Falling Leaves and the Fate of Mortals

New Hampshire, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things,
but to love things heavenly; and even now,
while we are placed among things that are passing away,
to hold fast to those that shall endure. . .

–– Collect for the Sunday closest to the Autumnal Equinox

 

The Book of Common Prayer has a collect, or gathering prayer, for each Sunday of the year. Many of the collects reflect the themes of their liturgical season, but only one of them seems to make an explicit connection with one of the four natural seasons. At the beginning of Autumn, when leaves will fall, flowers wither, and birds depart, the Church prays that we who “are placed among things that are passing away” may not be “anxious.”

The origins of the prayer are, in fact, not seasonal, but political. It was composed when the stability of the late Roman Empire was under threat by barbarian invaders. Inspired by the text of Colossians 3:2 (Set your mind on things that are above, not on things of earth), it reflects the sense of the world as we know it coming to an end. When all that defines us is being swept away, what is the enduring rock to which we can cling?

With perfect brevity, the prayer sums up the spirituality of Autumn, the season of loss and letting go. In a year when my best friend, my father-in-law, and two nonagenarian mentors have all passed away, the season’s metaphorical message seems acutely personal. No matter how dearly we cherish the colors of fall, they are the prelude to decay––“the hectic beauty of death.”[i] Outside my window, the katsura’s golden cloak and the maple’s scarlet finery will soon lie on the earth beneath naked branches. It feels like loss.

Katsura and maple trees, Bainbridge Island, October 2017 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In January of 1842, Henry David Thoreau suffered two bitter deaths, both terribly premature. His older brother John cut himself shaving on New Year’s Day and died ten days later of tetanus. He was 27. Two weeks later, Waldo Emerson, the endearing five-year-old son of Thoreau’s great friend and mentor, came down with scarlet fever. In three days he was gone.

In her revisionist study of America’s iconic naturalist––Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau–– Branka Arsić sees his life’s work grounded in deeply personal experiences of loss. His private grief led him to contemplate the “perpetual grief” in nature, as matter continuously mutates from one form to another, and find in it, as Arsić argues, “an “endless/formless mourning that recreates as it grieves.”[ii] Through his close observations of natural processes, Thoreau came to understand death and loss as the means of life, and not its annulment. Decay and decline are not deviations from a normally healthy state, but an integral, inevitable part of the performance of mortal existence. As he wrote in his final essay, October, or Autumnal Tints:

“Will not the land be in good heart
because
the crops die down from year to year?
The herbage cheerfully consents to bloom, and wither,
and give place to the new.”[iii]

The growth and decay of New England leaves became a presiding image for Thoreau’s reflections on a world where passing away is a necessary part of an enduring cycle of renewal. Published six months after his death, his concluding work celebrated the autumnal cycle as a mirror of the human condition:

“It is pleasant to walk over the beds of these fresh, crisp, and rustling leaves. How beautifully they go to their graves! How gently lay themselves down and turn to mould!––painted of a thousand hues. . . . They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die.”[iv]

Vermont, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In Autumn: A Season of Change, Peter J. Marchand similarly concludes that there is “as much life as there is death in the browning of meadows and the drying of leaves. . . .” 14

For the apparent disappearance of many plants and animals, autumn is often seen as an end. But the seasons are part of a continuum, a revolving process of birth, death, and renewal—and if such could be said to have any beginning or end, then fall could just as well be viewed as a beginning. . . . The seeds of another season have already been planted—sown on the wind and the wings of birds and the coats of animals to find new life in new places. Another generation is already awakening in the wombs of the great mammals. And in all the hidden sanctuaries of autumn—in the crevices of dormant trees, in the cold safety of piled leaves and decaying logs, in the sediments of stream and pond bottom—myriads of insect larvae are beginning their incredible metamorphic journey into spring and adulthood. Energy is flowing and nutrients are circulating. These are the processes by which nature’s bounty is reinvested in a burst of new growth, reproduction, and dispersal, to arrive at yet another autumn and another season of change.[v]

 

New Hampshire, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

But if this cycle of perpetual renewal frees us from the burden of mourning the fall of every leaf, what about the “falling-sickness” of our own mortality? What will become of me when I fall into the arms of Mother Earth? Do I simply decompose into primordial materials for the making of some entirely new form of future life? Is my unique consciousness swallowed into eternal anonymity, like a raindrop in the sea? Or is there an “I”––with identity, memory, personhood––who survives the transit into whatever’s next?

Arsić understands Thoreau’s “I” as dying to any sense of persisting identity, so that there is no essentialist, interior self to maintain its distinctive subjectivity in an afterlife. Rather, the whole universe is alive with thoughts and relations which re-occur in new ways and inhabit new forms. What survives are the thoughts and experiences, the presences, which are not the possession of separate, autonomous individuals. The universe as a whole is doing the thinking and being, not any of us in particular. Or as Arsić puts it in her twist on Descartes, “where there are thoughts there is no ‘I’.” The sovereign self surrenders to the greater flow of consciousness whose source is beyond the self.[vi]

We tend to think of ourselves as an “I” who surveys the world from a protected tower. But what if we are not so insulated from the things and presences in which we live and move and have our being? What if, like Walter Benjamin’s flâneur[vii], “I” am spellbound and possessed by external objects, no longer a private isolated self but a receptive convergence of the multiple sensations of a world saturated with communicative presence? When Thoreau, in taking a walk, felt himself “grandly related” to everything he experienced, he became what he saw, in a world where every object is alive and returns our gaze.

“Hence,” writes Arsić, “Thoreau can not only say that he is interested in thoughts that the body thinks but he can also risk a more startling claim: ‘All matter, indeed, is capable of entertaining thought’ (Journal: c. Fall 1845). Contemplation, then, is not something brought to matter by the mind; rather, in Thoreau’s account, all matter is treated as contemplative, alive, and thoughtful.”[viii]

This takes us pretty far into the philosophical weeds, but have we also wandered away from Christian orthodoxy? The “resurrection of the body” implies that the unique particularity of every human being will be re-membered by God on the Last Day. Personal identity will not utterly vanish into the All. Heaven will not be a congregation of amnesiacs. Something of our embodied being––our stories, our relationships––will have a future in the economy of God.

However, Christian theology also admits a radical discontinuity between this life and the next. We do not share the ancient Greek conception of immortal souls who simply shed their physical bodies to carry on in eternity without interruption. For there to be resurrection, there must first be annihilation. “So death will soon disrobe us all of what we here possess.”[ix] As St. Augustine said, to climb up “through my mind towards you who are constant above me. . . I will pass beyond even that power of mind which is called memory.”[x] If memory means “the story by which I define myself,” that’s a lot to let go of. How many of us are really prepared for such radical surrender?

If we are truly made in the image of the self-emptying God, then our insistence on maintaining the self as we know it only exacerbates the distance between human and divine. To overcome that distance requires a complete letting go, like the last autumn leaf, and falling into the no-thingness from which all are created.

Resurrection is then, in effect, a reprise of creation ex nihilo by the Love which “breaks, creates, and re-makes all meaning out of nothing.”[xi] Whatever it turns out to mean that God will be “all in all,” does it really matter how much of our individual construct of self survives the transition to the “other side?” When we are truly lost in wonder, love and praise, will self-consciousness matter, or even exist? Will it be important that “I” know that “I” am the one who is immersed in divine Being? Or will my former, earthly identity be rather beside the point in the interdependent, intertwined dance of God where we belong so completely to one another?

None of us will be shouting “Hey, look, it’s me!” in heaven.
We won’t even be shouting “Hallelujah!”
We will have become Hallelujah!

Vine maple, Washington Cascades, October 2017 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

To enter the abyss of God, says Catholic theologian Caitlin Smith Gilson, is “no longer to be the self that knows itself and its God by separateness, for there would be no separation and thus no knowledge of difference or identity in God.” Her argument resolves into a prayer of surrender:

You are the source of my most genuine wants,
and I wanted to be nearer than difference
and therefore I surrender to You
who desire my genuine desires
emphatically and inexhaustibly
more than I can ever want.
You desired me and I desired You
and we desired a union
closer than philosophy and reason
and even faith
could give.[xii]

 

 

 

Related posts:

Leaves

A Tender Doom

 

[i] Martha McCulloch Williams, “What Saith September?” (1892), in Peter J. Marchand, Autumn: A Season of Change (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000), 14.

[ii] Branka Arsić, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016), 379.

[iii] Henry David Thoreau, October, or Autumnal Tints (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016), 37.

[iv] October, 89.

[v] Marchand, 135-6.

[vi] Arsić, 316.

[vii] Walter Benjamin adopted the 19th-century literary image of the flâneur (“stroller,” “saunterer”) as an image for the modern urban wanderer who loses himself in, or is possessed by, the impressions his world offers to him. In The Arcades Project (1999, p. 449), Benjamin cites an example of self-dissolved-into-world from Flaubert: “Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.”

[viii] Arsić, 310.

[ix] “Evening Shade,” a shape-note hymn, text by John Leland (1792), The Sacred Harp, #209 (Bremen, Georgia: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991).

[x] Confessions X, xvii, q. in Caitlin Smith Gilson, The Philosophical Question of Christ (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 209.

[xi] Gilson, 211

[xii] Ibid., 207, 213.

The Murderous Hypocrisy of “Thoughts and Prayers”

“Gun Crazy” movie title (dir. Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)

I think it’s up to America what gun laws they put in place. I think most people would look at this and assume that people in America would be so shocked by this attack that they would want to take some action.

–– Theresa May, British Prime Minister

When you say––which you always say––‘Now is not the time to talk about it,’ what you really mean is, ‘There is never a time to talk about it.’

–– Seth Meyers, “Late Night” host

 

Las Vegas is the worst American mass shooting so far. But it won’t be the last. As I wrote last year after Orlando:

There’s too much madness, too many guns, too much hate to hope otherwise. We are angry and we are sad, but then what? Gun worship seems the most powerful religion in America. From presidents to schoolchildren, the blood of countless victims stains its altars. And however much we rage and moan we feel powerless to stay the hand of sacrifice.

Each time it happens, causes are discussed, solutions proposed, and we cry, ‘Never again!’ The pundits wring their hands, the NRA and gun-makers pause briefly to reload, Congress turns a blind eye, and then rat-a-tat-tat! More bodies strewn across our public spaces. The cycle repeats itself endlessly.

 Why? Mental illness, social pathologies, alienation, racism, resentment, homophobia, hate, terrorism, profiteering by gun-makers, violence as entertainment, social media copycats, an American predilection for the quick fix and the fast draw—probable causes multiply exponentially.

So far this year, 11,721 people have died from gun violence in the United States. The number of mass shootings in 2017, topped by Sunday’s horror in Las Vegas, is 273![i] That’s about one per day––so commonplace, notes the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, “that the political responses to them have become ritualized to the point of parody.”[ii] Flags are lowered at the Capitol, the President quotes some Scripture and denounces “senseless” evil, the NRA suspends gun propaganda for a few days, and every political leader issues statements and tweets of shock and condolence.

We are joined today in sadness, shock and grief. . . Our hearts are breaking. . . All those affected are in our thoughts and prayers. . . We are with you. . .We are praying for you…. God bless you.

But “thoughts and prayers” are hypocritical––and blasphemous––in the mouths of the political gun nuts who would rather see thousands die than threaten the obscene profits of weapons manufacturers.

Washington does not lack voices of conscience. Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts has tweeted: “I will NOT be joining my colleagues in a moment of silence on the House Floor that just becomes an excuse for inaction.” And Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a leader on this issue ever since Sandy Hook, calls out his gun crazy colleagues: “Your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers.” Instead of pretending there are no public policy responses to the epidemic of mass shootings, he says, “It’s time for Congress to get off its ass and do something.”

When elephants fly!

The murderous hypocrisy of gun loyalists praying for shooting victims is disgusting and disheartening to those of us who want religious faith to mean something in the lives of God’s friends. In a memorable headline following the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, the New York Daily News blasted the phony piety of moral capitulation:

GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS: As the latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.

In my own commentary at the time, I wrote: “Platitudes about prayer in the abstract are safe because they have no consequences, unlike real prayer, which always implicates the petitioner in a process of change and action. If we pray for an end to gun violence, we obligate ourselves to do all in our power to reduce it. Prayer is a call for action; it politicizes what we pray for. Prayer is not simply leaving things up to God. It is an act of volunteering to be part of God’s solution.”

After Orlando, President Obama warned that “to actively do nothing is a decision as well.” But what can we do? What will we do? Pressuring lawmakers is a good start. But as the Episcopal Bishops Against Gun Violence remind us, we must also “look into our own hearts and examine the ways in which we are culpable or complicit in the gun violence that surrounds us every day.”

And then, having looked, we must act. As Christians, we are called to engage in the debates that shape how Americans live and die, especially when they die due to violence or neglect. Yet a probing conversation on issues of gun violence continues to elude us as a nation, and this failure is cause for repentance and for shame. It is entirely reasonable in the wake of mass killings perpetrated by murderers with assault weapons to ask lawmakers to remove such weapons from civilian hands. It is imperative to ask why, as early as this very week, Congress is likely to pass a bill making it easier to buy silencers, a piece of equipment that make it more difficult for law enforcement officials to detect gunfire as shootings are unfolding.

Even as we hold our lawmakers accountable, though, we must acknowledge that a comprehensive solution to gun violence, whether it comes in the form of mass shootings, street violence, domestic violence or suicide, will not simply be a matter of changing laws, but of changing lives. Our country is feasting on anger that fuels rage, alienation and loneliness. From the White House to the halls of Congress to our own towns and perhaps at our own tables, we nurse grudges and resentments rather than cultivating the respect, concern and affection that each of us owes to the other. The leaders who should be speaking to us of reconciliation and the justice that must precede it too often instead stoke flames of division and mistrust. We must, as a nation, embrace prayerful resistance before our worst impulses consume us.[iii]

 

 

Related posts

Summoning the Sanity to Scream

God Isn’t Fixing This

 

 

[i] Gun Violence Archive: http://www.gunviolencearchive.org

[ii] Ryan Lizza, “Washington’s Ritualized Response to Mass Shootings” (New Yorker online, Oct 2) https://www.newyorker.com/news/ryan-lizza/washingtons-ritualized-response-to-mass-shootings

[iii] Statement from Bishops United Against Gun Violence Following the Las Vegas Shooting: http://bishopsagainstgunviolence.org/statement-from-bishops-united-against-gun-violence-following-the-las-vegas-shooting/

In Paradisum: On the Death of a Friend

Bill and Robyn Fisher (July 2005)

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

–– W.S. Merwin, “Berryman”

In September of 2004 my friend Bill Fisher sent me Merwin’s poem, adding the comment, “It is as if he is saying, ‘If you have to be sure, don’t love,’ or perhaps, ‘don’t live.’”

Bill’s letter was in response to some crisis in my own life, one of those times when you wonder whether your story matters, whether you are being good enough or real enough or deep enough. Or as another poet, William Stafford, put the question: “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”

In supplying thoughtful perspectives on my faltering attempts to do “my life,” Bill could be brutally honest about his own perilous quest for authenticity. He was well acquainted with the recurring dissonance between the voice within and the scripts thrust upon us by the outer world. And he was never afraid to share the painful parts of his own story if it could do some good for a friend.

“As I write these words to you,” he said in his letter, “I think of the last lines of a recent morning poem of mine: “To whom can I / still safely / confess my sins?” . . . I have to thank you for being one with whom I can still feel safe in my most radical vulnerability.”

Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th-century English abbot, said much the same thing in his beautiful treatise on friendship:

“But how happy, how carefree, how joyful you are if you have a friend with whom you may talk as freely as with yourself, to whom you neither fear to confess any fault nor blush at revealing any spiritual progress, to whom you may entrust all the secrets of your heart and confide all your plans . . .  Speak then without anxiety. Share with your friend all your thoughts and cares, that you may have something either to learn or to teach, to give and to receive, to pour out and to drink in.”[i]

I could always speak without anxiety in Bill’s presence.
And I always learned something from him; I always received something.

We first met––60 years ago this month––in the 8th grade at Harvard School, a leafy Episcopal boys’ prep nestled against the Hollywood Hills. The peculiar atmosphere of the place bonded us like veterans of some ancient war, incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t been there. Bill’s lifelong passion for teaching and writing might be traced to the bracing theatrics of our English instructor “swearing and throwing chalk and shaking a book in mid-air and shaming us, trying to open perhaps the smallest crack in our magnificent ignorance.”[ii]

Bill Fisher, Harvard School senior photo (1962)

We were classmates through high school and college, and remained close friends through all the changes and chances that followed. He was the best man at my wedding. As romantic idealists, we both found the Sixties a perfect time to come of age, and never quite got over it. Neither of us would ever be fully at ease in the kingdoms of complacency and compromise.

In a letter about the Occupy Movement in 2011, he said such manifestations of just and compassionate community had a value quite independent of any immediately tangible results. He recalled his first taste of utopian communitas at the Monterey Pop Festival in the Summer of Love (1967): “It was inebriating, and begged a simple question: Why can’t it be possible for us to interact in such a loving way––on the streets, in our commerce, among friends and supposed enemies?”[iii] The experience itself doesn’t have to last for the vision––and the questions it poses––to be enduring.

Addressing high school graduates in 2006, Bill offered his personal understanding of the Kingdom of God. “Or if you’re uncomfortable with the biblical term,” he told them, “you can call it ‘the morphic field of love.’” What he described to those students was something he himself had not always found, but had never stopped desiring: an environment where people “could reveal all of who and what they are, could explore themselves and their lives openly, without fear of being ridiculed, with every expectation of growing and realizing what they want and what they are, in their own lives and in their relationships with others.”[iv]

Born five days apart a few weeks after D-Day, Bill and I celebrated many birthdays together. The most memorable was our 30th, when we gathered at his family beach house with two other prep school classmates, also born in July 1944, for a weekend celebration with friends and lovers. For three days we shared fond memories and exuberant hopes. Turning 30 seemed a happy marker between youth’s giddy promise and the emerging fruitfulness of our adult lives. As “Hey Jude” came on the stereo, we toasted our futures by candlelight and vowed to gather again at 40.

But before our 31st year was done, one of our July fraternity of four died by his own hand. After his funeral in our prep school chapel, we who remained vowed to look out for one another, reject despair, and make the most of whatever time we were given. In the four decades since, Bill kept faith with that vow. I could not have had a better and more inspiring friend.

A few years ago, Bill began to show symptoms of Lewy Body Dementia. He went into physical decline, and suffered gradual diminishment of cognitive capacities, although we could still, until very recently, manage rich conversations about our favorite topics––music, movies, literature, art, politics, religion, relationships, and all the arcane trivia of a sixty-year friendship.

Bill was immensely blessed by the tireless support of his beloved wife Robyn, who took leave from her high school teaching position to be his caregiver. It was an immense journey for both of them, unimaginably daunting and at the same time full of grace. Her regular updates on the Caring Bridge website were moving, honest and often funny. That journey is her story to tell, but I am so grateful to know how much my friend was loved, and how not even the ravages of disease could rob him of his sweetness.

“If I’ve just lost the ability to be who I am,” he told her in July, “You remind me of who I am.”

The 17th-century Anglican poet/priest George Herbert, well acquainted with debilitating illness, warned the healthy to respect the dignity of the sick, and not “to judge calamities / By outward form. . . tremblings may / as well show inward warblings, as decay.”[v] In his final years, Bill was as alive as ever, but in a different way. His weakness was not, in one sense, a diminution of life, but a concentration of it into a reduced but saturated form.

The will to take on the physical and mental challenges of each day with courage, humor, and a high degree of curiosity exhibited more life, not less. Climbing the stairs, when he still had the strength for it, or just getting out of bed, after his legs had finally failed him, became more of a hero’s journey than the 93-mile trek he once made around Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. Piercing the fog of confusion with simple words of affection and delight displayed as much eloquence as any of his masterful writings.

The poet Jane Kenyon poignantly described the shrinking physical world of a woman in a nursing home, who is “like a horse grazing / a hill pasture that someone makes / smaller by coming every night / to pull the fences in and in.” No more “running wide loops,” nor even “the tight circles.” But the body’s decline is not the only thing going on. Surrender is prelude to transformation, and Kenyon’s poem turns into a prayer:

Master, come with your light
halter. Come and bring her in.[vi]

On Holy Cross Day, September 14, Bill suffered some kind of cardiac event, leaving him unable to speak or swallow. Just hours before slipping into permanent silence, he had told Robyn, “Thank you for being willing to treat life as a crazy adventure with me.”

I drove down to administer Last Rites as family and friends stood round Bill’s bed. His eyes were closed, his breathing gentle. We all laid hands of blessing on him, each thanking him for the gifts he had given us. There was no way to tell whether he could hear our words, but so much spoken gratitude surely bathed him with love, and the sense of communication felt very deep. I anointed Bill with oil and spoke the priestly words:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world. . .
May your rest be this day in peace,
and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

Later we got out the guitars and made music for Bill, who had been a dedicated folkie since high school. We sang “Angel Band” (“I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near”); “Thanksgiving Eve” (“What can you do with each moment of your life, but love till you’ve loved it away”); “Language of the Heart” (“You will always be, even though time would disown you, / For you have set us free, those among us who have known you”); and many others.

The next day I entered his room alone to sing him one more song, “Waterloo Sunset.” We had both loved the quirky music of Ray Davies, and the song’s image of crossing over the river “to feel safe and sound” seemed so fitting.

And I won’t feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset
I am in paradise

Bill’s eyes never opened, but he seemed to stir, as if he wanted to harmonize one more time, the way we had done so often over the years. I gave him a final blessing and a kiss of peace, then left to make the long drive home. I knew it was our last goodbye.

Three days later, Robyn texted that it was now only a matter of hours. In my little oratory, I lit a tea light before a Byzantine icon of Madonna and Child, and kept vigil with prayers and songs. An hour before sunset, the flame expired, releasing the briefest wisp of ascending smoke.

The match dies, the flame is born.
The flame dies, the smoke is born.[vii]

Twenty minutes later the text came: Bill is gone.

The next night I went to hear the Seattle Symphony. I had bought my ticket long before, but the program now seemed more than happy chance––Mahler’s Second, whose theme is Resurrection! This massive 90-minute work gathers up the joys and sorrows of mortal life, pitting its affirming energies against the looming specter of negation. In the fourth movement, a mezzo-soprano pleads for relief:

Man lies in greatest need.
Man lies in greatest pain…
I am from God and shall return to God.
The loving God will grant me a little light…

In the stupendous finale, a hundred-voice chorus joins the soloists to protest the fate of human perishing:

O believe, my heart, believe:
Nothing to you is lost…
You were not born for nothing…

With wings which I have won
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated.

Soaring upward into the light was exactly the image I needed to sing my friend home. Bill got his PhD in medieval literature, and had taught Dante to high school students. I like to think that his close reading of the Commedia prepared him for the beatific vision at the end of the long and winding road:

thus did a living light shine all around me,
leaving me so swathed in the veil of its effulgence
that I saw nothing else. (Par. xxx.49-51)[viii]

 

Bill and Robyn in the high country (July 2005)

But Mahler allowed me little time for such digressions. The music insisted that I pay attention, not miss a note, as if my life depended on it. It was all here: life and death, tears and laughter, darkness and dawn. And in the end, every wound healed, every pain redeemed.

Rise! Yes, rise
My heart, in an instant!
That for which you have suffered
Shall carry you to God!

This heartfelt cry is answered by an explosion of orchestral sound, which Mahler himself described as a gift from beyond: “The soaring development and upward wave is here so immense, so unprecedented, that, afterwards, I did not know myself how I could have arrived at it. The whole thing sounds as though it came to us from some other world. And – I think there is no one who can resist it. – One is battered to the ground and then raised on angels’ wings to the highest heights.”[ix]

In speaking so directly to my own grief, the music offered a consoling vision of apotheosis, as if the tombs had been emptied and all creation gathered into glory. Was this the grace and truth of revelation, or just a passing feeling, a trick of language and the senses?

If you have to be sure, don’t live.

 

 

 

[i] Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, tr. Lawrence C. Braceland, S.J., ed. Marsh L. Dutton (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 2.11, 1.4.

[ii] Bill Fisher, personal email (September 27, 2003).

[iii] Ibid. (November 19, 2011)

[iv] Bill Fisher, Commencement address at Tara Performing Arts High School, Boulder, Colorado, June 2006.

[v] George Herbert, “A Paradox: that the sicke are in a better case, then the Whole,” The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 29.

[vi] Jane Kenyon, “In the Nursing Home,” Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press. 2005), 282.

[vii] I learned this when I filmed Ken Feit, I.F. (Itinerant Fool), who recited it as he lit and then blew out a match.

[viii] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, tr. Robert and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 733.

[ix] Anthony Monti, A Natural History of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2003), 162.

“Stations of the Cross” and the Cinema of Sacrifice

The First Station: Maria (Lea van Acken) and the priest (Florian Stetter) in “Stations of the Cross.”

 

I think I should have been more ferocious in pursuit of the whale . . .  Ahab focused all his energies on avenging himself against the whale, but he was trying to penetrate the mystery of why we are here at all, why there is anything. I wasn’t mad enough, not crazy enough, not obsessive enough. I should have done more.” He paused, took a long breath, and added: “At the time, I didn’t have more in me.”[1]

–– Gregory Peck, discussing his role in Moby Dick

 

What Gregory Peck said about playing Ahab could be said about playing “fools for Christ.”[2] Are we crazy enough for the role? Do we have what it takes to trade the wisdom of the world for the folly of God? Just how seriously do we take the call to follow Jesus? Will we only try a few baby steps, or are we prepared to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn?”[3]

In an unsettling essay about those who renounce ordinary human experience to explore the frontiers of the divine, Jean-Yves Lacoste stretches St. Paul’s image of the holy fool to the breaking point. Embodying in explicit practice the concept that the here and now of earthly life is not our ultimate destiny, the holy fool demonstrates that “life true to his essence cannot be lived without a literal refusal of all worldly dwelling.” His extreme form of ascetic renunciation manifests the essential homelessness of the human condition:

“The spectacular marginality of the human being who refuses possessions, a place to live, and so on, does no more than express in particularly concrete form the marginality that in any case affects anyone who wishes to subordinate his worldly being to his being-before-God.”

Understood in this way, spirituality is subversive and dangerous, putting not just our habitual complacency, but our fundamental at-homeness, into question. If we are finite beings making pilgrimage toward the Absolute, we are defined by non-possession. We don’t entirely belong to the here and now. To the world––and to many (or most?) believers––this is madness. We prefer a God who makes us as comfortable as possible where we are. But for Lacoste, the destiny of the fool in Christ “becomes intelligible only in the light of another destiny, that of the crucified one in whom and by whom God restores peace between humankind and himself.”[4]

In his 2014 film, Stations of the Cross, German director Dietrich Brüggemann literalizes this premise in the story of a 14-year-old girl, Maria, who comes to understand her own vocation as the sacrifice of her earthly existence for the sake of another. But Brüggemann and his sister Anna, who co-wrote the script, do not make it easy for us to accept or identify with Maria’s story, because on the surface it shows us a naïve adolescent misled by the bad theology of an abusive religion. We recoil at the reactionary teachings of the priest and the cold rigidity of her mother’s piety. We want Maria to make healthier choices.

Many critics have taken the film to be a critique or satire of fundamentalism and dogmatism, perhaps even an attack on belief itself, though many of the same critics also admit to being moved to tears. But the non-judgmental respect of the filmmakers for Maria, and the disarming purity of her passion for God, won’t let us dismiss the film as just a cautionary tale (“Kids, don’t try this at home!”). And, as the Bible’s less attractive stories have shown[5], God is sometimes known through means which transcend and overcome the given conditions of the narrative. As Rilke said, every story has God in it––even a story about religion gone wrong.

The formal structure of the film is part of its strange beauty. In 110 minutes, there are only 14 lengthy shots (no cutaways to different angles), each one corresponding to the devotional sequence of the Stations of the Cross. So Maria’s imitation of Christ’s passion is not simply an existential choice. It is a pattern to which she finds herself conformed by a power beyond her own devising (script, director, God). She does not define herself as a purely autonomous being; she is drawn and driven by an Other. She only exists to play this part, or to consent to let it play her.

The sense of inevitability is reinforced by the fixed position of the camera, which almost never moves (there are only three exceptions to this, each very purposive). The long takes (the first Station exceeds 15 minutes!) and unmoving camera not only induce a contemplative consciousness in the viewer, but make an ontological statement about the boundedness of the human condition: we operate within given limits of space, time and mortality, as well as the confines of our social constructions. Each of the film’s fourteen shots is a self-contained world. There is no cutting away to see something else. This conveys a sense of destiny, of givenness, while at the same time making everything within the fixed frame worthy of our utmost attention. Every word, look, gesture or action matters.

The First Station (Jesus is Condemned to Death) sets the course for the entire film. [Spoiler alert: If you want to view the film with innocent eyes, watch it before reading further. It is currently streaming on Netflix.]. Six young students in a Confirmation class are seated around a table in a tableaux evocative of the Last Supper. The priest stands in the center (Christ’s position in paintings) to deliver a kind of Farewell Discourse, a final pep talk before they go off to be confirmed.

The priest has youthful energy and conviction. He is no bloodless cleric boring a restless room of teens. He has their full attention. But the content of his teaching begins to make the viewer cringe: Vatican II was heresy, the pope has turned his back on the true faith, and most Catholics now live in mortal sin. “The devil has entered the church,” he says, “and strolls around in it whispering his lies.”

Given the sorry state of church and culture, the priest exhorts his charges to renounce Satan and all his works, including popular music with its demonic rhythms, the vanity of caring about your looks, and the trashy seductions of mass media. Be “warriors for Christ,” he tells them. Defend the faith, resist tempation, and save the souls of your schoolmates by word and example.

And the heart of Christian practice, he concludes, is sacrifice. Having asked his class to make a list of things which give them pleasure, he invites them to start letting them go, one by one, in a kind of perpetual Lent. When class is dismissed, Maria lingers to ask a question. “Can I make a sacrifice for someone else? Like, someone who is ill?. . . What if I wanted to sacrifice my whole life, like the saints?” Uh-oh. A good pastor would hear an alarm go off in such a moment, but this priest tries to defuse her question with generalities (“There are  many ways you can give your life to God”). However, the viewer senses that Maria is moving toward the abyss. She has been condemned to die to this world.

So she takes up her cross. On a walk in the country, she tries to sacrifice the beautiful view by closing her eyes. In gym class, she endures the mockery of her peers by refusing to exercise to rock music. She struggles against her feelings for Christian, a sweet Catholic boy who is drawn to her. She endures the cruel hectoring of her fanatically pious mother, renouncing the self-assertion of adolescent rebellion. But her most fatal sacrifice is her own body. She chooses to suffer the chill of winter by not wearing a coat. She descends into anorexia. Her health starts to fail.

The stages of her “passion” are correlated with the traditional Stations in striking ways:

Jesus falls for the first time (3): Maria lets herself become interested in Christian. The scene is innocent and charming, but there will be no room for teen romance as Maria walks her lonesome valley. She clearly is drawn to him, but later she will protest, “You live in a world of TV, Facebook, and people who’ve sold their souls, who are dead in the middle of life. . . . If you really like me, then go away.”

Veronica wipes the face of Jesus (6): After being horribly treated by her mother, Maria is weeping uncontrollably at the dinner table while her family pretends it’s not happening. Bernadette, the warm-hearted family au pair, is the only one who reaches out to Maria. She offers her a tissue, and the weeping subsides.

Jesus falls for the third time (9): Maria, kneeling for confirmation before the bishop, whose ancient face and gold vestments suggest a medieval painting of God the Father, faints. Her body falls out of the film frame into invisiblity.

Jesus is stripped of his garments (10): Maria, her back to us, sits on the examining table of a doctor’s office with her blouse removed. With drooping head, she remains passive as her mother stubbornly resists the doctor’s call for medical intervention. Maria’s frail and vulnerable figure, utterly still amid the battle of wills waging around her, is a heartbreaking image. Then Bernadette enters quietly to put a coat over Maria. She wraps her arms around the suffering girl like the father embracing his Prodigal Son in Rembrandt’s painting. The two girls remain in that pose––an icon of compassion––for the rest of the scene.

Jesus is nailed to the cross (11): Maria lies in a hospital bed, with Bernadette sitting beside her. A nurse brings food, but Maria refuses to eat. When the nurse leaves, Maria tells Bernadette that she has chosen to sacrifice her life so that her 4-year-old brother, Johannes, might get well (he has never spoken, and the doctors suspect autism). Bernadette says she is going to tell the doctors about Maria’s death wish, so that they will intervene. When she exits the room, Maria feels as abandoned as Jesus on the cross. “Don’t leave me!” she cries. There is no answer.

Jesus dies on the cross (12): After receiving communion in the presence of her mother and little Johannes (like the mother of Jesus and the disciple John at the cross), Maria flatlines. The medical team rushes in to attempt resuscitation, pushing priest and family aside. The camera follows the latter in one of its rare moves, so that we no longer see Maria, who dies outside the frame. She leaves the image, where she has been on camera for the length of every scene so far, just as she leaves the world. And the moment she dies, the mute Johannes speaks at last. “Maria! Where is Maria?” Is this the miracle that authenticates Maria’s sacrifice? The film doesn’t decide for us.

The body of Jesus is placed in the lap of his mother (13): In a funeral home display room lined with coffins, Maria’s parents discuss details with the funeral director. The mother begins to idealize her daughter, calling her a saint as if all her abusive scolding of Maria had never happened. And she insists that given the “facts” of Christian dogma, there is no reason to be sad. But suddenly all that certainty crumbles under the weight of grief and guilt. Her sobbing amid those stacked coffins becomes as unbearable as Magdalene’s hysterical weeping at the foot of the cross in Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus is laid in the tomb (14): In a cemetery, a man operates an excavator to fill an empty grave. The mourners have departed. The noisy machine is indifferent to any resting in peace. Christian, whom Maria feared was an obstacle between her and God, enters the frame to stand at her grave. Then the camera makes its final and most dramatic move, craning up until it looks down upon Christian, the grave, and the excavator from above. After a minute, the boy tosses a flower into the grave, then walks to the far side of the cemetery to gaze upon a landscape of ploughed fields. The camera pans away from the grave to follow him, and then tilts upward, away from the cemetery, away from the earth itself, to gaze upon the sky. If there is anything up there, we cannot see it. A thick layer of clouds blocks our view.

A film is more than its story or the multitude of audio-visual and dramatic elements comprising its life on the screen. A film is also what happens to us as we watch and later reflect. A story which offers unacceptable models of human behavior may stiil exert a powerful spiritual force. Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the masters of religious cinema, put this as well as any:

“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good.”[6]

In Stations, we see little we want to imitate or recommend. The priest’s teachings, the reactionary insularity and arrogance of his breakaway church, the mother’s abusive and unfeeling pietism, and Maria’s self-destructive behaviors are not things we want for our religion or our loved ones. Only Bernadette and Christian provide exemplary models for Christian living.

And yet, my soul was truly ploughed and harrowed by Maria, played so vulnerably by the gifted Lea van Acken. Maria lacked the language, the maturity, and the communal wisdom to fend off the religious extremism of church and family to find a more balanced expression of her desire for God. But like all saints, she was on to something and wouldn’t let it go.

Raymond Durgnat, writing about Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), another film about an adolescent reaching for transcendence without really knowing how to do it, wrote something that I think illuminates Maria’s situation: “She still hasn’t found what she hardly knows she wants, and she fears she never will, but she still won’t settle for not having it. She rejects a soul-destroying future, so she’s damned; but in another sense, she’s saving her ‘divine discontent.’ So perhaps her rejection of a ‘soul-destroying’ future is the intention of saving her soul as best she knows?”[7]

Maria doesn’t quite know how to give herself to God, so she does it in what we consider a mistaken and tragic way. But there is no mistaking the authenticity of her desire and the purity of her will, which exceed all the distortions and limitations of her factual situation. For all the wrongness of her world and the choices she makes, her excessiveness is the quality which overcomes all the brokenness of her story.

The Fifth Station: Maria in the confessional.

 

In the Fifth Station, Maria is in the confessional. It is the only closeup of her in the entire film, but unlike most closeups, she is in profile, facing the grille between her and the priest, who remains unseen beyond the frame of the image. Maria gives an honest account of what her church considers sinful (“I had unchaste thoughts. I imagined Christian and me going to choir together, and him looking at me secretly and finding me beautiful.”) The priest listens carefully, but his responses are sometimes tarnished by a judgmental theology. However, the defects of the verbal exchange are overshadowed by the beauty of the visual image.

The intimate closeup of Maria gives us privileged access to her profound spirit of surrender. Like her Scriptural namesake at the Annunciation, she faces an invisible voice and responds with her whole heart. Whatever the priest says or thinks doesn’t really matter. He’s only a stand-in. The essential image is of a soul saying yes to the Mystery.

So is it enough to say I am moved by the intensity of Maria’s holy desire to reconsider the depth of my own spiritual life, without resolving the story’s problematic tensions between immanence and transcendence? Didn’t the Creator pronounce the goodness of the world? How much of it are we supposed to give up? How much self-emptying is enough? Something in me is drawn to the ascetic rigor of Lacoste’s fool in Christ, but in fact I live out the more Anglican way of loving this “sweet old world”[8] and not being so anxious to refuse it or leave it.

I have no plans to imitate Maria’s passion––or Christ’s, for that matter. But the questions about sacrifice posed by the Way of the Cross can’t be suppressed without losing something essential, as Nikos Kazantzakis reminds us in his parable about the boyhood of Jesus[9], whose restless and troubled spirit was a great worry for his parents. So they entrusted him to the care of the village sage, who met with him every day for a period of many weeks.

“What is troubling you,” the sage asked Jesus.
“I feel a pain I cannot explain. I roam the streets, wrestling.”
“Wrestling with whom?”
“With God, of course!. Who else?”

The sage gave Jesus medicinal herbs and taught him to calm himself with meditation. Every evening they had long talks about God. The sage assured the boy that God was not a consuming fire or an annihilating otherness, but a tender grandfather, with whom he could find loving support and a companionable peace of mind and spirit. God wanted only happiness for Jesus, not suffering or sacrifice. After a few months, Jesus was completely cured, and he grew up to become the best carpenter in Nazareth.

 

 

Related post: The Ten Best Religious Films

 

[1] 1998 interview, q. in William Grimes obituary for Gregory Peck, New York Times (6/13/03).

[2] I Corinthians 4:10

[3] Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard, “Brownsville Girl”.

[4] Jean-Yves Lacoste, “Liturgy and Kenosis, from Expérience et Absolu, in Graham Ward, ed., The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1997), 250, 261.

[5] The Binding of Isaac (Gen. 22: 1-18) is the prime example.

[6] Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, 1987), 43.

[7] Raymond Durgnat, “The Negative Vision of Robert Bresson,” in James Quandt, ed., Robert Bresson: Revised (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque, 2011), 560. Mouchette is a troubled teen trapped in an oppressive world. In the end she lets her body roll down a hill by a pond, like a game. The third time we see her roll out of the frame and hear a splash. Then we see ripples on the pond, but she is gone. The film was originally banned in France because on a literal level it involved teen suicide. But more astute critics have read the ending as a strangely positive image of transcendence, with the pond as a baptismal gate into a larger reality beyond the world’s horizon. It’s more like an “ascension” than an act of self-destruction.

[8] Lucinda Williams’ song to a friend who committed suicide: “See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world. . .”

[9] The parable is in Kazantzakis’ memoir, Report to Greco (1965). I have reconstructed it from memory. I read it 50 years ago and it has stayed inside me.

 

A Wedding Homily

Rachel and Simon Pollack at their wedding, September 2, 2017 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

On Labor Day weekend, my wife’s son, Simon, was married to his beloved Rachel.
At the ceremony, I was asked to say a word about love:

One of our culture’s most tenacious fictions is
the autonomous individual: self-made, self-sufficient,
like Shakespeare’s Richard III when he says, “I am myself alone.”

But we have gathered here to refute that tired fiction.
No man––or woman––is an island.
Or as another English poet put it,
“I am he as you are she as you are me and we are all together.”

The commitment Simon and Rachel are making is a deeply personal act;
but it is also a public one, testifying in community
to our common vocation to love one another
“with gladness and singleness of heart.”

Unique as each of us is,
we are all made to be in relationship with others,
in communion with others.
Relationship isn’t just something we have or something we do;
it’s something we are.
We only exist in relationship––with other people, with the natural world,                 
with the sacred Source and Giver of life.

The ‘I’ who is myself is only realized in communion with what is more than myself.
‘I’ cannot exist without ‘Thou.’
Human life at its heart is an event of communion
in which we join the divine dance toward which all being tends.
When we love one another,
we manifest the fundamental pattern and flow of the universe.

And so, we who are creatures of such deep longing,
keep reaching for that larger truth of our existence.
We sense our incompleteness, and seek beyond our solitude
for the answering Presence in which we may be completed.

Raymond Carver expressed this, fittingly enough, in the form of a dialogue:

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved,
to feel myself beloved on the earth.

The theologians say you can never really know yourself
until you see yourself as the Divine Lover sees you––
until you feel yourself, know yourself, as beloved.

Simon and Rachel have discovered this loving gaze through one another,
and they will be blessed by that every day.
And so will we, for such love wants to shed its grace
freely and generously on everyone it encounters.

Simon, Rachel, we rejoice that when Love called, you said yes,
and that you each choose today to be for the other
“a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity,
a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.”

You remind us by your example
that we are too are made to love,
whatever form that may take in our own stories––
not just love as a feeling,
but love as a choice, an intention, an act of the will
transcending self-interest to affirm, nurture and guard
the well-being of the beloved, with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes,

We were all born like empty fields.
What we are now shows what has been planted.

Simon, Rachel, you are each a beautiful harvest, planted by many hands.
Some of those are here today, while some are absent in body but present in spirit.
And today you plant a new field together.
May your marriage be blessed with unimaginable abundance.

And to borrow the words of a writer describing Dante’s poetic vision of Paradise,
may the days be many when your marriage will
“not be the extinction of desire, but its constant fulfillment,
the attainment of a perfect state of equilibrium
whereby [your] soul will always receive what it desires
and will never cease desiring what it receives.”

Let me close with a poem by Jane Kenyon
which beautifully conveys the quality of married life.
There is none of the rapturous ecstasy we expect from a love lyric;
instead, we are given a quietly observant description
of the poet and her husband arriving home from a road trip.

It’s called “Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer.”
The speaker never says “I,” only “we.”
Whatever happens, happens to both of them together.
The details are small and ordinary,
but the fact that they are shared so naturally,
like a practiced ritual,
signals the strength of the bond between the partners.

We turned into the drive,
and gravel flew up from the tires
like sparks from a fire. So much
to be done––the unpacking, the mail
and papers . . . the grass needs mowing. . . .
We climbed stiffly out of the car.
The shut-off engine ticked as it cooled.

And then we noticed the pear tree,
the limbs so heavy with fruit
they nearly touched the ground.
We went out to the meadow; our steps
made black holes in the grass;
and we each took a pear,
and ate, and were grateful.

Here is a moment of pure gift––
the ripened fruit offering itself as a sacrament of fecundity and blessing.
They might have missed it and just gone inside to get busy.
But they were in love, and love was in them.

And love always notices.

They walk out into the meadow,
and there, like communicants at the altar,
husband and wife are fed, as if by a sacred hand.

In this moment, we hear an echo of Paradise Lost:
they’re like Adam and Eve, plucking fruit in the garden.
But this time there is no fall from grace.
There is only blessing.
These lovers are not on the verge of exile.
They have come home.

. . . and we each took a pear,
and ate, and were grateful.

A Deep but Dazzling Darkness

Totality, August 21, 2017 (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

–– Henry Vaughan, “The Night”

I said to my soul, be still, and let the
dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.

–– T. S. Eliot, “East Coker”

 

The day before the August 21 solar eclipse, I drove south to Oregon, east of the Cascades, taking dusty roads through pine forests and rolling grasslands to a panoramic spot on the center line of the eclipse track, far from the madding crowd. Only eight of us had converged there––from California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. A few more pilgrims joined our “Eclipse Camp” early next morning, but it remained peaceful and quiet as we awaited the mid-morning totality. It would be the first time for all but one of us.

Sunrise at Eclipse Camp, a few hours before totality (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

Most people have never seen a total solar eclipse. It’s a rare thing, and often hard to get to. The sun is 400 times larger than the moon, but it is also 400 times further away from earth, making the two spheres roughly the same size in our sky. So why doesn’t the moon block the sun more often?

For one thing, the moon’s orbit around the earth is elliptical, making it larger or smaller to the eye depending on its varying proximity to earth. Only at its perigee––its closest point––does the moon appear large enough to cover the sun perfectly. Another limiting factor is that the orbital paths of earth and moon are not perfectly aligned. Since the plane of the moon’s path around the earth is tipped with respect to the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun, the two orbits only coincide from time to time.

For this convergence of orbital planes to occur precisely during the new moon––the monthly phase when it sits between earth and sun––moon and earth must repeat a lengthy cycle of variations before everything lines up again. The average wait for a solar eclipse at any given point on earth is 375 years. Some places have to wait 4500 years for a recurrence!

Trying to comprehend all the variables of celestial motion makes my head explode. But picture the moon between earth and sun, casting a cone of shadow which culminates in a circular point just large enough to cover the sun in the eye of an earthling standing at just the right spot. If the moon isn’t at its perigee, the sun-sized point doesn’t quite reach the earth, so the eclipse, even if perfectly centered, isn’t quite total. A little bit of sun overlaps the edges of the moon in what’s called an annular eclipse. And if the moon’s orbital plane happens to be above or below that of earth’s orbit, as it often is, the cone’s shadow point misses the earth altogether.

In a total eclipse, the sun-sized tip of moon shadow sweeps across the earth at a speed ranging from 1000 mph at the equator to 2000 mph at the poles. The eclipse track is about 3000 miles long, varying in width from 167 miles to almost nothing. Since both moon and earth are in continuous motion, the shadow of perfect totality never lasts long: 7 minutes and 40 seconds at most, but usually much shorter. Where I stood in central Oregon it was 2 minutes and 5 seconds.

As both physical fact and potent symbol, the sun has long been associated with the divine: the life-giver and earth-blesser, “whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning.”[1] For the premodern mind at least, this was not simply a matter of metaphorical resemblance. There was a perceived continuum between visible signs and invisible realities. Just as the physical sun illumines and warms the earth, so the heavenly sun (God) brings the light of knowledge and the warmth of love to a receptive creation. And anything in nature that produces wonder and love may be said to have something of God in it.

In such a worldview, writes Dante scholar Rocco Montano, “theologians started always from the assumption that there is a sustaining will and that in fact God operates in the world of nature as perfectly and unceasingly as in the world of grace.”[2] So it is not surprising that the sublimity of a total eclipse, registering so powerfully on the senses, has had an equal effect on religious sensibility.

The Bible contains multiple visions of eclipse-like phenomena: the sun goes dark and the moon turns to blood in prophecies of cosmic distress. And when Jesus dies on a Friday afternoon, a sudden darkness falls upon Jerusalem.

On a more existential level, John Donne, from his Anglican pulpit in 1624, described the human condition as “wintred and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied” until God should return “as the sun at noon, to illustrate all shadows.”[3]

Another 17th-century poet, Francis Quarles, employed eclipse imagery to convey his own experience of divine absence, which leaves him stumbling and lost in the dark.

Why dost thou shade thy lovely face? Oh why
Does that eclipsing hand so long deny
The sunshine of thy soul-enlivening eye?

Without that light, what light remains in me?
Thou art my life, my way, my light; in thee
I live, I move, and by thy beams I see. . .

My eyes are blind and dark, I cannot see;
To whom, or whither, should my darkness flee,
But to the light? And who’s that light but thee?[4]

The sense of eclipse can be cultural as well as personal. In the 20th century, Martin Buber famously lamented modernity’s secular disconnection from transcendence as the “eclipse of God.”

In his enigmatic 1962 film, L’Eclisse (“The Eclipse”), Michelangelo Antonioni never shows an actual eclipse, but in the last 7 minutes, just when you expect the story of two lovers to be resolved, the characters fail to appear at their usual meeting place. In fact, we never see Vittoria and Piero again. They don’t just go missing. They no longer seem to exist. All that remains, shot after shot, is their meeting place and its bleak surroundings, virtually stripped of human presence and completely devoid of narrative, as though not just God, but humanity itself has been eclipsed, leaving nothing but an unsettling absence. As Antonioni described this strange ending, a world of soulless objects “has devoured the living beings.”[5]

Totality with red solar prominences – towers of hot hydrogen gas (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

But my own experience of total eclipse triggered no such negative resonance. It was, in fact, two minutes of pure wonder, like seeing the burning bush–– a visible experience in the physical world in perfect conjunction with a reality invisible and transcendent. For 125 seconds, when day turned to night and the solar disc, as in a film negative, became a black circle, I felt––well, pretty medieval, seeing God not only behind and beyond the natural world, but also embedded deeply within its material substance and temporal occurrence. What I saw seemed more than just a scientifically predictable conjunction of celestial bodies. What I saw was . . .

But here language fails me.

“O splendor of God,” wrote Dante after passing beyond the limits of space and time to gaze upon the eternal mystery, “grant me the power to tell of what I saw! (Paradiso xxx: 97, 99)[6] Whether the Dante who beheld the face of God was only the character “Dante” in his Commedia, or the poet himself reporting personal experience, is a never-ending debate among scholars. Whatever the case, his prayer rings true, not only for mystical adepts, but for everyone along the eclipse track who looked up with an open heart and a receptive mind to see the most awesome sight in the natural world.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame
My concept––which lags after what was shown
So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame! (Paradiso xxxiii:121-23)[7]

When the last tiny sliver of sun slipped behind the moon, it was lights out. Although the ambient luminosity had been gradually diminishing into an eerie olive pallor during the hour prior to totality, the deepest dark arrived in an instant. Only the distant horizons beyond the shadow’s center retained a dusky glow, like a fading sky after sunset.

I recollect no thoughts from those two minutes, nor any awareness of duration. I can’t even account for my feelings, because my powers of observation were directed entirely, wordlessly, toward the pitch black circle––like the pupil of a great eye––with its mysteriously glowing corona. My camera was rigged to shoot automatically, leaving me free to gaze with my whole being. I remember shedding some tears, shaken by the overpowering, even numinous force of the experience. Until the sun peeked out again with a brilliant diamond flash, totality was a distinct interval of “absolutely unmixed attention.”[8]

Totality ends as the sun re-emerges with a flash. (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

When it was over, what lingered was the overwhelming sense that I had experienced both immanence and transcendence in a single image, its roundness like a sacramental Host lifted above the altar of the world. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem too much to claim that within the visionary interval of totality my deepest longing was met by an answering Presence.

Am I just romanticizing––or theologizing––a purely sensory experience of the sublime? It may be medieval of me, but I regard the immanent as a gateway to the transcendent, not its dualistic opposite. Though the divine eludes and exceeds all forms of knowing, God is still a communicator, and wants to be known in ways which are accessible to finite beings. I believe there is no clear separation between matter and spirit, but rather a continuum where tangible, sensory experience can lead us deeper and deeper into something larger and more hidden.

The mystics, exploring the farthest reaches of spiritual experience, describe a “night of the senses,” a “deep but dazzling darkness” where our ordinary ways of knowing are obliterated by the overwhelming excess of divine Being. Metaphysical poet Francis Quarles likened his own spiritual capacities to a candle. When the sun shines, his little flame is overpowered by the immensity of divine radiance. “I am thy taper, thou my sun,” he wrote. “Yet if thy light but shine, my light is done.”

Thy sunbeams are too strong for my weak eye!
If thou but shine, how nothing, Lord, am I?
Ah! who can see thy visage, and not die![9]

We can’t stare directly at the sun without going blind. Nor can we look upon the face of God without the linguistic and sacramental equivalents of eclipse glasses. But there are moments, the Incarnation being the supreme example, when the divine radiance consents to be eclipsed in order to be fitted safely to the human eye. Then we may gaze confidently upon its veiled beauty with open and adoring eyes.

Giovanni di Paolo, Paradiso xxviii (c. 1445)

In the 15th century, Giovanni di Paolo painted exquisite illuminations for Dante’s Paradiso. In his image for Canto xxviii, Dante is kneeling to adore the divine radiance, with Beatrice floating behind him. One of the poet’s many terms for visual contemplation, vagheggiar, expresses perfectly my own engagement with the eclipse totality: “to gaze lovingly.” For Dante the sun is not veiled, nor does he wear special glasses. His is a uniquely privileged gaze. Nevertheless, each of us is invited to do the same: to gaze lovingly at the mystery of the world as our own capacities allow.

When the totality ended, I said farewell to my fellow pilgrims (passing the peace with hugs all around) and headed north on the long dusty road back to the highway. As with all transcendent experiences, “the night of meditation passes, the flesh revives, and the world’s day returns. . . The feeble spirit finds itself beclouded once again with dust.”[10]

My ride home (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

 

[1] From “Collect for the Renewal of Life,” Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979), 99.

[2] Rocco Montano, Dante’s Thought and Poetry (Chicago: Gateway Editions, 1988), 372.

[3] John Donne, Sermon preached on the evening of Christmas Day, 1624.

[4] Francis Quarles (1592-1644), from “Wherefore Hidest Thou Thy Face,” in A Deep but Dazzling Darkness: An Anthology of Personal Experiences of God, eds. Lucy Lethbridge & Selina O’Grady (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002), 76-77.

[5] Seymour Chatman, Antonioni: Or, The Surface of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 80.

[6] Paradiso trans. by Robert and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2007)

[7] Paradise trans. by Dorothy L. Sayers & Barbara Reynolds (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Classics, 1962)

[8] Simone Weil’s memorable description of prayer.

[9] Francis Quarles, q. in R.A. Durr, “Vaughan’s ‘The Night’,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Jan. 1960), p. 36.

[10] Ibid., 39.

American Demons: The Horror Show in Charlottesville

Hate on the march in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 11, 2017. (Adapted from photo by Samuel Corum)

And though this world with devils filled
should threaten to undo us;
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us;
the prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure:
one little word shall fell him.

–– Martin Luther

 

Nazis on the march in America. We recoil at this news with a sense of shock, like getting a bad diagnosis. Our first instinct is denial. Could the social body really be this sick?

Naomi Klein, writing about Trump in The Nation last month, said that we can’t really be shocked by where we find ourselves. “A state of shock,” she writes, “is produced when a story is ruptured, when we have no idea what is going on. But in so many ways, Trump is not a rupture at all, but rather the culmination––the logical end point––of a great many dangerous stories our culture has been telling for a long time. That greed is good, That the market rules. That money is what matters in life. That white men are better than the rest. That the natural world is there for us to pillage. That the vulnerable deserve their fate, and the 1 percent deserve their golden towers. . . . That we are surrounded by danger and should only look after our own. That there is no alternative to any of this.”[1]

We breathe those toxic narratives daily, she says, so a Trump presidency is no real surprise. But it is a horror story. Night has fallen, and America’s demons have come out to play.

The grotesque images of mindless anger in Charlottesville raise disturbing questions––about American society, certainly, but about human nature as well. How did those young men come to be so possessed by hatred and rage? Has the image of God been entirely erased from their twisted faces?

Richard J. Evans, examining the rise of Nazism in the 1920s, saw desperate and resentful young men being attracted to extremism and violence “irrespective of ideology.” They weren’t looking for ideas, but meaning. They desired a cure for melancholy and malaise, a pick-me-up to restore a sense of personal significance. “Violence was like a drug for such men… Often, they had only the haziest notion of what they were fighting for.” Many found a sense of heightened self in “a life of almost incessantly violent activism, suffering beatings, stabbings and arrests.” Hostility to the enemy de jour––Communists, Jews, whomever––was the core of their commitment. As one young Stormtrooper later reflected on the bonding effect of collective violence, it was all “too wonderful and perhaps too hard to write about.”[2]

Evans’ description provides clues to the pathology of white resentment and the resurgence of right-wing extremism, but explanations bring little comfort. None of us remain neutral observers, standing a safe distance from the fray. The demons are Legion, and we are all being swept along, however unwillingly, in the Gadarene rush to the cliffs of madness and destruction (cf. Mark 5:1-13).

Why is there evil? Where does it come from? The Creator spoke the world into existence, and saw that it was good. But as the old stories tell it, the world’s goodness was soon complicated by a persistent power of negation, whose source remains something of a puzzle, though some say it is the diabolic urge to reject or destroy the gifts of life as a show of independence from the Giver.

Before he became Satan, Lucifer was one of heaven’s brightest stars. But his pique over being outshone by Christ precipitated his all-out war against God. His narcissistic self-assertion refused to bow to a greater reality, and he became the archetypal image of creaturely resentment: “the gloomy angel of darkness, on whose brow shines with dim lustre the star of bitter thought, full of inner discords which can never be harmonized.”[3]

Bitter thought, inner discords. None of us is uncontaminated by this negation. At the end of his 2000-page trilogy on the rise and fall of German Nazism, Evans concludes,

The Third Reich raises in the most acute form the possibilities and consequences of the human hatred and destructiveness that exist, even if only in a small way, within all of us. It demonstrates with terrible clarity the ultimate potential consequences of racism, militarism and authoritarianism. It shows what can happen if some people are treated as less human than others. It poses in the most extreme possible form the moral dilemmas we all face at one time or another in our lives, of conformity or resistance, action or inaction in the particular situations with which we are confronted. That is why the Third Reich will not go away, but continues to command the attention of thinking people throughout the world long after it has passed into history.[4]

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky shows us this diabolical rage for destruction in Liza Khokhlakov, a sickly young woman once engaged to the saintly Alyosha Karamazov. Feeling herself in a world without God or grace, she dwells in the hell of lovelessness. “I don’t love anyone,” she insists to Alyosha. “Do you hear? Not a-ny-one.”

Dostoevsky gives this scene the title, “A Little Demon,” because Liza seems possessed––and shamed––by an annihilating spirit. “I just don’t want to do good,” she says, “I want to do evil…” Alyosha asks her, “Why do evil?” And she answers:

“So that there will be nothing left anywhere. Ah, how good it would be if there were nothing left! You know, Alyosha, I sometimes think about doing an awful lot of evil, all sorts of nasty things, and I’d be doing them on the sly for a long time, and suddenly everyone would find out. They would all surround me and point their fingers at me, and I would look at them all. That would be very pleasant. Why would it be so pleasant, Alyosha?”

Liza enjoys the fantasy of her self-loathing being confirmed by many accusers, but Alyosha refuses to take the bait. He simply responds without judgment, “Who knows? The need to smash something good, or, as you said, to set fire to something.”[5]

Nazi salute in Charlottesville, VA (August 2017). Flames added as theological commentary.

Rowan Williams finds in Liza’s words the hellish despair of a morally indifferent universe, where there is just as much self-hatred as hatred of the “other.” If there is no God, then there is no redemption or release either, “and the sense of nausea and revulsion at the self’s passion for pain and destruction is beyond healing. . . . [T]his is what Liza endures: to know the self’s fantasies of destruction or perversity and to feel there is no escape or absolution from them, to know that you are a part of a world that is irredeemable.”[6]

Is there any exit from this ludicrous horror show? What word can we speak to fell the demons? Jesus? God? Love? Although such words have been misused at times for demonic purposes, at their purest they signify the beauty for which we were made, the true Form toward which all beings tend. They drive away the powers of negation, and make our faces shine with the light of heaven. They set us free from the toxic narratives of hate, fear, domination and greed, and give us a better story, in which everything is gift and everyone is neighbor. They bring us home at last to the abundant feast of divine communion, where everything is a You and nothing is an It.[7]

Paul Evdokimov, an orthodox theologian, once suggested that the saintly characters in Dostoevsky were like “the icon in the room, a ‘face on the wall,’ a presence that does not actively engage with other protagonists but is primarily a site of manifestation and illumination. Others define themselves around and in relation to this presence.”[8]

I don’t know exactly what is being asked of God’s friends in Charlottesville, but I suspect it has something to do with embodying such a transformative and defining presence, “a site of manifestation and illumination” where others––maybe even some of those young haters––may rediscover their true Christlike faces, and begin the exodus from the perversities of this dark time into a better country and a brighter day.

 

Related posts

How far can we sink? Donald Trump and the Vortex of Rage

Can this be happening? Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

 

 

[1] Naomi Klein, “Daring to Dream in the Age of Trump,” The Nation, July 3/10, 2017, p. 15.

[2] Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 220-21.

[3] Alexander Herzen, 19th century Russian thinker, commenting on Lucifer in Byron’s Cain, q. in Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 649.

[4] Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War: 1939-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 764.

[5] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. By Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsk (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), 585, 582.

[6] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum, 2008), 70-71.

[7] Adapted from W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 306. The original line: Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

[8] Paraphrased in Williams, 29.