By Phyllis Tickle
Anything that begins with such words as that usually carries with it the implicit promise that a tale is about to be told. “Once upon a time” rarely is a vehicle for conveying factual or objective truth. Rather, we have learned to read it as the set piece that introduces a bit of folk entertainment which, in the end, will leave us with a bit of folk wisdom forever wrapped in a memorable tale. All well and good and as it should be.
On the other hand, when a professional religionist begins something by saying, “Once upon a time,” there is the hesitant assumption that the forthcoming insight or wisdom will be less folk or common wisdom and more geared toward making some kind of moral point. And when a professional religionist begins something by saying, “Once upon a time, there was a house…,” there is every reason to assume — especially if the religionist is a Christian — that we are about to re-visit, whether we wish to or not, the parable of the two houses. One was built on a solid foundation of rock so that, when the storms came, it withstood their onslaught and remained standing. The other was built upon a foundation of sand and, when the storms came, crumbled under their onslaught and fell down. It is one of the better known of Jesus’ parables and contains something very close to folk wisdom or common sense in addition to its theological ramifications.
Actually, a number of New Testament parables are common sense or folk wisdom tales, requiring not much depth of perception to understand and yet still wrapped in the skin of story and entertainment … a fact which is, I suspect, a good deal of the reason for our having a certain kind of laziness about extending them into our own time instead of leaving them as quaint, but still honored, artifacts of an earlier one. All of this came to mind for me three or four Sundays ago when the parable of the two houses was the New Testament reading for the congregation with whom I was worshipping at the time. I’ve been chewing on the matter ever since. So…
Once upon a time, there was a house, whether on sand or rock, I can not say; but let us assume that this house was securely positioned, at least for our purposes here. Now this house of ours had an occupant. Who, we don’t know, but an occupant. That occupant has a family … a mate, children, a few pets, and an occasional relative or friend who comes for a visit. Now the children are all worrisome and gratifying and demanding, as children are supposed to be. The mate is the beloved whom the occupant can hardly bear at times, though it is clear that each of them is really in the business of sculpting the other into something that more resembles half of a new whole than it does anything else. The pets all bounce around … or the dogs do, anyway. The cats prefer to sit back, tails curled under them, and wait to be asked about what should be done next. The pets are quite dear at times and not so dear at others, but all of them are fed and housed with an affection which, unlike that extended to the children and the mate, is largely untainted by any sense of obligation or duty.
The house has all the appointments that one would expect. There are windows, well-positioned not only to let in the light, but also to admit of good cross-ventilation. There is an adequate electric system that also keeps the house well-lit, warm enough and cool enough, and very functional. Likewise, the plumbing is in good balance with the needs of the house, though like all plumbing, it will occasionally suffer from overload and back up or will be the dumping place for more than it can handle and overflow. These are ongoing nuisances that cause the occupant only passing inconvenience, but rarely extended difficulty. There is the usual division of the house’s rooms into those that are more or less public and those that are private and also, of course, those that are distinctly personal … or at least, from time to time and on a routine basis, their use is. There is, as we would expect, a lovely, warm, cheerful kitchen which transcends the categories and simply is communal space at all times. The occupant, being a good person, sees to the house and its maintenance responsibly, consulting experts from time to time, when that is necessary, and spending time and money, as well as energy, in seeing to the house’s ongoing good health.
In all of this, it is very clear to all concerned that the occupant is not the electrical system, though neither the house not the occupant would scarcely be able to function without it. It is equally clear that the inviting, communal kitchen is not the occupant, nor are the attractively dressed windows nor the front porch and flowers beds that complement the house. The furnishings, all of them adequate and suited to their purposes, are not the occupant, even though they are used constantly for the comfort, sustenance, and betterment of the occupant. And certainly no one would ever think that the occupant was the stairways which went up and down, from basement to first floor to second floor to attic, or even from doorways to driveway and sidewalk and patio. The occupant is none of these things, in part, of course, because the occupant isn’t a “thing” and therefore can never be one. It is true, however, that the occupant could not long survive without a house of some sort, be it this one we are speaking of, or some other shelter.
But the house and the occupant do share one commonality: they both will someday cease to be. Both will pass away. The occupant, who was not the house, will die; and the house, who was not the occupant, will burn down or molder down or be torn down or undergo some other such ending. All will be gone. All the pieces and parts of our lovely story gone into dust and ashes. All of them gone as pieces, anyway. What is and always will be is what neither the house nor the occupant, as separate entities, ever was. What is and is ever to be is home … the joy-giving, rest-filled, and light-bearing presence within experience of the reality of “home.” What is, is the translation of passing tangibles into the eternal. What is, is the fusing of occupant and house into one that is neither, but both together. What is, is a story about an occupant and a house that, in truth, is really a story resurrection bodies and the kingdom of God, as in “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as in Heaven.” Or so it seems to me anyway.