Baccalaureate Sermon 2009

"What Is The Treasure That You Seek?"

The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel
Cornell College

Once upon a time there was a man named Laurence.  He lived back in the days when the early church worshiped down in the catacombs of Rome.  As archdeacon, Laurence was charged with defending and caring for the suffering, disenfranchised, and poor.  These were dangerous times under Roman occupation: Church property was confiscated, assemblies for worship forbidden, and persecution under Emperor Valerian was aimed primarily at clergy and laity of the upper classes.   Well the day came when  Pope Sixtus the II and seven of his deacons were apprehended and executed by the Romans down in those catacombs.  Except for Deacon Laurence.  Soldiers wanted to force out of him the location of the Church's treasure.  Conceding under pressure, Laurence set out to gather it.  When he returned he brought with him a multitude of Rome's crippled, sick and destitute to whom he had distributed the Church's relief funds.  He presented them to the prefect saying "Here is our treasure."  

What is it that you treasure?  What do you deem most precious?  How, when you take leave of this place with a liberal arts degree in hand, will that be evident in the way you live your life?

Given the spiritual wisdom texts I've chosen for today, I can feel all you pragmatists getting nervous.  Especially those of you who know the Prefect of Rome wasn't impressed with Laurence' treasure and interpreted his response as smart-alecky defiance.  Pay back was grilling Laurence alive over a slow roasting fire, which, according to folk lore, is why he's revered as the Patron Saint of Cooks and Grillers [I swear to God I didn't make that up.  Supposedly he told his tormenters that he was done on one side so it was time to turn him over.]. 

Though there will be days you risk taking heat for doing the right thing, I'm not asking you to become a martyr.  Or sell all your possessions.  Or even become another Mother Theresa, MLK, Romero, or Gandhi though self-dispossession and loving service for a more humane world would be quite something; something akin to the College's mission statement.  I'm not even asking you to become a deacon like Matt Pilger's dad, or clergy-bound like classmate Kaitlin Foster though sending a few more of you off to seminary and rabbinical school isn't a bad idea.  The pay may not be hot, but I assure you, the treasure is priceless.    

There's a rabbinic tale about Rabbi Zusya.  He had always imagined that when he died God would ask him, "Why weren't you a great leader like Moses?"  Or "Why weren't you as wise as Solomon?" But when that day eventually came, God simply asked, "Why weren't you Zusya?"  Along those lines, I'm asking you this morning to live from the fullness implanted deep within you-and I'll say more about that treasure residing within in a little bit, for not only will it help you with wisdom, right action, and discerning your truer & deeper Self but also ground you with peace and courage when you're facing fear, life's trials and heat.  

But in order to get there I need to once again ask you, as you leave this place for self-advancement, to think about what you live for. What is most precious to you?  For as Christ put it, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

What is it that you desire?   Is the treasure that you seek susceptible to rust or moths?  Does it fluctuate with the stock market? With our economic crises, most of us are joining you seniors at a cross road of our lives, discerning what is most precious and how that treasure shapes the way we choose to live.  There's renewed attention to the possibility that the essence of life-abundant life, has little if anything to do with abundance of stuff.  We're giving more consideration to the lilies of the field and how their splendor is not subdued by our fear or the Dow Jones average.  They shamelessly live their beauty and we're invited to do the same; to use unpaid work furloughs and the like to deepen affection for loved ones; to smell the lilacs and lilies recalling Jesus' words about not missing out on the Kingdom of God because of worry.  As Blake put it, to see "Heaven in a wildflower, hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour."  Or as the Upanishads put it, to see the Eternal in things that pass away.  If lilies aren't your thing, then how feeding God when God comes through the crisis food line; or as a Ramakrishna swami asked me:  "Do you want to join us in worshipping God in the sick?  To care for God there?" 

With emphasis upon material treasure in the West, we've been learning more deeply the Buddhist notion that pain results from our attachments to impermanent external things.  And even those of us whose only sacrifice has been weaning off of shopping as a sport or form of therapy know deep down, if we're honest with ourselves, what our Buddhist text means when it says our desire for external things is not satisfied once we acquire them.  The thrill is short lived; the wise know cravings of an untamed mind for that possession, or-I might add, for power, prestige, or applause, is really about trying to fill a hungering emptiness roaming inside us. We feel unfulfilled thinking that if only we change our job, or religion, or significant other, if we transfer to yet another school--all will be better.  But after a while you catch on that maybe all you're doing is rearranging the deck furniture; that perhaps the treasure you seek isn't external. 

Once upon a time there was a rabbi in Crackow who dreamt there was a treasure buried under a bridge in Kiev.  He kept having this dream until one day the rabbi decided is was of God so he set out to find that treasure.  But upon arrival he found the place swarming with guards.  He waited until night fall so that, under the cover of darkness, he could begin to dig.  Suddenly he felt a presence behind him, turned around, and faced a guard who demanded to know what he was doing.  The rabbi broke down and told him about the dream.  The guard responded, "You silly old fool.  Don't listen to dreams.  Why I had a crazy dream the other night that there was a treasure buried under the stove of some poor rabbi in Crackow."  With this the rabbi journeyed home in order to dig.

Friends, the treasure you seek is within you.   Often we think its out there somewhere, but practically every religious wisdom tradition will tell you that, as our Gita text puts it, the treasure that you seek is the inexhaustible source within.  Now I'm about to add something risky since not all of you believe in the Infinite Life Force I call God.  That's understandable.  The word has a long history of misuse and coercion though it also has an equally long use by intellectuals, poets, and lovers.   So as an Episcopal priest I'm going to risk saying what I think anyway.  Chances are, you may be like a student who once said to me, "I served God divorce papers years ago but I still want visitation rights."  So here I go: All of our desires are ultimately a desire for God.  Desire for the one whose name used to be a synonym for Love, Beauty, the True, and the Good.  For the Infinite Life force and energy coursing like sap through life's veins.  That draws us to lilies, babes, and the scientist's wonder; to dying loved ones, underdogs, and stranger.  It's more fragrant than fear.  In the words of the non-canonical Jewish Book of Wisdom Jeremy  read from-a text found in Roman Catholic and Episcopal Bibles, this Spirit, she is a holy force pervading and penetrating, all things.  Even in you.  To paraphrase Hindu Swami Prabhavananda, we're like the musk deer which goes bonkers seeking out the source of the musk not realizing it's coming from within its own being.   The 15th c. monk who wrote The Imitation of Christ would counsel us this way: "O anxious soul, I am telling you that you yourself are God's dwelling, God's secret hiding place...all your good and hope is so close to you as to be within you."  

"The kingdom of God is within you," says Christ (Luke 17:21)."  "Abide in me as I abide in you (John 15:4)."   "Be filled with the fullness of God" says Paul (Ephesians 3:19).  "Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you (1 Cor. 6:19)."  "Only those who see God in their soul attain joy eternal" says the Upanishads, "God's radiance illumines all creation"[i]  It's the holy spark in us, according to Jewish mysticism. 

We are made, says the Book of Genesis, in the image of God.   Yes we're also dust.  We're flawed and mess up.  We fall from our original goodness and union with and in God every time hubris runs our choices as symbolized in the story of The Fall of Adam and Eve. But as the Book of Wisdom puts it, our truer deeper self is "made in the image of God's own eternity."   The king in that Wisdom book says how from his youth he used knowledge of this indwelling spirit to discern right action; to practice self-control; for engaging in leadership which arises from a fullness within him rather than arising from his ego's hungering desire to fill an inner emptiness; for attachments[ii] to things like titles, prestige, scepter and thrones.  He lets  Holy Wisdom, which some parallel with Christianity's notion of  the Advocate or Holy Spirit, do the leading, or as Greek philosophers and Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius put it, "Let the god who dwells within you command."  A Catholic monk named Br. Martin whom I met in India last January would add that once we have discovered this fullness of the eternal dwelling within, the deeper or Truer Self, and even our material wealth can become instruments of God for selfless action.[iii]  

Dag Hammarskjold was Secretary General of the United Nations and universally mourned as a public servant when his plane crashed in central Africa in 1961 while attempting negotiations between the Congo government and secessionist rebels in Katanga.  But it was only after his death that the world learned of his inner life which guided his public role.  Found in his apartment was a manuscript based on journal entries  he called "negotiations with myself and with God."    Like a mirror of identity for me and my guess is many of you, he struggled with issues related to self-sacrifice verses self-respect, self-doubt and pride, faith and duty.  Owning his flaws, he'd write: "You thought you were indifferent to praise for achievements... until you felt your jealousy flare up at another's naïve attempts to ‘make himself important' and your self-conceit stood exposed."    Yet he also spoke of hourly self-surrender as self-realization.  Few of his closest friends even knew of his religious preoccupations, or that his public service was not simply a career or means to power but a religious vocation.  Still he occasionally dropped hints as he did in this remark to a reporter: 

From generations of soldiers and government officials on my father's side I inherited a belief that no life was more satisfactory than one of selfless service to your country-or humanity....From scholars and clergymen on my mother's side I inherited a belief that...all are equals as children of God, and should be met and treated by us as our masters.[iv][ii]

His only journal entry the day of his election to the distinguished leadership position of U.N. secretary general?  Only six words:  "Not I, but God in me.[1]"

When in India I was preparing an off campus course for Cornell students on "Not I, but God in me;" on Namaste or "honoring the Divine within" tradition as found in Christian mystic and contemplative tradition and Hindu advaitic philosophy; to explore what the consequences of cultivating this awareness are upon spiritual practices, daily life, ethics, social justice, and servant leadership.  Part of the time I spent at a Methodist Women's College President Garner wanted us to explore because of their Service Learning Centers for AIDs and Empowerment of Women.  The rest of the time I was at Roman Catholic monastery; a convent which frees children sold into slavery, and at Hindu and Christian ashrams or spiritual learning centers.  

One of my stays included meditation in the mountain cave of the great Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi.  As psychologist Carl Jung noted, Ramana had a message for Westerners about the dangers of forgetting the demand of the soul, and losing ourselves in the chaos of unconscious living, lack of self-control, and preoccupation with externals.

Sri Ramana spoke about  living from the cave of the heart; of cultivating sustained awareness of the core of divinity within oneself.  That doing so will help shed ego-mind and lead to skillful rather than reactionary responses to events in ones life.  If you image yourself like a lake, it means operating from the stable, still place deep down rather than from the surface where the water is sometimes placid but often rough with a medium, or heavy chop depending on what the winds blow in.  Our untrained minds are like that blown around surface water. 

One way Ramana put it was to be like a pearl diver with a stone tied to your waist, sinking to the bottom of the deep sea within to obtain the precious pearl. The art of self-forgetfulness, staying unperturbed and focused in your centered awareness in spite of external distractions.  And like Jesus, he spoke of surrender amid our worries.  He asks:
why should we constantly worry ourselves with thoughts as to what should be done and how...?  We know that the train carried all loads, so after getting on it why should we carry our small luggage on our head to our discomfort, instead of putting it down in the train and feeling at ease?

As for the stress and strain of work when it feels like bondage, he suggested something akin to what Hammarskjold did when he said ‘not I but God in me."  He said the idea "I work" is the hindrance.  Ask yourself "Who works?"  Remember who you are.  The divine Self dwelling with though also beyond yourself.  Then the work will not bind's your effort that is the bondage (p.43)."  And so he invites us to surrender.  I liken it to being in flow- mode like a mentally focused athlete.  Remembering to not give 100% of your attention away to externals, but to keep some of it focused within.  To be like a shaft or empty pipe which God uses to flow through you so that, as ancient and Orthodox Christianity puts it we can be partakers of the divine nature; partakers of God energy which fills all.  But again, all of that requires humility and a degree of surrender. Of not tightening up which comes with always trying to be in control.

I know that surrender into something larger than your own cleverness and strength isn't easy for us control freaks who map out every detail of our lives.  It's hard to unpry the fingers.  To loosen the grip. To trust, and free fall into grace.  After all you've worked hard to get where you are.  But maybe surrender can be reframed.  It doesn't have to mean lack of our hard work and effort.  Athletes work hard and simultaneously "let go" to be in that flow.  And faith needn't imply lack of intellect or naïve gullibility.  It can, as a wise one once said, be more like driving a car. We choose our mechanic carefully but once we've done our part, we are willing to trust the car and roads to get us where we are going.   Actually there just may be a fabulous destination down a road our tightly crafted itineraries are unaware of.  So consider the possibility that perhaps we need both effort AND to stay loose enough to make room for grace and mystery.  

My India travel itinerary didn't include sitting under a bodhi tree with a stranger who happened to be an older Indian Roman Catholic artist whose dad was Hindu and mother was Quaker.   The stranger whose named was Jyoti, asked why I was in his country, then told how he was only in the U.S. once.  How he journeyed to California for a religion and arts conference.    "By chance was that at a seminary in Berkeley?" I asked. "Yes."  "About fourteen years ago?"  "Yes," he said. "I was there too," I said.  "That's the weekend I decided, after a lifetime of acquiring degrees and seven years of marriage, to risk quitting my PhD for abundant life as a mom and possibly chaplain of my alma mater, if Cornell would have me.  I told him how academic advisors said that idea was a bad mistake, and how, after handing myself over at the foot of the altar in my seminary's empty chapel--of letting go of trying to always be in control of my life--several clergy and religious artists asked if they could circle around me for a blessing."  "Yes," said Jyoti. "I remember that."  We stood around you in a circle on the seminary lawn."  

Friends, of the billion people in India, that's who I was sitting under a tree with; the same Indian from when I risked letting go of the reigns so I could be here with you at Cornell and so my daughter, Rachel-whose name in rabbinic Judaism is a play on Ruach-El or Spirit of God, could dwell and grow inside.  Just two days before Jyoti and I met for the second time I had journaled about that weekend of '95, and how my current relinquishment journey while in India was also about carrying and caring for Spirit of God who dwells within.  How sustaining consciousness of that One in the many leads to oneness and union consciousness with all.  

When I returned from India, I found Jyoti's name in old notes from that seminary conference, along with sketches of his art.  None of this seemingly coincidental encounter makes sense on the rational level [Neither did the plus sign on the pregnancy test taken a week after that blessing on my seminary lawn.].  I'm still trying to figure out what it all means.  For the likes of you and me, perhaps it means this: That though there are uncertainties in our lives when it's difficult to see our way--be it through our vocational unfolding, or even a depression, divorce, fear or failure; through a feeling of inadequacy or financial crisis; when the fog rolls in and we can't see the road ahead-we can rest assured that our life journeys have meaning and purpose though they may not always be clear to us.  Leave room for a little mystery.  Stay loose enough for grace to flow.

But as you do, please remember how humility and staying loose don't mean playing timid, passive, unmotivated, or small.  Remember words President Mandela cited in his inaugural speech to fellow South Africans liberated from Apartheid--about how their greatest fear is not that they are inadequate but powerful[v]:

It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us...Your playing small does not serve the world ....We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some; it is in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

I leave you with a story I learned in India.  It goes like this:  There were four boatman who made a living by helping people cross a river.  One day all four of them had fifty customers and made lots of money.  The first boatman prayed: "Thank you God for sending me fifty customers today so I could feed my family.  Please send me fifty more tomorrow so I can feed my family."  The second boatman prayed:  "Thank you God for giving me the opportunity to help fifty people today.  Please send me fifty more tomorrow so that I may feed my family."  Well the third boatman's prayer went like this:  "Thank you God for letting me help You cross the river fifty times today.  Please let me to help carry You again tomorrow, and may I be able to feed my family." I love that!  Earlier I said you didn't have to be another Mother Theresa or Deacon Laurence, but this was their intention behind caring for others.  The fourth boatman, his prayer went like this: "Thank you God for dwelling within me-for letting me be a vessel containing Your Presence, to help carry you fifty times across the river that is also You, to feed my family that is You."  May it be so for you and me. 

Class of 2009,  I honor the Divine you carry within you.  You've got Light shooting out of your head.  Go forth living from that fullness of divine splendor within you.  Let it carry you and flow through you when you're struggling.  And honor that treasured Presence, in the poor, in creation, even in the one you struggle to love.   Namaste. 

 [1] Galatians 2:20.

 [i] Svetasvatara Upanishad.

[ii] That's why you've got folks like John the Baptist saying things like "Repent; the Kingdom of God is at hand."  Repent literally meaning return; turn from ego's hubris and return to awareness of your abiding in the One who is at hand; who is here. Or the Isha Upanishad which says the whole universe is permeated by God. Know this, renounce, and enjoy. 

[iv] Regarding detachment from the world: These sacred traditions don't mean hate or try to escape from the world.  They mean detachment as a freedom from worry and from self-interest so we can be about loving service to our fellow human beings and all creation out of love for the sacred dwelling in, yet also beyond, all.   The way the Gita puts it, God can be found not only in ascetic silence meditation but also in daily duties IF they are done as an offering.  That's why monasteries in the West emphasize not only silent prayer but physical and intellectual work.  Actually, while I'm speaking on monasteries, it's always intrigued me that there is often a wait list of Cornell students-many of them claiming not to be religious-who want to go on Cornell's annual monastic retreat.  The Abbot at the monastery always tells those students who say they find peace there that this peace is something which abides with them always.  It's just that at the monastery they get still enough to become aware of it.  To tap into this treasure inside. I'll add that the key is sustaining that awareness of this treasure upon our return beyond the cloister.  That each of us carries around inside us a peace which the external world cannot always give; we carry around a little monastic cell inside us which can and should visit to recollect ourselves and tap the fullness welling up from within.  To breathe from there amid our work and doing for Breath or Ruach in the Hebrew, literally means the Breath or Spirit of God.

[iv][ii] Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, trans by Lief Sjoberg and W.H. Auden (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964).

[v] Rev. Marianne Williamson of Detroit.