Mark Twain Gets it, But Do I?

Mark TwainI love the bizarre and unexpected ways in which my reading and meditation habits open the door to my soul.

The Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments as they’re more commonly referred to, came to mind recently as I enjoyed reading random passages from Mark Twain’s essays. I’ll get to him in a moment, but first the twentieth chapter of Exodus, which is the second book of the Torah and the Old Testament, and whose author is presumed to be Moses.

They are commands to: worship only God, honor one’s parents, keep the Sabbath (a day of rest), and avoid idolatry, blasphemous language, murder, adultery, thievery, dishonesty, and covetous thoughts or behaviors (especially about your “neighbor”).  Judaism and Christianity embrace these biblical tenets as the cornerstones for worship and living an ethical life. And now back to Mark Twain, the man William Faulkner referred to as the “father of American literature.”  The author and humorist had just finished a lecture before a capacity and enthusiastic crowd when he was approached by one of the front-row attendees. The well-dressed man, a wealthy and notoriously ruthless businessman, cornered him and declared:

“Before I die I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I will climb Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud at the top of the mountain.”

“I have a better idea,” the great author replied. “You could stay home in Boston and keep them.”

There’s no record, at least that I could discover, of what the prideful man’s response was to the author’s withering sarcasm. I suspect the man’s hubris prevented him from “taking in” Mr. Twain’s words, and that he kept his retirement plans in place.

I, however, found his response provocative and challenging. My retirement plans aren’t set, but if they included a trip to the Holy Land and a visit to Mt. Sinai, a God-like proclamation from the summit would not be on the itinerary. My arrogance and pride find plenty of opportunities for expression elsewhere.

This short piece has been percolating in my soul since the New Year began, already more than three weeks ago. Listing the Ten Commandments has been a doodling habit of mine during this time—an annoying one because the truths revealed make me uncomfortable, even as I smile at the design of my listings.

Reenter Mark Twain: “A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself as a liar.” My aimless scribbling, however creative, exposed my propensity to lie to myself. In 2016, to the best of my “truth-saying” knowledge, I kept three of the Ten Commandments, selectively adhered to another three (when convenient), and broke four of them.

I took a modicum of solace knowing that, in baseball, if a hitter over the course of his career gets a hit three out of ten times (.300) he’s most likely going to end up in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  In the statistically bound world of professional baseball only one player has achieved a batting average of 1.000, and he was five for five but never played in another game due to a career-ending injury.

Though my love for the game of baseball and years of playing the sport never translated into Hall of Fame statistics at any level, success and failure, frustration and pleasure coexisted, and with them came a desire to strive to be better. I strive for the same on the spiritual playgrounds and fields where I roam, and life and God offer the same mix.

However my Ten Commandment stats rise and fall in 2017, I will appreciate their ethical and spiritual values alongside Mark Twain’s wonderful way of skewering arrogance, self-importance and righteous adherence to anything etched in stone including the Decalogue. As a devoted reader of his and the Old Testament, I’ll apply patience and humor, two great companions on the journey, while scrutinizing the stories I tell myself—the ones I too frequently become enamored with.


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  1. Colette

    This was an engaging read, as you exposed your imperfect humanity to yourself and to us. I enjoyed your taking us on this
    meandering mindful journey from the Old Testament to the humorous twist of Twain to your enduring love of baseball.
    All the lessons we learn as we live through the undeniable yin and yang of our successes and failures, our pleasures and frustrations, help us to see, accept, and love our flawed selves, as God does. May you find peace and joy however your stats rise and fall in the coming year as you continue on your quest through the door to your soul. Write on, mon ami.

    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Thank you for reading the post and sharing your thoughts. “All the lessons we learn…” reminds me of HHS, chalk and blackboards, the latter covered with information written by the wonderful educators you and I shared as we moved through junior high and high school–our “tablets” which often seemed daunting, nonetheless taught us lessons we’ve expanded upon over the years. Sometimes success seemed elusive and failure inevitable, but the former in some form or other prevailed. When my “stats rise and fall” I’ll remember to keep hope alive and the quest ongoing. If I could survive Ms. Barton’s math classes life will be…well, we’ll see!

  2. JoAnne Kurman

    I loved reading this post, Roger, and the way you used the Ten Commandments and Mark Twain. A great tempering of getting too religious or self-righteous with your Twain fun. Funny, I used the word “percolating” today which I think is an unusual word to use in a sentence spoken or written. It was in reference to a friend of mine. She woke up one morning with the following Bible passage on her mind: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” She said she felt it was something she needed to share with me and then proceeded to write the most amazing prayer for me but said she took some time before she wrote it and apologized to me for the delay. There was no need for an apology. I didn’t even know she was writing it. But I said in response, “It was percolating inside of you”. She asked me to repeat the word. I said, “Percolating”.

    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Thank you for your kind words as well as the anecdote regarding your friend’s musings about the passage of scripture. When I think of percolating my thoughts go to my grandparent’s coffee maker–the percolator as they called it. Once my grandmother plugged it into the socket four of my senses were focused on it. The sight, sound, smell, and cautious touching of the canister intrigued me. I loved the puffs of steam and the rumblings that occurred while the coffee was brewing. When an idea percolates in my mind or soul, as you suggest–“It was percolating inside of you”–I revisit those times when my senses were alert to the brewing of coffee–it was magical then, and remains so today even when the rumblings are disconcerting and the “canister” is me.

  3. Bill Doulos

    When I was in junior high school, about six decades ago, I used to keep a little diary book in which I graded myself on the tangible ways in which I honored God, on a daily basis. I checked off whether I had read my Bible, said my prayers, did my chores, etc. These categories of compliance were, in retrospect, my “Ten Commandments.” Then as I matured in my faith I realized that obedience was more a matter of the heart. I became more introspective in my pursuit of holiness. Was I compassionate? Was I humble? Was I grateful? A truer test but much harder to grade! Now in my twilight years I don’t bother grading myself at all. I leave it up to God, who looks on the heart. I am not sure I am pursuing holiness any more. I am relying on God’s grace, rather than working out my “salvation with fear and trembling.” In the Episcopal tradition, my prayer and Bible reading are taken care of in my weekly liturgical corporate expression, or perhaps they are not taken care of at all. My larger pursuit is an expression of daily compassion, however imperfect. Am I apostate, or simply mature in my faith? That is a question for God, and it may fall on deaf ears. But I am happy for those junior high school years when questions and answers came more easily.

    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      This reluctant disciple embraces “That is a question for God, and it may fall on deaf ears,” although, in your case, I believe the “ears” will take in all that Bill Doulos is about, and has done by living fully into the phrase “my good and faithful servant.” I too am grateful for those early years “when questions answers came more easily.” As I read then reread your comments I recalled the phrase ‘let go and let God’ which may have had roots in the culture of the’60’s. Regardless I’ve never been able to do so even as I question my own state of apostasy and struggle with a maturing faith. Whatever God’s doing it is inconceivable to me that God isn’t chuckling at the choices his creations make–at least I hope so.
      Thanks for reading the post, sharing your provocative thoughts and journey, and by so declaring kinship with us.


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