We learned last week that one way we may discover our personal quest is through mythology or in biblical accounts. A mentor of mine, Dr. Rufus Fears, noted that, “All too often, we have a tendency to equate the word ‘myth’ with ‘falsehood.’ But in truth, many of the world’s greatest mythological stories contain a kernel of truth. Perhaps more importantly, they convey universal truths—that is, they are the vehicle by which cultures throughout human history have passed their most important values and beliefs on to future generations.” (Fears, J. Rufus. Life Lessons from the Great Myths. Teaching Co., 2011.)
Consider Theseus and the Minotaur
Mythological King Minos of Crete waged a war of revenge against Athens in retribution for the death of his son. As a consequence of losing the war, Athens was ordered to sacrifice their youths and maidens to the dreaded, beastly Minotaur.
Indeed, Minos required seven Athenian youths and seven maidens, chosen by lots, to be sent every seventh year. Upon arrival on the island, the youth were sent into the Labyrinth as “young men at the same time as the best of unwed girls as a feast” for the Minotaur. If ever there were a need for a hero, this was the time.
Theseus, of Athens, was moved by the suffering of his kingdom and questioned how to free his people from this bondage and tribute. His answer: to volunteer to be one of the youths and kill the Minotaur himself.
So far, our hero follows the “pattern of discovering personal quest” by looking outside himself and moving to action for the sake of others. And yet, he is not alone in ultimately reaching success. After arriving in Crete, Minos’ daughter Ariadne fell madly in love with him and offered him help to navigate the Labyrinth. She gave him a ball of thread and a sword, allowing him to retrace his path back out of the Labyrinth after killing the Minotaur with the weapon she provided. He, in turn, led the other Athenians out of the Labyrinth and they sailed safely back to Athens.
The myth guides us in our learning by hitting on the principles of service, sacrifice, responsibility, and bravery.
As we consider our own journey in life, we frequently find liberty by returning to the principles that once informed our freedom and retracing the steps that lead us to personal victory. Likewise, we can look to the quests of others and note what brought them to liberty and success.
At John Adams Academy, the theme of restoration is a powerful part of our mission statement where we commit to “restoring America’s heritage” by “developing servant leaders.” We find answers to questions, or quest, as we engage, internalize, and apply lessons of the past. The story of the Minotaur beckons to us to walk back into our past. When were we the most fulfilled or happiest? Why? Liberty and freedom always begin with a quest or odyssey or mission. That is where you and I come on the stage of life.
Think of Moses
Moses too retraced his steps many times. Born in the humblest of circumstances to a poor Hebrew family and obscure tribe of Levi in Judah, he was set afloat in a basket as an infant in an effort to save his life. That basket was discovered by the daughter of Pharaoh who raised him as an Egyptian prince. Yet as he grew he did not know his true identity until he had completed several quests. His first quest was to learn his true heritage.
We read in Exodus 2, “And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand. And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow? And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known. Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well.” (The King James Version of the Bible, Exodus 2: 11-15. E-book edition, Project Gutenberg, 2011.)
His next quest was to find a wife. While at this well he protects several women, all daughters of one man named Bethuel. Note the words of their father, “And they said, An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew water enough for us, and watered the flock. And he said unto his daughters, And where is he? why is it that ye have left the man? call him, that he may eat bread. And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” (The King James Version of the Bible, Exodus 2:19-22. E-book edition, Project Gutenberg, 2011.)
And they lived happily ever after, right? Not so fast. Where they lived near Sinai there was a curious bush that burned but was not consumed. How could this be? Moses’ question may have initially been about an ecological wonder, nevertheless a “question” was formed. The resulting quest takes him up Sinai to a flame of fire in a bush where he is given a lot more than a gardener’s answer. Is there something metaphorical about taking off his shoes as he approaches the Divine and then putting them back on for a different quest? The charge given to him at the age of 80+ to retrace his steps back to Egypt and liberate Israel seemed insurmountable. Yet, he took the mission and as a token of his acceptance he was given a rod and a spokesman in his brother Aaron.
Along the way, Moses discovered challenges and questions that required answers for dealing with Pharaoh and the children of Israel. The plagues he placed upon Egypt were a part of that quest: dividing the waters of the Red Sea, feeding the Israelites with manna and finding water were each component parts of the quest of liberty and freedom.
Cecille B. DeMille addressed this as he read the narration in his epic telling of Moses’ story in the movie The Ten Commandments:
“Ladies and gentlemen, young and old, this may seem an unusual procedure, speaking to you before the picture begins, but we have an unusual subject – the story of the birth of freedom – the story of Moses. As many of you know, the Holy Bible omits some 30 years of Moses’ life… From the time, when he was a three-month old baby, and was found in the bulrushes, by Bithiah, the daughter of Pharaoh and adopted into the court of Egypt, until he learned that he was Hebrew and killed the Egyptian. To fill in those missing years, we turn to ancient historians, such as Philo and Josephus. Philo wrote at the time when Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth and Josephus wrote some 50 years later, and watched the destruction of Jerusalem, by the Romans. These historians had access to documents long since destroyed – or perhaps lost, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s law, or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator, like Rameses. Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today. Our intention was not to create a story, but to be worthy of a divinely inspired story, created 3,000 years ago…..” (The Ten Commandments, 1956)
And so, my friends, it is our turn to write our story and begin, continue, or end our epical journey with a quest. Let’s begin by retracing our steps and those of heroes who have gone before us.
Image attributions: ddzphoto from Pixabay, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons