The Great Narrative

desert.clouds


About suffering they were never wrong.
The Old Masters:
how well they understood…
how it takes place
While someone else is eating
or opening a window or just walking dully along.

–W.H. Auden

“Musee des Beaux Arts”*

At my own church, Trinity in Santa Barbara, Mark Benson, who had lost his partner to AIDS, said he had asked a priest where Phil was, and the priest had answered him with “a hackneyed Christian line about where the dead go. I think he quoted some line from scripture. It meant nothing to me. I realized later that I needed the priest to enter into poetry because that is where Phil is. He could have said, “Well, Phil is at the zoo now.” Something that would clearly express the fact that Phil is gone, no longer literal, not here, not visible, but not absent, not without influence, not dead.”

[from “The Moonlight Sonata At the Mayo Clinic” by Nora Gallagher]

*

Some students in France drew my attention to the enormous number of English words that describe the behavior of light. Glimmer, glitter, glister, glisten, gleam, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine, and so on. These old words are not utilitarian. They reflect an aesthetic attention to experience that has made, and allows us to make, pleasing distinctions among, say, a candle flame, the sun at its zenith, and the refraction of light by a drop of rain. How were these words coined and retained, and how have they been preserved through generations, so that English-speaking people use them with the precision necessary to preserving them? None of this can be ascribed to conscious choice on the part of anyone, but somehow the language created, so to speak, a prism through which light passes, by means of which its qualities are arrayed. One of the pleasures of writing is that so often I know that there is in fact a word that is perfect for the use I want to put it to, and when I summon it it comes, though I might not have thought of it for years.*

Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in spiritual free-fall.” When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree. They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.” Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.” This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism. At this point in my life I have probably had a broader experience of the American population than is usual. I have been to divinity schools, and I have been to prisons. In the First Epistle of Peter we are told to honor everyone, and I have never been in a situation where I felt this instruction was inappropriate. When we accept dismissive judgments of our community we stop having generous hopes for it. We cease to be capable of serving its best interests. As we withdraw from one another we withdraw from the world, except as we increasingly insist that foreign groups and populations are our irreconcilable enemies. The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home.

It is very much in the gift of the community to enrich individual lives, and it is in the gift of any individual to enlarge and enrich community. The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.
*

At very best there are two major problems with ideology. The first is that it does not represent or conform to or even address reality. It is a straight-edge ruler in a fractal universe. And the second is that it inspires in its believers the notion that the fault here lies with miscreant fact, which should therefore be conformed to the requirements of theory by all means necessary. To the ideologue this would amount to putting the world right, ridding it of ambiguity and of those tedious and endless moral and ethical questions that dog us through life, and that those around us so rarely answer to our satisfaction. Anger and self-righteousness combined with cynicism about the world as he or she sees it are the marks of the ideologue. There is always an element of nostalgia, too, because the ideologue is confident that he or she is moved by a special loyalty to a natural order, or to a good and normative past, which others defy or betray.

*

I remember when I was a child at Coolin or Sagle or Talache, walking into the woods by myself and feeling the solitude around me build like electricity and pass through my body with a jolt that made my hair prickle. I remember kneeling by a creek that spilled and pooled among rocks and fallen trees with the unspeakably tender growth of small trees already sprouting from their backs, and thinking, there is only one thing wrong here, which is my own presence, and that is the slightest imaginable intrusion—feeling that my solitude, my loneliness, made me almost acceptable in so sacred a place. [….]

It must have been at evening that I heard the word “lonesome” spoken in tones that let me know the privilege attached to it, the kind of democratic privilege that comes with simple deserving. I think it is correct to regard the West as a moment in history much larger than its own. My grandparents and people like them had a picture in their houses of a stag on a cliff, admiring a radiant moon, or a maiden in classical draperies, on the same cliff, admiring the same moon. It was a specimen of decayed Victorianism. In that period mourning, melancholy, regret, and loneliness were high sentiments, as they were for the psalmist and for Sophocles, for the Anglo-Saxon poets and for Shakespeare. In modern culture these are seen as pathologies—alienation and in-authenticity in Europe, maladjustment and depression in the United States. At present, they seem to flourish only in vernacular forms, country-and-western music being one of these. The moon has gone behind a cloud, and I’m so lonesome I could die. It seems to me that, within limits the Victorians routinely transgressed, the exercise of finding the ingratiating qualities of grave or fearful experience is very wholesome and stabilizing. I am vehemently grateful that, by whatever means, I learned to assume that loneliness should be in part pleasure, sensitizing and clarifying, and that it is even a truer bond among people than any kind of proximity. It may be mere historical conditioning, but when I see a man or a woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.

*
The great narrative, to which we as Christians are called to be faithful, begins at the beginning of all things and ends at the end of all things, and within the arc of it civilizations blossom and flourish, wither and perish. This would seem a great extravagance, all the beautiful children of earth lying down in a final darkness. But no, there is that wondrous love to assure us that the world is more precious than we can possibly imagine. There is the human intimacy of the story—the astonishing, profoundly ordinary birth, the weariness of itinerancy, the beloved friends who disappoint bitterly and are still beloved, the humiliations of death—Jesus could know as well as anyone who has passed through life on this earth what it means to yearn for balm and healing. He could know what it would mean to hear a tender voice speaking of an ultimate home where sorrow ends and error is forgotten. Most wonderfully, he could be the voice that says to the weary of the world, “I will give you rest,” and “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” It is a story written down in various forms by writers whose purpose was first of all to render the sense of a man of surpassing holiness, whose passage through the world was understood, only after his death, to have revealed the way of God toward humankind. How remarkable. This is too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale. Reverence should forbid in particular its being subordinated to tribalism, resentment, or fear.

[All above passages from Marilynne Robinson’s “When I Was A Child I Read Books]

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