Tag Archives: morality

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The “New” Morality

Morality has always been a problem, for each generation that has inherited it has, of course, had problems with what it inherited. Why does one have to say, “Pardon?” or “Pardon me, ma’am?” instead of just “What?” when one cannot quite hear what an older person has said?

It could quickly be objected that such a slender matter is one of decorum not morality. That may be so, but I would argue that these are not unrelated ideas. One gets one sense of decorousness (derived from the Latin decus, meaning “honor” or “dignity”) from one’s upbringing, and that is the same place whence one acquires one’s sense of morality. The word morality is, in fact, derived from the plural of the Latin word, mos, meaning “habit”; the Romans referred to a person’s character as mores, one’s “habits.” The character of a person was, therefore, reflected by the collection of his habits. Such morality for the Romans was never entirely free-standing: it was often called the mos maiorum, “the way of the ancestors.” As such, it was implicitly linked to the notion of “looking back” (the Latin respicere), from which we get the English word “respect,” which means treating those who have come before respectfully, not simply because they have given birth to you, but because they have given you your sense of decorum, have helped to shape your habits, and have handed down to you a precious moral code; and that is why you should respect them. I could end this piece right here by simply saying, “Go and think about that.”

But I want to add one more thing, of an anecdotal nature. A friend of mine was being upbraided by his own twenty-something year old child recently. The child had, wittingly or unwittingly, subscribed to the “new” morality. That morality is not inherited but is entirely derived from the individual, or the collection of a mass of individuals’ thoughts. This mass is largely sustained by social media. It is often referred to as political correctness, but that is only one limb of this monster. The new morality is founded upon the principle that the individual is the autonomous central arbiter of all questions. This can only be true, of course, if morality is shifting, nebulous, entirely a matter of grey areas. The individual determines what is right or wrong for him or her. Add to this, that the individual’s generation has its own set of values that is the collective sum of that generation’s thought, again, largely perpetuated by social media. There is no shame in this new morality, but there is “shaming,” which is what used to be called “humiliating” or “excoriating.”

For this new morality, the word character is hardly ever used and its adjectival form, “moral,” is used even less. Why? Because to do so would be to admit that there is a true standard beyond the individual’s determination of what is “right for me.” The new morality is, of course, not morality at all; It is not handed down from the ancestors; it more than touts—indeed it requires—the primacy of the individual over society; it is necessarily irreligious, though it can be “spiritual” (the preferred word). It does not acknowledge societal constraints. It often plays the victim and cannot accept being challenged. Why? The answer should be obvious: it is shallow. But, as it has no shame, it takes no umbrage at such a moniker.

So my friend’s adult child could upbraid him because my friend phrased something in such a way that the child didn’t approve of. The child told my friend that his opinion of a certain moral issue was wrong, and by implication not in keeping with the standards of the current age. And that’s where we are, in the midst of a “new” morality, shallow and devoid of shame, clear direction and, saddest of all, character. It is indecorous, disrespectful, unwittingly nihilistic and, for the most part unwittingly, embraces death. It leads to despair and chaos. Who will deliver us from the body of this death? I seem to recall the last verse of the seventh chapter of a very old epistle, written to Romans, that suggests an answer.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Coincidence and Morality

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.[1] 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.

[1] Lewis, Mere Christianity, Ch. 3, passim.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Nursery Rhymes, Aesop and the Little Red Hen

The prophet Isaiah once wrote to the residents of Jerusalem:

For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.

And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed.… (29:10-12)

When I read these verses this morning, I could hardly help but to think about the America we are living in now. I do not seek to address the political reality. That could be the subject of another blog, perhaps several. Rather, I am alluding, by a strange sort of temporal and cultural metonymy, to quite another phenomenon: our society’s loss of cadence, rhyme, literature, even story.

Isaiah is speaking specifically about the last of these contiguous ideas, the loss of story. He compares his people to someone sleeping. That sleeping man, Isaiah had said a few lines earlier, dreams that he has had a fine meal only to wake up to realize that he is still hungry. So it is with our own generation in which the dreamt-up dinner of political correctness has replaced the hearty meal of morality. Situation ethics are in vogue, though the term is but seldom used nowadays. Perhaps that is the case because the effete situation ethics that was evolving at least by the 1960s is too flexible a term for the intolerant fashioners of political correctness who want the permanence of morality but get only the ephemeral corrective, judgmental terminology that changes with the times.[1]

But to return to Isaiah’s point about the generation he lived in not being able to see, consider this: his contemporary “seers,” he says, can’t see. The message they need to heed is laid out right before them like words in a book, but that book is sealed. Thus another translation reads, “their worship … is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (NIV). They have learned rules, but they can’t read. And if they can’t read, they don’t know stories, they don’t know nursery rhymes, they don’t know that stories matter and that nursery rhymes teach moral lessons.

What stories do we need to heed if we don’t want the empty dreamt-up fodder of our “ethical” spokespersons such as Amanda Taub, who actually denies that political correctness exists or at least qualifies it as merely the demand for heightened sensitivity and recognition of the hurtfulness of microaggressions.[2] Let’s consider a few such stories; and here’s a spoiler alert—they’re loaded with micro-aggressions.

Aesop writes of the ant and the grasshopper (Perry Index, 373). The ant, of course, gathers all summer so that when the winter comes he has a great store of grain. The ant, however, asks the grasshopper, legitimately enough, whether he had gathered his own grain in the summer for the long winter. The grasshopper’s reply is that he had not but he had been busy drinking, singing and dancing. The ant’s response is micro-aggressive (at a minimum), for he states that those who sing, dance and drink away the summer will wind up starving in the winter. Not exactly the answer that the grasshopper was looking for. And just think of how this might sound to a child!

The Little Red Hen is a modern adaptation of the same story, of course, with a delightful twist that involves the denial of fully baked goods, not a mere supply of grain, to the hen’s slothful friends. And what about the boy who cried wolf, another of Aesop’s fables? (Perry Index, 210).

Illustration by Francis Barlow (1687)

In some versions of that tale not only do the sheep wind up dead, but the boy does, too.[3] Talk about an aggressive moral lesson!

And, to the politically correct person, perhaps it only seems to go downhill from there:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

What possible lessons could be gleaned from such a nursery rhyme? Is there anything? Well, yes, actually there is: first, if you’re a single mother with a lot of children and (presumably) little income, you might just have to live in tight quarters and, being poor, there’s a good chance that you will not have adequate means to feed yourself or your children well. Second, you might find yourself being short tempered from time to time—or, from the child’s point of view, you might just get a whipping if you complain about dinner. Are these the best lessons a child can learn? Perhaps not, but they are lessons nonetheless.

It might behoove us, in this regard, to realize that not all stories are proscriptive (telling you what to do) but many, like biblical proverbs, are merely descriptive (about what might happen and sometimes does and that you thus just have to deal with it). Descriptive things can be funny or at least mildly amusing and, simultaneously (and this is very important) apotropaic. Certainly that is what is meant here—if you joke about it, hopefully it won’t happen to you: you can ward it off by addressing it, at least in a roundabout, playful way. Consider another, which some say describes the Great Plague of London in the mid-seventeenth century:

Ring-a-round a rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down.

Those who accept the plague as a possible explanation for this ditty’s origin and thus interpret the poem on that basis presume the ashes refer to death, along with the falling down motion of the children playing the game. On that interpretation, the children learn that death is omnipresent—but they do so in a game and, again, probably apotropaically. If we deny our children the opportunity to deal with stark reality, in this case death, because we want our children to feel safe, when death does come they will be ill equipped to deal with it. We can’t forget the value of the ancient dictum, “Live ever mindful of death” (Persius, Saturae 5.153), a lesson that a child can learn both from the boy who cried wolf (in some versions, at least) and, if only obliquely, from the simplest song in which the children have fun dropping to the ground.

Finally, let me suggest that we should not be surprised that our stories are strange, for life can be strange, too. And we should celebrate that strangeness, perhaps, with stories that can wake us up from the slumber that Isaiah describes and can inform our ethical choices. Such discernment can last us a lifetime—but only if we heed the moral of the story.

[1] An interesting ethical dilemma is the inability to teach ethics: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/ethics-professor-almost-impossible-to-teach-class-anymore-because-students

[2] One might also find interesting this article on how a reaction to political correctness helped to elect Donald Trump: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/30/political-correctness-how-the-right-invented-phantom-enemy-donald-trump.

[3] This occurs in John Hookam Frere’s Fable 3 (http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/fable-3-boy-and-wolf).

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The French Underground

french-resistance-monument
Monument to the French Resistance, Chartres

In the 1940s the term “French Underground” was akin to the French Resistance, which operated underground mostly in a figurative sense—je ne dis rien du égout ou catacombes parisennes. The Resistance sought to help the allies drive the Germans out of Paris, out of France altogether. The French had become strangers in their own land, working against an evil government that had wrongfully appropriated their own country, wrongfully appropriated their principal city, and in many cases, their goods, their livelihoods. There were reports of women raped, houses looted, automobiles confiscated. What had been theirs before was theirs no longer. So the ablest and bravest among them went underground to work against the foe.

When I was in Paris this time—I just got back from Europe two days ago, only to discover Donald Trump surprisingly having been elected to become the forty-fifth president of the United States—I experienced a different kind of French underground, though the more I thought about it, the less different it seemed. I had been invited by a dear friend named Maria to join her in visiting a church that she was familiar with but that she had hitherto herself never visited. The reason for that was, oddly enough, because she is a member of a home church group, metaphorically speaking its own kind of underground movement.

The church we attended was no more an edifice than Maria’s home church. Rather, it met in the basement of an office building, which, I am assuming, they either rent or are granted access to because someone in the group works for the company that owns the building. In any case, entering the church was strangely and wonderfully covert. A woman met us in the street. “Are you Maria?” she asked.

Oui,” I answered for both of us, but the woman looked at me in a puzzled fashion, at which point, of course, I directed my gaze and my index finger toward the real Maria.

Satisfied, as if we had given some coded response to a coded answer, she led us inside, through a courtyard, down some stairs where we were met by another Christian, who led us down yet another flight of stairs under the courtyard to thtea-and-cookiee rather ordinary subterranean room that served as a makeshift triplex of narthex, nave and apse, though it itself was but a relatively small square room. A table held a few items associated with Christianity—a party string with the name J-E-S-U-S in gold-colored letters hanging from it, a cross, and some brochures, I think, along with cookies and a coffee pot for the after-service fellowship, which really was more like an after party and went on quite a long time. There I was delighted to meet a charming, young Russian woman studying hotel management in Paris. I would love to tell you more about her but I can’t, as she is member of the Resistance.

Before that, of course, the service itself was held. It began with a prayer, a few minutes for a friend of Maria to share about God’s recent provision of a job and His general sovereign kindness in her life, and lots of singing; several contemporary hymns in both French and English; more of the former, of course. Then, after several such lively hymns, another prayer and a sermon—a good but rather long one—on Martha and Mary. This theme was familiar to me and perhaps to a few others, though probably not as familiar to all, as the congregation there was very young and they had surely not heard as many sermons as I have. At the end, another prayer and that was it. No, I was not expecting any liturgy—quel dommage—but yes, I was expecting another hymn to end the event. But there was none. De gustibus non

Yet now I return to how this French underground church, quite literally underground, is akin to the French Underground of the occupation of France during the Second World War. Hitler’s idea had been to appropriate the beauty of France—indeed he looted many city’s artistic treasures and had them brought to Berlin or held in other secret locations in Germany. He wanted to take what was great about France from the French, make it his own, and force the French, the rightful owners of their own country, their own democratic government, their own staples of wine and cheese, and their own rich artistic cultural heritage, to serve the German government, to serve the German people, and ultimately to serve Adolf himself.

And that is precisely what has happened to Christianity in France. Secularism has taken from it some form of morality, has taken from it ideas whose origins, in purest form, are the property of the church—such as the concepts of true and unadulterated justice, honor, freedom—and degraded them. Then, secular society there (and, by the way, in my own country and many other lands as well) twists the moral code to fit its own purposes. It starts by appropriating the church’s language, the language of love. It redefines love so that it primarily means sex. It reconfigures the term “family” so that it means virtually anything at all, it corrupts fairness, it restricts parental responsibility, and it redefines even (and perhaps especially) the word recreation, which now comes to serve as a way of obviating someone of responsibility (to wit recreational sex, recreational drug usage) cocaineinstead of it meaning what it is supposed to mean: re-creation, refreshing behavior. (The image that occurs to me when I hear the phrase “friends with benefits,” for example, is far from refreshing.) And that is but the tip of a very, very deep iceberg, when it comes to the pillaging of the church by secular society.

And that is why the opportunity to worship with the new French Underground was so exciting, even if the lack of liturgy (and likely deficiency of appreciation of church history that is incumbent upon such a dearth) and the absence of traditional hymnody are not to my taste. Still, the entire event was pure excitement for me, for I felt as if, at least just for one day, I was participating in that movement against the secular regime and its ultimate power structure, for which, unlike John Milton and Mick Jagger, I have little sympathy.

And all this happened just a few days before Mr. Trump was elected. In regard to him, let me share in closing a small warning that I was asked to bring back from France. The French have jestingly told me that, if he misbehaves as president of the United States, they plan to change the spelling of the word tromperie, which ironically means “deception,” to trumperie. Or maybe, though it is difficult for them to pronounce the ‘h’ sound, they will call Airforce One “Hairforce One.” Yet the church I visited is not wofrench-resistance-radio-largerried about the guile or rabid, grasping secularism of humankind, for in the midst of this new conflict with the society around them, they have a means of communication with their own true Leader, as if by a wireless telegraph machine that allows the new French Resistance to communicate with the allies or at least their principal Ally.  That communication begins  two flights underground but can be heard in the Highest of Realms, whence that Leader replies in His own coded messages. It was indeed a delight to join the French Resistance for one day and to hear those wireless messages going back and forth. Vive la Resistance, et vive le Roi vrai!hair-force-one

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Serendipity

In a blog on serendipity, nothing can strictly be off topic, if the blog is to be true to its title. Thus, let us begin with something seemingly off-topic, though really not, but at the very least thoroughly recherché, the term “serendipity” itself. That word enjoys an etymology owed, it seems, to a single person, the fourth Earl of Orford, architect/author Horace Walpole, known perhaps more for his literary production (the towering The Castle of Otranto, the outdated On Modern Gardening, and the puzzling Hieroglyphic Tales) than the ripest fruit of his architectural achievements, Strawberry Hill.

Horace Walpole, 1717–1797
Horace Walpole, 1717–1797
Castle at Strawberry Hill
Castle at Strawberry Hill

That selfsame Walpole famously said, “The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel” and, at some point between Otranto and Gardening, he chanced to write a letter to Horace Mann, in which he coined serendipity as a new word based on a Persian tale he had read entitled, “The Three Princes of Serendip.”

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

In that work, the protagonists journey through life, ever coming upon more than they have bargained for or are seeking in their quixotic wanderings. Their origin was of Sri Lanka, whose archaic name is recorded in the tale as Serendip (a name that itself is a corruption of a Sanskrit word meaning “Lion’s Island”).[1]

Serendipity seems to me rather like luck or fortune. The former is derived from a Germanic root (cf. German Glück), while the latter comes from an Italic root (cf. Latin fortuna). The Germanic tribes did not seem to have a deity exclusively for fortune or luck—as close as they would seem to have come was Woden, whose chance contribution to our culture shows up only on Wednesdays—but the Romans did: they had Fortuna, “Lady Luck” herself. And those who worshiped her above all, no doubt wanted luck on their side, the way that a modern-day gambler does. DiceAs it is not uncommon to find a restaurant called “Serendipity,”[2] (it obviously would seem to have chiefly positive connotations in English), one does not often find a restaurant called “Luck” or “Lucky Food” (though it is possible).[3]

And as for “fortune,” that word is quite often associated with fortune tellers, whose job description is a discursive construct since the very notion of predicting luck seems impossible when one thinks hard about it; but I’m probably overthinking it now—even if it did, in fact, occur to me when I was being raised as a lad by Elaine Jakes. Elaine did not often consult a fortune teller—though she enjoyed the occasional séance and adored a certain card reader/teller of fortunes, Leni Fontaine, the remarkable artist to whom an entire chapter of the Curious Autobiography is dedicated—but she was just as curious about her own future as the next person. Yet she knew, in the end, that such predictions were rather unreliable.

The Rabbi, oil on canvas by Leni Fontaine
“The Rabbi,” oil on canvas by Leni Fontaine

So what about “chance” then? Well, I don’t pretend to have the final word on that and would enjoy hearing from my readers about it, along with its especially enjoyable cousin, serendipity. Now, while chance may seem contrary to there being a purpose and plan for life—witness the recent tragedy in Tianjin, whither our prayers go—serendipity perhaps is something we can agree on, for it is that kind of chance that, as we said in a previous blog,[4] can make life quite delightful.

I’ll close with an example: a few years ago my dear pastor’s wife, Karen, prayed a prayer I wish she had not—that I would have a good conversation on an airplane about things that matter. I told her I like to write on airplanes, and that I did not want to be disturbed. Yet her prayer somehow produced the serendipity of me sitting next to an effusive, slightly overweight, partially open-shirted (hirsute, with beard and chest bearing prandial vestiges), and well-blinged practitioner of a modern age religion that will remain nameless.Dragon necklace

The serendipitous conversation was tragic, in a way, yet also a bit hilarious—at least for the couple behind us. My seatmate began the conversation by telling me that his dragon—a metal dragon figurine dangled from a necklace about his neck—liked me very much. He pulled its chain toward me and made the dragon kiss my shoulder. I told him that was nice, but I liked to write on airplanes. Undaunted, no doubt because of Karen’s prayers, he went on to tell me that in the practice of his new religion he was permitted, even encouraged, to meet via the internet women of the same religious order and arrange a rendezvous with them in another city in order to effect a sexual encounter. This, he told me with great delight, was in fact ritually a part of his religion, and that he could barely wait to get to Atlanta to for that tryst. It was sanctioned, he told me, or at least tolerated for religious reasons, also by his wife, who, though she did not avail herself of the possibility, was permitted freely to do the same thing with other men.

He also told me about his family life in some detail. He and his wife were having marital problems and were facing the possibility of bankruptcy; he had lost his job; his wife seemed strangely to have contracted an STD—though he did not have it, he assured me—even though she claimed that she was not sleeping with other men. His children were not doing well; his eldest, a son, had recently dropped out of community college, and simply remained at home with no job and no prospects. “Such are the times,” he quipped. In short, by his own admission, it seemed that his life was in shambles; yet, at least now he could live for pleasure’s sake and not have to suppress who “he really was,” which he said that he had been doing up until he joined the religious movement.

Each time I gingerly inquired of him about the details, the couple behind us cheered me on and did so more as the conversation proceeded. I asked him how long he had been in his religious group.

“Four years,” he said, “Four years of pure pleasure with arranged (yet random) sexual encounters.” Then he added, “Serendipity. I find my lovers serendipitously on the web.”

“How long have you been having financial problems?” I queried.

“Hmm, well, it started a few years back. I think about three and a half or four years.”

“How long has your son been having trouble in school?”

“Not just my son, but my daughter, too,” he added. “Like him, she’s doing drugs; Maryjane would be okay with me, but she’s using Molly.”

“How long has this been going on?” I asked, playing the role of psychiatrist/counselor as I added, “How old his your daughter now?”

“Let’s see,” well, she’s 16.” He said; then he added, “Well, I think, about three or four years.”

“She started using Molly at age 13? And what about your son?”

“No, I think she was 14. He’s two years older. He is into heroin. He dropped out of college. He lives at home.”

“Now, let’s review,” I said after an appropriately austere pause. “You’ve been in this religious order for four years?”

“Yes.”

“And your kids have been having trouble about three and a half years or so?” At this point, though my seatmate seemed oblivious to it, the cheering from the seat behind me erupted in full.

“And your marital and financial troubles started about then?”

“Yes,” he said. “I think my kids have been stealing from us to buy drugs. My wife and I only use weed.”

“Do you think all the airline tickets and the money you spend on marijuana, too, could be contributing to your financial problems?”

“Maybe. But it’s a part of our religion. And I love it.”

“Pity,” I said, “Because I know a way out, friend.”

“I know, it’s your morality, your social justice.”

“No, it’s not morality. Morality is simply a road map; it is not the stuff needed to make the human machine run,” I said, paraphrasing probably unfairly C. S. Lewis: “morality and social justice are good only as far as they go. The machine can go a few feet, but then it konks out. There is another way out, …”

At this point I began to try to embark on the difficult task of explaining my personal view of faith before he saved me the trouble—in any case, we were beginning our final descent—“I don’t want a way out,” he said. “Not for me at least.” (At this statement a stentorian chorus of boos arose from the seat behind, and possibly even from the seat behind that one, as well.)

The conversation ended with the ominous warning to ascertain that our seatbelts were buckled and to stow away all devices, etc. ending, I suppose, where it began with an assurance that even though I “found a higher moral purpose in life” and even though I “was a church-goer” (his words, not mine), his dragon still liked me.

And thus it was that he went on to his serendipitous rendezvous, and I to my own business. Yet I have never forgotten this, for it seemed to me that in this seemingly random meeting on the airplane there was a purpose. Perhaps one day this man will discover the stuff a human being needs to run on, the only safe way out of his “morality-free” lifestyle. Perhaps. And perhaps the couple behind me remembers this strange experience, and chuckles about it from time to time. I have derived my own lessons from that Walpolian moment, both tragic and comic at once, not the least of which is to be careful what I (or, in this case, my pastor’s wife) might wish for, for this experience alone would suggest to me that the prayer of a righteous woman is powerful and effective, able to arrange even a strange cheer-mustering, dragon-kissing moment of serendipity.

 

[1] Wendy Doniger, Hidus: An Alternative History (Oxford, 2010): 665.

[2] Or, at least, “Serendipity 3.”

[3] In Texas, of course, at least one such restaurant does exist: “Luck”; there is also a “Joy Luck,” though its website suggests otherwise, no doubt modeled on one of my favorite books, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.

[4] Last week’s blog, “Unexpected Surprises and Il Commune.”