Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity 2016
Start Date 31st Jul 2016 10:00am

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence

During this month of July my sermons are based on secular books that help us to explore both faith and Christian living. This morning I shall be speaking about a classic book by Hermann Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund. I think this is by far his most beautiful novel, and its also a rather good story.

In the writings of Hermann Hesse, we find a constant preoccupation with the questions of religion and faith. He was born into a strict Protestant family, both his parents were missionaries in India, and against whose rigour and severity he soon rebelled. His father's attempt to use religious education to bring him into line caused him to become increasingly estranged from Christianity.

Perhaps against all the odds, he managed to keep his faith but he came to believe in a 'religion outside, between and above confessions, which is indestructible.' Perhaps because of this, he always took a rather sceptical view of dogmas and teachings. In the end he came to conclusion that 'one religion is as good as another'.

The setting for this book is 14th century Germany during the plague years of the Black Death. Its a remarkable tale about two young men. One devoted to the religious life and the other to a more decadent, artistic life. Hesse's novel explores their characters and ideals; one quietly content with his religion and monastic life, and the other in fervent search of a more worldly salvation.

This conflict between flesh and spirit, between emotion and contemplative, was a life study for Hesse. The worldly Goldmund has no mother, and his rather austere father leaves him at the monastery to be educated. He meets Narcissus, a handsome, ascetic young novice monk, who takes him under his wing, but senses something is very wrong with the young man and tries to help him.

Goldmund's subsequent wanderings take him on fantastic adventures and ultimately to finding himself. Narcissus, too, must discover himself, but not in the way he had expected. The novel follows them through adulthood, and Hesse examines the spiritual approach to life as opposed to the more physical approach, and in the end finds them both wanting. Narcissus and Goldmund strive for the meaning of life through the sacred and the profane. They offer very different approaches.

The novel is a philosophical and allegorical story of the friendship between two exact opposites. One staying in the medieval monastery to follow his vocation, and the other becoming a vagabond who wanders all over the country from trouble to trouble, and love affair to love affair. The two are almost personifications of opposites, continually thinking of each other, and enriching each other through their very different perspectives on life.

I wonder if any of you have had the opportunity to undergo a Myers-Briggs questionnaire? Its all about indicating psychological preferences in how people see the world and make decisions. At the end you come out as one of 16 types referred to by an abbreviation of four letters. For example: INFJ: Introversion, Intuition, Feeling, Judging.

Narcissus strikes me as an INTJ (introversion, intuition, thinking, judging). He's a scholar with the ability to see through the surface of a character to the inner being.
Goldmund on the other hand, is a far more extrovert character. He enjoys being with people. He is empathetic and emotional, in tune with his own feelings and the desires of others.

As is the case with most good parables, the book can be understood in many different ways. The classic Apollo – Dionysius duality from classical times comes to the fore. Narcissus takes the way of Apollo, toward light, God, reason, contemplation and reflection. Goldmund takes the path of Dionysius toward the desires of the flesh, the lessons of earthly pleasure and the creation of a very worldly beauty.

Nevertheless, although they're very different people, they also have certain similarities. Both have an openness in their response to experience, and a pragmatic avoidance of dogma in their response to religion. Both (though perhaps in rather inconsistent ways) 'believe in' God, but recognise the imperfection and suffering of the world in a way that helps them avoid any really challenging expectations of God.

Here prayer, in the context of the cloister, appears to be more of a spiritual practice rather than a demand for revelation or intercession. Also both friends learn from their experiences and both find creative ways to channel their differing energies.
Perhaps most importantly though, the novel shows that the friends recognise contrasting strengths in each other, strengths that they themselves lack.

Rather than defending themselves, each draws on the others' experience and insight, learning with great difficulty how life actually extends beyond the comfort of one's individual world. In a similar way, we can probably all identify a Narcissus and a Goldmund within ourselves.

It's a dangerous over-simplification for us to see the religious Narcissus as being all good and the wayward Goldmund as being all bad, because we know human nature is infinitely more complex than this. We're all combinations of 'good' and 'bad' qualities.

This novel does raise the questions however of how we understand goodness and its opposite. Concerning goodness: we know that Jesus Christ teaches us not to be self-centred, but rather to empathise with other people, to feel compassion for them, and to put their needs before our own. And, if necessary, sacrificing our own well-being for the sake of others.

But when we fall short, our actions are often defined by selfish needs and desires. Not sensing other people's suffering, not seeing the world from other people's perspective, having no sense of their rights. Yet most of us lie somewhere between these two positions.

Sometimes, like Goldmund, we may behave badly, when egocentric impulses cause us to put our needs before the welfare of others. Sometimes, like Narcissus, we behave in a saintly fashion, when empathy and compassion impel us to put the needs of others before our own, resulting in kindness and generosity.

But if we give ourselves time to consider the Gospels and act on them, if we become less pre-occupied with ourselves, and become more open to the Holy Spirit, we become more selfless and altruistic. Deep down we know that goodness emerges within us when we move outside of ourselves, when we're connected to Christ, and when we are in empathy with one another.

I find this novel particularly appealing because it grapples with these very fundamentals. The characters of Narcissus and Goldmund raise poignant questions for all of us, but perhaps especially for young people as they set out on their journey of adult life. Deep questions such as, Do I seek beauty? Do I find myself in sexual experience? Do I find myself in contemplation? Do I ultimately seek after God?

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