Words are powerful things. There are lots of theories as to why: a brilliant Swiss linguistic theorist named Ferdinand de Saussure suggested that they are significance bearers, and he distinguished between the signifier and thing signified. In as much as he sees the connection between the two as arbitrary, he never really explains the shape of words, like say why the word “bark” is used to describe the way a dog barks (where “woof” is obviously the onomatopoeic equivalent). But he did correctly talk about their capacity to carry a “sign” that points to the thing they are signifying.
The only way a word can lose significance then, is to strip it of its meaning by endlessly adding meanings to it. When I was a much younger person, at the very inception of my career as a writer, I remember distinctly being at a conference at Rutgers University in New Jersey where I heard one of the speakers explain this phenomenon: he pointed to a chair in the room and said that it could be called a stool instead of a chair because it could be used as a stool. A chair, he said, could also be a ladder, if you’re changing a light bulb, or a night table, if you keep your water glass on it at night. A chair, he said, is not just a chair and, he added, it can be quite something other than a chair. The word chair, he said, therefore has no meaning. Words, he declared, simply have no meaning per se. They are arbitrary; they are so flexible that they have lost their elasticity.
But he wasn’t finished. He went further: nothing, he said, has any meaning. And, he added, as a result, there are no laws or rules that pertain to any individual. All rules, he boldly added, are, like words, artificial constructs devoid of meaning. Life, he concluded, has no meaning. Such a point of view may sound like a grand reductio ad absurdum, and in fact it is. I should, too, note carefully here that this speaker was not kidding around: he actually meant every word he said. To his credit, he had followed the path whither it in fact leads, into the great abyss of nihilism.
I wonder, though, if words did have real meaning, where the path would lead. Put another way, one can see that “bark” can mean both the skin of the tree and what my dog does when a burglar jiggles the lock on my door, or “love” can signify the passionate act that a young couple makes as easily as it can connote the compassionate act of hugging a disabled elderly woman whom you’ve only just met in a nursing home. Yet even though the words “love” and “bark” have remarkable range, that doesn’t mean they are devoid of meaning. The man burgling my house, unless he is hearing impaired, decides to rob another house; (I have a Great Dane with a very deep and ferocious-sounding bark). The young couple doesn’t need to be told what love is, nor does the person in the nursing home receiving the hug. They know. They know because words do in fact have meaning. They bear significance because the thing they signify has meaning. The life of the disabled person has meaning. The passionate love of the young couple has meaning. And any burglar can tell you that a Great Dane’s bark most certainly has meaning.
So, I’m sorry to have to report to the famous lecturer of many years ago, that he was simply wrong. A chair can be used as a nightstand or a ladder, but it is still a chair. Words have meaning because, in fact, life does, too. And that, in case you were wondering, is the real meaning of a barking dog.
It is just too easy to become jaded these days. The last two blogs have perhaps revealed a bit of my personal frustration about living in an age where it seems that ideas (admittedly only ideas)—sometimes known as “values,” such as truth, goodness, justice, which Plato called the “forms”—are no longer valued by folks so much. Rather, personal goals seem to come first, no matter what they might be. In other words, what is deemed valuable is any individual’s personal agenda, and facile applause follows achieving that, with little thought given to the value of that enterprise or its value to the common good. The idea of community is lost, it seems, or at least placed far behind the notion of the individual’s personal growth, even if that growth is in a direction that just may in fact be harmful to those around that individual, or at the very least, in conflict with what had hitherto been regarded as transcendent values.
Assuming I am even partly right about what I have suggested above, then one might have every right to ask the following tough question: “How can I, in the face of changing values or, better put, the devaluation of traditional values, do or even say anything of value?” And I spent some time thinking about this very thing this week, and it came to me that there really is only one thing that one can do to make a difference in an Orwellian world such as I have described.
That difference can be traced, I’m sorry to say, to a source. I say sorry because the notion of any source aside from the individual is, these days, rather unpopular. The individual, it is believed, has the capacity and, more importantly the right, to determine for him or herself what is right, or should I say to determine what is right for him or herself. These palindromatic notions seem, as I hint at in the opening paragraph, to be essentially the same thing. But for those of us who might want to suggest a different, less popular and, yes I’m afraid traditional, perspective, we will look to find the source that I speak of.
That source is a mountain. Not one of the seven hills of Rome, not Athens Mars’ Hill, not Dharamsala in the Tibetan Himalayas, not even Mt. Zion in Israel. No, it is a much smaller “mountain,” really only a hill, one you probably have never heard of, known as Har HaOsher. It lies between Capernaum and Gennesaret, where once, it is said, were spoken by an itinerant rabbi something called the Beatitudes. These teachings can be summed up with any one of a number of quite positive words like grace, compassion, even love. Among those summary words, to me one, however, stands out: redemption. They are redemptive teachings, blessings on those who seek to practice even a fraction of them. That rabbi broke that blessing into bite-sized pieces. They’re not hard to do, they don’t lie “beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, ‘Who will cross the sea, get it and proclaim it to us so that we may follow it?’” No, “the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”
If there is a solution to a world whose values are in dissolution, then, it seems to me, that the way through the chaos may just be to speak redemption, to show compassion and kindness to everyone we encounter. That rabbi did that very thing when the world he inherited was in at least as much disarray as ours is today. He chose to bless, to redeem. Perhaps we can, too, if we put our mind to it. After all, if we look for it, that redemptive word may just be very nigh unto us, already in our mouths and our hearts. And if it is, perhaps we should just speak it, for redemptive speech might be the first step toward a better world, precisely as it was quite a long time ago on a hill in Galilee.
One might expect a blog with this title to appear around Valentine’s Day. The next major holiday, in any case, is Mother’s Day, and that’s not usually a “romantic” day—except for Oedipus, I suppose, poor fellow. Yet Mother’s Day could be romantic for the husband of the mother, that is to say the man married to the Mother of the House, for there is something quite admirable and even, I think, a bit romantic about being married to someone who has dedicated her life to being a mother.
I imagine my own wife that way—she is and will always be beautiful to me in no small part because of her unswerving dedication to our children and the family that she essentially supervises. And I would marry her all over again, if I could. And, you know, I think that’s at least a little romantic.
The word romantic nowadays would sometimes seem to have taken on a meaning quite different than what I have proposed here. In the news I recently stumbled upon an article about an actress named Anna Faris. I only mention her particular point of view because I think it is emblematic of a wider trend, not because I dislike Anna Faris—I actually have no idea who she is as I don’t watch television—but I did read that she is, perhaps ironically so, the star of a show called “Mom,” which seems apropos as we are leading up to Mother’s Day quite soon (May 13).
Anna Faris’ use of the word romantic struck me because it seemed to me off the mark, and at any rate certainly contrasts sharply with what I wrote above. In an interview of her by Erin Donnelly from a March 28th publication, Ms. Faris is quoted as having said that she is seeking to “figure out what the purpose” is of marriage is.
“Is it safety for your children? Is it convention? Is it so other people respect your relationship more? For me, I’m just not quite sure where it fits.”
But she did not end her comments there, and this is the bit that truly jumped out at me:
“I am a romantic,” she added. “I believe in a partnership, I believe in companionship. I just don’t know if I believe in a ceremony of a wedding. You’d think that having successfully married parents would increase your odds. But how we’ve justified it is trying to make something work when we weren’t sort of picking up the clues. For me, it was sort of checking it off the list.”
It is most certainly not the case that I am offended by Ms. Faris’ remarks, which for all their lack of cohesion, nonetheless make it abundantly clear that she is highly ambivalent about the institution of marriage. Rather, I just found the bit about how she is “romantic” to be rather incongruous. Isn’t romance something meant to last? Isn’t the whole idea of a romantic movie about finding a special someone with whom you can build a lasting relationship—one that will last “forever”—someone you can ride off into the sunset with, have children with, struggle through hunger, cold, and disease with, and still love at the other end of the journey. But maybe I’ve missed something. Maybe the meaning of the word romantic was transformed along the way into temporary or ephemeral or exciting but not enduring. Or maybe it just needs a qualifying adjective like “curable” in front of it. If there is an incurable romantic, surely there could be a curable one.
Yet I’ll bet even in this modern, frenetically paced, and often all-too-dispensable age in which we live, the word still has its traditional meaning. I think that for the person who is “a romantic” the notion of finding that special person still abides. That amatory affliction would, to my mind, be the incurable type, and that is how even Mother’s Day can be romantic.
Happy Mother’s Day to my wife and to all mothers. May you suffer the affliction of love, as Ovid might put it. I hope it turns out to be an incurable case.
Never until I had a balcony in Viterbo did I understand why there is an eye on a dollar bill. Now I know this connection is preposterous. I know that the reason there is an eye on a dollar bill is, conspiracy theorists attest, because the Masonic League or the Knights Templar held the image of the all-knowing eye of God to be among their most prominent symbols. I’m not so sure. However that may be, certainly the symbol intrigued Benson Lossing who crafted the seal on the dollar in the years leading up to 1856 when it was first published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. But that’s not what I mean. Rather I mean this: when you have a balcony in an inexpensive but lovely hotel in Viterbo, like the Hotel Tuscia, you see things you would never otherwise see, as if you were the eye of God.
Or, in fact, maybe you just hear them. For as I am writing this I am obviously looking at a computer screen, but I am taking in sounds, sounds coming from the nearest piazza, Piazza San Faustino, where a far from flawless cantor, if perhaps he is not so bad—he is, after all, a young man—is singing popular (I assume) Italian songs. I know enough Italian to know that most of them are about love (predictably). And I felt like, for a moment, Superman hovering over the earth and taking it all in, listening to a lone singer of love amidst a world in need of such singers, a world in need of love songs; for it is a world, indeed, in need of love.
I say this because, just after getting off the train from Rome, where I passed a lovely and culturally rich day touring the Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) and meeting a few powerful folks, a senator and a congressman—please don’t ask me how this happened; but if you want to know how things like this happen to me, read the final chapter of the Curious Autobiography, the bit on Vegas, for that should do it—I passed by the bus stop near Porta Fiorentina where a number of Africans were waiting for the bus. “Why were they waiting?” a friend of mine asked later. I tried to explain that they were likely “indentured,” a polite word for humans, in sinister wise, being trafficked. The sadness of these folks’ plight choked the culture, the richness, and the hope out of me in less than ten seconds. I wanted to stand at the bus stop with them. I wanted to play soccer in the park with them the next day. I wanted to participate in their sufferings as a little Christ, for the larger, more perfect version has more than participated in all of ours.
But that’s theology, and I don’t want to move in that direction. Rather I want to return to the singer in the piazza at the top of the block; for after a short break his song began to fill the square again. Ah, love again, and again, and again, for that is his solitary theme. Yet I couldn’t help think of the men gathering by Porta Fiorentina to ride the bus day upon day. How can I, or anyone, let them know that that same theme, if to a slightly different strain, is God’s very song, too? I don’t know. But I do know that, though I know not how, I want to participate in their sufferings that I might fill up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. Can there really be anything lacking in that? I doubt as much—but perhaps just the message, the message of the singer, not always in tune, but beautiful, as I listen to it now from a balcony of a hotel in Tuscia, fittingly named, Hotel Tuscia. In closing, let me send you some blessings from Italy, from Tuscia, a place that is not quite Tuscany, not quite Rome, but rich in lovers’ songs and offering hope, I hope, to those without any, all under the Tuscan sun, under the all seeing eye of the One who truly sees and suffers with all humankind, and all this, just under my balcony.
When I saw Daniel outside the shelter, he said to me, “Hey, it’s you again. You coming tonight, well, I think that it’s a God thing, because I was just talking about how even though I’m homeless, I still have a home. We all do, even though we’re all homeless here. We have a home in Heaven, and we have MBK, the shelter, which is a building but in it we can find a home, at least for now, by loving each other.”
I was astounded—this young man had spectacularly paid attention to, even internalized, what I had said the previous week. His summary of what I had said was spot on: that home is not a house, not a building any more than church is a building. A church comprises sainted sinners, sinful saints—hypocritical people who struggle not to become hypocrites. That’s a church, and I heard a very nice podcast about it this week, for which I’ll share a link here. A home is where there is family, and family can mean a literal family or the family of those who have the opportunity to love each other with selfless love. Home isn’t just where the heart is; home is where the heart is free to love. To love the other person, whether that person deserves it or not. Even to pray for the person next to you.
Now I imagine someone reading this might be thinking, “That’s all very noble and ideal, but in the real world it doesn’t work that way.” And he might even add, “My home isn’t ‘out of this world.’ It’s here, it’s real; it’s not some kind of fictionalized, idealized place. This world is all we have to work with, so don’t through your religious mumbo jumbo my way.”
To which, given the opportunity, I might respond, “Who said anything about the real world? I’m talking about MBK, a shelter for the homeless in central Texas. What could be less ‘real-world’ than that?”
Now I’ll be honest: I might have easily turned that sentence around and asked, “What could be more real-world than that?” And by the way I do, of course, have my own ideas of an ideal home in this life, for I grew up in an idyllic, if not idealize place, not far from where Washington once crossed the Delaware to defeat the British in Trenton. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a real home, the real home, something far greater but no more imaginary than Washington’s Crossing.
And as I went back to the MBK shelter this week, I spoke again to those folks, gently, even gingerly. For I don’t know their lives. I don’t know how they wound up being homeless. I can guess that for some of them it may have been drugs, alcohol, pornography or mental illness or, perhaps, having had to spend time in jail for some wrong they committed or at least were convicted of. Maybe, in the case of many of them, it was just plain old bad luck, a bad break at work, a bad break with or within their biological families.
But I don’t go to MBK to be anyone’s judge. I go there to share some glimpse of what life might be like for them as they learn, as I still am myself learning, to walk by faith through this dark world and wide, and find in themselves that one talent, which is death to hide, that they might serve therewith their Maker, who will not chide them. Nor shall I, for I have learned from Patience that they also serve who only stand and wait. Last night, for yet another evening, I was privileged to stand and wait with them, my homeless brothers and sisters at My Brother’s Keeper. Cain could never have foreseen what the impact of that phrase, which he uttered about his brother Abel, would turn out to be when it would, one day, adorn the front of a humble edifice in central Texas. But, after a few visits to MBK, I think I am beginning to understand.
I would love simply to have written this blog about dining out last evening at a charming restaurant in Bologna known as Osteria Broccaindosso, located at door number 7 on Broccaindosso Street (which explains its slightly difficult-to-pronounce name). I would love to tell you that I savored the best lasagna that I ever had, that the antipasto that led up to the lasagna was itself a feast, one that kept parading in waves toward our tiny table where it marched about in a ritual procession of smidgens of insalata al balsamico, miniature zucchini omelets, two super-fresh cheeses (ricotta and mozzarella) and other less easily identifiable but very easily devoured hors d’oeuvres. I would then love to have added that in fact everything in this tiny restaurant was thoughtfully prepared, delicate to the palate, and all of it something surpassing merely fresh. You would have to have performed in an Olympic triathlon to have worked up sufficient appetite to have desired, after the exquisite primo, a secondo, which I am sure would have been just as exquisite as the primo or antipasto. I would, too, have been sure to mention that the wine was an exceptionally high quality Sangiovese, a specialty of this region, rounding out the entire experience which, as by now you have ascertained, was simply remarkable. To top it off, even though both Piergiacomo (my friend who is an expert in art history, all things pertaining to Renaissance culture, and as a bonus, wine and food) and I did not ask for dessert, we were nevertheless treated to a spoonful each of the most amazing tiramisù that I have ever had—offered, no doubt, to be the final proof that we had died and gone to heaven. But I will not describe such an occasion in this blog, because it is not the time for that.
Why can I not simply focus on something so delightful? Because others have died this week, and they have died not in a world rich in heavenly virtue or even rife with restaurants like Osteria Broccaindosso, for such establishments are rare, but rather they were murdered in a world gone to hell; they were shot to death in a world gone mad. While we saw something more than merely a hate crime in Orlando this week, we nevertheless did see hate-inspired killing at the hands of someone who smugly perceived himself a warrior in a battle. Driven on by hate, he envisioned himself as a hero about to die for a cause, not merely a cause, but for him the ultimate cause. He set himself up—or was set up by other insane zealots—as judge and jury and executioner. And he had, it would seem, no problem in taking up the last of these roles.
Many atheists see religion at the base of this man’s problems. Their facile argument is, “Remove religion and you remove the source of the hatred.” I don’t think it is really worth the time to demonstrate how specious such a statement is. It is probably not even worth suggesting that it is impossible to remove from most human beings their desire to discover their humanity not by repressing their religious impulse but by exploring it. It would be asking too much of a human being to ignore the soul’s cry for God, the hope for something beyond the grave. It is too much to ask us to see everything that is amazing—from the image of a mother lovingly nursing her infant to a powerful lightning storm to the Alps to humpback whales to the less spectacular (e.g. the color blue, another beautiful sunset)—as simply coincidence. Or what about that time you needed precisely $50 to pay the rent and you uncle sent you a card out of the blue with $50 in it? Yes, someone could say that’s all coincidence, but to most of us it does not seem to be simply that. On such occasions it certainly seems to the person receiving the $50 that there is a God. It seems that he is showing his care both in the particular and in the general. One can see the latter in the provision of this marvelous paradise in which we live, even though it is beset with dangers and grave challenges.
Yet I don’t want to get into a debate about religion. Rather, I want to close by addressing the world gone mad in which we live. In such a world it is important not to assign blame fatuously. Religion alone did not cause the shooter to act on his hatred of the freedom that characterizes American culture, of homosexuality, of the western world. Rather, a specific strand of belief did, a strand of one religion, a bad and hateful strand. That shooter’s hatred was not of a particular people but of the values that enable the freedom that allowed for the club that was attacked to exist. God did not cause the massacre in Orlando. Humankind did. A single member of our human community, no doubt egged on by others, took it upon himself to advance the attack on western values. And it all happened so quickly. So many died. So great was the horror. So sad the families. So shattered the lives of those who did survive.
So where do we assign blame if we are so compelled to do so? We have identified the problem, and it is us. For my atheist friends and, for that matter, for all my friends and anyone who might be inclined to blame religion or even God, I can only say this: we live in a broken world, a world broken by our own sin. We can either crassly counter hate with hate, or we can pray for our enemies, even love them. Does that preclude defending ourselves? Of course not. But unless part of that defense is genuine love and care for those who are spiritually lost, who have fallen into a spiral of hate and destruction, we will only get so far as political solutions allow us to get. It’s not simply that religion must solve the problem that one bad strand of religion has engendered. Rather it is that God—the God who offered a sacrifice for this world’s pain and grief, who speaks love, and who by his own example teaches us to love selflessly—alone can inspire the solution. And the solution to hate is, in a word, love.
I was going to complain about the fact that these days we have crazy politics, or about how people don’t listen any more but just multitask while they talk to you as they’re doing their Facebook or email or something. Yet all that changed when, earlier this week, I read an interesting article on marriage by philosopher/author Alain de Botton in the New York Times. I was suspecting that there might be a political agenda lurking beneath the innocent sounding title. In fact, I was expecting something not exactly uplifting, e.g., Matthew Johnson’s article in the Washington Post about the toll that having children takes on a marriage (“having children may make you miserable, but you’ll be miserable together”) or Sarah Wright’s piece in the newspaper which suggests that marriage is greatly overrated and will in any case end by 2042. (I’m not sure, but I think that date is coincidentally one and the same as that on which the current reinterpretation of the Mayan calendar suggests that the world is supposed to end. )
Another article, by Eleanor Stanford, of a few months earlier in that same New York newspaper, is much more practical. Stanford suggests 13 questions you should ask before you get married. Some of them are pretty legit: “How do you feel about children?” “How do you see us ten years from now?” Yet other questions raised there seem to me to make the entire love and romance bit sound rather as if merely the establishment of pre-nuptial parameters: “Is watching pornography O.K.?” “Do we like each other’s parents?” I seriously think if you are not going to marry someone just because you don’t like his or her parents then you are probably not in love with that person. And if your potential spouse is a porn user, then I should caution you to consider that he of she is highly likely to see people merely as objects. You’ll be lucky, in the case of a porn addict, if you even rank high enough to be one such valued object; more likely, you will play the role of mommy or daddy, nagging him or her to give up his vice and behave like a proper adult. (If you are in this situation now and not yet married, I would urge you to ask yourself: “Why am I even dating this person?”)
Yet to return to de Botton’s far more sensible and sensitive commentary. The article, indeed, shows no political bias, at least as far as I could tell, no anti-marriage theme or even a hey-face it-we-live-in-postmodern-times agenda. Rather, that author insightfully explains that being married is about behaving properly—and that the traits that are best to find in a prospective spouse are that of gentleness, civility, kindness and the like. Any person you marry will let you down at some point (in fact at many points) and you will let them down, likely, at least at an equal rate—in my case, I confess, at the greater rate. I heartily recommend the article, for it is a good, if brief description of how love evolves and grows. That article stimulated in me further thought on the topic. And so I have been thinking this week about love and romance. I met my wife nearly forty years ago now and I thought in closing that I might, with her permission, share a vignette about our first meeting, which occurred in Rome.
I was drunk at the time, sitting in a hallway. She was just arriving, rucksack on her back, long evenly matched thick braids of beautiful brown hair. She was wearing a white blouse and blue jeans. Along with her friend Nancy, she bounded down the hallway to check into the dormitory that was leased from a convent of nuns dedicated to Saint Mary; the chapel is still there, as is the contiguous building that provides the seat of that study abroad program. I felt that I had seen the most beautiful person in the world. I loved her from the moment I saw her. Of course, the feeling was not mutual. It was apparent to her that I was intoxicated, and as such I was prating away, intermittently, perhaps even babbling. She looked at me with great disdain, a look I recognize even better now than then because over the years I have seen it quite often. That aside, I spent the next several months—for the program of study was a full semester term—getting to know her better and hoping to show her that I was worthy of her love. (It took a while, as I had made a rather bad first impression.)
Yet then something wonderful happened. I tricked her into going to the opera (Luigi Cherubini’s La Punition); “I just happen to have an extra ticket,” I said. Then we went out for a date “as friends” to eat Italian pepper steaks. Weeks later we tried to meet up in Athens, but could not. Then goodbye on 10 January 1980. Then a reunion in New York on 24 July (sadly, the same day the great comic genius Peter Sellers died). Then some prayers, some more getting to know each other again, and eventually she said yes. No, her dad was never fond of me; in fact, I think that he did not like me at all. And it took Elaine Jakes a long time to warm up to her, as she had always liked better the girl with whom I had been naked in the back seat of a car—a story found on pages 161–164 of The Curious Autobiography. So as for the 13 questions, no we did not ask any of them, and for good reason. We were in love.
Love isn’t a contract or a matter of aligning interests or even of checking in on each other’s flaws or checking out each other’s parents. It is, rather, a matter of growing old together aright, as Robert Browning once wrote at the opening of his poem Rabbi Ben Ezra, “Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be. …” For such growing old together to happen, one has to recognize that marriage is truly a matter of love, and love is a matter of choice—the choice to forgive, to smile, to sow seeds of joy, and to keep faith. And for that love to grow and deepen, one must carefully and thoughtfully permit it to change from mere passion to enduring compassion, from the flame of attraction to the glow of the family hearth.
Every once in a while I get the feeling I’ve been somewhere before. I am certain that you do, too, for this phenomenon is called déjà-vu, something that nearly everyone I’ve ever met has experienced at one time or other. It is the distinct feeling that you have done this exact thing, met this exact person, or smelled—and this is the strangest one—this exact smell before. In the case of the last of these, it may not be déjà-vu at all; it may be an actual memory, one unlocked by a mere scent.
In any case, what is known as déjà-vu is like, but not precisely the same thing as, what I am calling here a glimpse of heaven. Now, different cultures have (or have had) various different ideas about heaven. In Norse mythological sources, such as Eiríksmál, a tenth-century poem describing the death of Eric Bloodaxe or the Prose Edda a thirteenth-century work attributed to Snorri Sturluson, Valhalla is described as the hall of the dead, the place where those fallen in battle go after death. Buddhists hold to the notion that souls either transmigrate (a spiritual process known as metempsychosis) or, once perfected, achieve Nirvana, a state in which nothing is left but the mind itself. And, of course, both Nirvana and Valhalla have found their places in the English language to suggest the notion of a state of spiritual bliss, peace, or rest. But I do not want to address different conceptualizations about the afterlife here.
Rather I want to speak about those moments, those rare moments, when we might get a glimpse of heaven that is something like déjà-vu. It is not like déjà-vu in the sense that we feel that we have been there before. Not at all. In my experience, such a momentary glimpse of heaven always seems extremely foreign to me. No, for me it comes when I realize how very far I am from it. It normally follows a moment of self-examination or a moment of consideration of the divine.
“Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?” Such a verse, in this case from the fortieth chapter of the prophet Isaiah (v. 12) causes me to think. It makes me think of the vast difference between myself and God. Ten verses later Isaiah adds, “It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: that bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity.”
And so it goes, as the Old Testament is very clear—often frighteningly so—and quite consistent in describing the ways that people are very different from God. Yet that difference, which is far from p.c. by being frightening, is not only so; it is also quite enlightening. And that occasional burst of enlightenment is what I am speaking about when I refer to a glimpse of heaven.
But let me put it in more human terms. Imagine you are away on a business trip. While you are out of town, your colleagues are gathered around the water cooler or are off at the local coffee shop or lunch bucket and your name comes up in conversation, a possibility that may be particularly true, of course, if you hold any kind of position of authority at your work place. The truth comes out about you: you have a tendency to do X, Y, or Z irritatingly; your choice of ties or shoes or whatever you might prefer is (perhaps quite rightly) called into question. Your organizational skills are panned; your capacity for fomenting good channels of communication is criticized roundly.Worst of all, what it would most pain you to hear, your work ethic is called into question. And even though you’re not there, you know somehow this is going on; and, what is worse, you know that if they are having such a conversation, they are probably at least partially, if not mostly, right. They have seen and diagnosed the “real you” more or less correctly; and of course they have, they know you well. They know that the real you is a failure, just as you yourself know it.
Now I am not speaking to a reader who may at this point be thinking, “I am no failure. I am successful at everything I put my hand to.” If that is you, you should perhaps not bother to keep reading (even though you just ended a sentence in a preposition, so at least your grammar could be called into question). Rather, I am speaking to someone who, like me, knows that he or she is in fact the very person described in graphic detail by his friends at lunch.Now for me a glimpse of heaven can come only after I have realized that the luncheon discussion is true. Okay, perhaps not 100%; maybe you do work harder than they see, because you get up in the middle of the night to do 50 of the 100 or more or so emails you get in a day, and they don’t see that or know that you get that many emails, that you put out so many minor fires. But, if you’re honest, they’ve got at least some of the rest right. In fact, you’re not the person you want to present yourself as, as you want to seem on top of everything precisely when you feel that everything is on top of you.
And that’s when I have a feeling, a very strong feeling verging on a strange kind of knowledge of things I likely have no business knowing anything about, that the one who “hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,” even though he sees us for who we really are, loves us anyway. Admittedly, I base my opinion about this not on a hope for achieving Nirvana or a glorious entrance into Valhalla, but on precisely the opposite. I base it on the tender and broken look of a mother’s eyes. When Jesus was entering a town called Nain, he saw a widow in a funeral procession:
Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother. (Luke 7:12-15)
This widow might well have been feeling that God was punishing her for some reason or other, for in addition to her husband, she had now recently lost her only son. She probably artificially assigned fault to herself, felt guilt for being a poor mother and an inadequate wife, and probably blamed herself, at some gut level, for the death of them both. And while the lunch conversation about her would likely have been no different than that about the rest of us—as a human being she, too, no doubt had her faults—she was in no wise, of course, directly responsible for the death of either of them. And now she was alone, broken, processing forth with deep wailing, that of a mother for the loss of a child, going about the business of burying her only son’s corpse.
And just then, just then when all seemed lost and truly all was, as far as she was concerned, lost, she got a glimpse of heaven, a glimpse breaking through the dark clouds as a shaft of powerful light to touch the earth. Even though she knew who she was and even though she likely blamed herself and might even, dare I say it, have been angry at God for the death of her son, Jesus interrupted the procession.
We can at best fancifully imagine the response of the widow. Or can we? Perhaps if we have had a glimpse of heaven, a moment when we know for just a moment how rightly judged we are by our colleagues and by God but loved at least by the latter, and unconditionally so—perhaps we know the emotions, the love, visceral compassion that woman must have felt.
These, at any rate, are my thoughts on getting a glimpse of heaven. In this life heaven is perhaps more often later than now, but when it is now it comes in a kind of strange preview, one that I, at least, can handle only every once in a while.
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.
It’s that time of year again when we celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. Most won’t even think of the saint himself, not even in passing, though he enjoys a storied, if distant and rather unclear, history. A few faded details abide. A high-profile religious figure in third-century Rome, Valentine had an active faith and a fervent desire to share it with others. Imprisoned, possibly for performing Christian marriages, he was in 269 martyred for that faith during the harsh reign of the incompetent (though rugged and neatly kempt) emperor Claudius Gothicus, with whom he may have had prior personal interaction—the accounts are rather fanciful about this interaction, so I leave them aside here.
In any case, when in prison, Valentine would seem to have prayed over and brought about the healing of the jailor’s blind child. The saint was laid to rest very near the Milvian Bridge, a bridge that just a few years later would become very important in the history of Christianity. Since when I am in Rome I regularly jog over the Milvian Bridge, undoubtedly I have jogged quite unawares near the spot where the good saint was first buried. His reliquary today is further down the Tiber, nearer to its true mouth, in the Forum Boarium’s often-visited church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
But all that is history interspersed with legend. And I haven’t even mentioned the ancient Roman pagan religious festival of the Lupercalia, nor shall I, for the practical reality of St. Valentine’s Day in America is that it is a day to reflect upon that significant other person in your life, if you’re lucky enough to have one, or perhaps to entertain the idea of one, possibly even to entertain a particular person with a proper dinner and a glass of good wine, with a view to moving “idea” a bit closer to reality, as a friend of mine named Charlie recently did—bravo, Charlie! And thus, this blog, which has begun with a bit of story, moves on to reality.
I wish to address the fine points of whomever one might peculiarly love in this blog, considering virtues as stimuli of affection and true love. My thesis is simply this: the love I refer to here, both that which the person whom I shall describe gives and that which that person receives, derives from those very virtues.
I would begin with the capacity to be long-suffering. Imagine if, instead of the presentation of champagne, chocolate and roses one might think of true love as the gift of a long-suffering, gentle and gracious soul. I should distinguish here between tolerance and long-suffering grace. Tolerance really means the capacity to put up with someone. That is not quite virtue. To my mind mere tolerance suggests a temporal limit. Even a dastardly person can put up with someone pro tempore. I might tolerate swinging a kettlebell for an extended period because I know that period of swinging and the pain that it is uncomfortably engendering in my shoulders will soon end. But long-suffering grace, that’s another matter. That implies an interminable period of patience that ends with charity, forgiveness and favor. And this virtue is endearing, in and of itself. If you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life with this virtue—one that outstrips even the positive thoughts about the connection of generosity, tolerance and creativity that one might find bedecking a disposable coffee cup—then you know what I mean, and you have someone whom you can love just for being them, for being the gentle and kind soul who they are.
I would add two more such virtues. The second is metonymous with the first, but distinct from it. It is the capacity to forgive. It is connected to the word grace, mentioned above. Grace is a flexible word, derived from the Latin word gratia, with a deeper (if less obvious) Indo-European Greek root (*gwreto-) that also gives birth to the English (via Greek) charisma, and encompasses the notion not only of elegance and proper balance, such as a ballet dancer’s grace, but also, of course, of thanks, liberal thanks (cf. the liberality of the word “gratis”). If you have a person of grace in your life, particularly the lavish kind of grace, not merely the non-clumsy kind of grace, then you know what I mean. And you are lucky.
Ah, but what about the final virtue? This is a strange one, for it doesn’t have just one word to qualify it, but several words. Steadfastness is one, but another is faithfulness, and yet another confidence. If you happen to have someone who is a combination of these notions in your life, then you are experiencing something rather unique in today’s world. I’m not speaking merely of romantically faithful—though that is obviously important, especially if you’re thinking of the traditional image of St. Valentine’s Day. Rather, when I speak here of faithfulness, I am referring to the kind that is closely akin to steadfastness, the unique capacity to stay with that person in your life through thick and thin, not to lose confidence in them when the chips are down—especially when a bad decision or two by that other person has caused the chips to go down, if not the ship to go down, as well. That steadfastness is grounded in confidence, divinely inspired confidence in the other person. When you have someone in your life who won’t lose confidence in you, no matter what, that is true faithfulness. That is the steadfastness, the confidence of which I speak. If you have such a person in your life, then you know what I mean. And you are lucky.
In closing, dear reader, I wish you as much this St. Valentine’s Day. If you don’t yet have such a person in your life, may you find one. And if you do have such a person, I hope you have time to celebrate him or her and, if you have a moment to reflect on what I’ve written here, to try to be such a person. I can say that a few years back I married such a person. And if you know what I mean, then you will say that I am lucky, lucky and blessed.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart. You are the long-suffering, gracious, forgiving, steadfast and faithful light of my life. I love you for your virtues, I love you precisely for who you are.