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Narcissus and God, You and Me

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Narcissus was so focused on himself, he drowned in his quest to revel in his own beauty. Solomon sought a discerning mind. How can we use our minds to discern a path that connects us to God and to the world’s needs? And how can singing together serve as an antidote to narcissism?

Today’s texts: Psalm 111; Ephesians 5: 15-20


By Pastor Phil
By Pastor Phil

When the river god Cephissus and nymph Liriope first saw their baby boy, they were awestruck by his beauty. Many of you who are parents might know that feeling, looking at a new child who you are quite sure is the most beautiful child ever born.

But Cephissus and Liriope were more than awestruck. They worried that their child’s beauty might pose trouble for him as he grew older. Their instincts were on the mark.

When their son was 16 years old – an extraordinarily handsome young man – he was walking in the woods when a nymph named Echo saw him.

She faced her own dilemma in life. When she was trying to protect the mighty god Jupiter from the jealousy of his wife, Juno, Echo incurred the wrath of Juno. Echo kept talking to distract Juno in her search for Jupiter and the women he was with. Finally, Juno had enough of the chatter and put a curse on Echo, making the talkative nymph only able to repeat the last few words spoken by another person.

NarcissusSo when Echo saw the young man – his name was Narcissus – she immediately fell in love with him. But she could not speak. She had to wait until he said something. He sensed someone was following him and asked, “Who’s there?”

Echo replied, “Who’s there?”

Narcissus said, “Come here” and she replied, “Come here.”

She ran to him, about to embrace him, when the startled Narcissus pushed her away.

“Leave me alone,” he said. “Leave me alone,” she replied, although that is not what she meant.

He pushed her away and went on his walk, leaving her heartbroken in the forest as she slowly faded away in her sadness, with nothing but an echo of her sound remaining.

Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, heard about this and decided to punish the handsome – and rude – young man.

Narcissus arrives at a pond and sees his reflection in the water. It is almost as though he was taking the first selfie.

He is amazed by the beauty he sees in the water and tries to touch the reflection of his face. The ripples in the water make the face disappear. Distressed, Narcissus dives into the water in search of his own beauty and disappears forever under the surface of the crystal-clear pool.

That’s how the Roman poet Ovid tells the story of Narcissus, the character who has given his name to the characteristic today we call narcissism – not just being ego-centric, but being so focused on yourself that you become self-destructively focused only on yourself.

Yes, I know that might sound like a description of some political figures or movie stars or sports figures of our era – those people who look into the reflecting pool of the limelight and think they see perfection.

But the story of Narcissus tells us is about more than not just to get too absorbed in our own sense of beauty or power or goodness.

There are those other characters in the story as well – the worried parents, the philandering Jupiter, the jealous Juno, the heartbroken Echo, the vengeful Nemesis. Their stories show up in our lives in a variety of ways and sometimes, we too may find ourselves a little too taken with our own reflections.

What does any of this have to do with the readings we heard from the Bible today? Why did the story of Narcissus wind up as the lead in this reflection?

Let me tell you the story of one other character, this one from the Bible. It’s the story of Solomon, the son of the great king David and Bathsheba, a figure in Jewish lore held out as the epitome of wisdom. His story was one of the options for our scripture readings today. I’ll tell you just a snippet of it. And then we’ll get to the two readings we did hear and maybe this will all fit together.

David has died and Solomon has just become king. He goes to a shrine to offer a sacrifice and God tells him to ask for whatever he wants. That is a mighty great offer.

Solomon expresses gratitude that God has allowed him to succeed his father, but then says: “I’m young and inexperienced. I know next to nothing.” (This is not a message we are likely to hear from any of the candidates currently running for president.)

“…Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help.”

God was pleased, the story in the first book of Kings says. God says in reply: “Because you have asked for this instead of requesting long life, wealth, or victory over your enemies – asking for discernment so as to acquire good judgment – I will now do just what you said. Look, I hereby give you a wise and understanding mind. There has been no one like you before now, nor will there be anyone like you afterward. I now also give you what you didn’t ask for: wealth and fame. There won’t be a king like you as long as you live.”

You’d almost think that Solomon had a foreshadowing of those words we heard in the letter to the people of Ephesus: “Be careful to live your life wisely, not foolishly.”

What Solomon was showing in this passage was a kind of self-awareness that is valuable for any of us to have – a recognition of the limits of his knowledge, a plea for a “discerning mind.”

That kind of self-awareness and discernment was clearly lacking in the story of Narcissus. It’s what the writer of the letter to the people of Ephesus was asking them to keep in mind, not to lose themselves in the escape of the spirits of wine but to let themselves be filled with and carried away by the Spirit of God.

Now the whole story of Solomon is not quite as sweet as this little passage, but then life is seldom quite so simple.

Solomon managed to succeed his father on the throne through political maneuvering, the execution of rivals and the connivance of David. He got the wealth and fame that God seemed to be promising him as a bonus in addition to wisdom because he heavily taxed the people, enslaved the workers, had 700 wives, forged international alliances and created the conditions for religious decay within his kingdom.

It’s yet another reminder that life is complicated and people are often neither as good – nor as bad – as we might imagine them to be.

Let me see if I can tie together a few themes from these stories.

Narcissus was so absorbed in his own self that he missed the love of another. He not only hurt her deeply but he lost himself in looking only for himself. When we think we can make it all on our own, we miss an incredibly important part of being human – that we are independent and that love for and from another is an essential part of our existence. Without it, we leave a trail of bitter tears in which we ourselves can drown.

But Solomon reminds us that being self-aware – not self-absorbed – also is a virtue. Having a discerning mind means taking the time and making the effort to figure what really is the proper course in our lives.

Discernment is a word that has a very rich meaning.

It means looking deeply into ourselves, not simply at ourselves, listening for a sense of God’s presence in our lives, consulting with others to test our decisions, living into those decisions and changing course as needed along the way.

It means exploring the desires we have for our lives and seeing how they meet the needs of our world and how they might mesh with our sense of God’s vision for our world.

One of the masters of discernment is Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century Spaniard who founded the organization we now know as the Jesuits. He developed a series of guidelines for making decisions – for discerning the right path to take. Those guidelines have been refined over the years and many people have found them to be helpful.

First, he counseled people to create a sense of what he called indifference about the situation. That’s hard to do when it’s something that will affect you very deeply – a marriage proposal, a decision to have a child, a job offer, a move to a new house or to a new city.

But what he means, as described by one of my favorite spiritual guides, Jim Martin, is “the ability to be detached from one’s initial biases and to step back, the willingness to carefully balance the alternatives.”

It’s like putting something on a scale and starting out with it being balanced, not tipping the scale one way or the other before you have a chance to look at the situation.

As you consider the alternatives, Ignatius advises, look at which one gives you a sense of interior peace and which one leaves you feeling agitated. It’s not a quick decision, but a test over time of which way you might go.

And then, he would advise, recognize the need for constant evaluation and re-evaluation.

For us who seek to follow Jesus, there’s a spiritual dimension to this as well, something we call prayer. But as Jim Martin explains it, “Discernment helps to decide what is the best way to act. It isn’t simply about relationship with God alone; it is about living out your faith in the real world. Ignatius was a results-oriented mystic.”

Solomon sought a discerning mind. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians advised living wisely – in other words, living with a discerning mind. But the writer of that letter also recognized that we don’t live in isolation, that an antidote to narcissism is to be engaged with a community.

And so the letter to the Ephesians advises them to “speak to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts.”

When we gather together here on a Sunday morning and sing a song together, by that very act, we are no longer standing along, focused only on ourselves.

Our opening hymn this morning was built on a melody from Japan. It’s a small reminder that we are a global community. It is one of many ways the hymns we sing connect us to a world crossing the boundaries of time and space.

John Bell is someone who deeply values those connections we make through music. He is a composer and music leader from the Iona Community in Scotland and he did a daylong workshop here a couple of years ago.

He understands the power of words that are sung. Here’s an example he uses.

Today’s our daughter Julia’s 27th birthday. Does anyone else here have a birthday around this day? OK – so let me offer you this greeting: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, dear Julia, happy birthday to you.”

Well, that was nice. But what if we all sang it?

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you,
happy birthday, dear Julia, happy birthday to you.”

That wonderful author Anne Lamott writes in her book Traveling Mercies: “Music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.”

John Bell says: “What we sing shapes our faith,” noting the power music has in getting to our inner beings. And he asks, “Do we sing about God’s creation, the equality of men and women? About God’s love for justice, about our concern for other people? Or do we just sing about ‘me’? Ultimately, what we sing repeatedly shapes our belief, our discipleship, and our faith.”

Good music sounds like a wonderful antidote to narcissism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was killed by Hitler’s regime during World War II, understood that to the core of his being: “It is not you that sings, it is the church that is singing, and you, as a member. . . may share in its song.”

As the letter to the Ephesians says, “speak to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts.”

That’s what Psalm 111 that we heard as our first reading was about.

That’s what the beautiful anthem from the choir was about.

That’s what our next song is about. It’s #561, “When in Our Music, God is Glorified.”