Here's a game for wordophiles where earth, breath and sheet are three words you can spell with the letters in the word heartbeats. Setter, rate, and bra are three more. Steep, if your rules let the “b” swing around. Strafe if you let one “t” grow a canopy. Tree is there. There, too. And three. And others spring from the page if you string multiples:Read More
Filtering by Tag: Tom Sturch
I owe you an apology. I've overstayed my sabbatical. The one I never cleared with the Editor. The one, which by definition comes “every seven years”, I took five years early. And now I can only fall on my sword, which is my pen, which of course is this keyboard. Mea culpa. I very much desire reunion with you, Dear Reader, in its pain and joy. Yes, pain, salved in confession and return to labors, and joy that is regular mindfulness of you. So by the gravity of guilt and the hope of renewal, I sit to write.Read More
Either do your homework or you're grounded. —Mom
If she had written it down it would have included the close, “Love, Mom.” Not that she'd have had to. The love of my mother was and is implicit. But being careful with words allows passion to enjoy reason, care to invoke care. The complementary economy of actions and words are how we are human.I just finished watching Season 1 of Mr. Robot. (Andy Greenwald's S1 review here.) There's adult content and it's not for kids, nor for adolescents without a lot of following discussion. In Mr. Robot's world, words can mean anything. They are a means of exploitation. Avoiding conversations and relationships is a means of survival. So Mr. Robot's world operates on the assumption that the only trusted language is computer code. Binary code. Where specific actions are the result of precisely arranged words with singular meaning.
Mr. Robot's world is Marshall McLuhan's “global village” in shards. It is the world of philosopher Jean Beaudrillard in which society has accepted fatalistic economic slavery through veneers of corporately-mediated normalcy. It is post-human and post-urban. It is a post-apocalyptic world in which the apocalypse has come silently. Life is fabricated and virtual. It is medicated, isolated and schizoid. And it is celebrated.
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Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there in the beginning. —Jean Baudrillard
* * * * *
In the beginning when God speaks light in Genesis we see there is no space between what he says and what he does. God's word-act is one thing. But it is mediated through his being, which is love, and in this way it is triune and highly faceted with relational meaning. It is multiplicitous in its work of creation. In Mr. Robot, the space between word and action is rendered with such certainty there is no space for translation. No space for transformation. There is only transaction. It makes the world by extraction and destruction. Light is relegated to wires. The mediation of the knower is superfluous. Every act is a yes or a no. A one or a zero.
Elliot, the protagonist (Rami Malek) is part Everyman, part Superhero, with a foot in two illusory worlds. Elliot is a debugger by day and a hacker by night. Matrix fans will not miss the reference. Like Neo, he speaks the bug well. He has affections, but they are given to fixing lives around him, not loving. He's armed with godlike access to information and cannot resist using it in the balance of justice. But he knows too much. He lives suspended on the fault line and struggles with which world to live in. And neither world is Zion. I root for Elliot just to let go.
* * * * *
Animals have no unconscious, because they have a territory. Men have only had an unconscious since they lost a territory. —Jean Baudrillard
* * * * *
Genesis 1 is liturgical poetry. It is an ancient way of ordering words and meanings within dynamic and generative relationships. It was probably read regularly in worship gatherings so the people would remember how to keep knowing God as Lord. Genesis 2 and 3 is God's garden play in which the knowers abandon relationships to hack the boundaries of knowledge. At the end of the play God slays an animal to cover what they've become. It precedes what theologians call the Protoevangelium (literally, first gospel). There's hope. But it will have to be teased out of a barren, scorched, and littered land. It will be life as situated in the shadow of death. Here we find ourselves. The blood of Christ re-mediates our humanity to its Lord and Garden while we do the creative work of remembering who we are. Light breaks out, and in. The downside is the grief of falling from a world that is cratering above a real and suffering one. But if we're lucky, we'll get grounded. If we're smart, we'll do our home work.
The wren is a big song packed into a tiny brown dart of a body with an inquisitive personality. Looking, it hops and tilts its head in that stop-action way. And it instinctively sings what is beautiful within their prodigious range of sound. One interrupted a rest between notes in a bar of music I was playing. I got up immediately, forgetting my music, and moved to the window hoping for a glimpse.
The experience is always astounding. He was picking up after the night visitors. Morning and afternoon my cat and I feed the squirrels peanuts in the shell. We watch them haunch in the lawn chairs, peel and eat and scan for threat. And jays are never far, swooping as they do from nowhere. Pairs of cardinals, ground feeders, flit in as well. The hawk is in the distant wetland. After sunset my wife puts out a heap for the family of possums that frequent. And by morning the remaining crumbs are just the size for titmice and wrens.
I might say more about the passerine wren, its syrinx throat, its more than thirty phrase patterns. That it mates for life. How we transcribe their vocal variations into a Jabberwocky vernacular of whee-udel, whee-udel, che-wortel, che-wortel, or the romantic come to me, come to me. But that would miss the interruption, the irruption of the bird into ordinary days as the gift of a taste of answered longing.
Today I am dusting and noticed I left the piano on. It's an electric piano. It has presets I can push to play pre-recorded music, but I never do, even though my playing is elementary and poor by comparison. I remember the wren and why the piano is on. It occurs to me I should revise the word “instinctively” I used above, in case it carries a residue of accident or gracelessness. In case it bears a lack of will. That the bird in that moment could ever be unresponsive to the realized phenomena that is the world it sings in and how the world is there because of it.
Is this too abstract? I should not make it less so. Go play your instrument. Love your poverty. Greet what breaks in to sing.
What they don't tell you is that getting older comes on you like a pie in the face: suddenly, unjustly, and funny to onlookers. And not funny to you. It comes like a slow-motion pratfall. It feels like a prank show genius has studied your increasing night-time eliminations and booby-trapped the route with a banana peel, a toy truck and a hoe in perfect succession. Aging comes blindly, symptom by symptom, each with its own joke.
For instance, my glaucoma came first as night visions. The ones like shadow people. Presences by your bed at three in the morning that wait for you to wake up enough to give you a heart attack. They'll tell you later it's just the vitreous humor in your one eye increasing pressure on your last nerve, or something like that. But until they do the shadow people will get their nightly kicks at the price of your terror. And then once you know, it's as if the eye doctor and the soul-stealing succubi are in on it together. They aren't of course, but you'll swear you can hear the laugh track.
And here's the truly absurd part: I am giving you an account of what it's like to get older, but until you're there these stories will be about someone else and not you. And though you'll have been warned you still won't see it coming.
When Jesus was transfigured, even after forty days of enjoying his post-crucifixion presence, the disciples despaired for their imagined messiah: the one of a conquering hero who would restore Israel to glory. But instead he is one in a world of darkness as gradually dawning light.
If you're as lucky as me you'll survive the indignity of aging to discover the benefits of professional advice and new habits. I'm getting better sleep now. The shadow people are dissolved into a fuller reality. The same is happening with my wife. She was fitted with a continuous positive airway pressure device. You know the term CPAP. It's one of those things no one wants to have. An alien on your face and Wife of Darth jokes. You wear facial indentations to work every morning and swear people are thinking, Weren't you in Mad Max? or, Hey, Bane! But for years my wife was beset with irregular heart beats, palpitations that made her feel her chest would explode. And now she's better. We're better.
The face of love changes. You won't see it coming.
“But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, but can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty in it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties.” ― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
You know the feeling. You've just finished a big show, cleaned up the messes, returned the equipment, the wrap party is over, and now what? For weeks life had singular purpose. For the last several days you've been riding that wave. What exhilaration! And as soon as the morning after, you're on the shore looking out at the horizon on a dead calm.
In the seventh chapter of Wind in the Willows, Rat and Mole set off down the river on an adventure to save their friend, Portly. Along the way they hear and follow a haunting song with great anticipation. As they enter Wild Wood they are confronted with a mystical appearance of Pan playing the song against a rising sun and are overcome with a desire to worship. When they lift their heads, Portly is sitting there, no worse for the wear. But, they can't remember what happened and they can't recall the song. It seems an oddly melancholy moment.
The title of the chapter is “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”― and youth group called their recent musical based on it “The Gates of Dawn." In just seventy days we wrote the script and songs, designed and constructed the set, learned our parts, and did two shows. At church some days later I noticed bits of the froth like patches of suds on the faces of the kids. No one mentioned it. It was as if we'd forgotten, but not.
In two weeks from this writing the Church will celebrate Pentecost. We'll have ridden the ebb of Lent through the highs of Eastertide for nearly one hundred days. And in a rain of fiery tongues we'll celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit in power. The following week will be Trinity Sunday and the Sunday after that begins the long stretch of calm seas called Ordinary Time. It will dawn as a kind of inevitable denouement that allows us to gather the threads of our lives―in my case, the lawn, some work, the rest that I'd foregone―and let memory return in time with the understanding that abides the common, the quiet, and the quotidian.
"Knowing is the responsible human struggle to rely on clues to focus on a coherent pattern and submit to its reality." —Esther Lightcap Meek, Longing To Know
We were in the car going somewhere. Our children, Joseph and Jonathan were in the back seat with Bev and me up front. It was nearly Christmas and Joseph was challenging the veracity of our assertions about Santa Claus. It's you guys, right? Bev and I weren't ready to abet our seven-year-old's descent into the murky realm of fact versus fantasy. It's a yes or a no, he insisted. Stunned by his need for this knowledge, the best I could do was offer a pathetic, Um, well... yes and no.
I still struggle with this. I would love to be certain, but I know that real truth resists the either/or of certainty. And though I'm a big fan of both/and quantum outcomes, this seems equally unsatisfying. Besides, there are no Hallmark moments reading quantum mechanics to your kid at bedtime.
I am not alone. The struggle is historic. Duality is expressed in the Age of Enlightenment from the 18th century still evidenced in the sacred/secular divide. It's in ancient Greek philosophy, in Raphael's School of Athens showing Plato's upward pointing finger and Aristotle's downward palm as essence and existence at odds. We even see its beginnings in the torrents of creation: the cold and the heat, high and low pressures, tectonic forces, the things we're made of. It seems the world's dynamics—its mechanisms for change—depend on apparent opposites cast irreducibly together. Yet, can such a maelstrom be the unity we intuit?
Duality inheres a two-ness that begs for a reconciliation that is beyond our present choices. We sense it should be there on the insistence of our desire alone—a belief that persists in a search for justification that is fleeting. So the choice seems between an endless struggle and the sidelines—between living in the tension-filled room where money, power and influence too often win, or being alienated by skepticism that leads to desperation.
Poet William Bronk offers an example of the latter position. Michael Heller remarks in the New York Times Book Review, “The natural world, Bronk would insist, is a world we can never know.” Bronk’s work suggests a basic estrangement between man and nature, promoting a bleak human situation we persist unsuccessfully in belonging to. Consider his poem On Being Together:
I watch how beautifully two trees stand together; one against one. Not touching. Not awareness. But we would try these. We are always wrong.
But consider the struggle again. In the Four Corners region of New Mexico, in Chaco Canyon, are the ruins of an ancient pueblo village of the Anasazi Indians. For years archaeologists puzzled over its disparate buildings, spiral petroglyphs and stone slab arrangements. Finally in 1979, a team oriented parts of its layout on the sun and suddenly, the pueblos became a watchport on the seasons. Their strange architecture was a finely tuned eye on the relationship of the earth with the stars. Here is human endeavor, book-ended in time, following human longing for harmony, clarity and insight. The patterns are there.
How we know is captured in a context somewhere between the rules and the world where our selves are subject to both, and certain of neither. But in this proximate humiliation our beliefs can flourish in the apprehension of patterns—our coming to know by glimpses on the hope that our home is secure in the stars.
Joseph is twenty-seven, now. I don't think he has reached a conclusion on the matter of Santa Claus. I think he is beginning to rest in the dialectical tension of life. He still wants concrete answers on metaphysical realities, but all I can do is give him two trees—not Bronk's—but rather one on the earth pointing to the sky that is also a similitude of the one that gives hope. In the mean time he has become one of the best Santas I know.
Once our boys left home Bev and I were thrust into quick adjustments akin to riders just off the tilt-a whirl. Our stable orbits missed the gravity of their presence. The momentum of parenting doesn't go away once you've spun your progeny off and into the world. So we rotated and balanced the tires, refurnished repainted rooms, re-sized the recipes and learned new steps.
Even the cat made her adjustments, her periods of meditation at the window on the lawn growing longer. At some point we decided to enhance Annie's interest in the squirrels. Peanuts. First the salted ones I was eating, then raw, once the idea of hypertensive squirrels crossed our minds, except that Bev read about tripsin inhibitors and finally unsalted, roasted. It's the word on squirrels. She loves it. Begs for it when we forget.
Morning rituals now include balancing some nuts on the outside window mullions. At another point I remembered my own dad's story of the dead squirrel bagged in his freezer. It was waiting there for the next garbage day, but was discovered a prior evening by a shrieking party guest.
My dad pelts squirrels with BBs in favor the the many birds he feeds. My own eye is on the neighborhood tomcats. One of our frequenting squirrels who is partially blind and deaf re-appeared recently after what we suppose now was a restorative absence in the woods. A tomcat gashed his hindquarters. He escaped up the column at our front door leaving it impressively bloodied. We worried he'd contract an infection and die and thought that was the case after weeks of missing him. But he's back with the Spring and looks through the window for peanuts.
The momentum of our lives is driven by desires existing in and outside us, both proximate and ultimate, that conspire in an impossible dynamic, both inwardly, compelling us to deeper relationships and outwardly, propelling us toward greater freedoms. And instead of being sheared apart we join a spiraling dance, which is itself part of some larger dance, and so on. Some greater gravity drawing us near, hurtling us forward.
I can't parse whether we dance with the squirrels or they with us. I cannot see far into the space that expands for lifetimes in front of us. If my dad and I strike some kind of cosmic balance, I am unable to factor it. But with the squirrels I trust the light that fills the void will manifest new sight and new prospects. I miss my boys, even as I feel profound joy watching them learn to dance with the world. I still feel the tug of their earlier places as we circle them from time to time, by a memory that grows further away and yet somehow deeper.
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” —Marshall McLuhan
Our views on the world are framed for us by myth. This is how it should be. Mythologies imagine the ancestry of humankind and give us frames of reference for origins, values, relationships and more. They're our points of departure for everything we are. But mythologies in a world of science and certainty are hard to come by or keep. But we need them, so modern myth-makers, from gadget companies to masters of cuisine to politicos to religions, fill in the blanks for us. Their modern mythologies suggest that we are the royals of our own realms. That we can live our ideal. That life can be stable, comfortable and happily unconsidered. And even though our world is a big round ball, the arcing horizon is a safe, convenient limit. So we can exist in circles of norms, majority's rule, the way we do. How we roll. We may play, learn and work in a consistency of comfort while the rest of the world, the suffering world, is disclosed only at our pleasure. And how we see the difference, say, between Somalia and Sonoma, or Damascus and Notre Dame, or Nepal and Manhattan, is through the soaring windows of our mythological frameworks.
Roland Barthes was a semiologist and philosopher and wrote an important book in the 1950's, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies. One of the essays in that book, “The Eiffel Tower.” articulated a modern intellectualist view of the world. And though it was written sixty years ago, it sounds startlingly familiar. Here is an excerpt:
The Eiffel Tower is a comfortable object, and moreover, it is in this that it is an object either very old (analogous, for instance, to the ancient Circus) or very modern (analogous to certain American institutions such as the drive-in movie, in which one can simultaneously enjoy the film, the car, the food, and the freshness of the night air). Further by affording its visitor a whole polyphony of pleasures, from technological wonder to haute cuisine, including the panorama, the Tower ultimately reunites with the essential function of all major human sites: autarchy; the Tower can live on itself: one can dream there, eat there, observe there, understand there, marvel there, shop there; as on an ocean liner (another mythic object that sets children dreaming), one can feel oneself cut off from the world and yet the owner of a world.
The tower's metaphor translates to many others: the Tower of Babel and the World Trade Center come to mind of course. But how about soaring personalities: celebrities and politicians, authors, directors and artists we look up to? Don't we enjoy seeing ourselves in their light? And if it's true, that these mythologies make us, then how can we parse the popular Christian paraphrase, in but not of?
The remedy is to come down from our high places, submit to a kind of disembodiment, or dislocate from our self-enlightened sources, and re-imagine life in relationships, in difficulty, in the pain and grief, and every now and then, in fulfillment. Jesus' first sermon tells us to attend everything in a mythology of his humiliation: the divine come to earth; the crown laid aside; the architect become servant.
In a story told in all four gospels, Peter, James and John wanted to live on the mountain where Jesus was transfigured. They wanted to build booths, or small houses, to contain and persist in the bright sensations of their mountaintop experiences. On the way there they had argued who would sit closest to Jesus. And afterward, at the bottom of the hill, they found the other disciples unable to heal a boy. So Jesus drove them to their knees saying, These spirits come out only by prayer. And seeing it, knowing he's talking about me, I want to say with the father of the boy, Lord I believe; help my unbelief.
And here we see at ground level, the Eiffel Tower is a gateway.
So, Lent is here. Let's do something crazy. Let's fast the frames: the television, the computer, the phone. Let's pick up a pen and write a letter on the back of a service agreement. Let's live on a buck twenty-five for a week of days. Let's wander with a wanderer and wash her feet with expensive perfume. Let's embrace a modern-day leper. Offer a cup of cool water. Read this poem* to a stranger. Walk down the bright mountain in silence together, lie prostrate on the grass, empty our insides until something leaves and our enemies are welcome inside. And let this be the ground of our mythology. From its low-ness, from our own low beginnings, may it transform our towers into doors.
Over the years our family has enjoyed a place in Georgia, the farm my mother and her three siblings grew up on. It is in the middle of the state, fifteen miles west of Interstate 75, just outside of Fort Valley on Old River Road. The place names are particular. Some are obvious in their connections like Railroad Street or College Street as the sources of their meanings are still intact. Other names, Five Points, Fox Valley and the name of the farm, Breezy Hill, are less secure and open to interpretation, their corresponding stories lost to time.
But we know Breezy Hill. Our family locates about eighty years of time there. The stories of six generations include formative days on that place. On it we discovered singular aspects of our essence and being as people and family, to wit: why the name Hezzie is revered, why chinchilla means cold house, that Bush Lady is a sister, that cancer is brutal and devastating, that Leader-Tribune means real writing, that the green of spring is the whisper of flushing pecans, and that Bonzite is what it is to truly have dogs.
Signs and signifiers, words and their meanings, in the particular world of lives lived collapse the considerable breadth of time into sensations more brief and powerful as any fusion of atoms in the heart of the sun, and move us to recall and respond with pleasure and pain so precise as to know we are wholly unique, an imprint so recognizable, so relational, so phenomenological, it is a proof of true personhood, essential and there.
Breezy Hill, from anyone's point of view, was once a beautiful place. It is less so now owing to time and its ravages. But even as the physical appearance suffers, there is another way in which time cannot destroy its beauty. It is ransomed from time in the memories of the ones who lived there. The beauty of Breezy Hill now comes in such ways that sentiment and nostalgia are gathered and perfected in beauty transcendent.
Such seeing is the way we come to know beauty in its ultimate, overcoming sense. It is how, counter to any general definition, we can view lived experience, full of joys and heartaches, successes and failures, and count them all good. It is how we can see in the tragedies of those we love the moment that beauty returns. Such familiarity becomes the merciful judgment seat of Truth.
Any general knowledge of the Christ – in his tragic story, in unattractive appearance, in his low position, in his grandiose claims – must report that he is not God since God resides in infinite perfections. He is the inconsistency that proves his falsehood. And yet, for those who know him, who know beauty, these are the very signifiers that resonate in us as most substantial and true. We know he is the Christ because we know what beauty is, because we know its costs.
David Bentley Hart articulates the transcendental concepts of beauty and being in the kenosis (or, outpouring) of Christ better than anyone I've read. I strongly recommend this video to you. I will close with an excerpt:
The experience of the Beauty that awakens us to the special force, to the difference between being and beings, that awakens us to the sheer fortuity of transcendent being's revelation in things, is also a revelation of the originally and ultimately peaceful economy of being. It tells us that between infinite Beauty and finite beauty there is no conflict, no dialectical tension, no betrayal of the divine, rather, Divine Beauty is that transcendent truth of being in which creation graciously participates, and which creation discloses again and again as pure grace.
An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all. ~ Oscar Wilde
So there we are. It's Black Friday and we're stuffed like the turkey we ate a day ago. Bev is decorating for Christmas and I should be enjoying a day spent writing. But I'm anxious instead. My rough draft is late and the animals of my ideas scurry and hide like scared, hungry strays let in from the cold.
Last month, dear reader, I tempted you with a reductive version of the Christian hope. I isolated Truth and looked at its wasteland. In a reversal of the old fable – where Truth roams naked and unwelcome in the village, then Story wraps it with goodness and finds it a home – I instead annulled its adoption and kicked it back into the street. Brutal!
So, this month I imagined Goodness naked and wandering, but I have found myself overrun with a menagerie of abandoned, ill-mannered notions of it that I feared I could never make presentable. I think every writer is part zookeeper, part animal trainer – each idea needing a bath and the startling redirection of a sharp clap. But I was stuck on one in particular. It had been here a month with no progress. It would snuggle, hairy and hot, morphing as it slept against my body like a large, ungainly dog. And it was a hybrid. I feared it would become the Indominus rex of Jurassic World we had just watched. Ideas have consequences, you know. I looked at the animal. It looked back and drooled. Nights passed slowly.
Today I tried naming it. Leviathan. Doglizza. OMG-itsaurus. Nothing fit. It still stank. It was grimy and matted in ways that looked like extra body parts. I thumbed through books for facts about breed and keeping. I cruised the vast Big Box of the Internet hoping to find the perfect behavior modification, or a sweater. Maybe a bow.
Now and then I would glance up, pensive and vacant. The television was showing Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The sound was off. It was that part near the end where the massive, bright spaceship is rising and dwarfs Devil's Tower in black silhouette. The science base in front is even smaller. I'd seen it twenty -five times but stripped of it's music and sound effects it appeared strange and new. It penetrated my preoccupation and I saw something I'd never seen before.
“Speilberg. You dog,” I said out loud. “This whole movie you've isolated the ground of contrast in that damn tower.” I felt something wash over me. “The whole dog-gone movie.”
It combed through my tangled thinking. Director Speilberg had exaggerated a distraction only to make it disappear like a background with scale that allowed me to see the enormity of his grand idea. The protagonist's obsession became the swirling center of the movie's vortex where all the conflict resolves. As Tom Snyder writes about it, “Light and music transcend the boundaries between the known and the unknown, the human and the alien, the real and the imagined.”
Then, I looked around our house and I saw it was Christmas. Beverly's handiwork, even in the throes of my self-consumed darkness, had surrounded me with extravagant goodness. And suddenly the animal of my idea was groomed, powdered and seemingly well-behaved.
I wrote quickly: Puppy to a good home. Free for the taking.
“Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.” — Simone Weil
Sam Scoville is my Facebook friend of some years. We share similar upbringing, similar make-up. We've shared some startling conversations about life's real and painful things. Sam is a walking confessional and a skilled trickster. Moreover, he's a practiced truth-teller.
At Warren Wilson College, Sam's job is to jump-start the thinking of first-year students and to introduce them to their brains. It's a job that requires some initial demolition. His class is like a surprise Pamplona. Students come to shop for trinkets— koans of thinking to display in their heirloom cases— and then Sam springs the bulls. There is a lot breakage.
Sam gets to the elemental things and supplies the objectivity to sort through the litter left on the ground. Questioning words, meanings and mythologies help challenge fragile concepts of identity, authority, love and other souvenirs of off-the-shelf culture. It's unsettling for a first-timer. They're confused and complain. But getting run out of the garden shops and into the street is necessary. Does that seem harsh?
Did you ever notice that Adam is banished using the same word Mark's gospel chases Jesus into the wilderness with? The word is driven . And the Spirit of Truth is doing the driving.
Truth's harshness is a judgment we might make before the fact. Its benefits may occur to us in retrospect. But truth is its own justification and exists above our ability to imagine it, much less articulate it. As such it is pure adventure, treacherous and compelling. It is a wild and scenic river we go with as it drives us—to see, think and respond with clarity.
Everything else we'd load our lives with is baggage. Four gospels invoke the great commission of the Christ to “go.” We don't desire it. But the once-spoken logos is gone and still going, so the Spirit of Truth breaks in and drives us to follow. No bag. No purse. No sandals.
The yard that envelops my dentist's building is a shade garden that can only be seen from his treatment rooms. Deep green foliage bobs and sun beams play as breezes tousle the leafy canopies. Dental chairs in each room face tall, broad windows that look out on the garden. Each view is peaceful and verdant though the remaining sensations are clinical: the reclined leather chair, the focused light, the antiseptic smell of the room.
This separation registers in me as a dissonance, a counter-intuitive gift, that we live in view of an Edenic garden and remember its fruit as we suffer our failing teeth. We have tasted what creation can be in our work, our relations and with God, and we desire it be that way forever. Once it was all joy and now we must count it so. Once we lived where heaven touched the earth and now we gather in worship. Once we ate from the King's garden and now we work for it. Once as near-gods we walked with God, now we lift our common longing in the cool of the day.
Moses considered all this in his words to the Israelite people. The great creation stories that came before held a low view of humanity, save for its royalty. He knew those stories and understood their power to influence a people. So when he told the story of Yahweh's creation, he began in an ordered garden and the animals that had been the inspiration for Egypt's gods were under the dominion of mankind. And more, the One God of the earth and stars would be present in creation and still far above it. It was a polemical declaration of independence from the many impetuous, hungry tyrant-gods they left. And it conveys to us that it was the place where humanity lived in creative harmony with the Creator and where the people that labored in the garden were free to feast in it.
We sense its reality somehow, and likewise, we feel despair with Adam and Eve as they must leave it. We may imagine those days begin as a fast where they spend endless hours in a shadeless plain dirtying their knees digging and planting. We may watch them as they lie prostrate before the fiery swords of the cherubim, mimic the blood sacrifice that covers them still and offer a captured fowl in meager penitence. There they may pine into the night for restored intimacy with their Maker. And when they can no longer endure the pain of hunger, they may eat the burnt bird and suffer again its reminder of their sin. This, day on day, as they wait for the seed of the earth to bear, is not foreign to us.
Moses' great story taps the origin of our own emptiness and desires. Yet, is it true? Was a man made of dust? Does a snake talk? Did Eden exist? What does its mythology do to its truth? Might these details build a wall around the garden that limits its access?
There is a way in which the question of its literal nature does not matter in that we easily find ourselves whether in the garden or outside its gates. This does no harm to its historicity which we cannot know. But, in this way it is more real and present to us than any capability of fact could imbue.
In another way its other-worldly impossibilities help us focus on what's important. Moses' world is our world and what's extraordinary is its ordinariness. We long. We desire. We go on. We hope. And he invites us to enter the garden as our own place of beginning, seed it with our own details and tend it as it flowers and fruits.
Early in our week together at The Glen in Santa Fe my new friend Page shared his love of thin places with our class in Carolyn Forche's poetry workshop. Thin places are light houses, sea shores, wooded paths, parks or buildings that strike us as transcendent, or as Eric Weiner says, "those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses". Page visits them often and captures them in his art, and his favorite is the sea shore before daybreak. I share an appreciation for those minutes of the day when the dawn irrupts on the dark. I spend them on the edge of a wetland near my home. And now thanks to Carolyn and my other new friends in the class, I know that these hours are named, in the language of early monastics, the Matins, which refers to the nighttime liturgy that ends at dawn.
It is a holy hour: a thinness of time and place that invites a thinness in me. The wetland is in full crescendo. I know in my mind I'm hearing the native song of cardinals and tree frogs, but exaggerated by the night it becomes insistent, cacophonous, and altogether alien. I go cautiously and no further than the brush and water. I sense an impossible union of opposites – timelessness and time's passing, beginnings and endings – and a wildness that knows but abides my presence. The bird and frog chorus tugs furiously at the Ouroboros between morning and the dying night. I hear their extra-human leaps across the boundaries of gravity and breath. And when the blue hour of dawn comes, the silhouettes of cypress manifest above me like Gothic arches, and the sky seals it all with its brightening amen.
Out of its liminal and ephemeral qualities the wetland has spoken a strange and irresistible language. It is familiar and new every day. It is ancient and essential. According to scientific investigations, the tree frogs I hear have sung the death of night for a quarter billion years. The cardinals, for eons, have anticipated the light. I try to understand what they're saying. How can I not? How in their presence each morning can I hear and not want to speak their words? How, as I go, can I resist taking them with me into my day? Into other encounters? How, indeed. They make a space in me.
Martin Luther identified four relationships we're served to seek creative space for. In Luther's Latin they are coram deo, coram meipso, coram hominibus, and coram mundo. Here he lays out the areas of brokenness that all humanity suffers – our lives before God, before ourselves, before humankind and before nature. They represent the totality of our relationships. He admonishes us to live with integrity and intimacy in each within the space of time we are given through the righteousness of the one who lived it perfectly. In Christ the inhospitable is made welcoming, the displaced, familiar, the enemy, friend and the thin, material. In this is to live in creative fullness and be recreated in it.
The offer of creative space in relationships is an offer of both gratitude and generosity in which regard for the other is confronting and adventurous, where what is received is gifted, and where the instant any two are engaged a conversation is entered that will bear offspring and witness. And if it bears joy, it does so given room, given care, given a name and given away.
Where are your thin places?
there is a place in the heart that / will never be filled / a space / and even during the / best moments / and / the greatest times / we will know it … –Charles Bukowski
There is a problem with the present moment. We all feel it, right? Something a little off? Let's look at it objectively. Let's hold it in our hands and gaz... oops. Did it slip away from you? Were you momentarily distracted? Did the weight of yesterday's to do list or the drift of waiting for your ship to come in throw you off balance? Cause you to shift your attention?
Maybe it will help if we hold the moment in some context. Consider Heraclitus' approach (in fragment 12) that the world is being rent apart and held together in the same instant. The implications are that by the time you read this next word your position in the universe will have spun, spiraled, and expanded on space-time in ways that make a sci-fi CG fabrication droll.
Consider in that little bit of time, your body (its own material the stuff of spent stars) has spawned and died, divided and specialized, coursed and throbbed under a force of life so ephemeral you only just intuit it before we're thrust in its power and desires like sudden rockets leaving parts of you stranded in an irretrievable past. And along with that moment that just got away, many more have streamed right behind it like a sea of lemmings into an empty abyss, carrying your short life with them.
Now, where were we? Oh! We're right where we left off!
Perhaps it is the product of logos (Heraclitus' word for the thing that holds it all together) to make pleasantly unfamiliar cloth of the too familiar unraveling thrum of creation. Perhaps he was bringing attention to the remarkable fact that things cast in so fierce a motion as ought to be flying apart, are not. Rather, they are secure. And, that the thin moment that seems abysmal and fleeting is the very moment we might realize that we are the stream aware, at once there and liminal, fresh and flowing, familiar and ever new in a miraculous cleaving of all things.
In music, the space where no sound is played is a called a rest. Rests fill space in the measure and are actually played. John Cage argues this point in absurdum in his composition 4'33” in which he plays four and a half minutes of rest. Another point he makes here is how hard it is for us to be quiet for even five minutes. How silence makes us uncomfortable and anxious, and how woefully unfamiliar we are with peace.
Bukowski makes no value judgments about the place in the heart. We think at first that the emptiness must be a bad thing, that the silence must be filled. But perhaps it's the place all things hold together.
We were driving home from a family wedding in Jacksonville. We are attending these gatherings with increasing frequency, but whether marriages or funerals, outside the formal event and appropriate attire, our family conversation is the same, fraying and reweaving itself out of our particular social and cultural fabrics to an quilted knit of unqualified goodness. So, somewhere between Lake City and Gainesville I imagined us home in Tampa, ragged out and crashed around plates of left-overs and a movie. Lars and the Real Girl cropped up in our impromptu movie reviews, so that's what we watched.
If you have not seen Lars and the Real Girl, I hope you will. Says Christianity Today, “Lars and the Real Girl is a sweet and endearing film about a shy, reclusive man who strikes up a chaste relationship with a sex doll that he orders over the Internet...” And further, “we might as well note that the film's risqué premise actually serves to underscore the man's decency and goodness. Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) has brought the doll into his life, and named it 'Bianca,' because for some reason he cannot let himself get too close to anyone, not even his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer). And he certainly can't handle the thought of dating an actual woman, even though he has an attractive, perky co-worker named Margo (Kelli Garner) who sings in the choir at his church and is obviously interested in him.”
It is easy to ask the wrong questions about Lars and the Real Girl. You can get distracted by comparing it with comfortable mindsets that curtail discussion. You can ask “chicken or egg” questions about Lars' clinical state, its causes, or standard therapies. You can make easy criticisms about individual and corporate responsibilities, or how science and faith act outside their ordinate categories. The movie challenges all manner of convention.
Better questions might come along these lines:
- In what ways is sex portrayed?
- Why is the taboo of sex such a good fulcrum to visit cultural questions?
- How does the implausible situation help get to the bigger questions?
- What in the film is being made? What is made real?
- How does the movie engage creatio ex nihilo (creating out of nothing)?
- Where in the film and in what ways to we find simple acts of caring?
- How do these simple acts signify a caring community?
- What is it “to sit and to knit?” What Psalm uses knitting as a metaphor?
- Lars' brother rarely finishes a sentence. At what important point are they complete?
- How does the film deal with the connection between death (or suffering) and maturity?
- How do the seasons change over the course of the film and what does that say?
- What does the hard scene of Bianca's death at the lake convey to you?
- How is Paul's “put to death what is earthly in you” possibly considered?
During the week of the wedding the national media was full of existential questions: the Charleston murders, ongoing Middle East wars, trans-racial and trans-sexual identity, political machinations from global trade to greenhouse gases. But at the reception and dinner we checked all those conversations at the door. And not despite, but because of them we got lost in the fray of foolish small talk and made imaginative whole cloth of our colorful oddities.
We're proof seekers. And for the last couple hundred years we're in pursuit of it as evidentialists with calculators, and scientism is the belief we want to justify. But here's an anecdote that suggests the corporately-funded feast might be nearing it just desserts. Mount Sinai's School of Medicine is accepting humanities majors from a handful of top-flight liberal arts schools after their second year of college. Yep. You heard me. Med school without the MCAT, guaranteed entry after two years of liberal arts studies. If absurdity marks the end of an age, prepare to take cover. Is this the harbinger of another Renaissance or the end of modern culture? The answer to that might be in how much money and blood you just sank into your pre-med degree. Statistically, though, it's a few million occurrences short of a trend. More proof will surely come as future doctors prescribe books instead of Z-Paks.
The Romans didn't see their end coming. Ends of things take a while to get going, and histories don't get written until a lot of people with skin in the game kick off. Augustine was born to people with skin in the game—people of Roman blood and money, with connections and influence. Even so, his sainted mother was a Christian and pursued Augustine's heart with her feet, following his travels, and her faithful prayer. And just years after he was appointed to a highly visible post as a rhetoric professor that would launch a political career, his will was transformed and, then studying with Ambrose in Milan, he was convinced of Christianity.
Augustine's forty years of work in Hippo Regius preceded the Middle Ages by about a hundred years but carved out for the generations a substantial intellectual heritage for Christianity's most holy tenets and defended her in the battles against Manicheism, Donatism, and Arianism.
Interestingly, his greatest work The Confessions, is at once a failure and in its failure, made essential. As inspiring and quotable as it is, it is also consistent with his Neo-Platonist education. Unlike today, the liberal arts were studied in adulthood or nearer the end of one's life than the beginning. It was undertaken to project one's thoughts toward the heavens and beyond in preparation for the next life. So these things were on Augustine's mind as he laid them out to God as an idealist's assent, or, as salvation by intellect alone. But the years of conflict and writing that followed became a convincing proof that cost him much. God saw Augustine put humble flesh and long labor on the honors of his youth. Enough so that in the end, even his enemies honored him.
As the Vandals laid siege to Hippo, Augustine lay there dying in the care of doctors. When he died, they razed all of Hippo except for his church and library. The city of the man who wrote The City of God was gone. Was it the end, or a new beginning (as we like to count things), or was it something more transcendent?
I had intended to finish Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain before I wrote this piece, but alas, he makes me think too much, and when I think it yields writing, and writing works on me from the inside out. I think Fr. Merton would be happy with that. In his preface to the Japanese edition published twenty years after its initial release, he says, "I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self. Who can tell what this may mean? I myself do not know, but if you listen, things will be said that are perhaps not written in this book. And this will be due not to me but to the One who lives and speaks in both."
I read as a Protestant with Catholic sympathies, as one who lives in and too often of the world, and as one in a continuing search of the One who speaks. So, when I learned that the title derives from an allusion to Dante's Purgatory and the notion of working one's way through the seven deadly sins into Paradise, my Presbyterian skin bristled. The whole five solae thing, I suppose... But it also compares with L.R. Rambo's seven-step theory of conversion including content, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment, and transformation.
Whatever it is, there is a self-conscious reversal of geography of his story-telling that demonstrates the delusion of intellectual ascendance and the humiliation of spiritual discovery. After the deaths of his father and close family members, he is sick with what might be compared to Hume's “melancholy of the philosopher.” He moves on to Columbia to study and while happy, becomes suspicious of education. After an illness, he visits monasteries, reads The Divine Comedy and The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy and experiences a growing spiritual crisis. At this point, Merton returns to Queens and the Episcopal Church where his father had been the organist. “I think the reason for this was that God wanted me to climb back the way I had fallen down... He wanted me to do away with what there was of pride and self-complacency... He would not let me become a Catholic, having behind me a rejection of another church... [which is an act] sinful in itself, rooted in pride, and expressed in contumely.”
Even in the monastery, Merton matures further into his decision to enter. “The fact that I was hurrying and ran into people only indicates that I was much less of a contemplative than I thought I was.” It comes when his beloved younger brother visits him at The Abbey of Gethsemani that Merton affirms, “Once you have grace, you are free.” He shares Communion with him in this—it would turn out to be their last meeting, as his brother dies in WWII.
In his 1953 The Sign of Jonas, Merton admits he barely recognizes himself in The Seven Storey Mountain, saying, “[It] is the work of a man I have never even heard of.” But I recognize my story in his as it unfolds, though it is in many ways an opposite one. How much of your story is authored by you? How much do you recognize of yours in others? How much in Christ?
Here is a poem for Lent that may seem at first counter-intuitive. A Song on the End of the World by Czeslaw Milosz was written in 1944 in Warsaw, Poland in the year of the Warsaw Uprising which saw the city's utter destruction (banner photo) by Nazi forces while the Soviet Army waited on the border for the Polish fighters to be neutralized.
The poem is four stanzas of free verse. The first two stanzas begin with the same line: “On the day the world ends...” and the balance of each stanza is a litany of quotidian life: “A bee circles a clover, / A fisherman mends a glimmering net. / Happy porpoises jump in the sea.”
Foreboding as the subject is, the poem reads with the comforting cadence of a child's bedtime story, idyllic, even as it repeats, “On the day the world ends...” Its very repetition is ironic and a clue that there is something more to the end of the world. Why else would he invoke “the day” twice? Wouldn't “the day”, if it were only “the day”, simply come once?
There is much to consider. Milosz was self-described as an atheist during his college years, but ultimately came to practice Catholicism and spent ten years corresponding with Thomas Merton on all manner of theology and global matters. He moved frequently as a child between city and country, was educated as a lawyer and wrote poetry, worked in the political realm and would not take sides, and staying in Warsaw, he publicly criticized Stalin's provisional totalitarian government. It was on the latter that Milosz wrote his Nobel Prize-winning non-fiction work, The Captive Mind.
Milosz's poems are full of nested references. “And those who expected lightning and thunder / Are disappointed,” begins the third stanza. “And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps / Do not believe it is happening now.” As concrete and pleasant as the first two stanzas are, the third abstracts into cataclysmic images of war and religious eschatology.
The fourth stanza introduces a “white-haired old man, who would be a prophet / Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,” who “Repeats while he binds his tomatoes: / There will be no other end of the world, / There will be no other end of the world.” Is the man mad? Is he singing?
Though not conclusive, there is enough in these verses for the Christian to affirm that life is in the liminal, that life moves from day to night to day, that life has no end. A great deal of secular criticism of the poem hears only lament and madness. But in the middle, at the end of the second verse Milosz affords us this clue: “The voice of a violin lasts in the air / And leads into a starry night.” What comes at the end of this day is a song. It is a song which does not end but lasts and leads. It turns the whole poem on its head. Focus is no longer on “the end of the world” but the song. Moreover, it invokes “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh in which the moon and stars radiate over a field of grain and a village. He painted it, imagining the village, while in self-imposed asylum. “Through the iron-barred window,” he wrote to his brother Theo, “I can see an enclosed square of wheat . . . above which, in the morning, I watch the sun rise in all its glory."
Lent is a time for retreat from a world that is preoccupied with endings in order to gain sight of the one that is ever arriving. It is a time to see our common acts of waking, washing, dressing and working as a faithful refrain we sing to the sorrowful world affirming a hope for the one that comes.
The book of Lamentations is the weeping lament ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah. It is a book of songs for the people of Israel remembering a grievous time. Jerusalem's Temple and walls are in shambles, but right in the middle of the book is this hope: “Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
There is a cruciform linkage at the point of the Sabbath in the Decalogue that, try as I may, just will not be reduced to a graphic of the cross. What a teaching tool that would make if I could just figure it out. It's an intriguing, if daunting puzzle. If you want to play along, then imagine the first three commandments as the vertical pier of our our relationship with God, and the last six as the horizontal beam of our relationships with mankind. They hinge at the point of the fourth commandment, the Sabbath. Please, try it for yourself and let me know how it goes.
The Rule of Three is an actual thing and innately human. The Latin phrase omne trium perfectum says how three is intimate perfection to us. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Liquid, solid, and gas. The three bears, Stooges, blind mice and Musketeers. Three outs per inning. The list is endless. God describes Himself with this same three-ness in revealing his persons, and so, created in his image, we identify with it in creation. While reading in Matthew, I became aware that chapters 12 through 14 say who Jesus is: Lord, teacher, and healer. So, maybe Christ is symbolized best in triangles. Or maybe the sign of the fish, the ichthus: mirrored arcs that break the reflective plane and cross at the end, a symbol of story and reversals. But Jesus, also in Matthew, said the sēmeion, or sign, was Jonah's three days in the whale, and that all of Nineveh repented.
I have a friend, a lover of etymology, who has created his own vocabulary with homonyms that reveal the true derivations of words we dumb down in common parlance. “Conversation” in his language is “converse-action”, which reveals the potential for conflict in the word we've come to associate with pleasantries. The Latin versus means “to turn” as com means “with.” The literal result is “to turn with” and connotes a struggle, mutually enjoined.
Another friend sent me the photo above and suggested I write a poem about it. This happens on occasion. People intuit poetry. They feel something true about the image, where the material and ephemeral intersect, but they need the words. The trick to poetry is less about the object than revealing the relationship between the image and the one holding it. It's in the transformation as they enter into conversation that is never really finished. So that is what I wrote: Say more, said the little girl / to the frozen lake / about time and desire.
The Temple at Jerusalem was an intersection. In a scene as unsettling as the opening of MacBeth, Mary and Joseph are confronted with prophecy when arriving at the Temple. Instead of priestly ceremony, they encounter Simeon, a righteous Temple loiterer given to divine oracles, who worshiped God at the sight of the baby. Then, an eighty-year-old prophetess, Anna, emerged and praised God, and spoke of the child to all who longed for the redemption of Israel. Simeon pronounced that the child was set for the “fall and rising again of many in Israel,” and “a sign which shall be spoken against; that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” For one who was said to be looking for the consolation of Israel, Simeon's words sound a portent of conflict.
We live in days where hopes for reconciliation, the potential for resolution, seem fleeting. Jerusalem at the time of Christ, the historians say, was just such a time, when the Pax Romana rose to put down the conflicts of east and west. I'd like to think that the Christ could be shaped into a compelling graphic that crosses the barriers of cultural suspicion and gets to the matter of peace. But he confounds our simple forms and gives us relationships – face to face, with conflicted minds and fragile hearts – where he keeps residence as the only form that transforms.
And on the fortieth day after his birth, Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple, the place where heaven and earth kiss.