Love In A Time of Tigers

Valentines DayWal-Mart doesn’t die out at 11 pm on February 13th. I was in there last night and found it crawling with men bearing hunted expressions in their eyes and chocolate in their carts and tulips in their hands. The lines to the register included as many as ten weary customers at once. Females were in the minority. There was so much delightfully right about this and simultaneously so much that was pitifully wrong. I was glad I was present to have a good laugh.

Isn’t it splendid that we have a holiday for couples to be happy in front of the world, and to set aside time for the things we forget to make time for? Like fancy suppers and candlelight and letters and roses and remembrance? I’m glad the calendar has a space for romance.

But I’ll confess: sometimes I’m a little terrified by it.

TigerSometimes I turn on the radio and feel a bit sick – are you with me? Just like animals, Adam Levine choruses over the airwaves. He says it all. Look around at the world and you’ll see how the beast-face comes through. My planet has a culture so blatantly flesh-hungry, that sometimes I’m afraid to belong here.

Sometimes I run wildly to the shelter of the Word Made Flesh because it’s the only kind thing on all this fettered planet. It’s the source of all respect and all chivalry and all courtesy and all romance and all that constitutes the high wall between you and me and nature red in tooth and claw. And if we’re moving away from that glorious gospel, we’re falling back into the bloody domain of the beasts.

What’s with this willingness to slip into the roles we were fashioned to rule over? Why be a crimson-clawed tiger who tears and will be torn, when you can be a prince with a gold scepter and a King-Dad who calls all the shots?

Historians can’t decide which Saint Valentine is responsible for our own festivities on February 14th. You see, there were at least three of them. In the legends, all three were men of honor who died for their love, ripped apart by the animals that the world hosts in abundance. In the most prevalent stories, these martyrdoms involved beating, stoning and eventual decapitation. We’re not talking about the kind of love that was doing its frantic last-minute shopping in Wal-Mart last night.

What wondrous love is this? What were those Saint Valentines up to, and why do we commemorate them with a holiday about romance?

Well, it turns out that Saint Valentine’s Day has everything to do with romance. The thing is, this is about a romance that’s bigger than the sweetest created beloved you’ll ever know. The Saint Valentines gave their lives because they couldn’t stop talking about the Romance that trumps everything. They couldn’t shut up about the World’s Great Lover. They said it would be better not to live than to live in a world where you can’t talk about Jesus.

Blood_Of_JesusDo I feel like that? Do you?

If you’re single on Valentine’s Day, just let me say: don’t be sorry no one took you to dinner. The impeccable Prince of Men cried blood for you. Don’t be sorry your room isn’t a rainbow of flowers. The Hero who overrides every storybook champion invites you to ride with Him ever after. Don’t you be saying no one loves you. While your understanding was foggy and violent like the tigers in the jungle, the real MVP said, “how about a deal? I’ll go down under the red claws if this beast can come out and walk upright and be a man.”

On Rubber Bands and Rejoicing, Dark Though It Is

Rubber BandsSo the rubber band that you wear to make you stop speaking useless words? – I can’t keep it on the same wrist for half an hour. I always wondered about that – why it’s so easy to tear things down and so much harder to stack them up. Why are the grim words the ones that draw laughter and why do we flock about the funny instead of crowding in around the kind? Why does mutual irritation bring strangers together when we all know it’s this very bitterness that’s bound to take us apart?

With all the other poor choices I and my kind make, I guess it’s no surprise that we keep getting this thing dead wrong too. But when we come down to it, the creed we hold to isn’t ambiguous or muddied enough to let us make up our own minds. Do everything without complaining and without arguing, it says.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried for the twenty-one days. There’s this idea that words don’t only spill what’s inside but shape it as well – and someone who started thinking about this decided they had better start shaping up their talk. Because to be honest, on a given day a whole lot of us sound something like this:

Oh, me too. And someone who didn’t want to be a fountain of whining said something had to change. (We say it too. Again I will say it: rejoice.) So he put a rubber band on a wrist and every time he caught himself complaining moved it to the other. I moved mine ten times on my road trip Tuesday, driving home to celebrate the dawning of the happiest portion of the year. The goal is to bring that interval up to twenty-one days. Yeah.

I can’t deny that people can be cruel in a pinch or even on the other side of all your kindness. Yes, the highways are clogged with folks who shouldn’t be allowed off of their own driveways. And yes, the times are nightfall and the world riven right through. But don’t we believe that the Sunrise from on high has come to visit us? Don’t we believe in the sky split wide open with light and chorale?

Or do we? Because if we do, won’t it change things? And won’t it make wild sense to talk about this more than we talk about the sorry insufficiency of what’s around? I’m just asking because I wonder. And I guess I’m not the only one.

Three thousand years back in our history, our greatest songwriter said let the redeemed say so, talk about it. We still sing it. Because if everything else falls away, we still have this. And in the bleak world that Immanuel inhabits, can’t we be saying thank you and waving, dark though it is?
Boys-WavingDarkThoughItIs - Copy

THANKS (by W.S. Merwin)

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

On Suffering, the Russian Soul, & the Kingdom of Heaven

Russian_NightIt’s become a byword, the Russian tradition of suffering. Apparently everyone knows that misery permeates the works of the great writers and merits a substantial paragraph in even the most basic information about Russian literature. Wikipedia devotes an entire section of the Russian literature page to this very thing, stating,

Suffering, often as a means of redemption, is a recurrent theme in Russian literature.

Happily, I didn’t get the memo about that. A year ago, when I wrote about Imagination as Love, I still didn’t know that what I was writing about was at the very core of not only Chekhov’s writing, but Tolstoy’s too, and Gogol’s and Solzhenitsyn’s and Dostoevsky’s.

I didn’t read the Sparknotes, only the books. Only War and Peace, and How Much Land Does a Man Need? Only One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and The Overcoat, and The Grand Inquisitor, and half of Chekhov’s Stories. And one of the delightful things about missing the study guides is that you have no idea what to look for, so that when you do pick up a pattern all by yourself, it means something to you.

So it was for me, through pages and pages of the stories about tragedies without happy endings, and hunger that isn’t assuaged, and grief that doesn’t go away, and the long defeat of living. After a time, I sat back and said, “These stories are about suffering. They are all about suffering.” It seems simple enough to the initiated, but to go from not-knowing to knowing at last – there is an exquisite satisfaction in that.

Yet that wasn’t all. In these stories there was something else. The Russian grief is not purposeless. There is a colossal sort of reduction in suffering and in loss: it takes things down to essentials, strips away circumstances, reveals to a man what he truly is. There are hints in it of the possibility that suffering might usher in truth, precisely by ripping out lies.

And Christ. There is in these Russian stories a wild, confused, at times unorthodox fascination with Christ as humble, as suffering. As silent.

fathers-taleThis much I picked up on my own, but was hardly sure how to put it all together and make sense of it. Then last month I read my second Michael O’Brien novel, and found a man with the answers. A man who knows the historic Russian soul, and is intimately acquainted with the turbulent history of the 20th century. A man who knows the importance of traditional imagery better than anyone I can think of, who understands the vital significance of boats and of birds. A man who knows about kingfishers catching fire, and homesickness, and more than anything, who knows about the poor in spirit.

The Father’s Tale is 1076 pages long, but after the first 100 pages or so, it goes by like a breath. Alex Graham is a Canadian bookseller whose college-aged son gets caught up in a cult group and goes missing from Oxford University. The plot follows the timorous, unadventurous Alex as he travels around the globe in the search for his son. It’s a storyline that never works out exactly as you expect, and yet somehow always works out in the best possible way. Like any author who’s turned out this much volume on a regular basis, O’Brien certainly leaves some holes in the book, in terms of weak sentences and things you wish you could rewrite or reconstruct. But then, so does Dickens, and it didn’t seem to ruin his legacy.

O’Brien and I are not on the same page as regards faith traditions, so I’m not entirely in sympathy with some portions of the book, and found some of them exasperating. However, the ultimate themes in here transcend our differences, because they aren’t about icons but ideas, and those ideas are rooted deep in the literature that we both love, beginning, perhaps, with the Bible itself.

One of the many things that the tepid and dispassionate Alex Graham learns in his travels is the mysterious and yet lucid beatitude of poverty.

One becomes empty and poor, and in that state the Kingdom of Heaven is given to you,someone tells Alex while he is en route to Siberia. “To become a poor man is the greatest thing that can be given to us. It is the foundation.”

O’Brien takes the old Russian preoccupation with suffering, and shows its redemptive purpose with astonishing clarity.

Not what you expected, perhaps,” his friend tells Alex, after a particularly disappointing setback in his venture. “But it was a gift.”

A gift?” Alex responds. “It seems a total failure.”

“What is failure? The only failure is to reject what God wishes to show us.”

In a public lavatory in Moscow, Alex encounters a dying man. The man is sick and filthy and wasted with substance abuse, and does not wish to live. He is in the drain-hole of the world, he says, the nyet, nyet, nyet. But Alex is determined to rescue him and take him to a hospital, in spite of a disgruntled taxi driver and an unsympathetic nurse. When he learns that the man’s name is Alexei, the Russian form of Alex, he is a bit taken aback by the coincidence, and chooses to call him by the fond and familiar derivative, Alyosha, the pet name that Alex gave himself as a child and a budding Russophile.

Lake-Baikal-russia-iceAlex doesn’t stay long with Alyosha after he sees him admitted to the hospital, but the significance of the incident pursues him throughout the rest of the story. It pursues him to strange and bizarre places, as he finds himself on a train attacked by militant protestors, stranded for weeks with a widowed Russian doctor and her two fatherless sons in a tiny village on the shores of Lake Baikal, and, in an unexpected turn of events, tortured by government intelligence officials in a windowless cell in Siberia. All along, O’Brien is probing deeper and deeper into the Russian psyche, into the legacy of the Soviet era, into the corruption of East and West.

In one scene, Alex speaks to an agnostic Russian with words that are far beyond him, although he doesn’t know it yet.

“Irina, do you remember when we first met, that night on the train? You quoted Pushkin. You said that in our times man was either tyrant or traitor or prisoner.”

“I have not changed my opinion,” says the woman with a hint of bitterness.

“But the Christian is a prisoner in Christ and with Christ and thus he is the only free man on the planet,” Alex says triumphantly. But he does not yet know what he is talking about.

It is in Alex’s greatest crisis of suffering that the ultimate gift is given to him. He wakes up brutalized in a freezing cell, completely dispossessed, and sees a man beside him in an even worse condition. Although Alex feels like his body has become one great wound, he reaches out to other person to try to offer some comfort.

“Who are you?” Alex breathed. Christ_Suffer

“Alyosha,” the lips whispered in reply.

“We are suffering, Alyosha,” Alex sobbed, placing the palm of his hand on the man’s forehead. “But we are not alone.”

The flesh of the forehead was riddled with holes. “You,” said the prisoner, are Alyosha.”

He touched the holes in the hands and feet of the prisoner. He lightly touched the face that a rifle butt had shattered. The hands of the prisoner drew his fingers to the wound in his heart, and his heart was a fountain.

And blessed are the poor in spirit.

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 

On The Importance of Being Smike

Nicholas NicklebySometimes a story smacks you squarely in the face with precisely the thing you need. So it was for me with Nicholas Nickleby last month, which I read over the course of only a week and which has been growing on me ever since, like a widening light.

Charles Dickens’ third published novel, Nicholas Nickleby is among the author’s earlier writings, and belongs very definitively to that set of his work that was the most Dickensian. That is, it is full of flair and hyperbole and drama and oppression and cold weather and child abuse and misery and heroics and ideals. Especially ideals.

Indeed, as with all of Dickens’ best work, Nicholas Nickleby’s strengths lie not in any unique plot twists or unusual characters, but in the incarnation of ideals, their taking on of flesh. Nicholas Nickleby is strong because its’ characters are ideals. And they take on flesh quite well – indeed, in 900 pages they have plenty of time to do so. The ideals are very fully fleshed out. But they are also very strong ideals, that have endured in the world since the genesis of Christendom. And if you love them already, you will find them splendid because Dickens makes them so, but mostly because they are splendid in their own right.

NicholasAt the heart of these ideals is the hero. This is Nicholas himself. He is not particularly original, but he attracts us because he is not merely a protagonist, but is, in fact, really a hero, in the traditional sense of the word. He adores justice and honor with a childlike simplicity and he takes on the miseries of life with a pure heart and cheery self-denial. Beside his fiery innocence, every contaminated sentiment and half-wrong seems horrible, and not to be endured.

All my days I have been seeking to be like him. Quite without knowing his story, at all, of course. Because Nicholas Nickleby is not a character invented by Dickens at all. He is the quintessential human hero, a picture of the man that men will follow, and that the world is not worthy of.

In Dickens’ story, Nicholas is afflicted by some rather prosaic difficulties when his father, a country gentlemen, dies unexpectedly, leaving the nineteen-year-old Nicholas, his sister Kate, and their mother in dire straits. They are forced to apply for assistance to the senior Nickleby’s brother, Nicholas’ uncle Ralph. Ralph is a ruthless and unscrupulous miser, who sends Nicholas off to work for pennies at a wretched boarding school in Yorkshire, and exploits Kate’s feminine graces to please his business partners. Their mother, while an amiable woman, lacks discretion, and cannot serve as a source of guidance for the two young people in their difficulties.

All told, the title character’s situation seems thoroughly unenviable. Fortunately, Nicholas carries something with him that turns the desolation of the world into an adventure: his stalwart decency. Thrust into scenes of unbearable degradation and injustice, his ideals of truth and righteousness do not falter, and cannot be co-opted. He is an honest man, and no one can take that away from him. This makes his life bearable and serves as a roadmap. You pity him in his hardship, but not too much, because you know he has a treasure of incalculable worth, and that he has what it takes to get to the other side of what is before him. Before his story is over, he will be the one turning the arrogant from their ease, and rescuing the downtrodden with remarkable flair.

I can’t not want to be that guy.

But I’m not.

I spent all my childhood imagining myself as something of a champion in the making. Oh, the places I would go, and all of the rescue I would dispense! All of my dreams were about heroics. So the knowledge that I have been somewhat mistaken in my aim has been a long time coming home to me.

With Nicholas Nickleby, it came home a little more. Because beside even Dickens’ simple and clichéd ideal, I seem very unheroic indeed. And I know that there must be something besides the fruitless chase after championship.

And so there is.

At Dotheboys’ Hall, a stereotypically Dickensian hell-hole, where Nicholas serves as an assistant to the evil schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, we meet another character. Smike is crippled, and hardly a boy anymore at eighteen. He was abandoned at the school six years ago, and has been exploited by the Squeers ever since, serving them as a slave in deplorable conditions and beaten continually. His ill-treatment and ignorance have given him a feeble mind and doubled his terror and helplessness. Smike has no ideals to nourish him, and no prospects or plans ahead of him. His life is a living death.

Smike4
Nicholas, enraged by the cruelty that Smike endures, is very kind to the drudge. This is something Smike has never experienced before, and something happens to him that he did not realize could happen:  it dawns upon him that there is a reason to live, and that waking up in the morning doesn’t have to be just the shock of death flooding his lungs. His reason to live is Nicholas, and the hope of Nicholas’ approval and the ambition of serving him.

The Squeers, who are evil, are annoyed by the sight of goodness thriving anywhere, and redouble their efforts to make Smike’s life a torment to him. Nicholas decides this additional oppression is just about the last straw, and he informs Smike that he is going to leave. In a wild fit of desperation, Smike abandons the disgraceful institution on his own that night. Lame and starving, he doesn’t get far before he is dragged back by the schoolmaster’s wife. The Squeers, who find it necessary to deal with the imminent threat of mutiny among the boys, decide to make a great spectacle of Smike, and to flog him severely before the whole school.

As this ordeal commences, Nicholas snaps, and descends like a hurricane upon the schoolmaster, administering a sound drubbing to the latter, before packing his little bag and quitting the place. As he sets out on the long journey back to London, impoverished and with grim prospects, he runs into Smike, who has been following him all the way. Smike drops to his knees at Nicholas’ feet.

 ‘Why do you kneel to me?’ Nicholas asks.

“To go with you–anywhere–everywhere–to the world’s end–to the churchyard grave,” says Smike in a wild supplication. “Let me, oh do let me. You are my home.”

Smike is a cripple all of his days. He drags his deformed limbs with him everywhere, and his weak mind is never made whole. Wherever he goes, people will stare and whisper and feel sorry for him. He will never be a specimen of perfection. But in spite of all this he is at rest, and at home. Because he is following Nicholas Nickleby , and consumed in a sort of slavish devotion to his hero. What he is is wretched indeed, but what he is is not important to him. For he is utterly wrapped up in worshipping a worthier champion. In himself, there is limitless impotence and fear. But in his master there is enough glory to satisfy him.

And when the full import of this burst upon me, I found it disturbing, like a call to wake up.  Because my Dearest Friend is the prince of champions, and oh, are all of my springs in Him? The grace that has set me free, is it enough for me? Or must I do something of my own to add to it, before it is sufficient to be happy-making?

Hudson Taylor wrote to his wife in 1869,

I now see that it is not in what He is to me, not in what He is working, or has worked, or may work in, for, or by me, but in Himself I am to rejoice;  in what He is and has in Himself absolutely. And this, it appears to me, is the only possible or even legitimate ground for constant, unchanging, full joy.

But to get at the joy that is only outside of ourselves, we must come to the end of ourselves. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” said our Lord. Not because they are lesser or more wretched than their brothers, but because they know it. And theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

For the life at the heels of Christ is not about being a hero, but about loving a hero. And the more you love Him, the more you are at home in Him. And when He is all that matters, it doesn’t matter that you are what you are.

Because He is what He is.

My Song Is Love Unknown

War Kid - littleThere is this thing about children. The way they taught me half the things I know about God.

They come into the world with red faces and crinkly foreheads, stubborn as weather and as changeable. We know when we take them home and settle them into safe places that they will keep us wakeful and jeopardize our peace for many turnings of the world. We keep doing it, though.

From the start, they are like the gamin, like the fleet-footed, autonomous, defensive little toughs in the tough parts of the world. There is this sense in which every baby is a Dallas Winston with winsome, unapproachable eyes and a practiced carelessness and a code of shameless opportunism and a disgusting swagger. They can do everything all by themselves. Even plunked right into the middle of all our encircling provision, they are grasping and greedy and violent.

There is this sense in which every baby is hardened like a street tough before his feet are steady enough to take him careening through alleys, before the cruel world has touched so much as the fuzzy curls on his head. He is his own man, and he looks out for himself. You can hear it in his wild, demanding shrieks – when he wakes and is hungry – and feel it in the determination of his tight-clenched fists – when you move to take something from him that he thinks he ought to have.

We love them, though. Oh, how we love them!

Sometimes we tame them and humble them and constrain them and clear a way before them for the truth to come through like dayspring. We do this when we can. It is one of the world’s greatest joys. Like that of the inloveness that a man shares with a woman. Or like the harvesting of the fruit of many years’ work and of calloused hands.

But sometimes we come upon children who are untamed and still fierce and self-reliant and deceitful, and we love them no less. There is just this thing about children. By now the baby is older and shrewder and more capable and no longer kept prisoner by our blankets and cradles and the weakness of his legs. He begins to venture further and to find trouble for himself, as the sparks fly upward.

We know about trouble, about the sparks. We know what is at the end of all of the roads. We want to shield him, to make him strong for what is to come. We want to tell him what has been and what will be. We want to wrap our arms around all the beauty of his being and impart grace to him. There are no words for the love we have for him. It is overpowering. It is like the ocean or the hurricane of stars raging over us. We do not work for it. We just have it.

But his ways are so furtive and his eyes so distrustful – and he lies to us. Does he know how we read his darting eyes like a book, watch him frame his piteous deceptions, all the while willing him to throw off that sad mask, all the while knowing he won’t?  And do we love him less for his lies, for his crooked heart, for his confounded egotism?

No, we don’t, of course.  Sometimes, in fact, we love him more. There is a heartbreak, a grief, a sweet, strong sympathy that injects itself into our love for him and makes it a thing of urgency, a great epic. We don’t love children because they deserve it.

That is the thing about children. We love them just because. We love them first. We hope they will love us back someday; but if they don’t, we will go on loving them all the same.

That is the thing about me.

That is the thing about the way that my Dearest Friend has loved me.

It came before everything, before I even came here at all. It was first. And I did nothing to deserve it. Like this:


“My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.”

That is the thing about love, the reason it is a sad, half-grasping affair on this planet: love is not an embracing of the darkness. It can’t be. It is an embracing – indeed, a nurturing – of the light that may come to be. Children have taught us this, also.

The roughest, wildest of them – the ones that frighten us with their impetuosity and with their boundless foolishness – when we love them, we see the brave, noble thing they may – but may not – become. We feel almost indebted to this possible future of theirs. And while they are unlovely and tough and heartless as only children can be, our love for them is all the time entangled with a vision of their perfection. It is the reason for the ache, for the bitterness of love.

George MacDonald, perhaps, says it best,

Love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected–not in itself, but in the object. As it was love that first created humanity, so even human love, in proportion to its divinity, will go on creating the beautiful for its own outpouring…Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.

I think a lot about the things that I want for the myriad of children that I love; the things I want them to do and to be and to know. It is hard to stand by and let them choose destruction and darkness and dead ends. I don’t do it if I can help it. But we can none of us be keepers of the souls of others. They do not have to listen to us. They do not have to accept the light that we pass to them reverently and with pleading. Sometimes this weighs on me, and makes love a most unbearable thing.

Then sometimes it is brought home to me that I do also run about on occasion like the wild and endangered urchins of the world, throwing back all of the gifts and the promises and disobeying flagrantly the most reasonable and beneficial orders that come to me from the hand of the Giver. How about you? Is He looking on with that unquenchable grief that our children give us?

This, I am coming to learn, is what is meant by ‘God the Father.’