Yesterday was the 160th birthday anniversary of Oscar Wilde, Irish playwright and poet. As a self-professed logophile, Wilde, a wordsmith nonpareil, is one of my favorite writers. I also have a soul-deep iconoclastic streak to which Wilde appeals as a master of comedic farce and cultural criticism, particularly regarding the Victorian era’s rigid social rules, its overtly sincere, overly polite ways that oft obscured the less than clear or pure designs and desires of the human heart.
For this morning’s meditation, I re-read one of Wilde’s classics, “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Gwendolyn and Cecily yearn to marry someone, anyone named Earnest; the name alone, implying responsibility and respectability, inspiring their confidence in the trustworthiness of its bearer. The respective objects of their affections, Jack and Algernon, hypocritically, like actors behind masks, each pretending sincerity, lack earnestness. They lie about their names (except that one of them, whose name, to be revealed, is Earnest, will have told the truth, however inadvertently).
Wilde seems to trivialize the importance of honesty, while also seeming to make important something as trivial as a name or rather the belief that a name, as the symbol of an ideal, is itself the reality to which it points.
In this, Wilde speaks, preaches volubly about what happens when principles and practice, intentions and actions, philosophy and ethics are a muddled mess. Hard to discern. Harder to do.
And what happens when a strict moral code or any ideal, meant as a guide for virtuous behavior, has the opposite effect of hindering the discovery of what is true.
And what happens when Wilde’s characters (or anyone) discover the impossibility of achieving earnestness (or any ideal) while claiming to do so. It seems that once one claims to do it, one no longer truly can be it. (I recall the tale of the Benedictine monk listing the virtues of various monastic orders: “The Franciscans,” he conceded, “beat us in good works and the Dominicans,” he confessed, “best us in scholarship, but none,” he contended, “can better us in humility!”)
Through the lens of Wilde’s insightful eye, I look afresh at the encounter between Jesus and a wealthy man who, zealous to pursue the ideal of eternal life, asks, “What must I do?” Jesus answers, “You know the commandments,” then recites those pertaining to human relationships. Eternal life, right relationship with God is mirrored in loving and just interactions with others.
The man protests his integrity, “I do all those things.” Jesus throws the proverbial curve, “You lack one thing,” telling him to sell everything, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him. The point, however, is not one’s wealth, but rather whether that or anything is put in the way of one’s response to the call to serve others. What Jesus counsels is not a specific outward action, however laudable, but an inward attitude of commitment to a life of love.
The quest for eternal life, indeed, life itself is not about doing the commandments, but being the commandments; embodying in the flesh of daily living a spirit of unconditional love for all.
How does the rich man, how does anyone, how do I do or rather become love? By choosing. For Jesus’ call, “Come, follow me”, is an invitation not to engage in rigorous doing, but rather heartfelt, spirit-filled being, which was precisely Oscar Wilde’s point about what it means to be earnest.