Sunday, December 30, 2012

poor creature

Unaccommodated man is nothing but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art!

-- King Lear, III. iv.

When they ask me what I do for living, when I am so foolish as to answer them, there is a silence that seems to last the space of half an hour.  Their jaws drop, their heads turn to the side and they get a watery look in their eyes.  Oh, what a special person you are!  How can you stand it?  So much grief!

The easy answer is that some are cut out for it and some not.  It's a little harder to say, "I don't experience it like that.  I don't lose people, I find them."  To enter so many stories, so many homes -- of rich people and poor, gay and straight, Anglophone and other-phone, is more real than a hundred novels.  I'm not a better person than you, but these people made me a better person than I was.

A sick man lay in bed with his wife.  None of us knew he would die the next morning.  She twined around him, played with his hair, ran her fingers down his arm.  We spoke softly of his symptoms, of relieving his pain, of reducing his fever.  It was a hard thing she was doing, but she would bless herself for doing it.

Not the first time I was admitted to such a scene.  A young man talked with me once about a vacation he would take with the woman he loved.  He said that she was above all things for him, and that if she was with him it was all he needed.  "You hearing this?" I said to her.  She came in from the kitchen and lay down with him.  They cradled each other, mindless of my presence -- no, mindful of my presence and admitting me.  "I'm hearing it," she said.

Walking in Alphabet City a year or two later, I heard the word "Chap!" (that's what she had called me, short for "chaplain").  Strong, lean, tall and black in her long coat, she called across the street to me the whitest of men, who had once been a witness of her courage.  "Chap!" she called.  Nothing more to be said.  She crossed the street and put her arms around me, and we held each other for half a minute.  Nothing more to be said.

Yes, the veil has parted for me, and I have walked on the other side.  I don't deserve it, but I don't have to deserve it.

A recovering perfectionist, born with addiction and raised in a way to nourish it, I know that if I don't do the thing exactly right it isn't the best, and if it isn't the best it's worthless.  There's a voice that says I have to deserve my blessings, and show exactly why I deserve them.  Perfectionists can get a lot of things right, but you can't spend time with them: they're always going somewhere else.  I keep moving on, and mostly can't bear the sight of anything I made more than three years ago.

But I think I shall retain these scenes of recent years.  I have no reason to reject them.  They have nothing to do with me.   They aren't exploits of mine.

To say I am recovering is to say that I name my addiction, and every day remind myself of its power to set the excellent against the good, inhibit growth, avert blessings, impoverish the banquet and make of the garden a desert.  For instance, I have a gift for languages which never produces mastery.  I have an actor's ear, and when I speak a foreign phrase people start chattering at me as if I could understand them.  I ought to be competent in Spanish, but something holds me back.  The insecure child in me, I suppose, can't stand mistakes.  He hears the voice pronounce its judgment -- not good enough -- and so I do not learn.

And yet when this lazy soul walks out the door in the morning he has a reasonable chance of seeing something beautiful before he comes home.  It's honest work.  It's real work.  It's not a test.  I don't measure up to the standard of my imagination, but that's my problem, and signifies nothing as I go to meet the people.  The trick is to lose yourself to find them, and in them find yourself again.

"Mercy imposes no conditions," said Dineson the storyteller.  "Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another."  The truth is I am no better than I should be, but "Everything we have chosen is granted to us.  And everything we rejected has also been granted. .  . . for mercy and truth are met together."*

A lot of us suffer without deserving it, but all of us are blessed when we haven't earned it.  We are poor forked animals together, glorious sometimes in the eyes of compassion, transfigurable by mercy.

Sometimes I walk on the other side of the veil.  I haven't earned it.  But I don't have to.

*Isak Dineson, "Babette's Feast," as adapted by Gabriel Axel in his screenplay.  The passage is a riff on Psalm 85:10: "Mercy and truth have met together.  Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

build it

A poem should not mean
But be.

-- Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica"

I meet people who are in a real jam, running toward or away from the simplest reality, that as Forrest Church said we are alive and must die, and we know it.  Tolkien said we were given the gift of mortality, meaning that we must make our immortality, fashioning it of shabby stuff and with broken tools.  This is a paradox and if you don't know what I mean I can't explain it to you.

But it has something to do with the loaves and the fishes, a parable not by Yeshua but about him.  The crowd was to be fed, and nobody had planned for it.  Be sensible, Teacher, they said -- we have only so much to give, only this many loaves and that many fishes.  He said, break the loaves and share the fishes.  And there was more than enough.

That's how they remembered their life with him.  It couldn't possibly work.  There was no business plan, no visible means of support.  He depended on the kindness of strangers.  How could he set out to feed the thousands?

He told his lieutenants to act as in a theatre, as if there was enough.  Build it, and they will come, says the mystical voice in a novel.  But this was a voice more radical: Proclaim it, and they will build.  We don't ask our leaders to do the work, but rather to create the world in which the work can be done.  Behave as if a dream is possible.  Our dreams may not come true exactly, but dreamers change things.  My father dreamed I would be a great scholar, and I am at least irremediably educated.

There are those who stand by the literal truth: they say that if we had been there with a videocam we would have seen the few loaves and fishes multiply, replenish as each fragment was broken off -- we would have marveled at a miracle.  And there are those other apologists for parable, the rationalist ones, who look for sensible explanations: they say that some of the crowd ran to the nearby village and brought out the foodstores.  But it's not important to explain the story.  Explanation is irrelevant, beside the point, de trop, impious even.

It's a parable.  It's meant to bend your mind, and if your mind isn't bent you're not reading it right.  It bends your mind toward something you know is true but fear to admit, that the boundary of the possible expands as hope presses against it.  Despair is a choice, and hope is a choice.  You don't know what imagination can do, and your confident pronouncement of what it cannot do is without foundation.  When we worship the impossible we surrender our birthright.

Which is not to say that everything is possible, or that there is always enough silver in the lining to pay for a grief.  The father of a dying child said to me today, "God doesn't send us more than we can bear." I'm not going to contradict him, but to you I say, I've seen lots of people who try to bear more than they should have to.  Some of them succeed, but if they fail I cannot blame them.

The soul, however, is who you are when you've lost the thing you thought you were.  And from the soul's point of view, adversity and grief are opportunities: like an understudy she goes on for the star who broke her leg.  The star turn we hoped for will not come to pass, but something else, a new star, is ready to be born.

I went to seminary with Christians, and when I said to them that the story is a trope, a rhetoric of hope, they would get a starved look in their eyes.  For them, it has to be more than rhetoric, more than trope.  For them it has to be true.  Now "truth" means different things to different Christians, but if I say the mysteries are metaphors they mostly get nervous.  How can you say that the articles of faith are mere metaphors? they say.  But I didn't say mere metaphors.  I said metaphors; the "mere" is something they supplied on their own: for them, it seems, there cannot be metaphor that is not mere.

When did rhetoric get such a bad name?  They accused Socrates of making the worse appear the better cause, but in the agora the better also had to appear, for what it was.  A bad person may sell a lie, but a good person must sell the truth if it is to prevail over the lie.  Milton told us to let truth and falsehood grapple, and rhetoric is that grappling.  Truth doesn't grapple on its own: like a muppet, it must be animated.  He who knows the truth and does not sell it, who fails to hawk it in the marketplace, might as well be lying.

But people of faith are in unspoken alliance with people who think they have no faith.  They think there is only one kind of truth, and truth is the same thing as fact.  Fundamentalist and atheist agree -- it must be a fact that the Red Sea parted, because if it isn't a fact the story is worthless, a mere lie, and its liberative power falsified.  Fundamentalists think the story is a fact, and atheists think it is a lie, agreeing on the standard of truth.  But for those who find a way where there is no way, the story is true in spite of fact -- the Red Sea parts for them.

Every now and then one of my clients says to me "Art is my religion," and I know what they mean.  I don't know where art ends and religion begins.  And it is sacrilege to speak of mere art, of mere rhetoric, of mere metaphor.  Theology also is metaphor; the godly murderers are the ones who forget that theology is metaphor.

Wittgenstein said that if a thing cannot be spoken we should pass over it in silence; but he also said that there were many ways to speak, many games that language can play, each with its own victory conditions.  It matters not so much what the words mean as what you are trying to do by saying them.  The faith should not mean but be.