Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sea Glass

Along the edge of the sea
he dangled me:
I, faceted glass contraption
laughing in the light

Turning to seabird call
he let me fall
I, love contracted in glass
splintering in the sun

To the forgotten seabed
was I wed
I, many-mirrored star-shards
shining holes to heaven

Past the edge of the sea
He came for me
I, barnacled bits re-gathered
weeping in the light

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Buried Alive

Antigone, sentenced to be buried alive, bound amidst the watery glow of torches, hidden, silenced, left to crumple and shrivel, thirsting for water and light, hung herself before her lover, her bridegroom, could save her. She was made voiceless first by the fate of her father, then by the tyrant, the city, her own ego, the earth and stone isolating her, and finally by her choice to take her own life.

Antigone is a living archetype; she lives as a martyr-vision of thousands of particular Antigones. They live among us, and we don't see them, because we cannot see each other's souls bare, naked, without the masks and costumes worn to create an image, an eidelon, of some ideal: whether that is an uber-tolerant totalitarianism, a rigid conservativism, a position of power, or a victimhood. We don't see our own Antigone buried inside, that stunted, deformed, voiceless part of ourselves that has forgotten the light; we cannot hear, in the world around us, a million inner voices, our real voices, buried alive; we are left as fractured selves, dealing with receding, dying echoes of the cry within the walls, dealing with the anger and the despair at the meaningless silence that finally settles when too much time has passed.

When are we so wounded? How are we to be healed?

When does a child understand that his or her true voice is deformed, unwanted, in the eyes of those whose care it is to find, encourage, love, that voice? Where does socialization end and enforced, silencing conformity begin? When are parents shaping an eidelon, an idol of their child, and when are we educating, or leading our child into a place of light, of truth: the truth of a God who has made him or her in His image, and is the true Father, true Teacher? When are we burying our children alive, and when are we providing space for them to speak and then, finally, sing, unashamed by the nakedness of their soul before others, before God?

When do we make those voices sing, like parrots, in our own voices?

For we are all born, like Antigone, out of, and into, deformity, our inheritance from our own Father and Mother; we are all brought into families struggling with deformity and deep flaws amidst flashes of love and light. Parents wish the best, and struggle themselves with voicelessness, with uncertainty, with deep fear in the face of a young soul so fragile and sensitive, so easily wounded, so beautiful in its intricate design, meant to be a fountain of light, an unrepeatable pattern of colors yet unseen.

The Father gave me a vision of you, young man, young woman, young Antigone, with your fragile ideals grown in the light fields of heaven, ideals that must, so often, be crushed before they can survive in this earth-encrusted world. Yet when I prayed to be a healer for you, young Antigone, I never guessed it would be out of a vision of the imperishable light within you, a vision of such beauty and power that all I can do is to use my voice, the voice I am finding again all the time, to lead you again to yourself, to love yourself, to unlock the stone and earth prison from the inside.

I see, Antigone, your Bridegroom ever watching you; He watches you, and waits, as you make your choices in the heavy nights to keep speaking in the face of contempt and ignorance or to begin to bury your true voice and craft another, one that you believe will be heard. I watch with Him, Antigone, as you are repeatedly condemned, corrupted, encrusted in the expectations of others, of teachers and would-be gurus, all those you looked to to lead you out; I close my eyes as you lock out the Bridegroom and begin preparation to hang your own voice, yourself.

The Bridegroom shows me His own vision of you and asks me to listen for the last vestiges of that voice, crying in the depths, under all your practiced tones of competency and complacency, that crying that your anger and despair and self-hatred are all pointing to; I listen, and sometimes I see the crushed counterpart, within you, to the vision He gives me. I find the pieces of that vision in your pain, and I try to use poetry, identity of ratio, analogy, challenge, but mostly the settling into my heart before you, the nakedness of my own past burial.

I tell you that I was also Antigone, that I buried myself alive in order to survive, that I built the prison and accepted my deformity as deserved, as identity. I condemned myself in my ignorance and ego. Then I tell you of the moment in the garden, when I, an old soul, a scarred soul, heard the Bridegroom whisper, "I have seen it all. I have been with you through it all. I have witnessed it all; I never left."

"I never left."

I tell you that your Bridegroom has always been with you as well, and about the mystery of the sin, of the burial, of the deformity, that will become the new note in an astounding, unrepeatable symphony of light; I tell you that you have never been alone, that your Bridegroom clings to you even as you hang in the darkness, and wishes to wed you still, and to lead you into the light, to heal you, to hear you.

He tells you that if you will let Him cut you down and if you take His hand, you will speak again, and sing, and that song will be shared, will fill the heavens with its intricate pattern of tone and word, will be an indispensable step within the Great Dance.

Friday, December 08, 2017

On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception: The Power of Capacity

A figure rises before me, coming into focus, lit clear now as the intervening years dissipate in the face of a breeze rising, then falling into the silence of clarity: a young girl watches, staring straight ahead.

And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. 

As I watch her, silent as she is silent, I begin to get an impression in my soul; a pattern is created in my heart by her being. My mind, sifting the meaning of this pattern, searches for a word, a logos, a boulder-like, imperfect lingual analogy, a definition of the definition. A word comes to me: capacity. This young woman has a capacity that I cannot grasp fully with the grappling hooks of the mind. It is only when I try with the gentle tendrils of the imagination and the heart that I begin to understand. 

She has a certain space, but not quite emptiness; it is the space created by the handmaid sitting next to the ruler's throne, sitting cross-legged on the mosaic floor as they do in the East, hands upturned and laying, waiting on each knee; there is a space created, symbolically, by the posture of the body, a space, a welcoming which small children recognize as a space to crawl into, to curl into, to receive caresses. 

This body-analogy, though, my mind whispers, is not enough; the true capacity is that of the soul, a capacity that is only seen by the soul, all at once, for it is a soul-capacity:

And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

When the angel enters, I begin to understand more fully this capacity in the young woman. As one understands the wind by watching its effects on still lake-water, that sudden, mysterious fan-like pattern one cannot hold in the mind, I see in her eyes, in her stillness, that she takes in his presence, receives it fully, in the soul. Her capacity is indeed great. She has been gifted already with a great space in the soul, a God-sized space, and it is like a mold waiting for the gold to fill it. Yet her mind is a human mind, her heart a human heart; it is her soul-silence that reveals her capacity, a capacity of which she is, perhaps, in the mind, yet unaware, a capacity different from all others.

The angel has golden locks not akin to gold, but locks of living gold, and as he speaks, gifts, his lily-words, small stars of golden light rise from his head, out of his mouth. The young girl's mind, a handmaid to her capacity of soul, begins the attempt to grasp meaning, so that her will may be fully engaged:

[Mary] having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. 
And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.
Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus.
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever.
And of his kingdom there shall be no end.
And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man?
And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren:
Because no word shall be impossible with God.

As he says the last words, the angel shakes with laughter, with a deep joy coming from a great vision, a capacity that sees the Face of God and knows the infinitude that is love. As he moves, and ripples, a great cloud of golden stars drift outward, towards her. 

And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. 

The girl's response is related to her capacity, that infinitude of grace, and it will burst forth in a great power, an unearthly power that is not content to remain beyond the humble, but will transform dust, that formed dust, a dust breathing, thinking, hoping, wondering, waiting, clouds of dust helpless, mired in the bracken water of a polluted earth. 

And the angel departed from her.

As I watch her now, pondering in the room lit now by a soft dawn, the gold given way to the rose, I again sense her great capacity, a greatness of availability, of self removed to the corners, and I weep. Why? The tears fall because I know I stand before dust that has been transformed by grace to a level I had not known was possible; the angel's words come floating back:  Because no word shall be impossible with God. I see again the quivering joy, the golden-star locks thrown back in pure ecstasy; I meditate on this word 'capacity.' 

In our language, it has two meanings: 'the maximum amount that something can contain,' and 'the ability or power to do, experience, or understand.' The womb is a powerful, analogous example of this 'capacity' having, simultaneously, both meanings: it is an organ of space, of reception, wherein self must recede to the corners to allow room; even empty, the very ability to create space is potent, as the womb can provide space for another by expanding exponentially and eventually delivering this other being into the world. 

This young girl is given, because nothing is impossible with God, the simultaneous soul-and-body capacity to receive and deliver God; she was given the formative, foundational capacity in her own soul at her own conception. I see it already there, in the essential waiting, that readiness to receive, before the angel comes. His coming is the fulfillment of that which had grown with the girl, expanding with her over her young life. 

As Mary rises up from pondering and thanksgiving and goes to greet Elizabeth, I realize also that a capacity like hers has an inverse relationship to possession. We often mistake the desire to possess for the desire to love, but these movements of the soul have very different fruit. One delivers envy, the desire to devour, and death; the other, freedom, illumination, nurture, growth, and life. One has no capacity in its selfish fullness, the other selfless, waiting to be filled by God and His power. Love is the emptiness and power-from-emptiness that St. Francis, that living symbol, will, centuries later, embody when he strips himself naked in front of all Assisi. 

Mary sings to Elizabeth and John, a prophetess, with the power coming from a capacity never known in the world before; she sings to another mother and her child, as prophetess to prophet:

My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
Because he that is mighty, hath done great things to me; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is from generation unto generations, to them that fear him.
He hath shewed might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy:
As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever.

Scripture verses from Luke 1:26-56, Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (DRA)

Monday, June 19, 2017

C.S. Lewis: The Questioned Image

In his final book, The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis writes about the Mediaeval world view: "All the apparent contradictions must be harmonised. A Model must be built which will get everything in without a clash; and it can do this only by becoming intricate, by mediating its unity through a great, and finely ordered, multiplicity"(Lewis 1964, 11). This apparent rational suicide is tempered with the caveat that this model, to those in the era, was just that—a model. Lewis makes the comment that the Mediaeval person loved to codify, to build, to systematize; thus, it seems logical that the Mediaevals understood the poetic and sign-nature of their world-view, their image. Lewis' friend, Owen Barfield, in his profound and seminal book, Saving the Appearances, allows the modern reader an experience of this tension between the acknowledgement of the mysterious real and the use of a working image, or model; the one example that found a place-holding in my mind was his description of angels painted in the Mediaeval period as dressed in contemporary clothing, with wings as a symbolic indication of their differences, as if, in our day, we painted angels in prom dresses or business suits—well, how are we to dress angels? They aren't even dressed as we understand it; so, like the Hindu depictions of blue or many-armed gods, the symbolism, or the poetic, fantastical signs of wings or many arms were pointing to a higher reality, that of other or supernatural. We moderns risk thinking these ancients 'primitive' or 'childish,' or risk a hyper-focus on a gritty standard of scientific reality, or the ‘objective view from individual eye-holes’ that means we miss the higher Object which the peoples before us seemed to know were beyond our categories, our ability to portray them. Yet, at the same time, for the Mediaevals as for ancient cultures, the effect of the poetic in speech, drama, and the visual arts, was deeply powerful, even magical (Knight 2010, 254). Furthermore, the Western (through Ancient Greece and Rome) and Christian worlds—one thinks of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, particularly—understood also that human rationality, the highest human faculty, was in a fundamental relationship with the deeper imagination that “is a fusing, transforming, transcendent faculty that is creative in its power of changing and refining ideas and images” (Knight 2010, 254). These civilizations lived in a more healthy tension between the sweeping power of the poet and the inordinate faith in the individual, rational mind.

In other words, I think both Lewis and Barfield posit an essential humble acknowledgement from earlier Western ages like the Mediaeval that our lenses, our imaginum mundorum, are fogged and dusty, and that our languages—poetic, visual, scientific, theological, philosophical—are, via human power alone, too blunt and boulder-like to adequately describe the Truth as God sees it, as God is, and that the Muse is needed to approach Reality. The great Western thinkers knew this sublime and True sight and conversation was given from the time, out of time, when "we will see as we are seen, know as we are known, and not as through a glass darkly." Lewis writes, “No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period, and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge. Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such battery could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical” (Lewis 1964, 222).

I also believe the major themes of The Discarded Image and Saving the Appearances are the same, if one looks not just at the work but at the rhetorical situation in which both were written; this has great import to how we understand our present darkness, and also it answers some personal questions I have had for many years about Lewis' theology.

First, the point I take from both writers: It is not an easy idea to write about in an essay, and even in a book, could I do it justice? It invites, no--requires--a strange variety of others at the table to adequately account for the strange variety of dead-pool imaginum mundorum we now live within: Joseph Pieper, Charles Peirce and his theory of semiotics, the sociologists Jacques Ellul and Charles Taylor, St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Romano Guardini, Charles Darwin, Emmanual Kant, Hegel, John Paul II,  St. Augustine, etc.. But nevertheless, let me take a stab at it; perhaps it is a small, humble start to a conversation.

It is the mark of the primitive not to recognize one's imago mundi or the Model one lives with, as image or model; in the early primitive, the communal image was, simply, reality; later, in Greek thought, attempts were made to discern between human imagination and the Real, between images and Forms. It is also the mark of the primitive not to recognize the inherent tension in us angel-beasts between the ability to discern truth constituting our rational mind (this is a manifestation of the unique, human Imago Dei) and the fact that our finite, fallible, original-sin-clouded minds, the rational and imaginative parts, cannot, alone, adequately explain or encompass Reality or communicate its simultaneous whole-ness and complex particulars. Of course, we can, though, use signs: lower, poorer, alternately too-simplistic and too-complex signs pointing to, as signs always do, Higher Objects. We can, in a sense, grope towards the Whole, towards the Real, towards God; we can know and receive hints of this Whole Real: Gerald Knight, in The Magical World of the Inklings, paraphrases Coleridge’s thoughts on this: “In [imagination’s] Primary mode it allows us to make ordered sense out of a host of sensory perceptions and in its Secondary mode gives expression to works of art or other forms of creative ability, or the appreciation thereof. Nature itself, that provides the sense impressions, Coleridge also divides [into] ’naturing’ or creative nature [and] ‘natured’ or created nature. This is a complete antithesis of the materialist viewpoint that all consciousness evolved from matter. Rather it considers all matter to be projected creations by denizens of a world of archetypal ideas and spiritual wills” (Knight 2010, 254). In other words, there is a true order, and purpose, for us to imagine and discern, not just electrons and quarks in a chance dance.

Though we are capable of taking in nature, in its essences, as created, and the Whole, we cannot, should not, assume that we can understand the Whole, the Real, completely on the basis of rational powers in a vacuum; this was the fundamental mistake of the Rationalists like Bacon, the Progressivists, the Cultural Evolutionists. We always require signs, in this life, and they are always copies, images of the mysterious, complex within the Oneness, the wholeness that must be understood first, through both the reason and the imagination, before one can know everything about a particular; one can discern the real question that should be posed to modern culture, a scream in the maelstrom, mostly unheard: "Do you see your model as an imperfect model? Or are you living, Matrix-like, within your own images; are you really now a primitive human who is lost because you have bought the lie to yourself?" As Lewis says in The Discarded Image: “Always, century by century, item after item is transferred from the object’s side of the account to the subject’s. And now, in some extreme forms of Behaviourism, the subject himself is discounted as merely subjective; we only think that we think. Having eaten up everything else, he eats himself up too” (Lewis 1964,215).

The life-raft offered is the ability of a human being to recognize that we must deal in terms of the Whole, in images, in partial understanding of how real particulars fit within that great mystery (though pace Hume and Kant, we can and are meant to know truth, and order, and particulars, and wholes and parts, and essences) and as Guardini says, to continue—like Abraham—to be willing to hear the call of God past our suppositions—rationally, logically airtight though they seem—and to be ready to discard images that are shown to be false. Are we spiritually able to pull up stakes, to always question ourselves about the images we live with? Do I exaggerate when I claim that in modern and post-modern life, in a world saturated—no, flooded—with images, we have in many cases returned to the primitive belief that our images are all we can ever know about the Real? This was the anthrax letter given us via the likes of Rene Descartes, David Hume, and Emmanuel Kant; it is no surprise that they are considered the fathers of the modern world.

Thus, the rhetorical situation of Lewis' and Barfield's books was among the leavings of Kant, who claimed that all we can know of Reality is, simply, the imaginum mundorum we know within our own minds, an individualistic primitivism, instead of the ancient, communal primitive belief in images. Now, where are we? What is the rhetorical situation now in a world that considers itself post-modern, post-Christian, a secular utopia and dystopia all at once?  Do Lewis and Barfield still have something to say, and are there those who have picked up their standard and who continue to ask, to argue, for, simply, sanity?

Again, we live in a period in which Kant's 'imaginum mundorum in the mind' has become a cartoonish reality: we literally, with headphones and supremely portable screens, live quite a lot of our lives in a virtual reality of images; it is as if we are being slowly acclimated to the equation Reality=Image=Unanswerable Skepticism=Total Relativism=Total Dogmatism. Not only that, but our sciences—and like a good classicist and liberal artist, I include here philosophy, theology, mathematics, and the natural and social sciences—have become mixed like oppositional, complementary colours; there are dogmatic natural sciences and theoretical dogmas: rational contradiction, instead of sane tension, has become accepted; we have lost paradox, itself a sign pointing to a Higher Resolution, and live dogmatically within deep contradiction.

This deep contradiction is only possible if one presupposes deep pluralism as not an image or model, but as Reality itself; in other words, we can only accept these contradictions rationally as true, breaking the law of non-contradiction, if we adore as a first principle the lie that we truly know only the images in our heads. Thus, we have de-ascended, de-generated, de-progressed from those who understood their place in a larger, mysterious universe and believed in both the human ability to know the order of the Real through the givenness of a mind ordered to know that order, and in the fallible, limited nature of that mind in a hierarchical relationship with the Mind that created Order itself. We have decomposed because an order like that of the finely-tuned, exact universe we actually live in requires one who Orders, a Maker; when we believed in his absence, we lost belief in order itself, and rationality cut off from any order other than its own cannot be communicated or trusted.

Lewis expresses this degeneration in The Abolition of Man, and he follows in the footsteps of G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and others of that time period, who saw, prophetically, this degeneration that was seeded in the conception of the modern era. Lewis speaks provocatively, for example, about the "suppositions" of the natural sciences; we call these suppositions "theories" and in the classical understanding of the sciences, questioning these suppositions as Socrates did, a kind of dialectical practice in terms of evidence and experimentation, was essential to a truth-seeking discipline. A good science is a questionable science ensconced in the real hope that we can find truth, can know reality more and more; this reflects also the classical Greek and Mediaeval humility about the scope of our abilities in the face of a mysterious universe, a deeply complex and yet absolutely ordered universe. Thus, in all the classical sciences, we find mirrored that Mediaeval tension between all that we can ascertain truthfully, permanently, and all that reaches, yet, far beyond us.

Yet modern 'suppositions' or 'theories' have now become no longer models, but inappropriately, unquestionable dogmas. A perfectly sane questioner can be labeled unassailably insane and run out of 'reality,' unable to affect the conversation, silenced, hopelessly marginalized. Theories can be surreptitious results of prior beliefs, not truth-seeking: for example, Lewis writes that dogmatic, pseudo-religious forms of natural and cultural evolution were not a result of "facts" primarily, but were theories born out of a prior belief in progressivism, the belief that in the progression of time, everything must be moving towards a certain natural and cultural perfection; it is the opposite of the Platonic and neo-Platonic conception of supplementation, or degeneration as one moves farther from the Origin (implicitly calling for a return, via reason, to the Origin, or as Plotinus put it, the One). Progressivism is a particularly Christian heresy, in my mind, a hybrid of a Calvinism (a kind of pre-destination and creation of the perfect Christian earthly state, or "city on a hill," an imbalanced loss of the mystical understanding of St. Augustine on the Kingdom outside of time, not of this world, and the fundamental natural and supernatural realism of St. Thomas Aquinas as found in On Kingship) and Bacon-ism, the belief that the rational mind, the sciences, can and should encompass, fundamentally use, nature, an attitude that presupposes a belief that our human images vis-à-vis nature are in fact, our reality to live within and can be perfected. It also supposes, à la Bacon, a pre-supposition that nature is a closed system, a kind of machine from which God is fundamentally absent. This is a theological and philosophical attitude to all the sciences that smacks of, ends in, Callicles' and Nietzsche’s will to power, rather than the humble questioning of Socrates or the receptive, humble scientist (a rare bird).

The shift from an understanding about when a scientific or cultural theory is 'suppositional' or theoretical to dogmatic theorizing (another post-modern contradiction that abolished man seems happy to live with) is a truly dangerous one, and it leaves us, simply, so locked in our silos that we are no longer able to pose the right questions or look at facts in a true scientific manner; furthermore, we will kill those who do ask those questions. Dr. John West, who wrote The Magician's Twin, on Lewis' attitudes to evolution theory, gives this example: In the 80's, DNA theorists, with a progressivist and strict secular evolutionist imago mundi, assumed that large sections of DNA that seemed 'useless' were indeed just that: junk. Thus, the "Junk DNA Theory" was readily accepted because it logically, rationally, upheld the dogmas of present science, in that these were large sections 'left over' from multiple chance variations over millennia. However, this theory has been overturned and it seems all that "junk" has deeper, still mysterious purposes that reach beyond our current understanding. We are beginning to be faced with the fact that we find evidence of a complete, ordered system, a fine-tuned being, not a body carrying evidence of chance variation and species-change. The real point Dr. West is making is that the scientists in the 80s did not know how to ask the right questions, the questions born from an acknowledgement of ignorance about a more beautiful, ordered, and mysterious, created reality, questions generated by an acknowledgement of our own temporary models, our signs, which may or may not encompass reality.

The most dangerous and tragic aspect of this is that we no longer understand how to question, and this ability is perhaps the fundamental tool for discovery of the great dance of truth, of love, of reality. We become dogs locked in our own cars, irrationally ready to defend our own silo-rationalities, unaware that we are becoming beasts, full of feeling and commitment, but lacking the necessary, fundamental virtues and tools that mark the truly human:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I see this deep concern and mission—reflected in Yeats' poem—permeating Lewis' books, and it births a 'supposition' regarding a question I've had about him for years.

Lewis has been to me, since childhood, a kind of spiritual father, a mentor, a living sign, as it were, pointing to the Good, True, and Beautiful. He was, at times in my life, the one thread that, in Chesterton's and Waugh's turn of phrase, God twitched to pull me back from the abyss. When I became Catholic, and discovered the riches of Tolkien and Waugh and others, I lamented that my main mentor had never come across the Tiber. I wondered why; I kept looking back across the waters towards the empty place on the bank where he once stood, wondering deep inside if he ever found bridges between his hallway of mere Christianity and the Door into a room that opens onto Heaven. Thus, I was always interested in anyone's theories about it, especially the musings of his Catholic friends and contemporaries. Some thought he could not get past his Ulster Protestant prejudices; some thought in his Englishness, his Christian turn meant a return to the English church. Some thought he wanted to stay beyond, away from, controversies about (to him) the more minor things that divided Christians—that essentially, he wanted to reach the common person, to provide a rational, simple, spiritual life-boat.

All of these reasons seem good and are possibly valid; but they are, using Lewis' own term, "suppositions" with various facts supporting each. To my knowledge, Lewis never himself absolutely declared anything that would finally silence the debate; he loved Chesterton and Tolkien, and his Protestant friends; he was a man who thought for himself, and he was, truly, as Tolkien portrayed him, Treebeard who says, "I am on nobody's side because nobody is on my side." I don't believe this was prideful, if Lewis felt this way; I theorize that it was a result of his deep commitment, intellectually, morally, and spiritually, to that tension he speaks of, over and over, between the belief that we can know truth and the conviction that we must also know how and when to ask the right questions, to see clearly our own fallibility in regard to our own imago mundi, even amidst those theological differences he saw as 'not mere Christianity.'

If one is committed, like Socrates, to the questions that climb to an eternal, mysterious, Real, to the Great Dance as portrayed by Lewis in Perelandra; if one is committed to that humble, rational receptivity towards a God that cannot, as Lewis says of Aslan, be tamed and domesticated and fit inside the human mind, then how does one view the Catholic Church from the outside?

The view from the outside of the Church, as I know from my own experience as a convert, is quite different from the one inside. It is a mystery--it is Augustine's "I believe to understand, I understand to believe" paradox. A lack of faith and understanding can mis-perceive a bunch of mindless sheep saying formulaic prayers and worshiping statues of those who have swallowed the kool-aid successfully in the past. Catholics, and Catholic dogma, can appear to build a prison for the questioner, a place where questions about God and theology are suspect just because they are questions. The outsider asks--because there is perhaps an unquestioned, dogma-like supposition that the Church is, like other churches one knows, a man-made institution--how can these Christians live within this image, and aren't they lost to the mysterious that cannot be contained in a human institution, in human tradition?

Then there is a liminal moment, God-given, when one sees a glimpse of what an institution that has a Divine Spirit looks like, is like, like Orual in Lewis' 'Til We Have Faces sees Psyche's castle "Tower upon tower, battlements, beauty"—one suddenly sees that almost unbearable tension, that simultaneously humble and overwhelmingly powerful, engulfing and creative love between Christ and His Church, that tension living between the human, fallible images and the Divine Reality; it is a continuing of the Incarnation. It is beyond sight, beyond reason, an image of truth that breaks in from the outside and shatters all others. I saw it simply, in one simple and profound moment, one image: the Eucharist residing in a crypt chapel underneath a Catholic church in Annapolis. I was given, literally on the doorstep, a liminal view—but absolutely clear—of the Hidden Christ in the foundations of the Church. It was the physical presence of Christ I'd looked for all my life, and I knew He was there, the way you simply know another person is in the room. My inner heart saw all at once, and said, in my real, true voice, "If Christ is here then this must be His Church." It was a sight I did not need to wrestle with, though it produced, of course, a thousand other wrestlings.

Yet, there are Catholics, individuals, who live in fear of questions, thus seeming to confirm the false image of the Church; there are also Catholics who live in awe of God and their own God-given permission to seek, and so can live the balance. These are rarer--but let it never be said that individual Catholics are the sum of the Church. We are more like patients in a hospital.

Perhaps, and this is only a "supposition" open to questions, Lewis was--as I was in many areas--taught in his modern, Protestant academic culture to see only a flat image of the Church, one which pandered its own competing image and was calcified against a culture of valid questioning and development. Nothing could be farther from the truth, but perhaps even Lewis was caught within an image without recognizing it as a false, formative model. It is hard, as a modern, to know the right questions to ask, to know when all questions fall silent in the Presence of absolute Truth, of Revelation.

Yet, the Lord asks us to walk this road, abandoned more and more to Divine Providence; he asks us, as Thomas Merton cried out, to supernaturally hope against worldly hope that our simple desire to please Him, to find him, means that He will find us and walk with us and teach us, as Our Lord taught the disciples along the roads and shores of Palestine, and at the foot of the Cross, the right questions, the right prayers, the humility necessary. It is, truly, the reality of His strength made perfect in our weakness, and the weapon-out-of-weakness to defeat the lies.

And as I believe Lewis tried to do as best he could, we must model it in the present maelstrom, especially those of us already within the Church.

Knight, Gareth. The Magical World of the Inklings. Cheltenham: Skylight Press, 2010.

Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Little Practical Magic

Last night, I attended a Lander City Council meeting; I've never been to a City Council meeting in any town, and always assumed it was a terrifyingly bland affair, with an incessant droning sound (either from speaking or snoring, maybe both) the prevalent background to various wall charts, faded flags, and pervasive wood paneling.

Well, there is wood paneling. And metal-sculpture Canadian geese in perpetual flight across the Wall behind a High Table-Podium with matching chairs, mics, and small, white, generic computers. Why do they all have to have uniformity? Is it some subtle rhetoric, saying, "We're really One Person"?

I tiptoe in just as the meeting is getting going, and sit next to an older, pretty lady, who has bright eyes twinkling behind window-pane glasses, and a cheery scarf around her neck. I know her, and she is a woman who enjoys tremendous respect from the town--partly because she can point out, to me, various Council members as former students of hers. "I taught him--and him--and her--English." I smile, and reply, "Well, when they see you, I bet they watch their P's and Q's. " She laughs lightly, but as one who knows how things work in Lander. The English Teacher and I remark in unison, "Those Canadian geese have red bows on their necks." The English Teacher surmises that they were Christmas decorations.

The Mayor, Mr. Del McOmie, enters, and taps the mic. "Hello, everyone.Welcome. Let's say The Pledge." We all say it, and as I did in school all those years ago, I hold back an "Amen" at the end. I always feel like we should say that, for some reason, but I'm sure The English Teacher wouldn't approve. I return to Earth, namely the wood-panel meeting, and I notice that along with the five City Council members and the Mayor up at the High Table,  there are, all along the north side of the room, lower, but with their own matching mics, the people who Make It Happen: City Clerk, City Attorney, Police Chief, Planning Commissioner, Fire Administrator, and one more important position I can't seem to remember. What I do notice is that these people all look like their jobs, in a particularly Wyoming way: the City Clerk looks like a mom who takes care of it all, her hair carefully curled; the City Attorney is tall and has sharp corners everywhere; the Police Chief is also tall, has piercing blue eyes, token black hair in the background of his head, and a scarf-bolo tie clipped in a tiny, sharp metal thing at the top. He fascinates me, because he smiles and is pleasant, but those sharp blue eyes tell you he'd be perfectly capable of shooting you or hauling you off if necessary. The Planning Commissioner has a symmetrical and intelligent face, and he leans forward and looks carefully at everyone; the Fire Administrator is a bulk-bulldog of a man who looks like he could take on, single-handed, the Platonic Form of Fire.

They all have this wonderful Wyoming combination of tough survival tactic married to joviality and kindness, as do the Council Members. The Council Members have names like Dan Hahn and Cade Maestas; Mr. Hahn wears a bolo tie and I keep seeing a ghost cowboy hat on his head.

As the meeting progresses, I notice that the Mayor has done things like walk a neighborhood before an ordinance change decision, looking at survey lines and talking to the people involved; he knows minute facts, and speaks forcefully a couple of times about remarks that infringe on private property rights or "the government tellin' people what to do." The business of the evening consists of mundane things from the viewpoint of the paper they are catalogued on for those in attendance, but when they are discussed by the Council, the Make It Happen panel, and the citizens who speak, I realize that these are little universes of importance to the people involved, and the City, a city this size, cares. There are little dramas played out, with ramifications for people's long-term homes, friendships, and the Common Good.

Just as I am enjoying the serious nature of the dramas, the Cat in the Hat walks in the door with a little older lady as a side-kick. He has on a weird plasticine mask that looks like it has just been taken out of storage in a boot in the back of someone's truck. I seriously wonder if this is a mass killer who will just let it loose once he gets his paw in the door, but then I remember the sharp-blue-eyed Police Chief and sit back happily to see what it is all about. The Cat and his lady come in and announce that they are presenting the Fire Administrator with a donation for his help with a reading literacy program.

I feel like two universes have collided until the lady asks the Council if she can share a personal story. "Sure," says the intrepid Mayor.

"Well, one of the highlights of my young--aha--life has been to be in the Cat's entourage; the Fire Department brought us to the elementary school in a fire truck, with the sirens going and the lights flashing! It was thrilling, and the children were thrilled, too."

"Wonderful," says the Mayor, "and thank you for your story. Wonderful. Can we know who is inside that Cat in the Hat costume?"

"Ooooh, nooo," says the Cat's lady.

General laughter all round.

Next, two men sidle up to the mic; they are wearing matching outfits: Jeans, red dress shirts, and vests. Oh, the vests. Black leather vests with skull bones and unintelligble numbers embroidered on the back, and near-on 100 various pins clicking and clanking on the front; I notice that one pin has a large red train track section dangling from it. The older man, with shoulder-length, taffy-smooth, white hair, strokes his mustache and gets ready to introduce himself. The younger man stands with his profile to us the entire time, staring at his older twin, who looks, I decide, like Mark Twain would look if he lived in Lander and cared less about things like traveling the world or the South. Analogous Mark Twain says, "We jus' wanna introduce ourselves," and he adds quickly, "we aren't bikers, so don't be worried about that! We are the Mining and Historical Society [I am not sure what he said] and we are interested in startin' a chapter here in Lander. We are going to put a plaque on the Forge buildin' and we invite ya'll down to see what we're all about."

The Mayor suddenly looks up with interest: "Ah, yeah, you know the upstairs of that building used to be the bowling alley."

A collective "Ah?" sounds lightly around the room. The Mayor continues, "Yep." With a subtle, sly look, he says, "And I could tell you some interestin' stories about that building..."

General laughter, because everyone knows that there is always something weird about that building. It is the nefarious Jar-Jar Binx of buildings in Lander. Analogous Mark Twain and his side kick bob a bow and politely sidle back to their seats.

Finally, there is a discussion about requiring sprinkler systems in all new construction. A citizen gets up at the mic, his work-a-day hands rough, his dungarees well-used. "Don't hold it against me 'cause I'm from California originally."

"We all know who you are," quips the Mayor, in the midst of jovial, good-natured, derisive laughter.

"Thanks," says the Work-A-Day man. "I just wanna say that I am against requirin' these things; I mean, if they're up in the roof, they'll freeze here. Creates a lot of problems. And besides," he says, looking sideways at the Fire Administrator, "we don't wanna put you guys outta business."

General laughter.

A request by Mr. Cade Maestas for additional fire and planning reports results in the Mayor saying to the Make It Happen panel, "Well, we just gave you guys some more work." In that moment, I realize that the citizens vote for the Council, and the Council directs the Make It Happen panel; these are the people who do, indeed, in a very real way, work for us, for the Common Good. In a humble, simple, brown way, without gold tassles or fireworks, these people carry out the will of the people; it isn't perfect, but I remember Montesquieu's contention that democracies and republics only work up to a certain size and it makes perfect sense to me, now. In a republic of Lander-size, the Mayor (if he or she is a good one) will walk the streets to see what's going on with an ordinance and stop by like a good neighbor and talk to the neighbors; a Council Member will take all day to visit my rhetoric classes and encourage young people to hone their speaking skills; the Make It Happen people seem like capable, open people of the ranges, silver and stone people with real hearts; they know they are known, and they seem tough enough and humble enough, for the most part, to be known. They do not live in ivory towers, except for the occasional towering Ford F250. They aren't perfect; Lander isn't perfect. I am simply surprised by a certain magic in the realm of Practical Intelligence.

"Well," says the Mayor, "let's give our votes. Remember we'll have two more readings on this. Dan?"












They all look back at Dan. Melinda laughs, and says, "What're you up to, Dan?"

Dan laughs, and everyone laughs. Dan says, "Well, I knew ya'll were gonna vote 'yes'."

General laughter.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The Willing of Wisdom

"And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made..." (Genesis 2:9; 3:1).
"Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought?
 Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.
 But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.
And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord" (Job 1:9-12). 
"Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
'Here I am,' he replied.
Then God said, 'Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you'" (Genesis 22: 1-2).
"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil" (Matthew 4:1).

We are stewards, we are not masters; we are sub-creators, we are not the Creator; thus, we are tried and tested in the fires of temptation. We are sons, not slaves; thus, we are disciplined, not dominated. 
There are moments in the Holy Scriptures that move me, and not primarily rationally; I am slain in wholeness by these moments: sometimes in love, sometimes in awe. One of these moments is in the Garden, after Adam and Eve fall to the the serpent's solipsistic rhetoric, and their world, their souls, are shattered in a preemptive knowledge reserved by their Father for Himself. Perhaps it was for them also, but at the right time. In the lengthening of that brass day, the metallic taste of their choice raging in their mouths, they cower in the shadows: "And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day...[a]nd the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?" (Genesis 3:8; 3:9). 
The Lord brings His presence to them; I've always had the impression that this was normal, a part of each day. In the Middle East, and in Mediterranean countries, this "walking in the cool of the day" is a time in the later afternoon when the sun, his raging joy, his life-giving abundance finished, becomes a gentle presence, his gold now liquid like a calmed, early-summer stream after the snow-melt rush. This is the time of day for leisure, for the commerce between families and friends over a drink at the end of a work day that began in the very early hours of the morning. One has had a siesta, and this is the magical moment when people find each other again after an absence of sleep in a heat impossible to resist. 
The Lord finds them then, when they are meant to be rested and ready for conversation, as perhaps He did every day, in that jeweled pattern, that cool-wine-laden, patterned stream of life. Instead, He knows, and finds, that they are not rested. They are disturbed by death, by gluttony, by arrogance, by pride; their souls are bleeding, and He knows that they must now carry these wounds, and scars, into the generations, and that He will have to take on wounds, and scars, to heal them, finally. He knows all this. 
Yet, He comes as is His wont, and calls to them: "Where are you, my son, my daughter?" 
Every parent knows this know that something has happened to your child's will, to their soul, you know it well and the consequences it will bring, yet you do not rage into the shadows where they have hidden their soul from you in angst and shame. You call them: "Where are you, Ana? Where are you, Sophie? Where are you, TJ, my son?"
First come the denials, then the excuses; second, the silence; third, the tears. You want so much to erase it, to go backwards; but you know these tests are necessary. 
You know these tests are necessary. 
Why did God plant the tree, the temptation, in the garden with them; why did He allow the serpent to ply his pandering rhetoric; why did God allow Satan to test Job; why did God ask Abraham to go out into the wilderness and sacrifice his son; why did the Israelites have to be tested in Egypt and in the wilderness of Sinai? 
It has to do with desire, which is the foundation for virtue, for vice, for love; it is love, in a sense. The desires are appetites, which are, according to St. Thomas, a kind of will which moves towards objects of desire. We are bodily and spiritual creatures, or as the poet Bruce Cockburn quips, "Angel-beasts"; therefore, our desires are also bodily and spiritual, a kind of two-tiered, or twin-nature. Our knowledge is also different from the angels, from purely spiritual beings; we live in the body, in time and without that sight, as St. Augustine discusses, of beings in the eternal present, beyond time. 
Furthermore, our true happiness, or fulfillment, must come through our nature, as God made it thus. We receive this nature, and it is meant to be perfected in God, where the dual appetites will give Him a varied glory, different from other creations. It is the glory of beauty one finds in the variety of the flowers, in the very multitudinous aspects of sunlight throughout a single day, in the very varied veins in our beautiful bodies. He loved us, thought of us, and we were made: We are His, in our very bodily and rational and spiritual desires, our true happiness to give Him joy and glory. 
But we must desire this with all our varied being, our composite selves. We must desire it, for in love, He created us with free wills, so that we can also love; for, there is no deep, selfless love without a self, a self with a will to love. There is no love without desire. 
But physical appetite can become gluttony, with free will; mental appetite can become arrogance; spiritual appetite can become pride--because one can, using the will, turn the desire inward, and worship the self, or another creature, or another good. But the self, or another good besides the Good, cannot fulfill desire; these devolve into the slip-streams alongside the river where the water gets side-tracked and lost in a small place of stagnation and self-eating mold. All goods, even self, are only clear and healthy when they flow towards their true end, from their true end, the Source and End of all, for He is the source of all love, and all desire; thus is He also the End, and humility for the creature is the essential quality of knowing one's place, and understanding the love behind that placement. 
Thus testing is a pattern with the Lord, right from our beginnings in that garden. He knows this is necessary to craft a creature as an Artist, to craft a creature capable of choosing rightly, a creature who understands the greater good as greater good, beyond the self, and yet chooses it. 
An essential part of healthy desire, or appetite, is the understanding of the lower as related to the higher. I find an abysmal difference between understanding and knowledge; Adam and Eve took from the Tree of Knowledge, but did not thereby gain understanding. They gained knowledge not meant for them and it wounded their souls. The Tree of Knowledge is a temptation: it is if God is asking, "Do you desire knowledge alone, apart from Me, or do you desire that which is related, but Higher, and always with Me and through Me? Do you desire knowledge or knowledge within understanding?"
A few men and women chose understanding in the face of their own, lower knowledge, and the history of the Israelites, of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses, of the kings, of the prophets, is this story, its successes and failures. Sinai itself was a test of this: the great phenomenologist, Emanuel Levinas, images the moment at Sinai when the mountain towered over the Jews, when it suddenly was the navel of the cosmos, when they had before them the way of life and the way of death, when the Law was the mountain that would bring them to understanding, or the undigested knowledge of it would crush them.
And so, like the Israelites, the archetypal human community before Christ came, we each face this mountain, this tree, this parting of the ways, between knowledge apart from God, the knowledge that creates desires that ultimately enslave, and the understanding, or wisdom, that can only come from God and with God, the wisdom that creates right desire for all that is highest, and will ultimately free both soul and body.
We face this mountain toppling and the tree enticing and the emptiness of the crossroads, and wounded as we are, we cannot control our now revolutionary nature. 
An image rises, then, in God, another Thought, and it is also His Word, a Word ringing out from the eons outside of time, and is born in time; this image we find now sitting alone in the desert beyond the City of God, facing again that mountain. Christ is led, by the Spirit of God, His spirit also, into the wilderness. That same Satan, so eager to defeat Eve, and Job, rushes in like Herod half-dressed but with intentions sharp as knife-edge, to play the play again. Yet Christ is now the actor in his own, deep drama, and He asks us to seek both katharsis and our own identity through imitative knowledge, an imtative knowledge that becomes, in the fire of suffering, understanding and wisdom.
St. Ambrose says, "See what weapons Christ uses to defeat the power of the devil. He does not use the almighty power he has as God--what help would that be to us? In his humanity he summons the help common to all--overlooking bodily hunger and seeking the word of God for nourishment. Whoever follows the Word is no longer attached to earthly bread, because he receives the bread of heaven and knows the divine is better that the human, the spiritual is better than the physical. Therefore, because such a person desires the true life, he looks for that which fortifies the heart by the means of its invisible substance" (On the Share of the Devil). 
Our Lord, Our Bridge, Our Sharer in Suffering, who is also Our God who walks in the cool of the day calling us back, has given us the power through His own suffering in our stead to choose understanding and thus to desire rightly, and thus to be truly wise and fulfilled. 
For this to be possible, He must go before us, and within us He must will it; for it to be love, we must follow him and also will it: this is the balance between faith and works, and it is our double-gift from God, it is our time of testing. 
Let the Psalmist have the last word:
"Behold, You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart...restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit...the sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (Psalms 51:6, 12, 17). 

*painting by the Russian artist Ivan Kramskoi

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Relating to Death

"Somebody bubble-wrap David Attenborough"; "2016 is out to get us." I've seen variations of these fears, primarily on Facebook, variations multiplying as famous people fall, one after the other, like ninepins. And around us, in Common People Land, people--as always--are dying, disappearing through an opaque, black curtain.

"Death is a part of life." Um. Isn't it the opposite?

Last week, late at night, I passed out twice. The first time, I wondered why my eye was suddenly in sharp contact with the edge of the bathroom counter; the second time, I woke my daughter when I ricocheted off the wall. I need to lose some weight; I'd like to fall like a soft, quiet leaf, or like Ingrid Bergman sliding down elegantly on some Paris sidewalk in the rain. I bounced like a wrecking ball.

At any rate, in this rather minor way, I again looked at death. Death, that almost personified reality, has tapped on my shoulder a few times in the last ten years, has whispered sharply by my heart's ear. The first was a car accident that should have been fatal; the next, a miscarriage that could have been; the next, a prolonged illness, Death blowing in my ear slowly and persistently.

I related to Death like a person you want to avoid and narrowly succeed in doing so, like a warning for repentance, like a door you must go through, like a boxing opponent, like static electricity you must ionize away, like the final obstacle in the course, like a punishment.

Once, in the trailing anxiety of that mysterious, unknown illness, I opened the Bible and read about Hezekiah, the king who was "ill unto death" and asked God for healing; God healed him and gave him a few more years. I prayed this prayer, and indeed I was given a respite from the anxiety and suffering, from the maddening hum of death; but I have retained the trauma of those who've had health problems: life is never quite the same. It is sweeter, more precious; the gold of family and simple freedom is brighter--yet you are never allowed again that blessed ignorance of youth and health; you never again fill your lungs with golden air in that complete receptivity of confidence; you will never fly through life again unburdened by the knowledge of your absolute temporality in this life. You actually see, with the heart and the passions, people who are suffering, who are sick, who are now traveling that blood-soaked road, on which life flows out into deep ruts and cracks and uselessly waters parched dirt. You begin to notice Death less on the periphery, and more as a focused presence.

You see that some die in their relative innocence, young, or holy, or almost unknowingly; Death must come to them like a suitor who whisks them from the crowd and into the Great Dance; some innocents suffer greatly and must face a battle the biggest and bravest and wisest of us quail before: it is a mystery, and another face of Death we, left behind, must face.

I also, like many my age blessed enough to have living parents, see the shadow of death around my Dad and Mom. I remember my intrepid Dad, my china-lovely Mom, when they moved like whips and laughed like lions; now they are more like paper flowers, and I know I must begin to grieve now, even as I rejoice at every day they are given.

Death breaks your young child's heart.

So, in this year of many deaths, as the year itself was dying, I passed out and felt again my wings clipped by the knowledge that Death is still in my life. As I sat in the doctor's office, and at home with a little heart monitor on, I realized that I wanted a new relationship with Death. I needed a new relationship; there must be another kind. I thought of St. Aphonsius Ligouri, who said that we should meditate a little on our own death each day; I asked him what that was all about, because in my youth when I first heard that, my mawkish heart crooned in its ersatz wisdom, "Yes; of course." I did not know Death as well then; it was still a gate, a static thing that we somehow chose, a concept far removed from my burgeoning and dancing cells, a far-off second cousin I'd never met.

St. Alphonsius didn't say anything, but I felt heard and that my desire to relate differently to Death was a good one. I thought about Adam and Eve, suddenly putting themselves under the law of Death. Their young child-hearts were broken, too, when they found their son Abel with his head smashed in. They had to learn to relate to death, and they have had to learn it also through all their progeny through time.

But God is Good; He is Love. Any discipline He gives, whatever He allows, has Love behind it; I believe that our very temporality in the body is part of preparing a soul capable for eternity, that even Death serves the will of God. But how, how? When Death comes near, pat answers and rational thinking are blown about like leaves in the path of the wind; when Death whispers, all our strings come suddenly untied. The answer to this is not in the mind, but the heart--or rather, the heart and mind integrated. Death can only be related to well by the whole person: body, mind, and soul.

Listening to a talk on contemplative prayer tonight, I heard the words, "self-renunciation." The speaker said that this was our journey; it is a quest to leave ourselves behind, our ego, our little projections of self upon the world, our morbid, legion attachments and opens us up to the present moment, to God, so that we may, as the Orthodox so rightly put it, enter theosis. This is simply union with God. Unlike Buddhism, this Christian self-renunciation does not end in a subsumption into prime matter, or nothing; rather it is a fulfillment or a return to one's absolute Source, a kind of nostos, a kind of return to Ithaka, not the same Ithaka one left, but one's true home where every cell finally knows its name, is named, is loved as God loves Himself.

What does this self-renunciation mean, day to day? We come into this world with nothing that we have not received; the ensuing years, long or short, are moments of choice, fundamentally, about taking or giving, about fear or love. We learn early the lesson that everything, everything can be taken; our response to that is our journey. Some learn early that our very identity can be taken, warped, damaged, in a second; some learn slowly through small chips of the axe. As we age, we begin to decide if life is, at a basic level, cruel, a heedless parent who gives and then takes randomly. We grieve with each other, and as Aristotle puts it so well, we recoil in shock and pity at the horrors plaguing others; literature is basically how to deal with it via imitative artistry: we can look at the thievery of life as one looks at family life through a doll house, or a puppet show. We banter about Death from our cushioned theatre seats.

But Death is the final blow, the final thievery; or, perhaps, it is the final self-renunciation.

St. Aphonsius answered me through a speaker on contemplative prayer: we choose our relationship with Death, much the way we choose our relationship with Life; is it going to be about taking or giving, fear or love?

If we lived forever, as Adam and Eve expected for themselves, and we chose the way of taking, of fear, of the self isolated and fortressed from the needs of others, from God who, because He loves perfectly, desires complete union with each soul, each cell, what would be the result? What if we lived a life in which complete, utter, absolute self-renunciation was perpetually a choice, something we never necessarily had to face? What if we were never required to give--everything? We can, most of us, live our lives without ever having to give everything, to renounce it all: We can have friendships that are really more about our own egos; we can do jobs or serve others, or go to church, or marry, or have children, and have it all more-or-less serving our own, isolated image of ourselves.

But Death is much, much too powerful for our paper walls, our membrane-egos, our fancy or clear or erudite thinking skills, for our petty poetic genius, our fine clothes and accents, for our steely science. Death is like a tidal wave, or the inexorable glacier, or the torrent of a flash flood; Death is a fire no earthly water can quench. Death either takes everything, everything, or gives everything; there is no lukewarm middle-ground. It is the murderer's knife, or it is the sword of God.

I think about the Christian martyrs, ancient and contemporary, but especially I think about St. Lawrence, St. Edmund Campion,  St. Maria Goretti, and St. John Paul II. St. Lawrence met Death as a fire; he was roasted alive because he would not keep himself isolated, safe, from the consequences of his love for God. As he was roasted, as he was meeting Death, he said, "Turn me over. I think I am done on this side." He is now the patron saint of chefs. His relationship with Death was flippant and humorous, as is, delightfully, his patronage, because he had already given himself away to Love, completely; he had already died. St. Edmund Campion met Death as a knife that sliced out his bowels, and as a rope that hung him. He met it with open eyes, with a mind aware, with a heart already given away to God, to the Church, to those he served in secret as a priest in Reformation England. St. Maria met death as a knife in the hands of a lustful neighbor; her subsequent forgiveness became the catalyst for her murderer's own self-renunciation to Love. St. John Paul II met Death as a slowly encroaching guest, a warping in the cells, as a slow paralysis. He wore death like a t-shirt and became the icon for those who are in danger of being called 'burdens' and euthanized. He was able to wear Death, to embrace it like a guest for years, because he had given himself away already; there was nothing for Death to take. So, Death becomes a servant of God in the lives of those who have already learned its lesson, those who have looked upon Life on the Cross, and understood that Death itself is overcome by God's own absolute self-renunciation. Death then becomes the last, greatest, most beautiful shard of glass in the creation of a soul free of itself, and totally God's.

I am nowhere near self-renunciation; I still veer hourly into that way of taking, of fear, of self. I see now that Death is truly my final, severe mercy; if I do not totally renounce self before he arrives, he will invite me once more, and like a good doctor, he will do it regardless, and he knows I know that. So I will be culpable; either I will be a taker, taken, or a giver, given.

*The concept of "severe mercy" is taken from the profound book of the same name by Sheldon Vanaukan.