Jesus teaches the comparison and contrast essay

The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix - van GoghJesus is a rhetorician, and he teaches the modes. Today he teaches comparison and contrast.

“Teach us to pray,” a student asks.1 So Jesus compares God to an unloving friend. He loans bread, but he doesn’t give it. He loans bread to his friend not because he’s a friend but because he’s pestered.2

Later, teaching on prayer again, Jesus compares God to an unjust judge. The judge gives justice not because he’s a judge – he owns that he neither fears God nor respects men – but because he’s pestered.3

We get these comparisons, but we don’t get the contrasts. So we learn the wrong lesson: we base our prayer not on friendship or justice but on magic and importunity.

Then Jesus teaches on our life’s calling. He compares God to a hard man, a man who makes others do the work, but who gets all the profit.4

Knowing this, the man’s servant buries his talent. I buried mine, too.

° ° °

“You’ve got me confused with another master!” he responded. “I am loving and gracious; I’m not a hard man, as you call me. I don’t reap where I haven’t sown; I don’t gather where I haven’t scattered. I represent God in this parable. He’s a loving father and only wants the best for you. Therefore, you should have used your talent and not have buried it.”

It doesn’t end that way.

° ° °

Jesus speaks in parables because they’re all we can hear.5 They are, in part, our echoes. Or our mirrors. If they reflect our false selves, they’ll point to a false god. When they ask him why he speaks in parables, Jesus quotes Isaiah:

“By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive.”6

God doesn’t necessarily speak plainly to Christians,7 I think, but to his creation – to the trees and rocks and sun. But I have created myself.8 Somewhere God was absent, and there I parented myself. There my understanding of the parables may say more about me than the parables say about God.

The experience of helping an emotionally wounded friend seems apt. How can you help him see beyond his difficult upbringing? Even though you dare not speak too plainly, your friend still may misunderstand your words, even your intentions. One way to think about Jesus’ parables is to reflect on such sessions.

Most of us were orphaned on some landing of the heart, and from there we’ve seen the Father as an uncaring friend, an unjust judge, or a hard man. From there we’ve taken ourselves in and raised our false selves.

“Born again” without growing up again is just a different orphaning, albeit a religious one. But growing up again, this time as God’s creation, is hard work. After baptism “our life becomes a series of choices between the fiction of our false self . . . and our loving consent to the purely gratuitous mercy of God,” Thomas Merton writes.9 When I choose the latter over and over, I begin to share the integrity of the rocks and the trees. And I begin to hear better.

Jesus compares God to an evil father.10 Isaiah compares God to an unmindful mother.11 Those are tributes to many people’s experiences. But Jesus and Isaiah ultimately find the comparisons inadequate. “How much more . . .” Jesus says. “She may forget, but . . .” Isaiah says. We comprehend the comparisons because we’ve lived harder lives than we know. But we don’t comprehend the contrasts because they’re untold, unexplained, or unillustrated. They’re beyond. When they touch on God’s character, they’re apophatic. They sometimes point to something we haven’t experienced, or haven’t experienced enough.

Jesus’ parables suggest the Word’s mission in the depths of my being.


Painting:
The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix by van Gogh.

  1. Luke 11:1
  2. Luke 11:5 – 10.
  3. Luke 18.1 – 8.
  4. Matthew 25:14 – 30.
  5. Matthew 13:10 – 17.
  6. Id.
  7. Jesus’ disciples said with relief at the Last Supper: “Now you are speaking plainly and not using a figure of speech” (John 16:20). One such figure of speech – we must eat his body and drink his blood – thinned the ranks of the disciples considerably (John 6:53 – 67). John’s Jesus prefers metaphorical language, while Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels prefers parables. Both forms of speech seem encompassed by the phrase “dark sayings” that Jesus adapts from Psalm 78 (Matthew 13:35).
  8. Ephesians 4:22 – 24.
  9. Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation at 41 – 42.
  10. Luke 11:13.
  11. Isaiah 49:15.

Jesus on reading

3PictureBooksInIPhone

I have two shelves of devotional books, plus lots of other books – books of poems, writing instruction, history, and even political science – that often seem to act on me like devotionals. More than enough devotionals. When I’ve lost my way, as I have again now, I sometimes go back and read parts of a few of my earliest devotionals, works by Nouwen, Merton, and Steere. My heart doesn’t know or care if it’s a first or twentieth read, after all. My heart knows only if it’s being fed. Sometimes it takes a lot of rumination – years of it – to digest some short but vital writing I feel drawn to. Sometimes it takes a lot of rumination to rediscover the heart in its feeding again.

We have record of Jesus referring to reading six times. On each occasion, he asks his audience – always Pharisees, chief priests, elders, Sadducees, or scribes – if they have read some bit of scripture. (Matthew 12:3 & 5; 19:4; 21:16 & 42; 22:31.) He asks ironically, of course, knowing that they have indeed read the text he refers to. But his irony suggests that his audience hasn’t read or thought about the text sufficiently.

Jesus therefore counsels second or multiple readings – fresh reflections on texts that acknowledge the gentle way in which our hearts feed. Lectio Divina, the Jesus Prayer, and the like, perhaps. He suggests, I think, that we revere the Scripture so much as to disclaim our deeper understanding of it, because for Westerners, to understand words is often to exhaust and dismiss them and to starve the heart.

But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Matthew 9:13, KJV)

I’m going with the Pharisees for another read.

Ice, hail, & the reign hereafter

For my blog’s tenth anniversary, a suitably long and slow post. The post combines my blog’s three favorite preoccupations: literary criticism, political theory, and spirituality. You’ve got another ten years to read it.

Thick ice this morning on our sidewalks and streets. The pines beside them shine and droop as if an angel had fallen and not the rain. No school. Today, for the first time, I would have started teaching Macbeth. Now I have another day to prepare.

3PictureIcedPine

So yesterday’s hereafter wasn’t today, after all; it’s tomorrow again. The witches’ greeting:

All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. (1.3.48)

The New Cambridge Edition points out that Shakespeare, in two other plays, associates “all hail” with Judas’ betrayal – his “Hail, rabbi” when he leads the soldiers to Jesus.1 Judas’s greeting is ironic, right? “Hail” in Middle English meant “healthy,” like our “hale.” (For “hail,” the OED quotes the early fifteenth century Wars of Alexander: “When on athyll was so wele in happe and in heyle.”) By King James’ day, “hail,” with a fading glow of good health, had become an interjection of greeting and sometimes of acclamation, as for a king.

And Judas kisses Jesus as a future king. Palestine’s Roman and Jewish leaders are concerned that Jesus’ movement is gaining a political expression, that “king of the Jews,” a claim Jesus never denies, means hereafter. The Magi prophesied that Jesus would be king hereafter. Pilate tacks “the king of the Jews” atop Jesus’ cross to establish irony. Jesus’ followers, however, find Pilate’s sign prophetic and therefore reflecting a deeper irony.

Pilate puts “hereafter” in this life, but Jesus puts “hereafter” in the life to come. Are they that far apart?

Christians argue about whether Jesus will rule on earth and whether, assuming he will, nature and mankind will be much as they are today. And is there anything Christians can to do help that prophecy along?

If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me
Without my stir. (1.3.142-3)

Macbeth understands in these early lines what Macbeth’s New Cambridge Edition editor A. R. Braunmuller terms “prophetic irony” – the suggestion inherent in prophecy that the one receiving the prophecy should act upon it, to go beyond what Saint Paul describes as prophecy’s purposes: to edify, exhort, and comfort.

Christian political actions focused on hastening or establishing Jesus’ reign, such as the Crusades, have ended in disaster. Yet removing religion from the equation hardly helps. Every ideology seems to have a heaven on earth. Just as paradise moved from hell to heaven with Jesus’ resurrection, so for all ideologies heaven moves to earth at the juncture of history and no-history, or, in the case of Marxist thought, at the juncture of prehistory and history.

Macbeth uses the word “hereafter” four times. Shortly after the witches use it to tell Macbeth when he’ll be king, Duncan, the then-current king, uses it to announce when he intends his son to be king:

. . . kinsmen, thanes,
And you whose places are the nearest, know:
We will establish our estate upon
Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter
The Prince of Cumberland . . . (1.4.35-40)

Macbeth, among the thanes who hear the news, immediately takes his leave. He heads home, Haman-like, but is greeted by his wife much as he was greeted by the witches:

Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor,
Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter (1.5.52-53)

In Lady Macbeth’s greeting, as Braunmuller points out, “the phrase ‘all-hail’ is treated as an adjective, ‘hereafter’ as a noun.”2 “Hereafter” for Lady Macbeth is no longer an adverb that merely tells when something else will happen. “Hereafter” becomes, instead, a destination in its own right – a political destination at which, I suppose, all will be hail.

Is Lady Macbeth’s vision of a perfect political future – a kind of heaven on earth – peculiar only to some Christians and Marxists? Perhaps there are no new idealistic political movements under the sun. Paul Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism puts recent radical Islam in company with other anti-liberal political movements, both religious and secular, and points to, among many other similarities, their common vision of the hereafter:

The coming reign was always going to be pure – a society cleansed of its pollutants and abominations. It was going to be the purity of unexploited labor (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the purity of Roman grandeur (for the Fascists); or the purity of Catholic virtue (for the Phalange); or the biological purity of Aryan blood (for the Nazis). Yet no matter how these several components of the myth were labeled, the coming reign was always going to last a thousand years – that is, was going to be a perfect society, without any of the flaws, competition, or turmoil that make for change and evolution.3

The political hereafter, the heaven on earth, escapes history’s vicissitudes and untidiness. How can we resist such an allure? The hereafter is an ideal time, and we’re wired for ideals. There’s no escaping Plato – or, more precisely, what he represents: ideal forms. Inductive reasoning, for instance, is inescapable. It’s how we learn. An empiricist knows the sun came up yesterday and yesterday and yesterday. Any conclusion he draws about tomorrow makes him an unwilling Platonist. And, just as in Newton’s day, science today can’t go far without mathematics – that perfect language of the ideal – which was also Plato’s favorite language.

But to achieve a political hereafter, to end history in favor of an ideal state, eventually requires that we become something other than what we are: beings with an unfathomable center that makes integrity, or “one-ness,” possible on a personal but not a political level. By seeking a political one-ness, we divide ourselves from ourselves. Lady Macbeth calls off her own menstrual cycle (the “compunctious visitings of nature”) long enough for her and Macbeth to kill King Duncan:

. . . Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall . . .  (1.5.38 – 46)

Her stifled cycle stopped the flow of blood to the king’s sons, too, as if from a kind of menstrual synchrony in this claustrophobic play. Macbeth announces King Duncan’s death to one of the king’s heirs, Donaldbain:

The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopped, the very source of it is stopped.  (2.3.91 – 92)

Do we bleed just by being together? Is something as essential as blood our own, or is it something we share? Christian realism, Reinhold Niebuhr’s political philosophy, issues from such an uneasy tension between an individual and her society. Niebuhr’s individual can’t find fulfillment without her society, but she “also cannot find fulfillment completely within society.”4 An individual lives her life “in painful tension with even the best community,” but her life turns tragic when her society adopts some ideology to eliminate this incongruity. For Niebuhr, “the final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.”5 But ideologies wish to annul the incongruity, want to solve more than they can.

The more society seeks to annul the incongruity, the more the individual doubles – the more she is tempted to lose her integrity, splitting into a public and a private person. Scotland under Macbeth, Ross reports, is “almost afraid to know itself” (4.3.167). Leading up to Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth counsels duplicity:

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time, bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like th’innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t. (1.5.60 – 64)

Most modern political ideologies seek to protect “the value and dignity of the individual,” but that dignity “is constantly threatened by the same culture which wants to guarantee it.”6  For Niebuhr, who wrote Irony in the middle of the Cold War, the threatening culture may be Communist or bourgeois capitalist, among other possibilities:

The Christian idea of the significance of each individual in God’s sight becomes, in bourgeois civilization, the concept of a discrete individual who makes himself the final end of his own existence. The Christian idea of providence is rejected for the heady notion that man is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul.7

In other words, ideologies are based on the individual as perhaps born of God but untimely ripped, like Macduff, with God dying while giving birth. Ideologies are based also on a notion of society as either bound by God’s prophecy or freed from God’s justice and mercy – in either case, as freed from his providence. Orphaned from God, the individual becomes her own end. Either freed from God or goaded by some notion of biblical prophecy, society is able to control – and in that sense, close – history as surely as its science is now able to control nature.

In tempting Macbeth to kill Duncan, the weird sisters tempt him to make an end of history, too. They anticipate and rip off Macbeth’s words in time (“So foul and fair a day I have not seen” – 1.3.36) and use and confuse them outside of time (“fair is foul, and foul is fair” – 1.1.11). As Braunmuller puts it, “regicide is necessarily an attack on time’s progression and duration.”8 After meeting the witches, Macbeth considers that killing King Duncan would be “the be-all and the end-all,” a “jump” from time to “the life to come”:

If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease, success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all – here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. (1.7.1 – 7)

These lines show Braunmuller that Macbeth “first envisages, and then undertakes to create, a world in which acts have no consequences, no duration beyond the moment of their enactment, no reach in time and beyond time into eternity.”9 Responding to her husband’s letters, Lady Macbeth has a similar vision, though not as fully developed, in reaction to the witches’ prophecies:

Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant. (1.5.54 – 56)

Niebuhr warned in his 1952 book The Irony of American History that America one day would be tempted as the Soviets to create a hereafter, to make such a “future in the instant”:

. . . our “technocratic” tendency to equate the mastery of nature with the mastery of history could tempt us to lose patience with  the tortuous course of history. We might be driven to hysteria by its inevitable frustrations. We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is “preventive war.” It is not an immediate temptation; but it could become so in the next decade or two.10

The Iraq War makes plain that Niebuhr was prescient. Niebuhr understood that America might be tempted to end history in the name of democracy or of Christ, just as the U.S.S.R. sought to end history for the benefit of a godless mankind.

When Macbeth’s preemptive strike against the king and his heir begins to unhinge him, Macbeth follows King Saul’s precedent and seeks out the witches. The witches’ first apparition warns Macbeth to “beware Macduff,” but the second apparition counters the first with what would later turn out to be doublespeak:

SECOND APPARITION
Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends

MACBETH
Then live, Macduff, what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder. (4.1.77-85)

By now, Macbeth has long since dropped any notion of leaving chance to its work “without my stir.” The witches’ fresh prophesies in support of the “all-hail hereafter” tempt Macbeth “to take a bond of fate” – to plot Macduff’s murder. Macbeth doesn’t succeed in murdering Macduff, of course, but he does succeed in having Macduff’s wife and child murdered.

These prophecies also have made Macbeth believe he is invincible, almost immortal. Up until he learns from Macduff that he wasn’t born but “was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped,”11 Macbeth’s arrogance seems to increase with each scene.

Niebuhr believed that America’s millennialism might combine with its frustrations to cause it to act on its rising arrogance and to put an end to history. Where did America’s millennialism come from? Niebuhr pointed out that we harbor a Messianic sense of our destiny flowing from two sources. First, “the New England conception of our virtue,” which began “as the belief that the church which had been established on our soil was purer than any church of Christendom.” And second, from Virginia’s son Thomas Jefferson, whose “religious faith was a form of Christianity which had passed through the rationalism of the French Enlightenment.”12 Niebuhr quoted Jefferson on America’s innate superiority to Europe, though he failed to comment on Jefferson’s reference to a millennium of American (at least mental or spiritual) ascendency:

“If all the sovereigns of Europe,” [Jefferson] declared, “were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance and prejudice and that as zealously as they now attempt the contrary a thousand years would not place them on that high ground on which our common people are now setting out.”13

It wouldn’t have surprised Niebuhr, then, that the president who wanted to help history along enough to start a preventative (or “preemptive”) war would be an evangelical Christian and would have little use for European leaders’ advice. Presidential candidate George W. Bush, when asked during a 1999 Republican debate in Iowa what “political philosopher or thinker” he identified with most, responded, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” Applying the Sunday school strategy of answering every question with “Jesus,” of course, doesn’t work in political science.14 And applying the Christian project of redemption of human nature (“he changed my heart”) to government makes Christ a reformer of human nature rather than a redeemer, and so makes Bush’s political theory no better in this regard than that of an Hegelian or a Marxist, who also sought to reform human nature through government.15

But human nature cannot be reformed, and history, like the poor, will always be with us. The Macbeths’ “all-hail hereafter” turns out to be a bloody mess. Macbeth can’t stop now, however. He is immortal.

The witches’ second round of prophecies leave Macbeth looking for a second political hereafter – the real hereafter – which Macbeth now reasons is delayed long enough for him to win an apocalyptic battle against Macduff, Malcolm, and the large English army they return to Scotland with. (Berman points out that all modern idealist political movements, religious and secular, promote myths that include an Armageddon – a final battle that ends history and ushers in the ideal state.)16

At the height of his invincibility – just before he hears news that puts in doubt his understanding of the witches’ prophesies – Macbeth hears that Lady Macbeth has died. Here Shakespeare employed the play’s fourth and final hereafter, and the only one that falls from Macbeth’s lips:

SEYTON
The queen, my lord, is dead.

MACBETH
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle,
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (5.5.16-27)

It’s presumptuous of me to add anything new to the commentary these lines have generated over the last four centuries. I believe as much of it as I’ve read: Macbeth clearly loves Lady Macbeth, and her death brings him closer to himself, prepares us for his undoing, and reminds the audience of Macbeth’s heroic sensibility that permits his tragedy. The repetition of “tomorrow” acts to slow time to something without meaning, much like the repeated and meaningless words that Lady Macbeth utters in her madness, which are “full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” I’d add only that Macbeth here still believes in a hereafter – a time on earth after history’s end – and one that may go on forever thanks to his newly promised immortality. But he now realizes that the Armageddon he thinks he’s about to win will be empty not only of history but also of love.

Whether I give my friend a fish, train my friend to fish, or train and fund my friend’s country to establish and maintain a fishing industry that increases everyone’s standard of living, I had better do it from love. If I do it to create a future or to change the world, I am nothing. And if I talk about my future kingdom, I had better be talking from a cross.

None of Macbeth‘s four “hereafters” refer to the afterlife. The notion of life after death, whether or not one believes in it, must be acknowledged as a belief also in the impossibility of man’s reaching his fullest expression in this life. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s belief in a political hereafter that will “jump the life to come,” that is, will bring eternity (or at least an end of history) to the political present, is particularly modern for reasons best stated by Niebuhr:

It is generally taken for granted [in the modern era] that the highest ends of life can be fulfilled in man’s historic existence. This confidence makes for utopian visions of historical possibilities on the one hand and for rather materialistic conceptions of human ends on the other. All concepts of immortality are dismissed as the fruit of wishful thinking. This dismissal usually involves indifference toward the tension in human existence, created by the fact that “our reach is beyond our grasp,” and that every sensitive individual has a relation to a structure of meaning which is never fulfilled in the vicissitudes of actual history.17

As mentioned earlier, a believer in a life after death may believe also in something like Macbeth’s political hereafter. The contrapositive is also true: a disbeliever in a life after death may also not believe in the modern idea that “the highest ends of life can be fulfilled in man’s historic existence.” But Niebuhr rightly recognizes that, at a societal level, the dismissal of life after death has been accompanied by an “indifference toward the tension in human existence, created by the fact that ‘our reach is beyond our grasp,'” and this indifference makes us more susceptible to political hereafters on earth.

If we don’t believe in something like what Niebuhr calls “the mystery of the individual’s freedom and uniqueness”18 and in its messy consequence – the “mystery of . . . the drama of history”19 – then our desire for ideal forms will drive us to form ideal states on earth. If we wrongly expand on Christianity’s teaching that human nature can be redeemed by insisting that human nature can be reformed as well, we will destroy ourselves. If we believe that history can be tamed just as science teaches that nature can be tamed, we will destroy ourselves.

If we destroy ourselves and our planet by war – nuclear, cyber, biological, chemical, or otherwise – it would probably be, from a literary standpoint, only the latest and bloodiest production of Macbeth.

  1. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (Kindle Location 5569). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Shakespeare, supra, at Kindle location 6297.
  3. Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism. New York: Norton, 2003, at 49. Macbeth takes in all ideologies, too. The play addresses no specific ideology: it was written while ideologies were stirring but before they had been released into the political atmosphere. Its indeterminate target in this regard is a grace. Because it discovers the nature of all political ideology, Macbeth becomes the most perspicuous and chilling political play.
  4. Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition, at 62.
  5. Id. at 63.
  6. Id. at 62.
  7. Id. at 13.
  8. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (Kindle Locations 1221-1222). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  9. Id. at Kindle Locations 1206-1207.
  10. Niebuhr, supra, at 145-46.
  11. 5.3.15-16
  12. Niebuhr, supra, at 25.
  13. Id. at 26.
  14. The morning after the debate, Bush made his frightening response worse, explaining that he had taken the question to mean, “Who’s had the most influence on your life?” How could he have conflated those two questions?
  15. Compare Bush’s response to the “favorite political philosopher” question to that of his immediate successor, who had labeled the Iraq War “a dumb war” at its inception. Obama has called Niebuhr his “favorite philosopher.” Speaking to Concordia University Professor Paul Allen in 2008, Obama said he gleaned from Niebuhr that, “There’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
  16. Berman, supra, at 49.
  17. Niebuhr, supra, at 6.
  18. Id. at 8.
  19. Id. at 14.

Of commonplace books, journals, readers, & epigraphs

John Locke kept something called a commonplace book. It wasn’t a journal, and it wasn’t quite a scrapbook. It was a collection of excerpts he found significant from other people’s books. He’d copy out the passages by hand and then refer to them in his ever-expanding index so he could find them again.

3PictureFlowerGraffitiIf I were Locke, I’d leave lots of room in the margins for my notes and coloring. My journals for years have been part scrapbooks and part commonplace books, though I haven’t followed Locke’s lead in indexing them. I do number my journals’ pages and cross-reference with those numbers in the pages’ margins, which is about as much organization as I may ever need. Annie Dillard, by comparison, indexes her journals. But I don’t pretend to be Annie Dillard or John Locke, who both organized their private writings in part to help them write books they intended to publish. Wouldn’t it have been cool, though, to have been Thomas of Ireland, a fourteenth-century writer known only for his anthologizing?

Locke, for his part, didn’t pretend to have invented the commonplace book; things in this general genre have been written since antiquity. In Thomas’s time, monks copied excerpts of books into “florilegium.” Harvard’s library website reports that “The florilegium, or ‘gathering of flowers,’ of the Middle Ages and early modern era, collected excerpts primarily on religious and theological themes.” Locke, in fact, published a commonplace book organizing Bible verses into eighty-nine topics and many more subtopics.

Locke’s Commonplace Book to the Holy Bible reminds me of today’s books often called readers, which amount to a Whitman’s Sampler of an author’s work. A reader is often a good way for me to introduce myself to a writer or to a broader sampling of her work. My favorite readers include The Faulkner Reader, The Virginia Woolf Reader, A Thomas Merton Reader, and Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader. Of the four, only the Nouwen reader seems to be in the spirit of a florilegium: it’s organized by topic and includes short enough excerpts from the author’s works to resemble something someone might have first complied for his own edification.1 A more Middle Ages-style reader of Merton’s work might be Robert Inchausti’s compilation Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing, which contains very short, sometimes aphoristic passages and focuses only on what Merton wrote about writing.

Locke was moved to write about writing commonplace books. Locke had his own method for keeping his commonplace books, and his friends urged him to publish a letter he had written another friend on how to keep a commonplace book. A lot of the resulting book has to do with how to keep that running index.

Locke intended his commonplace books mainly as research tools, but I copy out others’ work to benefit my devotional practice and learning. There’s something digestive about copying out something that appeals to me. Writing something out slows me down enough to begin to think about the passage in new ways. I now buy the big art journals so I’ll have lots of room for marginalia that I sometimes break into while copying.

I do dream about writing a book, but the happiest part of my dream is selecting the book’s epigraphs. If I wrote a book, I’d audition hundreds of short passages and herald each of my chapters with around a dozen different epigraphs. I often find myself collecting quotes anyway, not to comment on them but simply to juxtapose them, to put them on the same page and watch them support, expatiate, refute, or qualify one another. A really good pairing seems to create an energy, and sometimes a friendship, much like imaginative and successful pairings among guests at a dinner party. And by the time my quotes have found their place cards, I find I have nothing to say and less reason to say it. My own book would end before it began, then, after a few extended sections of epigraphs. But I would have compiled a commonplace book.

Above: “Red graffiti drawing of flower on stone column” by Horia Varlan. Used by permission. Below: from my journal. Text in green ink is from Robert Lowell’s poem “Eye and Tooth.”

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  1. I’m currently reading a similar reader – organized topically with shorter excerpts – entitled Basic Ideas of Montessori’s Education Theory.  It complies a good deal of what Montessori wrote in books, journals, and letters relative to her education theory.

I’ve had grace all wrong

3PictureFinchAlejandroEricksonA dear octogenarian friend took a bad fall, and complications from it landed her first in the hospital and then in a rehab center. She just got home after a month away.

She told her friends about her month, about the people she had met. I think she made quite an impression. A few staff members and fellow patients commented on her relentless solicitude, particularly because they knew she was suffering from pain and a diminution of mobility.

Hearing about her time in the rehab center confirmed to me, as Peter confirmed to his readers at his letter’s end, that “this is the true grace of God wherein ye stand.” I’m walking in a particular night, myself, though nothing as dramatic as the night of sense or the dark night of the soul. Nothing as difficult as my friend’s tough month. I won’t get specific, and it’s not all bad. But it’s dark enough.

Penetration into scripture often precedes my nights. I got an insight from Corinthians a month ago that I should have known would bring on longer nights this fall, if only so the insight would begin to move from my head to my feet – so it would, as the Psalmist puts it, light my path.

The insight involved my favorite Epistle, which includes this line popularized by altar calls: “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” It’s from 2 Corinthians, and it’s the King James. (I don’t think altar calls are done in anything but the King James.)

Decades ago I thought that “now is the day of salvation” meant now is the day to get saved, to be born again, to repeat the sinner’s prayer – however any particular evangelical church would put that. But the context is wrong, even granting for the moment that salvation means kneeling at an altar and filling out a card. Paul’s commentary on Isaiah (“now is the day of salvation” fixes the “day” in Isaiah’s “on the day of salvation I helped you”) supports not conversion but an unseen work: I can know, by faith and despite all other evidence, that I have God’s help – his grace.

Corinthians goes on to describe contexts and ways I can take care not to “receive the grace of God in vain.” The contexts are usually painful (Paul lists hardships, labors, and sleeplessness, for instance), and the ways are usually directed to others (Paul includes kindness and genuine love).

Grace, suffering, and good works loiter together in the darkness of letters like 2 Corinthians and 1 Peter, letters that advocate a certain suffering. A verse from the latter (in the King James):

Let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.

Grace is the firstfruits of this suffering. It comes with the appreciation that I’m still receiving from God, even though it doesn’t seem like it. Grace, then, asks that I walk by that light.

I’ve had grace all wrong. Because the acceptable time is now, I can know I’m being helped even when I have no tangible proof of it. Faith acts as proof. The next proof after faith of the help I need is grace’s prompt benefit to those around me. In my own darkness, grace puts others first.

Photo by Alejandro Erickson. Used by permission.

Is the universe friendly?

Work is easing out. I’m able to ride my bike after school on nice days, like yesterday. A big rainstorm hit, so I got off the trail at a campground and bivouacked under a large picnic shelter.

After the storm

“Is the universe friendly?” I must add Einstein’s question to my inquiry-based learning approach. To be a good Big Question, it can’t be silenced by a simple yes or no. If it can, it’s not your question. If you can answer it, but you start with, “It’s complicated,” that’s okay, I think. Then what you learn refines your answer or teaches you how to share it.

Mirror

Michael asked us Einstein’s question last week. The blurt-outs were about half yes and half no. I wonder if anyone persuaded anyone else. I don’t think you can move from yes to no, or no to yes, without making it, or something like it, your Big Question for a spell.

The conversation reminded me of my “everything” verses from Romans and 1 Corinthians. The latter:

For everything belongs to you — Paul, Apollos, and Cephas, the world, life, and death, the present and the future, all are yours — and you belong to Christ, and Christ to God. (REB)

Death is mine! It’s another way of asking the same question.

Storm

Adversity

Today’s Washington Nationals game — the first Victoria and I have attended — was a taut affair until the fifth inning, when Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s bad throw pulled first baseman Adam LaRoche off the bag and allowed the Chicago Cubs’ batter to reach first.

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The pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, who was jogging to the dugout after what he assumed was the third out, saw the error and dragged himself back to the mound. The Cubs scored four unearned runs that inning after what should have been the third out, breaking a scoreless tie.

Zimmerman had lots of time. He even pumped the ball once in his glove. Zimmerman makes almost all the tough plays, but his recent shoulder surgery, or the injury it was performed to correct, or his body’s or his psyche’s adjustment to the injury or the surgery, makes him mess up a lot more of the easy plays than this former Golden Glove winner did before he was hurt last year.

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Today’s game mirrored the Nats’ April 16 unfolding against the Florida Marlins. The Cubs and Marlins were in their respective divisions’ cellars when they played the Nats, but both beat the Nats 8 to 2. Both the Cubs and the Marlins scored four unearned runs courtesy of Zimmerman errors. But Dan Haren, not Strasburg, pitched the Miami game.

I love the sports page. I keep up with a few of the local teams even though I never go to their games or, with the exception of the Nats, even watch them on television. Sports gives me a way to project my own struggles onto a clean surface, one that gets erased every game and even more every season, though some struggles can keep a player from reaching her full potential over a career and a team from reaching its potential over a generation. My favorite sportswriters educate me about the game in question, but they also touch on loyalty, wisdom, deference, planning, fairness, control, and, of course, adversity and resilience. Although I have much to learn about the other virtues I list, I have struggled particularly with my response to adversity.

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Victoria and I haven’t made a day of it since at least last summer. Today we went to the Phillips Collection as well as the Nationals game. Things started ominously. The Metro station we drove to was closed, and the notice on the gate informed us that the other nearby stations were also closed for the weekend. So we drove into town instead, and the promised rain materialized. I also had to overcome my anticipation of exasperation over finding parking in the District. As we drove by the gallery, the rain had stopped, and someone relinquished to us her street parking space right against the building.

Like the Phillips’s web site, the Nationals’ site discourages driving. But, after a quick downpour just as we arrived, we found easy parking there as well. Reflecting on how quickly I’ll change plans based on a dire weather forecast, I marveled at the big crowd that developed. The rain held off for the entire game. Jesus, I remembered, said that the Roman soldier he had been talking with had more faith than anyone he had met in Israel.

When life or other people offer resistance, I will often listen to old tapes that I should have discarded long ago, such as, “You’ll never succeed,” “You’re a loser,” and “Things won’t work out.” My faith, I figure, isn’t what I say I believe but what my actions show I believe. So while I profess faith in Christ, I’ve been more of an unbeliever than many dear atheists I know. Or, one might say, I’m a man of great faith in my old tapes.

Zimmerman’s mechanics issue is too unfathomable for me to relate to, although I did relate to him today, standing there against the scuff marks he had kicked into the clay between second and third. But I was primarily projecting my own struggles onto Strasburg. Why do some pitchers struggle to pick it back up after an error extends an inning? What tapes is Strasburg playing in his mind? “Your teammates are going to let you down.” “You have great stats, but you don’t win games.” Who knows. He might not even be aware of them yet. Anyway, there’s a cottage industry around here of managers, coaches, and fans trying to help Strasburg figure it out.

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But isn’t Strasburg like so many of us: lots of potential but not overbrimming with confidence? And he’s under the added pressure of a large audience that he, admittedly, is paid handsomely to serve as a projection screen for. Some of my favorite Bible passages suggest that we’re playing before large audiences, too, though these audiences have better things to project than I do. Paul says that all nature is cheering us on, waiting for us to realize who we are — sons of God. And God answered Elisha’s prayer to reveal to his young companion the heavenly army surrounding the enemy army that was surrounding the two of them.

Today’s game’s biggest thrill came in the top of the same fifth inning when a Cub runner was tagged out trying to stretch his double into a triple. Outfielder Roger “The Shark” Bernadina, replacing the injured Jason Werth, fired a direct hit to the second baseman, who relayed the ball to Zimmerman just in time for the latter to tag the runner out. But Zimmerman made his error on the very next play.

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Empty

Awake, is all.

Rising without inspiration, revelation, recollection, premonition, venture, horror, or scripture is a gift. I like to wake up empty & dull.

I like waking up with a soul of ice, undripping with dreams sloshed over the sluice of sentience.

You don’t see Jesus prancing around the flight deck when he rose.

I like to awaken blank and bare, without mother or father, past or future, book or speech, laurel or thorn.

° ° °

The orphancy of waking, the umbilical cut from a dying dream.

The poverty of sunrise. Last night evicted yesterday, dropped its shit on the street.

Yesterday is morning breath.

° ° °

The screaming poverty of birth. Every time I write, I’m born again.

Yesterday is afterbirth.

° ° °

The poverty of resurrection: even the grave is empty.

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“Trill” are my Twitters. Tweet suites from @slowreads.

Photo “Denver Sluice” copyright Nick Ford. Used by permission.

Good Friday

1
A slab of cloud hisses on dawn’s gas stove. Across the vale and atop the steeple, an ornate, Latin electric chair glints.

2
All in white, the candidate knelt before the gallows, awaiting the bishop’s hands. Around her neck, a sterling noose, her godparents’ gift.

3
The megachurch tore out its cup holders and cushioned seats and installed 1,300 electric chairs. The service was amped that Sunday.

4
Our parish is low church. When we genuflect before the gibbet, we choke ourselves with just one hand.

5
“For the word of the firing squad is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the caliber of God.” [SRV]

6
“If any will come after me, let him deny himself, shoot up his lethal injection, and follow me.” [SRV]

 

“Trill” are my Twitters. Tweet suites from @slowreads.

Photo copyright Randen L. Pederson. Used by permission.