God Be With You


In the late sixteenth century, the English farewell “God be with you” gave way to an abbreviated “goodbye.” But the power behind the word remains in the good. Good-bye. May your bye-and-byes – your future days and years – be good. May you yourself be good; may you grow into a good human being and live a good life. In the words of songwriter Noah Gundersen, may you blossom like a flower; may you go dancing through the air.

We often perceive change as death, as my friend Peter reminded me a few weeks ago, and I have been grieving the death of this season. The first time I cried about graduation, it took me by surprise. I was sitting in my professor’s tiny office for our final Poetry Hour, looking at Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes.” I want to say all my life, I was a bride married to amazement, we read. I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

That much we understood.

I didn’t want to end up simply having visited this place, either, which is what makes the grief that much more acute. I explored it, exulted in it, argued with it, pondered it. I loved this place. For four years, it was my home.

My professor handed me a card as we finished the discussion. Inside I found Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” a poem I thought I knew through and through but discovered I knew not at all. We read it together my sophomore year, mining it for the treasures we missed in our high school classes, musing on the truth that there are no split-second decisions. Every large decision is simply the aggregate of all the small decisions one has made before one faces the moment of crisis. We decide who we become in the tiny choices we barely knew we were making. The questions of how to live and who to be are in the ordinary and the everyday.

And these questions of how to live and who to be are the questions I was encouraged to unravel over the past four years, presented in so many forms: the poetry of Hopkins, the philosophy of Plato, the art of Raphael and Michelangelo, the Mozart operas and the Arvo Part choral works. My sophomore year, the dean of the Honors College gave a convocation address entitled “In Defense of God’s Glory,” admonishing us to recognize the holiness in each of our respective disciplines, in all of creation. He besought us to see the handiwork of God in genetic sequences and the statistical analyses, in our internships at drop-in centers in Kensington and our music practice. In light of what we know, how shall we live?

After I left my professor’s office, I sat in my car and sobbed.

Four days later, I stood before the members of my graduating cohort at the Honors College senior banquet and read two Mary Oliver poems to them, “Messenger” and, for the second time, “When Death Comes.” My voice shaking, I struggled to speak about not speaking: Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.

I finished reading the poems and looked out. There they all were, the people I’ve come to love so dearly, looking back at me. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than for them to flourish. It didn’t matter if I saw them again; it didn’t matter if we were in the same place. I just wanted them to unleash themselves onto the world and be the forces of good I knew them to be, to live lives of faith, hope, and love. A few unprepared words escaped me, an inarticulate tumble about how much they meant to me and what a privilege it has been to learn from and alongside them. Whatever it was, it was a paltry thank-you for a gift beyond measure.

Gratitude is a strange thing; even stranger is this concoction of gratitude and grief that I feel here, now, as I prepare to leave this place in five days’ time. I don’t know how to express my gratitude for the gift of these four years, and I am terrible at saying goodbye, so I will say only this: to my cohort, to the community of the Templeton Honors College and Eastern University, to all my loved ones in Pennsylvania, God be with you.

God be in your head, and in your understanding. God be in your eyes, and in your looking. God be in your mouth, and in your speaking. God be in your hearts, and in your thinking.

God be at our ends, and in our departing.

Thank you for living into your calling, and for being the head, eyes, mouth, and heart of Christ to me.

I love you, and I will miss you.

Eight Things No One Tells You About College

10629582_10153398687578079_6996744296339995604_n

1. You are entrusting your soul to a group of people you do not know.

Your professors will have an enormous influence on the person that you become. They aren’t just teaching you; they’re forming you. Their words, especially the ones you take to heart, will determine the shape of your soul, perhaps for the rest of your life. This is a terrifying and a wonderful prospect. Choose a place where the professors lead the kind of lives that you admire. Choose a place where the professors believe that education is for the heart as well as for the mind, and that it matters not only how much you know, but that you learn how to love what is beautiful.

2. You aren’t just choosing a college; you’re choosing a place.

In a world of transient seasons, ladder climbing, and constant moving, we forget what it means to be rooted. It means giving yourself to a place, and receiving the gifts that the place offers you. It means that being in the place will change how you understand your own story, because you’re now in a particular setting for this part of your plot. The place you choose will be like a mother, in many ways: nurturing you, carrying the burgeoning human being that you are. It is “the womb of your adult life,” in the words of a friend of mine. Choose a place that makes you come alive. Choose a place that makes you feel inspired.

 3. Not everything that is reasonable or convincing is true.

Many people have good reasons for believing what they believe, and a lot of them are smarter than you. Are they right? Not necessarily. It’s easy to be convinced, and it’s even easier to adapt rather than stand out. But know this: your lack of rhetoric to articulate what you think is not reason to think you’re wrong. It just means you need to keep digging, keep wrestling, keep searching. Also bear in mind that knowledge isn’t always articulable. “You must not judge what I know by what I find words for,” says John Ames in Gilead. He is right; there is more than one way of knowing.

 4. If you listen, you’ll learn more.

In this day and age, we are quick to speak and slow to listen. But by listening to each other, we learn so much more. We can look at the world through many windows that way. Listen to the world. Like Mary Oliver says, whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination. You’ll learn much about what endures. You’ll learn about the things that transcend our pithy lives. Listen to others. We are infinite abstractions to one another, but sometimes we can bridge the space between us. Listen, and find others who will do the same.

5. You are entering into a tradition that extends far into the past.

For me, it took going to Oxford to see this. It took walking into the Merton College library, a library established in 1276. However much it might appear this way, you are not a self-contained entity, free to do whatever you want in college. No, you are entering into a tradition, and the tradition of the university is a hallowed thing. When you study, you are listening to the polyphony of the voices of the past, and you are wise to listen to them if you want to reckon with the present. Give your studies the reverence they deserve. By studying, you’re honoring those who have gone before, who have made it their life’s work to ensure that the texts you read are preserved and that the wisdom of the past is available to you.

6. There are things that have nothing to do with power.

Nietzsche and Foucault have had an enormous influence in almost every academic sphere, and to be honest, I quite like them both. The prose Nietzsche writes is both melodic and gritty, and I think Foucault hits on some very important elements of how injustice is perpetuated.

But power isn’t everything, and there are a lot of things that have nothing to do with power. And, quite honestly, applying the will-to-power lens to daily life just doesn’t work, because it isn’t the whole story. Humility and love undermine the narrative that everything is reducible to power play. “There is simply no substitute for kindness and decency,” says a professor of mine, and it’s true. Be kind and decent, and think critically about power, but there are things – like love, like sacrifice, like faith — that are greater than the will to power.

7. You are the next presidents, writers, scholars, teachers, social workers, etc.

You may have been told this before. But perhaps my spin will be a little more somber. The truth is, one day, all the baby boomers will die, and the fate of the world will be up to millennials. This is somewhat scary. One day, our generation will have to be able to find ways to confront the problems of environmental degradation, poverty, global conflicts, and natural disasters. One day, the future of our planet will be up to us, and lest we forget what happened in the last century, let’s call to mind that the signs on the blocks of Auschwitz aren’t replicas, and they’re only seventy years old. The twentieth century was a bloody one. In the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., emblazoned on the wall is Isaiah 43:10, “You are my witnesses.” We must never forget the past.

The things we learn during our college years will guide us in the future, and we are in this global society together, for better or for worse. One day, we will make the policies; we will decide which wars to wage, and which solutions to implement. In short, your education matters enormously. Choose how you learn, and choose wisely.

 


 

As of Friday, I have finished my penultimate semester of college. Four years is a long time to commit to a place. Perhaps it’s something like marriage; you’re not quite sure what you’re in for until you’ve already begun. All I know is that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I am amazed and grateful beyond measure.

It is difficult to know what to do with gratitude. I thank God over and over, but what does that do? It doesn’t do justice, that’s for sure.

I’ve been given so much. I stumbled upon a beautiful place, a school full of human beings that seem lit up with joy and curiosity. The freedom to ask questions and explore answers, all in the context of a community of people, living and dead, who are craning their necks and straining their eyes to see.

There lives a dear freshness deep down things, says Gerard Manley Hopkins. Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests, writes Seamus Heaney. I’ll dig with it.

8. Dig deep, because this isn’t just about you.

Your education is for the life of the world. Learn. Grow. Be. Do. And most of all, seek wisdom. The world needs it.

Safe Spaces

10480184_10153587298781617_6238182704469950047_n

Grandmother and granddaughters, summer 2015

Once again, I turn into the circular driveway. The black sign that stands in a sea of ivy announces where I am, as if I haven’t been here scores of times already, as if this isn’t my sanctuary. As if this house isn’t poetry written in space and time. My momentary stay against confusion. 1229 Knollwood Place.

I’m on break from school. Maybe it’s November, maybe it’s June, but the story is always the same. I have driven the hour from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Martinsville, Virginia, for the express purpose of spending the day with my grandmother. By now, our reunion has the dear familiarity of choreography. She opens the door wide when she hears me arrive, welcoming me into her home with a huge hug. She ushers me through the hall toward the kitchen, where I perch on a chair while she puts the finishing touches on our brunch.

She has prepared eggs, English muffins, fruit, cinnamon rolls, coffee, orange juice, cheese grits, and a variety of jams and spreads. Eating brunch with Mamaw is like making art – I get to decide what combinations to try, which jams to choose. Should I try lemon curd? Cream in my coffee? And finally, with a veritable smorgasbord before us, we sit down in the breakfast room, or in the den by the fire, or down by the water garden if it’s a nice day. We eat in the dining room for particularly fancy occasions, or on the screened-in porch in the summertime.

And we talk and talk.

She wants to know everything – how am I, how is school, what have I been reading? What have I been thinking? What am I learning, who do I love, and what adventures are in store?

I tell her. I tell her everything, no holds barred. I feel a sense of protection, as if my grandmother is guarding me from anything bad that might happen. The walls of professionalism and intelligence — those walls that I have built alongside my resume — fall. The masks of confidence and enthusiasm — those masks that so often obscure my momentary anxieties and sorrows from the observation of acquaintances — disappear. I am vulnerable, and in my vulnerability, I am safe.

I have never felt so safe as during those days that I spend with my grandmother. I have never felt so warm and comforted, so taken care of and loved. I while away the hours wrapped in blankets, dozing, or reading with a cup of tea, or playing piano and singing while Mamaw busies herself in the kitchen. And I feel like nothing can touch me; nothing can hurt me. I am locked in a space where there is peace on earth. I am loved, flaws and anxieties and tears included.

I think one of the deepest human longings is this sense of safety, the state of being known, loved, and cared for. This is a safe space.

What is a safe space?

In the university context, there is controversy over what constitutes a safe space. Some say that universities are becoming places where people are silenced and speech is only nominally free. Others claim that their race, gender, or sexual orientation makes safety virtually impossible, and they have startling data to back up their claims. After all, studies now show that one in five women will be sexually assaulted during their college years. Whatever you think about politics, it’s pretty clear that colleges aren’t the safest of spaces, and that conversation is only becoming more hostile.

On a national and global level, there are so many spaces in the world that are full of danger. People are killing each other. Innocents are dying. So many are seeking asylum, and they cannot have it. The marginalized among us are pushed even further to the fringes of society. School shootings. Mass incarceration. Sex trafficking. Terrorist attacks. The list goes on. That deepest human need is being denied, and the work of restoring safety seems utterly impossible.

These days, it feels like so few spaces are safe, and it feels like there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it.

And yet.

Last spring, I read a book entitled Keeping House: A Litany of Everyday Life by Margaret Peterson, one of the theology professors at Eastern. In the book, Peterson reflects on the different elements of housekeeping — making beds, cooking meals, washing windows, vacuuming, sweeping – and explores the theological import of these tasks. Commenting on the way that housekeeping has been derided as unimportant “women’s work,” Peterson illuminates the theological significance of the everyday.

To make up a bed for a guest, or for a child, or for a spouse, is to say to another, This is a place where it is safe for you to lay your head. Here, dwell in safety, and wake restored. To serve a meal is to say, I love you, and I’m glad that you exist. Keep existing. Here, this bowl of soup and this cup of tea will aid you in the process of continuing to exist. To clean a room is to say, You are beautiful, and you should be in a space that is beautiful, too. A vase of flowers, a candle lit, a steaming cup of coffee in the morning – all of these things have eternal significance. They are profound statements about who we are and who we were made to be.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me. Let me hide myself in thee. Perhaps some of what it means to be the hands and feet of Christ is to be our most embodied selves, to foster spaces of safety where the physical and the spiritual meet, where people are free to be who they are, to feel what they feel, and to love what they love. Maybe all I can do is make a cup of tea for someone who knocks on my door, but maybe that is more than I will ever know. Maybe I can tell someone that they are loved, and maybe, for now, for here, that is enough.

We serve a God who is a hiding place, a refuge, and a fortress. We serve a God who shadows over us and shelters us, who is a tower and a crevice and a stream.

We serve a God who is the poetry of space and time. A God who dwells in metaphor and emanates from the material.

A God who is, perhaps, profoundly, something like 1229 Knollwood Place.

“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety.”  Psalm 4:8

Matter, Sense, and Bodies

matisee_dance_hermitage_large-resized-600.jpg


It is a quiet Sunday morning. I awoke early today, not by choice, and after a few restless minutes spent tossing and turning in my bed, I arose and commenced my morning routine. I picked out a purple dress, and I put it on. I exercised my creativity through the artistry of makeup. I made coffee, and I picked out a few pastries from a spread that a kind friend left outside my door yesterday. I carried my computer and my books to the little nook on the third floor of Doane where I love to study, and I sat down beside the red and golden leaves that reach all the way up to the window, intending to write about T.S. Eliot’s formalism. And here I am, writing about something else entirely.

The leaves are distracting me. They always do, but this morning, their magnetic force is particularly strong. They beckon me to gaze, and to gaze long and hard; to receive the colors they offer, and to enter into the mystery that is their material existence. As I gaze, a far-off church bell rings, and it is as if the leaves themselves are part of the song of worship, the rhythm that the church bell announces and that I know that I myself am a part of.

It strikes me that everything I did this morning, I did with my body, and everything I’ve noticed, I’ve noticed with my eyes. Everything I’ve felt, I’ve felt in that strange place that is neither heart nor gut, but somehow both, and everything I’ve thought, I’ve thought not only with my mind, but somehow with my whole stomach as well, and with my chest. All that is to say, I am thoroughly embodied.

Growing up, I was conditioned into the semi-Gnostic theology that dominates so much of Christianity today. My task was to save souls here on earth, so that we could all live together in heaven. I was to evangelize, to salvage the eternal spirit embedded within each person I encountered. If I did my job, someday when we all shuffle off this mortal coil, our souls will all go to paradise, and our disembodied spirits will sing the Lord’s praises forevermore. Our bodies? Oh, those were always meant for decay.

But this sort of understanding was wholly contradictory to everything I intuited as a child, everything I learned through books; namely, that what we do here on earth matters, and that our stories are not simply of the state of our immortal soul, but are a mystical intermingling of souls and bodies. The intimate encounters with the other, the transcendent beauty of the natural world, the knowing another by leveling a gaze at their eyes. Not only did I intuit that these things matter a great deal, but that they matter not only here on earth. Somehow, their ripples and echoes resound to the darkest recesses, the furthest corners of existence, and God hears and knows. I sensed that God takes great delight in the truth that our bodies are ourselves, and that God intended all along to resurrect us, that we might live embodied, world without end. When I first heard that medieval theologian John Duns Scotus posited that even if humans had not fallen to sin, God’s intention all along was that Christ would walk among us in the flesh, I nearly wept.

This semester, I am taking an independent study on religion and literature with a dear professor of mine, and a topic that comes up almost every week is the mystery of the material. All of us eat, drink, walk, run, dress, touch, make love, gaze, take in scents, and have a physical reaction to music because these things matter. They are not mere shadows of things to come; they are themselves that which is to come. A few weeks ago, a beloved friend visited Eastern, and we discussed that every material thing we see and touch and know with our bodies is both wholly itself, wholly self-contained, and also wholly transcendent, speaking to realms we know not of. Perhaps this is the sort of thing Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Duns Scotus spoke of in their theories of the thisness of things, the inscape of each living thing that emanates forth its own unique song of praise.

I don’t know what it all means. But I know that it matters because we love God not only with our souls, but with our bodies. We love and worship God through the breaking of bread, through taking God’s body into our bodies, through taking in the millions of atoms of air and expelling them into the world in a bursting call of praise. We love God because Christ healed that which he assumed, and he assumed a body that wept, laughed, rejoiced, slept, ate bread, drank wine, and was nailed to a cross.

What do I love when I love my God?…There is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God – a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is a sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part.  That is what I love when I love my God.

-St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

Henri Matisse. The Dance, 1909-1910. Oil on canvas, 8’6″ by 12’10”.  Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Fleeting Things

IMG_0222

Doane Hall circa 1920


On August 10th at approximately 4:36 p.m., I steered my car between the gates that mark the entrance to Doane Hall for the last first time. I parked beside the door into the building, and I hauled everything up two flights of stairs to my quaint little room on the third floor. I hung my dresses in the closet, I made my bed, I decorated my bulletin board, I strung lights around my windows.

In just a few short weeks, my room has already assumed its own character in my story. Every morning, the calligraphied canvas I painted at the beach this summer reminds me to love first, then think, then speak, as Aslan told the talking animals. As I search through my closet for the floral-print dress I always wear, my eye falls on another lettered canvas that instructs me to give beauty back, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver. In the late afternoon, the young daisies and zinnias on my window sill whisper that I am still growing, that I am a work in progress, and at dusk the framed watercolors of Oxford’s High Street and Oriel College evoke the achingly pleasurable nostalgia of missing and loving a place. I wonder if, come graduation day in May, I will look back on my little room on the third floor of Doane with the same sort of nostalgia, the same missing. I suspect that I will.

I attended Eastern’s graduation at the end of my sophomore year. I cheered on those who were awarded degrees, and I celebrated with my friends who were beginning new adventures. The weekend after graduation, I moved from my dorm room in Doane to a room in a house in Wayne while the previous occupant, a friend of mine, moved out. Now a senior, I haven’t forgotten the way that, after removing all traces of herself and her belongings from the room, she turned in the doorway to take it all in, to see the room for the last time, and said quietly, “This place mattered.”

This is the strange and transient nature of the college years. We move into our dorm rooms or our apartments and fill them with ourselves, with memories and echoes, with food and laughter, music and joy. And then at the end of eight months, we vacate them. We take down our posters and pictures and we turn in our keys. We try to fit our belongings into a four-door sedan, and we drive it all back to a place that used to be home, but where we now feel like a guest. Permanence seems beyond our reach.

I will have to wait a few years for my living space to be a lasting one, one that I can fill with myself and that I can invite others into, confident that we will all stay awhile. Some say that it’s futile to put down roots when we’ll all be gone soon anyway. Why invest and build relationships that will dissolve as soon as we scatter?

Frederick Buechner writes, “All other days have either disappeared into darkness and oblivion or not yet emerged from it. Today is the only day there is.” There is today, and right now, today is all we know and all we can know. We can notice the way that the slanting rays of light illumine the changing leaves. We can rejoice in rhythm, and in the truth that time is linear, but also cyclical. We can love, and take in beauty, and worship in the light of the Giver of all good gifts. We can see the world in all its holy mystery and flickering starlight, and we can exalt the One who has made it such a place. We can know that we are not alone on this journey of life, and we can weep and laugh and dance and revel together.

Not only can we do these things; we must do them. They are essential. They are what it means to be fully human in a place, to enjoy the good gifts of heaven and earth and to feast on the knowledge that the Lord has made us to love and be loved. Walk in love, the apostle instructs us, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God. After all, the God-man who taught us how to love wasn’t here in the flesh for very long either.

In eight months, we will scatter. In the face of that uncertainty, this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice.

Modern // Love

modern-love-illustration-br


Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?


This isn’t the sort of elegant question you ask just anyone. It’s the sort of question that you ask someone after you know them well. A kindred spirit, or a dear child, or perhaps a lover. But not just anyone. At least, not in this manner.

And yet, on that summer’s day, I found myself asking this question of a seventeen-year-old I had never met, whose name I didn’t even know. I stared into the student’s eyes, noticing the shades of cerulean and sapphire, seeing and being seen.

Let me explain.

A friend of mine was teaching an elective on the Linklater technique of freeing the natural voice. The one-hour session began with a series of exercises designed to relax the body, mind, and vocal muscles. Then, after the students were relaxed, the second part of the class focused on establishing connection and communicating with the voice.

And so, I found myself staring deeply into the eyes of a student I had never met, speaking Mary Oliver poetry into the student’s existence. An unexpected turn of events, I’d say.

It bonds two people, doing this sort of activity. And thus, the objective of the Linklater technique – the establishment of intimate connection between performers so that they can convince an audience. So that theater is less acting, and more truth-telling. It requires the sort of general intimacy that we avoid if we can help it. Because, as we know by experience or simply by observation, it’s dangerous to stare into another’s eyes and tell the truth.

I recently came across Jordana Narin’s winning essay in the Modern Love college essay contest sponsored by the New York Times, entitled “No Labels, No Drama, Right?” I immediately loved the essay for Narin’s candor and transparency. In clear and wistful words, Narin recounts her no-strings-attached yet years-long entanglement with a boy she met at summer camp, and the emptiness and struggle of this sort of entanglement. She writes,

I’m told my generation will be remembered for our callous commitments and rudimentary romances. We hook up. We sext. We swipe right. All the while, we avoid labels and try to bury our emotions. We aren’t supposed to want anything serious; not now, anyway. But a void is created when we refrain from telling it like it is, from allowing ourselves to feel how we feel.

I was surprised to find that the essay does not conclude with a note of regret. At least, Narin doesn’t seem to regret her actions or her choices. Instead, at the end of the essay she writes, “In years past, maybe back when people went steady, he may have been the one who got away. For my generation, though, he’s often the one we never had in the first place. Yet he’s still the one for whom we would happily trade all the booty calls, hookups and swiping right. He’s still the one we hope, against all odds, might be The One.”

It isn’t regret, exactly, but…nostalgia? The hesitation that comes with saying, I wish things were different. Something’s wrong here. Not with me, but with the entire situation. With this entire culture.  

Oh well.

Interested, I read a few more Modern Love entries, wondering how my fellow young adults describe love. And I was intrigued to find that many of the essays contained the same sort of sentiment that Narin’s did. Emma Court, a runner-up in the contest, describes her own entanglement as “just a romantic interlude from our real lives. And if it did mean anything, we were college students; we knew how to pretend it didn’t…I don’t know what else could have happened. But I wonder what we collectively lose as we try so hard not to care. We pretend that it doesn’t matter, that we have time, that because we are young we are invulnerable.”

From the tone of the essays, I gather that we millennials aren’t too keen on the situation at hand, if we’re honest with ourselves. Most of us, I think, yearn for the sort of connection that asks questions and expects to know, to understand, to see and be seen. Not the kind of connection that consists of a passionate kiss followed by a “see you never,” as Emma Court’s did. The way I see it, the kiss itself is a lie.

Through my perusal of essays in which the dominant tones were dissatisfaction and loneliness even amidst a smattering of romantic encounters, I did come across one that surprised me. In her essay, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” Mandy Len Catron recounts a time that she and a university acquaintance decided on a whim to ask and answer thirty-six questions about one another, questions designed to foster vulnerability and intimacy.

The questions were commonplace at the beginning, but by the end, they required what Catron describes as “the kind of accelerated intimacy I remembered from summer camp, staying up all night with a new friend, exchanging the details of our short lives.” They ranged from “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” to “When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?” The questions were the sort that you might ask someone after you know them very well. Not just anyone. But Catron decided to ask them of an acquaintance.

Who then became a lover. A real one, not the sort of entangled other of Court’s and Narin’s experiences.

In a sea of essays of eloquent disillusionment, the following lines from Catron’s essay shimmered:

I wondered what would come of our interaction. If nothing else, I thought it would make a good story. But I see now that the story isn’t about us; it’s about what it means to bother to know someone, which is really a story about what it means to be known…Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.

I think this is something my generation sometimes forgets: love is a verb in middle voice – it is both something that happens to us, and it is a choice that we make. It is to bother to know someone. A simple concept, but when the social norm is hookups with no labels, I wonder if many of us begin to believe, whether consciously or not, that the sort of love that bothers to know someone might not exist.

I wonder if many of us experience something similar to Narin’s nostalgia — nostalgia for a love that bothers to know. And, at the end of it, all that we have to go on is the hope that this nostalgia is a nostalgia for the truth, a nagging knowledge that romantic love is something more mysterious and holy than Tinder and hooking up and all that we’ve been conditioned to think.

Love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time.

-Father Zosima, The Brothers Karamazov

Blurred Lines


images


If I loved God, then I would believe in His love for me. It’s not enough to need it. We have to love first, and I don’t know how. But I need it, how I need it… 

What are we doing to each other? Because I know that I am doing to [Maurice] exactly what he is doing to me. We are sometimes so happy, and never in our lives have we known more unhappiness. It’s as if we were working together on the same statue, cutting it out of each other’s misery. But I don’t even know the design.

-Graham Greene, The End of the Affair


Fifteen college freshmen are seated in a round-table formation under the vaulted, chandeliered ceiling. I am one of them. It is a windy autumn day, and I am staring through the glass doors at the whirling leaves caught up in gust after gust. I let the question we are discussing sink slowly into my heart: Is hate so very different from love?

We are in the final days of my first semester of college, and in this particular class, we have just finished reading a novel by Graham Greene entitled The End of the Affair. After weeks of muddling through Aristotle’s Ethics, this modern British novel is wonderful change. It is a work of fiction, not philosophy, and it simply tells a story. It tells the story of a single man and a married woman, caught up in a torrid, sordid love affair. It tells the story of belief, of the tiresome fight and the reluctant conversion. It is, in all honesty, a blend of harlequin romance and conversion narrative. An unconventional mix, I’d say.

In fact, when I finished The End of the Affair that autumn, I was completely stunned. The novel does whitewash or euphemize anything at all. It is about sex, duplicity, seduction, betrayal, and hate. But at the same time, it is about desire, sin, belief, and most unexpectedly, spiritual love.

In my understanding at the time, those were two separate worlds. In this story, they interpenetrate so masterfully so that you can’t extricate one from the other. The discovery of the love of God comes through the affair. Illicit sex is the medium through which Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles come to understand hatred, love, and ultimately, belief.

This is the novel’s magic, and its allure, and also its surprise: it blurs the line between the sacred and the profane. It introduces the idea that in profanation there is purification, that God is present everywhere, at all times, and that even in “ordinary corrupt human love” there is no place, no situation or event or matter at hand where God isn’t.


“People go on loving God, don’t they, all their lives without seeing Him?”

“That’s not our kind of love.”

 “I sometimes don’t believe there’s any other kind.”


Simone Weil introduces a similar idea in her philosophy. We love with our bodies because “we haven’t anything else with which to love.” Lissa McCullough writes that for Weil,

Sexual love, and all attachments analogous to the sexual, are vital resources to be converted and transfigured rather than extinguished or squandered. To reproach mystics with loving God by means of the faculty of sexual love, Weil writes, is as though one were to reproach a painter with making pictures by means of colors composed of material substances (212).

This idea renders Sarah Miles, the unfaithful heroine of The End of the Affair, a mystic in the most unusual sense. It is she, the self-proclaimed whore, bitch, and fake, that is also healer, lover, saint.

I think The End of the Affair is onto something; namely that while we might like to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, to tie things up nicely into two boxes, we do so at the risk of neglecting the true nature of things. In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that the act of blessing does not actually confer blessing onto something or someone; instead, it recognizes the holiness that is already present in that person or thing.

I wonder if the same sort of thing is at play here. God does not dwell only in the things we perceive as sacred. God is present in all things. We have no way of conceiving the holiness bursting from what we condescendingly mark as profane. We are not God, and we cannot see as God sees.

In one of my favorite scenes from The Brothers Karamazov, the novice Alyosha goes to visit the local call girl, Grushenka, who attempts to seduce him. Through the course of their conversation, Grushenka, who considers herself a  “low, violent woman,” recognizes that Alyosha is a holy man, and he also recognizes the holiness in her. Alyosha exclaims to a friend, “I came here looking for a wicked soul – I was drawn to that, because I was low and wicked myself, but I found a true sister, I found a treasure – a loving soul…She spared me just now…I’m speaking of you, Grushenka. You restored my soul just now” (351).

If we, as readers, didn’t know any better, we’d think Grushenka was anything but sacred. But Alyosha reveals to us that she is holy, a treasure.

In Graham Greene’s novel, we find that the end of the affair of betrayal, profanation, and hate is the love of God. “I thought, sometimes I’ve hated Maurice, but would I have hated him if I hadn’t loved him too? Oh God, if I could really hate you, what would that mean?” Sarah Miles writes in her journal. “For he gave me so much love, and I gave him so much love that soon there wasn’t anything left, when we’d finished, but You. For either of us.”

This is the gritty, rough honesty of the spiritual life – sin, hate, belief, redemption, love, in no particular order, over and over. Here, as in The Brothers Karamazov, fiction tells the truth. It is painfully familiar to us as we read. It is incisive, cutting past what we like to think we are to what we really are — sinners, tired and worn and holy and profane, fighting against belief until we don’t have any fight left, and then, finally, falling into belief like falling in love. Profaned sacraments. Sanctified profanations.

And so, if conversion is like falling into belief, like falling in love, perhaps Sarah Miles’ final letter to Maurice is its own creed, a creed that blends the sacred and the profane into truth.

I believe there’s a God – I believe the whole bag of tricks, there’s nothing I don’t believe, they could subdivide the Trinity into a dozen parts and I’d believe. They could dig up records that proved Christ had been invented by Pilate to get himself promoted and I’d believe just the same. I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I fell in love. I’ve never loved before as I love you, and I’ve never believed in anything before as I believe now. I’m sure. I’ve never been sure before about anything…I fought belief for longer than I fought love, but I haven’t any fight left.


Sources:

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990.

Fujimura, Makoto, Sacrificial Grace, Gold on Kumohada, 1997.

Greene, Graham, The End of the Affair, Penguin Books, 1951.

McCullough, Lissa, “Simone Weil’s Phenomenology of the Body,” Equinox Publishing, 2013.