You Can Climb Through This Window

Writing1:green-chameleon-21532

“This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.” — Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

There was a time, many decades ago, when an aspiring writer could make a subsistence living by writing book reviews. George Orwell did it for years, turning them out weekly, along with novels, opinion pieces, columns, commentaries, and essays. The voice in his essays is so distinctive that anyone who paid attention in their high school literature classes could probably pick his work out of an audible lineup. For anyone writing essays in the last century and this one, Orwell is the mountain that fills the foreground. You can’t go around him—he simply must be climbed. To see the world through Orwell’s eyes from that peak is to glimpse a landscape without ornament: no frills, no unnecessary adornment, just solidity casting shadows.

His wry, lean, prose caught me early in my reading life and I have never completely gotten over it. “Shooting an Elephant,” “A Nice Cup of Tea,” “Politics and the English Language (required reading for anyone who is a citizen of a country)” and especially, “Why I Write,” became lodestones for me. If I was within five feet of an Orwell collection and had 10 minutes to myself, I’d be pulled in magnetically to trace through his paragraphs, wishing I’d written them, and trying to hear my own voice in dialogue with his.

A good writer is like a window, he said, and in my journalism and writing classes in college I strove to become one. I didn’t have the chutzpah or the incandescent trajectories that Norman Mailer could throw into the air nor could I take on the flat, uninflected observations of Joan Didion that usually ended with a shard of glass in one’s eye. Instead, I learned to subtract rather than multiply. There are always enough words to go around, Orwell said. Not to worry. Less is more as long as you tell the truth.

But I had little of consequence to write about. You have to have something—anything—there in order to subtract from it, and piling on adjectives just to strip them away is as perverse as digging holes in order to fill them in. In time I came to see that the essay, a sounding of one’s thoughts with an individual voice that registers the frequencies of one’s age, was ideal for me. The imagination that could spin out a novel as it goes ever on was not yet mine to employ.

“When you write, you lay out a line of words,” says Annie Dillard in the first sentence of The Writing Life. “Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”

You peer ahead through the fog, imagining the shapes of trees or monsters, and, with patience, a rough path appears. You follow it. You lay down more words like flagstones, and eventually you see that you are somewhere, although just where is not clear. But it’s a ‘where’ that is worth the moment and you build on it. That’s the sense in which we discover through our writing where—and who—we are.

For Dillard the trigger often seems to be the natural world. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, an epistle of unsentimental wonder about a few square acres of wilderness in Virginia, is like dropping from the sky-blue ionosphere into a forest thicket, to land softly and to be still and to watch a turtle slip silently off a log into the water. Biology becomes prose, prose becomes a window: we look through and are transformed.

Orwell insisted that all art is propaganda, that the writer is trying to get across a particular world view that is rooted in personal experience, and that it flowers in a specific time and place. It was supremely important, he thought, that the writer say what he or she saw. The ordinary person, like a scout on reconnaissance, could report back momentous discoveries disguised in the everyday happenings of life. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction; what matters is the truth expressed.

“Push it,” urges Dillard. “Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search . . . . Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”

Freely we have received, freely give.

“Language is mysterious,” says Karen Armstrong in The Bible: A Biography. “When a word is spoken, the ethereal is made flesh.”

The Word and the word are living waters: those who profess faith have drawn much from the well of the Bible. It serves us as a portal to the ancient world of the Hebrews and to the first stirrings of the community of Jesus. It has shaped our language, given us metaphors and analogies that are the substratum of our conversation, and narratives that play out in our imagination. It is our library (ta biblia, the books) from which we may constantly listen for the thunder of the prophets, the crisp wisdom of Proverbs, the angst and awe of Job, the breathless narrative of Mark, the Christ-intoxicated letters of Paul. This is given to us as an open-ended revelation of what life on the Way has been for this great cloud of witnesses that swirls around us. What will we do with this gift?

It is just this which can open us up. What I want to read is how life is opened to another’s eye and then passed along from one to another. What I want to write is to say, “See? Look what I found! What do you think about that?”

To lay out a line of words as truthfully as possible, and for that to be taken up by others . . . Ah, that is worth the struggle.

(Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash.com)

God Incognito


“I think, therefore I am,” says Descartes, and thereby overturns centuries of philosophy past. He imagines a dark spirit with infinite powers to deceive, who could turn lightness into dark and cause one to doubt the very ground upon which one stands.

Suppose, suggests Descartes, that I am mistaken about the ‘hereness’ of my body, about the realness of the world ‘out there’, about the existence of God? Suppose that every shard of reality I cling to is an illusion: how would I know? How do we claw through the fog? If it’s all wisps and shadows, how will we know when our little bark has run up on the beach?

He edges out on the high wire, squinting hard at the far post, determined to reject everything except that which he could not doubt. And what he could not doubt is that he is the one doing the doubting, and that those who doubt their existence must exist in order to do the doubting. ‘Cogito ergo, sum’ — I think, therefore I am.

It’s a grand and audacious mind game that Descartes is playing. It’s an axiom dressed as a revelation, a discovery of the self. He invites us to doubt, but he never really doubted anyway. What sets Descartes apart, though, is that he’s given personal experience and his own thought as much authority as conventional wisdom. Find the truth, he says. Think for yourself; argue it out in your own head. Be the master of your interior world. You think, therefore you are. And therefore, is God.

What do we mean when we say we “know” God? Do we “know” the wind? Do we “know” the darkness within the cloud? Do we “know” the cry of our own voice caught up and away in the wind and the cloud? This will not suffice; there must be more.

* * * *

The mild-mannered parishioner two pews over, his attention wandering during the homily, moistens a finger and doubles the pages of his Bible under his thumb. He has an idea to look for God in the Old Testament, but not in the bloody chronicles of genocide and terror. Ecclesiastes appears, but he remembers something about everything as vanity. He frowns: he needs a handhold, not a slippery slope. The Psalms are familiar — he’ll pitch his tent there for awhile in hopes of a well-known verse or two.

“Answer me when I call, O God of my right!,” shouts the ragged singer of the Psalms. He rages, he twists, he cries out; he will stitch up one star to another if he has to and create a zip line to Yahweh. Our parishioner stiffens in the pew; no one should talk to God like that. He reads it again, his finger tracing the words. He whispers it to himself, bending over the page, eyebrows lifted. He imagines ravens wheeling against the desert sun, a cave behind him, the whorl of a desert dust devil swirling closer. He raises an arm against the sun and the shriek of the wind, the ground rocks beneath him, and he hears it, a whisper: “I am.”

“Yes,” he says out loud. “Yes, you are.”

Elaborated Spontaneity #4 (Photo: Clarisse Meyers, Unsplash.com)

The Tree Lives On

JoshTree

(Photo: Joy Daquila-Casey)

“I can’t believe the news today
I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.
How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
‘Cos tonight
We can be as one, tonight.” (Sunday Bloody Sunday)

From the first stutter beats of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from Larry Mullen, Jr., the crowd at FedEx Field rose as one with a roar. He was joined by Adam Clayton, The Edge, and Bono, who tore into the lyrics from a song about the IRA bombing of Armagh that has only deepened in meaning in the decades since.

The first four songs, done on a stage in the shape of a Joshua Tree that extended into the audience, are standards on their concert set list: “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” “Bad,” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).” They were done with gusto, the crowd shouting out each lyric, but with no onstage pyrotechnics except the spotlights. But when the band pulled back to the enormous main stage they turned to “Where the Streets Have No Name” and The Joshua Tree.

Every tour that U2 performs is a spectacular staging of music, media, and art. Along the way, over all these years, their designers have even invented new technologies to create what Bono called “an epic experience” each night.

The set for Joshua Tree is deceptively simple, an enormous backboard of desert tan with the outline of the iconic Joshua Tree from the original photo shoot splayed out and rising above the backdrop. But as the band gets into full swing the whole thing lights up, serving as a photo montage, a video screen, and a live action feed of the band, usually all at once.

It’s breathtaking, especially as we see the band at first silhouetted as black figures against a luminous crimson background, and later as we are at the wheel of a car driving down the yellow stripe of a road through the desert. The backdrop dwarfs the band itself, but we see them in individual closeups throughout the concert.

 

01-u2-joshua-tree-tour.jpg

The Joshua Tree 2017 Tour is a return to the album that gave U2 their first international acclaim back in 1987, sold 20 million units world-wide, garnered them numerous awards, and gave them superstar standing.

Reagan was in the White House and Thatcher was at 10 Downing Street. The world they had made looked pretty grim and U2’s impassioned lyrics and music reflected the dichotomy between America as myth and America as an idea, something that Bono riffed on in this concert. This album was a direct result of U2’s fascination with America as a place of dreams and of bitter reality. All these years later the songs have taken on new meaning in this partisan minefield, this moment in American history that is more conflicted than when the album was born.

For me The Joshua Tree was a spiritual lifesaver. It came out in 1987, just months before my son was born. I was running a small graphics business out of the top floor of the Sligo SDA Church office, working 14 hours a day, and adjunct teaching World Religions at Columbia Union College. After working all day designing and laying out newsletters, magazines, brochures, and flyers, I’d transition to professor mode in the evening. When I’d finish teaching at 9 pm I’d go up to my office and work all night finishing up designs and meeting deadlines. I had a cassette of Unforgettable Fire, U2’s fourth album but the first one I’d bought. When Joshua Tree came out in March 1987 I played it over and over until the tracks were imbedded in my unconscious. The whole album reflected my spiritual restlessness and hope. If I felt like I was “Running to Stand Still” I also knew that “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

On this night U2 served up the whole album, working through each song with alacrity and vigor, each one invested with the sweetness of nostalgia as well as the urgency of the present moment. Finishing with the haunting “Mothers of the Disappeared,” they waved goodbye to the crowd. But we knew they’d be back.

The encore set of six songs began with “Miss Sarajevo” with the video realigned to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and complete with the soaring verses by Luciano Pavarotti. That was followed by “Beautiful Day,” with Bono exclaiming, “When women of the world unite to rewrite history as her story, that is a beautiful day!”

One of the most poignant moments was during “Ultra Violet (Light My Way),” in which a photo montage of women leaders from Rosa Parks to Michelle Obama to Dorothy Haight, Gloria Steinem, Malala, Connie Mudenda, and many others filled the screens.

SriramGopal.jpg

(Photo: Sriram Gopal)

During the intro to “One” Bono called out politicians like Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Kay Grainger (R-TX), personal friends of his, and celebrated the fact that 18 million people around the world are surviving AIDS by taking one pill a day paid for by US taxpayers dollars.

The encore and the show finished with “Vertigo,” amidst a spectacular visual display that could have given the faint of heart cardiac arrest.

In 1991 U2 released Achtung Baby, an album that was a decided departure from their previous albums. The band felt they were stagnating and that they “had to go away and dream it all up again.” Bono described their new direction as “four men chopping down the Joshua Tree.”

All these years later the tree has miraculously survived and we are the better for it.

The Light

LightWorld:aziz-acharki-285336

In the beginning was the word, and boy, was it ever a good word!

That word came from the Wordmaker and the Wordmaker was God, and all the words that rose up from the Wordmaker’s mouth did what they were meant to do, and the world sprang into light and that light was the light of the world.

There were times when the light could be seen like lightning from the east to the west and—truth be told—there was one who saw something like light falling from heaven, but no one saw where it plunged into the sea, if it did. It may still be falling far below that line on the horizon where the sea and the sky blur up together.

There came a time when the light burned low, like the light in a cat’s eye, and you’d have to be looking in the right place to notice it. It held there, but then it was flickering and wavering and almost guttering out and I remember in that moment that the one up ahead of us suddenly cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me!” just as it fizzled and went out with a pfft.

It seemed an eternity in a darkness so absolute you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face—and there was no sound—the words had simply been crushed with a heavy hand across the mouth. Then—glory!—the light curled up and Someone cupped it close in a hand and it rose like a plume, almost perfect, and we held our breath, but it steadied and jumped and suddenly we had our own lights, each of us, above our heads, like a breath of benediction.

And you may be wondering just now why the light of the world is not a torch thrown high showering sparks, or like a pillar of fire by night or—hell, let’s go for the brass ring—why the light of the world is not a towering inferno for all the world to see.

That is a good question.

This is what we’ve pieced together: the light has come into the world to shine in the darkness and it lights up everyone who wants to be lit. No towering inferno, just many little lights flickering through the darkness. They coalesce, move together at times, split into streams, and come back together. Sometimes you’ll see one light way off, bobbing and dipping, and then joined by other lights. And it may be a trick of the eye, but rarely does one light remain alone for long. Light calls to light. Two become one and then many spring up out of the one. These lights are like a good word in due season.

There’s even a song about it with a line that goes:
“I see my light come shining from the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.”

So, let your light shine in the world.

(Photo: Aziz Acharki, Unsplash.com)

Elaborated Spontaneity #2

Being With Thomas

BuriedLife2I would have been with Thomas in that upper room. Never an early adopter nor a joiner, I would have held back to watch others, see their reactions, imagine myself in their place until the resistance I felt toward the new had reduced its charge.

It’s a question of how we know what we know and whether what we know can be verified. It’s a question of how much you trust your senses and whether your rational faculties can puzzle it through. Mostly, it’s about whether you’re willing to look foolish in pursuit of truth.

Thomas gets the rap as the doubting one, forever holding out until he can touch and feel and see with his own eyes. Like it had never occurred to the rest of them that maybe this kingdom of God business was just too good to be true. Like all the other promises made that had not so much been broken as had not materialized beyond the promising stage. But with Thomas, it was never skepticism about the nature of Jesus’ intentions. Nor was it cynicism about the possibility of goodness in the world. There was plenty of goodness, and beauty also, and where goodness and beauty live truth must be in the neighborhood somewhere.

No, what Thomas knew about himself with the clarity that comes from aloneness is that he lacked the courage to commit himself to another.

It hadn’t always been this way. After all, he was Thomas—Didymus—aka ‘The Twin.’ There had been another, his brother, older by two minutes and stronger twice over. They had been inseparable, each the other half of the other, together as one, but not the same. He had led, Thomas had followed. Thomas was thoughtful, holding back, his brother plunging ahead with a shout. Thomas had read and questioned, his brother had acted. They had talked and argued late into the night about politics, religion, freedom. His brother joined a group; they were armed. He was adamant: “Better to die trying than not to try at all.” Later, after he was crucified with the others, the soldiers had come round for Thomas. By that time he had gone, into the night. Keeping to the back roads, he had traveled north to Galilee alone.

And now here he was amongst a band of brothers, younger than most, the first to ask, the last to step forward. When he had met Jesus it was as if he had seen his brother again: all the strength but without the recklessness. And now he was gone, crucified like his twin; another one taken, promises dashed.

So he might be forgiven, Thomas reckoned, for standing back when the others told him, breathlessly, that they had seen the Lord. “The door was shut, we were afraid, and then there He was!”

“I see,” said Thomas, but he didn’t really. “He asked about you,” they said. “He said he’d be back.”

“I’d have to see that for myself,” said Thomas dryly. Peter smiled. “He figured you’d say that.”

Eight days later he was with the others, the door locked and bolted, voices lowered. And then He was there, smiling, in their midst, and looking Thomas in the eye. “I’m real,” He said. “Touch me. Act on it! Believe.”

All this was a long time ago but set down this. Set down this: I came to faith, finally, by acting as if it were there. And then it was and is and will be if I but act.

For we are saved by hope:
but hope that is seen is not hope:
for what a man seeth,
why doth he yet hope for?
But if we hope for that we see not,
then do we with patience wait for it.

Begin Again, in Myth

“. . . [T]he purpose of a myth was to make people more fully conscious of the spiritual dimension that surrounded them on all sides and was a natural part of life.” — Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth

Myth is a word that has suffered greatly in our times, but it wasn’t always this way. As used by Plato in his dialogues it had an honorable place next to logic: it carried the truth of a concept through a story. Those whom we like to call ‘the ancients’ seemed to live in a myth-ful world in which stories were told, repeated, passed on, modified, lived out and lived within — in short, a myth was a portal to a dimension of transcendence which only had to be invoked to be experienced. We are so far from that now.

“In every culture,” notes Karen Armstrong, “we find the myth of a lost paradise, in which humans lived in close and daily contact with the divine (A Short History of Myth 14).” Through many cultures and times the heavens were opened up, sometimes with a tree, a pole, a mountain, an escalator at the center of the world by which people could climb up to the god lands. These were the Golden Ages, common to most cultures around the world, a time when people and animals could commune together, and the gods walked among humans, sometimes in disguise, sometimes revealed through a flash of insight or a glance understood. These were the good old days.

Then somehow a catastrophe snapped the connection between heaven and earth. The mountain crumbled, the tree was cut, the ladder broke. As a species we’ve never been the same since. Joni Mitchell pointed out our longing in Woodstock—“and we’re trying to get ourselves back to the garden.” None of this was meant to be history, a deliberate and verifiable account of events. It was myth, stories that taught us how to live in the face of the inexplicable and to survive in the shadowlands. 

We divide our world into the religious and the secular, a concept that would have been blasphemous to our ancestors. To them the world was imbued with the sacred; they walked in light that was cast by divine beings. Nothing was untouched by the gods, anything could be imbued with the sacred. The idea that we worship in a building on a designated day would have been laughable had it not been so seriously bent. For them, the divine could be seen—and heard—in a burning bush, just off the path. While the sacred was all around them it was not so obvious that they could afford to be inattentive. Moses, on the lam from a murder charge in Egypt, making a life for himself in the desert, sees a bush burning and turns aside. He is awestruck, naturally, and curious, but to our eyes the remarkable thing is what happens next. He hears a voice from within the bush telling him to take off his shoes for he is on holy ground—and he does it! 

Our first instinct would have been incredulity, tinged with panic. We might have thought ourselves to be slipping, hearing things, suffering hallucinations, most likely from dehydration. A couple of long pulls on the ever-present bottled water and we’d be set right again. Back slowly away, slip around the rock and forget the whole thing ever happened. But Moses turned off the path, allowed the distraction, and met his destiny. By so doing he expanded his universe infinitely in all directions. We would contract it, reduce it, constrict and desiccate it. 

I am envious of this inclination to the transcendent. It’s all through sacred writings from all cultures; it is depicted sometimes laconically, sometimes in bewildering detail. The great divide between those people and us is at the molecular level of the One versus the Many. They saw the world as one being, everything in it spinning up in the drama between heaven and earth. Somewhere along the line it was understood that “on earth, as it is in heaven,” was real. This world was a mirror image, on its best days, of what transpired in the heavens. There were people with an acute sensitivity, who saw the signs and could read the wind. You went to them because they could see from a great height what the earth looked like and where you were placed.  

There were rituals, sacraments to be carried out, each one another opportunity to come closer to transcendence. It was not a matter of belief, but of practice. Beliefs came and went or wore out and had to be replaced. Or they were found to be impractical. What mattered was the doing, the deed, the action that made the ritual real. When the ancient stories were told you could see yourself in the moment: the hearing made the acting vivid. The acting recreated the story with you, this time, in the starring role. “This is the way,” you heard, “walk in it.” The world is One and you are part of it.

But you don’t get science that way. In order to understand the whole it must be seen through the parts. Not for nothing do we talk about “breaking it down” in analysis. Our metaphors build categories; without categorization there is no possibility of analytical thinking. Usually this works well for us: we see the world as it is; we break it down into parts and then build it back up into a new form and hope there are no little pieces left out in the rebuilding. Thus we can separate action from belief, understand the process, see where the system gets clogged or breaks, and make our repairs. By reducing the world to the lowest common denominator we see what energizes it from the inside. This is what gives us immunizations, molecular biology, synthetic drugs, and nanobots. 

But I long for Jacob’s ladder, with the angels going about their business, magnificent beings who barely gave him a glance. He was dumbstruck, touching himself to see if he was dreaming all this and hoping it was real. It was as real as it needed to be because he felt the weight of the numinous, the holy, and he shouted, “Surely the Lord is in this place!” And he placed some stones together to mark the spot, for in the absence of angelic footprints he needed to find it again when he passed by that way. And he called it Beth-el, the house of the god El. And for everyone who came by that place the stones spoke of an experience that was had by someone that was worthy to be remembered. In the remembering one might enter that experience too and feel oneself transformed.

But there’s an inevitability here that can become tragic. A man has a transcendent experience at a nameless desert scree and piles the stones to mark the spot. The story gets out, the people come in hopes of their own experience. The crowds pour in, the tents go up, the hustlers work the crowd, t-shirts are sold, and miracles performed. In time, a city springs up, the temple at its center. There are opportunities for business and investment, legends grow, and soon the religious tourism is booming. And if you should be able to slip out at night, where the buildings give way to sand and desert rocks, and you lie on your back and look up, you must shield your eyes from the glare, but faintly against the sky you might see a moving star, a satellite. No angels, no ladder, no brush of the wind against your cheek, just the clear and certain knowledge that your texts and calls are being carried by that point of moving light. 

And yet . . . and yet . . . we may still find the power in the myth if we’re willing to see with our imaginations and suspend our need for irreducible certainty. The world is One and Many, God is in this place, be it Syria, Iraq, Capitol Hill, or Orange County. We will find what we need if we act on our beliefs. ‘I believe, help my unbelief!’