There is a backlog in the journal, and if it is not too terribly jarring to lay out wintry journals in October I will begin where I left off.
December 2014 – January 2015
What a bizarre astrological fluke we lately witnessed, when (for the first time in a year) the church calendar’s high holy day of Christmas fell on the same date as the pagan Yule of frenzied sentimentality.
~ [Let the tilde stand for a change in the day of my writing, sometimes coinciding with a change of theme—but not in this case.]
One could almost have thought they were the same holiday. Their histories have entwined from the beginning, admittedly; and both feature babies, though the child of the liturgical feast came to shake the earth and set it ablaze—to leave every ear ringing with his cries—while the pagan infant is content to loll on the hay and endure endless pa-rum-pum-pum drum solos.
And when Peace here does house / He comes with work to do. He does not come to coo.
I celebrate both days, but I like to keep them distinct. And besides its baby’s temperament, the crucial thing about Christmas, its theological bona fides, is that it is not just a day but also a twelve-day season, flowing like a stream between Advent and Epiphany. This shows, first, its loyalty to time and to history, which God so loved. It shows, second, that its concern is with presence, rather than with—but this is too easy—presents.
The world fears time, because time betokens insecurity and death: every moment arising in time withers and falls as another springs up. To accept time as a gift would be to receive each moment into your hands and attend to it until the next displaces it; then to surrender it peacefully into the darkness. But the pagan Yule neither receives nor surrenders. It will not receive even the single full day that is allotted to Christmas on the calendar: the only instant it will have is the instant when the children wake up to a living room crowded with bows and cardboard; or the only instant it will have is that in which the baby smiles, lit by a halo. The rest is forgotten or spurned. Having singled out the moment of sentiment, Yule rushes to seize and possess it. It pushes against the walls of time, inflating the moment into weeks, months in which the pagan is meant to imagine that that moment is already here: hence the ever-earlier decorations hence the same four Christmas songs played without limit, as if to create an eternal sentimental Now.
(The essence of sentimentalism is to try buying emotion off the shelf. But that is a fruit that can only be cultivated in your own garden. If it is not grown up from the black dirt, tended by your hands through frosts and droughts, it rots.)
The world, while it longs for presence, for the gaze of another, hates and fears it too, as it hates and fears judgement. This is how it comes about that the great patron of pagan Yule, the fat man in red, zooms in like an absentee father to drop off the loot and zooms out again before anyone wakes up to meet him. How tiresome it would be if the old man stopped to have dinner and held forth on politics or immigrants or his pill regimen.
But the light from light, the Christ child, comes to abide, and he brings only himself. If that is not recognized as the sum of all gifts, then he brings no gift at all. He comes to grow alongside us through time, to search out history’s dingiest corners and plant himself there like a tree by a stream: waiting, hastening.
What prayer is there for me today but the one prayer? God be with me at my beginning; God at the middle; God at my ending—defending, correcting, perfecting.
We went through water and through fire; yet you have brought us out into a spacious place.
(Who am I to place myself in the story of the exodus? I am not just well-off: I am very nearly maximally privileged. What likeness is there between the wandering Aramean and his tribes on the one hand and on the other hand white, upper-middle-class, male, sound-of-body-and-of-mind me, so that I am justified in reading myself into the liberation stories? Only this: that we ate the same manna on those desert mornings, and drank the same rock’s water at midday. (And the rock was Christ.)
And if I seem to bend anything I can in scripture to serve me as a tool (as encouragement, as challenge, as comfort, and in brief as a type of my own life), it is deliberate. If I carry on in this way until every image between the table of contents in the front and the maps of biblical Palestine in the back has become a metaphor for the depressive’s rehabilitation—the trees, the burning bush, the rock, the pillar of cloud, and all their like—then why not, since it is the book of hope, and not only for the beloved poor but also for the rich in their weary corruption?)
That spirit in me of clear eyes, of hope, of resentment, the one that sleeps sometimes but wakes in the fall or on lonely days to demand a better soul, he’s restless again—roused by the fear of normalcy in life, irritated by a long delay before the next task. He’s growling and he’s thrashing against the off-white walls of decent mediocrity.
It’s good something’s raging and churning still: God, trouble the waters! But dig channels for them: that is, let me rage as one who has a call to rage. Let me rave like the prophets raved, driven on by the violent wind of the Lord that envelops his Word. For if I could know that what I received I received from your hand, how could it be anything but light for me, and life? How could I have anything but joy in it, even if the joy was sorrow?
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.
Now Joseph gathers up the child, who is still unable even to roll over, let alone upend the world. Now he passes him to the somber mother and hefts the saddlebags onto the donkey; guides the beast and its burden down the south road, blue morning sweeping in; now he rests, and turns over the visions in his mind. He feels again the shock of fear, reaches again for trust, which wanders back to him and lies at his feet like a dog.
Faithful Joseph, be my patron. I am also fearing and reaching. He was given to me, too, from outside, without my knowing where he came from (unless I believe that this thing is from the Holy Spirit, driven on by the wind of the Lord), and I was tasked to protect this life that somehow reigns over all life, weak though I see it now—to guard it with all the strength I can find scattered within me, until belief fades and there is only sight. I’ll go with you, if the journey by grace is not too hard for me. I’ll hear it, too, when out of Egypt God calls his sons.
A professor told us he rarely listened to sermons anymore; he already knew any theology that the preacher could bring up. Instead, he wrote book manuscripts in his journal.
But I don’t guess that I’d be looking for ideas in a sermon, chiefly. I want a thoughtful tweak now and then, and every few years maybe even an overhaul of my conceptual fleet. For the most part, though, I’m happy to bring the theology myself. Can you, preacher, tempt me to believe it? Can you make it look like the gospel again, as I faintly remember thinking it was?
Still I seem to see only through a gray screen, and to handle everything with thin gloves. Nothing thrills. Instead I vaguely understand that the event has passed me, I have experienced it; it pushed its way past me in the fog, and some people, other people, met it with delight while I turned around too late for a second glimpse.
I set my face forward again and trudge. A question grows in me which I do not know but need badly to ask. I try to find it when I greet old friends, but instead the words that come forth are only the old words; the paths down which I speak are only the old paths, the ones I thought I had learned to avoid that go to houses I thought I had left.
Jesus, truth: fall like lightning, or settle in like dew.
What kind of Christian am I, if neither natural theology nor transcendent experience nor the virtuous charms of grace’s kingdom brought me here? What am I doing but clinging to the accidents that went long enough invisible to lodge in my heart?
Still I am unacquainted with genuine failure. When I think about how I tried to shoulder my way into the intellectual life, and how it did not work, it has an air of novelty—it is almost pleasant in its oddity—to name it as a failure: “how funny to imagine that I might have encountered that.”
So little of any suffering by any other hand than my own; so little lack, so little threat. Yet in the days when failure has come into sight, still only a prick in the distance, I have quivered and fallen like a desiccated flower.
Everything in swells and ebbs: that’s the Law of Undulation; no highs without lows, says the law. The work that at one time clears our eyes and lifts our arms we later drag behind us like a chain; the love that warmed us cools, and the spirit of strength departs. I am thinking of writing: it was a meal a few months ago, now a thin broth.
It is no great matter. Take your broth, since it is on thin meals like this, taken regularly, that the body subsists—the body, from which fire may yet shoot forth, desire flash. The spirit of strength has left its room desolate, but perhaps it left only to find seven other spirits like itself and bring them back home.
You rose up soft and laid a gentle band
of gold across my restless form. I slept
a warmer, purer sleep then, but I kept
my hold on dreams and never found your hand.
Oh, come back with more fierce and piercing rays
to wake me; make me now to know your ways.
I am low on writing material. Never mind: undulation. I feel as though there is some great gem of meaning to be extracted from the confused rock, if only I had the tools. Or I feel as though I should be able to make the very lack of form in my thoughts into a meditation, but I can’t. (Well, except for this one time.)
Jesus Christ, gladdening light, echoing word, smell of baking bread and taste of wine, warmth of the Father’s breast: when guests depart, when the vacant darkness seeps back in, then I’ll clothe myself, if I remember, if I can, in a mind of trust. Then I’ll begin by committing to the silence a prayer of hope.