From My Bright Abyss
At once more truly and more strange. I used the phrase before I remembered the source. And an ironic source it is. Here is Wallace Steven’s “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”:
Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.
What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?
Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
Beautiful poem, fatal belief. That you are the origin of everything, that the self is its own world, its own god. But, as is often the case, you can’t quite tell if Stevens really believes what the music is making him say: that “you” in line two, and her (let’s make it a her) description of his regal aloofness as lonely, introduce another mind and other needs into the poem. The music moves right past them, but they are there. Like the title, lovely but also slightly ridiculous, the “you” is a hitch in an otherwise perfect, and perfectly self-enclosed, song. And the song is better, and truer, for it.
How many loves fail because, in an unconscious effort to make our weaknesses more strong, we link with others precisely at those points? How many women who are not mothers spend years mothering some mysteriously wounded man? How many apparently strong and successful men seek out love like a kind of topical balm they can apply to their wounded bodies and egos when they have withdrawn from combat? Herein lies the great difference between divine weakness and human weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ’s weakness equals a supernatural strength.
Not long after I first learned that I was sick, in the dim time of travel, multiple doctors, and endless tests, when it seemed that I might be in danger of dying very soon, I began to meet every Friday afternoon with the pastor at the church just around the corner from where my wife and I lived. I think that he, like anyone whose faith is healthy, actively craved instances in which that faith might be tested. So we argued for an hour every Friday, though that verb is completely wrong for the complex, respectful, difficult interactions we had. Nothing was ever settled. In fact my friend – for we became close friends – seemed to me mulishly orthodox at times, just as I seemed to him, I know, either boneheadedly literal when I focused on scripture or woozily mystical when I didn’t. And yet those hours and the time afterward, when, strangely enough, I didn’t so much think about all that we had discussed as feel myself freed from such thoughts, are among the happiest hours of my life. Grief was not suspended or banished, but entered and answered. Answered not by theology, and not by my own attempts to imaginatively circumvent theology, but by the depth and integrity and essential innocence of the communion occurring between two people.
William James said that our inner lives are fluid and restless and always in transition, and that our experience “lives in the transitions.” This seems to me true. It is why every single expression of faith is provisional – because life carries us always forward to a place where the faith we’d fought so hard to articulate to ourselves must now be reformulated, and because faith in God is, finally, faith in change.
Still, it can be easy to understand and apply this idea too bluntly, easy to turn it into the kind of inhuman truth that eats up ordinary lives, and ordinary life. For it is only a short step from saying that our experience “lives in the transitions” to saying that one ought to seek out and even provoke these transitions: if I am closest to God when I am most in crisis, then bring on the whirlwind; if I am most alive when love is beginning or ending, then let this marriage die, let this affair take flame, let me let myself go. Thus do many believers lurch from one extreme of belief to another, thus do many men and women enter a relationship with dead stars in their eyes.
The truth in James’s idea inheres in that “always.” If our inner lives are always in transition, then our goal should be to acquire and refine a consciousness that is capable of registering the most minute changes in sensation, feeling, faith, self. Unless we become aware of the transitions that are occurring all the time within us, unless we learn to let experience play upon our inner lives as on a finely tuned instrument, we will try to manufacture inner intensity from the outside, we will bang our very bones to roust our own souls. We crave radical ruptures when we have allowed the nerves of our inner lives to go numb. But after those ruptures – the excitement or the tragedy, the pleasure or the pain – the mind returns to what it was, the soul quicksilvers off from the pierce of experience, and the kingdom of boredom, which could be the Kingdom of God, begins the clock-tick toward its next collapse.
Be careful what you wish for, be ready for what you crave:
If I ask you, angel, will you come and lead
This ache to speech, or carry me, like a child,
(Edgar Bowers, from “Autumn Shade”)
A friend once told me that she could wake up a Christian and go to bed an atheist, that every day was this vertiginous inward to-and-fro with God. I found this both heartening and depressing: heartening in that if she experiences this spiritual vertigo, she whose life seems to me so lit by Christ, then I certainly needn’t be ashamed of my own confusions; depressing in that if she experiences this, then there’s no escape from it, ever. If I am honest with myself, I feel mostly the distance, and this incessant, desperate, and (I have to believe) holy hunger to bridge it. Experience lives in the transitions. We feel ourselves alive in the anxiety of being alive. We feel God in the coming and going of God – or no, the coming and going of consciousness (God is constant). We are left with these fugitive instants of apprehension, in both senses of that word, which is one reason why poetry, which is designed not simply to arrest these instants but to integrate them into life, can be such a powerful aid to faith.
Meditation On A Grapefruit
To wake when all is possible
before the agitations of the day
have gripped you
To come to the kitchen
and peel a little basketball
To tear the husk
like cotton padding a cloud of oil
misting out of its pinprick pores
clean and sharp as pepper
each pale pink section out of its case
so carefully without breaking
a single pearly cell
To slide each piece
into a cold blue china bowl
the juice pooling until the whole
fruit is divided from its skin
and only then to eat
precisely pointless a devout
involvement of the hands and senses
a pause a little emptiness
each year harder to live within
each year harder to live without
Love does not die without our assent, though often (usually) that assent has been given unconsciously long before we come to give it consciously. Love is not only given by God, it is sustained by him. There is a constant interplay between divine and human love. Human love has an end, which is God, who makes it endless.
What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all. The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be so attenuated and obscured by doubts and dailiness that you may one day come to suspect the truth of that moment at all. The calling that seemed so clear will be lost in echoes of questionings and indecision; the church that seemed to save you will fester with egos, complacencies, banalities; the deepest love of your life will work itself like a thorn in your heart until all you can think of is plucking it out. Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.
Several years have passed since I wrote the first words of this chapter. I have been in and out of treatment, in and out of the hospital. I have had bones die and bowels fail; joints lock in my face and arms and legs, so that I could not eat, could not walk. I have filled my body with mingled mouse and human antibodies, cutting-edge small molecules, old-school chemotherapies eating into me like animate acids. I have passed through pain I could never have imagined, pain that seemed to incinerate all my thoughts of God and to leave me sitting there in the ashes, alone. I have been isolated even from my wife, though her love was constant, as was mine. I have come back, for now, even hungrier for God, for Christ, for all the difficult bliss of this life I have been given. But there is great weariness too. And fear. And fury.
I haven’t been in contact with Adele since that morning I left Texas, when she called just as I was heading out the door. There was a moment of silence before we stumbled all over each other trying to convey how much our tentative and half-candid time together had meant to each of us, the spark of spirit that (though we didn’t say so) burned there. We didn’t exchange emails. We didn’t promise to stay in touch. It was a moment, and we acknowledged it as such, before letting it sink back into our fluid and restless inner lives to do its work there.
My sorrow’s flower was so small a joy
It took a winter seeing to see it as such.
Numb, unsteady, stunned at all the evidence
Of winter’s one imperative to destroy,
I looked up, and saw the bare abundance
Of a tree whose every limb was lit and fraught with snow.
What I was seeing then I did not quite know
But knew that one mite more would have been too much.