A Desert Father Looks Back

“. . . as if religion were a state of shock,
deep, peaceful shock, that . . . men like these
are driven into by the spectacle of reality.”

–Peter Matthiessen in The Cloud Forest

Lacking a living body, the true cross shivers
And forms a dark ice. God is driven out
Of the churches back to the hidden groves and rivers,
The old sanctuaries. Still, though stiff with the grout
Of habit in all their joints, they form on the pews
For the holy days, to pray and small-talk grace
While the plugged organ trembles the religious blues.
I’ve sat among them and made the proper face
For their assembly–a primitive nervous system
That works its members after the mind is gone–
And long disliked myself because I kissed them
A greeting to fake a folk than be alone
Though they meet in the public gloom of a museum.
Congenital from the first and second birth,
Hobbling through each vulgarized te deum,
They are deformity trying to reform the earth.
The cross was once their civilization’s sprout.
God’s greenery gone now, nothing left but wood,
Their souls are like locust casings in the drought
Of a sky so plain it cannot be understood.
I’ve watched them altarward selling their lord alive
With the same pitch used to move their market stuff
And for their impiety thought Christ did not drive
The changers from the temple far enough.
Children of fear, their fold is built of blocks,
Its biblical windows stained, not looking out
Though the Ghost himself try all the doorway locks.
What is averted is not exactly doubt
But the empty finishes of the modern twilight,
The great waltz stumbling down to barroom jigs,
Infrared dreams, the odorless ultraviolet
Pain of winter sunlight on the twigs,
The winds that turn the galaxies about,
The arrogance of the long-robed mountains tensed
For the final dance that starts at the bridegroom’s shout.
O realist Christ the church has long romanced,
I may have gone where nothing much will sprout
When all the local pastures came unfenced,
But these believers long ago went out
Of touch with all belief is up against
To give itself a height and depth and girth.
What troubles their feet or catches at their breath
Except when it splits the groin of the roof as birth
Or crashes up through the hardwood floor as death?

–August 9, 1997

Commentary

The Neoclassicists insisted on social interaction as the crux of mental health and civilization. “Be not solitary!” warned Samuel Johnson, and Joseph Addison wrote a Spectator paper commending to country folk church-going on Sunday as a corrective to the human degeneration the isolation of a rustic environment supposedly promotes. But whether the unhealthy mind of a sub-society like the Heaven’s Gate cult or the dead mind of a mainstream corporate society mistaken for healthy, it is frightening how a congregation of people can reinforce each other into the acceptance and execution of ideas and attitudes which in the name of sanity or humility would never pass muster if left to the intelligence and conscience of the individual who is broadly and deeply conscious of both nature and history. As Joseph Conrad and James Joyce have similarly observed, morality today finds its defender not in the societal institutions that largely have commandeered and depersonalized it and under the name of ethics made it serve political safety and operational efficiency and economic solvency and profit, but in the individual whose inner stamina against his corrupt times is nourished and upheld by a consciousness of the dateless enlightenment of better times of history and by the latent nobility of his own nature expressed in a disciplined passion for discovering the loveliness and dignity of the divine image, even when it is in the countenances of those who are not aware of or even reject the historical Christ but nonetheless imply him in their bearing.

It may be a truism to observe that our civilization today, perhaps more than ever before in the past, is ruled not by the authority of compassionate intelligence but by the despotism, cleverly stupid, of dispassionate money. When asked by the pious branch of the latter what church I go to, I often have been tempted to answer “an abandoned church,” meaning one from which much of contemporary Christianity has excommunicated itself. In truth I had to leave the contemporary church to find the true Christ. This was an adventure inspired by the discernment, from its Scripture and its history, that Christianity has a depth and force from which the contemporary church, tempted off into the false securities–both doctrinal and financial–of the bourgeois mind, has disconnected itself. My journey was not a subjective and not an occult one and had nothing to do with the self-preoccupation of New Age speculation. It moved on a resilient longing to live off the historical inheritances of the New Testament and to experience the mysterious potency of faith–how it frees the psyche to act as a conductor of the kindness of God into the world, a function that rescues adult existence from an orphaned state by transfiguring heaven and earth into an attentiveness which is to the grown man or woman what father and mother were to a happy childhood. The route of this journey lay backward through time, and its destination, alluded to in the poem’s title, was the desert country in which Christianity, both in historical geography and in personal psychology, has its birth. Along the way the adventure was encouraged by the glances of recognition the Christian and 4the non-Christian mind give each other when they are intelligent with a disciplined and penetrating delight in life and when the patience humility has with suffering makes posturing virtually unthinkable.

During more or less the last quarter of a century, my intimate experience with the evangelicals at the college where I taught and the studies of human nature and human culture for my teaching of literature there brought to a high definition in my consciousness my identity as a Christian individual on the one hand and on the other the general middle-class apostasy of contemporary Christianity. “A Desert Father” was generated out of the conflict between these antipodes, an antagonism which climaxed in my being charged with fictitious personal and professional crimes and subsequently forced into early retirement. This poem is a picture of the apostasy located at center in a shallowness which hides deeply empty insides and which is induced by the would-be believer’s abstracting himself off into a politically mechanistic materialism that flattens the senses, cripples the passions, blinds the awareness down to–among other things–a comic-book understanding of good and evil, and renders one unfaithful to the organic work of purging the soul not of childlikeness but of childishness, by trying out its faith in its alleged values against the archaic and serenely savage inattentiveness toward matters human which is apparent in the elemental creation and its reflection in a subhuman society, the desert country noted in the previous paragraph. The ingrown and therefore claustrophobic religious mind the poem targets in lines 4 through 27, is a relatively soulless one for whom faith is at basis a societal and/or family expectation but not, despite its commonplace claim to the contrary, a personal discovery evolved with “fear and trembling.” It is a mind that has faith in the Word but not in the Word made flesh and therefore it shuts out of its faith what is exemplified in the “snapshots” of lines 28 through 35: the latently overwhelming desolations of the universe in which we live out the life that is in our flesh, desolations which the felix culpa of forbidden-but-redemptive knowlege in its advanced stage today as scientific awareness makes painfully yet provocatively clear so that by contrast it becomes singularly clear also what a flimsy foliage flesh is–and, as a form of it, money still more–for filling in these desolations and making habitable their unliving starkness.

Contrary to the blocking out of this reality, the starting requirement for a living faith is that the rudiment of the religious instinct play upon the fundament of bare existence, taking the opulence of what it has in itself to be–the strength of its passion for a graceful and joyous earth, or what is more commonly though I think somewhat misunderstandingly known as heaven–and exercising that wealthy potential isometrically against the barren and eldritch immensities of space and time and against the presence of the void in matter as in the routine flats of the ocean or the fierce burn of Sabbatical sunlight along a street of closed factories or a society sprawled out psychologically like a slum on the desert floor or the foreboding badlands of a troubled dream.

In the second lyric of “In Tenebris,” Thomas Hardy observed that “if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.” The poet Yeats once wrote that “only the greatest obstacle that can be contemplated without despair, rouses the will to full intensity.” The unregarding immensities I write of are this kind of obstacle to faith and, in the manner in which striking at the canvas bag in the gnmnasium arms the boxer with muscle, when faith little by little is exercised against these immensities, their resistance to it builds its brawn and it discovers that its own physique is at the least commensurate with theirs. When, in longing itself forward, all that the heart loves and wants to keep faith with runs up against their desolation but rejects despair or drawing back into itself as a response, it begins to glow with an intensity the way an electric current heats up the copper wire conducting it when it encounters a resistor. Or, to change the metaphor somewhat, the desolation becomes a blank screen that catches the images faith longs forward of what it would like the world to be, for faith is light: given the passionate courage of its host, it cannot dash itself against what stands in its way but only illuminate that impediment with the images of its own passions so that it may behold itself as a blueprint for shaping aright the not yet shaped or the shapeless or the misshapen.

The religion of the people I once tried to cast my lot with is root-bound–that is, it is faith backing down from the natural world that evolved us, into an artificial and precious involvement with itself. It is Christianity reacting to Christianity, not Christianity playing upon the barren immensities of the universe to start up its aptitude for growth, encounter its own size, and project its own countenance upon the facelessness of the world. The religious gene pool of these people is dismayingly limited, and–although I use a congenital metaphor in the poem–this genetic limitedness has produced deformities in the psyche, particularly a stuntedness in human development, which is essentially a runtiness in the passions. Beyond the shallows of sentimentality, they are relatively dead in their daily feelings, and to deny this deadness they often forge the semblance of life by vulgarizing the faith into the contemporary fashions of social correction and political righteousness, the sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, as though a noisy relevance to our contemporary preoccupations were of necessity a sign of aliveness. These people are dehumanized because they have shut out too much of the variety and the intensity of the affective experience, both comic and tragic, through which God redeems a person into his full humanity so that this fulfillment may be used as a quiet intrinsic basis for political justice and the improvement of society.

In the circularity of existence, which is one of the basic principles intelligence reports back to me about the way things behave, contraries driving out to their extremes begin to resemble each other. The most fundamental pair of contraries of all, matter (or body) and mind (or spirit), is not exempt from this paradoxical tendency: it is well known that matter without spirit is dead, but despite the fame of the Biblical observation about faith without works, it is not well known that spirit (essentially what faith is) without matter is, in terrestrial effect, equally dead. When faith that believes in itself comes up against the primordial innertness of matter which resists it with such a passive intensity that the resistance seems active, it comes to the only life the earth understands. And the irresistable contagion of this life enables it to enter its impediment to shape it, with diminishing resistance, from within even as it apparently is working it only from without. Thus in little patient humble progressions it may fashion the prehistoric crudities of dead matter into the historic refinements of a living civilization.

The historic Christ was the perfect poise between spirit and matter, and this poise is the fulcrum of that peculiar glory which is called “human.” In this way earth is the meeting ground for matter and spirit, where they fuse to become the soul. The soul is an impassioned and sensuous phenomenon. Of all the manifestations of the soul on earth, the human soul is the most exquisite. It is, in fact, the divine image at its greatest terrestrial consciousness, but it is human only to the degree to which its matter is in equilibrium with its spirit. Christ never was born or died or revived from the dead to make us less human. After my passing, I would like it said of me by one who has read carefully my writings: “This is what it was like to have been human in that terrible century.”

 

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Published on January 20, 2007 at 3:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

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