Any number of things can happen when we encounter Jesus. We might be comforted—or we might be uncomfortable. We might be healed—or we might be wounded. We might be instructed—or we might be turned upside down. Jesus is a difference maker. For better or worse, he comes to interrupt—and disrupt—our lives.
Sometimes Jesus speaks to our heart. Sometimes he speaks to our mind. But every time, he speaks to our will, as he puts the crucial question:
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my Name be known? Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me? [i]
We can always say no, of course. Many people have; many people do. Or we may profess our unreadiness or our inadequacy. “Are you kidding me?” said Moses at the Burning Bush. “Who am I to go and talk to Pharoah? I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In the same way, the prophet Jeremiah also resisted his call: “No way, Lord! Don’t ask me to be a prophet. I don’t know how to speak. I’m only a child.” God has heard all the excuses, but the Divine Intention is not easily dissuaded. “Just do it,” God says.
When Jesus tries to recruit a few followers in Luke 9:51-62, he hears plenty of excuses. “Lord, let me first go home and bury my father,” says one. This sounds reasonable enough, if he’s talking about a corpse back at the house that needs some prompt attention. But this line can also be understood to mean, “I can’t go anywhere as long as my parents are still living. Family obligations come first.”
Another makes a similar excuse: “I will follow you, Lord, but first I must go home to take my leave. I need to get permission from my family before I can come with you. And that may take some time.”
I don’t think Luke’s gospel is telling us to walk out of important relationships. Rather, it is prompting us to ask ourselves: What is so important in my life that I need its permission before I can follow Jesus? My true master might be something as big as the security of having somewhere comfortable to lay my head at night, or as trivial as my habitual routines. I’d love to follow you, Jesus, but let me check my calendar first.
The excuses in Luke’s passage suggest a world of expectations, obligations, and best-laid plans that prevent us from running away to join the Jesus circus. Today we may enjoy far more social mobility than a first-century Middle-Easterner, but we each have our own version of situations and circumstances that delay and distract us. Some things just won’t let us go. It might be something lingering from our past, like unhealed anger or grief. Or it might be a present concern, like a steady income, emotional needs, or personal ambition.
Jesus says: If you want to follow me, nothing can have more authority over you than the will of God. As for the things that hold you back, just let them go. Let the dead bury the dead. It’s time to move on, deeper and deeper into God. Seek ye first the kingdom of God. And once you’ve put your hand to the gospel plow, don’t look back. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!
The call to be a follower of Jesus may arrive unexpectedly. It may seem inconvenient, or even impossible. But as the saints all tell us, it’s what we are made for. To borrow a line from songwriter Bob Franke,
I can’t really say it’s the thing I do best, but it’s the best thing that I do. [ii]
True vocation is not so much surrender to an outside force as it is the recognition of an internal capacity. In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer makes this point beautifully. “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not,” he writes. “It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”
“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about.… The word vocation … is rooted in the Latin for “voice.” Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” [iii]
When Jesus calls me, it is, as it were, “my life telling me who I am.” And Jesus has many voices. You may hear him in the Scriptures or the liturgy, or when you enter the prayerful state of “absolute unmixed attention.”[iv] He will speak through the need of your neighbor, or in your deepest longing. His voice may come as dissatisfaction with the old, or as the intuition of fresh possibility. It may proceed from the mouth of friend and stranger. It may thunder like the transcendent Other, or whisper like the intimate inward presence who has known you all your life.
However Jesus may call us, what happens if we say yes? How do we put our hands to the plow, keep our eyes on the prize, and not look back?When we decide to follow Jesus, when we consent to lose our old lives in the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising, we are born again into a new way of being. No turning back, no turning back. But what will that new being look like? How will we be different? How will we make a difference?
St. Paul gives us a good list to start with in his letter to the Galatians (5:1, 13-25). Everything that binds, enslaves, and weighs you down, forget it. Instead of indulging yourselves, start loving one another. Say goodbye to enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy and licentiousness. Practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Let the Spirit dance in you.
Paul’s advice seems radically countercultural in an America so sickened by hatred, division, malice, and fear—a contagion which has spread to a degree unimaginable just five years ago. As Judge Michael Luttig recently lamented in his testimony before the January 6th Select Committee, “In the moral, catatonic stupor America finds itself in today, it is only disagreement we seek, and the more virulent that disagreement, the better.” [v]
In such a country, such a world, such a time, what is a disciple to do? Well, there’s no easy answer, no single method or path. We must figure it out as we go, the way the saints of old did amid crumbling empires, or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in 1930s Germany, or as Martin Luther King did in a Birmingham jail. It will certainly require steadfast faith and boundless love, but perhaps it is courageous hope we will need most of all.
In the worst of times, hope is the engine of persistence and the antidote for despair. Never forget: God makes a way where there is no way, and as God’s friends we are called to shine with that truth every day, “planting the seeds of resurrection amid the blind sufferings of history.” [vi]
[i] “The Summons,” a song from the Iona Community in Scotland (GIA Publications, 1987).
[ii] Bob Franke, “Boomerang Pancakes” (Telephone Pole Music, 1986).
[iii] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 10, 4.
The tables outside the cantina were full of beautiful laughing men and women.… Everyone who sat there looked on display, the women in their lovely summer dresses, the men with their hair oiled back on their heads, their tanned bare feet resting proprietorially on top of their Gucci loafers. One wanted to applaud them for presenting such a successful vision of life: you could almost believe they had lived their whole lives, had been reared and groomed from birth, for this one particular night: that this was the pinnacle, this golden summery evening they had all reached simultaneously.
Yet it made me a little sad to see them there, laughing and drinking champagne, for you knew it was all downhill from here.[i]
— Peter Cameron, Andorra
The narrator in Cameron’s novel experiences the “golden summery evening” at the cantina through the lens of his own unhappiness. He has fled a failed life in America for a Mediterranean idyll, but joy continues to elude him. This apparently happy scene of shared human pleasure only deepens his alienation. Unable to join the fun, he judges the beautiful, laughing people for their complacency, their privilege, and their shallow indifference to mortality.
In Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Clarissa Vaughan recalls her own close encounter with happiness, when she made the mistake of thinking it would last.
It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still somewhat shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness.… What lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right there. There has been no other. [ii]
What is happiness? It can be pursued, but can it be possessed? The word is derived from “hap,” an Old English term for fortune or chance—something that happens to us, for good or ill. But “happy” and “happiness” have come to denote only the good things, without the mishaps.
If asked to recall our happiest moments, a multitude of memories would rise to the surface. But if asked whether we are happy now, or living happy lives, how would we answer? The University of Pennsylvania is conducting an online Authentic Happiness Survey, with twenty-four groups of five statements each to measure the presence or absence of happiness. Group 24, for example, offers the following choices:
My life is a bad one.
My life is an OK one.
My life is a good one.
My life is a very good one.
My life is a wonderful one.
The #1 statement in a group is always pretty dismal (I’m usually in a bad mood … I’m pessimistic … I am unhappy with myself … I feel like a failure, etc.) The #5 statement sounds way too good to be true (My life is filled with pleasure … If I were keeping score in life, I would be far ahead … I always get what I want … My life is filled with joy … I could not be happier with myself, etc.).
The majority of my own answers landed in the middle (#3), reflecting a pretty typical mix of highs and lows. I had no #1s, a couple of #2s, six #4s (three due to privilege, three due to personality), and two #5s (“I truly love my work” and “Most of the time I am fascinated by what I am doing”—both of these reflecting a mixture of privilege, personality, and the good fortune of getting to do what I love). My authentic happiness score was 3.46 out of 5. That seems about right for a privileged white male occasionally beset by the minor melancholies of disappointed hopes, both personal and generational.
It was an interesting survey, one of many attempts to grapple with the unhappiness of our times. Currently, the most popular course at Yale is “Psychology and the Good Life,” created by Professor Laurie Santos in response to the mental health crisis among college students, who, she says, are “much more overwhelmed, much more stressed, much more anxious, and much more depressed than they’ve ever been.”
In a survey of Yale students taken before the pandemic, 60% said they had felt “overwhelmingly anxious” sometime during the last year. And 50% reported feeling “completely overwhelmed” in the past week. For many college students, and for Americans in general, “happiness feels increasingly out of reach.” The pandemic, climate change, and the politics of fear and hate have multiplied our sorrows and anxieties almost beyond measure.
According to University of California (Irvine) professor Sonia Lyubomirski, author of The How of Happiness, 50% of one’s happiness is determined by genes, while 40% flows from our thoughts, actions, and attitudes. That leaves only 10% attributable to circumstances, although many people believe that circumstance is the key factor in personal happiness. If I change my job, my home, my partner, I will be happier. Lyubomirski’s numbers assume, of course, that one’s basic needs are being met. For a war zone Ukrainian, a Central American refugee, or a long Covid sufferer, circumstance weighs far more heavily.
Santos’ course, and her ongoing podcast, The Happiness Lab, seek to help people address the more significant 40% factors: thoughts, actions, and attitudes. I’ve only listened to the first episode, but many have testified to the value of her efforts.[iii]
Happiness is a subject of supreme interest. Everyone wants it, but for many it seems in short supply. It’s also hard to define. A century ago, Vita Sackville-West questioned its usefulness as an index for life.
But what was happiness? Had she been happy? That was a strange, clicking word to have coined—meaning something definite to the whole English-speaking race—a strange clicking word with its short vowel and its spitting double p’s, and its pert tip-tilted y at the end, to express in two syllables a whole summary of life. Happy. But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? … Certainly, there had been moments of which one could say: Then, I was happy; and with greater certainty: Then, I was unhappy—when little Robert had lain in his coffin, for instance, strewn with rose petals by his sobbing Syrian nurse—but whole regions had intervened, which were just existence. Absurd to ask of those, had she been happy or unhappy? … No, that was not the question to ask her—not the question to ask anybody. Things were not so simple as all that. [iv]
Well then. Am I happy or unhappy? I have had moments and days when it was indeed bliss to be alive. But what should I say about those intervening regions where the evidence is mixed? Is happiness only an occasional oasis in the desert of ordinary time, or can happiness reside in the barren places as well?
“Small things go a long way,” says Zadie Smith. “All day long I can look forward to a Popsicle. The persistent anxiety that fills the rest of my life is calmed for as long as I have the flavor of something good in my mouth,” [v] Rebecca Solnit, arrested for demonstrating at a nuclear test site in the Nevada desert, said that “even when you’re in handcuffs, the sunset is still beautiful.” [vi]
In The Spiritual Meadow, John Moschos’ seventh-century collection of tales about desert monastics, an elder warns a wayward disciple, “Brother, pay attention to your own soul, for death awaits you and the road to punishment.” The disciple took little heed, and when he died, the elder continued to worry about his fate.
The elder fell to his prayers and said, “Lord Jesus Christ, reveal to me the state of the brother’s soul.” He went into a trance and saw a river of fire with a multitude of people in the fire itself. Right in the middle was the brother, submerged up to his neck. The elder said to him, “Didn’t I warn you to look after your own soul, my child?” And the brother answered, “I thank God, father, that at least my head is spared from the fire. Thanks to your prayers, I am standing on the head of a bishop.” [vii]
Even in hell, small things go a long way! And happiness can turn up anywhere, as poet Jane Kenyon reminds us:
There’s just no accounting for happiness … It comes to the monk in his cell. It comes to the woman sweeping the street with a birch broom, to the child whose mother has passed out from drink. It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker, and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots in the night. [viii]
We are grateful when it comes, and for the memory it leaves. But happiness is more than the occasional perfect moment. It is a practice, a way of being, a fullness of life which transcends the inevitable fluctuations of fortune. Such a practice might be summarized in two words: authenticity and love.
Authenticity is fidelity to your truest self: becoming more and more like the person you have been created and called to be. Sometimes the way is rough and steep. Sometimes you get lost or delayed. But by God’s grace, you embrace the journey. Parker Palmer describes this process as a matter of vocation:
Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” [ix]
Authenticity, then, finds its greatest expression in acts of love. Becoming our truest self takes us beyond our individuality, into the interdependent communion of the Divine Whole. My own happiness cannot be sustainably severed from collective well-being. Happiness, as it turns out, is not a private affair. It is the way of self-diffusive, self-offering love. And until justice and human flourishing are universally shared, the way of love will include suffering. Self-sacrifice for love’s sake can be costly and painful, as Jesus and the saints have shown. Happiness accepts the truth of that. No justice, no peace. But it is also true, as Catherine of Siena said, that “all the way to heaven is heaven.” You don’t have to wait until the end of time for happiness to show up.
“Do not look for rest in any pleasure,” said Thomas Merton, “because you were not created for pleasure; you were created for JOY.” [x] Happy are those with a hungry heart. Happy are those who give themselves away. Happy are those who do not mistake crumbs for the feast. Happy are those who know it’s not just about them. Happy are those who say yes to the gift. Happy are those who yearn for the Divine Beloved. Happy are those who don’t count the cost. Happy are those who love their story.
We think of Saint Francis of Assisi as a joyful saint, but he was also pierced by the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. And he taught that the most perfect joy is to be found neither in worldly things nor in spiritual enjoyments. Nor is perfect joy simply a matter of pleasure, contentment, or delight. This was bewildering and counterintuitive for his brothers, so he explained it this way:
“Imagine coming home to the monastery on a stormy night. We knock on the door, but it is so dark that the surly porter mistakes us for tramps. ‘Go away!’ he shouts. And if we continue to knock and the porter comes out and drives us away with curses and hard blows— and if we bear it patiently and take the insults with joy and love in our hearts. Oh Brother Leo, write down that that is perfect joy! Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to his friends is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations and hardships for the love of Christ.” [xi]
Saint Francis wouldn’t have sold many self-help books, but he knew that happiness unacquainted with suffering and sorrow isn’t the real deal. “If it be sweet, if it be not sweet,” [xii] my story is what I was made for. My story is why I’m here. Happiness is saying yes to the story’s gift with a thankful heart.
When I go back to earth And all my joyous body Puts off the red and white That once had been so proud, If men should pass above With false and feeble pity, My dust will find a voice To answer them aloud:
“Be still, I am content, Take back your poor compassion!— Joy was a flame in me Too steady to destroy. Lithe as a bending reed Loving the storm that sways her— I found more joy in sorrow Than you could find in joy.” [xiii]
— Sara Teasdale, “The Answer”
[i] Peter Cameron, Andorra (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 149-150.
[ii] Michael Cunningham, The Hours (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1988), 98.
[iii] The statistics and quotes from Santos and Lyubomirsky are found in Adam Sternbergh, “The Case for New York Face,” in Lapham’s Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 3 (Summer 2019), 81-85. Four times a year, Lapham’s Quarterly presents a marvelous and stimulating collection of writings and images from many periods and sources on a given topic. This issue’s subject is “Happiness.” Sternbergh’s article was originally published in New York Magazine in 2018. Additional quotes from Santos were taken from her podcast, The Happiness Lab, Season 1, Episode 1 (“You Can Change”): https://www.happinesslab.fm
[iv] This excerpt from Sackville-West’s novel, All Passion Spent (1931), is also in the “Happiness” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, p. 139.
[v] Ibid., 134. Smith’s excerpt is from her essay “Joy” (New York Review of Books, Jan. 10, 2013).
[vi] Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
[vii] John Moschos, The Spiritual Meadow (written c. 600), trans. John Wortley (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 1992/2008), 35.
[ix] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 16.
[x] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (1949), p. 172. Cited in William H. Shannon, Christine M. Bochen, Patrick F. O’Connell, eds., The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 231.
[xi] Adapted from The Little Flowers of St. Francis, 53 chapters on the life of Francis of Assisi written at the end of the 14th century.
[xii] Anne Sexton, “Rowing.” “As the African says, / This is my tale which I have told,/ If it be sweet, if it be not sweet,”/ Take somewhere else and let some return to me.…”
[xiii] Sara Teasdale, “The Answer,” in Christian Wiman, ed., Joy: 100 Poems (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 138.
Human narcissism and all that it has wrought, including the destruction of nature, will finally be our downfall. In the end, McKay isn’t doing much more in this movie than yelling at us, but then, we do deserve it.
God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled Into the depths of the sea.
— Psalm 46:1-2
Spoiler alert: If you want to see Don’t Look Up with innocent eyes, watch the movie before reading this. It is currently streaming on Netflix.
Kierkegaard once told a parable about the human capacity for denial. A fire broke out backstage in a crowded theater before the performance. With the curtains still drawn, the audience was unaware of the danger, so one of the actors stepped out to warn them. But he was dressed as a clown, and the people thought his cries of alarm must be some kind of joke. The louder he shouted “YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”, the more they laughed and cheered. By the time they realized the peril for themselves, it was too late.
“I think,” said the Danish philosopher, “that’s just how the world will end—to general applause.” [ii]
One of the most popular current films, Don’t Look Up, is a farce about the extinction of life on our planet. It dresses its message of disaster and death in a comic premise: most of humanity is either too witless, deluded, or self-absorbed to acknowledge the threat. The more ridiculously the characters behave, the more we laugh—at least until the (literally) bitter end.
Like Kierkegaard’s clown, director and co-writer Adam McKay has serious intentions. “I’ve been really terrified about the climate, the collapse of the livable atmosphere,” he told an interviewer. “It seems to be getting faster and faster. Yet for some reason, it’s not penetrating our culture.”[iii] Since climate change is a gradual process stretching far beyond our attention span, McKay has substituted a more instantaneous disaster for our consideration. In the movie, an immense comet is headed straight for planet Earth. In six months, all living things will be destroyed.
An astronomy professor at Michigan State, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his protégé, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), discover the comet and try to warn the White House and the world. But their pleas for action go largely unheeded, and things go merrily downhill from there. As Manohla Dargis writes, Don’t Look Up is “a very angry, deeply anguished comedy freakout about how we are blowing it, hurtling toward oblivion. He’s sweetened the bummer setup with plenty of yuks — good, bad, indifferent — but if you weep, it may not be from laughing.” [iv]
During preproduction, the world was struck by a different disaster—the pandemic. The mismanaged Trumpian response, followed by the deadly denialism of the anti-vaxxers, added fuel to the satirical fire. McKay’s parable became as much about COVID as it is about climate change. It was hard to keep the fictional script ahead of the times. McKay said they had to make the film “20% crazier, because reality had played out crazier than the script.” [v]
In most disaster movies, human ingenuity and determination win out in the end, and the world manages to survive. But Don’t Look Up is not so forgiving. Human folly and sin guarantee global extinction. And no matter how much we have been entertained by the stellar cast and amusing scenarios, we are meant to come away unsettled. Complacency is not an option. The theater of Nature is on fire. This is not a drill.
The film has been embraced by the viewing public as well as activists, but many critics have been not only dismissive but contemptuous: “… it’s one joke, told over and over and over again”[vi] … “the attempts at mockery are broad, puerile, and obvious, unintentionally trivializing the issues it seeks to highlight”[vii] … “drowns in its own smugness”[viii] … “its simplistic anger-stoking and pathos-wringing mask the movie’s fundamental position of getting itself talked about while utterly eliding any real sense of politics or political confrontation.”[ix]
David Fear of Rolling Stone is particularly brutal: “… a righteous two-hour lecture masquerading as a satire .… So caught up in its own hysterical shrieking that it drowns out any laughs, or sense of poignancy, or points it might be trying to make … it’s never able to find a way to crawl out of the tarpit of its own bone-deep despair … it doesn’t mean that one man’s wake-up-sheeple howl into the abyss is funny, or insightful, or even watchable. It’s a disaster movie in more ways than one. Should you indeed look up, you may be surprised to find one A-list bomb of a movie, all inchoate rage and flailing limbs, falling right on top of you.”[x]
There have been more measured critiques. Some find Don’t Look Up heavy-handed and misanthropic. Most of the characters, they say, are too cartoonishly stupid or corrupt to make us care deeply about their fate. Some think the filmmaker is too cynical about our collective capacity to counteract moral blindness and systemic evil, leaving us discouraged rather than empowered. Others, weighing the effectiveness of the relentlessly over-the-top caricatures, ponder “the question of whether our culture has become too depressing, too absurd, too lamentable to satirize.” [xi]
In a lengthy and sober analysis, Eric Levitz judges the comet scenario to be a misleading metaphor for climate change:
“In the film’s populist, polemical account of the ecological crisis, there is … no need for Americans to tolerate significant disruptions to their existing way of life, no vexing question of global redistribution, no compelling benefits from ongoing carbon-intensive growth, and thus no rational or uncorrupted opponent of timely climate action. Don’t Look Up casts the conflict between minimizing climate risk and maximizing near-term economic growth as one pitting the interests of billionaires against those of everyone else.” [xii]
What I find missing in all this criticism is a sense of genre. The lack of political nuance, psychological depth, or aesthetic rigor is beside the point. This film embraces the method of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, where stock characters “make sport of human foibles and universal complaints while burlesquing the most socially or politically prominent members of a given community.” [xiii]
In the early 20th century, the Commedia model was adapted by Russian “agitprop” theater, “noted for its cardboard characters of perfect virtue and complete evil, and its coarse ridicule.”[xiv] Agitprop’s aim was not to create great art, but to inspire collective action. In the American 1960s, groups like the San Francisco Mime Troupe practiced a similar “guerilla theater,” whose purpose, as stated in a 1967 manifesto by R. G. Davis, was to criticize “prevailing conditions … expressing what you (as a community) all know but no one is saying … truth that may be shocking and honesty that is vulgar to the aesthete … There is a vision in this theater, and … it is to continue … presenting moral plays and to confront hypocrisy in the society.” [xv]
It’s a playful form of politics, using laughter to dethrone the powers of this world by undermining their pretensions to ultimacy. As the Psalmist says, “God is laughing at them; the Lord has them in derision” (Psalm 2:4). Prophetic mockery is the genesis of revolution. It’s liberating and cathartic. But if it remains merely a way to blow off steam, or a refreshing but temporary lightening of spirit, that is not enough. Action must follow. We must become the change we seek.
Millions of people have seen Don’t Look Up. Its content and aims are being widely and passionately discussed. Is it a good movie? How accurate is its central metaphor? Which actors stand out? Is it funny? Given the film’s vast global reach and the urgency of the crisis, these become secondary questions. What I want to know is: Does it make a difference? Can it provoke repentance? Will it produce change?
Every preacher and every liturgist wonders the same things. How do our sermons, images, rituals and stories contribute to the transformational mix? In a podcast conversation about the film, Atlantic writer Spencer Kornhaber addresses this issue:
“I think this quest for movies to deliver a message that changes people’s minds is maybe quixotic. There aren’t a ton of works in history like that. But what they do do is give you a set of images and characters and metaphors and clichés that, when they work, become absorbed into our language. They help us talk about the world in ways that are hopefully progressing our discourse and society.” [xvi]
Of course, a film about global annihilation is a hard sell (and released at Christmas, no less!). The prospect of unimaginable loss opens the door to nihilism and despair. Why bother? Why go on? The director himself describes his film as a place where “absurdist, ridiculous comedy lives right next to sadness … so the trickiest part of the movie was to ramp down that tone in the last 20 minutes.” During a script conference before shooting started, one of the producers asked McKay, “Where’s faith in this movie?” And the director, whose mother was a born-again evangelical, exclaimed, “Oh, you’re right. You’re right!” [xvii]
As the comet nears its collision with earth, we see people facing extinction in various ways. Some are praying, some are partying, some are weeping, some are just staring at the sky in disbelief, fear, or hopeless resignation. But in a dining room in East Lansing, Michigan, a small group of friends and family have gathered around a table for a communal last supper. Among them are Randall and Kate. For six months they had tried and failed to awaken humanity to effective action. Now they are back home, choosing neither anger nor despair for their final moments on earth, but gratitude and communion.
As the food is shared, each of them names something they are grateful for. Then Randall says, “Well, we’re not the most religious here in the Mindy household, but, um, maybe we should say ‘amen?’ Should we do that?”
Most of them are unpracticed in prayer, so this suggestion creates an awkward pause. But Yule, a young Christian skateboarder (Timothée Chalamet), speaks up. “I’ve got this,” he says. Everyone joins hands around the table, and Yule begins to pray:
“Dearest Father, Almighty Creator, we ask for your grace tonight, despite our pride; your forgiveness, despite our doubt. Most of all, Lord, we ask for your love, to soothe us through these dark times. May we face whatever is to come in your divine will with courage and open hearts of acceptance. Amen.”
Somewhere across the globe, the comet strikes, and an immense tsunami begins to swallow planetary life like the biblical flood. Yes, there is a parodic ark, reserved for the billionaires, bearing them to a justly ironic fate in a galaxy far, far away. But the true ark of the righteous remnant is that Michigan dining room.
In their final minute on earth, the men and women around the table discuss small, ordinary blessings like the store-bought apple pie and the delicious home-brewed coffee. In an inspired ad-lib that had occurred to DiCaprio between takes, Dr. Mindy speaks his last words:
“Thing of it is, we really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean, when you think about it.”
The simple human beauty of this last supper, more than the script’s many earnest pleadings, makes the film’s best case for preserving the world. It seems no accident that the one who sets the spiritual tone is named Yule, an old word for Christmas. Even at history’s last moment, Love is being made flesh.
Then, as the walls around them begin to disintegrate, the screen goes suddenly dark. The circle of human love has vanished into the Divine Mystery.
After watching Don’t Look Up, I came across a poem by John Hollander which articulates for me the feeling of this moving finale. “At the New Year” is about the new beginnings that emerge from all the endings—those moments when we feel “every door in the world shutting at once.” Then the poet prays, “let it come at a time like this, not at winter’s / Night,” but “at a golden / Moment just on the edge of harvesting, ‘Yes. Now.’ / … as we go / Quietly on with what we shall be doing, and sing / Thanks for being enabled, again, to begin this instant.” [xviii]
So the apocalypse ends not with a bang, but with a softly spoken thanks for everything. Even when the worst arrives, the answering word is Yes, and the circle of love goes “quietly on with what we shall be doing,” and singing our thanks. Every moment, even the last one, is a gift to be savored. May our own precious moments on this earth be hallowed with gratitude, acceptance, and trust, now and at the hour of our death.
The turning of the year is the only ritual observance shared universally by humankind. Each religion has its own sacred days scattered across the months, but tonight everyone on earth will join in one great procession, time zone by time zone, into the New Year. We pause a moment to look back, with a mixture of gratitude and regret; then we turn our faces toward the unwritten future. We usually do this with gleeful clamor and warm embraces, welcoming the New with our brightest hopes. The arrival of 2022 may strike a more tentative note.
In my seven years of blogging, I have written a reflection every New Year’s Eve. Most of those posts have been about hope. On the eve of 2017, with my country “teetering on the brink of insanity and ruin,” I hoped that we would “not to be mesmerized by the abyss,” but rather be on the watch for the divine ingenuity “already and always at work amid the blind sufferings of history.”
Three years later, with the flag of hope tattered and torn by endless battles, I drew inspiration from Thoreau, who continued his quiet work of studying the natural world even as the Civil War ravaged the American consciousness. We must, he argued, refuse the hypnotic spell of the chaos which seeks to seduce our gaze. The refusal to take our eye from the transcendent goodness and beauty at the heart of things is “the only fatal weapon you can direct against evil.”
At the end of 2021, such spiritual poise feels elusive, if not unimaginable. This was supposed to be the year we returned to normal. With COVID now raging like the fires and storms of climate change, and our body politic critically ill with malice and madness, normal is no longer on the itinerary.
Didier Maleuvre, a specialist in the study of Western culture, describes hope as an inherently perilous task: “So long as one hopes, one puts oneself at the mercy of the future.” Isn’t that where we find ourselves on the eve of 2022—at the mercy of the future? It is an unnerving time for sure, and few of us will be stepping so bravely into the New Year tonight.
Yet we must, now more than ever, light our candles in this dark and declare our fidelity to the dawn, whenever and however it may come. God desires a better world. However our follies may frustrate and obstruct divine hope, God is wiser than despair. “Behold,” says the Holy One, “I make all things new.”[i] May we all heed the summons to embody that great redemptive labor in our own stories, whether it be in small acts of kindness or collective works of social and spiritual transformation.
The world as we know it is passing away. But death is never the final meaning, only the portal to new birth. Can we embrace this moment in time as an invitation to radical transformation? The Indian writer Arundhati Roy expresses such a hope:
“What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus … It has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”[ii]
Dear reader, I believe that our faith and our love, as well as our hope, will be severely tested in the coming year. When the demons of weariness and discouragement do their worst, remember the Paschal Mystery: The way down is the way up.
When Dante’s descent into the abyss of Hell reached its deepest point, his downward trajectory ceased. Once the poet passed through the nadir—the center of the earth—his motion became, without a change in direction, an ascent back toward the surface. His journey taught him that even the “lightless way,” if you take it far enough, is bound for glory.
… we climbed the dark until we reached the point where a round opening brought in sight the blest
and beauteous shining of the Heavenly cars. And we walked out once more beneath the Stars. [iii]
Dear readers, thank you for engaging with my posts over the last year. I am especially grateful when your own thinking is stirred or your soul is fed by what you find here. My work is to pass on whatever comes to me in reading, experience and the occasional inspiration, planting what seeds I can in the community garden. It is a labor of love. To all who take the time to write a comment or share a post with others, thank you for valuing and extending the conversation.
I wish for you both courage and joy in the New Year. Keep tending the fires of hope!
For summaries and links for previous New Year’s Eve posts, click here.
[ii] Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” in Freedom. Fascism. Fiction, (New York: Penguin, 2020). This quote has been widely posted on the Internet, and you can see her read the full text on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7hgQFaeaeo0
[iii] Dante Alighieri, Inferno xxxiv.140-143. John Ciardi translation.
In a 1998 New York Times interview, Gregory Peck reflected on the challenge of playing Ahab in Moby Dick. “I think I should have been more ferocious in pursuit of the whale, more cruel to the crew,” he said, “and I think I’d have a better grasp now of what Melville was talking about. 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.” [ii]
When you hear the stories of the saints, do you say, “I mean to be one too!”—or do you feel you’re not quite ready for the part? Maybe you’re not crazy enough, not obsessive enough, not pure enough, not loving enough. You may think, “I don’t have it in me.”
Well, you’re right. You don’t. But that’s the point. The saints don’t have it in them either. Saintliness comes from a source deeper than their own solitary selves. The true hero or heroine of a saint’s life is not the individual person, but the divine intention taking flesh in his or her story. As St. Paul said of his own life’s protagonist, “Not I, but Christ in me” (Gal. 2:20).
As Wendy Wright has written, saints “are people who have had the imagination and audacity to allow themselves to be remade slowly in the image of the living God, people who have so opened their hearts to God that God’s own story is in them once again … retold.” [iii] Every saint’s life is a unique retelling, shaped by the particulars of heredity, personality and environment, but down deep it’s always the same story, over and over again: the story of “love’s endeavor, love’s expense,”[iv] perpetually pouring itself out for the life of the world.
When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me a gilt-edged copy of one the great classics of Christian devotion, Of the Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas à Kempis in the early 15th century. My father wrote in the front, “We hope that this book will bring you closer to the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Love, Mom & Dad.”
Although not all of Thomas’ late medieval spirituality resonates today, much of it still hits home.
Blessed are the ears that catch the pulse of the Divine whisper, and give no heed to the whisperings of this world … Blessed are they that prepare themselves more and more, by daily exercises, for the receiving of heavenly secrets. Blessed are they who are glad to have time to spare for God.[v]
O my friend, lose not thy confidence of making progress toward the things of the Spirit; still thou hast time, the hour is not yet past. Why wilt thou defer thy good purpose from day to day? Arise, and in this very instant begin, and say, Now is the time to be doing, now is the time to be striving, now is the fit time to be amending myself.[vi]
(Mom, Dad, I’m still working on it!)
Every saint’s life is an imitation of Christ. The very structure of Christian sacred biographies reflects this theological point. In the Book of Acts, the martyrdom of Stephen—the first biography of a Christian saint—deliberately mirrors the Passion of Christ. Like Jesus, Stephen is an innocent killed by a world which refuses his message. Like Jesus, Stephen uses his final breaths to forgive his enemies and surrender his spirit to the divine. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” he prays at the end. Perhaps it’s not enough to say that Stephen was imitating Christ in his martyrdom. He was, in truth, repeating Christ, in the Pauline sense of “Christ in me.” We suggest the same sense of return and presence in the Words of Institution at every eucharist: Whenever you perform these actions, I am with you once again.
Eleven centuries after the death of Stephen, St. Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx in the north of England, lay on his deathbed, eyes closed. His friend and fellow monk, Walter Daniel, leaned over to whisper in his ear, “Look on the cross; let your eye be where your heart is.” Aelred opened his eyes for just a moment, and spoke his last words: “In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum” (“Into your hands I commend my spirit.”) Once again, the surrender of spirit by a dying saint echoes the last words of Jesus from the cross in Luke 23:46.
In fact, unlike Stephen’s paraphrase, it was a direct quote. Did Walter, Aelred’s biographer, insert the verse from Luke into his abbot’s mouth as a pious fiction, or had Aelred in fact repeated Christ’s words verbatim? In the genre of sacred biography, we don’t need to know the factual answer. Holy stories are always about more than what a camera or microphone can record. As narratives straddling the mysterious boundary between the human and the divine, their language dives beneath the empirical surface to explore the hidden depths. Hyperbole, metaphor, miracle—these are all rhetorical tools to convey the inherently mysterious nature of religious experience.
As Thomas J. Heffernan points out in his seminal study of sacred biographies,“Walter would argue, and his monastic audience would agree, that Aelred’s death has become more memorable because it is now able to arouse in us the memory of another death, the death of Christ, which is the paradigm for the manner in which all Christian martyrs are meant to surrender to God.” [vii]
When it comes to saints, it is not in the historical particulars of their stories, however interesting, edifying, or inspiring, that the central meaning of their lives is to be found, but rather in the way their stories imitate, or repeat, the Christ event, as divine love takes place anew in the flesh of our human existence. As hymn writer Isaac Watts summarized this process:
“The image of Christ is transcribed upon our natures, we go from one degree of it to another, we are changed from glory into glory, from one degree of glorious holiness to another: thereby the gospel appears to have a fairer, brighter, and a stronger evidence.” [viii] We, having Christ in us, become the evidence for the truth of Christian faith.
In other words, saints are living icons, radiant with the light of heaven—even if they sometimes have messy and complicated lives. Take, for example, Elizaveta Pilenko. Born to a wealthy Russian family in 1891, she was caught up in the revolutionary movement during her late teens. She briefly flirted with a plot to assassinate Trotsky (Russian politics were deadly even then). But at the same time, her Orthodox faith was beginning to deepen. She fled the Stalinist regime for Paris in the 1920s, by which time her second marriage, like her first, had failed, and a daughter had died of influenza.
In her new home, she began a ministry to the poor, and her bishop encouraged her to take vows as a nun. She did so, receiving her religious name, Maria Skobtsova. She was permitted to continue to live and work among the people, and her rented Parisian house had an open door for refugees and lost souls. Her bishop called her faux monastery “the desert of human hearts.”
She wasn’t exactly easy for her sister nuns. She wore odd clothes, and hung out in cafes and bars late into the night, counseling people on the brink of despair. She also missed many liturgies while off scrounging food for her soup kitchens in the markets of Las Halles. She’s been called the Orthodox Dorothy Day.
When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Mother Maria sheltered many Jews, supplying them with baptismal certificates and assisting their escape. Eventually arrested by the Gestapo, she died in the gas chamber at Ravensbrück on Holy Saturday, 1945. She was canonized as St. Mary of Paris in 2004.
Mother Maria was also a writer of poetry and theology. Listen to what she said about the Christian life as a continual self-emptying:
“Renunciation teaches us not only that we not greedily seek advantages for our soul but that we not be stingy, that we always be extravagant in our love, that we achieve a spiritual nakedness, that our soul hold nothing back, that we not hold back anything sacred and valuable which we would not be ready to give up in Christ’s name to those who need it …That which was given away returns. The love which was expended never diminishes the source of that love, because the source of love in our hearts is Love itself, Christ… Here we are speaking about a genuine emptying out, in a partial imitation of how Christ emptied himself by becoming incarnate in humanity. We must likewise empty ourselves out completely, becoming, so to speak, incarnate in another human soul, offering it to the full measure of God’s image which is contained in ourselves.” [ix]
Now when we hear a prescription like that, we may worry, as Gregory Peck did over Melville’s Ahab, about our capacity to perform such a demanding role. What we need to remember is this: the subject of our life is not our individual, autonomous self, but the transcendent, empowering Christ who dwells within us. In a recent podcast, Mark Harris, one of my most eloquent priestly friends, made this point perfectly. “When I look at the heroes I have in terms of justice ministries,” he said, “they are people who live into this to the point of self-emptying. They get out of the way finally. It’s not about their being good; it’s about good being done. So it’s God’s justice that’s done, not them doing justice.” [x]
Heavenly Adam, Life divine Change my nature into Thine; Move and spread throughout my soul; Activate and fill the whole; Be it I no longer now Living in the flesh, but Thou.
— Charles Wesley
Our own holiness practice may not entail the rigors or reach the heights of the greatest saints. Most of us are called to what Thérèse of Lisieux described as “the Little Way.” As a dreamy teenager, Thérèse thought it would be simply thrilling to be a saint:
“I would be a Martyr … I would be a Missionary. I would be flayed like St. Bartholomew, plunged into boiling oil like St. John, or, like St. Ignatius of Antioch, I would be ground by the teeth of wild beasts into bread worthy of God. With St. Agnes and St. Cecilia I would offer my neck to the sword of the executioner, and like St. Joan of Arc I would murmur the name of Jesus at the stake.” [xi]
However, such heroic drama would be denied her. After a brief and uneventful life hidden within a Carmelite cloister, she died from tuberculosis at 24. But her autobiography, detailing her efforts to respond to the smallest, most ordinary moments with a loving, patient and generous heart, would inspire countless faithful around the world. “I am only a very little soul,” she said, “who can only offer very little things to the Lord.”
Fr. Alban Butler, who in the 18th century compiled the most extensive compendium of saintly lives in the English language, also made the point that sanctity can be a practical, everyday kind of holiness:
“Perfection consists not in raptures and lofty contemplation; nor in austerities, or any extraordinary actions: for thus, it would have been above the reach of many. But God has placed it in what is easy, and in every one’s power. The rich and poor, the learned and unlearned may equally aim at perfection: for it requires only that we perform our daily actions in a spirit of true Christian virtue … we must be holy not by fits, but by habit … it is then our ordinary actions performed in a true spirit of virtue … which must sanctify our lives.” [xii]
We must be holy not by fits, but by habit, performing our ordinary actions in a true spirit of virtue.
Blessed are those who rise and shine. Blessed are those who lend a hand. Blessed are those who listen. Blessed are those who take the time. Blessed are those who speak kindly. Blessed are those who smile at strangers. Blessed are those who plant. Blessed are those who raise children. Blessed are those who teach. Blessed are those who provide our meals. Blessed are those who do the hard things. Blessed are those who look with compassion. Blessed are those who do justice. Blessed are those who wonder. Blessed are those who welcome. Blessed are those who nurture. Blessed are those who care. Blessed are those who struggle with failing bodies. Blessed are those who suffer. Blessed are the broken. Blessed are those who know loss. Blessed are those who persist. Blessed are those who surrender. Blessed are those who remember hope. Blessed are those who practice resurrection.
“To be a saint,” says Frederick Buechner, “is to live not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and receive with gladness.” [xiii] You see, it’s very simple to be a saint. Just open your hands, and your heart.
The greatest cinematic depiction of sainthood is Robert Bresson’s Diary of a CountryPriest, based on George Bernanos’ novel of the same name. The unnamed priest is rejected by many in his village, but it is clear to a few—and to the viewer—that Christ is truly in him. The priest experiences what he calls “the miracle of our empty hands!—that we may give what we do not possess!” Claude Laydu, the non-professional who played the part, threw himself into the role, living with working-class priests, adopting an austere diet, studying the novel throughout the shoot, and submitting without question to Bresson’s strict direction. As critic Tony Pipolo writes, “The very qualities this behavior manifests—obedience, obsessive concentration, a combination of fire and composure, and genuine dedication—were exactly those Bresson sought for his curé.”[xiv] But only after viewing the finished film would Laydu recognize the true nature of his role. “I didn’t know I was playing a saint,” he confessed. I think all the saints would say pretty much the same thing.
I’ll give the last word to Buechner, who writes about saints as well as any. In a novel about Brendan of Ireland, his protagonist sums it up beautifully:
“[God] wants each one of us to have a loving heart … When all’s said and done, perhaps that’s the length and breadth of it.” [xv]
[i] Cited in Tony Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 71.
[ii] Gregory Peck New York Times interview in 1988, quoted in William Grimes’ New York Times obituary for Mr. Peck, June 13, 2003.
[iii] Wendy Wright, “For all the saints,” in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life (Vol. III, No. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1988), 17-18.
[iv] From W. H. Vanstone’s hymn, “Morning glory, starlit sky” (Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #585). The endeavor and expense are spelled out in verse 3: “Love that gives, gives evermore, / gives with zeal, with eager hands, / spares not, keeps not, all outpours, / ventures all, its all expends.”
We pray for the dead, believing that, as they are drawn nearer to God, they are enabled to grow in the knowledge and understanding of God, in the service of God, and in the joy and fulfillment of God’s renewing love. We do not pray for the dead as those without hope, but trusting that the faithfulness of God will bring them to the completion and bliss for which every human soul was created.
On All Souls Day (November 2), we call the dead to mind with stories, mementos, photographs, and rituals. In some ways, the dead never leave us. We still use the language they invented, live in the houses they built, learn from their wisdom, pay for their sins. And we carry their DNA inside our bodies. Bill Holm, a Minnesota poet, has noted the strong resemblances between his own living and dead:
When Jona at sixty traveled to her father’s farm in Iceland, the relatives looked down at bony knuckles, veins popping up, said: “See! She has the Josephson hands even after a hundred years…”
Now, when I bellow at parties, or look down at my own hands; knuckles growing, veins rising as I age, I think: I’ll be living with all these dead people inside me. How will I ever feed them? They taught me, dragging carcasses a thousand winters across the tundra inside their own bodies. [iii]
“How will I ever feed them?” We certainly contain and nurture the legacy of the dead in our culture, in our very bodies, but is there any form of continuing relation with the dead as discrete entities who remain other than ourselves? Do the dead still exist somewhere, and can we still be in relation with them? In both the Odyssey and the Aeneid, the hero descends to the underworld to speak with the dead and get their advice. However eerie, it was a sensible quest. The dead have “been there, done that.” They possess the voice of experience. Robert Pogue Harrison explains what Homer and Virgil were up to when they put words in the mouths of the shades in Hades: “We lend voice to the dead so that they may speak to us from their underworld—address us, instruct us, reprove us, bless us, enlighten us, and in general alleviate the historical terror and loneliness of being in the world.” [iv]
As a person of faith, I believe this continuing presence to be more than the lingering effects of the departed on our bodies and our psyches. The communion of the living and the dead possesses an ontological dimension. The afterlife has an existence, a reality, outside our imagination. And it is not only in the past. It is part of our present, and our future. Whether we live or die, we all belong to a larger divine wholeness—“all the company of heaven”— from which we can never be separated. This wholeness, for which there are many names, is the Love that binds us all together. This interconnection, this “communion of saints,” cannot be broken, even by death.
Such radical sense of interdependence, where we all, as John Donne put it, “lie open to one another,” may not come naturally to people who value privacy and individuality and have the means to live without others. Among the world’s poor, however, survival depends on mutuality. People pool and share their resources, with no illusions that they can make it on their own. Community and family are absolutely necessary, and this solidarity is not broken by death.
In her study of Mexico’s Días de los muertos, Juanita Garciagodoy writes that the poor do not regard the self as “atomistic, independent of the social body that constitutes its extended family and community. The physical body is not the private property of its owner with the array of rights to privacy and individualism and the independence from relations, friends, and neighbors the body of the typical “first worlder” claims. People are felt to be connected radically.” This connectedness includes the departed, as the Days of the Dead make clear. “Those people’s spirits are still part of the unit of the living. There is no question about their desert to be humored, fed, entertained, and regaled on dates of remembrance. Those who live with this understanding know that no one is an island.” [v]
Dead or alive, we’re all in this together. The Mexican calaveras, cartoonish depictions of skeletons performing the activities of the living, make this point with comedic verve. I once saw a woodcut of three skeletons in festive dress, arms around each other, smiling and waving as they looked me in the eye. Below them, like a postcard greeting, were the words, Wish you were here!
My father died when I was 21. One of my best friends died when we were 30. But for the most part, death kept its distance in my younger days. Lately, however, the losses have begun to mount. The pandemic, tragically, has taken vast multitudes—“a huge number, impossible to count.”[vi] And on a personal level, the vanishing of loved ones grows way too frequent now that I’ve reached a certain age. In the past few years, I’ve addressed personal loss in my writing, and in honor of All Souls, my Day of the Dead “altar” will be a brief florilegium—flowers for the dead, if you will— from four of my requiem posts.
This is the story that God’s friends stake their lives on: God has loved us into existence. God sustains us every step of our life’s journey. And even after our bodies give out, God loves us too much to let us go.
Bill Fisher, born five days earlier than I, was a close friend for 59 years. In his final days, after he slipped into unconsciousness, I gave him last rites, and his earthly companions sang him to rest. In Paradisum: On the Death of a Friend, describes what happened next.
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
I want to go with you to the other side of the light where we’ll see what the shadow reveals will be such a relief … time in its disguises won’t fool us anymore …
Days tumble on with minds of their own they breathe in our lives, and make them their own and time, time disappears like the wind from a sail … and every good day will be just another good day of eternal life. [vii]
Anise Stevens, my sister’s child, left us far too soon at age 49. She died in the first minute of dawn on New Year’s Day, 2019. Through my tears, I preached “Trailing clouds of glory” at her requiem.
In her last weeks, Anise wondered about what lay ahead. That is the question. My sister Martha said to me before the funeral that her daughter is “on her way.” Then she recited Wordsworth’s evocative image of the next life as our native home to which we shall one day return:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting And cometh from afar; Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home. [viii]
I have always found Wordsworth’s hopeful and exuberant spirit an inspiration, so much so that I marked my fiftieth birthday with a pilgrimage to the poet’s grave. After nine miles of rambling through the Arcadian charms of English countryside, I arrived at dusk. I had brought along my copy of The Prelude, with two wildflowers from home, an orange California poppy and a pink Farewell-to-Spring, pressed within its pages. As a quarter moon set over the darkening hills beyond St. Oswald’s churchyard, I took out the flowers and laid them on the grassy grave. Then, in the fading light of a summer evening, I spoke the lines which epitomize my own trust in the providence and grace of the human journey:
The earth is all before me. With a heart Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty, I look about; and should the chosen guide Be nothing better than a wandering cloud, I cannot miss my way. I breathe again! [ix]
[i] Martin Brokenleg, “Mitakuya owasin: You are all my relatives,” in The Witness, Vol. 76, No. 11 (Nov. 1993), p. 8. Brokenleg is an Episcopal priest and a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.
[ii] Jon Hart Olson, newsletter of Christ Church, OntarIo, CA (Nov. 1994). Jon was an Episcopal priest, colleague, mentor and friend.
[iii] Bill Holm, “Genealogy,” in The Dead Get By with Everything (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1991) 14.
[iv] Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) 150-1.
[v] Juanita Garciagodoy, Digging the Days of the Dead (Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2000), 269.
[vi] Revelation 7:9, from the liturgical readings for All Saints Day.
[viii] William Wordsworth, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Chiidhood.”
[ix] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, I.14-18. Wordsworth’s image is a happy reversal of Milton’s melancholy account of the Expulsion from Paradise, where the first humans’ outward journey has dimmer prospects: “The World was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: / They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way” (Paradise Lost, 646-649).
Jesus was walking out of Jericho, surrounded by a big crowd. Like all such crowds, it was a mix of the curious and the adoring. Jesus was at the height of his popularity. He stirred people’s imaginations and raised their hopes. The excitement was palpable. But amid all the festive clamor, a single shout brought this parade to a sudden halt:
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It was a blind beggar, sitting by the roadside. His name was Bartimaeus. “Shush,” people said. “Don’t make a scene.” But he cried all the louder: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And Jesus stood still, just the way the sun had stood still in the sky for Joshua in that same city of Jericho.
“Call him here,” Jesus said. And so they did. “Take heart!” they told him. “Get up. He is calling you.”
Immediately, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, sprang to his feet, and came to Jesus. Then Jesus asked him a question that went straight to the point: “What do you want me to do for you?”
“My teacher,” he said, “Let me see again.” And what Bartimaeus asked, Jesus granted.
— Mark 10: 46-52
In Mark’s gospel, this is the last miracle performed by Jesus before he goes to his death in Jerusalem. It marks the fatal turning point between his ministry and his Passion. It is our Lord’s last act, his last word, before beginning the Way of the Cross. To the world, that looked like the path to oblivion. But to those who have been given the eyes of faith, the Way of the Cross, as we pray every Holy Week, is “none other than the way of life and peace.”
And thus the healing of Bartimaeus is not just the story of one man’s good fortune. It is an invitation to each of us to perceive and receive the vision of salvation which is about to unfold. Mark is telling us that if you want to understand the Paschal Mystery of Passion and Resurrection, you need to open your eyes. And it is crucial to note that the climactic words of this story are not “he regained his sight,” but rather, “he followed him on the way.” Once you see what God is doing through Jesus, then it’s your turn to take up your own cross and follow.
Let there be light!” says the God of Genesis. “I am the light of the world,” says the God incarnate.
And yet, in the story leading up to this moment, even Jesus’ closest friends have suffered their own blindness. “Are your minds closed?” he chides them. “Have you eyes and do not see?” But they go on missing the point again and again. To their credit, they continue to follow Jesus. They are drawn to him, they know something is happening here—but they don’t know what it is. “Do you not yet understand?” Jesus sighs. I’m sure he said this more than once.
And then, after repeated examples of the disciples’ blindness throughout Mark’s gospel, suddenly we hear a plaintive voice cry out from the crowd: “Jesus! Have mercy on me. Remove this grievous blindness.”
That’s our prayer too, isn’t it? Lord, take away our blindness.Help us to see. And Jesus replies, “I thought you’d never ask!”
St. Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, was one of many theologians who have shared Mark’s diagnosis of the human condition as one of persistent blindness:
“Humanity was created for this end, that it might see ‘good,’ which is God; but because humanity would not stand in the light, [in fleeing from the light] it lost its eyes… We subjected ourselves to blindness, that we should not see the interior light.”
St. Augustine described the interior eye, our capacity to see the things of God, as “bruised and wounded” by the transgression of Adam and Eve, who, he says, “began to dread the Divine light [and] fled back into darkness, anxious for the shade.”
Refusing to stand in the light… subjecting ourselves to blindness. Is this what we do? Are we truly so “anxious for the shade?”
Arthur Zajonc is a quantum physicist who became fascinated with the literal dimensions of this question, examining case histories of blind people who recovered their sight. In his book, Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind, he tells of an 8-year-old boy, blind at birth from cataracts, who underwent surgery in the year 1910. When the time came to remove his bandages, the doctor was very hopeful. He waved his hand in front of the boy’s eyes, which were now physically perfect.
“What do you see?” asked the doctor. “I don’t know,” the boy replied. “Can’t you see my hand moving?” said the doctor. “I don’t know,” said the boy.
The boy’s eyes did not follow the doctor’s slowly moving hand, but stared straight ahead. He only saw a varying brightness before him. Then the doctor asked him to touch his hand as it moved, and the boy cried out in a voice of triumph, “It’s moving!” He could feel it move, and even, as he said, could “hear it move,” but it would take laborious effort to learn to see it move.
As that first light passed through the child’s newly clear black pupils, it called forth no echoing image from within. His sight, Zajonc tells us, began as a hollow, silent, dark and frightening kind of seeing. The light of day beckoned, but no light of mind replied within the boy’s anxious, open eyes.
“The sober truth” says Zajonc, “remains that vision requires far more than a functioning physical organ. Without an inner light, without a formative visual imagination, we are blind.”
This echoes Augustine’s description of our “bruised and wounded” inner eye. What is it that makes us so unable to process what is before us, to see what is being offered to our open eyes?
The mystical Anglican poet Thomas Traherne framed an answer in the ornately vivid language of the seventeenth century:
“As my body without my soul is a carcass, so is my Soul without Thy Spirit, a chaos, a dark obscure heap of empty faculties ignorant of itself, unsensible of Thy goodness, blind to Thy glory.”
And what are the causes of this abysmal state? he asks. They are several.
“[The Light within us is eclipsed] by the customs and manners of [others], which like contrary winds blew it out: by an innumerable company of other objects, rude, vulgar and worthless things, that like so many loads of earth and dung did overwhelm and bury it: by the impetuous torrent of wrong desires in all others whom I saw and knew that carried me away … from it: by a whole sea of other matters and concernments that covered and drowned it…”
“Contrary winds” blowing out the Light within us… being overwhelmed by “an innumerable company… of rude, vulgar and worthless things”… “the impetuous torrent of wrong desires” – does any of that sound familiar? Who among us has not had days like that, or even years like that? Is that not the world we live in today?
Not long after Traherne wrote those words, another English writer, John Bunyan, told the story of two pilgrims, named Christian and Faithful, who came upon Vanity Fair, a kind of shopping mall where all the transitory pleasures of this world were on seductive display.
“What will ye buy?” cried one of the merchants. And Christian and Faithful replied, “We buy the truth!”
This was clearly the wrong answer, for the two pilgrims were immediately set upon, beaten, smeared with mud, thrown in a cage, and finally put on trial. The jury was rigged, led by Mr. Blind Man and Mr. Hate-Light. “Guilty,” they cried, and Faithful was put to death. But Christian managed to escape, and his journey into God continued.
Bunyan’s allegorical constructs seem quaintly archaic today, but Vanity Fair is still with us, with its endless commodification of unsatisfiable desires. And Mr. Hate-Light is still at work, generating the ceaseless illusions that blind us to the beauty of holiness.
Now once Christian had escaped Vanity Fair, he still had to pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where the light was so scarce, and the path so narrow, that he was in constant danger of stumbling into the ditch on his right or the quagmire on his left.
But Christian was not without hope in that dark valley. As Isaiah says, the God of light travels with us:
I shall lead the blind by a road they do not know… I shall turn the darkness into light before them, and the quagmire into solid ground. (Isa 42:16)
All of us, deep down, want the light. All of us need the light. But sometimes we resist the light, or run away from it, or shut our eyes to it. There are things we’d rather not see, in the world or in ourselves. Illuminating our dark places can feel like a judgment, as if the light were accusing our shadows.
In Franco Zefferelli’s film, Jesus of Nazareth, we meet another blind man at the pool of Bethsaida in Jerusalem, but unlike Bartimaeus, he is deathly afraid of being healed. “Leave my eyes alone!” he shouts. “Stop touching my eyes!”
After analyzing sixty-six cases of blind people who had recovered their sight, Arthur Zajonc would concur with Zeffirelli’s portrayal of our resistance to an enlarged perception of the world:
“The project of learning to see,” he writes, “inevitably leads to a psychological crisis in the life of the patients, who may wind up rejecting sight. New impressions threaten the security of a world previously built upon the sensations of touch and hearing. Some decided it is better to be blind in their own world than sighted in an alien one… The prospect of growth is as much a prospect of loss, and threat to security, as a bounty.”
In other words, opening our eyes to a more truthful clarity can be scary—no more fictions or illusions about the state of the world or the state of our souls. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (I John 1:8). Seeing—clearly and accurately—the fallenness of our broken world—and our wounded selves—is a painful revelation. Once we face facts, transformation is the only way forward. We must change our life. A new way of seeing demands a new way of being. We can either fight that divine summons, like the man in the Zeffirelli film (Don’t touch my eyes!), or we can jump up and embrace it, like Bartimaeus.
But it’s not just the wrongness of things which is hidden by our blindness. The truth is, there is also so much blessing and beauty in this world, eagerly waiting to be discerned and embraced. And whatever our doubts and fears about losing our protective blindness, the beauty revealed will be worth the price. It’s the beauty of God’s future—what Jesus called the Kingdom. We often think of the Kingdom as impossibly distant, but it is possible to glimpse it even now, in this present age. We only need the eyes to see.
This healing of our inner eye, this recovery of the divine Light within us, is perfectly expressed in a passage from Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Her protagonist, Jean-Marie Latour, a nineteenth-century missionary bishop to the territory of New Mexico, is discussing visions and miracles with his Vicar.
“Where there is great love,” he says, “there are always miracles. One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love .… The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is about us always.”
Human vision corrected by divine love. How blessed are they who receive such a miracle!
Let us close by hearing the gospel story one more time, succinctly told by John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” in an old American shape note hymn called “Villulia.”
“Mercy, O thou Son of David, thus poor blind Bartimaeus prayed. “Others by thy grace are saved, now afford to me thine aid.”
Money was not what he wanted, though by begging used to live; but he asked, and Jesus granted alms which none but he could give.
“Lord, remove this grievous blindness, let mine eyes behold the day.” Straight he saw, and, won by kindness, followed Jesus in the way.
Summer has just ended, twenty minutes past noon in the Pacific Northwest. I am always sorry to see it go. The languorous days, granting us license to play and to dream, now bid us farewell. The year’s shadowless noon gives way to the urgencies of time. Poet Penelope Shuttle describes September’s turning point with succinct perfection: “The year changing its mind.” [ii] The autumn may be agreeably mellow at first, but we all know where it’s headed. Every Arcadia must fail in the end, every Paradise be lost.
Yesterday I made my final communion with summer in a tranquil float down the Deschutes River. Ponderosa pines, willows and tall grasses lined the banks. Snowy egrets swept past on radiant wings. An osprey spiraled upward into the blue. My mind sank into stillness. I knew nothing but Now.
When I threw some books into my suitcase for an end-of-summer vacation in eastern Oregon, I didn’t realize how autumnal my reading would turn out to be. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople—before he turned 20—preserves his vivid memories of an exotic world, from shepherds’ campfires in the Carpathian wilds to the sumptuous libraries in the country estates of cultured Austro-Hungarian patricians. But Fermor didn’t write his trilogy until he was an old man, long after the Middle Europe of 1934 had been swept away. The reader feels the shadow of not only lost youth but also a lost world. [iii]
Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages documents the passing away, in the cultural imagination of France and the Netherlands, of chivalric dreams of a more beautiful life. Before the sadness of fate and history set the dominant tone, says Huizinga, “in many respects life still wore the color of fairy tales.” [iv] At the end of the 14thcentury, a French poet summed up the spirit of his despondent age:
La fin s’approche, en verité … Tout va mal.
The end is truly near … Everything is going bad. [v]
At a time when so much of our own “reality” seems to be a fading dream—democracy, climate, human health, civic sanity—the poet’s autumnal lament rings true. Happily, I brought a third book, containing a cure for such melancholy themes. In Thomas Merton’s journal of his experiences in the far East, the Catholic contemplative wonders whether he is seeing the “real Asia,” or simply finding “an illusion of Asia that needed to be dissolved by experience.” In a deep valley within the Himalayan foothills, he is instructed by the landscape:
“What does this valley have? Landslides. Hundreds of them. The mountains are terribly gashed, except where the forest is thick. Whole sections of tea plantations were carried away six weeks ago. And it is obviously going to be worse the next time there are really heavy rains. The place is a frightening example of annicca—‘impermanence.’ A good place, therefore, to adjust one’s perspectives. I find my mind rebelling against the landslides. I am distracted by reforestation projects and other devices to deny them, to forbid them. I want all this to be permanent. A permanent postcard for meditation, daydreams. The landslides are ironic and silent comments on the apparent permanence, the ‘eternal snows’ of solid [Mount] Kanchenjunga.”
The landslides become Merton’s teacher. Stability is an illusion. Even the great Himalayan mountain, in all its sublime majesty, is subject to impermanence. Once this is accepted, Merton is liberated from autumnal sadness, and a measure of Edenic summer knowledge is restored. He can live in the given moment, accepting its blessings with a peaceful, unanxious heart.
“The sun is high, at the zenith. Clear soft sound of a temple bell far down in the valley. Voices of children near the cottages above me on the mountainside. The sun is warm. Everything falls into place. Nothing is to be decided … There is nothing to be judged.” [vi]
Photographs by the author.
[i] Reprinted in The Heart of Autumn: Poems for the Season of Reflection, ed. Robert Atwan (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 16. This fine anthology is one of a series on poetry of the 4 seasons.
[iii] I am currently reading the 2nd volume of the trilogy, Between the Woods and Water (New York: New York Review of Books, 1986/2005).
[iv] Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. Rodney J. Payton & Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 9. This more recent translation is much preferable to the one I read in my youth, The Waning of the Middle Ages.
[v] Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406), in Huizinga, 35.
[vi] Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal (New York: New Directions, 1975), 150-151.
“Wandering away from everything, giving up everything, not me anymore, not any of it.”
— Agnes Martin
In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Herman Melville’s notoriously perplexing short story, his principal character speaks just thirty-seven lines, over a third of them variations on a simple declaration: “I would prefer not to.” Having taken a job copying documents in a law firm, he offers that same maddening reply to every request. He prefers not to perform assigned tasks, or to explain why. When finally discharged by his boss, he prefers not to leave the premises. When, in the end, he lands in jail, he prefers “not to dine,” and dies of starvation.
The story is narrated by his employer, who finds himself “strangely goaded on” to discover the motivation for Bartleby’s eccentric behavior.
“Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable except from the original sources, and, in his case, those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him.” [i]
For his employer, Bartleby remains an unknowable blank, an impenetrable opacity. His past is unknown; he is barely present in the here and now. As Elizabeth Hardwick describes him, “Bartleby is not a character in the manner of the usual, imaginative, fictional construction. And he is not a character as we know them in life, with their bundling bustle of details … He is indeed only words, wonderful words, and very few of them.” [ii]
Every attempt by the bewildered narrator to categorize or interpret his eccentric employee vanishes into the black hole of Bartleby’s essential unknowability. Neither reader nor narrator can solve the puzzle of his abiding negation. And what is true of Bartleby the character is also true of “Bartleby” the story.
Literary critics and perplexed readers have been trying to explain Melville’s tale for 168 years. Bartleby is clinically depressed. He’s the existential resistance to a deadening, soulless economy. He’s the embodiment of modernity’s “sickness unto death,” the enervation of purpose and will. Or the story itself is Melville’s practical joke on the reading public, luring us down the hermeneutic rabbit hole of a world without reasons. We want to know why, but in Bartleby’s world there is no why.
Bartleby came to mind this week when “the greatest gymnast in history,” Simone Biles, withdrew from the Olympic team competition after a flawed performance in her first event. The world immediately demanded explanations. Why did she prefer not to perform? Some were puzzled, even outraged, and, like Bartleby’s frustrated colleagues, they rushed to supply their own speculative interpretations.[iii] Unlike Bartleby, however, Biles made known her motivation. She told the press she was taking care of her mental health. Her body and mind had slipped “out of sync” in Tokyo, causing her to feel lost in midair during her twisting somersaults off the vault table. It’s not like dropping a pass or missing a putt. A mistake in gymnastics can mean a broken neck.
“You have to be there 100%,” she explained in a press conference. “If not, you get hurt. Today has been really stressful. I was shaking. I couldn’t nap. I have never felt like this going into a competition, and I tried to go out and have fun. But once I came out, I was like, No. My mental is not there.”
Her decision was not only good for her. It probably helped the team, which might not have medaled had she continued to underperform. And she has been credited by many for making a memorable case for self-care—mental as well as physical—in the pressure cooker of elite public performance.
In Ethan Hawke’s 2014 documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, we meet Seymour Bernstein, a celebrated concert pianist who disappointed his public by quitting the stage at age 50 after becoming “a total wreck” from the pressures of performance. When Hawke first encountered Bernstein at a dinner party and learned his story, the actor/director found himself sharing his own anxieties with the older man.
“I decided to confide with him that I’d been performing with a crippling stage fright,” said Hawke in an interview. “The bottom line of the conversation: most artists are not nervous enough .… Pianists have it worse than anybody in the world … If you have to play Carnegie Hall, and you know that one performance will define your whole life, and if you have a memory slip, or if your finger goes rogue, you’re going to be living with the ramifications of it for the rest of your life. They have anxiety like nobody else, and so he was the perfect person to talk to about how to pass through it.” [iv]
Few of us can even imagine the pressures of being the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) who is not allowed to fail, the face of the Olympics, America’s standard bearer, and the always dependable foundation of the team’s success. But her renunciation of these burdens, however temporary, may be her greatest achievement insofar as it helps athletes—and society as a whole—engage with issues of mental health and personal well-being as never before, without stigma or shame.
William James defined renunciation as “a denial made on behalf of a deeper yes.” In refusing to be shaped by the images and expectations of the world, and by renouncing the projects, desires and identities which do not originate in our deepest place, we begin to affirm and become the truth of ourselves. Taken to its furthest point, this process is a matter of dying to self and living unto God.
The medieval mystic Henry Suso taught “the science of Perfect Self-Abandonment,” the letting go of “self” in order to merge with the more of God. Until you consent to abandon your inauthentically constructed self, he counsels, “you are like a hare hiding in a bush, who is frightened by the whispering of the leaves. You are frightened every day by the griefs that come to you; you turn pale at the sight of those who speak against you; … when they praise you, you are happy; when they blame you, you are sad.” [v]
In his book, Renunciation: Acts of Abandonment by Writers, Philosophers, and Artists, Ross Posnock examines creatives who made “an exit from the public glare.” For figures of renown, self-erasure is a means of escaping the pressures of public attention, but it may also involve a more radical interior process: grappling with the ego in search of the authentic self. But dropping out of the fame game is suspicious behavior in America. If a gifted person doesn’t crave celebrity, we wonder what’s wrong with them.
One of Posnock’s subjects is the painter Agnes Martin, who fled the New York art scene in her fifties for the solitude of a remote desert mesa in New Mexico. During her forty years in the wilderness (she died at 92), she continued to make art that was highly praised for its abstract mysticism and formal beauty, but she did her best to keep herself out of sight. When a prestigious museum proposed a major retrospective of her work, she refused, fearing it would be more about her than her art, for which she claimed to be simply a transparent medium. As she told the museum, “the idea of achievement must be given up” if we are “to live truly and effectively.” [vi]
An Agnes Martin could go off the grid without creating a stir, since she was not a cultural superstar. But when the writer J. D. Salinger began to recede from public view in the 1950s after the immense success of Catcher in the Rye, curiosity about his private life grew ever more insistent and, in his mind, more oppressive.
Behind the walls of his New Hampshire hideout, he crafted his response to what Posnock calls “the culture’s defensive compulsion to label and control,” in the form of enigmatic narratives about the fictional Glass family’s spiritual quests and confusions. Like Bartleby, Salinger preferred his own life to remain a blank, letting the stories speak for themselves. “This blank is his way,” says Posnock, “of outwitting or baffling the arrogant paradigm of meaning production with its ‘menacing pressure’ to generate a legible identity for consumption …” [vii]
“A legible identity for consumption” could describe what the world has tried to make of Simone Biles, before she issued her brave and risky no “on behalf of a deeper yes.” What that deeper yes will be for her, God only knows. May she walk in Beauty.
But renunciation as a spiritual practice is something we all need to think about. Less ego. More grace. And if I were asked to find the right words for this cultural moment, I’d go with the passionate cri de couer of Salinger’s Franny Glass:
“I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite. Don’t you see that? I’m afraid I will compete—that’s what scares me. That’s why I quit the Theatre Department. Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.” [viii]
[i] Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The employer’s failure to reach any solid conclusions about Bartleby makes him an unreliable narrator for a story he does not himself understand.
[ii] Elizabeth Hardwick, American Fictions (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 9.
[iii] For the critics obsessed with national glory, Biles’ personal well being was of little use. One writer vilified her as proof that “we are raising a generation of weak people.” The deputy attorney general in her home state of Texas called her “our selfish, childish, national embarrassment.” But every gymnast, and I hope most of the public, knew better.
[v] Henry Suso (German, c. 1295-1366), cited in Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness(Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993/2008, originally published 1911), 405. I have modernized the pronouns.
In the year 1570, Michel de Montaigne, age 36, was riding “an undemanding but not very reliable horse” through the woods near his Dordogne estate. It was a leisurely outing, a respite from his duties in local politics and the management of the family lands. He was accompanied by some of his workers, one of whom decided to show off by racing his powerful farm horse to the front of the line. But the show-off misjudged the width of the path. Instead of dashing triumphantly past Montaigne’s horse, he rammed it from behind, “striking us like a thunderbolt with all his roughness and weight, knocking us over with our legs in the air.”
Montaigne flew a good ten yards beyond his fallen horse, losing consciousness when he hit the ground, “with no more movement or sensation than a log.” His companions thought him dead, and sought to carry his inert body back to his home. Along the way, however, he began to revive, “but only little by little and over so long a stretch of time that at first my sensations were closer to death than to life.”
Over the next few hours, Montaigne’s thoughts “floated on the surface of my soul … not merely free from unpleasantness but tinged with that gentle feeling which is felt by those who let themselves glide into sleep.” For that blessed interval, the pain of his body did “not belong to us.” When that pain finally entered his conscious awareness, its severity felt like a second brush with death, but without the dreamy gentleness of his initial encounter with fatal proximity.
The last thing his mind recovered was the memory of his accident. At first he thought he’d been hit by a stray bullet. The Wars of Religion had reached the Dordogne, and the distant pop of primitive firearms was not uncommon in his neighborhood. Eventually, his memory of colliding horses returned, “but that perception had been so sudden that fear had no time to be engendered by it.” And whatever happened next—his horse disappearing under him, his flight through the air, the hard landing and loss of consciousness—remained an utter blank.[a]
Although Montaigne’s Essais are an essential part of the literary canon, I must confess that I had not read his account of this unfortunate fall until my later years—last month, in fact, about twelve hours after I flew off my bicycle to make my own painful fall to earth. Such a timely reading was itself an accident. I happened to have with me Patricia Hampl’s reflections about Montaigne in The Art of the Wasted Day, and when I opened the book in my hospital room the next morning, her chapter about his fall was the next one up.
My own Montaigne moment occurred after the penultimate session of the Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, where I was spending ten days in athletics heaven. Bicycling across the University of Oregon campus at dusk, I was surprised to discover—too late!—that the sidewalk suddenly morphed into three descending steps, the kind of impossible shape-shifting that only happens in bad dreams or cartoon catastrophes. I remember a violent bounce off the first step, but not what happened next. I probably squeezed the brakes, pitching the bike into a forward roll and throwing me into space, but I retain no memory of my flight path. I can only recall the moment of impact and the immediate sensation of pain in my right side and shoulder. Thankfully, my head was untouched. Unlike Montaigne, however, I did not drift in a painless state of gentle detachment. But I did have the experience of a certain doubleness in my awareness. While part of me was howling with pain, another part was busy assessing the damage, noting the details, and wondering at the strangeness of my new reality.
Thanks be to God, I was soon supplied with angels of mercy—three students, plus a nurse who had finished her shift at a Catholic hospital only two blocks away. These angels helped me hobble to the emergency room. After two days in hospital, I was on the highway home with my wife at the wheel. Three and a half weeks later, I’m pretty much back to normal life while awaiting the orthopedic verdict on a displaced clavicle.
“I am myself the matter of this book,” said Montaigne of his immense and influential collection of essays. Although his voice is very personal in its wide-ranging reflections on self and world, vivid stories about himself are rare in his writings. Many have attributed the inclusion of his riding accident to its significance as a turning point for Montaigne. A year after his fall, he would withdraw from the world for a life of reading, thinking, and writing. For the next 22 years until his death, he spent the majority of his days philosophizing in the stone tower adjacent to his house.
His near-death experience had produced a clarity of purpose. Close encounters with extinction tend to focus the mind on what truly matters. Since I’m not going to be here that long, how shall I spend the time that remains? But what happened to Montaigne was more than a sense of heightened resolve. It also sparked a new perception of how consciousness works. Hampl describes this pivotal shift:
“In being knocked off his horse, he experienced the doubleness necessary to empower personally voiced writing. He experienced the fall—but he also observed the fall. Both. In separate but related strands of consciousness he experienced, and he saw the experience.”[b]
Hampl compares Montaigne’s fall to the conversion of Saul. While the Book of Acts (9:1-6) says only that Saul “fell to the ground” in the face of blinding revelation, Caravaggio’s biblical painting makes it a fall from a horse, dramatizing the image of transformation as a great tumble from the heights of control and self-assurance, terminating in a shocking, shattering thud. Thus did Saul become Paul, someone altogether new.
As for Montaigne, he might not have invented the personal essay had he not first been knocked silly, discovering in the process that the self is not just trapped within its own individual experience, but is capable of a larger, less narcissistic, more reflective understanding of mind and world. As Hampl writes, Montaigne’s head wound “gave him a new, enlarged consciousness. In his Essais he found the purpose of this self: to see and then to say. The personal essay was born of a smack upside the head.”[c]
Montaigne’s fall changed the course of his life, but it also changed his relation to death. He struggled with the fear of it through the loss of his father, brother, best friend and five infant daughters, not to mention the persistent slaughters of the religious wars. But when, in the first hours after his fall, he hovered in a strangely tranquil state of letting go, death appeared to have a “friendly face.” It seemed no longer a feared stranger or an impersonal nullification, but a companion as near to us on our first day as our last.
For the rest of his life, the embrace of our mortality would be a recurring theme. His essay, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,”[d] offers various perspectives to help us live with death:
To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it … Whenever a horse stumbles, a tile falls, or a pin pricks, let us at once chew over this thought: ‘Supposing that was death itself?”
Why are you afraid of your last day? It brings you no closer to your death than any other did. The last step does not make you tired: it shows that you are tired. All days lead to death: the last one gets there.
‘Leave this world,’ Nature says, ‘just as you entered it. The same journey from death to life, which you once made without suffering or fear, make it again from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is part of the life of the world.’
I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening. I once saw a man die who, right to the last, kept lamenting that destiny had cut the thread of the history he was writing when he had only got up to our fifteenth or sixteenth king!
And what has my own fall produced in me? I am not Paul. I am not Montaigne. But after that close encounter with the precipitous boundary of my existence, can I remain the same person I was before my short flight into the unexpected?
The meanings of that Oregon night are still sinking in. Time will tell what I will make of them, or what they will make of me. As Montaigne always said, “Que sais-je?” [e]
[a] Michel de Montaigne, “On Practice,” in The Complete Essays, trans. M. A. Screech (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2003), II:6, pp. 416-427.
[b] Patricia Hampl, The Art of the Wasted Day (New York: Viking, 2018), 214.