The names of the muses were gone when I returned for them, though I had sternly exhorted them to stay, I would be right back. I tried to sidestep discouragement. I have learned that to forget something is the penultimate step that must be taken before it is learned.
You are seeking, I may someday tell my students, to build a city in a swamp—since there is no other available real estate available. Build it up with cheerful labor; watch it sink squelching down again, swallowed by gray clay. Add another wall and a tower, and see them shift, slide, topple, crack. Erect a great temple whose spires will in a week be visible only as steel spikes for the deer to dodge. Such things must come: build again. When you have built the third city, or the fourth: that too will sink; but in sinking lay the last foundation for the city that is coming.
A tiger-striped homing sky. Little yellow pools of windowlight glistening in a wet evening’s street. The wistful tapping of grainy snow at the bay windows. Still the season of harvest continues, and may never end. There is no winter in gratitude’s agronomy.
I confess I still am not inured to having a sky. Who can walk steadily near so great an abyss, whether it is under or over you?
A wispy nest of cloud fell apart. The ovular, pockmarked moon rolled slowly out of it like a dinosaur egg, and came to rest. I watched as I waited for my bus to come, but it did not hatch. Tomorrow I will look again.
I went out to see what the sky was doing. But looking up I saw the surface of another planet come suddenly near, so that I could almost make out bathers on the peach-colored sand of a Venusian beach, set perpendicular to the land I was on, with a deliciously fine surf on the waves crashing in from the bottom of that globe.
In the night there was a little silver canoe of pointed prow and stern, bobbing in the mists over unspeakable depths.
The billows of cloud creaked steadily along the blue like the innumerable siege towers of a host, advancing. I watched the sky for further metaphors.
“That one looks like overpowering sadness!”
“See the one above the one shaped like a ship? It makes me think of a quiet and unearned hope.”
Jesus, I cannot simply be like you, since I am also the one who needs you. But let me be, still, a bruised reed that leaves the others standing; a smoldering wick sputtering so gently that it does not disturb the rest of the altar.
Learning the voices to trust: a new quiz feature
Somehow or other you will have to start by finding some people who are talking and writing. If you have access to a computer this may have happened already. If not, the best strategy will depend on where you live, and you will likely know it better than I. You might try walking alongside the tumbleweeds through the rocky desert, keeping the red-striped butte on your left, until you come to a saloon. (Go in.) Or venture outside your vault through the post-apocalyptic municipal remains, and ask the roving company of raccoon trappers if there is a political wonk or a theologian in their ranks.
When you have found some sources, but do not yet know how much faith to bestow on them: it is then that I hope I may be of use to you. After a period of observing this authority, fill in the blanks below as instructed. Three points is a good score.
The source corrected a mistake s/he made in the recent past (1 point) ____
S/he admitted s/he did not know something (1 point) ____
S/he identified someone on the opposing side s/he respects (1 point) ____
S/he conceded that an opponent made a compelling point (1 point) ____
S/he granted the dizzying contingency of human knowledge (1 point) ____
It was in Kierkegaard all along. I should have known that.
“But,” you perhaps say, “there are so many obscure passages in the Bible, whole books that are practically riddles.” To that I would answer: Before I have anything to do with this objection, it must be made by someone whose life manifests that he has scrupulously complied with all the passages that are easy to understand; is this the case with you?
Could it be true, as he also says, that God is not mocked, and faith is given only to those whose lives stand in need of it?
I will thank you for the grass in all its March hues, and for the vault of sky, and a garlicky burger, and any other item I enter in the inventory. And if I remember more and more of your benefits will I come near to living a thankful life, as an n-sided polygon approaches the circle?
“You only like it because you know Mozart composed it / David Foster Wallace wrote it / Wes Anderson directed it.”
Ah, but if I cannot even learn to love a thing when all the pressures of the age are goading me on toward it, and nothing opposes, then I am lost indeed. The problem is not that I am now paying close attention and looking with great charity, but that I neglected to do this the other times.
I should not think first of originality. All my ornithology handbooks say as with one voice: that bird roosts where truth has made a nest. But truth will build with the little twigs and straws of attention given to it, and so I must look with my own eyes (the only ones I am legally entitled to use); and I have not attended if I say only: a hundred meters to the northwest there is one who describes this landscape in the following way.
Some are saying in aggressive tones, “What you are so enthralled with as perception, love, self-sacrifice, or religious fervor, is in fact the mere interplay of chemical processes.” I guess they mean: the thing you believe you care about—the spiritual experience—is in fact a thing you do not care about: the physical reaction.
But if you push me too hard down this path, if you back me into a corner, I may turn, crazed glint in eye, and suddenly begin to care about physical reactions.
I waited to open the e-mail until I had composed my spirit to peace, and had surrendered myself to the Father’s will, praying for trust regardless of the outcome. But even all that did not prevent it from containing a rejection from my favored graduate program.
God, this is all a gift. Give not less pain, less sorrow, less doubt, but more of all of them—only let it be of the best quality. We wish not to be unclothed, but to be further clothed.
(is a prayer we can imagine one praying)
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it abides alone.
So we say, “Isn’t it nice to know that symbolically—or wait, even better, maybe metaphysically, so long as it is in some invisible way—we have ‘died’ with him in our baptisms?”
Let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.
“Yes, and in a manner of speaking we do carry our crosses, too, don’t we? I suspect, for instance, that my old high school friends stopped hanging out with me mostly because I had gotten more serious about my Christianity. On top of that, I gave up coffee for Lent.”
But more often we say in our prayers, “Thank you, Jesus, for dying that awful death so that we wouldn’t have to. Most of us, at least. I guess the terms of the deal were slightly different for the thief on the next cross over, or for St. Peter. But on the whole (it would be ungrateful to find fault regarding individual lapses of this providence, when on the whole it has been such a profound gift and comfort to our feeble race) thank you for living a hard life with a hard end so that we could pursue the life-giving, the beautiful, the micro-brewed, just as the founding fathers gave their lives—would have, anyway, if they had met with less military success, but then you can hardly blame them for that!—to secure the same blessed freedom.”
Could it really be that I deserve this death of his? Not yet. But may it be true in some far-off day, that I deserve to be put to death for righteousness and not for petty theft; that I deserved a death of virtue, accepted for others’ sake, the murmur of a psalm my only complaint—since now this would be for me phoniness, mere good fortune, the daydreamed glory of a schoolboy.
It is permitted to hope for this. He came, says one of the old saints, not that we might not suffer, but that our sufferings might be like his.
He is not here.
If you are looking for something that is dead, or that was never alive, you can normally find it near the place you saw it last; but that is no property of the living, which tends instead to burrow, scamper, or take wing. A big stone, for instance, is probably not more than a roll or two away; any linen cloths you have left lying around are likely still there. With a living thing, on the other hand, the wind blows where it wishes. Turn your back on it for a weekend, and—even if no one else has come by in the mean time to remove it—when you come back you might find that the lid of the container you put it in has been shaken off. You might next encounter it almost anywhere: in the gardener who walks in clumsily on a desperate moment, in the stranger on another town’s road. And then, too, just when you reach out to embrace it, or just when you had broken bread and Scripture had finally started to make sense and your heart was burning within you, it might be gone again.