Welcome to Lent: Remember to Die

desert

In ancient Rome, military generals returning victorious from war were ceremoniously paraded through streets in a chariot in a great celebration as they ‘inhabited the praise of the people.’ But behind the general, in the same chariot, a slave was placed whose sole responsibility was to whisper in the general’s ear sobering words that served to protect him from the delusions of grandeur that inevitably come to those who find themselves at the center of human praise: Memento mori. 

“Remember to die.” 

It seems like an odd reminder, considering the fact that none of us have much to say in the matter, and all of us will certainly prove equal to the task when the occasion presents itself. But of all the facts of life, death turns out to be perhaps the easiest to forget. Or perhaps all of life is oriented toward one long attempt to forget about death, because the moment we become aware of death is the exact moment we become aware of a uniquely human desire: not to die.[1]


Life begins with a desire to eat, to drink, to touch and be touched, but one day we wake up with the desire to be gods, that is, to not die. But since that desire proves to provide little practical counsel for the day-to-day task of being human, we busy ourselves with lesser desires in a pursuit toward satisfaction, expanding our kingdoms, our influence, our bank accounts, our progeny, willfully forgetting that all we value as treasure today the moth will value as food tomorrow. And eventually, even the moths will die. But we insist on willfully forgetting what we know to be true–that nothing less than immortality could possibly satisfy the most basic longing beneath all the rumblings of the human experience that drive us ‘to distraction from distraction by distraction’ (T.S. Eliot). Where, after all, are the limits of our desire? When, after all, has anyone ever found enough? When has the satisfaction of desire not given birth to yet another, even if the it is simply the desire to remain satisfied, the desire not to die.

So we live our lives as though we will live forever, often using people likes steps on zigguratic towers on an infinite trajectory, aimed squarely at nothing less than exactly ‘more’—in all its arbitrary finite forms. But ‘more’ turns out to never be ‘enough’. Desire is always stronger that satisfaction. The human soul is a bottomless pit, grounding our appetites in  a boundless, formless void. We are not like the burning bush Moses met on the mountaintop, whose fire did not consume; we are like every other fire burning up the world. So with every met expectation we discover an unmet expectation that lies deeper in the gut, farther from the heart.

“To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God“: that is Paul’s implicit diagnosis in the form of prescription. But the God-sized love we were created to be filled with has been has been infected with our love of so many lesser things. As the deer panteth for the water so my soul panteth after you, O God, and also after you, O sex, and you, O power, and you, O approval, O praise, O just about anything to distract me from the eternity God has stubbornly placed in my heart, in order that I won’t find anything this side of eternity more than temporary satisfaction (Eccles. 3:11)—in order that I might eventually become dissatisfied with temporary satisfactions. Until then, our pursuits will continue to tear us in two opposite directions, driven by two geometrically opposed loves. We love to be loved by God, but we also love to love our sin.


Every particular sin has the same genealogy. Every sin is begotten of (a) a desire (b) based on a deception (c) organized against love. The Bible calls such desires temptations and attributes deception to the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). Temptations are experienced as an appeal to freedom, but they are precisely the opposite because they ultimately function to enslave freedom to desire, not to satisfy desire through freedom. Such temptations are not an appeal to freedom but, ultimately, to pride. Pride always feels like freedom because pride always gets to say, “My will be done.” But human freedom is not simply the power of the will to act; it is the power of the will to love, because love is the ultimate and essential human desire. With the will not oriented toward its proper end the power of the will to act is nothing more than the will to power: the drive of life toward infinite desire rather than infinite satisfaction. That’s why, for example, the will that sacrifices one’s lusts in order to love only one wife leads to far more satisfaction than the will that sacrifices one’s wife to go lusting after to some other man’s wife—more satisfaction for all parties involved, I might add. Just imagine the family Christmas photos in either scenario twenty years down the road. There’s far more satisfaction in short-term sacrifice than there is in long-term regret.

But the will to power, as Nietzsche called it, pursues an indefinite future without ever finding rest in the present moment; it is the urgent now, not the eternal now, instant gratification, not grandkids and gratitude. It is about survival, not life, the will’s appetite for more, not the soul’s appetite for enough, for fullness, for God

This becomes more practically obvious as life in the body ages with the body. Eventually embodied life begins to feel like an endless pursuit of escalating goals, with each step up the ladder revealing more clearly only how high our Infinite desire truly is, and thus how low human striving gets us. Every promise turns out to be only half full because we are always left at least half empty. Youth are naïve; their step-grandparents are bitter. All are forgetful. To remember to die in the light of eternity begins by letting our desires die in the light of today.  

Thus, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is our essential reminder—the story of the God who became a backseat slave to whisper into the front of our chariots: Memento mori. The season of Lent, beginning today, is our annual pilgrimage into the desert with Jesus (Mt. 4), where our subterranean temptations to forget rise to the surface with the serpent who seduces us to rise up in war against our mortality. If you are the Son of God, pursue pleasure! (cf. Lk. 4:3) Pursue power! (Lk. 4:6-7) Pursue praise! (Lk. 4:9-11). It is the temptation of Son of God, because the Son of God became Son of Man. And this is the temptation of every man, woman, and child: the lust of the flesh (good for food), the lust of the eyes (delight to the eyes), the pride of life (desired to make one wise), indeed, the forbidden fruit—to be as gods—not to die (cf. 1 Jn. 2:15-17; Gen. 3:1-7).


And so we enter the desert today, where we confront the twisted shape of our two-pronged souls, fashioned after the forked shape of that tempter’s deceptions. We desire God, yes, but we confess too our other desires, splintering forth from the divisions in our soul. We do have a passion for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, but we confess there are other gasoline passions. We desire God’s will, but we confess we never desire “not my will.” We never desire to let ‘my will’ die, and so live into the eternal will of the Father. 

And so we must return to the desert fast to search ourselves for areas of amnesia, reminding our obstinate wills to die, to remind ourselves of the direction we are all headed, lest we continue to chase empty upward promises that only push the deeper side of the soul out to the surface, thinning it out, so that life just becomes a series of unexamined actions and reactions, like a restless pinball with an impenetrable surface—no stability, no connection, no depth, no anchors, no stillness, no reflection, no transparency, no exposure of the heart, no communion of the spirit, no deep crying out to deep (Ps. 42), leaving us in the end like a cicada shell clinging to that God-damned tree. 

By moving through this somber season of self-examination we are better prepared to see how fitting is the cross, not for Christ but for us. Indeed, as the thief at Jesus’ side confessed, it is our “just reward” (Lk. 23:41). In our unreflective world, fast-paced and on-demand, there is hardly a more urgent need for the life of faith than this kind of reflection, which inevitably leads us into repentance, since herein we discover no small attempt in our heart to rise up as gods—to live by pleasure alone, power alone, pride alone. Only then can our Good Friday Gospel penetrate to the level of the salvation we actually need—salvation from ourselves. We must remember to die, lest we succeed needing no life other than our own. Only then can we be properly prepared to utter the truth of our Sunday Morning confession: “I am crucified with Christ—nevertheless I live!

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

~ Son of God, Son of Man


Footnote

  1. Of course, all creatures instinctively desire to survive, but only humans desire not to die. That is to say, only humans can conceptualize death as such and in so doing cannot avoid, if even only for a flinching moment, contemplating their own death. Human consciousness is plagued with eternal dimensions. We can travel in our minds beyond ourselves, modeling universes and genesises and apocalypses. But when when we try to travel into the dark void of non-being, of our own non-being, we indeed discover “a bourne from which no traveler returns” (Hamlet). We become aware of the judgment this world is under, for we know that end of my consciousness is for me the same as having never had a consciousness, and that is the same for me as there not being and never having been and there never going to be anything at all (cf. Jenson, On Thinking the Human). And since there is no life apart from consciousness, the inevitability of death leads to the absurd conclusion of a pure and utter negation of being as such.

Radley, Come Home

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Megan walked into my office “[something something] Radley…seizure.”

Everything scrambled, static. Next breath I remember I was pulling onto my street. The ambulance and firetruck were parked in front of my house, exactly where they do not belong. I yanked open the ambulance door. Heads turned around and words flew around and I couldn’t hear anything and neither could she. I was small and helpless and out of control and so was she. Keldy knelt beside her with her heart and soul and mind and strength and everything else poured outside of herself. She had become a cross and turned the space all around into a womb.

Radley was there, somewhere, lost behind some thick black curtain. She was thankfully now breathing but still far from responding, far from herself and from us. For all her life she has been naked and not ashamed, proudly wearing her whole soul and sin on her sleeve. But my daughter was nowhere to be found on that surface. She had sunken beneath the surface of her body and was trapped somewhere inside herself and outside everyone else, kept from entering into that middle space where love lives and people say “I” and “you” and “daddy” and “we,” that space where children come home. They’re supposed to.

Her body was ironed out and flexed like a toddler’s body is not. It was like the body of someone who wants to escape in a place for people who are not allowed to escape. Her hands were balled in fists and arms stretched stiff at her side. It looked like she was trying to split herself in two longways to let herself out. Her mouth was pursed and lips jerking at angles and taking turns being bitten, like if a face could have its wires crossed. The sound of her teeth grinding was louder than the voices I couldn’t hear. It sounded like a torture chamber. Her eyes were lost. Everything was. 

It wasn’t that her eyes were out of focus but overly focused. Her face looked dead serious, like a search party at sunset. Keldy’s eyes were locked into hers, knowing her, trying to remind her. Radley was looking back intently, pupils jolting in small angled orbits, scanning like a satellite in outer space looking for signals through the outer darkness. But wrong frequency or something. There was sinking, grasping distance. It was like Keldy was yelling down from the top of a well that Radley had fallen—was falling—down, and Radley was trying her best to keep looking up to the light to make out the silhouette, to recognize the voice, to hear her name, to remember, to be known. You could tell she was fighting with all her powerful little self against the gravity of the of the night beneath. But… Jesus Christ, where the hell are we!


We arrived at the hospital and I carried her into a sterile buzzing room and laid her little body down on a big white bed custom-made for non-working adult bodies, equipped with rubber blood vessels and wires to do the math and chrome bars for the weight of the world and flashing lights and beeping beeps and sick adults and serious sounding words. It was a scary place for a two-year-old little girl and a thirty-seven-year-old little boy trying to be a giant, trying to hold up all that weight on that bed.

She looked at my eyes the same way she looked at Keldy’s, like she was looking for a memory, looking for a mirror—lost. She just couldn’t penetrate beneath the surface where names are kept, where we see “daddy” and “daughter” and not strangers and eyeballs.  The distance of that prolonged moment is incomparable to any I’ve ever known, from this vantage at least. It feels precisely godless, which I’ve only ever known from the other side, the lost side, where my two-year old daughter should not be allowed to go. 

I knelt down and cupped my hand around her ear to block out the universe and began to tell her all the secrets about her that nobody knows but us, because only I can see them and I’ve never told anybody but her. I always tell her secrets at bedtime, when the universe is gone and it’s dark and we’re the only two voices left, because bedtime is not the only time it gets dark like that and I want her to know there are always at least two voices left. So I told her some secrets about her two middle names (because one isn’t enough for my only daughter), Jael Dawn, and a story about a rider on a white horse, the soldier of Light who makes war against the darkness.

After a while she began to loosen up. She was still not responding but no longer looked panicked like she was trying to escape her body. Eventually, her eyes began to relax and her body settled into the bed. Keldy stroked a finger down the bridge of her nose and like a light switch she was out. Keldy finally was able to recount to me the events as they took place at the epicenter of the eclipse—when she first lost her eyes along with her breath as her body seized and face filled blue—and she began to weep and I tried to hold it together so I just suffocated all over and my soul turned blue.


When Radley woke up she had risen closer to the surface. She still wasn’t identifying people by name or pointing but seemed to see more of us or more of herself in us, a step toward meeting in the middle. Keldy actually got a few giggles out of her with her customary (Canadian) Eskimo kisses. Her laugh sounded like trumpets blasting from the four corners of the earth and the roar of many waters. Then she peed a baby-pool worth of baby-pee on Keldy’s mommy-lap, or Keldy peed her pants and blamed Radley for it, and shortly after looked straight at Keldy and said “mommy.” “And the tombs burst open, and many bodies of the saints who had died were raised and they left the cemetery… and went into the holy city…and appeared to many people.” (Mt. 27:52-53). It was like that.

After that Keldy asked, “Can you say daddy?” She looked at me and her face promptly filled with bright red sadness and she began to cry as she reached out to me with both arms. I reached across the bed and pulled her to my chest and she laid her head on my shoulder and we both cried like babies and I had my servants kill all the fattened calves in the kingdom.

I held her while Keldy RN adulted with doctors and signatures and words words words and I did not put her down until long after we got home. On the way home, while holding her illegally in the backseat of my truck, I asked her if she wanted me to draw a picture of her on my phone. She nodded. She still had not called me “daddy” but I had a hunch that it was now only because she knew I wanted her to and she takes after her mother. So I was tricking her. Every time I finish drawing a picture of her she makes a request (demand), the same request (demand) every time. I finished the picture and, without hesitation, she demanded, “Draw you.”

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…and I saw the holy city and the streets of gold and unshuttable gates and all the rest…” (Rev. 21-22).

The sun was shining in full strength. I was “you” and “we” were together again (see above fine art).

Radley came home. 

Within two hours she was talking to “mommy” and “daddy.” By the end of the night she was doing the shake-your-booty dance. I don’t think I’ll ever be so relieved to see my daughter doing the shake-your-booty dance, but tonight it was life abundant.

P.S. Doc says the seizure was caused by a fever and is confident it was not epileptic. Thank you, Jesus. I’m sorry, Jesus. I did a lot more sinning and doubting today than praying and believing. But you did you anyway. Thank you.

If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 
   if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
   if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

 ~ 2 Timothy 2:11-13

A BLESSING TO A SOLDIER OF THE DAWN

Most blessed of women is Jael…
Of tent-dwelling women most blessed.

May all your enemies perish, O LORD!
But may those who love you
Be as the rising of the sun in full strength.

And the land had rest for forty years.

~ Judges 5:24-31

A Red Meadow at Rest—A Daughter’s Peculiar Blessing

For my fourth child and only daughter:
Radley Jael Dawn

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Most blessed of women is Jael…
Of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked for water and she gave him milk;
She brought him yogurt in a noble’s bowl.
She sent her hand to the tent peg
And her right hand to the workmen’s hammer;
She struck Sisera;
She crushed his head;
She shattered and pierced his temple.
Between her feet
He sank, he fell, he lay still;
Between her feet
He sank, he fell;
Where he sank,
There he fell—dead.

Out of the window she peered,
the mother of Sisera wailed through the lattice:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?”
Her wise women answer,
and she repeats these words to herself:
“They must be dividing the captured plunder—
with a woman or two for every man.
There will be colorful robes for Sisera,
and colorful, embroidered robes for me.
Yes, the plunder will include
colorful robes embroidered on both sides.”

So may all your enemies perish, O LORD!
But may those who love you be as the rising of the sun in its might.

And the land had rest for forty years.

~ Judges 5:24-31

Radley means “red meadow.” 

There are days that must die in order for a future to arrive. Some days get stuck on their axis. They do not move time forward but seem only to repeat it, every dawn sinking into the gravity of yesterday’s dusk, every new beginning bound to the same old end. Israel had seen twenty years worth of those days. It all began because they had “done what was evil in the sight of the Lord…” (Jdgs. 4:1). Nothing new. 

But this was in the days of “Jabin king of Canaan,” early in Israel’s history. They did not yet have the luxury of great power. It’s not easy to be godless when you actually need God. They did need God. They were powerless against Jabin’s Canaanite army. The “commander of his army was Sisera…[who] had 900 chariots of iron. He had oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years” (Jdgs. 4:2-3). Rape, pillage, and plunder—that kind of thing. Sisera would return from the battlefield with wardrobes for his mother and women for his men (cf. Jdgs. 5:28-30). Many of God’s people were left without clothes—many were taken without clothes. It was the darkest of days. 

But God raised up Deborah to be judge over Israel. The world had been under the rule of power hungry men all its days–almost all of them (cf. Gen. 1-2)–and God was doing something new, again. Righting this kind of injustice would require a woman’s touch—and sword. Deborah appointed Barak as commander of Israel’s army and ordered him to rally 10,000 troops to go to battle against Sisera and his army. Barak was afraid. He said to her, “If you go with me I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Deborah didn’t resist or even give him a hard time about it. She was half way to the battlefield before he could finish his proposal. She was ready to put those days to death. She led Barak in the charge against Sisera’s men from the hill country to the meadow by the river Kishon, “and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword not a man was left” (Jdgs. 4:16). 

But Sisera was left, and with him the seeds of yesterday (Jdgs. 4:17). He had abandoned his men on the battlefield and fled to the tent of a Kenite, formally a Canaanite ally. But this tent was not ruled by formalities. Love never is. This was the home of Jael, lover of God, enemy of all who oppose him. 

Sisera barged in and began giving orders. He thought he was in charge here. But Jael had her own way of doing things. He ordered water. She gave him milk, a meal, and a blanket, far more than he asked for, in fact. That was just her way. He then ordered her to stand guard and to lie if anyone came looking for him. And it would be the last order he ever gave. She was not a liar, nor was she his ally, and she certainly was not his slave. Jael was a lover of God, loyal to him alone, and on that day she was called to be the enforcer of his law and hammer of his justice. 

And Sisera said to Jael, “Stand at the opening of the tent, and if anyone comes and asks you, “Is anyone here?” say, “No.” But Jael…took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. 

~ Judges 4:20-21

That Day the meadow was painted dark red, coloring the river as it carried the past away, and the land was finally at rest. Twenty years of the same dark night was buried at last and a future was born. It was the Dawn of a new day, for the sun had risen in all its might. 

Most blessed of women is Jael: lover of God, soldier of the dawn, enemy of the dark.

The (God-Damned) god Within

Dali painting

Salvador Dali, Christ of Saint John of the Cross


Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 

~ Hebrews 12:2

After about three months of focused reading of a number of ancient spiritual mystics and modern psychologists who would be called spiritual mystics if they were ancient, a clear message has emerged: if you haven’t discovered God, then you haven’t looked and listened deeply enough within your own soul. Discover your true self and there you will discover the God who accepts you just as you are. You need only now to accept yourself just as you are. You may even need to forgive yourself, but mainly just for not accepting yourself.

As much as I have gleaned from what I have read–there’s some laudable stuff on the woes of technology and the unexamined life–I cannot help but confess that in my own experience of the infinite inward dive I have never found anything other than an infinite inward abyss. Now it may just be that I am especially void of any inborn divinity or particularly undiscerning of the God who is always within. It could be that my spirituality isn’t mystical enough or my psyche isn’t spiritual enough. I could just be an anomaly of godlessness in a world of demigods.

Whatever the case may be, if there are others out there like me who have looked soberly within to discover God and discovered nothing but the self standing in empty space, perhaps you will benefit from the path I took toward discovering God. But the following only applies to such as these. Conveniently, it is only a three step path.


Once you get to the bottom and discover there is in fact no ground beneath; once you see that there is no one else there accepting just as you are; after you’ve carefully listened for that eternal voice saying of you “This is my beloved in whom I am well please” and hear only hissing echoes of your own disguised persuasions; once your exhaustive inward search has led you only more deeply into despair and you are finally ready to give up—now you are ready. This is where the path begins, where it began for me, at least.

Step one: turn around. Stop stop looking inside yourself for the God who accepts you just as you are, because perhaps God does not accept you just as you are. He didn’t accept me just as I was, or am. Step two: consider that. Consider that the reason you can’t hear the divine voice calling you his beloved and assuring you he is well-pleased with your life or sense the peace of his presence is because, perhaps, your life is not well-pleasing to God, and perhaps he calls you by other names. And if you can entertain the notion that God does not accept you just as you are, that he is not well-pleased with your life, that you have not lived as his beloved but as a rebel, across enemy lines, you really only have one last step, and it is your last resort.

Step three: look outside of yourself and fix your eyes on Jesus Christ, the crucified One.

Once you begin looking, keep looking. I mean really look, like the way you’ve been looking in yourself. Fix your eyes on him, hanged, and there begin to listen–not to what the voice says about you but to what the voice says about him, the One called beloved by his Father in heaven, the One call by other names down here. Make sure it’s him you see, that he’s the victim, not you. Don’t confuse the well-pleasing waters of his acceptance for the displeasing flow of your forgiveness. Let the cross be the measure of your life and your love. And when you hold your gaze long enough, as though there were nowhere else to look for God, as though all the world has been called to find God and be found by him in this one place, and it alone, you will inevitably be confronted by just how displeasing you are just as you are, because your life and your love are nothing like the well-pleasing love of God revealed in the displeasing death of his beloved Son. He’s not like you, not like me. His life, his death—that’s just not what our lives looks like.    

If you discover your true God there, at the cross, it is there you will discover your true self: a bona fide God-damned demigod, seated on a throne, floating on an abyss, guilty as Adam for the high treason of heaven–-“you will be as gods” (Gen. 3:5)–-an apple fallen not far from the tree. Jesus, after all, was nailed to a cross only after “Pilate…sat down on the judgment seat” (Jn. 19:13). He was a man-damned God. But when you see your God hanging there, high in our curse, carved into our tree (Gal. 3:13), the sun will rise, the truth will burn hot and clear in your empty soul, and you will see that it is not divine acceptance you need. It is divine forgiveness. And you need it desperately.


The human race is guilty of the highest offense, and that includes you, whoever you are. We’re not dealing with double-parking at the pearly gates or our devotion to the Seahawks over the Sabbath (though that is indeed a capital offense, cf. Exod. 31:14). We are guilty of condemning God. We have crucified God’s Son. There he is, the One who is always God, who one day was crucified by us. Even if it was not an undoable death, it is an undoable offense. Indeed, it’s a repeatable offense, and we repeat it every time we place God’s judgments under our judgment, which is all the time. All the time we disagree that the wages of sloth is death, the wages of gossip is death, the wages of greed and lust and covetousness and anything-less-than-love is death. Who does not daily disagree they deserve to die daily? Yet daily we are spared, up until our last day, at least. But Jesus did not deserve to die, ever, and one day he did, because we killed him. There he is. We accepted ourselves and rejected our God, condemned, crucified, cast out of human life. Fix your eyes on that truth.

You don’t need divine acceptance. You need divine forgiveness. But for that, you need not look anywhere else. Indeed, you must not look anywhere else. And if you can see that, I’m certain you don’t want to look anywhere else. For behold, the amazing love of God for a godless wretch like me, like you.  

For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...While we were enemies of God, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son…There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

~ Romans 5:6-11; 8:1

Guilty, yes. Condemned, no. So bow, beloved sinner, and let God be seated within. 

 

The Other Ants & The Grasshopper: A Fable for Becoming Human

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The moral of the story from The Ants & The Grasshopper (above, as found at The Library of Congress), one of Aesop’s Fables, is among the most damning morals of any story ever told, if drawn from this telling, at least since the morals of the Old Testament story (although in an altogether different way). In my failure to adequately censor the story selection suitable for my own children–Lord, have mercy–I made the tragic mistake of reading this utterly perverse fable to them at bedtime last night. Since it is impossible to un-tell a story once told, below I have written not so much an alternative reading but what I will tell as “the rest of the story” in a sequel under a similar title.

May the God of the Seventh Day redeem our work with his rest, his joy, his beauty, so that, in Plato’s words, “after being refreshed in the company of the gods,” as it were, we might again find the moral courage to “return to an upright posture.”  


The Other Ants & The Grasshopper

One dark winter evening a family of Ants was dancing about by the bonfire, celebrating during their annual season of play, when an ant from another colony, bored out of his everloving mind, wandered up, a sack of rations hanging heavy on his back, and knocked on the door. The music stopped with a screech, and one of the Ants (slightly annoyed by the interruption) opened the door, at which point the weary visitor humbly begged to join the party. 

“What!” cried the Grasshopper in surprise, from the mic on stage at the front.

(The Grasshopper had been leading the Ants in song and dance. The Ants and the Grasshopper had developed a symbiotic relationship, which began one late autumn day when the Ants approached a starving Grasshopper, after being brought to tears while overhearing him play Mozart’s Requiem on his violin under willow tree. They had never felt such a bright, longing sadness, or really much of anything, other than feeling a little hungry just before lunch breaks. So they approached the Grasshopper and asked him to join their colony. They offered to provide him with food and shelter in exchange for the Grasshopper providing them with music and laughter, as well as officiating weddings and funerals for them. The Ants taught the Grasshopper how to work with his hands, but his only real summer responsibility was to provide music at the work site, which they discovered actually made their time at work quite enjoyable, especially after he taught them how to whistle while they worked. They did let him work alongside them (on the rare occasion he actually wanted to), although he mostly just got in the way. But even his clumsy contributions were amusing to the Ants.

(The Grasshopper, on the other hand, taught the Ants how to play and rest, which included all sorts of strange and frankly useless (in any ordinary sense) activities. He taught them how to play instruments, even forming a summer internship program for a select group that would only work half-days in order to spend the second-half of each day practicing for the evening winter celebrations. He taught them how to dance (well…kind of), and was always quite amused at their stiff and clumsy movements, often commenting at their uncanny ability to turn every dance move into “the robot.” He held cooking classes, teaching them how to think outside the box and to experiment with new recipes, an altogether unexpected contribution that changed their whole approach to and methods of food-gathering, which had formerly been one-dimensional, with the only goal of maximizing their “energy reserves.” This actually led to a reorganization of the entire colony into three primary work crews in a new division of labor (breakfast crew, lunch crew, and dinner crew), which were then subdivided into smaller work crews with various assignments, all with the goal of maximally diversifying the possibilities of each meal, right down to the smallest group (one of the dinner crews) assigned only with the task of gathering garnishes.

(He also taught them about the visual arts, holding art appreciation classes on Tuesday evenings and painting seminars on Saturday mornings, during which they never ceased to be astonished in discovering just how different each of them “looked” on the inside through the array of unique expressions on the canvases (it was actually this discovery that led to them taking individual names as well as beginning to name their children). He even taught them a number of interior design techniques to help brighten up windowless living spaces, which they had found especially helpful for battling against Seasonal Affect Disorder, apparently common to all ants, not only because of the darkness but because they never really knew what to do with the time, or with themselves, when they couldn’t spend it working.)

“Haven’t you found anything worth celebrating in the winter? What in the world were you working for all last summer?”, asked Jim (one of the Ants). 

“I didn’t have time to learn how to play,” whined the ant; “I was so busy storing up food for the winter that before I knew it, summer was gone.” 

The Grasshopper and the rest of the Ants shrugged their shoulders in disgust. 

“Storing up food, were you?,” they cried. “Very well; now eat!” And they slammed the door in the ant’s face, at which point the Ant family erupted in shout of laughter as the music resumed and they went on with their celebration. 

The lone ant sat outside, ear pressed against the door, and eventually starved to death. He hadn’t even finished his rations, for he had lost his appetite. 

The moral of the story: there’s a time for work and a time for play. 

 

~ A tribute to Josef Pieper

Chekhov’s ‘A Dead Body’—An Interpretation

After reading Chekhov’s A Dead Body (full text can be accessed here) I was curious to see how others interpreted it, so I looked at a handful of analyses from a few literary sites and was quite surprised by the frankly unimaginative readings I discovered (and one perhaps overimaginative reading). They were mostly preoccupied with surface observations about stranger danger and speculations about a hidden murder mystery plot, but all the interpretations I found basically amounted to Chekhov cautioning us against trusting people too much, especially peasants.

In my best judgment, the story is a parable about faith in a Christ, who at times seems as absent today as he was on Holy Saturday. Indeed, Christ is the dead body in the story, as the fire’s ‘purple glow’ is intended to reveal. Faith in the story is expressed by “keeping watch,” hence the two watchman, who had been ordered to “keep watch” like the ten virgins in Matthew 25. To keep the faith they, like the virgins, had only to keep the fire burning and keep watching. 
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Read in that light, the story ends with (a) the pious (but fearful) pilgrim and the smart (but prideful and also fearful) young man walking into the ‘outer darkness’ of the night, as it were, away from Christ, and (b) the simple, humble, and faithful watchman dying with Christ (staying with the dead body until he “fell into a gentle sleep”), and so being raised up with Christ. Allusions to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 throughout the story, but especially here at the end and at the central (purple glow) fire scene.
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The last two lines leave the reader with (a) Syoma’s eyes closed, eyes which had been resolutely fixed on the fire from beginning to end, save for when left to gather wood to feed it (as the young man “shielded his eyes” from it), and (b) with the dead body “lost among great shadows.” Between his eyes closing and the shadows emerging, Syoma fell asleep and the fire went out. The fire is the substance of Syoma’s life, which is indeed his faith–it consumed all his attention and efforts from beginning to end, and so it should since his job as a watchman is to “keep watch”!
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When his eyes are closed and fire extinguished, Syoma is left in darkness with the dead body. But “soon” after that, “the dead body was lost among great shadows.” The singular dead body is now gone from the darkened scene, replaced though with “great shadows.” How can “great shadows” appear in the darkness of a fireless night, a scene that leaves us no light to cast a shadow nor any to distinguish the shadows from the night? The only thing left to imagine in the scene is two men, one dead, one asleep, united in the darkness of the scene (now established in both 3rd and 1st person perspectives, (hence he fell asleep but only after he closed his eyes) until the former is lost in great shadows. We are thus forced to imagine a light “from above” that now only reveals that the body is gone, a light that itself is only revealed by what stands in front of it, as Syoma before the fire, casting its shadow. Indeed, the opportunity for the watchman has passed, the door of the banquet has shut, and the Light of the world now remains only in the great shadows of those who died with Christ, and so who have risen with him. 
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Ironically, both the smart young man and the pious pilgrim “knew” the soul stayed with the body until “the third day,” so their “superstition” condemns them in the end—the watchman for abandoning the body for profit (like Judas), the religious man for his fear of death and bribery of the watchman (like the Pharisees). Thus, “the sound of their steps and the talk died away into the night.” This is the dawnless night of death that will henceforth forever remain in the glorious shadows of life. To quote the pious pilgrim’s first words in the story: “Oh, ye that love not Zion shall be ashamed in the face of the Lord!”  
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But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
     —1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
A Dead Body was indeed written for our encouragement: keep the fire burning, and keep watching!