Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Shannon, 4.7.90: In the End Is the Beginning

Waiting in Shannon airport for our flight to be called. Horribly smoky—in fact, think I’ll wait till I’m on the plane to write more.

Over the Atlantic now, noon Atlanta time, having just eaten wretched airline food. Why this trip?—that’s the refrain that keeps going through my head. Have hesitated all day to write at all because I feel so full of gloom, shrouded or swathed in a cloud of it. But just now a thought struck me that seems to point a way.

On the one hand, so much was wrong about the trip. Wrong in its very conception—hurtling across the sea to fall here and there, flit about à l’Américain, seeing nothing but one’s own miserable self all around. The tourist American. Justifiably despised, scorned, ridiculed by all the world.

How did it happen that I fell into this trap? Most of all, being hooked into traveling with people who are not congenial to me and who are as ignorant as the day is long? Trying to see and do everything and thus nothing. The one dominant emotion I feel about it all is frustration—a tired frustration at only skimming the surface. I’ve traveled in a culture-bubble—and one reinforced by my own emotional state—and have hardly met a resident of the countries in which I’ve traveled.

But the ray of hope. If I ask myself what impression from the trip has been lasting, what points in a utopian direction, it was a few isolated experiences in Hamburg. Above all, the evening I spent in conversation with theologians from all around the world. That night lit something in me—a feeling of humble joy that I am somehow present within the upper room of a new Pentecost, thinking and praying and acting with others around the world who hear the call to continue faith and work for justice; and a desire to spend some time in Hamburg studying. This seems a “real” projection of my future because a) I never would have thought it, b) several people urged me to do it, and c) the thought brings great hope.

What brought all this to mind again now was a stray recollection of Dorothee Sölle’s lecture. Had one asked me at the time what I got from it, I would have said nothing. I was tired; I don’t speak German well. But the recollection of it is tinged with much brighter colors: serious students engaged in serious listening and dialogue—a roomful of intent faces as the bright but waning light of evening poured through the tall windows of the lecture hall. I really do want to go back.

Because the future is the not yet that we can probe only in fantasy, all else I can say now is only postscript to the already, and a sorry postscript at that. I am really very tired of analyzing/critiquing/complaining. Want to shut that book and begin a new and better one. Criticism and hope. Was it on this trip I dreamt Tad D. critiqued my solidarity book as not adequately Christian because too pain-sans-hope-centered? If so, then the trip itself is prodding forth some necessary and painfully healing recognitions.

Life is journey. This trip has been a journey within a journey, a parenthetical but not extrinsic experience of that journey. In that sense, pilgrimage and moment of grace. At the crudest level, grace because a privilege few people have in life.

What I think I’m beginning to see in this pilgrimage is that the journey is dreadfully difficult, fraught with dangers and monsters unforeseen—the old maps of Europe that show all the terra and mare incognita west of Europe as inhabited by sea monsters. We struggle against principalities and powers, and in every age these forces, monsters, have new shapes. The Hydra myth speaks to us today.

Among the monsters I see are my own pettiness and hopelessness, and perhaps above all the woeful way I cling to my wounds and expect to be consoled, when I must bear them inconsolable. I also look at K. and A. and wonder despairingly if one simply lives one’s life and dies, having trudged the same old treadmill to the end. Above all, what they say to me and I fear the most is that one becomes trapped in ugly relationships and the personae they create. I write re: how I sometimes feel loathing towards Steve. What I loathe perhaps more is what I am in relationship to him—a coiled spring, always expecting yet another outrageous blow, ready to strike back. I want no more of this.

But pilgrimage is also what Patrick Leigh Fermor calls a time of gifts. I’m not sure why I find myself unable to see the gifts. I suspect that a lot of it has to do with being always disappointed and (as I perceived it) misunderstood as a child (exhibit those wounds again!). What I really need (why am I using that word over and over—really?) is to let go, stop all the scheming and let be—what will be. This not as a fatalistic resignation but as hopeful expectation.

Ultimately, all journeys are deathward. Even when we tango hardest, we do the danse macabre. Grinning death capers with us and woos us to his arms. This need not be a grotesque recognition. What it ought to tell us, and oh I know how preachy it sounds, and how far I am from really (again!) believing it—what it ought to tell us is the stark, liberating truth of our human condition. Without our help He doth us make—we are creatures called and loved incredibly into being by a God whose mirthful way for us is beyond our ken. And I affirm this in the face of the outrageous suffering of so many in our world, not wishing to diminish or gloss over or falsely apotheosize that suffering in any way.

In face of death: life either has meaning or it does not. If not, it seems well-nigh intolerable to go on. If it does, then one must live lifewards simultaneously that one lives deathwards. What this means I confess I don’t have the faintest idea. But I think and hope (really!) that I can begin trying.

This may sound absurd, but I have an almost fetishistic sense that much that has happened in my life has been revelatory in the raw and primitive way that Rudolph Otto writes about. Hell—I’m fancying it up. What I mean to say is that things have happened to me and still do, and I have great trouble welcoming them. I also feel over-privileged and guilty—just leave lil ole me alone and I’ll be good and quiet and won’t get any more hard blows (because I deeply suspect the bitter must come with the sweet).

I know that I need to cultivate these things, or an attitude of receptiveness to them. I need to think, to dream dreams and caress them to higher polish in my waking state, to write and publish. I need to take time—“time, my chiefest enemy,” I said in a puerile poem I wrote as a pre-teen. The insight behind this only grows stronger—too little time, too much to do. Why do I think this? Here’s area for some soul-searching work.

To return to the Hamburg time of gifts, and bring this account of a journey to a close: one of the insights I garnered from this experience is that I do after all belong to a community—a community of scholars. Living in the U.S. robs one of the sight to see this. Even academic life in America ultimately succumbs to the functionalism that seems native and endemic to the culture. In Germany/Europe at large (I suspect), the intellectual constitutes a clan. One with its guild—responsibilities and code of etiquette, but also one with its privileges, and among those time.

I now see what my utopian fantasy leads toward—an idyll in Europe to have more time. Time to read, study, talk, and write. Time to explore and foster my connectedness to the theological enterprise now catching up so many people around the world.

Lord of the unknown face and the faces known in every nation, guide my steps to you. Open those doors you want opened, close that should be shut. Turn my face toward you as I journey step to step towards that bright day in which I shall be ready to behold you face to face.

Independence Day 1990

No comments: