Doesn’t the word “falling” sometimes describe our lives? Falling into debt, falling out of belief, falling from blazing temperatures, falling from the pandemic, worrying about youths who say, “what shall we believe in?” And the crumbling of that one true foundation of society, the family?
The First Reading talks about a time like this.
God had pulled his people out of ancient captivity by sending them on a 40-year “exodus” from the Egypt of that day. In this terrible journey and the blazing heat of those days, things indeed had begun to fall apart. The freed people began to grouse and censure Moses and Aaron, their leaders. They actually said that they would rather have stayed in the land of Egypt and be killed—Egypt which at least had flesh-pots to eat from—than to starve now, wandering, through the desert.
How do we face the falling of their world and ours?
Maybe these words of Anne Lamott hold a key:
When a lot of things start going wrong all at once, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to get itself born, … and this something needs for you to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible.*
In the exodus, something very big and lovely was trying to be born. God was holding their “falling to pieces” gently all the while. He even sent a huge flock of quail for meat as well as “bread from heaven” (manna) from the skies.
The Gospel for Sunday flows right out of this incident. The people grumbled to Jesus, saying,
our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: ‘he gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?”
A strange question, since, only the day before, Jesus had multiplied five barley loaves and fishes till there was enough to feed this same huge crowd. What a sign that had been. Did they forget just one day later?
Jesus said, “It was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.”
A crucial distinction. God had sent the manna, God sends Jesus, the true manna. Maybe God had distracted them (and us?) by the falling of his people.
There is a poem by Reiner Maria Rilke, the German poet, which may apply here. If you will indulge me, I will quote it. “Autumn.”**
The leaves are falling, falling as from afar,
as if from some far-off garden in the sky.
They fall with gestures of denial.
And in the nights the heavy earth falls
out of all the stars in the loneliness.
We all fall. This hand, here, falls.
And look at the rest: it is in all!
And yet, there is one who holds all this falling,
endlessly softly, in his hands.**
Maybe the careening earth, and human affairs, everything that is falling apart, all of it, every bit of it, has behind it something big and lovely trying to get itself born.
There is really no other true answer to the failures of our world. The dropping away of opportunities, the broken but recovering economy, the racial infidelity, the starvation—no answer at all unless supporting hands make safe the falling and support it with tenderness.
Instead of despairing, we must wait, wait, and then act, act.
Because something lovely is being born.
This is the original German of the poem, Herbst.:
Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.
Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen
unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.
Rilke, #51, Das Buch der Bilder [The Book of Pictures]