Godtalk: Building an ark
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you......” Rudyard Kipling's famous poem provides a key to understanding the story of Noah and the Ark as much as any scriptural commentary.
That story tells of a time when the whole earth was flooded and one man, Noah, had the foresight to build a boat on which he had placed a male and female of every living species on earth so as to save them from extinction.
Like other bible stories this is not to be taken literally. It’s a story of the human heart, a story which is true in that it happens again and again in ourselves, and Ronald Rolheiser recasts the story this way:
Every so often there comes a time in history when there is so little vision, faith, idealism, decency, and charity left on this planet that there is a real danger that the world itself would sink, would drown, and revert to a chaos that would kill everything that's precious.
But one person, despite all that is going on around him or her, would keep their eye on what's higher, keep faith intact, protect life, and refuse to compromise charity and decency. Eventually the earth would drown in chaos, but because of this person's vision, idealism, faith, decency, and charity, a pocket of life, that still contains all that is precious, would be preserved and given a new chance to grow.
Noah's Ark is a story of faith, vision, idealism, decency, and charity. These virtues give us the capacity to sail above the chaos that drowns everything good.
Moreover, our decency, charity, faith, and vision contain within themselves all that's precious and that needs to be protected and given a continued chance for life.
So we might paraphrase Rudyard Kipling as follows:
If you can keep your faith when all about you they are losing theirs, but are comfortable in the feeling that there is strength in numbers, that everyone else is following suit, that so many million people can't be wrong;
If you can keep giving others respect when all about you this is seen as weakness, and disrespect is held as strength and passion for truth;
If you can remain courteous and retain your manners when all about your courtesy is seen as quaint, and crassness and crudity are paraded as sophistication;
If you can live in tension when all about you there is compromise because it is judged that it’s better to let the devil take tomorrow than to live in tension today;
If you can refuse to settle for second-best when all about you accept that this is all that life will offer;
If you can combine chastity and passion when all about you this is judged as naïve and impossible;
If you can make room for Sabbath amidst the pressures of life when all about you those pressures have begun to dictate all of life;
And, if you can bear down even more in charity and forgiveness, loving and forgiving those who hate you, when all about you they are advocating hate for hate;
Then, just as surely as Noah did, you will have built an Ark!
Peter Knott SJ
From the Rolheiser Column Archive 2011, edited.