Sunday, April 4, 2010

merrie band

He makes me confess that I ought not to live as I do.

-- Plato, Symposium*

Socrates was a flute-player of no mean skill. He could seduce with music, but he is more famous for seduction with his words.

I once traveled across the continent to spend two weeks with a teacher of performance. He let me join his studio, where he taught how infinite space could be bound in a nutshell. I learned to be as large or as small as I chose. I learned that if I needed a costume or a set I didn’t deserve them. No need for lights camera action: it was I who would turn on the lights. Or not. If I needed a script, I did not deserve one. I could never be lost, because the air, this sound, that light, the landscape in that window or this object close to hand right now, were more story than could be exhausted before night fell.

He stopped once, as palpable ideas swung round his head like pendants of a mobile, interrupted in their orbits. I’m sorry, he said. I’ve spoiled you now. You’ll never see the theatre again as you used to. You can’t go back. No, I’m not sorry, he said. You’re spoiled.

And I was.

Yeshua, they say, walked the streets, the hills and seasides, and drew people to himself. The rules of folklore require us to number his merrie band at twelve; but scripture makes it clear that they were more than twelve. He spoiled them. They could never go back to the farm, to the fishing-boat, to the tax office, once they had roused the sleeping power within them. Why fish for fish, when you can fish for souls?

Once, when they had lost everything and betrayed the cause, they tried to go home. On the road to an otherwise unheralded place, they talked with a stranger about what they were leaving behind. Honoring the commandment of hospitality to sojourners (“for we were sojourners in the land of Egypt”), they broke bread with him, and saw who he was. Then they understood that they could not leave him, for even the mode of their despair had been changed.

The first democracy put Socrates to death. He was too much for them. How can we levy taxes, they said, and hold festivals, and conduct wars, when the people are taught to hate their lives, and the wise are shown to be foolish, and the worse is made to appear the better cause? This is not the orderly process of citizenship. We already know, they said, how to live, and who is wise, and what is better. Better be happy about it. The realm needs happy people, and those who long to live differently are its enemies.

So Socrates was a corrupter of youth. He spoiled them. He made them long for something better. He made pictures in the mind – or did he play the tunes? – of justice and virtue, truth and beauty, beside which every law and proposition, poem and painting looked tawdry. These youth could never look at their elders again in the same way. And the elders weren’t used to being looked at this way, the new way learned by youth. They wouldn’t kill the children, so they killed the piper who had taken their minds.

Yeshua too corrupted the youth. He took them from their useful labors, and set them to wandering the streets and the hillsides, confessing that they ought not to have lived as before. They rehearsed a better kingdom, where lions and lambs lay down together. Where there was darkness, they turned on a great light, and in that light the shabbiness of the mighty was revealed. The newly naked wise and mighty struck back of course.

Today the name of Pontius Pilate is shorthand for the false innocence of bureaucrats. Meletus, Anytus and Lycon are known only as weaklings who could not abide honesty. The words they tried to suppress have “gone viral;” spreading from soul to soul with the speed of light.

John Lennon is supposed to have said that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. That, as far as I can tell, would be true of eternal life as well. It’s never what we expect, as we fix our eyes on noble purposes or their failure. It’s something that slips in at the periphery, the corner of the eye, like that stranger traveling the road with us, to whom we confide our troubles.

The Divine Domain is the last thing we expect. It’s what we didn’t plan for, and we’re slow to recognize it. Socrates taught that writing is false, and his pupil immortalized him in books. Yeshua, who spoke scripture from his heart to the illiterate and desperate, was crowned hero of a new scripture. But when we see it, we are spoiled for mere mortality. We can’t go back, because Emmaus isn’t what it used to be. It has changed. We are changed. He is risen.

*trans. Benjamin Jowett

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