The Ignored Familiar

Photo: Erico Marcellino, Unsplash.com

“This or that particular, in nature or in a person, which will probably be the ignored familiar, is not to be forgotten or overlooked; it is to be noticed, and maybe (in the world of a great artist) made to glow with light.” — Michael Mayne1

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard opens up the agony and (occasional) ecstasy of writing. “This writing that you do,” she says pitilessly, “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.”2 The reader comes in from the noise of the street of life, and picks up your book, she says. He or she can’t hear a thing. “It will take half an hour to pick up the writing’s modulations, its ups and downs and louds and softs.” Learn a trade, she cautions the young writer. Something to support your consuming addiction of laying down a line of words and seeing where it leads.

Perhaps less tongue-in-cheek, but no less heartfelt is George Orwell’s famous admission that “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”3

We who love books can only be grateful that these tortured souls persevered. From their travail is birthed for us flights of imagination, ladders to the sky, that line of words laid down which carves a path through the wilderness. Seamus Heaney, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature (1995), found that “The achievement of a poem, after all, is an experience of release . . . A plane is —fleetingly—established where the poet is intensified in his being and freed from his predicaments.”4

At the end of a long journey of false starts, glimmers of light that dance away and fade, rockslides that block the path and countless other metaphors, there is a moment in the bracing sharpness of clean, mountain air. From the summit, one takes in the view with joy and gratitude. However momentary, that is reward enough. Down below, in the shadows of one’s achievement, is the valley which one must traverse on the way to the next peak.

The popular stereotype about writers, that they wait for inspiration, is only half right, but it’s the half that students often claim in the backwash of a late paper. Writers do wait on inspiration, but it’s a waiting that is active. “Arse in the chair,” says Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin, and other bestselling novels. That’s the only way the words will show up, and if no one is home or that writer is mesmerized by YouTube, the moment may pass with nothing to show for it. “You lay out a line of words,” says Annie Dillard, the most basic and necessary move that can be made.

“An intellectual must always be ready to think, that is, to take in a part of the truth conveyed to him by the universe,” wrote the Dominican priest, A. G. Sertillanges, in 1921. “The Spirit passes and returns not. Happy the man who holds himself ready not to miss, nay rather to bring about and to utilize, the miraculous encounter! Every intellectual work begins by a moment of ecstasy . . .”5

Sertillanges wrote his book, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, for anybody who wanted to think—and capture those thoughts—in a more disciplined and systematic way. His book, while compact and serious, is not an “elitist” work; that is to say, it does not recognize the great divide artificially constructed by those in American culture who regard “book learning” with suspicion. For him, thinking and studying, writing and art, are avenues of the Spirit. “Listening to oneself is a formula that amounts to the same thing as listening to god. It is in the creative Thought that our true being lies, our self in its authentic shape.”6 This takes time. The most mediocre mind, he says, can come up with a brilliant idea: the difficulty is cutting that into a jewel and placing it in a setting that illuminates its brilliance.

Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer, strikes me not only as practical and wise words for writers, but as a witty, philosophical, and tender parallel to the work of faith. Yes—I put those two words, “work” and “faith,” together. More on that later. “Do not allow your heart to harden,” McCann encourages us. “Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local . . . Transcend the personal. Have trust in the staying power of what is good.”7

***

Annie Dillard’s first non-fiction book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), garnered her the Pulitzer Prize at the young age of twenty-nine. It chronicled a year that she spent in the company of Tinker Creek, a tributary of the Roanoke River in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It is a work of seeing—of regarding, with attention and patience—the life beneath the leaves and the waters. Dillard thinks of it as a “work of theology.”

She notices that a flock of migrating red-winged blackbirds are noisily feeding in an Osage orange tree down by the creek. She approaches carefully—and a hundred birds fly away. She walks closer and another hundred lift off and vanish into the sky. “Finally I walked directly to the trunk of the tree and a final hundred, the real die-hards, appeared, spread, and vanished. How could so many hide in the tree without my seeing them? . . . I wandered downstream to force them to play their hand, but they’d crossed the creek and scattered. One show to a customer . . . It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open.”8

How much is there, just beyond our present gaze, close enough to fingertips, welling into consciousness, if only we are aware! I am beginning to understand how a God who is near to us but not visible, transcendent but accessible through the world and the Word, can be apprehended. Michael Mayne, one of the handful of great poet-priests in the Anglican tradition, writes of the cantus firmus, the deep bass line that anchored medieval plainsong, as being akin to that which we discover is authentically ours and authentically us. He sees it as comprised of three strands: human love and friendship, experience of beauty and order found in art, literature, music, and nature, and “the third strand, undergirding the whole, has to do with those ultimate existential questions that come under the general heading of ‘faith.’”9

It is the business of writers, artists, musicians, to notice and to pay attention. That which counts as inspiration—the drawing in of breath—comes as the shock of the new emerges from the “ignored familiar,” to use Mayne’s phrase. The familiar story in the Gospels, read a thousand times until its edge is dulled, comes up fresh and new through the eyes and thoughts of the writer, the preacher, the artist, each of them alive to story as the touchstone for unexpected treasure.

To be sure, this experience is not always a common one. Sometimes we go through the motions, looking but not seeing, reading but not comprehending. This is where the Spirit enlivens us as we are receptive—and that, I think, is key—when we look for the unseen and expect the unexpected. Like a writer, this waiting is not passive, but an active receptive spirit tuned to the faintest vibrations that may come to us. Our faith is our constant experience of seeking and finding, rousing ourselves to “lay out a line of words” in the hope and trust that it will lead us to our story.

Amidst the din of our culture and times, this seeking takes effort. It may seem that the signs around us point in any direction but toward the Spirit. We must be alert; there will be no thunder and lightning, no shaking of the mountaintop. The Welsh poet-priest, R. S. Thomas, muses about the Spirit’s movements, so essential in our understanding as people of faith and as thinkers and writers:

“As I had always known

he would come, unannounced,

remarkable merely for the absence

of clamour. So truth must appear

to the thinker; so, at a stage

of the experiment, the answer

must quietly emerge.”10

All our seeings—the remembered, the present, the yet-to-be-seen—are blazing portals to the holy. Leaping through, we may glimpse a burning bush, hear “a still, small voice,” squint against the light cast into the desert by a stairway to heaven, and—catapulted forward by centuries—peer through an open door to a room where a man asks for a piece of fish from his dumbstruck friends. All these stories transcribe the notes of the cantus firmus by which we live and sing.

  1. Mayne, Michael. This Sunrise of Wonder. American edition. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, 2012. pp. 175-176.
  2. Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: Harper and Row, 1989, p. 17
  3. Orwell, George. Why I Write. Great Ideas ed. New York: Penguin, 1984, p. 10
  4. Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989. p. xxii.
  5. Sertillanges, A. G. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Translated from the French by Mary Ryan. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987, p. xix.
  6. Sertillanges, p. xx.
  7. McCann, Colum. Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice. New York: Random House, 2017, p. 4.
  8. Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Bantam Books, 1974, pp. 17, 18.
  9. Mayne, Michael. The Enduring Melody. London: Dartman, Longman, and Todd, 2006, pp. 6, 7.
  10. Thomas, R. S. “Suddenly,” in Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: Orion House, 1993, p. 283.

This is Only a Test

1NBMLabyrinth

Man is always being challenged; a question is always being asked of him. Abraham Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

When I walked out of my comprehensive exams at graduate school, it was a beautiful Southern California day and I thought, “That’s it, I’m done. No more exams!” Of course, I was wrong, which is concrete evidence of how much I still didn’t know. Life is a series of tests, none of which we can cram for and many of which we will not see the results of until long after we’ve forgotten what we were tested on.

It’s not that I hated exams; I rather enjoyed the opportunity to explain, describe, and analyze complex issues. It was the build-up to the exams that brought anxiety, the persistent feeling that no matter how thorough your preparation there would always be some question designed not to show what you knew but to punish you for what you didn’t know.

When I started teaching, I kept in mind how I felt about exams. I steered clear of minutiae and tried to design questions that gave students an opportunity to take a long view. I made it clear I expected accuracy in portraying the positions of others, honesty in expressing one’s own position, and clarity in writing. Nobody was getting paid by the word; brevity and conciseness were virtues. On questions of ethical practice as distinguished from analysis of ethical theory, I blessed responses that were exploratory and forward-looking. I encouraged students in philosophy and ethics to use their imaginations as well as their reasoning and analytical powers. Above all, I asked them to see themselves as both teachers and learners.

How would they describe and explain what they knew to someone who was deeply interested in what they had to say, but lacked their foundational knowledge on the subject? Could such a person pick up their written responses and understand them? Could those responses be the starting point for a deep and exciting conversation? Could they lead others to see what they had learned? And could connections be made in all directions from the subject they were studying? What had they learned in their American history class that their ethics might address? Could their ethical theories apply to their health practices, their economics courses, and their intercultural communication?

“There is only one subject matter for education,” said A. N. Whitehead in The Aims of Education, “and that is Life in all its manifestations.”

***

There are two kinds of exams in education. One tests what we have learned (summative assessment) and the other tests what we need in order to learn (formative assessment). Generally speaking, the life of a spiritual wanderer, someone seeking the Water of life, is a process of formative assessment. If life is for learning, then we can look to every day as experimental research into that which helps us learn of God, of ourselves, and of others.

“Speculation does not precede faith,” says Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man. “The antecedents of faith are the premise of wonder and the premise of praise. Worship of God precedes affirmation of His realness. We praise before we prove. We respond before we question.”

For those who have been on this path all their lives, and who find themselves no nearer knowing God than when they began, this may almost sound like mockery. How can a person in their fifth or sixth decade of life on this planet regain this wonder? “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” asks Nicodemus (Jn. 3:4). We get worn down by life; our capacity for wonder ebbs and our willingness to suspend our disbelief diminishes in inverse proportion to our need to appear objective and aloof. All the evidence that the world is indifferent to our struggle swarms before our eyes and we shake our heads in exasperation. Experience cannot be reverse-engineered back to innocence.

Heschel invites us to look again: “It is not from experience but from our inability to experience what is given to our mind that certainty of the realness of God is derived.” Our very lack of what we seek takes on the outlines of a God-shaped vacuum in our lives, the via negativa of the medieval mystics and contemplatives.

But we are twenty-first century people who respond more readily to the merest factoid, rather than venturing beyond our skepticism. The trust that is the DNA of faith does not come easily, despite the brave face of certainty that we profess when pressed. Instinctively, we believe that a testimony given must be anchored, not understanding that a profession of belief without the trust of commitment can sometimes be a grappling-hook thrown heaven-ward to draw us up.

Doing can result in being, a genuine form of faith.

But there are some caveats to the formative assessment of our education in faith. “Knowledge is not the same as awareness,” notes Heschel, “and expression is not the same as experience. By proceeding from awareness to knowledge we gain in clarity and lose in immediacy. What we gain in distinctness by going from experience to expression we lose in genuineness.”

It’s a risk worth taking. Heschel assures us that “To the prophets, wonder is a form of thinking,” a way forward when faced with the numinous, with the burning bushes, and the whispers of God within the hurricane. “Our certainty,” says Heschel, “is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning. Faith is the response to the mystery, shot through with meaning; the response to a challenge which no one can for ever ignore.”

For Christian existentialists, of whom I am one, authentic faith is a leap beyond what can be wholly certified through reason. “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” suggests poet Mary Oliver. That challenge comes in the form of questions put to us by God, corporately and personally. Some of them are formative: they shape us going forward. Others give us a needed pause on this journey, a timeout to catch our breath and look around us. They are summative of what we have learned through our experience.

***

These are some of the questions I am seeking to be shaped by and to answer to.

“Where are you?” – Genesis 3:10

“What does the Lord require of you?” – Micah 6:8

“And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” – Matt. 6:27

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” – Matt. 14:31

And the most important question of all . . .

“Who do you say that I am?” – Mk. 8: 29

We are questions to ourselves. Life itself throws us demands that we may field as questions. The ones that draw us in, turn us inside out, and lift us higher come to us from the Spirit “who searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:10).”

Photo: Barry Casey