the infinite, unknown even to ourselves, but fully known by God.
I imagine Moses, like you and me, dealing with each crisis as it comes. He didn’t believe in Yahweh, the Hebrew God–did not have faith–but faith was demanded of him, so he had faith.
He was not a leader, but leadership was demanded of him, so he led.
He had never had the responsibility of providing for the needs of a nation, but that was required of him, so he figured out how to do it.
He’d never been a mediator before—in fact when he was younger, and witnessed a quarrel between an Egyptian and a Hebrew slave, he killed the Egyptian, which isn’t exactly mediation—but there was a need for a mediator between the people and God, so Moses became that mediator.
At every point, if you’d asked him who he was now, he might very well have answered, “I’m just me, doing what circumstances require of me.”
But the sum total of all these responses to each emerging crisis was that he became perhaps the greatest human who ever lived, the role model for Jesus himself. It was a slow, day-by-day process–and one day he awoke, a complete stranger to the person he was forty years before when he was a shepherd in Midian investigating a strange bush that burned but was not consumed. A person he could never have imagined.
Because to live is to slowly be born.
This is as true for us as it is for him. Each crisis we’ve addressed is adding an experience that is shaping the person that by God’s grace we are being born to be. And it’s important in that process to recognize what Moses’ story tells us: this birth is larger than the experiences that we have, or the world that we live in, or the crises that we face, or the person we are right now. Right now, in 2020, with Covid-19, racial justice protests, unemployment, and the election, and so much more, right now in the midst of these very material and very concrete and very worldly challenges, heaven is knocking on our door. There is a great cloud of unknowing, a world that exists beyond this one, partially hinted at, never mastered.
That world is knocking on the door of this one.
To the extent we open that door, that other world will enter our lives and shape and re-shape us into the person that we cannot predict, but that God knows us to be. We don’t know who we will become. But if we see in these crises not simply the earthly, often frustrating and even frightening concrete experiences of the moment—but the hinted at, the intimated, the hidden-just-around-the-corner godly possibilities—the emergence of the eternal into the every-day, the extraordinary into the mundane, the divine into the worldly—we will discover a new person, someone totally unexpected, is born within us—a person who is a little closer to knowing God face-to-face.