‘the time that is given to us’

Eight years and (almost) three months ago, a friend posted on Facebook that he thought Sauron had acquired the ring. That was November 4th, 2008. I made light of it, as I recall, and we had a brief exchange in which he reminded me how important politics is, and I reminded him that no person is evil through and through in the way Sauron is.

I have thought a lot about that exchange since November 2016. My utter failure to understand how anyone so like me could think so differently about Barack Obama has come back to me. Here we were, two people with quite similar backgrounds and formed in Christian faith during our college years by some of the same people. And yet, I was celebrating and he was thinking the world was ending. The shoe is on the other foot now.

Not only that, but I have spent the last eight years abroad, for the most part, living in England. Brexit was as much of a shock as the election in November. My only observation regarding the similarity of the two events is that the remain campaign and HRC’s campaign each had an element of “don’t be ridiculous” about them. I’m no pundit, though, and I haven’t much further comment to make on that. In both cases, I was persuaded by what would end up being the losing side, and I quite honestly failed (once again) to see what good anyone really believed would come from leaving the EU or electing Trump. I’ve never been one for politics, so maybe it’s just me. But the unthinkable happened on both occasions, so maybe my ignorance is not unusual.

All that to say, I am certainly not a person to offer some astute comment on the situation. Still less can I predict what will happen, or give reasons for hope (or despair). What I can do is return to Tolkien, to a moment very near the beginning of the story of the destruction of the ring.

“But last night I told you of Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord [says Gandalf]. The rumours that you have heard are true: he has indeed arisen again and left his hold in Mirkwood and returned to his ancient fastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor. That name even you hobbits have heard of, like a shadow on the borders of old stories. Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.”

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us…”

This is perhaps the hardest thing of all: not having any say about what time is given to us. We cannot decide what we live through, nor how long the times will last, nor what good our little work may do. Later in the story (in a passage I’ve not yet come to in my  re-reading), Gandalf says that the small acts of courage and faithfulness are the ones that save the world. Of course it’s more eloquent and nuanced in Tolkien’s rendering. I’ve no gift at all, can barely string together a sentence, compared to Tolkien. But it is true nonetheless, that the small acts of kindness and love that shape mere moments do not disappear into some vast ocean of darkness and cruelty–much as it often seems to me in my despairing moods. No, Tolkien is right: the small acts of goodness, those that seem insignificant and powerless, do something.

These are the times that are given to us, whether we believe that Sauron is closing his fist on the one ring, or whether we think that the Shadow has been (for now) defeated. If there is to be any “growing good” of the world (as George Eliot puts it in Middlemarch), it will depend on the most hidden acts of love, hope and courage.

March. Protest. File writs. Or take the other side, if you must. But in all that you do, in all for which you strive in these times, do not forget the kindness to a neighbour, or to a stranger, that makes an imperceptible but no less important difference.

For the truth is, as I have said here before (I’m sure), that the world is constantly changing, in every moment, with every action. Hidden self-sacrifice and quiet integrity resist the forces of darkness and cruelty just as surely as public acts that look good on social media. And kindness costs nothing. We don’t have to pass the bar, we don’t even have to be having a particularly good day. We can still be kind. This is the time that has been given us. Right now.

All we have to decide is what to do with it.

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David Foster Wallace and the practice of love

A few years back, I posted about David Foster Wallace. Having just (a bit behind the times, admittedly) listened to his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, I was taken by his candour and sensitivity. Where is he now? I immediately began to search the internet. And then, of course, I remembered my first introduction to David Foster Wallace by a colleague, who told us that Wallace had committed suicide. A very bright light has been extinguished.

Last year, I published an essay in Church Life, which has just been re-issued on their new website. Reading it over again–because David Foster Wallace is so compelling–I am once again floored by his insight, wit, and sensitivity. I give thanks for his life, and grieve his tragic death all over again. Also, I give you the link to the essay, in case you want to know what David Foster Wallace implies about the practice of love in that commencement address now more than ten years old.

I know my readers are few and my followers even fewer. I give thanks for all of you today.

Deo gratias.

Wednesday of the 31st week in ordinary time

The Lord is my light and my help;
  whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
  before whom should I shrink?

I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness
  in the land of the living.
Hope in him; hold firm and take heart!
  Hope in the Lord!
                                      Ps 27 [26]

*          *         *

What if the darkness, the enemy, is not on the outside? I don’t have enemies. Nobody wants to hurt me; I don’t have anything to fear. Not really.

Probably this is the case for lots of us. I have been reading Henri Nouwen on spiritual formation, and have just finished a section on fear, and the sorts of things we fear. Loneliness, failure, and poverty seem to top the list. Mental illness, though, might figure in somewhere. Depression and dementia threaten us from the inside, as it were, robbing us not of possessions but of our very selves. About dementia, I know little. About depression, I know way more than I want to. I know how depression eats away at hope and cripples love.

Knowing that “I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living” somehow fails to lift the darkness and gloom. As surely as I know it, and as firmly as I believe it, making the step from knowledge to hope is well nigh impossible. It is as though there is a black hole where joy and peace ought to reside, swallowing every tiny ray of light that comes near it. I can stand outside myself and see that the sun is shining, that I have everything I need, that I am loved by God and by my family. All these things ought to lift the darkness. But no: the blackness eats up all the comfort that this knowledge ought to provide.

The darkness comes from the inside and works its way out–in impatience and sullen silence, in not-caring and not-doing. I can see it seeping through the cracks, however much I would prefer to keep it to myself. I ask my soul, “why are you downcast?” and “why so disquieted within me?” I say, “Hope in God, for again I shall praise him!” I know it to be true, however little consolation it brings.

I dwell sometimes in darkness. That is just the way it is. Fortunately I have been up and down enough that at the bottom I can still just remember that it isn’t always like this. For that, and for the psalms, which have been my truest companions since I was a teenager (somehow reminding me that darkness is not my only companion), I am grateful. Because of the psalms, the thought comes unbidden (or is that the Holy Spirit?): “the darkness is as light to thee.”

So I wait, brooding, for the ‘fiat lux’ and for the dawn.

Deo gratias.

Tuesday of Holy Week

Though I thought that I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
Yet my reward is with the Lord: my recompense is with my God…
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
                                                                        Isaiah 49: 3-6
A hermit was asked by a brother, “How do I find God? With fasts or labour, or vigils, or works of mercy?” He replied, “ you will find him in all those, and lso in discretion. I tell you many have been very stern with their bodies,  but have gained nother by it because they did it without discretion. Even if our mouths stink from fasting, and we have learnt all the Scriptures, and memorized the whole psalter, we may still lack what God wants, humility and love.”
                                                                        (DF 111)
.                .               .
Isn’t it the measure of humility to think we have not achieved anything? Isaiah reflects on precisely this predicament: ‘I thought that I had toiled in vain’; that all was for nought. But it is in the acknowledgement that all he can do is work ‘uselessly’ that he finds the truth: recompence is with God. Because it is God’s will that God’s salvation reach the ends of the earth, God makes something of out otherwise useless toil. So, as the hermit says, all the fasting and prayer avail us nothing without the marks of true participation in the Spirit—humility and love. And what a good and timely word for this, the last week in Lent. We have fasted and abstained, we have spent time in Scripture and in prayer, we have done works of mercy. But what do we gain by it all? Nothing, so long as we expect the work to get us somewhere. The object of all the Lenten discipline we choose to bear is nothing more or less than the deepening of humility and the widening of our love.
Humility and love should point us towards the cross, where Christ’s humility is displayed in the utmost submission, and his love is extended even in his suffering: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Humility and love: forgiving before the repentance, before the acknowledgement of sin. Jesus shows us pure forgiveness, which is the way of humility and love. And so I find myself coming around again to forgiveness, although it appears nowhere in the lectionary readings for today; it is nevertheless what the Lenten season is all about: humility and love.

Tuesday of the second week in Lent

You do this, and I should keep silence?
    Do you think that I am like you?
A sacrifice of thanksgiving honours me,
   and I will show God’s salvation to the upright.
                                            Psalm 49 [50]: 21, 23

.        .       .

‘Do you think that I am like you?’ Too often, yes, I do think exactly that–that God is like me, like a human being. I mistake God for a finite being, whose love has limits, who can be offended in a way that makes forgiveness difficult. But God isn’t like that. As one translation of the Benedictus has it, ‘through the bottomless mercy of our God / one born on high will visit us’.

I like that. God isn’t like us. God’s mercy is ‘bottomless’–an inexhaustible reservoir of love and forgiveness. In my finitude, I run out. I run out of patience; my will to forgive fails. Bitterness creeps in, and resentment, too. But God has none of that: only love, and mercy, and patience, and compassion. I bring my failings and disappointments to God, and receive in return grace, and delight, and joy.

That doesn’t sound very Lenten. But all the penitential practices of Lent aim precisely at this goal: to make space for that joy and delight that should fill our hearts at Easter.

Monday of the second week in Lent

But yours, O Lord, are compassion and forgiveness.
Deuteronomy 9
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Stop judging, and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning, and you will not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you,
a good measure, packed together, shaken down,
and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.
Luke 6
Abba Hyperichus said, ‘It is better to eat meat and drink wine and not to eat the flesh of one’s brothers through slander.’
    .          .         .  
All the Lenten discipline in the world is nothing if by it we do not become more merciful, forgiving and compassionate. Our penitential practices have an aim: imitatio Christi. By the fasting and almsgiving, devotion to prayer, and the like, we do not merely satisfy a requirement of Christian faith. It isn’t about what we give up, but who we become in the process. To be more like Christ is the object of all we do during Lent; we model our own lives after the life of the one who, dying, said, ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.’ We open ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit, who was given to the disciples (according to John’s gospel) by the breath of the risen Lord. What power comes from the Spirit? Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”
            So very important—forgiveness is so important that it is the one thing Jesus speaks about when he breathes the Holy Spirit onto his disciples. It is so important that we commit oursevles to it every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, however unthinkingly: ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ We imitate Christ by forgiving, and plead for the Father’s forgiveness. I like to think of God’s forgiveness as always preceeding, and I believe that in a very real sense it always is. But the Lord’s prayer reminds us that receiving God’s mercy does not leave us unchanged. By becoming forgivers, we become part of the answer to our prayer, ‘thy kingdom come’. For he is the Forgiving King who reigns in love and compassion, who is love and compassion, and who lives in us. Lenten discipline is about breaking the chains that bind us to anger and resentment, that limit the flow of forgiveness from the Lord through us to those He came to save.

Our Father…

Thursday after Epiphany

We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.
 

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world-our faith.

1 John 4:19-5:1-4 NASB
 
 
I included the whole passage because I find it puzzling. At first, I thought I would just reflect on the first verses. These, to me, have a clear application. And their application fits nicely with the things I am thinking about at the moment, to do with the Church and the kind of love that marks the Church as the body of Christ. See? Here it is: the love for brothers and sisters in Christ (at least) is what identifies us as Christians. The verses in 1 John don’t offer any provisos that would allow us to choose which brothers and sisters to love–only those who love us, or think like we do; or only those who are able-bodied, or of sound mind. The only possible qualification is that we love the ones we see. But I am not sure that counts, exactly.
 
I like this, because I am writing about the Christian calling to love the poor and the weak. I would like to say that the measure of the Church’s love and holiness is the way she receives those who suffer and are in need, those who the world says have nothing to offer. That’s because the world doesn’t understand that Christ offers himself to us in the broken and the desperate, that we might receive Him. We cannot see God, but God has made us in his image, and in Christ God has shown himself truly and fully. God came to us poor, and still comes to us poor: we are to receive him with love.
 
But what about this business about the commandments? I would have thought that we would be able to tell that we love the children of God pretty straightforwardly. Isn’t it obvious that we can tell that we love by our demonstrations of that love? Apparently not. I suspect that there is a lot more to this passage than I yet realize, and it is worth a great deal of unpacking, so I will make just one observation (which is also related to the Church). Loving the children of God is not not about those actions that show love. It is about more than those actions. If I am grasping this accurately, keeping the commandments is also about integrity and holiness. Loving the children of God and living in sin are incommensurate, maybe even mutually exclusive. There is no ‘private’ sin, sin that only affects us. When one member suffers, the whole body suffers. That’s a mystery; that is, we don’t know how the sort of sin that seems just to be between ourselves and God affects the whole body. How does such sin impair our love for the children of God? (Maybe all sin has a horizontal dimension?)
 
However such seemingly private sin weakens the whole body, it is a sobering thought, and one that makes me more eager for the sacrament of reconciliation and the renewing of the Holy Spirit. For though it is hard and serious news, it is still, after all, good news: Christ came to save sinners.
 
Deo gratias.