“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.