SATURDAY READING: The Grace of Aridity and Other Comedies by Kathleen Norris

From Portland Magazine

It’s all about water, and grace.

Our planet is mostly water, as are we: one fact of nature that astonished and delighted me when I first encountered it as a child, and which I still treasure as evidence of the essential unity of all things, is that human blood, chemically speaking, is nearly indistinguishable from sea water.  While we live and breathe, we are literally at one with the ocean, and when we die, our bodies become earth.  This is not New Age fancy, but science.

We human beings, however, are remarkably adept at ignoring elemental truths; we’d rather place our faith in technology, and keep playing with our toys.  Every now and then I read of a survey conducted by sociologists in which Americans are asked what they couldn’t live without.  The answers are always things like microwaves, computers, e-mail, cell phones, and Palm Pilots.  I am composing this on a laptop, and as I am old enough to remember when the IBM Selectric typewriter was high-tech, I greatly enjoy the convenience a word processor provides.  But I also recognize the computer as a mere tool, a convenience rather than a necessity.  The stark truth is that our lives are entirely conditional on our access to air and water.  In extreme circumstances, we can subsist for weeks without food, but take away our air and water, and we quickly die.

There is perhaps another human need that we can’t live without; at least the world’s religions would have us believe that this is so.  Without love, we are told, love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self, we are nothing, we are good as dead.  Scientists who play with the atomic glue that holds our world together have revealed that at the very heart of things is the quark.  They are strange little critters, for there is no such thing as one quark, but only three mutually interdependent ones.  The original three musketeers, one for all, and all for one.

Now think of love as a quark: if we believe that god first loves us, then we are called to love God in return, and to love our neighbor, and to love ourselves.  But these three loves, like our blood and ocean water, are inextricably connected.  We can’t have one without all three, and we can’t let any one of the three get out of balance.  Loving God, for example, does not mean that we ignore the needs of others.  And loving the neighbor means just that, not just loving those we choose to love, but loving people we would not have chosen, who happen to come into our lives, in our dorms, or apartment buildings, or jobs.  Like it or not, how we love these often difficult people reveals how we love God, and ourselves.

Often the love of self is the most difficult for us.  That may seem a peculiar thing to say, in the context of our narcissistic culture.  But, as with any of the three loves, the key is balance.  Think of the person who is never wrong, who harbors an exaggerated and unwarranted self-esteem, and lives smugly.  Or, contrariwise, the person who is never right, and laboring under an exaggerated and unwarranted self-loathing, lives self-destructively.  For both people, their real enemy is a self-absorption that withers love on the vine.  Love itself is inexhaustible — God has made sure of that — but we find that it’s not easy to love.  That’s where grace, and the comedy, enter in.

Grace Disguised

It’s easy to like the idea of grace.  What’s not to like?  One of its dictionary definitions reads: “divine love and protection bestowed freely on people.”  But if grace is so wonderful, why do we have such difficulty recognizing and accepting it?  Maybe it’s because grace is not gentle, or made-to-order.  It often comes disguised as loss, or failure, or unwelcome change.  And in the depths of our confusion and anger, we ask: “Where is God?  How can this be divine love and protection?”  But if an accident, illness, or sudden reversal of fortune forces us to confront and even change our priorities in life for the better, isn’t that grace?

The comedy of grace is that it must so often come to us as loss and failure because if it came as success and gain we wouldn’t be grateful.  We would, as we are wont to do, take personal credit for what is an unwarranted gift of God.  But for grace to be grace, it must take us places we didn’t imagine we could go, and give us things we didn’t know we needed.  As we stumble crazily, blindly, through this strange, new landscape — of drought, of illness, of grief, and terrifying change — we slowly come to recognize that God is there with us.  In fact, God is enjoying our attention as never before.  And maybe that’s the point.  We have finally dropped the mirror of narcissism, and are looking for God.  It is a divine comedy.

“The grace of aridity” is a phrase I’ve borrowed from Graham Greene’s tragic-comic novel, A Burnt-Out Case, about a renowned architect whose worldly success — both in his vocation and in his personal life, as a womanizer — has left him cold.  He can feel nothing, anymore, except boredom and disgust with himself and with others.  The simple pleasure of human laughter has become incomprehensible to him.  He finds it as irritating and offensive as a bad odor.

The story begins as the man is traveling to a remote African leper colony run by a religious order.  He seeks “an empty place, a place where no new building or woman would remind me that there was a time when I was alive, with a vocation and a capacity to love —if it was love.”  The colony’s physician suspects that the man is “a burnt-out case,” comparing him to a leper in whom the disease has run its course.  He may be cured, and no longer contagious, but his mutilations — in this case, inner mutilations, wounds of the soul — will prevent him from ever feeling at home again in human society.  Like the other “burnt-out cases,” he will be content to do odd jobs at the clinic if it means he doesn’t have to return to the outside world.

The man claims to have lost a capacity for religious faith, which, ironically, only makes some of the priests and brothers at the mission admire his humility.  To them he seems a great and successful man who has stooped to help them build a hospital in a lowly, insignificant place.  But the more the man denies any spiritual motives for himself, the more the others see God at work in him.  In one bitingly comic scene — comic because two people are talking at complete cross purposes, yet both speak truth — a priest says to him, “Don’t you see that perhaps you’ve been given the grace of aridity?  Perhaps even now you are walking in the footsteps of St. John of the Cross.”  The man confesses that the ability to pray deserted him long ago, but the priest (who is half burnt-out himself, and lonely) replies that he senses in him a deep “interior prayer, the prayer of silence.”  As this kitty-wampus conversation ends, each man retreats back into his loneliness: when the priest asks, “You really do understand, don’t you?” the man can only respond with “an expression of tired despair.”

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