Monday, October 27, 2008

ten thousand

“The ten thousand things depend upon it and it denies none of them. It accomplishes its task yet claims no reward.”

-- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 34

“Pray without ceasing,” said the apostle (I Th 5:17), but this confuses me. If I prayed without ceasing, then there would be no time when I do not pray. This is not what most people understand by prayer. I wouldn’t get much else done.

Maybe the apostle thought it was okay if nothing much got done. He thought the end was coming. No kidding. Soon. Like a thief in the night. You couldn’t lay up treasures here and now, not even spiritual ones, because the here and the now would soon be gone. But the end was delayed and, to our great disappointment, time goes on. We learn that we must care how things come out. Like it or not we are stewards, because the world will outlive us and we must leave it in a tolerable state for those who follow, a few of whom at least we love. We have stuff to do.

When a family says, “Before you go, would you pray with us?” – it’s clear that up till now I haven’t prayed. But then, I didn’t mean to. Prayer is not a thing to be pushed on people. I’m only supposed to do it on request. Until that request comes, I’m supposed to be doing something else.

My life is mostly something else.

So don’t tell me I must rise at the third hour to pray, I have responsibilities. Ten thousand other things to do. And I have a problem with authority. I’m Unitarian. I don’t even recognize my own authority.

I don’t pray without ceasing. I don’t have a discipline of prayer, though I am brought to it by others. I pray if I’m asked. The people who ask for it – they discipline me. Is that good enough?

Good enough for whom?

If my colleague thinks I should have a practice, he means that I need a regular prompt, like a muezzin’s call, to halt the day’s stammer. What I give on request to others, I should give to myself.

Ten thousand things. I won’t do them all. I won’t do most of them. I choose what to do, and the other things – they just won’t be done right now. If I can choose, leaving the other things to providence, isn’t that what we’re talking about? The giving up of things. I am not equal to the ten thousand, but they call to me nevertheless. A mist of obligation rises, all the things I ought to do, in so many different ways, for so many people, from so many points of view. It’s not so much my vices as my virtues that seduce me. My passion to please. My desire to comply. I would pass all tests, meet all expectations. I’ve auditioned for the role of Great Exception.

The Tao is the pin that punctures the balloon of my grandiosity. Lord, help me choose, because I am not equal to it all, it’s far too much. There’s something here for me but only if I discern it. If it finds me.

I used to say I didn’t want to go on stage with any nice guys. The only good comrade is the one who chooses without guilt, plays without mercy, and does with killer instinct what is to be done. Making the invisible visible is rough business. To think of what you ought to do is a mystification and a temporizing betrayal. The world doesn’t watch temporizers. Holding one’s moistened finger to the wind is not the way of faith. The mountain never moves by dithering. Only if we do the work and nothing else can we help each other.

Lord, it’s too much for me. Help me own my inadequacy. Close the doors of fantasy. Open the eyes of my eyes. Mark me for discernment. The thing that is for me to do, if I do it, is my glory.

Discernment is a via negativa. There’s cruelty in it. To know what you are doing is to know the things you are not doing. All nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine of them.

Monday, October 20, 2008

no argument

“A work becomes inarguable when it creates the terms by which it is perceived, when it becomes its own system of value, when there is nothing behind what it is saying.”

-- Herbert Blau, Blooded Thought

I have to do this. But I didn’t know. I only learned by doing it.

Is it any good? That’s what I asked as I fashioned secret juvenilia, recreating poems I had learned in literature classes. Am I any good? That’s what I asked as I trampled the stage in school plays. Do I look normal? That’s what I asked as with fear and trembling I approached a girl, requesting what would terrify me to obtain. Did I get it right? That’s what I asked as I stuttered my tremulous thoughts to sullen undergraduates filling out their distribution requirements. How can I become a real boy? That’s what I asked as my wooden head puzzled what a man, a husband, a father would do. Do I deserve the space I fill?

It took half my life to grasp the futility of such questions. There is always a problem, always something wrong, always something deficient, always another test. The Voice has only one thing to say: No, Not yet. It will say these words as long as you keep asking the questions. It’s not the voice of life.

“Try not,” said Yoda. “Do or do not. There is no try.” Calvin, though his doctrine declares the uselessness of effort, drove his followers crazy with trying. God, he said, is utterly free; God knows whether you’re damned or not, and nothing you do can change the truth. But a Calvinist is a human being, and cannot leave it at that. Human nature drives a Calvinist to try, try – to prove, prove – that what he presents is the appearance of an elected one. To whom should he present? To the Voice that always says No, Not Yet, It’s Not Enough. Yoda’s voice does not appear in Calvin’s book. Yoda knows that trying and doing are fundamentally dissimilar. What you do is what you are not trying to do. If you’re still trying, you are not doing it. Trying is a siren, a dead seduction from the task.

That’s what artists know. Trying is for dilettantes who prove, by grunts and grimaces, that they are “at their work.” If it’s hard to do, you failed. Effort only leads you astray. So how can a strutting sinner, how can a poor player dissected on the stage, be saved? How can I do what is really hard to do, and not by trying? Not by work, but by grace. How ironic.

Grace – the real illusion of a miracle. “Lend me your ears,” said Antony in the crowded square; and if I have grace you will lend me your ears. But if you hear my effort, how hard I work to make you hear me, you will not listen. Art is a cruel place, no place for sissies. To those who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But then neither is reality a place for sissies. It’s true in art but in reality as well, that what gets truly done seems – really seems – really easy. Could have been no other.

So in this Cockpit where I work, this Department of Reality, this Chaplaincy, where Life and Death play out their tragicomedy, I do the work that on a good day lets me leave the work behind. It’s hard to learn to do things simply. It’s hard for a singer to learn the throat’s co-ordination. It’s hard for an actor to learn the gesture that can touch the hall’s back row. It’s hard for a pastor to learn the simple presence, the seeing and the being-with, that heals. But when the spirit moves us, the learning is already done. It’s then that, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know. We go backstage, behind opinion, and correctness, and approval, and debate.

I am not always pretty. I am not always good. I am not always right. I am not always true. But sometimes after sixty-one years, with all my heart and soul and strength and by grace, I do what will be done. Take me or leave me then. It’s what it is. There’s no argument.

Monday, October 6, 2008

modern baron

“The gift of the One to Men.”
-- Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

The wind is meager, so we motor rather than sail past the island. Isolated by shallow waters and swift currents stands the burnt shell of a Scottish castle designed by Frank Bannerman VI, who bought up the surplus of the Spanish-American War. One might say, flinching at the joke, that he made a killing with it. Bannerman’s Castle was his arsenal. A ruined residence in the same style commands the island’s crest.

I’m also thinking of William Randolph Hearst, who built another self-designed hotchpotch castle on his private mountain, overlooking the other coast. And of Shelley’s Ozymandias. The destroyed castle mocks Bannerman, and the preserved one mocks Hearst. “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” says the severed stone head.

“If you’re rich enough,” I say, “you can realize your fantasy.”

Fantasy of isolation. A castle is weirdly ambivalent between defense and offense. You shall not be moved from your keep; but because you are immovable, you can always “sally forth.” So you rule the terrain. Kings hated it when their barons built castles. It threatened their fragile authority.

A baron in your castle keep, no one can sneak up on you. The mountain, or the river and its currents, impede approach. Whoever wants to touch you, you can see them coming. From your battlement you can repel them – particularly if you are self-sufficient, with a store of food and armament within the walls.

The wealth of a modern baron comes not from isolation but from commerce; there are people he wants to touch, and to touch him. But he can afford the private planes or skilled river transport that take him out into the world, and that bring his chosen guests into the keep. The modern baron is so rich, he can even pay the cost of his dysfunction.

“Thank God we all die,” says my host.

My friend, who invited me on his boat, has longer experience than I to look back on. We were talking of a futurist who says that science is about to cure us of age. We may see lifespans of patriarchal length, a thousand years or more. “What’s really strange,” says my friend, “is that he thinks this is a good thing.”

If we live to a thousand years, where will we put the children? What shall we do with those misguided beings who engender and give birth to them? Perhaps we shall have no children. If I have nine more centuries to live, I may not want a squirming grandchild on my lap. If I am immortal, my descendents cannot make me so. Perhaps we’ll keep the children on a reservation, lest they change things. However old they grow, they won’t know what we know. They’ll lack the true perspective. Perfecting, rubbing smooth our pleasures, we may never give way. Some dying churches are like this.

But of course we must give way, and unmade, we must make our immortality. Every thing I do now is a hundred other things that now I’ll never do. We cannot keep to ourselves. If I do not learn the strange new pleasures of my children, and if they do not know my joys, if I do not love and am not loved, then my relic castle, burnt out or preserved, will mock me in my death. It is not that we must love in spite of death; it is because of death that we can love. I work in a cockpit of love and death. Death shows his colors here, and the trumpet calls us to change and to declare our loyalties. If I had forever to love you I’d never bother, and you’d never care.

Our mortality is therefore our gift and the ground of our joy. Tolkien imagined two kinds of sentient creature, one immortal and one mortal. The immortal elves poisoned the world in self-regard, greed and lust for power. In boundless grief they have left Middle-Earth to Humankind, who came later and who, dying the individual “death of weariness” that elves never knew, must save the moments of their lives in loyalty and love. The transitory survives where the eternal does not. Our castle walls dissolve, and we must meet each other in the open air. Thank God we all die.

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