“Is It True?” by Andrea Greenwood – April 4, 2010
Andrea Greenwood – “Is It True?”
Easter – April 4, 2010
Opening Words from the “East Coker” section of Four Quartets T S Eliot
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away-
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing-
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Reading excerpts from “All That” David Foster Wallace, printed in the New Yorker, Dec 14 2009
Once when I was a little boy I received as a gift a toy cement mixer. It was made of wood. It was a simple toy-no batteries. It had a colored rope, with a yellow handle, and you held the handle and walked pulling the cement mixer behind you.
At some point, my parents led me to believe that it was magic. My mother idly asked me if I was aware that it had magical properties, no doubt making sport of me in the bored half-cruel way that adults sometimes do with small children, playfully telling them things, unaware of the impact those tales may have (since magic is a serious reality for small children.
The “magic” was that, unbeknown to me, as I happily pulled the cement mixer behind me, the drum went around and around on its horizontal axis, just as the drum on a real cement mixer does. It did this, my mother said, only when the mixer was being pulled by me and only, she stressed, when I wasn’t looking. She insisted on this part, and my father later backed her up: the magic was not just that the drum of a solid wood object without batteries rotated but that it did so only when unobserved, stopping whenever observed. If, while pulling, I turned to look, my parents somberly maintained, the drum magically ceased its rotation. How was this? I never, even for a moment, doubted what they’d told me. This is why it is that adults and even parents can, unwittingly, be cruel: they cannot imagine doubt’s complete absence. They have forgotten.
Months were henceforward spent by me trying to devise ways to catch the drum rotating. Evidence bore out what they had told me: turning my head around always stopped the rotation of the drum. I tried sudden whirls. I tried having someone else pull the cement mixer. I tried peering through a keyhole as someone else pulled the cement mixer. Even turning my head at the rate of the hour hand. I never doubted-it didn’t occur to me. The magic was that the mixer seemed always to know. I tried mirrors-first pulling the cement mixer straight toward a mirror, then through rooms that had mirrors at the periphery of my vision, then past mirrors hidden such that there was little chance that the cement mixer could even “know” that there was a mirror in the room. My strategies became very involved. I begged my mother to take photographs as I pulled the mixer. I placed a piece of masking tape on the drum and reasoned that if the tape appeared in one photo and not in the other this would provide proof of the drum’s rotation. (Video cameras had not yet been invented.)
Before bed, my father sometimes told me stories of his own childhood adventures. He had been the sort of child who set traps for the Tooth Fairy (pyramids of tin cans at the door and windows of his room, string tied from his finger to the tooth below his pillow so that he would wake when the Fairy tried to take the tooth) and other “mythical” figures of childhood, such as Santa Claus. In retrospect, I believe that my father was charmed by my attempts to “trap” the mixer’s drum rotating because he saw them as evidence that I was a chip off the block of ad-hoc intellectual mania for empirical verification. In fact, nothing could have been farther from the truth. My father’s tales of snares for the Easter Bunny made me feel sad. What did my father propose to do with the Bunny if he were ever successful in catching it? I couldn’t ask. The world they saw and suffered over was wholly different from the childhood world in which I existed. I wept for them far more than any of the three of us knew at the time.
As an adult, I realize that the reason I spent so much time trying to “catch” the drum rotating was that I wanted to verify that I could not. If I had ever been successful in outsmarting the magic, I would have been crushed. My failure to trap it caused a mix of crushing disappointment and ecstatic reverence. Reverence is the natural attitude to take toward magical, unverifiable phenomena, the same way that “respect” and “obedience” describe the attitude one takes toward observable physical phenomena, such as gravity or money.
The toy cement mixer is the origin of the religious feeling that has informed most of my adult life.
Sermon Is it true?
During the month of March, there were strange happenings in the Harris house. Things were going missing. First it was Levi’s glasses. He had no way to see. Then it was Dana’s tomagatchi toy. We walked to CVS to get a new battery for this little virtual pet, but when we got back, it was gone. How could the digitized animal escape, especially without its battery? Then a book I was reading disappeared. The book that vanished was called “The Immortals.” Hmm. It was Lent; we were supposed to give things up. But we hadn’t consciously done that at all. Perhaps the mysterious order of the liturgical year is more powerful than we have recognized. If we lack the discipline to commemorate the time of the Israelites wandering in the desert, or of Jesus praying in the wilderness, the external world kicks in, and demands that we recognize the season. I realized that while The Immortals had disappeared upstairs, the book I was reading downstairs also had the word “immortal” in the title. I decided that this must be a sign. How often does a person read a book with hints at eternal life in the title, let alone two at the same time?
I could have sworn that Flannery O’Connor, the mid-20th century writer from the American South, once wrote that “Of course Christianity is literally true. Otherwise, what’s the point?” But this, too, has gone missing. I google searched her and the quote – but there was nothing. I have now read A LOT about O’Connor, as well as the words of various other people with something to say about Christianity and literal truth, and though I never found the sentence, I do feel confident that she would have said it.
What is the point of faith if it is not literal? I can’t say as I ever believed it was remotely possible that the story about Jesus rising from the dead was true. I do not think the people on the road to Emmaus literally saw Jesus. Metaphors were both accurate and deeply meaningful to me. But this week, it seemed the rains prodded me: Perhaps these Biblical dramas were true in a way I hadn’t considered; were more concrete than I had imagined them to be. It really can rain until all the earth is washed away. Think of the earthquakes in Haiti, and then in Chile. We live in houses with basements, in towns with 911 access; in the land of superstores with endless supplies of sump pumps. Can you imagine experiencing rains of these proportions without all of the protections we have here, and now? It would be a drama about life and death; and survival would mean starting over in a completely new way. Loss is not about things; items we have packed and stored away. It is about losing people we love so much that we don’t know who we are without them. It is about the terms we live by suddenly changing so much, we don’t recognize anything at all. We come blinded and blinking out of the cave, unable to adjust to the light, which simply has not been able to reach the places we have been. It is we who have to move. To adjust, and acclimate. The light doesn’t find us so much as we need to learn how to see again.
I was surprised to learn that resurrection is not just a Christian idea. I don’t mean the cyclical notion of dark into light; renewal, spring and rebirth. A recent book talks about resurrection as a Jewish concept with a distinctly physical element, in which we are given back our bodies after death. In other words, this is not a spiritual truth or a soul which continues in some invisible form. Jon Levenson, the author of the book, who happened to be my Hebrew Bible professor at the University of Chicago – Levenson says that this body-less concept of resurrection is Greek philosophy, and it has infiltrated traditional Judaism and Christianity, which originally were literal in their belief. Resurrection was both bodily and communal, and would create justice for those who had been oppressed in this life. Levenson explained that as prayer books were revised all throughout the 19th century, these beliefs were deleted, because they were incompatible with reason and the growing understanding of science.
One of his points is that resurrection is not about individual salvation; it isn’t about life after death conceived as this same life you already have, only better. Resurrection is supposed to turn the world upside down; change our expectations in a fundamental way. It is a divine response to the problem of evil; to injustice. God miraculously intervenes and the oppressed are given new bodies and new life. When I contemplate a people whose entire history is one of suffering, this belief makes some sense to me. Reason and science haven’t done much to save the poor, or end racism. But I think sometimes it takes a personal connection to stick with a new idea; to consider something which is foreign to our way of thinking. I might have dismissed this article if I had not known Jon Levenson, and if I had not been reading a book called “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” This book is both a biography of a woman who died of ovarian cancer in 1951, and a glimpse at what it means to literally never die. Cells from Henrietta’s tumor were successfully cultured and reproduced and have been used all over the world for research. Again, the immortality is not a metaphor, even though we are approaching the issue from the other side. This is science, not faith: A part of this woman who died in 1951 is still alive today.
I can’t do justice to this story in life or in death, but I can tell you a couple of things it made me realize. One is that even though I still can’t really believe in the kind of God who miraculously intervenes the way Levenson describes, I can see his point. Our talk of immortality is philosophical and truncated; even when we embrace new life, it is part of an expected ritual; part of the cycle of life. We will do it again next year. This implies we don’t REALLY change; we just change within certain expectations; and will adjust again. The second thing I realized is that we tend to assume immortality is positive; that resurrection is a gift because life is a gift. But the cells of Henrietta Lacks which never die are the ones that killed her. The reason they can live in cultures in labs across the world is that they divide far too quickly. They are lethal, and that is what makes them immortal. None of her non-cancerous cells could or did survive.
Where these mirror images of resurrection – a positive belief in bodily resurrection through orthodox faith, and the negative reality of eternal life documented through cell research -where they come together is in the idea of justice. Levenson talks about the resurrection as a chance for a community which has been persecuted to be reconstituted without being vulnerable any more. And the story of Henrietta Lacks requires a painful examination of ideas about justice and power. Her cells made so much life-saving knowledge possible, they changed the world. But her own family lived with nothing; not insurance, not care, not even the knowledge that the cells existed. Physical resurrection asks how we are bound to one another in a very real world, where the consequences to our actions reverberate not just in our hearts or minds, but in where and how and even WHETHER we live.
Ever since Augustine we have had the ability to think about the interior life as real. When he wrote Confessions, he basically started the whole concept of a spiritual autobiography. The journey he took was completely invisible, yet testified to the kind of transformation that is possible when we truly examine our missteps in a way no one can do for us. We liberal religionists don’t generally celebrate saints, but we have certainly absorbed Augustine’s message and method. Without an examining committee or priest, and with intense focus on how we feel and what we have experienced, we can be reborn. We can start all over. Anything is possible.
But is it possible if everything is metaphorical? Augustine didn’t think so. He wrote “City of God” to convince folks of the literal, awesome beauty of heaven – which made no sense to him if it wasn’t real. There you will be your perfect self, in a direct relationship with God. And both you and God are genuine beings; not ghosts or souls or spirits. The important part of this image for me today is how external it is. The man who made the invisible journey so valuable never lost sight of the importance of the visible, shared world, where anguish and suffering were real and caused trauma that no one recovered from. The only possibilities are death, or transformation.
The other day, Mark and I took the boys to see The Secret of Kells. This is an animated film which gives a context for the creation of the illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells, in a community of faith which is under siege from invaders. In the end, it is the brother who is open to the outside world – which genuinely does bring horror – the brother who goes out to meet the pain rather than fortifying against it is the one who is able to truly illuminate the sacred text. The words can’t come alive and truly move us until a story is constructed that brings the whole community together, even if that cloistered group has been broken open and can never be contained again. The break has become part of what it means to tell the whole truth. And it is what allows beauty to be born.
In the midst of our suffering and our sorrows, we come to church this day to experience redemption. If we confess misdeeds; seek to do better; try to understand, accept what we have been given, we might be granted new life. But it won’t be our old lives, or the lives we wished for; it won’t be recognizable. That is why we must do it together, among those with whom we share a faith. Because as light breaks out over the darkness each of us wanders in; as we emerge from the caverns where our old lives were tossed, none of us can see very well, and we need each other’s hands.
Let us join our hearts and minds in the spirit of prayer.
We can be so weary. Made of dust,
We WANT to do what is right; our spirits are willing
But we are tired. We are so busy. There are so many demands —
Some we put on ourselves, some that truly must be met
We have so little control and so little that is truly our own.
And so we want to be doing more, we mean to be helping…
but maybe the first thing we need to do is help ourselves.
We seek some inner peace.
And so the time comes for action, and we settle in, and protect what little reserves we have.
But the opposite is true, too – we go to sit quietly and meditate; to think alone;
But find we are distracted. There is work to do – dishes, laundry, tasks
If we are lucky, jobs
That call us to move and rush and be in the world.
We are not at peace.
How can we win?
Let us try, for a moment, right now.
Lay your burden down.
Let hope for something new begin in you
It is Easter
a morning which creates a bridge between heaven and earth
when we are not so sure of who lives
but something is being re-made
Maybe it is us
We are both nothing, and beautiful
Catching the light
Let us walk in beauty,
And begin to remake the world as it should be
Closing Words e e cummings
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)”