A few years before he took his own life, the American author, David Foster Wallace delivered a college commencement address that has since become rather famous. In it he said this:
…in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship... is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things… then you will never have enough…. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.
Wallace went on to make an interesting claim:
…the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
Now, we could debate whether or not the question of sin is only semantics, here, but that’s a discussion for another day. If you agree with Wallace, as I do, that “everybody worships,” then the only question is: What are you going to worship? And the next question is: Are you going to worship the things that eat you alive: power, money, beauty, youth? Or are you going to worship something that gives you the freedom, as Wallace put it, that “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”
Earlier in his speech, the writer had deployed a little parable-like story in service to his discussion:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How's the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
Wallace would go on to say that we are prone to miss the whole world around us, to fail to notice that we are swimming in water, or even to regard the most elemental realities of our lives and the world around us. He said that it is easy for us to get trapped inside the “tiny skull-sized kingdoms” of our own heads. And he foreshadowed his own death as he talked about the challenge of “making it to 30, or maybe even 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” The latter being a milestone he prevented himself from reaching, albeit, without the use of a firearm.
In the church, we are as prone as everyone else in the world to fall back on our default settings, to take things for granted, and to fail to understand something even as basic as the environment in which we live, the air we breath, the water through which we swim, the food we eat.
In the church we are as prone as everyone else to the temptation to worship the things that will eat us alive. You have only to pick up the papers, or pay attention to the kinds of things that are happening in other denominations and our own at this very time to see that this is true.
In the church, we say that we are born in the water when we are baptized, but we then go quickly about the business of losing the memory and the meaning of that water. Having once been dipped in pools of the stuff at our baptisms, that we say gave us new life and that promises us entry in to the life of the world to come, we can just as easily as the next fish turn to our neighbor in the pew and ask, “What the hell is water?”
No one will ever know why that hugely talented and thoughtful writer took his own life. He was fighting severe depression. And what can we do but surmise that he could find nothing worth worshiping in the world, and the water, so to speak, overwhelmed him. In any case, I trust that God now cares for him and has shown him new light and new life.
Thank God, the water does not overwhelm most of us. But it laps at our thighs and our buttocks; it creeps up to our armpits, and sometimes we find that we have to spit it out, as we fight to keep our heads above it.
So much in life gets ruined. I found this to be true in the most mundane way not long ago when I wanted to make shortcakes for strawberry shortcake. I reached up into my cupboard for the box of Bisquick – which is a blessing of untold measure in this world. I opened the box and peeked inside, because I had a hunch that I was in for trouble – the box had been there, opened, for quite some time, since I last made shortbread or pancakes or anything else you make with Bisquick.
Sure enough, on examination, I could see that the Bisquick mix was speckled with the tiny black polka-dots of what are sometimes called flour beetles or weevils. So the box had to be thrown out (which is a waste). And it was a busy day; people were coming over to dinner, and I was running late, as usual. The strawberries hadn’t even been washed and trimmed yet, but now I had to go out and get a new box of Bisquick. And even though this was a mundane thing, it just made me think of how easily everything is ruined: all our plans, our schedules, and the cakes we mean to bake, so to speak.
And of course, it’s not like it’s only the Bisquick. The same thing has happened with rice, and with sugar at various points. And, I have finally begun keeping the flour in an air-tight container, but who knows if that will actually work; the flour has gotten ruined before: it could happen again.
And of course, it’s not like it’s only the things in the cupboard. It’s how easily everything else in life gets ruined. I have my list; you have yours – lists of things that have gotten ruined in our lives. Let’s not argue over whose list is longer.
Things fall apart, remember.
And as long as things are falling apart and everything gets ruined, I am likely to rely on the default settings of the way I respond to the world around me. Which means that I am likely to mistakenly believe that the Bisquick was important, and that my powerlessness to keep it bug-free, or to produce strawberry shortcake, apparently effortlessly at the end of the meal – that these were important too. What am I worshiping here? Betty Crocker? Who knows?
But the truth remains that things pile up in life – things far more important than the Bisquick. And as they do, they seem to press against your chest – or if you want to stick with the fish metaphor, against your gills, making it hard to breathe, hard to swim through the day to day waters of life. And you could be forgiven for beginning to think the way the Israelites thought when they were wandering in the desert – Why has God put us here, if only to kill us slowly? If only to starve us to death in the desert?
And if you happen to go to church, as everything gets ruined in the world, and as everything falls apart around you, and as you feel the pressure mounting against your chest, against your gills. And it’s harder and harder to swim, and you are not sure why you have been put into the world, just to swim meaninglessly amongst all the other fish…
… if you happen to go to church you might find that you are in an antique building surrounded by antique people singing antique music to an antique God. And should you be unlucky enough to be there for the sermon, you could be congratulated, in many cases, for choosing to snooze rather than walking out in protest or boredom.
But by God’s grace, maybe, just maybe, you would stay long enough to toddle up to the altar rail with all the other fish, and to open your puckered lips for the morsel of food that is distributed there. And although the little wafer resembles fish food at least as much as it resembles bread, maybe, just maybe, you will hear the words that the priest says as he or she presses it into your hands or onto your tongue: “The Body of Christ.” And maybe, by God’s grace, at that moment, everything else would fall away from your consciousness, and you would just hear those words echoing in your ears as your saliva and the wine begin to dissolve the dry wafer in your mouth. And maybe it will occur to you that everybody worships. And you will ask yourself what you have been worshiping. And you will ask yourself whether or not you have been worshiping things that eat you alive.
And it’s not much in the way of mental gymnastics for you to begin to see that here you have found an object of worship who prefers to feed you than to eat you alive. And to feed you with his own self – his own Body, his own Blood, which, though mysterious, strikes you as intimate, as loving, as somehow able to save you and at least some of the things that have been ruined, some of what’s fallen apart in the world.
And it might be the case that when you get up from your knees, and turn to make your way back to your pew, and the unremarkable taste and texture of the bread you just swallowed, the wine you just sipped is already disappearing… it might be that you begin to see the world ever so slightly differently. It might be that you begin to think to yourself, “This is water, this is water,” as you become aware of the world around you in a new way, rejoicing to think that it is all somehow the work of God’s fingers – just as you are. And it occurs to you how marvelous it is that there is something to worship – someone to worship – who will not eat you alive, but who prefers to feed you with his Body and Blood.
Because you know what it is like to be eaten alive in this world by all that invites you to chase after money and power and looks and youth. But here, in this somewhat antique setting, you find a God who wants to feed you, and who wants to do it more or less for free.
He wants to nourish you: body and soul. He wants to heal everything that is broken, bind up everything that has splintered, restore everything that is ruined, and fix everything that has fallen apart in your life. For he knows what it is like to swim in this water. He knows how easily everything is ruined. And he knows that this is not how it was meant to be. He wants to feed you with a food that cannot spoil, and to give you a life that cannot be taken away from you, even when your life on this earth comes to an end.
All of which sounds foolish if you are still determined to worship the things that will eat you alive, and go on living your life oblivious even to the water through which you swim.
Or, you could worship something that gives you the freedom, as Wallace put it, that “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” All of which is pretty good description of a life fed by the gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood.
This is water, this life you and I are living. This is water. This is water. It can kill you, or it can give you life. It can drown you, or it can quench your thirst. Deciding what you worship plays a big role in determining which it’s going to be.
And you can decide to worship the things that will eat you alive. People have been worshiping such gods for a long, long time. Or you can decide to worship the God who feeds you with his own Body, as he makes all things new.
And you may begin to discover that the water is fine. And then, you may begin to live.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Solemnity of Corpus Christi, 2012
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia