Saturday, October 29, 2005

Clown and Thunder

Sunday approaches and brings its thoughts of church.

Not long ago, bells would toll and villagers would gather and mumble the ritual words of which they knew little and clerics would spout words even less understood and the village would then rest for another week of the same. Today we've said God is dead, we've entered the post-Christian era; some think that a strike of lightning, divine or clerical, is what we need to fuel a new fire in us.

Indeed, in Joseph Ratzinger's "Introduction to Christianity," he opens by telling the state of the Christian story in the manner of a fable.

"Anyone who tries today to talk about the question of Christian faith in the presence of people who are not thoroughly at home with [the] ecclesiastical," Ratzinger writes, finds himself in the position of a traveling clown who, as he approaches a new village, sees a fire breaking out in the countryside not far from it.

The clown is a stranger in this country and does not speak the language, but he is concerned that, given the lush vegetation, the fire will spread rapidly and overwhelm the village. He arrives in a state of agitation and tries to gesture to the villagers that they are in danger, but the villagers laugh at him, thinking his anxious mime is part of his act.

A priest with whom I spoke about this Ratzingerian fable added that it's worse. He said that in the contemporary age there aren't traveling clowns any more and that, if one appeared, no one would pay attention even to laugh. Then he sighed sadly and shook his head at the folly of our contemporaries.

But there's another take.

There was once a clown whose entire troupe had been laid off, as no one came to the circus any more, preferring to go to film theaters, watch television or play games on a computer or handheld device. The clown was articulate, he knew the art of costume, he understood mime, he was a fine actor. He could have made at least a decent living working in a Hollywood studio or on Broadway or in a school or college teaching his arts.

Yet he preferred to travel from village to village, complaining to himself that no one valued his ancient and venerable craft any more.

He lived poor as a church mouse and called it a sign of his virtuous dedication to his calling as a clown. Truth be told, he felt otherwise: he had no boss, if he did something wrong he could go to another village where they wouldn't know about his misdeeds, and he didn't need much since he didn't have the burden of a nagging wife and greedy children.

One day, tramping through fields in a foreign country, the sky turned dark and full of thunder. Hail pelted him. As he ran for shelter, he saw and heard the flash and crack of lightning striking a tree not six feet from him. In an instant, the tree was a smoldering cinder, hissing as rain and hail soaked it wet and cold.

But what if it had caught fire? What if he alone were to see a fire start in the fields? What if he were to run to the village and warn the hamlet's dwellers? Wouldn't he then cease to be an ignored clown and be a hero instead, crowned with laurel, dressed in purple robes, hailed as lord of the realm and savior of his people?

In a flash, he decided he would rush to convince the village that there was a fire.

But, of course, there was no fire. He was still just a clown. A few children who looked up from their handheld game consoles laughed at the oddly dressed foreigner. The village as a whole ignored him.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Miers Sideshow

Allow me, a seasoned observer working two blocks from the White House, to advance admittedly paranoid analyses of the Miers nomination.

In brief, the entire spectacle struck me as entirely bogus.

Why would the Bushies nominate an insider's insider whom they knew perfectly well to be so underqualified and so likely to raise right-wing ideological hackles as to make cofirmation a wildly unlikely prospect? How is it that seconds after the Miers nomination was out the gate the right-wing megaphone wielders began to chant -- in perfect unison -- their Roe incantation? There are no right-wingers in the White House any more who are perfectly able to discern the response? White House staffers can't count Senate votes any more?

Odd, because the Bushies are still perfectly able to ram through a $50 billion Katrina package that gets Halliburton yet another humongous no-bid deal, get Attilla the Hun as chief justice, even manage to rig the ratification of the Iraqi constitution (albeit in the translated version), and orchestrate the implementation of two new tax cuts on the backs of the poor.

But with Miers they became all thumbs and "accidentally" hung their buddy out to dry? Think again. Something else is going on. Here come three possibilities.

Door No. 1: The nomination was an exercise to bait the base into action.

Conservatives own both houses of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court and a substantial number of governorships and legislatures. Rove, Card & Co., feeling that the base lacked a clear-cut battle, decided purposely to goad the base out of complacency and back into fighting stance. The crowd-leading captains were in on the wink-wink, nod-nod deal.

Door No. 2: Miers was put up in an effort to push the reversal of Roe farther out into the future.

Without Roe v Wade the GOP's single most potent and emotional issue, the non-negotiable "moral" issue without peer, would vanish. Absent federally legal abortion, the pro-birth movement has nothing to do; certainly nothing that wins national elections. The right-wing doesn't really care about children (see this week's cuts into child care), the elderly (see same about Medicare). "Pro-life"? Most "pro-lifers" actually favor frying every criminal and starting as many wars as possible (so long as someone else's kid dies -- preferably some poor minority youth without an economic alternative).

Door No. 3: Miers was the smokescreen for Conan the Barbarian.

Miers was set up to fail so an energized base could then insist on some irredentist pro-birth Torquemada, whoever the White House decides fits such a bill, even to the point of a "nuclear" option in the Senate. Liberals will be off their guard, thinking the White House has gone nuts and is really frightened of whatever slap in the wrist may arise out of the inquiry into presidential staffers' outing of a CIA operative. Bush is down in the polls and there's a sense that things are going the liberal way at long last. Beware such thoughts!

Choose one (or propose another). Just remember: merely because I'm paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not after me ... um ... who's that knocking at the door?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Western Spirit

We are out of truly useful Western empirical facts, the building blocks of science and technology, when confronted with pain, death and the need to change.

A common recourse is to seek out the East.

Life, the Vedas say, is a spiritual existence that undergoes a series of birth and death cycles until reaching a high consciousness and salvation. To live means to suffer, stemming from craving and clinging; freedom from want is Nirvana, says Buddha, and it can be achieved though an eightfold path. Everything exists within a grand cosmic harmony, Lao Tsu tells us, the Great Tao. We must conform to "Li," or honesty in relationships, Confucius teaches.

We fall into a new Manichean error in thinking everything Eastern is spiritual and everything Western material.

In 1832, John Henry Newman was crossing a tempest-tossed English channel and from his fear, in the distance he saw a light:

"Lead, Kindly Light,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me."

And around the year 500 an anonymous Carthusian monk in England who chose the pen name Dionysius the Areopagite, wrote in his Cloud of Unknowing that "in the time of this word all the creatures that ever have been, be now, or ever shall be, and all the works of those same creatures, should be hid under the cloud of forgetting."

Yet if our own William Butler Yeats fretted in his 20th century poem that "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," from long ago Julian of Norwich in her calming voice reassures us: "All will be well, and every kind of thing will be well."

We may be out of useful facts, but not of hopeful wisdom.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Perfect Special Friend

Take the looks of one person, the work habits of another, the intellect of a third, the romantic artistry of yet another, and the soul of a fifth. Slice, dice, mix, and stir. Serving for one: special friend.

A "special friend," of course, is my current best term for people far enough past being teens or twentysomethings that "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" seems silly. ("He was old enough to be a boy's father around the first Gulf War, wasn't he?")

The problem is that we can't change other people. We can experience with them sunsets of contentment and peace or nights of mattress gymnastics. Then we wake up to coffee and headlines and reality.

Wrinkles, a penchant for getting out to work too slowly, a need to have everything explained and every g-spot mapped, and the profundity of Willy Loman. What was I drinking, smoking, thinking? More plausibly and less cinematic ... this is a solitary bird who will never pair well. Or ... I've lost the mental hike shoes for this climb.

If only we could combine the favorite bits of each potential special friend into the Perfect One ... !

Monday, October 24, 2005

Chain or char?

Interesting what people will fasten onto when they read a blog.
  • My doubt of my doubt.
  • My use of "Christian agnostic."
  • The color of the type.
I'm not sure I can explain these, or that I should. Certain ideas are recursive and paradoxical and explaining is akin to cutting the Gordian Knot.

As to color, I like it and, for the moment, I'll keep it.

One last thought: I went to the National Cathedral (aka Washington's Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul) and in the sermon I heard that love involves mundane things, like washing, ironing, preparing meals and all sorts of unpleasant chores. I thought love involved dancing in the streets to music. Not sure I'm ready for this chore-bound love.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Strange Warming

Like Charles Wesley, who spoke of his conversion as "I felt my heart strangely warmed," a friend's piercing declaration that I believe has left me in doubt of my doubting.

She was in pain from a prolongued double mourning and from searching and from finding prayer inadequate to the task. Out of nowhere I said that she might want to consider varying her prayers with adoration and thanksgiving and contrition, in addition to supplication.

"You do believe!" she exclaimed.

Out of nowhere I proclaim to another friend that she is godly. Out of nowhere I reassure yet another a believer that what some preacher's wife is trying to do, convince her that her particular take on Christianity is wrong, need not trouble her.

Yet I am an agnostic. A Christian agnostic with too much theology in my head. It all comes tumbling out without thinking. It all comforts. I can't help myself.