I didn’t stay there. If I were assured of a hundred more years to live I don’t know that I would ever read Niebuhr again. Part of the problem with the blazing sunset era of high Protestant theology was that its authors sought to provide us with a place to stand–where faith and reason, revelation and science all worked together–when all they could offer was a point of transit. From the perspective of one moving out of Christian faith, however defined, those points of transit seem feeble and dishonest. For one moving into it, they can seem necessary and providential. Christians have a tendency to ask for kinds of assurance, whether from theological faculties, great collections of bishops, or second-century papyrus, that none of these can give. Our needs and our doubts give shape to the theories of revelation or ecclesiology or whatever else that we may then point to in order to meet them.
And yet now, having known the consolations of a loving marriage, pursued the full course of my formal education, tasted the vocations that define my life, and treasured the unspeakable joy of fathering a child, the prospect of a parting sometimes fills me with far greater bitterness than it did back when my life was still a blank canvass. I’ve had to explain to skeptics that when Paul says, rhetorically, “where grave is thy victory; where O death is thy sting?” he is referring to the final resurrection, not to our own mind here and now. Here and now the grave wins its victory and death inflicts a palpable sting, to those who leave too soon and to those who are left. Yet youth is perhaps innocent even of this.
I wish very much that I had gone to that festival screening of Ikiru (today’s lesson: go see people you admire when they speak publicly, especially about something you really care about). I wish that I’d ever seen Roger Ebert in the flesh, many years as we shared this city. But at the same time I know it doesn’t much matter in the scheme of things. The words and the movies matter, to the critic and his reader anyway, much more than the momentary flash of bodily presence. “My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris,” he wrote in that 2011 essay.
At Deep Springs and, I imagine, many other small, isolated communities, a certain convergence of personal styles takes place. We arrived distinct from each other but grew, externally at least, more and more alike: Long hair or a buzz with the #3 razor; generations of farm-suitable clothes intermingling and being exchanged; an inevitable preference for glasses over contacts. The passage of time only compounds the effect. People we knew by smell (not that difficult in that place) or by footfall at the time become blurrier, singly or together. Looking at this picture I at first mistook another guy for me. My mother mistook a different guy for me.
It wasn’t until I’d been preaching and writing like this for a number of years that the pathos of John Ames’s sermons in Gilead, boxed up in the attic and waiting for his post-mortem bonfire, really hit home. I was exposed to a massive dose of T.S. Eliot at an off-label age, and I was perhaps too complacent with his running theme of the life and death of words and their meanings. “These things have served their purpose; let them be,” I learned by heart before I had made much of anything to be attached to in the first place. Now I’m a million-odd words deep into a vocation whose tangible products are subject to nearly instant forgetting, recycling, the half-life of modest virality, and the onset of linkrot, and I am tempted to be less philosophical.
The season’s meager forays into discomfort can only show how very different fasting is from true hunger, let alone hunger imposed and enforced as a policy. Self-imposed penance for the sins of the world is an impossibility; it can even be a perverse delusion. Nothing in that world can be assimilated to our prostrations or hair shirts. “Weep not for me, but for yourselves,” as Jesus says
So it happens that skipping one meal on Ash Wednesday, another on Friday, and eating neither meat nor sweets at all, leaves me feeling like Gandhi by Saturday. One of the implicit bargains I’ve made with life is that I do my work and meet my responsibilities, however onerous, and in exchange I eat whatever I feel like, whenever I wish to. And it’s not just me. This is the structure of daily life in the twilight of the middle class: sacrifice sleep, family time, personal interests, and peace of mind, but grant yourself any of a million coruscating indulgences.
(Note: I wrote, but apparently did not finish, this post in March, 2013.) We may well never know what proximate cause led Pope Benedict XVI to resign when he did, but without a doubt, such an unusual announcement had a special resonance landing shortly before Ash Wednesday (a resonance that was noted). It occasioned a flurry […]
(Note: I wrote this in October, 2012. I’m republishing it for St. Ansgar’s feast day tomorrow) As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me […]
(Note: I wrote this in May 2010, when the Rolling Stones re-released Exile on Main Street) When I picked up Exile on Main Street in 1992, during the summer after seventh grade, the album was something of a hidden classic. It was not much anthologized on the numerous hits discs and live albums the Stones pumped out […]