Word and Deed

The following meditation is from a talk on the occasion of the presentation of the Whiting Writers' awards: 

I THINK OF PAINTING and music as subcutaneous arts. They get under your skin. They may get deeper than that eventually, but it takes a while, and they get there to some extent tinged by if not diluted by the conditions under which you saw them or heard them. Writing on the other hand strikes me as intravenous. As you sit there only a few inches from the printed page, the words you read go directly into the bloodstream and go into it at full strength. More than the painting you see or the music you hear, the words you read become in the very act of reading them part of who you are, especially if they are the words of exceptionally promising writers. If there is poison in the words, you are poisoned; if there is nourishment, you are nourished; if there is beauty, you are made a little more beautiful. In Hebrew, the word dabar means both word and also deed. A word doesn't merely say something, it does something. It brings something into being. It makes something happen. What do writers want their books to make happen?  

 

- Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry 


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.

"Creative" Writing

The following meditation is from a talk on the occasion of the presentation of the Whiting Writers' awards: 

SOMETIME IN THE early 1950s, for two years running, I taught creative writing at the summer session of the Washington Square branch of N.Y.U. . . . I was uneasy about teaching creative writing for a number of reasons, one of which was that I've never been sure that it is something that can really be taught—for better or worse, I don't think anybody ever taught it to me anyway—and another that I had absolutely no idea how to teach it right if it was. But my main uneasiness came from somewhere else. Suppose, I thought, that by some fluke I did teach it at least right enough so that maybe a couple of people, say, learned how to write with some real measure of effectiveness and power. The question then became for me what were they going to write effectively and powerfully about? Suppose they chose to write effective and powerful racist tracts or sadistic pornography or novels about warped and unpleasant people doing warped and unpleasant things? Or, speaking less sensationally, suppose they used the skills I had somehow managed to teach them to write books simply for the sake of making a name for themselves, or making money, or making a stir. It seemed to me and still does that to teach people how to write well without knowing what they are going to write about is like teaching people how to shoot well without knowing what or whom they are going to shoot at. 

 

- Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.

Jonathan

WHEN KING SAUL found his oldest son, Jonathan, siding with David, whom he considered his arch-enemy, he cursed him out by saying that he had made David a friend "to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother's nakedness" (1 Samuel 20:30). They are strong words, and some have interpreted them as meaning that Saul suspected a sexual relationship between the two young men. 

This view can be further buttressed by such verses as "The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul" (1 Samuel 18:1) and the words David spoke when he learned of Jonathan's death, "Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women" (2 Samuel 1:26). When David and Jonathan said good-bye to each other for almost the last time, they "kissed one another and wept" (1 Samuel 20:41), we're told, and there are undoubtedly those who would point to that too as evidence.  

There seem to be at least three things to say in response to all this. 

The first is that both emotions and the language used to express them ran a good deal higher in the ancient Near East than they do in Little Rock, Arkansas, or Boston, Massachusetts, or even Los Angeles, California, and for that and other reasons the theory that such passages as have been cited necessarily indicate a homosexual relationship is almost certainly false. 

The second is that it's sad, putting it rather mildly, that we live at a time when in many quarters two men can't embrace or weep together or speak of loving one another without arousing the suspicion that they must also go to bed together.  

Third, in the unlikely event that there was a sexual dimension to the friendship between Jonathan and David, it is significant that the only one to see it as shameful was King Saul, who was a manic depressive with homicidal tendencies and an eventual suicide. 

Everywhere else in the Book of Samuel it seems to be assumed that what was important about the relationship was not what may or may not have been its physical side but the affection, respect, and faithfulness that kept it alive through thick and thin until finally Jonathan was killed in battle and David rent his garments and wept over him. 

(1 SAMUEL 19 – 2 SAMUEL 1, PASSIM) 

- Originally published in Telling Secrets 


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.

Algebraic Preaching

X + Y = Z. IF YOU know the value of one of the letters, you know something. If you know the value of two, you can probably figure out the whole thing. If you don't know the value of any, you don't know much. 

Preachers tend to forget this. "Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior and be saved from your sins," or something like that, has meaning and power and relevance only if the congregation has some notion of what, humanly speaking, sin is, or being saved is, or who Jesus is, or what accepting him involves. If preachers make no attempt to flesh out these words in terms of everyday human experience (maybe even their own) but simply repeat with variations the same old formulas week after week, then the congregation might just as well spend Sunday morning at home with the funnies. 

The blood atonement. The communion of saints. The Holy Ghost. If people's understanding of theological phrases goes little deeper than their dictionary or catechetical definitions, then to believe in them has just about as much effect on their lives as to believe that Columbus discovered America in 1492 or that E = mc2. 

Coming home from church one snowy day, Emerson wrote, "The snow was real but the preacher spectral." In other words nothing he heard from the pulpit suggested that the preacher was a human being more or less like everybody else with the same dark secrets and high hopes, the same doubts and passions, the same weaknesses and strengths. Undoubtedly he preached on matters like sin and salvation but without ever alluding to the wretched, lost moments or the glad, liberating moments of his own life or anybody else's. 

There is perhaps no better proof for the existence of God than the way year after year he survives the way his professional friends promote him. If there are people who remain unconvinced, let them tune in their TVs to almost any of the big-time pulpit-pounders almost any Sunday morning of the year.  

- Originally published in Whistling in the Dark


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.

Vocation

IT COMES FROM the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God.  

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.  

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you've presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you're bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren't helping your patients much either. 

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet. 

- Originally published in Wishful Thinking


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.

Quality of Time

THE GREEK WORD chronos means "time" in a quantitative sense, chronological time, time that you can divide into minutes and years, time as duration. It is the sense that we mean when we say, "What time is it?" or "How much time do I have?" or "Time like an ever-flowing stream," in one of the hymns that we sing. But in Greek there is also the word kairos, which means "time" in a qualitative sense—not the kind that a clock measures but time that cannot be measured at all, time that is characterized by what happens in it. Kairos time is the kind that you mean when you say that "the time is ripe" to do something, "It's time to tell the truth," a truth-telling kind of time. Or "I had a good time"—the time had something about it that made me glad. The ancient poet who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes was using time in a kairos sense when he wrote of a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to keep silence and a time to speak. 

 

- Originally published in The Hungering Dark


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.

Adolescence

THE ANCIENT DRUIDS are said to have taken a special interest in in-between things like mistletoe, which is neither quite a plant nor quite a tree, and mist, which is neither quite rain nor quite air, and dreams, which are neither quite waking nor quite sleep. They believed that in such things as those they were able to glimpse the mystery of two worlds at once. 

 

Adolescents can have the same glimpse by looking in the full-length mirror on back of the bathroom door. The opaque glance and the pimples. The fancy new nakedness they're all dressed up in with no place to go. The eyes full of secrets they have a strong hunch everybody is on to. The shadowed brow. Being not quite a child and not quite a grown-up either is hard work, and they look it. Living in two worlds at once is no picnic. 

 

One of the worlds, of course, is innocence, self-forgetfulness, openness, playing for fun. The other is experience, self-consciousness, guardedness, playing for keeps. Some of us go on straddling them both for years.  

 

The rich young ruler of the Gospels comes to mind (Matthew 19:16-22). It is with all the recklessness of a child that he asks Jesus what he must do to be perfect. And when Jesus tells him to give everything to the poor, it is with all the prudence of a senior vice-president of Morgan Guaranty that he walks sadly away. 

 

We become fully and undividedly human, I suppose, when we discover that the ultimate prudence is a kind of holy recklessness, and our passion for having finds peace in our passion for giving, and playing for keeps is itself the greatest fun. Once this has happened and our adolescence is behind us at last, the delight of the child and the sagacity of the Supreme Court justice are largely indistinguishable.  

 

- Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.

Below a Time

WHAT CHILD, WHILE summer is happening, bothers to think much that summer will end? What child, when snow is on the ground, stops to remember that not long ago the ground was snowless? It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity—happy times and sad times, the time the rabbit bit your finger, the time you had your first taste of bananas and cream, the time you were crying yourself to sleep when somebody came and lay down beside you in the dark for comfort. Childhood's time is Adam and Eve's time before they left the garden for good and from that time on divided everything into before and after. It is the time before God told them that the day would come when they would surely die with the result that from that point on they made clocks and calendars for counting their time out like money and never again lived through a day of their lives without being haunted somewhere in the depths of them by the knowledge that each day brought them closer to the end of their lives. 

 

- Originally published in The Sacred Journey 


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.

Worship

PHRASES LIKE WORSHIP Service or Service of Worship are tautologies. To worship God means to serve him. Basically there are two ways to do it. One way is to do things for him that he needs to have done—run errands for him, carry messages for him, fight on his side, feed his lambs, and so on. The other way is to do things for him that you need to do—sing songs for him, create beautiful things for him, give things up for him, tell him what's on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in him and make a fool of yourself for him the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love. 

 

A Quaker Meeting, a Pontifical High Mass, the Family Service at First Presbyterian, a Holy Roller Happening—unless there is an element of joy and foolishness in the proceedings, the time would be better spent doing something useful.  

 

- Originally published in Wishful Thinking


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.

Pride

PRIDE IS SELF-LOVE, and in one sense a Christian is enjoined to be proud; i.e., another way of saying Love your neighbor as yourself is to say Love yourself as your neighbor. That doesn't mean your pulse is supposed to quicken every time you look in the mirror any more than it's supposed to quicken every time your neighbor passes the window. It means simply that the ability to work for your own good despite all the less than admirable things you know about yourself is closely related to the ability to work for your neighbor's good despite all the less than admirable things you know about him. It also means that just as in this sense love of self and love of neighbor go hand in hand, so do dislike of self and dislike of neighbor. For example (a) the more I dislike my neighbor, the more I'm apt to dislike myself for disliking him and him for making me dislike myself and so on, and (b) I am continually tempted to take out on my neighbor the dislike I feel for myself, just the way if I crack my head on a low door I'm very apt to kick the first cat, child, or chair unlucky enough to catch my bloodshot eye. 

 

Self-love or pride is a sin when, instead of leading you to share with others the self you love, it leads you to keep your self in perpetual safe-deposit. You not only don't accrue any interest that way but become less and less interesting every day. 

 

- Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.