Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Debt Redeemed

         Once there was a very young boy; five, approaching six. He had only begun school recently, although it seemed a long time ago to him; and as far as he was concerned he was progressing satisfactorily in the direction of knowledgeability. At least at the time he thought there could not be not too much more to learn. At school he met a pair of twins, brothers of whom he became much enamored, and they of him. They each had round tow-colored heads and wore crewcuts, but he could tell them apart by certain slight distinctions of shape located around their noses. His family lived in a rented home in the countryside a mile or so outside of a small resort town in northern Wisconsin; the family of his twin friends resided nearby. The boy did not know it, but a monstrous authoritarian state had nuclear missiles aimed at the area where he lived, because his own government, of which he was also basically unaware, had military installments there established in opposition to the same. Such was the world they all lived in. Anyway, the twins did not appear in school for some days, and he learned that they were quarantined with the measles. 

Photo by Nora Koch copyright 2010

            It was winter. He lobbied his mother to go out one afternoon; he needed her help to get dressed properly for it, and he knew it. He would be out by himself, but his mother trusted him to stay nearby, because he was eager to take direction and perform according to expectations and had demonstrated his dependability by his deeds. But on this day, he was overcome by longing for his quarantined friends; and after he got out he made his way alone across a very broad field, through deep snow he had to lift his legs high and repeatedly to get through, in bright glare that made his eyes water, which he had not experienced before. Then it was past some tall trees and around a fence and an ancient rusted car, a Model T if he would have known, although he didn’t at the time (just as the entire world was the greatest mystery, but also as any fool could see, plainly self-evident). He went to the door, where he was admitted by a careless custodian watching over the twins. In fairness, she must have thought they were past the contagious stage. At any rate they played for some time on the floor, with shiny metal toy tanker trucks painted red with “Texaco” lettered on the tanker part, bumping over the edges of the rug onto the smooth wooden floor, and rolling into the padded lower extremities of a sofa. The twins each had a tanker of his own, and took turns sharing with him. He had brought nothing to share, but they were happy to have company after their long quarantine and remarked on the epic proportions of the journey he made to get there. It was a very satisfying hour of companionship, perhaps unmatched ever again. Finally, amidst hearty farewells, he was helped back into his things and made the return journey home, through the enormous arctic, following the tracks he had made to get there.
            His mother was very upset when he returned and became even more so when he related where he had been, and he received a scolding unlike any other he had yet received. He felt very real grief while being reproached for the whole affair, and his mother made it clear he was not to cross her will like that again. It had not been his intention to cross her will so much as to do his own – there is a distinction to be made - and yet clearly, in preferring his own he had given second shrift to hers. Somehow, he understood that. The boy’s mother remembered none of this when questioned about it many years later, and in fact contradicted it, maintaining that her entire tribe of children got measles at a later date, by which time at least one more had been born into the group than was present at the time of the incident related. The boy, long after he was grown, wondered: had that unrivaled hour of friendship ever occurred? If not, it seemed there was no other hour to step up and replace it.
            There is no one to ask about it now, the principle authorities are deceased, so the question remains unsettled. His family moved away from that place more than half a century ago, and he never saw those twin friends of his again. His younger siblings remember having the measles, but none of the incidentals associated with the illness. Were there ever any twin friends of his who lived beyond a vast arctic field, tall trees and a useless old vehicle rusting into the ground, whose matchless companionship was ever after longed for? Who inspired in the life of the boy this allegory of the fall, an exile from the garden that turned on the wayward will, desiring creation and denying the Creator? Oh, the boy had no thoughts like that at the time; only an impulse to do what he wanted which he acted on. The act positively flouted authority, although with a lack of comprehensive understanding and full consent. But even if culpability is limited, make no mistake, the will contrary to authority was active, and its fundamental rebellion was in simply preferring its own satisfaction to the regular order of life, which in this case was that young boys do not wander off in the winter contrary to the wishes of their mothers. He was about as innocent as a human person can be, a soul young and unschooled in worldly ways of rebellion yet was entirely vulnerable to inherent concupiscence. He later become well-schooled in worldly rebellion, according to foolishness acquired from the culture in the process of his formation, a kind of shoddy, venal abuse for which that culture accepts no responsibility (in fact it congratulates itself).
             He remained subject to redemption, but only by the Creator’s will, which is entirely gratuitous, and which knows well the blind and mistaken longing of the created to seek the Creator in created things, having walked in his very skin, some millennia ago, and hung on a cross to redeem the debt. By the logic of His love he would have done it just for you and only for you, if you had been the only rebel; so I have been told and have come to understand. The bargain is completed in the willing response of the created, which must be entirely free, and as humble and faithful as it can manage. For the created cannot see, but believing he can trust, even in the deepest dark or most glaring of chills. The offer is extended; it may be taken up or set aside. The blessing, as has been written, or the curse.
            One ought to be aware of what one is up against.
Photo by Nora Koch copyright 2010

Monday, April 2, 2018

Approaching the Cross

            This past Good Friday I took part in a silent public procession in St. Paul, MN. Organized by the local community of Communion and Liberation (founded by Servant of God[1] Fr. Luigi Giussani, 1922 – 2005)[2], the procession began with a gathering in the vestibule on the east side of the Cathedral; a song from the group’s choir and a brief address from Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who also accompanied us on our walk during the early part of the procession. We proceeded from the Cathedral north east to the State Capital Building, with a stop on Martin Luther King Drive in front of the capital for the 1st Station, the Arrest of Christ. Here and at each following stop, five in all, there was a reading from a poem by the French poet Charles Peguy[3], the Passion of the Gospel of John, a reflection from the writings of Fr. Giussani, a choral selection sung by the choir, and three verses of the Stabat Mater, sung by everyone. Otherwise we kept silence for the two-hour event.
            I’m not normally one to join in processions or demonstrations of any kind; but a silent procession, albeit with readings and proscribed singing, is the sort I can allow for myself. A public witness of perhaps a couple of hundred people, including many young parents bearing along and escorted by their many very young children. Led by a simple wooden cross and an escort of two cruisers with officers of the St. Paul police, to keep intersections open for our passing. Some members of the community mobilized a simple sound system for the readings and the singing, and kept it efficiently in front of everyone, ready to go at each stop. As I mentioned, the first stop was at the state capital, as progressive a shrine in St. Paul as anywhere; here from Fr. Giussani’s reflection we heard: “Salvation is a gift, it is not something we search for, and there is nothing we can do to receive it. Salvation has a name: Christ.” The Archbishop stood among us, listening and then singing. And here was read from St. John’s gospel the account of the arrest of Jesus. “‘Whom are you looking for?’ They answered him, ‘Jesus the Nazorean.’ He said to them ‘I AM.’”
            The next station was Peter’s Denial, read outside of St. Louis King of France Church, with the light rail ding ding dinging nearby. “‘Didn’t I see you in the Garden with him?’ Again, Peter denied it.” From Fr. Giussani: “That is the pain of your cross: you came to walk with us and we leave you alone.” From there it was on to Rice Park with the bronze girl in the fountain, and the Peanuts characters with their round heads so absurdly cast in bronze, and the cultural institutions of the city all around; the blank steel and glass of the Ordway theater, the castle-like Landmark Center, and the neo classical James J. Hill Library. “Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’” Said it to Jesus, to the truth itself; and tried, without effect, to release him. “God” Fr. Giussani notes, “who came among men goes to the scaffold: defeated, a failure; a moment, a day, three days of nothingness, in which everything is finished.” 
            The 4th stop was the Church of the Assumption, the oldest existing church building in the state of Minnesota (1874, one year older than our own St. Michael’s in Stillwater). The station was of Jesus dying on the cross. Peguy wrote in his poem: “
            “O culminating cry everlastingly valid
            As if even God had sinned like us.
            Committing the greatest sin.
            Which is to despair.
            The sin of despair.
            Louder than the two thieves hanging beside him;
            And who howled at death like famished dogs.
            The thieves howled but a human howl;
            The thieves howled but a cry of human death.
            Also they slavered but human slaver;
            The Just One alone uttered the everlasting cry.
            But why? What was the matter with him?
            The thieves uttered but a human cry;
            For they knew but human distress;
            They had experienced but human distress.
            He alone could utter the superhuman cry;
            He alone then knew that superhuman distress.
            That is why the thieves uttered only a cry that was
            quenched in the night.
            And he uttered a cry that will sound forever,
            eternally forever, the cry that will eternally
            never be quenched.”
            “After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said ‘I thirst.’ There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.”
             Turning from here, the beaux art granite and copper dome of the Cathedral rose above us under a pale, swept sky. We returned to the east facade of the Cathedral. There was a final song from the choir. Then we went inside for the evening service of the Adoration of the Cross.
            I recalled serving as an altar boy, over fifty years ago. With one hand I held up one cross arm of a large crucifix, and with the other a clean white cloth, with which I wiped the corpus after the people kissed it. The sun came in through the stained-glass windows and threw unexpected tints on everything; the pews, the somber colored clothes of the worshippers, the wrinkled hands of the old. One elderly woman approached, rather heavy and swaying a little from side to side; she made a great effort to get down on one knee, a real struggle, and some nearby extended their hands to help steady her. Once she got down, she kissed the feet of the corpus. Then she struggled up again, and made her way back to her seat, like a soldier who has just defeated his enemy, and it was just his job, just what he was supposed to do. I wiped the red stain of her lipstick away, but I will never forget her struggle to get down on one knee. It was the best homily I ever saw.
            I thought of that while we were in the Cathedral for the service, and for half a moment thought how I would like to write about it all in an email to my mother, because the whole afternoon was kind of a new experience, which you don't see so many of at my age, and she likes to hear about new things, and I am glad to have something different to write to her about. But half a moment doesn’t last long, and I remembered that she is gone, and I’m not sending her emails anymore.        
            A few pews in front of us, one of those young families we accompanied in the procession prepared their pre school age children to walk up and approach the cross. And around them all the other hundreds, gathered together under the vast dome, filing forward toward Golgotha.

[1] In the Catholic Church, the term “Servant of God’ denotes a person being investigated by the Church for canonization to sainthood.
[2] Fr. Luigi Giussani was founder of the international group Communion and Liberation. He stressed that for each person Christianity was essentially a relationship with Jesus, and that the morals and theology of the Church all emerge from this relationship.
[3] Peguy (1873 – 1914) was a French poet, essayist and editor. His thought was an unlikely blend of socialism and Catholicism. He was killed on the western front in France at the beginning of the First Battle of the Marne in WWI.
All the scripture quotations are from the Gospel of John.