The River Must Flow (dedicated to the life of Albert Schweitzer 1875-1965)


In normal years the Carmel River in central California swells with the runoff from upstream and, with the occasional help of bulldozers, breaches the sandbar in a mighty rush to the Pacific Ocean.  It is inevitable—rivers must reach the ocean, the ocean is its goal; its pent-up energy and volume break the restraints of the surrounding land mass to achieve its.  Such, too, is the nature of spiritual preparation.  It is not a private pursuit alone.  It must instinctively move from an interior to an exterior expression.  The examples of the great souls, the mahatmas of our age and others, are witnesses: Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity caring for the sick and dying; Ghandi leading the Indian masses in seemingly impossible protests against the British occupiers; Cesar Chavez fighting for workers’ rights in the fields, on the march, and in jail; Nelson Mandela, whose struggle was his life and who endured decades of imprisonment to finally lead his country; Rosa Parks on the bus and in jail; Martin Luther King in the pulpit, in the streets of Birmingham and other cities, and, again, in jail; Dorothy Day in the workers’ tenements—the list goes on and on.  We may individually bring to mind the names of those we know or knew, as well as those who will forever remain unknown except to God.  Named and unnamed, this was their destiny.

St. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4:6 “As for me, my life is already being poured away as a libation.”  What a clear, concise image of a life given for others.  And this is what a life in the true spirit of humility comes to.  Its highest expression, its very reason for existence has now become the service of others.  It is an essential part of spiritual literature.  This common core resonates in Jesus, Paul, the Buddha, and other teachers.  It was the fruit of their spiritual preparation.  For those who undertake this path, the stress of service may have showed in their bodies and faces.  Their lives, while purposeful and rewarding, could not be called easy.  Yet paradoxically it could be said that they were not “happy” (in other words, not satisfied or complete) unless they were engaged in the struggle.  In its highest expression there is an identification of life with service, and we are told in the scriptures by Paul to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).

To the list of those just mentioned I must add the name of Albert Schweitzer.  More about his life later, but first the great Idea which became the reason and motivation for his life’s work.  In the annals of philosophy and science there are a few scattered accounts of how great ideas were discovered.  Few of these rival Schweitzer’s exciting discovery of what was to be his central philosophy, that of Reverence for Life.  During one on his extensive sojourns as a medical missionary in Africa, he embarked on a boat trip to the interior in September, 1915 to treat the ailing wife of another missionary.  While the small steamer on which he was a passenger crept upstream, his idle days were spent in writing and thought.  Here is his account of how he arrived at the amazing simplicity of this concept after days of struggle: “Lost in thought I sat on the deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal conception of the ethical which I had not discovered in any philosophy.  Sheet after sheet I covered with disconnect sentences, merely to keep myself concentrated on the problem.  Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, ‘Reverence for Life’.  The iron door had yielded: the path in the thicket had become visible.  Now I had found my way to the idea in which affirmation of the world and ethics are contained side by side!  Now I knew the ethical acceptance of the world and of life, together with the ideals of civilization contained in this concept, has a foundation in thought….The most immediate fact of man’s consciousness is the assertion: ‘I am the life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live’, and it is as will-to-live in the midst of will-to-live that man conceives himself during every moment that he spends in meditating on himself and the world around him.  As in my will-to-live there is ardent desire for further life and for the mysterious exaltation of the will-to-live which we call pleasure, while there is fear of destruction and of that mysterious deprecation of the will-to-live which we call pain: so too are these in the will-to-live around me, whether it can express itself to me, or remains dumb.  Man can now decide what his relation to his will-to-live shall be.  He can deny it.  But if he bids his will-to-live change into will-not-to-live, as is done in Indian and indeed in all pessimistic thought, he involves himself in self-contradiction.  He raises to the position of his philosophy of life something unnatural, something which is in itself, untrue, and which cannot be carried to completion.” (Albert Schweitzer. Out of My Life and Thought.  New York, Henry Hold and Company, 1933, pp. 124-125)

This philosophy, amazing in its clarity and conciseness, establishes an existential, real-time environment in which every waking moment of our existence may be lived in the consideration of will-to-live and its relations.  In the vast and often irrational ocean of causality in which we are immersed (“Riders on the storm, into this house we’re born, into this world we’re tornJ death is inevitable and suffering is inescapable.  It, however, does not have the final word.  Ethically engaged compassion can flow to both alter the course of events and transform the negative tendencies of the world and to serve as a witness to the ultimate good of God.  The philosophy of Reverence for Life provides the platform by which this may take place.  We alone cannot help to heal the entire planet, but we can do our part.  If this were recognized and practiced by human culture as a whole, the quantitative effect would be astounding.  We would have the Kingdom of God, whose address is not some otherworldly location but here and now.

Schweitzer’s decision to become a doctor came at a point in his life when the moment was ripe.  Keep in mind that he was at the top of his game musically (a definitive edition of the organ works of J.S. Bach, triumphant concert performances, and an authority on organ building); and theologically (author of The Quest for the Historical Jesus, which influences Christian thought to this day).  With these he could have rested on his reputation and reaped renown for the remainder of his life.  But in the glow of these achievements lay the stirrings of inadequacy.  The clouds of the Great War were gathering, brought on by the strivings of nationalism.  The bitter fruit of this enterprise was the injustice and exploitation of colonialism, particularly among the peoples of Africa.  Somehow, some way, steps, however small, needed to be taken to correct this injustice.  Deep in his soul, he heard this call.  Norman Cousins writes, “For Albert Schweitzer, the assertion of this potential was not a matter of charity but a matter of justice and of moral reparations.  He had always been troubled by the fact that the white man, carrying with him the cross of Jesus, not infrequently also carried the means of cheapening the lives of people he sought to change or dominate.” (Norman Cousins. Dr. Schweitzer of Lambarene. New York, Harper and Brothers, 1960, p. 209)

In his later years Schweitzer dealt with the struggle in his book The Kingdom of God.  He wrote, “Christianity has veered away from Christ.  Christianity has constructed an elaborate dogma but it has not really comprehended that the mission of Jesus was to enable every man to discover the Kingdom of God in himself.” Endless theologizing disturbed him, in his words, “fr it tnded to lead away from the great and simple truths revealed in Jesus’ own words and life.”  At the time of this realization he was the principal of a seminary.  He became increasingly disturbed by the seemingly endless theological discussions regarding the nature of Christ, salvation, why did Jesus have to die, was he born of a virgin, etc.  None of it, to him, was life-affirming toward the world.  Now Reverence for Life as a concept had not yet been formulated, but he knew that he could no longer accept the responsibility of preparing young people for ministry by teaching what he himself did not believe.  It was at this point that his decision was clear: he would leave the seminary and make his life his argument, attempting, in his words, “to have my life and work say what I believed.”  And so, he entered training to become a doctor.  The seeds were sown to that which would flower in his lifelong ministry to the people of Africa and to the living out of the great principle, Reverence for Life.

In response to the notion that the inner and outer demands of spirituality are in conflict, I would call it more of a question of balance.  It is not, I think, an either/or proposition.  Historian Arnold Toynbee has shed considerable light on this.  His multi-volume work, A Study of History, is pervaded by religious themes.  He viewed the great religions as an integral expression of the history of civilizations.  He introduces the motif of the “withdrawal and return” experienced by the leaders of great faiths.  Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness was accompanied by similar withdrawals by the Buddha and Mohammed.  To Toynbee it was a natural and inevitable course of action that the renunciation of the world was accompanied by a return to it in a period of public ministry to bring its power to fruition.  It serves as a metaphor for our own practice as well.  To use his terms, life “in the cave” must eventually result in coming out of the cave.  Meditation alone will not avail—it must be manifested in an outward form to be valid.

I must remember that Reverence for Life applies equally to me and to the fly that may be buzzing around my head as I am writing this.  In Schweitzer’s words, “A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help.  Only the universal ethic of the feeling of responsibility in an ever-widening sphere for all that lives—only that ethic can be founded in thought.”

From an early age, the welfare of our animal companions and all those who inhabit the planet were foremost in his mind.  As a child he composed this prayer: “O heavenly Father, protect and bless all things that have breath; guard them from all evil, and let them sleep in peace.”

He spoke of how he recoils at an event when, as a boy, he killed a bird.  This change in his consciousness towards animals is identical to my own.  His story resonates with me.  While visiting relatives in Florida, I went out with my cousin Richard to try out his shotgun.  We reached a clearing and spotted a small bird sitting in a palmetto tree.  He handed me the gun.  I aimed at the bird and fired.  No contest.  The bird fell lifeless to the ground.  I was suddenly struck with the needlessness of taking this life, and have not hunted since.

Schweitzer lived in a real world full of real danger and life in Africa was a constant struggle.  This was made clear to me in a review of Charles R. Joy’s The Animal World of Albert Schweitzer.  Although the hospital at Lambarene was filled with “semi-wild pets such as his beloved pelican and numerous orphaned young antelopes, constant battles with snakes (sometimes poisonous and always a threat to the hospital’s chickens and goats), dangerous encounters with gorillas and hippopotamuses and nighttime combat with armies of traveler ants were necessary if the hospital were to exist, and Schweitzer did not shirt these duties.  Schweitzer never advised a pseudo-Eastern philosophy of ‘do no harm’, which is appropriate only to monks and others removed from the world.  Rather, his ethics demand that one never thoughtlessly harm another, whether human or animal.  There are always and constantly circumstances in which it is necessary to kill other living things, but no one should do so more than absolutely necessary or without feeling the guilt involved.”

Reverence for Life extends to plants as well.  For Schweitzer, to cut a flower needlessly is a violation of his fundamental ethical principle.  The key principle is “killing needlessly”.  This leads us to reflect further.  The rapidly disintegrating global climate is certainly bringing home the message of how we have needlessly and carelessly exceeded our ground and how we have strayed from our stewardship of the earth.  In our contemporary situation, Reverence for Life extends to the entire ecosystem and is a key to the ultimate survival of the human species.

This real-life philosophy provides a much needed slap in the face to our spiritual presumptions and priorities.  Here is my Schweitzer moment, one where I came to realize that I could no longer go along with the status quo of Christian priorities.  You may disagree with me if you wish, but I am offended by a Christianity which emphasizes personal salvation.  If we really believe in what Jesus taught about “die to live”, “the last will be first”, and selflessness is our goal, what could be more selfish than that?  It amounts to worship of the ego and personal survival in the afterlife above all else.  It is like what Jesus said about the Camel that cannot pass through the eye of the needle.  If we would but yield our lives as a “living sacrifice”, God will take care of the rest.  It is beyond our will and our power of decision.  We can rest in this assurance without asserting it for ourselves or imposing it upon others.  This very real living practice in response to divine grace is our best preparation for life in the eternal Kingdom of Christ while at the same time fitting us for life here.  There is far more we must do than to claim our salvation and wait for our eternal reward.  The world matters.  People matter.  Life matters.  It is in this field, this crucible, in which we are ethically and spiritually obliged to act.  Neither the self-extinguishing of meditation nor the self-glorification of personal salvation is capable of providing an answer.  We need to come out of the cave and get with it.  As much as we might look toward a life in heaven (and those who have had these out-of-body experiences say it is wonderful), any withdrawal or detachment must, to follow Toynbee’s analysis, must be accompanied by a return to the world.  As long as we are here we must live as if we are here.

We do not need to look, as Schweitzer did, to the jungles of Africa to hear the cry of human need.  It is among us.  To cite one example, the plight of the U.S. farmworker is a sad and continuing fact.  It is a bitter irony that those upon whom we are dependent for our food supply are the most food insecure group in our society.  During the winter months between growing seasons in Salinas I have watched long lines form a church parking lots and other public places where people wait for the Food Bank truck to arrive, sometimes arriving as much as four hours early to ensure that they will get something.  Monterey County is a land of poverty in the midst of abundance.  There is great inequity and injustice here.  We have our work to do.

One of the mahatmas of California you may not know, but probably should.  Her name is Nancy Costello, who passed away in 2013 after years of service to farmworkers and their families.  Mrs. Costello devoted 43 years of her life to collecting food, clothing, and supplies and delivering them to migrant farmworkers and other needy families in south Monterey County.  She continued driving this route, more than 200 miles a day, until her health began to fail around her 95th birthday.  The story begins in 1970 when she read an article in the Monterey Herald about a wonderful grower who had put in a swimming pool for the children of his farmworkers.  She found out that the kids were begging for shorts so that they could use the pool.  She gathered up swimsuits and other clothing that her children had outgrown and delivered them to the labor camp in Soledad.  Here, in her words, is what happened next: “I hesitantly walked up some rickety steps and knocked, and an old woman—obviously a grandmother—opened the door.  I didn’t speak Spanish and she didn’t speak English, but somehow we managed to communicate, and she was thrilled to get the clothes.  What I saw behind her was a room full of bare cots, and a baby on every cot.”  The following day, she shared what she had seen at a luncheon of the League of Women Voters, asking for donations of children’s clothing.  “When I got home, I got a phone call from a woman I didn’t know who had rushed home from that luncheon and called all of her friends.  I went to her house and filled my station wagon to the roof with wonderful baby and children’s clothes.  All of a sudden, I was in business.”  Soon after that she saw that the bigger problem was hunger.  She began collecting groceries that had been marked for disposal by local supermarkets because they were just past their expiration dates.  Every Christmas she collected and delivered toys, warm clothing, food, and other gifts to more than 1,000 families.  This is why her grateful recipients called her “Saint Nancy”.

Carmel Valley Community Chapel, where I served as Music Director for 28 years, has a Thrift Shop.  Oddly enough, many people know the Thrift Shop but are not aware that the Chapel is there too.  Somehow, I think that Dr. Schweitzer would be pleased with the idea of a thrift shop that happens to have a chapel next to it.  It just seems to fit.

We can each make of our lives a “living sacrifice” as a conscious effort.  We can mystically affirm the challenges of “did to live”, “the last shall be first”, and “the small shall be great” challenges presented to us by Jesus.  And here is where the inner and the outer reality come together.  The apparent emptiness of giving ourselves away creates a condition where the fullness of the divine and its sweetness comes rushing in.  Thus being filled, it is only natural that the result is an increased outflow to the ocean of humanity, like St. Paul’s image of a libation being poured out.  This emptying of ourselves enables us to be full of the energy of the essential nature of creation, the fullness which really matters.  There is no other way to fulfill our destiny and become fitting citizens of the Kingdom of God.  Truly, the river must flow.

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