After reading Kierkegaard

Who is his mother and who are his brothers, this one with whom the whole world claims kinship? They are the ones who do the will of the Father. But say a wise scribe comes and speaks with him, and, while giving no signs of great obedience, shows by earnest speech that at any rate he understands what was asked of him, that he has heard and can repeat the command that has gone out, that one should love the one Lord with every muscle and nerve, and give oneself to the neighbor. Even he, who for all we are told does not love and does not give himself in this way, even he is told: not far from the kingdom of God.

Who then is far from the kingdom of God? The one who thinks a burnt offering suffices, or a tithe of one’s mint, dill, and cumin; membership in a relatively compassionate political party; the staunch repetition of uninhabited beliefs. There is no more extreme distance from the kingdom than to be an alien to it and think you are a native: to smile while tending pigs in the far country, and bless God for the happy lot of living in the Father’s house.

But how many artifacts of piety are invented to assure me that I am safe at home in grace, that the call of the cross not only does not dismay me but actually draws my lips into a benign smile—it must be so, since after all I am a Christian. And I know that I am a Christian because from earliest childhood my religious education has consisted of exercises in declaring this to be the case: At about the same time that the existence of God was proposed to my toddling intellect, I was also taught that I was a true believer in it. Possibly I never knew the spelling of the word “Christian” until I memorized the song that told me I was a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N. I learned about joy, faith, love, and the peace that passes understanding by avowing, in conjunction with hand motions, that I had all these things down in the depths of my heart, and consequently was so happy. In a sense, all these concepts were defined for me by reference to my own form of life; and inasmuch as this is how it happened, the suggestion that I do not in fact possess such virtues, that Jesus might ask more from me than I now have, must be as absurd as the theorem that triangles have four angles.

I believe an analysis of children’s worship music will conclude that it is designed to produce not Christians so much as people who believe that they are Christians. And this is understandable since the latter, besides forming a more reliable voting bloc, is also much easier. To teach Christianity would mean teaching longing, repentance, confession, dissatisfaction, sacrifice—a whole bestiary of religious acts and speech-acts; but a self-identified political allegiance needs only a banner with a name on it or a distinguishable trumpet cadence for coordinating troop movements. Therefore what might be a word of discipline, calling, and so freedom is frequently heard instead as the Spirit’s cooing over our religious identity, as an invitation to tribe, friend groups, a rich cultural inheritance, architectural styles and Christmas pageants. Ah, but all these things are good and beautiful—yes: if they are directed to their ends. Childhood is beautiful, very beautiful, just until the child demands to remain in it forever. Christian children’s songs and coloring books are charming, unless we mistake them for Christianity. Many will say to him on that day: “Lord, Lord: didn’t we love sacred choral music, also stained glass? Didn’t we both attend youth group and, when the day finally came, dutifully escort our children to youth group? In your name we brought egg dishes to a hundred potlucks and calmly yet firmly objected to the spinelessness of ‘Happy Holidays’ greetings?” But he is not so cruel as to guard our indifference by illusions of alliance. Depart.

On the other hand, how many say “Oh, I’ll be no dupe of tired old institutional religion, that crude sociological phenomenon,” and thereby escape sustained self-examination, since no other authority is requiring it of them? About the same number, perhaps, as those for whom the institution itself numbs the conscience. So if you say that your religion is love and all humanity are your brothers and sisters, I ask, and really do want to know (or, weak as I am, at least wish to want to know) how it is you remain vigilant in practicing the faith. Only, make sure that after all the talk of love, which is a most pleasurable and lyrical aspect of it, you are in fact remembering to love in some half-costly way. (“Well, I ceased to associate myself with the family members and acquaintances who were most irritating to me and who expressed themselves in a way insensitive to my ideals. Isn’t that something?” It is some evidence, at least, that love to you was a bold word for your own army’s banners. It is some evidence that it meant you and the ones who liked you were good and others were bad.)

If I ever wake up in the night in possession of a brilliant thought for a screenplay, I will know that the only way to secure that idea is to lock it in a notebook until daylight: if we are earnest in wanting to do something, we will usually write it down, or we will set up recurring reminders on our calendars—that is, we will externalize it. A written word, a cattle prod, and institutional religion are all externalities and bear no meaning in themselves; but when they make contact with the eye, the flesh, and the heart they are meaningful enough. Because of this I hope I will go on holding down my sanctuary pew with neighbors’ help, and when the time comes I will take up the gray hymnal, at least until I pray by heart the prayers within. I will again trek up the aisle toward the broken loaf. At some moment in all of this I may think to remember more than verbally: I am a sinner awaiting mercy.

“Ugh, why return again to such a surly theme? Isn’t there supposed to be some glimmer of good news in all of this?” But would it be good news to hear instead that in this life of cooled love and weak effort I had in fact hit the nail on the head, reproduced the Trinitarian pattern? Is it encouragement, when a five-year-old exhibits her crayon drawing, to tell her, “That’s very good, my dear; indeed, you are already at the height of the discipline”? Compared with the soporifics of self-assured hymnody, even Satan’s accusation carries true comfort. Better, though, to hear from the Lord’s mouth: How slow of heart you are—“Ah, then you mean there is a faster way!” Lukewarm—“thank God there might be greater heat.” Poor, blind. “Well then, what magnificent visions of wealth could open to me yet, what beauty and life in them!”

Lord, still you have not given virtue: blessed are you, and your judgements just. But hear the prayer of your servant, and do not deal with me so severely as to let me believe that I have it, or that I am anything but the lost son.

A prayer we can imagine one praying

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)


Good Friday

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.


Easter Sunday

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.

Gloss on the Song of Songs

for my brother’s wedding

I was sitting close enough to hear
the one newlywed whisper in the other’s ear,
       My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms
       in the vineyards of En-gedi—
but I saw one of her solemn brown eyes winking,
and understood she was really thinking,
“The sweet remembrance of the resurrection
lifts my spirit.”

Every cloistered mystic knew,
much as we all like henna blossoms, delicate complexions,
silver necklaces, the night-fallen dew,
or aromatic cedar,
these are like a chapter’s first, illuminated letter:
figures put there to entice and woo
the passing reader
through two plainer senses to a third
and better:
the allegory of the incarnate Word.

The bride:
       Sustain me with raisins,
       refresh me with apples;
       for I am faint with love.
Which is to say, the Church pines for her resting place
with God, but lives now on the first fruits of his grace.
The groom:
       As a lily among brambles,
       so is my love among the maidens.
Or, put another way: though beset by sin,
the soul that hopes in Christ is fair to him.
The friends of bride and groom:
       We will exult and rejoice in you;
       we will extol your love more than wine.
That is, desire for union with the Lord excites us
more than any earthly appetite does.

Amen, and let the lines be blurred till we forget
if it is human or divine love that we see
in you, or which is testifying to which, or
whether you are the metaphor
or the sober truth. For if you are not yet
gazelles on the high mountains, a pomegranate tree,
princess with prince, or souls in radiant ascent,
you are becoming these, if God intends.
And we are becoming the company of friends
who love to overhear and wonder what you meant.

A kind of life in it

Say a boy, love and duty dimly dawning on him as he grew, resolved to give Christmas gifts to his mother; but every year he found he could only hand her scraps of paper, loose buttons, and pocket lint—these were all he had on him when the time of giving came. Lesson: when you resolve to give a gift, you should resolve to procure one.

I wanted to write daily, or I should have wanted to, not so that I could practice the ex nihilo every night on the spot, but so that I could treat the world as worth remembering. God, you who author the world by perceiving it, teach me the reading of love.


Is my faith dying? Seems likely. It is a property of a dying mind cased in a dying body. Every part of me is mortal; and pitiable I, if it were only for this life that I hoped. But I confessed the resurrection of the dead.


The night tremors have stopped. I desire PhD admissions less ambiguously. A few friends who taught me and who also said kind things to me about philosophy have won me over, for now. On the other hand, everyone—former philosophers, new philosophers, aspiring philosophers, grocers, joggers passing by me—everyone tells me that the job market is terrible and I will probably regret it.

I came to think that the correct standard to apply to one’s PhD hopes was the test of unemployment: if I can’t get a job in the field, after five years of rigmarole, would it have been a mistake, or a chapter in my own proper book? And I came to think I passed the test.

At any rate I am not seeking to return to school lightly. It may of course be foolishness, this flight from plenty into want. But if it is foolishness, it is longstanding and deep-rooted foolishness like an oak of Mamre.


The Advent candles have all burnt down. The baptismal font that I dip my fingers in to make the sign on my way out—this is nearly dry. The consumables of faith depleted, I am living at the edge of the soul.

All this needs replenishing from the living font, living Lord. Gather the grains from many fields, the grapes from many hills. Gather me into the one fold, into the One.


What did I reap today from the gray fields of the world? I noticed, more intently than usual, the two guide dogs on the bus—one nested on its young woman’s lap, curling back to receive her kiss; one visible only as a golden snout protruding over her boots. I saw that my seatmate was scrolling furiously past aunts and presidents, desperate to encounter on her phone the same thing I have always been desperate to encounter on mine, if still unable to name it. When I walked the urban mile down home, it was dark. But I looked up and saw the moon, dim and murky in the clouds, perhaps underwater.

So I came in carrying the sheaves.


There will be more of this, the spirit escaping through the windows and riding a gust to somewhere above the city, while I sink a little deeper into my armchair, swallowing hard through a bad cold, staring blankly at bed unmade and tissues scattered. Waiting for desire to return, to rejoin me to myself. Try to welcome this night, my poor, tired soul, my little weaned child that is with me. Years hence, when the film has had time to develop, you may see that the moment was composed of light.


One thing I asked: to see your beauty. I thought I didn’t. So I started asking for other things. It occurs to me now that the rest of the things, and the rest of the asking, might have been really your beauty.

It occurs to me now that there is almost no amount of linguistic bending, no too obscenely counterintuitive rhetoric that I would not embrace to keep you the object of my longing.


When both parties in a dispute seek the good, and truly acknowledge the good will of the other disputants, and never break off the hope for unity, does it follow that, there, disagreement will proceed in a kind of concord after all? There is no reason to think so. If the dispute is momentous—if it has more than ethical implications, and begins to seem a matter of being and non-being—then the issue may be finally an irrevocable parting, not with tender looks but with stern warnings that life itself is being forfeited. So far forth there is no sign to show that it is not a battle of Whigs and Tories, each tribe against the other. If love can bring about some difference here to show its presence, it must be tears: a clutch in the throat stalls declarations that else were steady.


I might be growing into my self a little, the way you might grow into a set of ears. I am tired, still, but even the ways I am tired are after all my ways, and pretty funny.


Maybe after forty years I will approximate the speech of the one I admired, John Hare: quiet as an untriggered bear trap for as long as he needed; then a river of thought without a ripple atop it. For now I am in conversation more like the bear after it has gnawed its leg off. Keeping my head down I charge on toward some impossible freedom, catching myself in many thickets and breaking free, whirling around to check my progress, whirling back.

There is a kind of life in it.


I was wrong to mock (in some entry that long ago slipped under the waves) the idea of knowing Epic software thoroughly after many years. It may be that nothing but evil—or even perhaps nothing at all—is unworthy of the closest attention you can give it. Only, you must choose to which things you can give it.

Render to the spider’s ways a minute accounting. Learn the sun on the lowest row of shingles outside your window, until you could paint it, if you were a painter. You cannot become an expert in the light on every house’s shingles.

We will see him as he is

We are like these houses sinking under the roofed snow. We are like the bulbs dormant in hard ground. We’re the magi months late for a royal birth, asking directions from every scribe and despot; the mother still learning to hold her child; we’re the child, not thinking, not joying, not loving, but wound in borrowed cloths, learning to be held.

No wonder then if, when a friend asks the state of my soul, I find I do not know it. No wonder if the beautiful word grace sometimes falls on me strange and opaque as a page from a foreign newspaper, or if I cannot remember whether I have seen that star before or whether it is new, or if the simplest greeting from an angel becomes a fearsome riddle.

Curl up in the manger and drift off again. Dream of blue skies over the frozen lakes, an alien music bending air bright. Rest and wait, adding days to every Advent till you wrap the year around in hope’s swaddling. And if today or in some far decade you find the place where he is lying, the promised one, name him Emmanuel. Follow him through the land of Unlikeness.

The November gallery

Looking up from the world and wondering if it has lied to you deeply and consistently—that is not very fun and it may not make you very many friends; worst of all, it is by no means guaranteed to bring any clarity or lead you to any better way. So not only do I expect that many people will prefer to sit and watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory, but I actually sympathize and wonder at times if they have chosen the better part.


So the first capsule of fluoxetine slides down, without triggering violent shudders or other visible signs of vaporizing moral agency. I seem to have a soul still, if I had one before. My prayers are weak, but no weaker. So pride nods to need. So I release another false purity, without loss.


“But only say the word, and I shall be healed.” Does it bother you to pray this again and again, when according to your formula he could remove the need forever with the slightest motion? Why does he not say the word?

Think whether he is not even now saying that word, the word too beautiful to rush. Think whether you did not hear a long, slow vowel sounding yesterday under the crickets and the breeze-rustled leaves; and whether you did not begin saying that word yourself, in the moment before you would have realized it.


(Gen. 22:14)

“The Lord himself will provide the lamb.” With the hope so thin that to speak it aloud is to lie—with the longing that, just after it has been bitterly discarded, is fulfilled: that is how the matter ends. That is the name by which the place is called forever.


I cannot understand myself as a software tester, any more than I could understand my mother as an expert marksman or my father as a rodeo enthusiast. I believe I would look back on twenty years of software testing—if I had to look back on twenty years of software testing—as a long chapter ripped from someone else’s biography.


The old wound is opened. I think again of graduate school in philosophy.

Why? Because of a chance word muttered by an old professor. A grain of sand was resting just out of place. A leaf fell on a lake. A bird perched on the near twig instead of the far.

Pascal: The most important affair in life is the choice of a calling; chance decides it.


There is still so much fear in me and very great uncertainty—I forgot about these rather than overcoming them. But this I believe is the truth: if I were not guided by fear, I would seek the PhD. Once this is seen and said aloud, can we keep on living as if we do not know the way?


Never, except by necessity, to check the page number.
Never, except by necessity, to look in the mirror.
Always to learn the truth cheerfully from another, whether or not I should have known it already.


Lord, as I am anxious, let me be anxious. Let me wake early and grind over again the same unanswerables that woke me yesterday and went with me to work, let me fight for a moment of silence within and see it leak back into noise; let me recall the names of friends and the verses of hymns, and find them colored now with fear; lose me however deeply in the swell—so long as you will it: then the worry beckons calm. And when you no longer will it, I will not resent its removal.


What I have bought for myself with my own money I use sparingly and stingily. I choke a sigh when I notice another using it. But when I am given a gift, I use it when it pleases me to do so and give it to others to use in the same way.

Therefore we call God creator and say that all this comes from someone. And we say also that we should imitate that one, until every atom and every word gleams again, a gift doubly given.


Does the tea shine any less richly amber in his mug? Will the houseplants droop and dry out on the windowsill, in that day when he fails to win a name at Yale or a chapter in the books of philosophers? Or is it instead the case that, when some foreboded failure has arisen and subsided, the squirrels still flit up and down tree trunks outside his house like angels on Jacob’s ladder, attending to work in heaven and on earth? Nature’s friendship is not grudged. The seasons visit him just when they promised to, unembarrassed by the turns his career took. The sun still waves when it passes on its rounds.


Breakfast tomorrow with my aunt; streaks of clouds across the pale sky; my officemate’s friendly joke or my sister’s unexpected visit: nothing in any future of mine will drain these gifts of their meaning. Only let me know it in my present, dear God who loves the now.


This being human is an affair of missing almost everything. Truth swirls past you in bonebreaking eddies; you may feel a breeze. Goodness erupts new each moment from each inch, and you barely sense the warmth.

That is what it is like to live in abundance. Put your hands in the river. Let it run by you. And what you can lift out in that poor mesh of fingers you were given, drink.


Why was I born on this day, at the end of the dreariest month? Was it not that I might learn to pay attention to the ends of dreary months, and see the beauty June babies, maybe, miss? The bare tree brown against the clouds’ soft vault; a subdued lake still lapping quietly before the freeze; the leaves fading and sinking underground—these are the pieces in the gallery to which God brought me, at which God left me. I learned their love.

My grandmother’s passing at 93

November trees clung to their leaves past use,
past color, clouds of mottled brown
hung along the highway I drove down
to her deathbed. “Why not let them loose,”
I said to the branches, “since they’ve faded?
Is it dread of the oncoming cold
that so lengthens your hold
on a cover already degraded?”

They made no reply aloud, but swayed
and bowed together, branch with leaf.
I understood: time’s reprieve being brief,
trees would bear their leaves long as they stayed,
and find in them what patience sees
when use has gone, with love alone suspended
from the tender stems, and finally commended
lightly to a rising breeze.