GRACE: The Grace of Aridity and Other Comedies by Kathleen Norris

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.”

Aridity as Grace

It’s all about grace, and water, and those of us who reside on the American plains know a good deal about how the two go together.  Ours is a “next-year country” in which we learn to be grateful even for the bitter pills we’re given.  Precious moisture may come in the form of destructive hail.  A hundred inches of snow, that buries pasture grass and makes hay for the cattle inaccessible, may contain a pitiful amount of moisture.  But even dry snow is wet, and that’s better than the alternative.  Thus we hang on — until next year, when things will be better.

Living in a place that is marginal by the world’s standards, and also in terms of climate, can be a constant lesson in grace.  Plains people know the grace of living in, and loving, a place the rest of the world considers God-forsaken.  They enjoy the little things, a pasque flower asserting itself on a south-facing slope in early spring.  They marvel at the magnificence of the sky at dawn and sunset, and sometimes even at noon.  They value the silence that can frighten visitors who are accustomed to the noise of cities.

Both in our lives and in our environment, the key to maturity is recognizing and accepting what is there.  In other words, letting a place be itself.  That sounds easy enough, but evidently it is not.  Think of the newcomers to the American Southwest who moved there because the air was relatively free of pollen that made it difficult for them to breathe in the East or Midwest.  But now we’re finding that these refugees brought so many plants from “back home” and coaxed them to grow in the desert, that they brought the pollen and the health problems along with them.  Think of all the pasture land in the American West, especially land close to cities, that has become suddenly trendy, where fields of sage and scrub and grass are now dotted with absurd mansions.  Absurd because they have cathedral ceilings and huge windows in a place where winter temperatures reach 350 below zero, and because around each dwelling is a tiny “lawn,” its greenness maintained by an assiduous watering that might make sense in Connecticut or Ohio, but in Wyoming should be a crime.

Putting this in theological terms, I’d say that such housing developments as we see in the West constitute a denial of grace.  As we’ve been conditioned to see grassland as barren, we attempt to change it into something else.  A suburban lawn.  We are rejecting the grace we’ve been given in favor of one we’ve invented for ourselves.  The tragedy is that the shortgrass pasture of the American West is a remarkable grace indeed: grasses that look dead to us somehow retain their nutrients over the winter, so that they can nourish the cattle or buffalo who graze there.

In our own lives, too, we all too often deny the grace we’ve been given in barren places.  When really bad things happen, we tend to blame God or assume that God has abandoned us.  “Where was God when this happened?”  This is a normal and probably necessary response.  But sooner or later, we must learn to deal the cards we’ve been given, and look for the grace that is hidden in our loss.

There were grace notes in the unspeakably evil acts of September 11, 2001.  No one phoned out of those buildings in hatred or revenge.  Instead, the calls and e-mails were an affirmation of life and love.  “I love you; take care of yourself.”  “I love you and the kids, God bless you and good-bye.”  Or simply, “You’ve been a good friend.”  If the hijackers of September 11 inadvertently invited us to the grace of aridity, isn’t that comedy?  (I am employing the word in its rich and ancient sense, as inextricably linked to tragedy.)

For if the terrorists’ intent was to destroy us, they failed miserably.  And we succeeded in finding a measure of grace.  A more unified country, at least for a time.  No riots, no panicked runs on banks.  We were a more thoughtful people, if only briefly.  We enjoyed the grace of a week without the usual advertisement bombardment, a week without celebrity trivia.  Now that we’ve gone back to worrying about what Ben Affleck eats for breakfast and what Jennifer Lopez is wearing or not wearing, we might recall the seriousness to which we were called on September 11, and find something meaningful there.

Death and Life

The comedy of death is that it generally leads us to a better, fuller perspective on life.  The prospect of death — whether it is the death of three thousand or a family member or ourselves — encourages us to set aside the unessentials that can fill our days and to drop the fantasy that status and celebrity have meaning.  Death allows us to live in the real world and provokes us to ask the right questions: What is the purpose of life?  What is necessary for a good life?

If, as we are led to believe in our culture, the purpose of life is to consume and thereby support the economy, shouldn’t we pursue wealth as the ultimate value?  Shouldn’t we, in the words of one computer billionaire, seek to die with more toys than the next guy?  Even death might laugh at that one.  But if we take seriously the way we were created, with our human blood so like the ocean, shouldn’t we also take more seriously our connection with other people and the planet itself?  If the market is our god, such connections don’t matter, and it’s no tragedy that the vast majority of people on this earth have no access to clean water for drinking and cooking.  Water, like anything else, goes to the highest bidder, and those who can’t afford it, do without.

But is the “right to life” contingent on our ability to pay for decent air or water or basic medical care?  How much water is necessary and therefore must remain outside the realm of corporate control and the profit motive?  What in our economy must be held in public trust, for the common good?  We are being called on to make decisions about these things as a society, and if we’re not careful, we will end up with a bitter comedy that will not be to our liking.

Here’s a case in point.  Several years ago I read a newspaper article about how the Great Lakes are suffering from both pollution and overuse.  In a search for more efficient water management, cities were looking into the privatization of their water utilities.  One company aggressively pursued, and came very close to winning, a contract to manage the water supply for a large Midwestern city.  The company’s name was Enron.

It’s all about greed, and water.

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