My fellow Episcopalian Phil Christman is always a pleasure to read. His recent column on certainty and Christianity is no exception. Here’s the ending:
I don’t want to abandon Christ because he occasionally fails to act as my personal Mood Improver. And my tradition tells me that there are things I can know about God by enduring through these dry periods. It’d be nice to find out whether that’s true. I can’t do that without staking the one life I have that it is.
Maybe you’re staking your life on something different. That’s okay. If I’m right, you are loved for far more than your ability to be right about stuff. If I’m wrong, maybe you’ll be right. But we’re both, so far as we know, down here in the dark, making little leaps of faith in every direction. It turns out that’s the only sort of motion we can make.
Novels, when they work, use lies to tell the truth. The information marketplace, battling for an audience, tends, more and more, to transform intolerable truths into novelistic, riveting, enjoyable lies.
Here’s surely one of the most memorable prayers I’ve ever read:
What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that—make a mystic out of cheeses. But why should He do it for an ingrate slothful & dirty creature like me. I can’t stay in the church to say a Thanksgiving even and as for preparing for Communion the night before—thoughts all elsewhere. The Rosary is mere rote for me while I think of other and usually impious things. But I would like to be a mystic and immediately.
I made it over to Fort Worth’s duo of Museums: The Kimbell and The Modern. There was a gaudy (and occasionally garish) retrospective on Takashi Murakami on the second floor but on the first, tucked into a side room, was part of Picasso’s Vollard Suite. It’s my favorite of Picasso’s works that I’ve seen. I first stumbled on them in the British Museum. I’m very glad I managed to stumble across them again.
Flûtiste et Jeune Fille au Tambourin, Pablo Picasso, Etching, 1934
In evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.
We must again see Christ in the poor. Jesus Christ could’ve come as a king or an emperor, but instead he came as a person of little status, of lowly means. Again and again, he commends care for the poor, and damns injustice toward them. None of this is a coincidence. It was, in fact, revolutionary: It overturned an ancient mode of organizing society and introduced as meaningful and urgent the station of the poorest members of our society. It extended dignity and value to people otherwise invisible. It charged generations of Christians, present company not excluded, with the holy task of finding the face of Christ the Lord of all things in the pain and suffering of those with nothing. Christ is with the lonely and hungry people who wander city streets in need of money and medical care. Christ is with the families fleeing ruined, flooded homes in Puerto Rico, who have no recourse, no food, no medicine for their injuries. Christ is with the refugees who find themselves in foreign lands, leaving their lives and families and communities behind in blood-soaked, war-torn places. In our modern world we struggle with faith; we want tangible proof, evidence we can see and touch for ourselves. Here is your chance: Christ comes to us as the poorest of the poor, and in touching them, you touch his wounds like Thomas, and drive away the shadow of doubt.
I’ve just learned that Francis Spufford has a new collection of essays out. I loved his novel, the weird and wonderful Golden Hill, so I look forward to reading the essays. One of them, though, is up now at the Christian Century. Here’s what Spufford has to say about a certain kind of novel:
“[It] tries to realize, on the page, with the verbal tools of the novelist, the orientation to the world that results when somebody holds that, feels that, behaves as if the particular rooms they are in always have another unnumerated door or window, opening onto a different and overwhelming domain. The kind where the particular light of one morning is held to be a manifestation of a general light. The kind where part of the point of what is being carefully reported about everyday experience is that it faces onto something else. That something else, of course, not being a verbal fabric at all. Being made of the Word, that is, not of our vocabulary.
As the Reverend John Ames says in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, “you must not judge of what I know by what I find words for”—except of course that the readers of novels do judge, exactly, by what the writer has found words for. The task of finding expressible language for the inexpressible is inherently impossible. The effort begins in the admission of inevitable defeat.”
He goes on to say that Robinson’s novels do this better than almost any contemporary writers’. I am, as you may have guessed, sympathetic. Like this great painting of the St. Peter, each of Robinson’s novels gesture to what is beyond ordinary experience without leaving that realm.
I wish, though, that Spufford had mentioned Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping. It’s even less explicitly concerned with religion than its successors, but it is, I think, more evocative for the absence. To borrow Spufford’s metaphor, if Gilead, Home, and Lila have windows opening onto another domain, Housekeeping is a room without windows. The absence of an exterior light, though, makes her first novel numinous in a way its successors are not.
On Monday morning I biked from Pilsen to Hyde Park. It was a pleasant ride. The return journey was taxing, though, since my legs were tired and—thanks to a late lunch—were competing with my stomach for oxygen. About halfway through the ride, on one of the Lake Shore Path’s many curves, I glanced over my shoulder: Not three feet behind me was another cyclist! Perhaps he’s about to pass me, I thought. But when I looked at the ground a minute later I saw a shadow in the grass, immediately behind my own. Another minute, another glance; I was beginning to feel unsettled. Just then the biker pulled ahead. But not far ahead. Did he mean for me to draft behind him? Was he returning the favor? I decided to see. As soon as I’d entered the pocket of air behind the stranger’s bike I felt the difference. I hardly needed to pedal. I breezed behind him for a mile and then we switched positions again. A little later on we switched once more. Each time I led I wasn’t sure if the stranger was still there. The only sign of his presence, when I cared to sneak a glance, was the shadow gliding beside me in the grass.
We biked like that for a few miles. The situation reminded me of biology class and of the symbiotic relationships that occasionally spring up between organisms of different species. As my turn off approached I turned to say goodbye to the stranger, to make this a human interaction, but there was no one there.