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  • Writer's pictureFr. Gustavo

"Fooling Around"

The storied "Flying Dutchman" sailing never to reach port
"The Flying Dutchman" by Maurice Sapiro

“Is anything worth more than your soul?”  (Mark 8:37)

In late 1842, Richard Wagner composed one of his early operas, “The Flying Dutchman”.  Wagner himself acknowledged that his libretto was indirectly inspired by the Nordic legend about a certain Captain Van der Decken and his fateful ship, “The Flying Dutchman”. 

There are, however, other versions of the legend.  Nevertheless, they are all centered in the bad decision-making of a hurried and self-centered Captain.

In all the versions, the Captain wages his soul so he can achieve his goal of remaining the fastest ship to go around the Cape of Good Hope or, in another version, the Captain entertains himself with dicing his soul with the Devil, oblivious to anything else.

Whatever the versions, at the heart of the legend is a man’s living for today, oblivious to the tragic consequences that his behavior may end up causing.  So, the Captain and his ghostly ship is condemned to sail forever, never being able to make port.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells the story of a man who did what he felt he had to do – invest all of himself for the present day, for tomorrow will take care of itself.  In the parable, Jesus doesn’t mince words, “You fool! Is anything worth more than your soul?”

Of course, both the legend and the parable speak to bad decisions made by individuals.  However, in a certain way, peoples, societies, and communities have a “soul”.  Nelson Mandela’s quote illustrates well what I am speaking about, “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Mandela pretty much hits the nail describing “Soul” not in the theological sense – although it may have theological implications – but more in the collective sense of spirit that any society has.  What it values, what it strives, and what nurtures – and what ignores or even debases, very much to its own peril.

In other words, the soul of a society is what it makes it tick.  Not what a society advertises about itself – the imaginary America minted in the mind of each individual but completely different to the one imagined by his or her neighbor. 

The soul of a society is what in the end, the collective actions of one and all expose for the world to see.  And like in the legend, it is what it keeps the ship of nation and culture from make it to the safe harbor of its greatest destiny.

Societies and nations dice their souls on the altar of expediency on the one hand or in the sacrificing of today for the fear of tomorrow, recklessly humming to the NIMBY’s tune. 

Yes, the Emperor is nude, and unless a society at large, and each individual living in this amazing nation deals with it, it will continue sailing going nowhere.

And unless we reckon what is of true and lasting value – even if it inconveniences us – we will be no better as individuals or as a nation than Captain Van Der Decken was, and perhaps like him we may keep sailing around going nowhere. In other words, fooling around with our very own souls.

Fr. Gustavo

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