Thursday, December 30, 2010

O DEATH: CHRIST IN THE OUTSKIRTS

CHRIST IN THE OUTSKIRTS
GEORGES ROUAULT, c. 1920
The other day I was part of a discussion where the subject turned toward death, and how people’s parents had handled the subject when they were kids. “It’s just like going to sleep,” several mothers had explained, which of course had plunged the poor little 5- and 6-year old tykes into months of bedtime existential terror. One finally came back and said, “Mom, I don’t like that it’s like falling asleep. I’m afraid I won’t wake up.” So the mother thought for a minute, then said “Okay, dying is what it was like before you were born.” Which was somehow even worse…

I don’t know if it’s a matter of aging, or just temperament, but I personally think about death a lot. Wouldn’t the joke be on us if God really IS an old man with long white hair, for instance? Christ himself called Him the Father, which connotes some kind of personhood and I can’t imagine, if God is love, that He is not also somehow enfleshed, in some recognizable form like us. We don’t love disembodied ideas or abstractions or feelings. We don’t “love” peace. We don’t love love. We love people. Thus,in fact, Christ.

Earlier this year, I did a 40-day more or less silent retreat at a place on the Gulf Coast. I was far from home, and had given up my apartment in L.A. and had set off with some undefined but extremely pressing urge to get closer to Christ. All my life I have had this burning hunger, this drive for meaning, and it had only grown. That I had found my way to my three “homes”—sobriety, writing, the Church—was cause for abject rejoicing, but what gnawed at me was whether there was perhaps more: something else I'd been put on earth for. I did not understand the very deep pull to solitude. Sometimes I wondered if I was too much alone, and sometimes I wondered whether I should be alone more, whether I actually had a calling to be a contemplative hermit, which is kind of funny but not really.

I just so wanted to give all of myself and I could not seem to find the place or person or whatever to focus it all on! I literally was willing to consider joining a religious community or some kind of community, though the problem there would be that after about three hours with people I get extremely antsy and edgy, even if they’re not talking. Not because I’m especially mean or impatient, though I can be both, but because my whole way of existence…I live life at this sort of inner fever pitch which requires a ton of solitude and silence. I love to talk and gab and chat, too, but within pretty well-defined limits. Like sometimes friends will say, “I watched a couple of movies today and had lunch with so-and-so and went shopping then went to a party,” and I’ll just think, If I had to do that for even a single day I would die. I would jump out of my skin at not getting to just wander about and think, write, ponder, take a solitary walk, look at the trees.

Speaking of which, Darwin would have had a field day at this place: the sky, the ground, and everything in between teemed with life. Armadillos huffed around the foundations of my cabin. Two pygmy owls and their three babies nested in the branches of a  live oak. Javelinas ambled out from the palmetto scrub. Broods of wild turkeys, a mother and eight or ten babies, bobbed across the drives. Altamira orioles, heart-stopping, brilliant orange-gold with jet black markings—if you’d seen one such bird in your life, you would have counted it a triumph—abounded.

The first thing I noticed was that my life here was not that different from the life I lived in L.A.: I already lived the life of a contemplative in the middle of the city. The second thing was that the main reason I'd come was to get some kind of spiritual direction, some encouragement, some validation, some guidance. And for whatever reason—and the reason could have had to do with the way I presented myself, or any number of other factors that did not reflect badly on me or the other person—there was nothing. I don’t mean just a little, or not what I wanted to hear or expected to hear, I mean nothing. I was not foundering. I had not lost my moorings. I was not (for once) exaggerating the situation or feeling sorry for myself. But I would have had to be sort of willfully ignorant not to notice that over the previous several years I had had a lot of failure, a lot of no answers, a lot of no matter which way I turned, a blank wall.

I also would have had to be willfully ignorant, however, not to see that I had been formed, that a new person was being formed, by this very deep solitude. I had found my three homes, for example, and I had also found (as is inevitable) how much the three homes could be exactly like the world. As always, there were a few rare, shining, Christ-like examples. And as always, everybody else, including me, wanted to make a buck or be at the top of the heap, everyone wanted to have a platform, everyone wanted to say their way worked, everyone had their idols and as soon as you got into a community or a movement, the movement tended to became your idol.

In a way, I was coming to see, what was there to band together over? What was there to say or do? You devoted your life to writing. You followed Christ. I don’t in any way mean I was, or wanted to be, or fancied myself, a lone wolf. Dear God, no. I needed people desperately. I was grateful for every moment of companionship. More to the point, the Church was my absolute Mother. The Church was my life-blood. The Church was my anchor, my heart. The Church had taken me in when no-one else would have me.

The people who preached poverty so often hated the Church! How can you go to church? they’d ask. How can you stand the homilies, the music, the bad architecture, the hypocrites?  And I would think: You don’t know what poverty is. You have never known the poverty of being so poor in human companionship, so starved for touch, so hungry for the truth that you have stumbled into church like a drowning man seizes a raft. You have never been poor enough that you have been so grateful for whoever  turned up in the pew beside you, for a smile, for a priest who said Mass, that you have fallen to your knees and sobbed. You don’t know what it is to be poor until you have no family, no man, no friend who understands your heart, no-one to support your work to which, day after day, year after year, in silence, in solitude, you give your life.

REINE DE CIRQUE
[QUEEN OF THE CIRCUS]
GEORGES ROUAULT
Still, as I said, I'd begun to see that this strange little existence of mine had some kind of weird value. I was in the world but not of it; I never had been. I’d been a blackout drunk for 20 years, and then I’d gotten sober, and married, and divorced, and written, but even when I’d been doing “normal” things I’d known that real life lay “beyond.” It’s not that I hadn’t participated, especially as of late, it’s that I had always seen the things on earth as pointing to the things beyond. And even though I’d been educated as a lawyer, and lived in L.A., and had friends who were in the world, I was still not exactly of the world. I did not watch TV, for instance. I had never so much as heard Obama speak. I just did not read about or listen to or pay any attention to politics.  I didn’t need to pay attention to politics to know that we were doing terrible terrible violence to ourselves and each other, the world over: emotionally, physically, spiritually, financially, sexually.

I was immersed quite enough in culture. I saw the billboards. I read the New York Times Book Review. You don’t need to immerse yourself in culture, you need to walk down the street and look at people’s faces, to love them, to see their hunger. You need to feel the suffering of the world and to see with horror how you contribute to it. You have to undergo not so much penance as a kind of purification. People will always hear the truth; it’s just that nobody dares to speak it. And the person who does dare to speak it is going to stand outside culture somehow.  And suffer.

Anyway, every night after supper I’d take a long walk. No-one would be around. Every once in awhile a pickup from the local game preserve would drive by: I’d wave, they wouldn’t. I’d study the sky, marvel at the wildflowers. Think about what I was working on, wonder what was going to become of me. Worry about my mother and some difficult stuff that was going on in my family. And one night, I was almost back, with the drive like an allée, lined with tall trees, stretching straight before me.

It was not the cool of the night—the nights, like the days in this part of the world, were sweltering—but it was towards night. Afterwards I realized, too, that I’d been in a kind of “garden,” which is where lovers meet.

And suddenly I thought: Someday I’m going to walking down a road like this and Christ is going to be walking toward me. What if he materialized right now and started walking toward me—would I recognize him? I thought of how, when you get off a plane and you know someone is waiting for you, it still takes you a second to recognize the person among all those strangers. I thought maybe we would look at each other for a minute—you know, with a little expectant smile—“Is it you?”  And then I’d know. I’d just know. This face I’d been looking for, searching for, waiting to see, my whole life.

Apparently Mother Teresa, guardian of the poor of Calcutta, once wrote a note to Dorothy Day, guardian of the poor of the Bowery. "Dear Dorothy,” it read. “My love, prayers, and sacrifices to you.  If you go first, please tell Jesus that I love him.  If I go first, I will tell Jesus that you love him."

HEAD OF CHRIST
GEORGES ROUAULT, 1937

17 comments:

  1. Wonderful stuff, Heather! This journey seems to come down to what Leon Bloy said, that the only tragedy is not to become a saint. Many blessings to you and all you become in this new year!

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  2. Here I am, feeling I should write something, not sure what, and I notice the postings list on the right of your blog, and I think: one day it's Betty MacDonald, and another day it's this totally profound reflection on death and meeting Christ.

    Life is "something" isn't it?

    And every little thing is a step down that road on the way...

    every.little.thing.

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  3. I continue to stumble into church. I don't know any other way. Thank you again for giving words to what I've long felt.

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  4. I've read this post twice now, and it deserves even closer, even deeper reading before I make bold to comment. There are so many things here that demand longer pondering ... so I shall say nothing more, for the nonce!

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  6. Oh Leon Bloy, I have got to write about him, too! And yes, this is the beauty: of life, of Christ, of a blog--Betty MacDonald AND death, a sense of humor AND existential angst...I am starting to develop a whole theory about the Church as the biggest scandal/paradox of all, which is exactly why we need it so badly...the Church reveals us to ourselves: our hardness of heart, our tendency to run, as Peter did, at the merest whiff of peer pressure...I don't know anything but to keep stumbling into Her arms either...Happy New Year, dear folks...

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  7. Happy New Year, Heather! You really touched me with this post. I was blown away by the paragraph on poverty, but then when you wrote about looking down the drive and some day meeting Christ like that, the hairs on my arms stood up and all my body thrilled. Yes, I look forward to that happening to me too!

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  8. I'm ready to comment now (I think)!

    The 20th-century French author François Mauriac wrote a book called Anguish and Joy of the Christian Life. I was going to recommend it to you, but I realize that you know all about the anguish and the joy -- more about both conditions than the belaurelled novelist did!

    I love the paragraph with the javelinas and the pygmy owls and the palmetto scrub. I don't know the names of things half as well as you do! I couldn't tell the difference between an Altamira oriole and a Baltimore Oriole.

    And that paragraph about poverty. It summoned to mind the quotation from somewhere in the New Testament (Christ in the Gospels? St Paul to Timothy? I forget): "Always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you." That hope isn't a political slogan, and the darkness (some of it made by the politicians) does surround us -- but you've done an excellent job, here and elsewhere, of sharing the light.

    (And wasn't Mother Teresa a wonderful correspondent? She'd write to priests who wrote to her, "Pray at least an hour a day, and don't do anything you know to be wrong.")

    Well, please pardon this scattered comment. And Happy New Year.

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  9. I'll come out of hiding to say I hear you on this one. That life of inner fever pitch gets the better of me far too often, given I have a family to look after. Not so good when I'm washing up and want to prostrate myself on the kitchen floor! And the Church? I barely know what to think about her, but my favourite prayer right now comes from the old Holy Saturday liturgy and describes her mystery as the fallen raised up, the old made new and all things restored in Christ from whom they took their beginning. I love that!

    Validation? I don't really think there's any to be had. Getting it means holding to one of the many stories that can be told about me, but none of them really get at the heart of it or finalize it. I struggle with this at the moment: how to show or express the need to fall silent - about myself and everything else? And when I try, people look at me as if I'm mad ;-) Manley Hopkins got closer to putting all this in words than anyone else, and in some poems he had to develop a language of unlikeness for it.

    But now back to my domestics...just wanted to let you know you'd been heard and (perhaps) understood!

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  10. There are tears in my eyes as I read this post -- it so speaks to me. Thank you, Heather. Happy New Year!

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  11. I don't know if you know of the late Mark Heard's music, but this post reminded me so much of it. That is, I kept thinking of his songs as I read it. Please, take that as high praise even if you don't know Mark. He was the most searingly honest songwriter ever.

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  12. Brian, thanks, I didn't know of Mark Heard but have checked him out and good stuff. Elizabeth: bless you and see today's post (Jan. 2, 2011). Dylan, have got the Mauriac on my list. And Judy, Barbara, Bill, Robert, Ron--thank you for letting me know I am/we are on the right path. Happy New Year...

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  13. Dear Ms King,
    I read the blog and it only reinforces the understanding that we are all "becoming", it's a constant and continual journey in our "becoming". Your "becoming" is so very obvious, it can be felt in your words! And in your journey you seem to be taking others and they also seem to be expressing their "becoming". I'm extremely inspired and elated by your "becoming". It seems to show me my path in my journey of "becoming" and I am grateful, thank you. I am also very thankful to Fr. Barron for leading me to you!
    It is now a new year in our journey of "becoming", therefore, Happy New Year and after all our new years are over, the end of the journey of "becoming" will be our complete and total communion in Him!

    Michael G. Albano

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  14. I now know what it was about this post that brought me to tears. Not just your words, which alone would have sufficed, but the everlasting memory of this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpeiPbjDlDs

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  15. oh...5:50 a.m. and now I'M crying...you know, I have never seen City Lights from start to finish, and now I must...that's exactly how it will be! "Yes, I can see now"...Thank you for this...

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  16. Hi Heather: Just wanted to say how grateful I am for your writing. This is easily my favorite of all your pieces. Beautiful. I found myself nodding and saying "Amen" a lot through the first read. I wonder how many people read your blog, are moved by your thoughts, but just don't post (like me). Again, just wanted to say Thank You! Happy New Year.
    ~MJ

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  17. This is my first visit, but from this one post, I feel that if I go first, I can certainly tell Jesus that you love Him. Don't feel obligated to do the same for me, however. Just know that I appreciate the honesty, truth and beauty of this narrative.

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