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September 4, 2006
This is war: I will have a lovely three-tiered display of fresh fruit in the kitchen and a cloud of fruit flies will form around it within five minutes of my putting it out. Washing the fruit doesn't prevent it, and neither does anything else. I maintain homeland security at the moment only by the measure of hanging a length of flypaper above the fruit.

This is less than satisfactory in many ways, principal among them being the long strip of insect corpses one must reach carefully past in order to snag a peach. And something more: a tendency I have developed to watch the fly paper too intently for inadvertent fatal landings, and to be far too exultant when somebody sticks. This is unseemly in a member of the clergy. The fruit flies are living things, matter all, close enough cousins to me that their DNA structure is an important part of the Human Genome Study.

Where do they come from? Their immediate presence when fruit is brought into a house was an important bit of evidence in support of the ancient theory of spontaneous generation, which held that simple living organisms are brought into being from other substances (rotting meat gives rise to maggots, for example, and mud causes frogs). Many people believed this well into the 19th century, and most parents of teenagers hold to some version of it to this day: unpartnered socks and an infinite number of drinking glasses come into being if a teenager is placed in a closed room overnight.

But fruit flies aren't spontaneously generated. Nothing is. Everything comes from somewhere. Things don't happen for no reason; a thread of causality runs through history, and human beings can trace it if we pay close attention. Note that "cause" and "plan" aren't synonyms: everything has a cause, but not every hangnail means that God is sending you a message.

Here's the cause: the larvae of the prolific fruit fly are tiny. They lay them on the surface of the fruit and in the safe recesses of a stem. They mature quickly -- their whole lives are quick, over in a few weeks. They are attracted by the smell of ripening, which is really a process of fermentation. We are like our winged cousins in this preference: we, too, like to eat fruit just as it begins to rot, a preference Italians recognize in their word for fruit at just the proper peak of ripeness. A perfect peach is "morbida," they say in Rome -- "about to die."

I suppose we die at a proper time ourselves. I suppose there is a peak of human ripeness, a moment when we, too, are morbida, when we have done what needed to be done and can leave without much in the way of regret. We understand this time to come to us at a great old age, and mourn bitterly when death takes one of our number too soon. He was not ready. She was too young. It was the wrong time.

At such times, no cause seems sufficient to the ones left behind. No reason for such a death ever satisfies. And the idea of a plan enrages the bereaved: God couldn't think of any better way to work out his purpose than to take my ten-year-old? No. No. Sorry, but No.

Until we remember that cause and plan aren't the same. That the plan, marrying goodness and existence and love and possibility, transcends the events of life and death, with all their proximate and indirect causes. That existence is more than history, with its linear one-thing-after-another arrangement of the events it contains.

So the cause is of the earth. And the plan partakes of heaven. And the fruit is sweetest just before it dies.
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