Friday, June 21, 2013

The Wisdom of Kazantzakis

I recently came across a quote from Nikos Kazantzakis's magnificent but controversial novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. The following dialogue takes place during a heated conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist, near the Jordan River at the outset of the former's public ministry. John advocates taking an ax to the current Jewish leadership and Israel's occupying Roman authorities. His cousin is unconvinced.

Jesus: "Isn't love enough?"
John: "No. The tree is rotten. God called to me and gave me the ax, which I then placed at the roots of the tree. I did my duty. Now do yours: take the ax and strike!
Jesus: "If I were fire, I would burn: if I were a woodcutter, I would strike. But I am a heart, and I love."

Wow! That sent me to Netflix to watch Martin Scorsese's 1988 film version again, after a lapse of many years. I don't recall noticing that Harvey Keitel's Judas delivered his lines with a heavy New York accent. Go figure! 

In the story, Jesus' last and greatest temptation as he hangs dying on the cross is one that I share--and I suppose many of you do, too. Before Jesus is able to cry out with full resignation, "It is finished!" he isn't presented with an option for power, wealth, fame and glory, or even uninhibited, eagerly shared, and mutually satisfying sex. His most powerful yearning was for "ordinariness." Kazantzakis creates for Jesus the illusion of a life lived in obscurity, without stress or anxiety. Jesus is happily married to the love of his life. He has fathered a houseful of perfect, smart, and respectful children. His career as a craftsman has supported their unpretentious lifestyle. After a full and peaceful life, he approaches death a happy man, who has tasted the sweetest nectar of human joy.

Coming to his senses, an aged Jesus recognizes that the life he longs for would betray his reason for existing. In anguish and regret for all that he is choosing to leave behind, he abandons his idyllic dream state and returns to the Self that still sags in death throes on the cross. He exhales his final breath, not as husband and father, but as the Victim lamb, faithful to his ministry of being life for the lifeless, hope for the hopeless.

I don't think I fully understood Kazantzakis's spiritual insight before watching The Last Temptation this time. It was as if the author had thrust a mirror into my hand. In it, I saw my own connection with that alluring call away from who I am meant to be. You see, I too long for a simple, peaceful existence, a happy life, with minimal conflict, no major physical or emotional suffering, just the life of a . . . lover, dad and worker, with nothing big to worry about, imagining  retirement someday (to write full time). And then to die, surrounded by my loved ones--with these final words on my lips: "I never did much of anything, but I die a happy man." 

Yes, my great--and last?--temptation is simply to do nothing muchBut what a waste that would be!

(c) 2013 by Alfred J. Garrotto