Wednesday, December 28, 2011

ille locus

  . . . to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.

-- T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Though we've always called it our Tiffany chandelier, it isn't a chandelier but rather a pendant lamp.  We don't know whether it's Tiffany or just Tiffany-style, but it is more than a century old.  It shows its age: one of its ribs has come loose on the inside.  I've seen modern knockoffs of it: the cheap glass lacks  striation and texture, and the knockoffs are made of flat panels, whereas our chandelier has only rounded surfaces.

It doesn't come from England and has nothing to do with Charles Dickens.  It's just this: my mother-in-law's aunt-by-marriage was once in service at a house where Dickens had lived.  She did the same work in America, and the family for whom she worked gave her a wedding present.

Its pattern is called "Grape:" clusters of little red circles against green leaves, and the background is a variegated brown like peanut butter swirled in ice cream.  Its circle of light discovers the table and those gathered round it; the rest of the room rests in softer amber, a butterscotch light.  This lamp has now hung from six ceilings.  The last of these is the story I have to tell.

Illud tempus -- that's what Mercea Eliade called it.  That time, as opposed to this ordinary time.  The time in which cosmos was made out of chaos, when Marduk slew Tiamat and made heaven and earth from the split parts of her body, or the time as some say when heaven and earth came together again in the flesh of an infant -- such time is not like this regular time of ours that just goes on and on.  Not this time but that; not of this world but out of it; not secular but sacred.  Illud tempus is always the same time it ever was, the original time, the time in which the world was made and life becomes possible.  It isn't after or before anything.  Every Christmas is the same as the others, always starting over again but knowing how it's done.

That's why there is so much sentimentality, tradition, repetition.  I'm too old and by this time of year too tired to keep track of traditions any more; but we could count on the younger daughter to remember everything -- the height of the tree, the colors of the lights, which ornaments and how many, the size, shape and color of the candles born by the wire reindeer that draw a wire sleigh across the top of the piano -- because she knows that it isn't about now but about how it will always have been: it if doesn't take us out of clock-time and into the timeless presence of incarnation, then it isn't Christmas at all.

Philosophers have always been interested in meaning and in how things come to mean other things.  It happens all the time: these letters for instance, arranged in certain patterns, are worthless except for what they represent in your mind as you scan them; how can this happen, that things stand for other things that aren't even things, aren't even there?  Human life is inconceivable without it, but how can the mind conceive of the condition of its own existence?  It's called semiology.

The American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce distinguished three kinds of signs: the icon, the index and the symbol.  Icons mean something that they resemble: the printer icon on this computer looks sort of like a printer, and Byzantine icons look sort of like the Virgin Mary or some other saint.  Indices point to what they mean, often by a causal connection: the lowering cumulus clouds predict rain, and the brevity of a bar on the thermometer recommends that I wear a coat outside.  But the mind's true subversion of reality occurs in the Sherwood Forest of symbols, where the rules are forgotten and anything can come to mean anything, so long as those using the sign agree.  The most outrageous of all symbols is perhaps the Cross, which is nothing originally but two pieces of wood nailed together; which came to mean by Roman custom the agonizing and shameful death of a traitor; but which in the stories of one prophet's execution came to stand for his restoration and eternal life.  The means of death now represents for millions their victory over death.  It goes to show you that the link between the thing that means something (called signifiant by Ferdinand de Saussure) and what it means (signifié) is a marriage of convenience and utterly arbitrary.

Anything can mean anything, to those who agree on the meaning.

My world has been disrupted since last Christmas.  I'm not in the same place.  I've lost thousands of generous and friendly books and a study the size of some people's parlors with floor to ceiling windows, eight acres of woods and streams and the kitty who used to roam them with me.  There are gains as well as losses.  I am proud to live on the crowded island where twelve gates welcome the world, in the city where (according to my radio station) eight million people live in (mostly) peace and enjoy the benefits of democracy, most of which are only a subway ride away.  Every day I greet a few more of my books who have survived.  My music traveled with me, stored in a tiny shiny box.  And the study I now share, where I write these words, is smaller but flooded with sunlight.

Our chandelier however lay for months here in the study, perched on boxes of unpacked books, waiting for the super to install it.  Just before the holidays it went up, replacing the harsh overhead fixture that had glared on the dining table.  And now our friends can see the red grapes and green leaves, and the soft amber light, that bless our home.  The table itself and the sideboard opposite it are restored from their place in Gramma's house to something like their original splendor of tiger-oak.  Right next to it an eight-foot tree with a selection of the familiar ornaments and hundreds of white and red LED's.

I was waiting for something.

I was waiting for this lamp that is not a chandelier, that has nothing to do with England or Charles Dickens, to bring the spirits of Christmas, the memories and artifacts of a family that is not mine but rather my wife's family, to this extraordinary occasion.  I know where I am now. This is illud tempus.  And it is also ille locus.  I've been traveling here always.  This is my place, and I had not known it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

still hope

If God didn't exist, it would necessary to invent him.

-- Voltaire* 

My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live.

-- Miguel de Unamuno**

I don't usually answer comments. Each reader has a right to pleasure or to pique: their words deserve to stand. I've had my chance, and second thoughts don't always improve on first ones. But the reader asks a question. "Do you think a minister can successfully do their job without personally believing in god?"

The question leads me in many directions, because the response must depend on many variables. What in this situation is "success"? What is the "job"? What does one mean by "belief" or for that matter "God?" Anyone who thinks these meanings are obvious should study the history of contention and murder on these precise subjects.

Unamuno thought that one could minister without belief. His San Manuel, martyr, spends himself in the comfort of his people, through words and rituals whose truth he no longer believes. By the church's own doctrine, his state of belief or unbelief has no significance.

The word "belief" often stands in for the word "faith."  Believers and atheists alike speak too often as if faith were a kind of knowledge. But faith is not knowledge: where there is knowledge, faith cannot arise. I cannot have faith that there is a blue blazer in my closet, because I know the blazer is there. I only act in faith when I must affirm what cannot be known.

When you pledge your life in marriage to a person who cannot possibly yet deserve such investment, you are acting in faith. Or when you go into harm's way for a cause that is worth your life. Or when Walt Disney bet all his profits from Snow White on an animated choreography called Fantasia. Or when Steve Jobs decided I would want a tiny shiny box called IPod to store and retrieve two months of selected music.

Faith can be horribly wrong, but we can't do without it. In faith we can do things that are impossible otherwise.  It's what Yeshua meant by "moving the mountain." For each of us there is a mountain that, if we give more than we have, more than is prudent, more than our accountant would recommend, will move when we tell it to. The search for that particular mountain, the one that has one's name on it, is the spiritual quest.

I don't believe a lot of the things that some of my clients believe. Some of them believe that their prayers will heal their diseases, or save their mothers from death. Some think they will survive their bodies. Some think that their suffering or their grief is a message from God. But I don't have to agree with them. This isn't a theology class.

Though what I do is a ministry, I don't come to the client as a "minister." If the client wants to hear a specific theology, I'll help him locate a person who can provide it; but I am not that person. A clinical chaplain assesses a spiritual crisis, names the dangers and blesses the assets. The client, his passion lifted up to the regard of the greater audience, is empowered to his own liberation. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes not so much.

I do not preach to clients. I study a "living human document:" that's what Anton Boisen called the person otherwise dismissed as a "patient." If I hear the document's message, I speak it aloud so the client can hear it. Yes, there is after all a theology of chaplaincy, an immanent theology. The Word has come to live among us, and we meet it at the bedside.

At our best we are poets, giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. And for this purpose we do not bowdlerize: we give form to loss and terror as we do to courage, love and hope. We are all dying, and we're all triumphing over death for another day, and how we do it is our story. Telling the story, even a tragic one, confirms the client to himself. It says, you are not alone. You are seen and heard. If the one who sees and hears is only mortal me, that is not nothing; and in moments of faith it seems that I am standing in for one who sees us all. If my client flatters me with that faith, that is his way to healing. How else could it be? how else than through flawed and dying flesh could an incarnate word be spoken?

Sometimes only tragic art can save us. How can there be a play like King Lear? An actor who specializes in the bleak art of Samuel Beckett said that as long as someone writes as beautifully as Beckett there is still hope. The tragic poet says to those who suffer -- and we all suffer -- yes, I have heard you, and you are worthy of being heard, and you are not mad, deranged or evil; but you have seen the truth. Beauty perishes, virtue is punished and sense runs to nonsense, and yet there is still truth, beauty and virtue. So hold to these things however lightly. My search for truth, like Unamuno's, is a search for what gives us life in the time we are given; and the search for life is a search for truth. Nothing else deserves the name. As the Grecian urn said to Keats, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know, and all ye need to know."

To us this is a ministry, though some would not call it so. Every day we learn again that we cannot rescue our people and we cannot save them, but there is sometimes revealed among us a healing power. I put on my shoes each morning knowing this could really happen today. That is my "success."

*Peter Gay, Voltaire's Politics: The Poet as Realist (New Haven: Yale University 1988) p. 265: "If the heavens, despoiled of his august stamp could ever cease to manifest him, if God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Let the wise proclaim him, and kings fear him."

**Miguel de Unamuno, "Mi religión." (1907)