Who Shall Declare His Generation?

“As when our ship is near shore, and cities and ports pass in view before us, that on the open sea vanish and leave nothing to fix the eye on, so the Evangelist here [“In the beginning was the Word”] takes us with him in his flight above the created world, leaving the eye to gaze upon emptiness and an unlimited expanse…”

John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John 2.9, as cited in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture 4, 7.  Chrysostom describes the sensation of trying to comprehend the idea of preexistence of the Word, in the Prologue to the Gospel of John.  Commas added for clarity.

Peace on Earth and War in Heaven

Unless we understand the presence of that enemy, we shall not only miss the point of Christianity, but even miss the point of Christmas.   Christmas for us in Christendom has become one thing, and in one sense even a simple thing.  But like all the truths of that tradition, it is in another sense a very complex thing.  Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of many notes; of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and of drama.  It is not only an occasion for the peacemakers any more than for the merry-makers; it is not only a Hindu peace conference any more than it is only a Scandanavian winter feast.  There is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won.  All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only hangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapour from the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago.  But the savour is still unmistakable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word peace.  By the very nature of the story the rejoicings in the cavern were rejoicings in a fortress or an outlaw’s den; properly understood it is not unduly flippant to say they were rejoicings in a dug-out.  It is not only true that such a subterranean chamber was a hiding-place from enemies; and that the enemies were already scouring the stony plain that lay above it like a sky.  It is not only that the very horse-hoofs of Herod might in that sense have passed like thunder over the sunken head of Christ.  It is also that there is in that image a true idea of an outpost, of a piercing through the rock and an entrance into an enemy territory.  There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world; of shaking the towers and palaces from below; even as Herod the great king felt that earthquake under him and swayed with his swaying palace.

G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 1955 Image Books edition (New York, NY:  Image Books 1955 [originally published by Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1925]), 179-80.

“After Embracing the Homeless Woman…”: A Phenomenological Reading

One of the great privileges of listening to the voices of others is the double vision it offers on our own lives.  We enjoy rare glimpses, skeptics be darned, into the minds of others.  And it’s hard to say, when glimpsing, which is the more valuable sight:  seeing what your friend sees, or seeing how your friend sees. Megan Wildhood’s “After Embracing the Homeless Woman Selling Papers” is such a glimpse.  We are honored to share it with you until it finds its own warm home in paper pages:

her gloveless hands presenting dusty news

her crisp brown eyes rising and quickly plummeting to her graying sneakers with each     

     squeaky swipe of the automatic doors as shoppers exit, heavy bags swinging from

     their elbows

this word in front of that word that you hear yourself say to her

 

we suffer

when we believe in things

we do not understand

 

the outsideness of her world to you

that you can never know if you feel warmth the way she does, too small for her thin,   

   dull-brown coat – and her body, especially her eyes –

that it was you who needed the hug

 

and when we do not quite believe in

people, places or things,

it is not quite suffering

 

the creases clawing at the corners of her eyes

the smile she gives you as she tells you about the slow death of her cat,

   which was outside with her always, and great on a leash without ever being trained

how you reached into and then out of yourself to get that hug

 

but if we are very certain that a person, place or thing

is something else, then we should use a metaphor –

like hugging that cat-less woman was a very full grocery bag –

 

then again, though, what is a better metaphor

for suffering than itself standing on its own two tired feet

holding you with its own two gloveless hands

 

The work is a poem within a poem, which layers the author’s experience.  The experience itself appears in stanzas 1, 3, and 5, and in stanzas 2, 4, and 6 we receive something of the theoretical reflection behind the curtain.  Form is reflecting content here.  The first layer relays the author’s experience in an angular series of sentences and verbal phrases that do not give the reader a direct grammatical bridge from one to the next.  By contrast, the second layer relays the author’s cognitive processing of that experience, either at the moment or perhaps later.  And that second layer is given in one long sentence:  “we suffer / when we believe in things…grocery bag”  The poem reveals to us a movement of thought as much as a movement of arms.  It is the inflection point where fluid experience crystallizes into a piece of determined belief.

More precisely, that inflection point happens in stanza 7.  Based on the content, we infer that stanza 7 is linked to 2, 4, and 6 as the concluding thought.  But that would be too quick.  Two cues indicate that stanza 7 is actually the crossing of the roads.  First,  each of 2 and 4 ends in a thought transition.  Both 2 and 4 could be punctuated with colons, leading on into 3 and 5.  But this is not so with 6 and 7.  The lines in stanza 7 do not have the parallelism to be sprouts from 6.  Second, the repetition of “gloveless hands” (of which there are a pair) is an indicator that stanza 7 shares the status of stanza 1.  Third, the use of the pronoun “you” is reserved for stanzas 1, 3, 5, and 7, whereas 2, 4, and 6 use the pronoun “we.”

In addition to structuring the poem itself, stanzas 2 and 4 structure the angular verbal phrases of 3 and 5.  As noted above, 2 and 4 could end in colons, thereby organizing the lines of 3 and 5 into parallel structures:  “we do not understand:  the outsideness of her world to you.  we do not understand:  that you can never know if you feel warmth the way she does…”

The poem concludes by identifying the homeless woman with suffering.  This identification points to the great enigma of this poem:  its pronouns.  There are “we,” “she/her,” and “you.”  She/her is always the homeless woman.  “You” is the author herself.  But who is the “we” that appears in the voice of reason, the voice of stanzas 2, 4, and 6, who disappears when reason collides with experience in stanza 7?  Does “we” represent some fictitious pretense of objectivity that resides in reason before it meets experience?  Or does “we” represent the author and the reader, whose own experiences the author implicates?  Is “we” therefore a call to action to the reader who has hugged some other Suffering?

We’ll never know.

On Stumbling

 

The mind of the one who loves God does not engage in battle against things nor against their representations, but against the passions joined to these representations.  Thus it does not war against the woman[ or man whose figure tempts it,] nor against the one who offends [it], nor against their images, but against the passions that are joined to these images.  The whole war of the monk against the demons is to separate the passions from the representations.  Otherwise he will not be able to look on things without passion.

Maximus the Confessor, “Four Hundred Chapters on Love” 3.40-41, in Maximus the Confessor:  Selected Writings, trans. George Charles Berthold, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ:  Paulist Press, 1985), 66.

Here Comes the Sun

Just as the sun in rising and lighting up the world manifests both itself and the things which it lights up, so the sun of justice in rising on a pure mind manifests both itself and the principles which have been and will be brought to existence by it.

Maximus the Confessor, “Four Hundred Chapters on Love” 1.95, in Maximus the Confessor:  Selected Writings, trans. George Charles Berthold, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ:  Paulist Press, 1985), 45.