Monday, September 29, 2008

made flesh

“My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”
-- Hamlet

The – LORD – GOD – Je – HO – VAH!”

She sings each syllable, alternating between two notes. I know, because I’ve studied such things, that the interval is a major second, like the first two notes of the scale. “Do – RE – RE – do – RE – RE!” She punctuates each note, each syllable, with a louder silence.

“IN – THE – be – GIN – ning – WAS – the – WORD.”

At the top of subway steps in Grand Central Station at morning rush, she is all I hear.

“AND – the – WORD – WAS – with – GOD.”

I pass her by, descending to a deeper ring of urban transport.

“AND – the – WORD – WAS – GOD.”
From the platform below I still hear her.

“AND – the – WORD – WAS – made – FLESH.”

There it is. Authenticity. She is what she claims to be. Refugee from the theatre, I recall language from studios of acting: She is not just telling, she is doing. She doesn’t just say that the word was made flesh. She is a Word Made Flesh.

The – WORD – WAS – made – FLESH – and – DWELT – a – MONG – US.”

I am witness to the power of the Incarnate Word. Her Flesh is given over to Her Word. Her blood and breath are timed to Her Word’s pulse. Her throat vibrates in mathematic passion, and my throat rises sympathetically. Machines scream and a hundred conversations scurry on their way, but what I hear is Her Word. This is not a liberal sermon with five logical points, later to be judged “interesting” and “stimulating” by parishioners. She does not interest me. She does not stimulate me. She seizes me.

“HE – was – IN – the – WORLD.”

In a hundred studios of drama in this city, acolytes make offerings to their gurus. They mortify themselves in worship of this very power to en-flesh the word. Two of them finish an exercise, and there is a silence for the space of half a minute.

“BUT – the – WORLD – KNEW – him – NOT.”

They are waiting for the guru to unseal his verdict. (The really clever guru prolongs the pain.) They are lost; they await the revelation. Was it true? Am I real? Does my “work” have authenticity? Am I talented? Do I have IT? Desperation feeds on the silence.

Let’s leave it there. If the word had been made flesh, it would have seized you all. You wouldn’t be waiting for the guru to tell you what happened.

That’s why Hamlet, the prince of failed actors, knowing his role but never bringing it off, talking talking of what’s to do, tormented by words words words that stop his thoughts, curses his thoughts until they shall learn the pulse of his body. If his thoughts are not now “bloody” they shall be worth nothing. Only at his end, too late and by accident, are his Words Incarnate.

“WE – have – SEEN – his – GLO – RY.”

That God became one of us is the Christian glory. That he grew in the bowels of a woman. Nascitur inter sanguinem et faeces et urinam. That he heard the pulse of her blood and the pedal point of her breath, syncopated by a slithering symphony of fluids and solids in passage toward the world. So did we all. And all of us, Yeshua included, were then expelled into silence. Perhaps it is not the sudden cold or bright light that bakes a baby cry. Perhaps it is the silence. Our bodies, abruptly orphaned, no longer purr to the music of creation.

His – GLO – RY, – FULL – of – GRACE – and – TRUTH.”

After expulsion, we do our best to compensate for dis-enfleshment. We seek grace in making love and art. We seek truth in reason, or veritas in the vine or pharmacy. We laugh, cry, sometimes pray. Sometimes we sing or dance, and for a moment remember.

We must learn from our Christian brothers what they so often deny – that God is in the flesh. God is Incarnate. Our eating and drinking, pissing and shitting, laughing and crying, belching and farting, singing and dancing, our compassion and our copulation – these are what God could not bear to be separated from.

“GRACE – and – TRUTH.”

I stand clear of the closing doors. They close. I am on my way to work.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

religion unknown

“Will there be anything left . . . that can properly be called religion?”
-- John White Chadwick, The Faith of Reason (1879)

“He believes in science,” she said.

I had stopped by his room. A new admission. His chart said “Religion Unknown.” He was, as we say to family members on the phone afterward, “resting comfortably.” There’s nothing else to say. He’s still breathing. He doesn’t, so far as we can tell, know we’re here. But because the oral culture of our craft says that hearing may be the last of mental powers to go – and because there’s nothing else to do – we speak. I greeted him, I said who I was. I said that I was here to help.

The most likely possibility, if the patient has any religious culture at all, is that he is a Christian or a Jew. So I spoke a psalm of comfort, about fear and the overcoming of fear. “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Perhaps, if my words roused his mind from its depthless dream, they would be of – comfort. That was it. I had learned nothing. But I must fill out a “Spiritual Assessment.” So I was not done.

The next step is to “reach out” to the “Primary Care Giver.” His wife picked up the phone. I said who I was, that I had visited her husband and found him resting comfortably, that I had spoken a psalm with him. We are here to support the patient and the family; if she could take a moment to speak with me, she could help me better to understand –

“He doesn’t practice any religion.”

This information, my first in the case, meant that I had somewhat exceeded my mandate. Of course, I had been somewhat misinformed. The chart might have said, “No religion.” But I would still have been required to seek her out, to hear her say the words.

“There won’t be any last rites. No prayers. Nothing like that. How is it possible that people can just come into his room like that without permission?”

I explained that I was legally required to approach the patient, for assessment of religious or spiritual needs. Patient and family can refuse pastoral care if they wish.

“He was a great scientist. He didn’t believe in anything like that. He believed that the world is an orderly place, and that reason is the key to it. There’s not to be any ceremonies. No last rites.”

Transference. The importation of remembered or imagined experience to the present situation. In her mind she saw black-robed figures of Inquisition, smoke and mirrors, mumbo-jumbo and exploitative conversion in extremis.

Counter-Transference. In my mind I saw white-gowned figures of Scientism, bald heads and black-rimmed coke-bottle spectacles. The Scriptures of Atheism, revealing every few years under a new prophet’s name the freshly scrubbed icon of The Wheel. As if scientists had invented Doubt.

She doesn’t know who she’s dealing with. No point explaining that my church has been for eighteen centuries accused of Atheism. That if you ask me whether I believe there is a God, I don’t know what the question means or what difference my answer could make.

We all respect science too much. The only thing science can tell us is how things generally work. It’s a powerful knowledge, but strictly limited. We love science to idolatry. We expect it to tell us what is sacred. But if there are miracles, science can’t speak of them. Any scientist who speaks of the sacred – even to say there is no sacred – has stopped for that moment being a scientist.

I don’t think God is so cruel that my prayer could save the patient’s life. And our doctors know they cannot predict the time of death. It’s not like in the movies. “One year to live,” says the doctor, and the patient, sound of mind and strong of body, goes round the world making up for his faulty life, expiring plump at last amidst violins and good lighting, and speaking wise words.

When she said he believed “that reason is the key,” she was praying for him.

“So I’ll indicate that you’re refusing pastoral care.”

“No last rites. He believes in science,” said she.

“So do I,” said I.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

do good

“Love your enemies, do favors for those who hate you.”
-- Luke 6:27

This is the hardest, most paradoxical of commandments. It makes no sense: how can I love an enemy? If I love him, he is not my enemy. Is that the point? That friendship is mutual, and enemyship the same? So if I love my enemy he is no longer my enemy. He might not be my friend, but he is no longer my foe. Is that what Yeshua had in mind?

Karen says (August 5), “I've always wondered if ‘love your enemies’ wasn't a mistranslation.” It’s a good translation, but English can’t convey the precision of the word “love.” Agapate: a commandment, an imperative verb-form related to agape, one of three words for love. Yeshua commands us to extend agape to those who hate us. How can he dare to command our feelings

Feelings, as your shrink will tell you, are what they are – we do not choose them, though we can name them, know them, lead them, follow them, deny them or disconnect them. But agape is the most rational of loves – it is the love that we can choose.

Eros is the body’s desire to unite with other bodies. Philia is a more generalized desire to “press the flesh” through fellowship and mutuality. The lexicon says that agape is not so much what we feel as what we do, based on “evaluation and choice.” Agape is what God gives us, and what God asks of us in return. God is sometimes angry with us for good reason, and we with God. Feel what you must – happy sad friendly hostile – but Agapate.

So the commandment is not about our feelings. I don’t have to cherish the lover who harms me. I don’t have to “feel the pain” of the comrade who betrays me. I don’t have to like Slobodan Milosevic. Yeshua says, “Don’t get bent out of shape. Don’t let your enemy deform you. Don’t descend to his lowest level. Don’t scrabble in the dirt just because she did.” Continue to love kindness, and do justice, and walk humbly.

There are foolish enemies and smart enemies. Foolish enemies are the ones we can laugh off. They fall on their faces and take nothing from us; or they take from us what we never wanted anyway. Sometimes we can make ambitious enemies foolish by withdrawing desire from what they want to take. We can even do this retroactively, by declaring that the thing our enemy took is something we never wanted. Or that we should not have wanted it – and then we thank the would-be enemy for teaching us that our better self never wanted what they took. Thus we deny foolish enemies the very status of enemy. We belittle and disarm them. They never harmed us, and thus we defeat them. “Love your enemies: it’ll drive them crazy.” So many people have said it that I don’t know who I stole it from.

But there are also smart enemies, who do irreparable damage. They steal innocence and savage souls. Like Mohammed Attah and Timothy McVeigh, they take from us what we ought most dearly to want, that cannot be restored to us. Sometimes they do this in a frenzy of false self-preservation. There are a few who do it for the joy of it. Such enemies wound us in vital organs of the soul, and no one – certainly not Yeshua – can tell us to laugh it off. I shall not turn my other cheek. I shall not go back to my abuser. Not until I know how to render my smart enemy foolish. I do not know when, or if, that day may come.

Agapate and agathopoieite. Love your enemies and do good. It’s not always possible to forgive, particularly where there is no remorse. More likely, I think, is to forget. No, “forget” is not the exact word: a holocaust must never be forgotten. But we can distract ourselves by doing good, until the injury is no longer our obsession. Survival, they say, is the best revenge. Survival with access to memory. Love those that can be loved. Render to enemies what is theirs, which includes justice but not vendetta. Protect from them what is precious. Agathopoieite.

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Monday, September 8, 2008

enumerating powers

“A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.”
-- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

It seems I have powers. People who work with me, and see the lives that touch me, say that I “change lives.” My standard liberal Problem of Belief – infidel that I am – has two things to ask about this. It asks if this claim can be true; and it asks, if it is true, is it a good thing?

The doctor and the nurse have power to alter the physical condition of a body. The social worker has power to invoke secular systems of support. What power have I, a “spiritual counselor,” to “change lives”? What are they talking about? What is this miracle of which I stand accused?

I am learning to enumerate powers. I called them (July 28) “Powers to Hear, to Travel, to Name and to Bless.” I am happy with three of these names for power, but the fourth one not so much. If I Hear the client’s story, I change him into a Person Who Has Been Heard. If I Name his situation, I change his world into a World That Has Been Named. If I Bless his hope, I make his hope a Blessed Hope. But “Travel”? What is that? It doesn’t parallel the others. It doesn’t explain itself. It’s incomplete. And it violates the rule of three.

Like a Pythonist announcing the Spanish Inquisition, I cannot keep the number of my powers down. My chief weapons are three – no, four. And the fourth is a problem. Where do I propose to travel, and why?

“To hear, to name, and to bless.” I should publish that. Why didn’t I leave it right there? There were three bears, three little pigs, three billy goats gruff. There are always three clergy playing golf (the priest, the rabbi and the minister). There were also, they said, three persons in one God, and that idea still works for many people though it is impossible to understand.

Why not leave it there? Because these three powers, once I set them down, don’t move. Each describes something I do, but all together they leave something out. By the time I get these things done – if I get them done – the client has moved on. I gesticulate at an empty chair. In many cases an empty bed. My trinity leaves out the journey, and that’s why I must spoil it.

I talked recently with a man who said that his life has sucked (his word), and his impending loss of it is therefore less grievous than it might be. He is a charming man. He is quiet, articulate, patient and trusting. I empathize with his deepest deadpan humor. His melancholy humor sings to me, but I do not think my life has sucked. Now what am I to do? If I tell him he’s wrong, I fail to hear his disappointment. If I try out new names for his grief, I do not thereby make him happy. If bless his passion for life, I mock him by sanctifying what he cannot bear. I may do these things, but these things don’t touch the heart. They don’t amount to empathy.

This man has spent an afternoon on the bridge, looking into the water. Now the water is rising to him.
There are powers we do not have. But we are tempted to think we have them. We learn over and over that we do not have them, and each time we learn we do not have them we clear the air. Then perhaps, in that clearer air, our real powers may be revealed.

I cannot save this man. I cannot make his life happy, or make him into a happy man, or rescue him from his unhappiness. If I could, I should not. To remove his grief would be to remove him from himself.

So I said, “I’d like to go part of the way with you.” He accepted my proposal. I’m going to travel with him. Perhaps he will be less alone than before. We do not prevent the tears, but sometimes we wipe one away. Even better – a sort of miracle – if he can do it for himself. Because he knows I’m watching.

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