At the Mercy of the Future

Greek funerary sculpture, 4th-3rd century B.C. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

So long as one hopes, one puts oneself at the mercy of the future.

––Didier Maleuvre

 

When we say goodbye to the Old Year tonight, it will be with considerable relief. Whatever our private griefs and losses may have been (I lost 5 beloved elders as well as my best friend), the long-term public damage to people and planet is almost beyond measure. Will the New Year be any better? We can only hope, and that leaves us, as Maleuvre says, at the mercy of the future.

Maleuvre’s resonant phrase comes from his analysis of the human face in ancient sculpture:

“The head that tops Egyptian statuary is really a death mask. Expectation, longing, hope… are absent from the Egyptian physiognomy. What they carved in rock is the hard stare of compulsive serenity, of a mind set in foregone conclusions. Longing tends to stretch the boundaries of reality; it opens up prospects, possibilities, contingencies. So long as one hopes, one puts oneself at the mercy of the future… But this expecting mode is absent in Egyptian statuary, the faces and forms of which feature none of the muscular readiness of Greek figures. The latter wade in the stream of time, on the watch for the unforeseen, ready to contend. Whereas the Egyptian statue expects nothing from the world: its blank equanimity is not even the quiescence of stoic wisdom, but of a mind dead set against wonder.”[i]

If any of us were really capable of the “compulsive serenity” or “blank equanimity” of an existence without surprise, possibility or risk, would we really choose it––“a mind dead set against wonder,” expecting nothing, hoping for nothing?

It is not in our nature to do so. We are creatures of longing and hope, and it is our fate to wade into the stream of time, come what may. But as the biblical God tells us at the beginning of every quest, “Do not be afraid. I will go with you.”

So let us go bravely into the New Year, to do the work and be the change.
And twelve months hence, may all our songs be glad.

+

Dear reader –– Thank you for honoring this writer with your attentive reading and thoughtful feedback in 2017. I am also very grateful for those times you have shared a post with your own friends and communities. It is encouraging to know that these reflections mean something to you, and that you find them meaningful for others as well. So I thank you for your support of my writing ministry. I will do my best never to waste your time. Happy New Year!

+

Some of my favorite posts from 2017:

The arts

And whether art is a mirror of the human condition, a window into beauty both immanent and transcendent, or a hammer to shatter our complacencies, it shares many of the tasks and effects of religion.

To Plough and Harrow the Soul: The Shared Work of Art and Faith

Kieslowski’s Decalogue: A Masterpiece of Religious Cinema

Temporary Resurrection Zones

Culture

We may have lost our innocence about the world––and about the traces of darkness in our own hearts––but we are still prisoners of hope. Our formative glimpses of a new heaven and a new earth may have come and gone, but their influence still lingers. However chastened or weary we may be, a sense of expectation remains. What Jesus called the Kingdom of Godis a future of human flourishing and divine blessing that still pulls on us with gravitational force. Its current absence doesn’t dim our faith. It only intensifies our longing.

Everything Changed, Nothing Changed (Summer of Love, Part 3)

Mortality

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!

“You say goodbye, I say hello”: A Requiem Sermon

In Paradisum: On the Death of a Friend

Falling Leaves and the Fate of Mortals

Wonder

When [the eclipse] 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.

A Deep but Dazzling Darkness

 

 

 

[i] Didier Maleuvre, The Horizon: A History of Our Infinite Longing (, Berkeley: UC Press, 2011), 16.

 

 

 

 

 

Foolishness and Hope on the Eve of 2017

Tarot card designed by Pamela Colman Smith

Tarot card designed by Pamela Colman Smith

The free animal has its decrease perpetually behind it,
and God in front.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

150 years ago, German immigrants in Philadelphia fired guns out their windows at midnight on New Year’s Eve. “Murdering the old year,” they called it. At the end of such a crazy and dispiriting year, we may envy them. Preparing for our own New Year, we abandon the wreckage of 2016 with little regret. But is there any appetite for what lies ahead in a country poised on the brink of insanity and ruin? The Zero card in the Tarot’s Major Arcana provides a vivid image of our situation, but take note: the Fool himself does not share our fear.

He is festively attired, holding a bright flower beneath a happy sun. The precipice holds no terror. The abyss seems not even to exist for him. His attention is instead on the open sky, and his expression is calmly expectant. He walks in trust as a child of the Light. In the eyes of the world he is indeed a fool, advancing heedlessly toward nonexistence. But to people of faith his foolishness is the wisdom of Christ, who has been defying gravity ever since the resurrection.

We too would do well not to be mesmerized by the abyss, but to focus on the greater power already and always at work amid the blind sufferings of history. God neither causes nor prevents those sufferings, but divine ingenuity always outwits them in the end. I realize that is a big claim in the face of history’s unspeakable horrors, and I do not mean to trivialize their enormity, but the alternative is nihilism or despair. If we belong to a story of life not death, then we must insist on its narrative truth, even in our darkest hour.

No one can say exactly where and how the divine work of repairing the world will manifest itself in 2017, but I have already seen it coming to birth in a widely shared desire to get involved in the work of resisting evil, protecting the vulnerable, and advancing the common good. Yesterday’s Episcopal prayer for the Feast of Holy Innocents states our agenda perfectly: to “frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish [God’s] rule of justice, love, and peace.”

May we all, boldly and joyfully, do that holy dance, even on the edge of the precipice, not in terror of the abyss, but trusting in the love that enfolds us in every moment. What better way to celebrate and embody the Christmas feast, which declares the generative power of God pouring itself into the particulars of human experience? As Thomas Merton reminds us, “we exist solely for this: to be the place God has chosen for his Presence. If once we begin to recognize, humbly but truly, the real value of our own self, we would see that this value was the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.”

As we adore the great mystery of Incarnation–“the signature of God upon our being,”–let the beauty of this primal truth be the Star that guides us out of the old year into the new.

+

At year’s end, allow me to thank you, dear reader, for taking the time to reflect on the writings posted here, and for sharing them with others. Your attention, comments and supportive sharing are deeply nourishing and greatly appreciated. My New Year’s prayer for you is expressed in these lines from Edward Pusey, a nineteenth-century priest:

God ripen you more and more. Each day is a day of growth.
God says to you. “Open thy mouth and I will fill it.”
Only long…the parched soil, by its cracks, opens itself
for the rain from heaven and invites it.
The parched soil cries out to the living God.

Oh then long and long and long, and God will fill thee.
More love, more love, more love.

Tick Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve

Fiona Hall installation, Australian pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

Fiona Hall installation, Australian pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the passing day.”

— Henry David Thoreau

I’ve been on a calendar, but never on time.

— Marilyn Monroe

 

The Clock is a 24-hour video by Christian Marclay in which each and every minute of a day is represented in one or more scenes from old movies. The exact time of any particular minute is either spoken by a character, seen in a close-up of a clock or watch, or simply glimpsed on a clock or digital display in the background as the camera pans across a room or street. For some particularly notable minutes, such as high noon, The Clock might draw from five or six different films over the course of 60 seconds. For less significant minutes, sometimes only one scene was found by the team of researchers, who spent two years viewing thousands of films in search of lost time. And for a surprisingly small number of minutes in the wee hours of the morning, a generic “middle-of-the-night” scene had to be employed (often from film noir).

The video is run by a computer program which goes to whatever the local time is when “play” is pressed, so the work itself functions as a reliable timepiece. When I watched it, in one sitting, in the theater of the Los Angeles County Art Museum two years ago, it started at noon on Saturday and finished at noon the next day. It was a memorable and vastly entertaining journey. I was especially struck by the degree to which our lives are organized by the mechanized measurement of time. Sure, we all know that, but to see scene after scene of alarms going off, children heading for school, lunch breaks, quitting time, dinners served, and so on, made the point in a way that could be a little unsettling. How free are we, really?

For me, the most unique part of that marathon viewing experience was the act of consciously noticing every single minute of a 24-hour period (except when I dozed briefly a few times, plus three quick bathroom breaks, hoping I wouldn’t miss much). Now it’s noon, now it’s 12:01, now it’s 12:02 … I didn’t need an extraordinary degree of mindfulness. It was actually quite effortless to stay focused on the screen. The diversity of the selected scenes was the perfect stimulant. When I watched Andy Warhol’s 8-hour film of a man sleeping in the 1960s, my mind wandered far and wide during that interminable screening of sameness. But The Clock kept me watching by showing a great many things, not just one big thing. Curiosity alone was enough to keep me paying attention. What will the next minute contain?

New Year’s Eve is, for a brief time, like viewing Marclay’s video. Tonight, the majority of the human race will pay close attention, minute by minute, to the passing of time in the countdown of hours, minutes and seconds to 2016.

Of course, there is no universal Now when everyone will shout or kiss in unison. As Einstein taught us, what time it is depends on where in the universe you are standing. Whether anything is past, present, or future varies with the location of the observer. At our house, we will bang the drum, strike the wind gong, and blow the train whistle in synchronization with a reality already in the past: the ball drop 3 hours earlier in Times Square.

Even further back, in 1949, Einstein’s friend Kurt Godël offered a mathematical proof for time travel. If time has a spatial quality allowing us to move backward and forward in it, then time in the sense of irreversible passing does not exist. Past and future become places we can (theoretically) go. And if this is so, then we are close to the old theological image of all times being simultaneous to God. As William Blake put it,

I see the past, present, and future, existing all at once
Before me.

Be that as it may, who among us actually lives above time’s flow, as though there is neither past nor present nor future? Who does not feel, particularly at turnings, transitions, and departures, what Susan Sontag called “time’s relentless melt?” We live on the knife edge between old and new, memory and regret, loss and hope. When we dance tonight at midnight, may it prove just wide enough for our wild steps.

Would you have it any other way, this life of falling and rising, losing and finding? Virginia Woolf’s Orlando describes an alternative existence: the protagonist is free from the dictates of time, living on from century to century while everyone else is passing away. But not being wedded to any particular generation or era has a price. “Her loves are wild with passion, but seem to leave no trace, and by the novel’s end she is left occasionally wounded, but always without the pleasure of a scar.”[i]

It seems fitting that the world festival of the turning of time comes in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas, since the Incarnation is God’s decisive embrace of the temporal and finite, while extending – simultaneously – an invitation to us humans to embody in ourselves the divine kenosis – the eternal self-emptying that constitutes God’s trinitarian life. In other words, both human and divine are all about giving over and letting go. Never just being, but also becoming.

There is much more to be said about all this, but the sun is low in the sky, and it’s high time to prepare a welcome for the New Year, which I pray will be full of wonder, delight, illumination, and meaningful change for you, dear reader, and everyone you love.

In the meantime, I leave you with this lovely praise of temporality from D. H. Lawrence:

Life, the ever-present, knows no finality, no finished crystallization. The perfect rose is only a running flame, emerging and flowing off, and never in any sense at rest, static, finished. Herein lies its transcendent loveliness. The whole tide of all life and all time suddenly heaves, and appears before us as an apparition, a revelation…

Don’t give me the infinite or the eternal … Give me the still, white seething, the incandescence and the coldness of the incarnate moment: the moment, the quick of all change and haste and opposition: the moment, the immediate present, the now… Here, in this very instant moment, up bubbles the stream of time, out of the wells of futurity, flowing to the oceans of the past. The source, the issue, the creative quick….[ii]

 

Related post: The Angel of Possibility

 

 

[i] Colin Dickey, “Reelin’ in the Years”, Lapham’s Quarterly VII:4, Fall 2014, p. 221

[ii] ibid., 117 (from D. H. Lawrence, the preface to New Poems, 1920)

The Angel of Possibility

Harold Lloyd clock

My times are in your hand; deliver me.  (Psalm 31:15)

“Let me be the first to wish you a happy and blessed 1984.” This first salutation of the New Year was given, two minutes after midnight, by Bishop Desmond Tutu to several hundred Episcopal college students and campus ministers gathered at a snowy retreat center in the Rocky Mountains. He was preaching at a eucharist begun in the final moments of 1983. The gospel reading, spanning the stroke of midnight, accompanied our entry into the year of Orwellian dread, 1984. Then the bishop’s genial greeting at the start of his homily broke the fatalistic spell cast by the 1949 novel. Orwell’s terrible future had not come to pass. Instead, a man stood before us speaking eloquently and authentically about hope and possibility. A few weeks later he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. The God of history is yet capable of surprise.

But it remains an act of faith to believe this in earnest. Walter Benjamin, a German thinker in the darkest of times, gave a chilling description in 1940 of the “angel of history,” who can see nothing but the terrible past as he is swept backward into the future:

His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. [i]

As we contemplate the wreckage of 2014, we might well share Benjamin’s despair. But there is another angel, the angel of possibility, who knows better. This angel says: Do not be afraid. Whatever twists and turns the story may take, it is in the end a story of life, not death.

And every New Year’s Eve, we ritually renew our faith in that story. There is an element of carnival this night, as we throw off the tyranny of good order for a bit of wild excess, declaring independence from the way things are in the name of things to come. But the night’s underlying theme is not chaos but renewal, as expressed in the traditional English carol:

The old year now away is fled, the new year it is entered…
Now, like the snake, your skin cast off… and so let the year begin.

This festival of rebirth, ringing out the old, ringing in the new, reflects an abiding human rhythm. Whether it’s every morning or every December 31st, we bid farewell to our flawed efforts and bad habits, resolving to do better this time around. Taken in isolation, New Year’s Eve has a whiff of doubt if not desperation. We know that the midnight noise and kisses will soon fade into the hangovers and broken resolutions of January’s new morning.

But New Year’s Day is also the eighth day of Christmas, the festival of Incarnation. What wants to be born is not a project of our own making, doomed to wither in the wintry blast of time. The Babe of Bethlehem is not the cartoon baby draped in the banner of “2015,” deposing the old man of “2014” in a melancholy preview of its own ultimate fate 365 days hence.

The holy Child is the Lord of the Dance “that will never, never die.” Yes, this new person will share our mortal condition; he will live and die as one of us. But in so doing he will accomplish what we can never do on our own. He will make our own stories part of the divine Dance. He will guide our own steps into the way of peace.

People often fuss about whether Christmas is pagan or Christian, secular or sacred. But the whole point of Christmas is that it is now impossible to tell the two apart. Ever since “the great angel-blinding Light” shrank “His blaze, to shine in a poor shepherd’s eye,”[ii] what George Herbert termed “Heaven in ordinarie”[iii] is the way this Dance goes. When the Christmas festival fades like Scrooge’s transformative dream, we will all return to habitual place and ordinary time. But if we have paid any attention at all, nothing will be quite the same again: neither ourselves, nor the world, nor the flow of time.

God with us. This changes everything.

On this last day of the year I rose early and went outside to see the stars. Orion, winter’s dominant constellation, had already left the stage. Leo, who rules the western sky on spring evenings, now roared in his place. To gaze on the night sky before dawn is to behold the future. Standing in the cold of winter, I looked upon the constellations of spring. And to complicate the metaphor, the starlight itself was a message from the distant past.

Time is a mysterious gift. Past, present and future keep changing partners in the everlasting whirl of the Dance. Breathless, we do our best to keep up. As W. H. Auden put it, “if there when grace dances, I should dance.”[iv]

The poet also wrote perhaps the best New Year’s Eve line of all, which I commend to you with my wishes for a most happy and blessed 2015:

Time is our choice
of How to love
and Why.[v]

[i] Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, q. in Hugh Rayment Pickard, The Myths of Time: From Saint Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2004), 75

[ii] Richard Crashaw, “Satan’s Sight of the Nativity,” in The Roads From Bethlehem: Christmas Literature from Writers Ancient and Modern, ed. Pegram Johnson III and Edna M. Troiano (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993) 148

[iii] George Herbert, “Prayer I”, George Herbert: The Country Parson & The Temple, ed. John N. Wall, Jr. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1981)

[iv] W.H. Auden, “Whitsunday in Kirchstetten,” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 559

[v] “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” Collected Poems p. 297. This remarkable work, a must-read for the Christmas season, was performed live before the New Year’s Eve eucharist mentioned at the beginning of this post. Auden reminds us that, once we have seen the Child of Incarnation, our challenge is to redeem the “Time Being” from insignificance.