In a famous verse from Virgil’s grand epic poem he has the poem’s protagonist say to his close friend, “There are tears of things, and things of death touch the mind” (1.462). Perhaps it is the most famous line in the Aeneid, though there are a lot of quotable lines from that poem.That anguish, Virgil is saying in this most quotable line comes from “things of death.” The word in Latin is mortalia, which is often rendered “mortal things.” But that word “mortal” too often simply is misunderstood as meaning “human, not divine.” But the word mortalia does not mean that: it means things pertaining to death, as in the word mortuary, mortician or the all-too-aptly-named Voldemort. This is what touches our mind: death. The ancient poet Horace, too, admonishes his reader to live mindful of how short life is (Serm. 2.6.97). The reader who takes Horace seriously will ever carry at heart the tears of which Virgil speaks.
If you’ve encountered death close at hand lately, you will know that that is easier said than done. It’s a mere platitude to be able to say, “Well, you know, keep in mind we’re all mortal.” There’s that word again: mortal. The person who has experienced grief firsthand knows that such bromides don’t get you very far in the real world when you really confront the death of a loved one. And the person who has confronted that pain knows that mortal doesn’t just mean human: it means closely connected with death. It means aware of the pain and sting of death; and that person feels that they must now and forever be sad because of that pain.
But somewhere else hope is inscribed on a page, hope that complements the rich realism of Virgil and counters the glib advice of Horace or at least of the many sympathy cards that try but fail to comfort adequately. The poet of the forty-second Psalm writes,
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?” Ps. 42:3 (NIV)
This is a brutally honest description—tears as our food—followed by an equally brutally honest question, both recorded right next to each other smack in the center of the Bible: “Where is your God?” How dare people of faith mention God at a time like this, when it feels so hopeless? And yet, the psalmist knows instinctively that the only real solace not just for death but for life is that our paltry lives have meaning, real meaning. In such a circumstance the vanity of pleasure or glory have no power: they avail for naught in the face of death. Rather, only God, the One who counts up our wanderings and gathers every one of our tears into a bottle, even recording them in a book (Psalm 56:8; John 11:35), can give real comfort. He can comfort because only He can give real meaning to all our suffering, our pain, our lives and the lives of those whom we have lost.
There really are tears of things, and mortal things really do touch our minds. We can cry—it’s okay to do so; we don’t always have to “be strong.” We can be weak, too. Perhaps it is really in our weakness where we shall find more strength than we could ever have imagined. May your tears be few in this new year. But if you have them, may they have meaning, that of rich memory, real comfort and, most importantly, true significance.
Coincidentally, I was in a hotel shuttle with a couple who hail from Oskarshamn, Sweden. “What a small world,” I said. “One of my favorite authors, Axel Munthe, comes from there.”
“Oh, yes,” they said, “we love Axel Munthe.” They were on their way to Disneyland, but I on quite another errand of consulting for a Californian liberal arts college.
“It’s a small world after all,” I said, not being able to resist, once I had discovered where they were heading. Chuckles all round.
But the essence of today’s blog is yet another coincidence. Not that seeing my old friend from high school was coincidental, for it was not. Indeed, a few weeks before we had planned the rendez-vous at a restaurant on the San Clemente pier; and what spectacular views of the Pacific coast can be seen from that pier! And the conversation was loaded with coincidences, too, if you believe in that sort of thing, for it takes a certain kind of faith to believe in coincidence. I haven’t that faith; I rather invest mine in Providence.
A quick synopsis of the conversation with John: life, family—kids in particular—jobs. And that is when it got interesting—how he had gotten his current position through a labyrinth of coincidences. And mine, too, I said. How I had come to be writing what I am writing now—no, I shan’t tell you, my reader, as that must remain between me and John until it is completed—and so much more. My work in California, and the potential for more where that came from, and on and on. All of which was loaded with coincidences, coincidences that can, in my view, best be explained by Providence, as it seemed that some of them were so coincidental as to suggest the evidence of the intervention of a divine hand, a divine plan.
“As you know, I am a moral agnostic,” John said, and then he added with a wry smile, “Probably the only happy agnostic I know.” I agreed that he is one of the few truly content moral agnostics that I know. And I agreed that he is moral, for he is. He lives by a moral code. And in spite of his clearly moral posture, a friend had, he shared with me, given him a copy of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. I told John about an old friend of mine, a doctor also named John, who had read that book and become a Christian.
“Yet,” I added, “I think you would enjoy C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity more. It’s really written for moral agnostics.” I then recapitulated a bit about C.S. Lewis’ life and his connection to J.R.R. Tolkien and the other Inklings.
We parted, John generously picked up the tab, and I got in my car and thought of what I should have added, of course, about morality, for I agreed with him that these days our society needs a good dose of morality and its twin sister civility. But what I didn’t state as clearly as I might have is that morality must have a source, an authority outside of ourselves, for if morality just comes from within us, one person’s morality could look very different from that of another’s. One person might justify stealing or lying or coercing or bullying and even casting aspersions on someone as means to a greater end, while another might see lying or the other nasty behaviors just enumerated as wrong under nearly all circumstances, or even all circumstances. In other words, as Lewis shows deftly in Mere Christianity, we are ourselves not the buoys or the stars and we are certainly not the compass or the magnetic poles. We are, rather the ships, or better the pilots of our own ships, and sailing out of line can damage or even sink our neighbor’s ships, too.Without doubt we, as captains, can and sometimes must use dead reckoning to sail, but that would only be on a cloudy day when we can’t see the sky and we have misplaced our compass. So, being moral is great—good ship captains are welcome—but it necessarily derivative. And then the question becomes, derivative of what source? And that source does in fact matter very much. Do we really want it to be textless, ever-shifting cultural groupthink? Are there not founts (maybe Cicero Plato, Aristotle?) or an even higher source (perhaps the Ten Commandments?) that speak to our moral formation better than pop music, reality T.V. shows, Dear Abby or the op ed page?
Alas, I neither got that far in my thinking nor we in our conversation. Why not? I would like to say it was only because I had a plane to catch, but in reality it was because I am not as mentally quick on my feet as I would like to pretend I am. Yet it was a delight to see an old friend, and a joy to think through the need for civil discourse in a world so fallen, so in need of kindness, so lacking in grace and forgiveness. But there I go again, sounding like someone lamenting, “In my day it was much better…” But maybe, just maybe it was, and the only way back to that day or an even brighter and better one is to find, once again, our moral moorings and, most importantly, the Source that gives those moorings its authority. Not that it was all perfectly clear even “in my day,” but maybe just knowing that it is there at all can be our first step toward what Plato calls “the good,” as we navigate in these waters that have of late become choppy in terms of morality and simply civility. But the faith to get through it, to find the moorings, and to act on their teachings—that’s where coincidence ends and Providence begins.
You get up every morning, you go to work, you try to be as nice as you can to your co-workers, one of whom is that grumpy one—not the curmudgeon who is curmudgeonly simply to be funny, to preserve the appearance of a crusty persona, who has a coffee mug with an ominous warning such as those given below (my personal favorite is “Good morning, I see the assassins have failed” or, really, the one with the little bird)—but rather, one who is genuinely a grouch. The one you have verbally to dance around, you have to be careful what you say and, in fact, even when you say what you’re sure is the right thing, he—usually he—or she will find fault, will turn something positive you said or did into something negative by what seems to you deliberate misinterpretation. Indeed, probably most of us, have someone with whom we work around whom we have to be especially careful what we say, whether that person happens to be especially politically correct, seemingly always waiting to pounce with (at the very least) a disapproving look because something slightly un-PC drifted from the barrier of your teeth, or because they are the boss and they want everyone to know that they are the boss. They want everyone in the office or on the floor to know that you are below them, that they outrank you. Add to this a steady state in which you can’t have a good idea; add to that, if you do, they might just appropriate it for themselves.
Now if you’re not able to relate to that previous paragraph at this moment—for example, if you have a job for which you don’t dread going to work or even dread going into that certain person’s cubicle or workspace—then count yourself exceptionally lucky. And count yourself luckier yet if you can’t recall ever having that experience, if you’ve always had the kind of charmed existence whereby which you’ve gleefully gone to work without the slightest angst over organizational squabbling, never thinking “Gosh, did I say the right thing?” when you left someone’s office.
But I doubt many have that charmed of an existence. And for those of us who do not, then once the day is done, once we have done our job and followed our calling to the best of our ability that day in our comportment, words, and deeds, then the whistle blows, whether literal or figural, and it is time to go home. And there is nothing quite like coming home at the end of a long day, if indeed you have a home to go to, if you have someone there for whom you care and who cares about you. And somehow just knowing you have a home, a place where you’re appreciated just for being you—with all your faults, foibles, and fears—gives you strength to carry on, and renews your inner being so that you can get up the next day, take a deep breath and head off to work again with a fresh attitude, a broadening smile, and a hope for a better day, even with your crusty old boss or difficult co-worker.
Based on conversations I’ve had with friends whom I know not just in America but in many places in this dark world and wide, it seems to me that the world these days is caught up in the first paragraph. I mean that both literally—most of the folks I talk to have that person at work before whom they find themselves having to be especially accommodating and speak especially carefully—and metaphorically, for the world seems to be in a deleterious state. Maybe it has been heading that way for a long time now—I don’t know. But however that may be, it most certainly is in a negative funk. And here’s an idea why this may be the case: the world has lost a sense of home. Or perhaps it is rather merely that notion of home has eroded; when I say eroded, I do not mean that it has just changed, but I mean that it has declined, deteriorated. It has become a stuffy place, its air has become stale, its aura less than welcoming.
How so? Let’s start with what makes a home: that’s a family. Though a family is of course not specifically a physical space, it is nonetheless a place where you can breathe, catch your breath, take a deep breath for fresh air again. I spoke yesterday to a friend who has a twelve-year-old daughter. He loves his daughter and spent last Saturday with her. “Wonderful,” I said. Gingerly I queried about the rest of his family, but carefully suspecting that because he spent the day with his daughter that he was divorced—for otherwise he would have said “we” (meaning he and his wife) had spent the day with the child. As I suspected, he is divorced. He has a girlfriend; they’ve been dating about four years. She lives in Rome, he in Viterbo. They see each other once or twice a month, usually on a weekend.
Now I thought about his situation—and someone might say, “Who are you to judge?” and that person might well be right, but thinking about someone’s situation is not necessarily “judging” anyone—and as I thought about it, this occurred to me: inasmuch as his daughter lives with his wife (in Vetralla, a town or two away), he has no one to come home to. He goes to work, interacts with his co-workers, probably puts up with the one that no one gets along with, and then doesn’t have anyone to go home to. Maybe he has a dog or a cat, but not a person to talk to. And while someone might object and say not everyone feels the need for someone to talk to, I would suggest that the individual’s perception of need and the actuality of need may be different. Not everyone thinks they need to eat green vegetables. One can do fine with merely bread, meat and potatoes for quite a long time; but green vegetables are indisputably good for you and virtually everyone except children knows one should eat them, if they are available.
I’d like to close with another aspect of coming home that is missing from my friend’s life and from many lives: church. Church is a kind of spiritual home, a place that, for all its faults (just as a family has many faults) provides something like a larger home for a family or individual. Indeed, for single folks, divorced folks and for others who for whatever reason are alone, church can take over the role of refuge that family provides. You can go to church and come to know others there who can help you through the rough times. They, too, likely have bosses or co-workers who are difficult. They, too, know what it means to be lonely. They, too, know what it means to struggle with faith, to feel abandoned by God even th
ough we most certainly are not. And they can pray for you, with you, and over you. They can help you breathe. They become your family. Elaine Jakes rediscovered this reality late in her life at Stockton Presbyterian Church.
I leave you, my reader, with this final thought, not that work can be a drag and you should find some kind of relief, but rather that we all find challenges in the work to which we have been called, and we should seek inspiration to face those challenges. The root of the Latin word for “breathe” is in the middle of inspiration. Fresh air, a refreshing breeze can be found in family and faith. Go home, and breathe.
A train strike (sciopero) in Italy gives you time to think. And when you are traveling, sometimes time to think is just the right thing. For traveling should be—at least when you are traveling by yourself and especially not with small children—a time to think, to reflect, to ponder. Questions germane to traveling like “How did I get here?” or “Where am I going?” are also germane to our lives and, in a manner of speaking, they provide a framework for the kind of thoughts we should think if we are to be properly thoughtful people.
And traveling, in Europe at least, also helps us to think about being thoughtful because one often travels by train there—or I should say here, for I am writing this blog from Rome—and when one travels by train one has to negotiate one’s way through hoards of people, all trying to go in about the same direction. Really, they are going in various directions, and that is what makes working your way to your train so difficult. I try my best to be gentle about it, whenever possible acting as if getting to my train or making my connection isn’t all that important to me—even though it invariably is.
Now not making such a connection in Italy in the summer is not so bad as missing one in Switzerland or Germany in the winter. Of course the reason for that is the stations there are sometimes open-air and it is hard to stay warm in a not well-insulated or warmed station in the north. But in summertime Italy it is a different matter. Here one need not rush, need not bustle, for the country relies on a natural kind of lateness. Even my Italian friends call that “Italian time” and they take pride in a small amount of tardiness the way my German friends take pride in (or at least seem to expect) a certain punctuality.
Which brings me back to thinking. For thinking about big questions based on little ones is a good thing, and thinking about being gentle and knowing that what time you have to leave is not nearly as important as where you’re going or how you get there. Sometimes you just have to face the fact that in life there will be a “sciopero” of sorts, a personal train strike or temporary setback. You may not meet an objective because of external forces. You may be criticized by someone fairly or unfairly and have to slow down and remind yourself of the long-term goal, that responding sharply is very unlikely to be the right thing to do. Rather, that right thing is likely to be gentleness.
One of the things that struck me on this trip so far—aside from how fabulous Italian food is and how impossible it is not to mention food in every blog that I write while I am in this country, even in a world gone mad—was a conversation that I had at a fancy affair with an American, a very nice and courteous chap, a fine human being, a gentle person. Yet there was, it seemed to me, perhaps something recently missing in his life, and that missing thing had not to do with food but with traveling.
Now it could have had something to do with food. After all, the fancy affair at which we met was a grand party thrown for a recently successful archaeological team, a party that I, as a mere novelist and blogger, was clearly crashing. They were wrapping up an excavation of an Etruscan tomb near Viterbo. The person with whom I enjoyed a rich conversation seemed at first blush to be a hired musician, for he deftly played the guitar at this affair, accompanying a marvelous accordion player. That same person in question, however, turned out to be there at the invitation of one of the archeologist. As for me, I was invited along by a friend of a friend, and, being naturally curious, I accepted the invitation, even if in fact I was more or less crashing the party.
And I am glad I did, for I had never been in a movie before. No, this was not a real film, but it was as if a scene from a movie, a particular one, perhaps my favorite: The Godfather. Mutatis mutandis, it was as if we were in the opening wedding scene, a great celebration with food of a high order of deliciousness that just kept coming, course after course. Over a glass of wine that was hand-crafted by one of the local magistrates (a certain Angelo, whom everyone called Sant’Angelo), the gentleman and I fell to talking about the big questions, what I am calling in this blog, the travel questions.
Like me, he had thought about such questions. But when he had encountered a certain sciopero in his own life—a complicated church situation—the strike in his life had presented him with an unwelcome challenge, temporarily perhaps driving him away from church. Still, I encouraged him in the midst of it to remember that there is a directional aspect to the whole question of religion, an aspect that simply by going through the motions sometimes maintains a true faith or, better yet, even sometimes kindles a deeper faith, a faith perhaps one never realized was possible—a faith in a God who can produce miracles. And thus do I hope that he finds his direction back to church, with his guitar in hand, for I liked him and I suspect that his joy won’t be complete until he finds peace in his music, in church, in life—in God.
And here I will stop, for it was, after all, merely a lunch I was crashing, not a scene from a movie, not something from my usual world of fantasy, of otherworldly ideas beyond reality. Yet even if it was reality, it sure did feel like a scene from that best of films. Could we have been, for a moment, with a real godfather, could we have been characters in a story? Perhaps that is the point, perhaps we are a part of a story, and we need to be reminded of that from time to time. And to grasp that, to garner what we need to live, and love, and thrive, perhaps we may require, from time to time, to experience a sciopero.
Somewhere in central Texas there is, at the intersection of St. Mary’s and St. John’s streets, a place. Its name is My Brother’s Keeper, but those who stay there just call it BK, for short. There’s nothing fancy about the name or the place, or St. Mary’s or St. John’s, for that matter. Though I did not know it as I drove my old Ford in that direction, I had come there that evening to make friends.
BK’s furnishings are Spartan. There are not-very-comfortable looking bunk beds in rooms holding eight or perhaps ten people for a night’s stay. A narrow hallway with chipping paint. A small workroom; a recreational room, smaller yet; in back, a patio with a view of the sunset, for I have come just a few minutes before sunset. In the lobby, I sign in and chat with the staff, Brittany and Dane. But I am not here to hear Brittany’s or Dane’s stories but to tell one, so I thought at the time. At check-in I make a couple of jokes; they laugh. Then, of course, I quip awkwardly about being of Welsh descent. (I don’t know why I do that, since no one in Texas understands Welsh references: I invariably get a strange look.)
Dane writes you in; Brittany, as if performing a magic ritual, gently passes her weapon-detecting wand around your body. She smiles. Her love for all human beings is palpable; it shows in her eyes that twinkle, or rather glow with compassion and gentleness. Neither she nor Dane are dressed like the formal wardens of a proper institution; rather, they are dressed like college students. Perhaps they are just that; I never found out.
Several of the evening’s residents at BK and I go outside on the patio. Just moments before the sun begins its final downward course, I offer a brief spiritual reflection, one that will mention St. John but not St. Mary, even though here the streets cross. I have come to speak, in part, about why a friend of mine has told me that he no longer has faith. What is it that has made him lose his faith? It is the news, bad news about the economy, terrorism, the world going to hell in a hand basket—so he said at any rate. Just when faith could help him, he had walked away from it. He had lost his faith in people he told me. I had agreed with him that faith in people will disappoint; but there is another faith, it is at the place where Mary and John look up at a dying King, a King dying to make us princes and princesses. That story of love is what I wanted to tell because I was thinking perhaps they might well have, indeed are likely to have, faced challenges that could cause them to question their faith. I wanted to encourage them to keep going, keep walking in faith’s path even when what they see, what we all see, looks terribly gloomy and hopeless.
This is the story that I was trying stumblingly to share with only about fifteen of the many who had come to BK that evening. We’re out back, on that patio, where I speak about love, love from above, that allows us to keep faith. I warn against putting too much confidence in people. But I am speaking uncomfortably because I am doing so for an audience of people with no place to go, people of very little means. Some had come there, that evening, carrying their meager belongings in plastic grocery bags, while other brought a dilapidated suitcase from a thrift store, another a limping, tattered quasi-rolling board with one wheel broken—these are the lucky ones, for they have something to bring at all. I am uncomfortable not because they don’t have the American dream. Rather, I am uncomfortable because I do have it, and so much of it. Now someone might say, “That’s just white suburban guilt. Forget about that.” But even if that is the case, I cannot simply forget about it. I cannot because I am at the intersection of St. Mary’s and St. John’s and I am confronted not just with the idea of “the poor” but with people, real people, with names and faces. And stories.
David surprised me, for he had a library book, a thick one. “It’s the latest installment in the Divergent series. It’s a dystopia,” he said. Nineteen years old, he was perhaps the youngest in the shelter. He had been a student at a local college. His grandmother, who was raising him had gotten old, he said, too old to help him.
“Gone,” he said, “Not in my life. Never really were. My grandma raised us.”
“Yes there are three of us.”
“How did you wind up here?”
“Lost my job, couldn’t pay my rent. I was a student.”
“Yes, just taking my basics at a small two-year. I am hoping to be able to go on for a degree.”
Next to him sat Angelica, formerly a U.S. Coast Guard servicewoman, now looking for a job. She, too, was well read, and disclosed to me her hope of having a library in her own home one day.
“I just love books,” she said. I told her she might like the Curious Autobiography. I asked her a bit more about her story. After her discharge had followed her sister out west, she said—and by west she no doubt meant here, Texas—but her sister had problems, lost her job, was divorced, had to move back east (I think she said Florida) for a job. “Haven’t seen my sister for a long time now. I’ve got nobody here. I lost my job, lost my apartment. I’m trying to get a job. I’ve got an interview tomorrow.”
“I’ll say a prayer,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said and then she paused. After a moment, she told me about her time with the Coast Guard doing drug interdiction. “Drugs are ruining our country,” she said. I agreed.
After hearing more about the harrowing, quite heroic operations she had undertaken on the Coast Guard interceptors and about how a boom winch was mistaken by some drug runners for a Gatling gun, I could hardly stop myself from commenting, “You have an interesting story.
“I haven’t,” she added in closing, “had many friends to tell my story to.” And then, of course, I thought of Cicero, who not only extols friendship—for that is an obvious truism—but explains why it is vital for life. Part of that is the exchange of ideas, the sharing of virtues, and the telling of one’s stories to receptive ears. And that is just what Angelica and I, and David and I, and one or two others, too, were doing. And that is why I had come, for my message was encumbered by my lack of familiarity with that group, my own, tragically genuine, unfamiliarity with poverty. It had been a long time since I had been on the streets of Philadelphia going through garbage cans with Elaine Jakes—too many years. I’d forgotten what it means to be poor. Indeed, I had never really known, for even then, we had a place to sleep that was our own.
That is why I am especially glad to have made my way to the intersection of St. Mary’s and St. John’s. I went thinking that I was doing so to tell a story, one based on love and kindness, on Psalm 14 and John 15 and to share reasons to keep faith even in the midst of life’s challenges and what can be the hardest of times. But I found out that in fact the real reason I was there was to listen to stories, those of David, of Angelica, and one or two others. These are my friends, and their story continues. I pray, too, that faith and friendship will be a part of those stories, and my own, until the final chapter of our books, until the last page is turned.
 The names of people and even the streets have been changed to allow each individual to maintain their anonymity and, on the off chance that I misremember any of the details, to allow them to keep their personal and unique stories for themselves. Here I reveal merely what I can recall from my visit last week, a glimpse of much more complex and rich lives. BK is a real place that truly helps/empowers the disenfranchised of central Texas to get back on their feet. If you wish to donate, please click on this link or simply purchase a Curious Autobiography t-shirt. All proceeds to go MWMW, of which BK is one ministry.
One of the more curious verses in the Bible, or perhaps, better said, one of the more curious things ever written is a short verse from the forty-sixth Psalm. The most frequently cited part of that verse reads in the King James Version, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
In the Hebrew, the name for God that is used is that very old title, Elohim, the “Strong One,” the same name of God used for him in the creation narrative. Yet that name is not the curious aspect of this verse. Nor is the imperative “be still,” for if you’ve ever had one of those days—one of those long days filled with endless meetings, stress, interpersonal problems, more stress, and political squabbles, and (need I mention?) even more stress, then, when you finally have a moment to unwind—perhaps on your drive (or in my case bicycle ride) home—then you probably get the “be still” part pretty well. You get home and you’re dog-tired, you’re just glad to have survived the jungle, the stress that maybe even some of your well-intentioned colleagues had engendered by a disapproving look, a small disapproving statement under the breath at a meeting. And you’re tired. Then, yes, then, it is time to be still.
To be still and know. Yes, that is the curious part of the verse. That second imperative “know,” that is not merely curious; it is strange, even a bit incongruous. For how are you supposed “to know”? Isn’t faith precisely not knowing, but believing? But the writer of Psalm 46, one of the unnamed sons of Korah, does deemphasize the Davidic idea of faith (e.g., Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God, Ps. 20:7). Rather, this son of Korah calls upon the reader to know.
And I spent a few hours this week trying to figure out how he could say that. And in my contemplations, ruminations and musings, I think I moved a bit closer to understanding what Korah’s son may mean. For I thought of you.
Not of you, in particular, but of you in general. I thought of all those people in my life who I am comforted simply to know are there. Many of these people I know in particular, others generally. I know a police officer because I bike by his house, and I sometimes wave to him as I pass by if he happens to be going out to his patrol car, which is always parked (no doubt to the delight of his neighbors and chagrin of potential burglars) prominently in front of his house. And I am comforted simply to know that he goes to work every day to protect my community. The same can be said of the small fire station that I pass on my route, though I rarely see the firemen out and about. I suppose they are in their fire station doing whatever firefighters do inside firehouses.
I do know my physician, but sadly I normally only see him when I am not at my best. Likewise my dentist seems to see me at the low point of needing a cleaning or at the yet lower point of needing a filling. And I know and am heartened to chat with the same person in the local market’s checkout line, if I happen to see that person a few times in a row. Just knowing these people are there regularly is a small source of stability in life. And when one of them passes away from this life, it is hard to take. Recently our piano repairman, Robert, died unexpectedly. He was such a nice man; he will be missed, truly so, not simply because was an adroit tuner, but because he was a good human being.
And when we lose someone close to us is without doubt the toughest thing we can go through in this life, even tougher than our own death. This week a basketball coach, Monty Williams, had to give a eulogy for his wife Ingrid killed in a car accident. It was gracious and kind, and there can be little doubt but that a small, still voice sustained him through that ordeal. For that is precisely when we need to be still, and know: His merely being there is a deeply comforting thing about God. For those who know Him may have a hard time being speechless before him, but we must know, simply know in times like that.
And even for the person who may not know Him well—perhaps this person goes to church irregularly or perhaps even regularly, but he or she might think it presumptuous to say “I know God.” Even that person or someone like that person can find some comfort in simply knowing that God exists. That there are rules that govern the universe. That these rules are not arbitrary. That we are not simply creatures of appetite. That the values that the television may enshrine as normative are in fact valueless and spiritually abnormal.
Yet what about that person who claims to know God? Well, that may at some point be the subject of another blog, a. blog that would befit not the Lenten season but rather that of Easter. For a certain someone, whom no one ever expected to see again, once boldly proclaimed that such an intimate relationship between human and divine could and really ought to exist. Yet for now I leave that aside.
And shall I conclude without acknowledging that knowing that someone is there can have a downside, too? Nay, rather, I will concede the point that sometimes simply knowing someone is out there can be a frightening thing. I say nothing of certain world leaders who threateningly put bombs on small islands or launch practice long-range missile tests or who incarcerate missionaries, not to mention those terrorist groups who proudly render families asunder, killing parents, enslaving innocent children. We have recently seen so much of that, and obviously the continued existence of such folk is unsettling. But I believe that one of the sons of Korah, a long, long time ago, offered an antidote to what was then, as now, a world of unsettling political relations and the fears that they engender, rife with wars and rumors of wars.
That son of Korah quoted Elohim himself as saying, “Be still, and know that I am God.” That is some powerful reassurance in a world of pain and uncertainty. We simply need to be still long enough to remember that God, like a police officer or firefighter or even the person in the checkout line, is there. He is there for us when we need him, and even when we do not. In the stillness, we will find him, not in the whirlwind, not in the thunder or rattling of the earth or of some petty dictator’s (or our own leaders’) saber. And with that thought, my dear reader, I leave you now: be still, and, most curiously, know…
A few years ago I subscribed to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s online version of the paper. I did it not only to read Faye Flam’s column “Planet of the Apes,” my weekly spiritual challenge workout, but also for sentimental reasons and that New Hope is in the greater Philadelphia area. Anyone who happens to have read the Curious Autobiography will be able to infer why one might feel nostalgic for New Hope. The setting of most of that book is New Hope, Pennsylvania, a place near Philadelphia and nearer and dearer yet to my heart. If you have been there, you may have at least a general impression of why that might be the case. If you have not been there and you happen to have the opportunity to go, I recommend it. It is a town of paradoxes. On the one hand, it is a very modern place, avant-garde is not a strong enough adjective to describe it. Most of the folks who live there are progressive, inclusive, sometimes open-minded to a fault; that fault, of course, is that sometimes an open-minded person becomes quite close-minded if the person with whom he or she is conversing is not as receptive to new ideas.
On the other hand, it is a very old place, a place not simply steeped in tradition but equally as much in the history that undergirds that tradition. New Hope is itself a stone’s throw away from Washington’s Crossing State Park, a place the records and preserves the memory of a vital moment in our country’s history. The Fourth of July and that holiday’s incumbent fireworks are serious things in New Hope—the entire Delaware River that separates that hamlet from Lambertville lights up with them, and they’re set off, to this day, I believe, from the bank parking lot. Never mind that the bank is now a Starbucks. It serves the same purpose as the bank, for it’s a place to bump into friends. Those would now likely be folks who used to live there and are back in town, like you, for nostalgic reasons, as the locals have all changed from the old days—well most of them. I think I saw James Martin, our famous woodworker, downtown walking his dog the last time I was there. But perhaps I did not. Perhaps that was just a vision of the old days, when I would see him nearly every day, completely unaware of the depth of his learning under the Japanese master Nakashima, or even the heights to which he had taken that learning.
Indeed, many of the old locals who still abide have migrated to Solebury, which has its own particular quaintness. Some have always lived there, but come downtown less frequently than they used to. “It’s the crowds,” Brad Livzey told me when I last saw him and asked him how often he went into town. “There are just too many people. I get down to Fran’s Pub every once in a while, but honestly, it’s just too crowded—too much traffic.”
And he’s right, all that quaintness makes for a lot of traffic. But to come back to my discussion of that series in the Inquirer to which I alluded earlier. I read it along time ago now, but it is more or less the same as all the others she has written since; in fact, I think she now longer writes it, but rather only a variation on it for another venue, eschewing, even barring God from any aspect of our existence. That article was by Faye Flam, who I imagine still writes a column on how science has solved humanity’s problems and religion and spiritual things are stuff and nonsense. But Faye is really refreshingly honest about it. I actually love that column, because in it she touches upon the question of what is a choice, when it comes to faith, and what is not. And yes, as she says there, “People of faith wonder how we nonbelievers get through the day. Sometimes I’m not so sure myself.” I think she’s exactly right. I think I respect my friends who are atheists sometimes more than those who are believers, because I don’t know how they get through the day, indeed.
That said, I thought I’d close this week’s blog with a poem, one written for none other than Faye herself. Now I am not the first to have responded to Faye’s positions, as some have done so with reasoned and passionate prose, but I may just be the first in verse. It’s a playful ditty, meant not just for her, of course, but for us all, calling us all, if we can hear the call—Faye suggest we can’t, though I suspect at some deep spiritual level (concerning the idea of free will) she is wrong—to rethink our positions. But that’s the progressive child of New Hope in me, calling on all of us to rethink our assumptions. We could be wrong, and we must admit that. Indeed, the person of faith, the normal, boring churchgoing Presbyterian or Lutheran or Catholic knows that; they fight some battle for some minor doctrinal point, about which they could have it round about and upside down. But they also know one more thing: God can’t be wrong and won’t be restrained by our faith or lack thereof. And that is, to the believer, a great comfort. That is faith.
A Letter (or Two) for Faye
Ah, Faye, it will not go away,
No matter what you say, it’s here to stay—
Faith, I mean. And like your name, Faye,
You’re almost there, but need just two letters to complete
What comes in a gentle whisper. And wouldn’t it be neat,
If you knew which two, and could do that feat,
Could make your name and all your ideas whole?
Aye, from your tongue rich and raucous laughter would then roll;
And yet, without those two, what you write is just another way to extol
Empty science, which like empty faith, is void
Of all meaning, and just gets you annoyed
and makes you feel like Sigmund Freud.
On a overcast day, when everything’s symbolic
And the best arguments are simply vitriolic
So you (and I) drink like an alcoholic.
But that’s off topic, Faye, you know,
And I just want to tell you so
About those letters—were they ‘e’ and ‘o’?
No, no, one was an ‘H’, an ‘H’ for the ‘Here I am,’
That Abram heard from the Lamb that made the ram—
The very letter that completed AbraHam.
That’s the same voice, small and still
That spoke to Moses on the holy hill
That does not compete with science but by its will
Completes it, Faye, you see. Or do you see?
The other letter’s like what St. Peter calls a tree,
But means a cross, that is, a “T”.
For on that cross, dear Faye, a bridge was built
Over the river of sin, and past the mire pits of guilt
That makes those insipid disagreements over evolution wilt
By comparison. For to compare God and science, Faye,
You know, it’s silly, really—not to take away from what you say,
Or how strongly your readers feel when they repay
Your invitation to relate their strong opinions, some “for God”
Some “against.” And don’t you find it strangely odd,
That whether we shake our head or nod,
At the end of the day, Faye, He is, like science, here to stay,
And just like science, has much to say to our tomorrow and today?
But with this difference: his is the small still voice that can add, merely with two letters, true life to Faye.