A Labor of the Instant

Photo by the author

“Religious writing, poetry that is authentic religious writing, writing that is religious work, is very precisely an attempt to be where the action is, God’s action, where this reality, me, my words, my perception, meet what is fundamental, God. . .”1

What do we say when we talk and write about God? It’s a question that goes deeper and deeper, like those little Russian dolls, one inside the other, until you lift out the last one, the one so small it cannot be opened but only may be held. Much of what we talk about when we talk about God is precisely that—talk about our talking of God, metatalk,talk that sets us at several removes from God and turns God into an object to be scrutinized alongside other objects in the world. Such talk clarifies the boundaries of definitions and aligns the methods of discourse, but it does not translate well out of the seminar and the conference setting.

We must ask ourselves, then, especially those of us who call ourselves Christians, why people—or rather, why we—talk and write about God? One reason, surely, is that we hope others will experience something of God, something that will help them dive deeper, become more supple, find more meaning, discover a saving attunement to Spirit. And this motivation arises on the assumption that we have witnessed in our own lives the outlines of what that something is, through tradition and revelation and personal experience. We can only express with credibility that which we ourselves have seen.

So the “why” of this form of talk inevitably leads to the “what,” a movement from motive to content. But that seems backwards, as if our enthusiasm (from en theos, to be in God) suddenly went searching for the message about God that we could give to others.

The way we were taught about witnessing for our faith always began with the content of doctrine, a system of beliefs that logically cohered and was meant to be persuasive. Only then did you overcome your shyness or your instinctual respect for the privacy of others, and launch the frontal assault for their conversion in the paramilitary style of witnessing that some Protestant traditions employ.

We looked to doctrine to guide us into a relationship with Christ. We thought that to begin with beliefs would eventually lead us to love and to a sense that we were accepted by God. Content would trigger inspiration and lead to motivation to talk and write of God with others.

There are many people whose temperament and outlook on life make this the most natural way to God. “Count the cost,” Jesus said, “before you build.” Are you ready for the changes that come with being in Christ? Do you know what you’re getting into? Acolytes in the early centuries of Christianity spent up to a year studying the beliefs, and observing and learning the practices of the communities of Jesus, before they were formally accepted into the body of Christ through baptism. Given that joining such a community was often a prelude to martyrdom, it was essential that they had counted the cost—and that they would not betray their companions.

“Christian doctrine,” says Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, “exists so that certain obstacles may be taken away to our openness to the action of God.”2 There is a subtle nuance here: doctrines are gates that open to let the flow of responsive spirituality through. They should not be dams to stop the flow until it silts up behind the barrier. Religion does not have to be the death of spirituality.

But for other people the best course is to allow God the lead in this dance. If God is the center of our universe, then God’s gravitational field will draw those willing to him, as we were drawn to him.

“Thou hast made us for thyself,” prayed Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” I memorized that when I was trying to understand prayer and was reading a lot of books about prayer. Notably, I was not praying. My prayers, I believed, fell too easily into the category of “vain repetitions.” They embarrassed me and I was sure they embarrassed God.

As much as possible, I wriggled out of praying in public, convinced that I could only offer up the palest petitions and the most tepid thanksgivings. On the few occasions when I could not refuse, I did not prepare. Instead, I offered up a silent, desperate cry before moving to the lectern. “Say what you want through me,” I prayed. “I’ve got nothing.” Those were the prayers which fell upon receptive ears, and some of the owners of those ears remarked that I had seen into their hearts. “Not me,” I said, “I was just the breath and mouth of it.”

I was a restless heart for whom the study of the philosophy of religion was finally not enough. I will not cut off as dead weight the years I spent in preparation and the years I enjoyed opening students to it. It satisfied a part of me that wanted to witness the grand sweep of thought about God. And I taught ethics so my students and I might be awake and contributing for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. But it was not enough.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,” said Jesus, “will draw all people to myself.” And the Gospel of John continues: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”3 That death has drawn the suffering of this broken world into itself. This man, the very image of God, was and is the Word that spoke creation into being. And where the creative impulse flourishes in humans, through art, music, poetry, fiction, essays, there God-in-Christ makes visible his transformation of suffering into beauty.

For many of us, there is a path to God under the open sun, that winds through standing forests, breathes in poetry and song, and blinks in wonder at works of art. We carry a hunger or a sense of lostness or catch a glimpse of beauty or the sharp edge of justice, and then live our way into a structure that builds on that. In a gallery in a city we find a torso draped in cloth—but it is carved of wood—the flowing miracle of solidity. In another gallery we marvel at the dress that’s spun of glass, the rainbow woven of ten thousand anchored threads. The wonder of forms that reveal grace, these are intimations of God in the presence of a distilled silence heard with reverence.

Rowan Williams reminds us that “We need Christian doctrine because we need some notion of what it is we are trying to be attuned to . . . But if doctrine doesn’t make possible poetry and contemplation, then doctrine is a waste of time; it becomes purely and simply old, safe, and useful.”4

The doctrine of Creation, that there is in all of us a creative impulse reflective of the very image of God, bursts forth in wider and wider circles from the still point of the Spirit at the center. I hear it in the poetry of R. S. Thomas, Mary Oliver, and Rilke. It rings through in the secular psalms of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and Sting. It is there in the delicate balance of forces in the kinetic art of Andy Goldsworthy’s natural sculptures, in the brooding portraits by Georges Rouault, and the sensual delight in Marc Chagall’s angels, cows, and villagers.

“Man is all Imagination,” wrote William Blake, that God-intoxicated poet. “God is Man & exists in us & we in him. The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination, that is, God himself . . . It manifests itself in his Works of Art.”5

God is in the world in many forms and voices; grace gives us the lens to see his glory in the world. In those artists whose works take us through the painful descent into the hells of human suffering, we see the steps of the Christ who harrowed those hells and destroyed the power of death.

Williams says, “. . . God is spoken of, and spoken for, or indeed just spoken, precisely in writing that has no explicitly religious content, because of the character of the writing as a labor of the instant.”6

The Spirit moves as does the wind, springing up in an instant and coursing through us. “And we are put on earth a little space,” says Blake, “That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”7 To that, our most eloquent response, our deepest talk of God, may be our grateful silence.

  1. Williams, Rowan. A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2011, p. 47.
  2. Williams, p. 50.
  3. Jn. 12:32,33 NRSV.
  4. Williams, p. 50.
  5. Quoted in Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton University, 1947, p. 30.
  6. Williams, p. 49.
  7. Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and Experience. New York: Avon Books, 1971, p. 37.

I Am Seeing You

Photo by Aziz Acharki, Unsplash

”But (you will see): he brings joy.”1 — Rainer Maria Rilke

I remember reading in Laurens Van der Post’s memoir of life with the bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, that the most honorable thing one could say to one of them upon meeting was, “I saw you coming from afar.”2

Van der Post, tall and lanky, had no difficulty seeing and being seen by the bushmen. What might this have meant for them? It was a valuation transcending stature, a generous extension of the imagination beyond mere physicality into the realm of kindred spirits. As brothers, they were never entirely absent from each other. Their presence in memory, more often in the flesh, was sought and desired, offered and accepted. In a landscape as trackless and sere as the moon—at least to white people uneasy in its vastness—seeing one another from a distance was reassurance that they were not alone, though separated by miles.

***

In the forest near our home, where I walk two or three times a week, I am on the lookout for deer. There are three bands that I regularly see, usually in different areas, mothers with their fawns and their teenagers. I watch for them because, to the casual eye, their coloring blends naturally into the grays and browns of the winter trees and shrubs. They know I am there far sooner than I see them, but they seem unconcerned when I come across them near the path. I’ve found that if I stop and stare, they get nervous, but if I continue, walking slowly, they accept my presence as near as five or six feet. I always speak to them, assuring them they won’t get hurt by my hand, asking them if they’ve found enough breakfast, and wishing them well. Occasionally, someone else comes along the path during these monologues and wonders out loud who I’m talking to. When I point them out, we both watch as they move lithely through the underbrush to disappear, white tails lifted like exclamation marks.

There is a watchful serenity about them, a cool tolerance of my babbling, that usually stills my voice after a few moments. The young ones, the fawns, stand on stick legs, googly-eyed and frozen with curiosity at this strange forked creature. Their mothers and cousins are more nonchalant, giving me a pitying glance before returning to their grazing. Neither of us wants to move jaggedly, but if it comes to it they will be gone in a heartbeat.

Their beauty is surely in their form and movement, but also in their demeanor. I am trying to see them, not as objects in the underbrush, but as beings with whom we share the world and whose language we cannot speak. I wish to see our world from inside their consciousness and then to bear testimony to what I have seen.

They remind me of Avatar, James Cameron’s entrancing film of another world parallel to our own, reached only through a mental transport. To know another being in that world, really to know them, is to be connected through the source of their energy, a sacred tree, that in some way sustains them in life and joins their consciousness to one another. The most intimate expression one can say to another person in that world is, “I see you.”

***

When I go to a museum or a gallery, and I linger before a painting, I am seeking the sacred, that moment in which the artist received, with the eye of imagination, what she then gathered into herself. In time, and with effort, she birthed what she received as a gift, now transformed, and so we go where we can receive it. In receiving it, grateful to have been where the gift entered the world, we let it speak to us and we answer the artist. The painting becomes the visual symbols of sound in our silent conversation—spoken music, we could say. We know the artist through the world she has opened to us. “We feel less alone in face of what we ourselves see each day appearing and disappearing.”3

The world seems so evanescent, solidity fuming up into light and air and disappearing, millions of times a second. To see someone is to gaze at the speed of light as singular particles reflecting color coalesce into the figure of the one we love. We trust the paradox of this coalescence, that what we see is the momentary residue of millions of fragments endlessly generated.

***

“It was there from the beginning; we have heard it; we have seen it with our own eyes; we looked upon it, and felt it with our own hand; and it is of this we tell. Our theme is the word of life. This life was made visible; we have seen it and bear our testimony; we here declare to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we declare to you, so that you and we together may share in a common life, that life which we share with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. And we write this in order that the joy of us all may be complete.” — 1 John 1:1-4, NEB

This letter, like the Gospel of John before it, begins with poetry and ends in testimony. There is an incantatory rhythm to it; the phrases invoke in the reader the slanted light falling on a company of friends whose sensual recall of “it” compels the raising of a story. “Our theme is the word of life,” a word that shimmers into being in the muscle memory of their hands, visible, maybe audible, in their memories as they bear their testimony to us.

These people have been drawn and held by something so fleeting and yet so haunting that none of them will ever feel at home again in the old dispensation, clutching their alien gods. They have seen through the “accidents” of appearances to the essence of Jesus, whom they now know as Immanuel, God-in-Christ. Their community flourishes through its collective memory, this “sacred tree” that will sustain them, though the parousia is not yet.4

“The raison d’etré of the visible,” reasons John Berger, “is the eye; the eye evolved and developed where there was enough light for the visible forms of life to become more and more complex and varied.”5 “We have seen it with our own eyes,” they testify. These are people whose memories enable a wider spectrum of light than the rest of us. They have evolved.

To see, and to bear witness to what we have seen, is to testify to an event which is unique, which cannot be repeated, which took place between ourselves and another, which bears value for others “because I hold, as it were, a particle of light, and to keep it to myself would be equivalent to extinguishing it.”6

“The witness always conceives of himself as standing in the presence of someone,”7 says Gabriel Marcel. “What we have seen and heard we declare to you,” says the author of 1 John. Do we bear witness to all the absurdity and horror of this world as well as the nobility and beauty? Those who loved Jesus could not help but see the cruelty and faithlessness of those who turned on him. It was John alone, of the men closest to him, who did not turn away from Jesus in his singular desolation. John willed to stand his ground, though the air was thick with the demons of fear and guilt.

“The value,” says Marcel, “lies in the faithful following, through darkness, of a light by which we have been guided and which is no longer visible to us directly; indeed, it can be said that it is because there is a darkness, an eclipse, that there can be testimony—attestation.”8

Maybe what the author of 1 John was trying to say is that he and the others once had Jesus with them. They could touch him, talk with him, see him. He was everything to them. He was their window to God; in all that he did they could see the living kingdom playing out in the life of a man. And then he was gone—though he promised the Spirit to them.

“What is a likeness?” asks John Berger, in his essay on seeing. “When a person dies, they leave behind, for those who knew them, an emptiness, a space: the space has contours and is different for each person mourned. This space with its contours is the person’s likeness and is what the artist searches for when making a living portrait. A likeness is something left behind invisibly.”9

Now what we have is each other. Maybe that is the closest we can come to God-among-us, the new order flaming up, here and there, as we see through the appearances to the real within each of us, making visible to each other the likeness of the invisible God, whom we nevertheless will see, coming to us from afar.

“And we write this in order that the joy of us all may be complete.”

  1. Rilke, Rainer Maria. “The Birth of Christ,” in The Unknown Rilke: Expanded Edition. Translated with an introduction by Franz Wright. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College, 1990, p. 68.
  2. Van der Post, Laurens. The Lost World of the Kalahari. New York: Morrow, 1958.
  3. Berger, John. “Steps Toward a Small Theory of the Visible,” in The Shape of a Pocket. New York, Vintage International, 2001, p. 21
  4. I am indebted to my wife, Joy Daquila-Casey, for the analogy.
  5. Berger, p. 17.
  6. Marcel, Gabriel. The Philosophy of Existentialism. Translated by Manya Harari. New York: Citadel, 1962., p. 95.
  7. Marcel, p. 93.
  8. Marcel, p. 98.
  9. Berger, p. 19.