Saturday, 24 March 2012

Some Verses for Lent

This year I didn't give up anything for Lent beyond the meagre demands of canon law. I didn't have the energy anymore to pretend with myself that I would do these things, or that I'm living in a world where they make sense and come naturally, where people around me are doing this too, or that my spiritual life has the vitality, and I the sheer power of will for it.  This is not to disparage those who can keep their Lenten commitments. Mine have been a consistent failure year after year since my parents stopped mandating its observance. It's come time to think about the "why" of this before I fix on externalities. 

It's nonetheless been Lent for me, in its own faint way. A kind of desert season where I see purple cloth when I close my eyes at night. And it's been a time of thirsting, questioning, receiving answers and also stark realizations about myself. 

"the desert is not remote in southern tropics,
the desert is not only around the corner,
the desert is squeezed in the tube train next to you,
the desert is in the heart of your brother"
[The Eagle Soars in the Summit of Heaven] 

The desert is not just in me. The world is not just in me. The first realization has been sin as something other than an abstract category, something more than the purely (seemingly) personal, like looking at pornography or entertaining a lustful thought, where the harm is never really manifest in the disappointed face of the other. 

Rather, now a confrontation with the real harm caused to relationships on account of wrongful patterns of thinking, tendencies towards self involvement, the poison of pride in the "thoughts of the heart". I do hope, with the ongoing stress of Lent as a season for awareness of social justice, that it's real penitential nature is not lost, though neither falsified through a pharisaical repentance that says "I am better because I acknowledge sin, whereas this hopeless secular world does not".

Stand in awe, and sin not; commune with your heart upoon your bed, and be still.
(Psalm 4:4)

We need to be able acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness, and to be able to do this together. So I am thankful for this season, its themes and scripture readings. It is an important structure for us, I think, that we should work to keep vital.

In the end, we all have to confront God-as-Judge. Whether wholly secular or not, properly theistic or not, some form of the belief in final judgement is the only way to live a human life, as I see it; meaning a human life responsible to the good of the community. For there is no other way to be, to feel full but to be beating alongside the community's pulse.

This, I think, will have to be the fundamental lesson learned by my generation (and myself). Individualism has taken a wrong turn and there is no sphere of the purely personal, the purely private on this side of the grave, so that we are always in charge of absolving ourselves because we can create the terms. A sheer positvist contract mentality is at work in many social relationships today, but, in the end, it seems to hurt us. We don't work this way, Love does not.

We can not write the rules of engagement according to our own constitution, but must also adapt to the constitutions and needs of others. In that sense, Pope Benedict is perfectly correct when he writes we need something like "an ecology of man", though I think its naive to think that this necessarily requires dogmatic obedience to Catholic Natural Law. In fact, we are already learning this lesson, though not on the terms of the Christian Right who want the recovery of community to be a nostalgic recreation of a moment impossibly retrieved, and who often do not really care if their prescriptions for the community are workable;  being, in truth, more concerned about the appearance of having answers because therein lies their source of power. This is why they watch the unfolding of decadence and disorder with a certain veiled glee, and hope for the failure of the noble ambitions of their secular contemporaries for a better world.

But we are increasingly more willing to acknowledge, for example in the spheres of the environment and economics, that our interrelation requires some imposition on us for the sake of others and our mutual good. It seems to me religion continues to be very relevant to this point. Though the demand that religion take certain highly specific forms  often obscures it and makes people suspicious of its adherents intentions, it is also at base a call to responsibility towards one another. In the Christian case, it is a summons towards a life lived under the light of the eventual "calling to account" that ought to drive our actions. The genius of the Christian doctrine is to proclaim individual responsibility in the midst of the fact of communal culpability. 

"For good and ill deeds belong to a man alone, when he stands alone on the other side of death,
But here upon earth you have the reward of the good and ill that was
done by those who have gone before you ."
[Thus Your Fathers Were Made] 

The private sphere, where God is Judge, can not really be known now, though it nonetheless means we must strive towards our full development as individuals. T.S Eliot writes "make perfect your will".  I think this is reasonable to all, once we acknowledge that our individuality is totally embedded in social relations. 

There is, in our culture, a real rot of nihilism and shirking of all obligations for ambition and self-pursuit. I admit that this sometimes has its appeal to me. But there are also powerful secular voices for responsibility, a global minded ethic, and real passion for the common good. I think this is no less true of religious culture. There is a potential for Christianity to be a nihilism in disguise, a perverse desire to make the world seem as dark as possible so as to make the Christian "light" more palpable by contrast. I admit that this sometimes has its appeal to me too. Yet, here, the opposite is also true. There are and have been religious voices that are truly concerned about our human future, for whom caring is not hostility in disguise. Often these two camps, really on the same side, are both at odds- Matthew Arnold's "ignorant armies that clash by night".  

And if we acknowledge that we are in that night, standing "as though on a darkling plain", should there not be a certain humility of blindness? 

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
[East Coker]

It is my hope for myself that I can carry on in this way, conscious of sin and self enclosure, and the needs of others, with a humble hope. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Steadfast Changeless Shore

"But I'll not fear. I will not weep
For those whose bodies rest in sleep,-
I know there is a blessed shore,
Opening its ports for me and mine
And, gazing Time's wide waters o'ver,
I weary for that land divine,
Where we were born, where you and I
Shall meet our dearest, when we die
From suffering and corruption free,
Restored into the Deity."
"Well hast thou spoken, sweet, trustful child!
And wiser than thy sire:
And worldly tempests, raging wild,
Shall strengthen thy desire-
Thy fervent hope, through storm and foam.
Through wind and ocean's roar,
To reach, at last, the eternal home,
The steadfast changeless shore!" 

(from "Faith and Despondency", Charlotte Bronte) 

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Poet is...

 “The poet is, must be, for the moment at least, a man so intensely aware of some Thing in his universe- Frost’s tuft of flowers deliberately spared by the mower- that he is driven to inventing an arrangement of words that makes others aware this Thing may exist in their universe too.” [Earle Birney] 

Readers, what is your favourite poem? What does it make you aware of?