Worth Dying For

"I HEAR YOU ARE entering the ministry," the woman said down the long table, meaning no real harm. "Was it your own idea or were you poorly advised?" And the answer that she could not have heard even if I had given it was that it was not an idea at all, neither my own nor anyone else's. It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring in the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening of the heart at the sight of misery. It was a clamoring of ghosts. It was a name which, when I wrote it out in a dream, I knew was a name worth dying for even if I was not brave enough to do the dying myself and could not even name the name for sure. Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you a high and driving peace. I will condemn you to death. 

I pick the children up at the bottom of the mountain where the orange bus lets them off in the wind. They run for the car like leaves blowing. Not for keeps, to be sure, but at least for the time being, the world has given them back again, and whatever the world chooses to do later on, it can never so much as lay a hand on the having-beenness of this time. The past is inviolate. We are none of us safe, but everything that has happened is safe. In all the vast and empty reaches of the universe it can never be otherwise than that when the orange bus stopped with its red lights blinking, these two children were on it. Their noses were running. One of them dropped a sweater. I drove them home.  

-Originally published in The Alphabet of Grace


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From Afar

THE WOMAN AT THE desk calls out my name. She mispronounces it. Maybe with the lectern and the limelight what I want more than anything else is simply for people to know how to pronounce my name. Maybe, as Dostoevski said about old Karamazov, "even the wicked are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are too." I could always change the spelling of my name to be phonetic, but then it would no longer be my name. The umlauts of the fathers are visited upon the heads of the sons. My name is mispronounced, but it is my name, it is me, and I rise from my seat at the sound of it. The message that the woman gives me is that someone has called to say that my friend cannot make it for lunch. The one I have been waiting for is not going to come, and I am Estragon waiting for Godot, I am the old man in the woods reaching up to a shape of air and closing his fingers down on emptiness. But in many disguises he has come before, and in many disguises he will come again before he comes finally, and once or twice I have even thought I recognized him. I watch the waiter suspiciously as I eat my lunch alone. I decide against the shrimp cocktail. 

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets! All these also did not receive what was promised but greeted it from afar, and then there are all those who did not much believe in the promise to begin with, and it is not always possible to tell the two apart.   

-Originally published in The Alphabet of Grace


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Novelist at Work

ON MICHELANGELO'S ceiling, the old man reaches down out of the cloud to touch Adam's finger and give him life. Here the situation is reversed. I am Adam reaching up to touch an old man's finger and give life to a cloud. I am writing about an old man who exists only in my mind. I have put him together out of scraps and pieces, most of them forgotten. There's some of Mark Twain in him, the old Mark they brought back in a wheel chair from Bermuda to die at Stormfield. There's some of the old man Isak from Bergman's Wild Strawberries in him who at the end of the film looks across a little inlet and sees a young man and a young woman in Victorian dress—the man in a straw hat fishing, the woman sitting on the grass beside him with a white parasol—and recognizing them as his parents, raises one hand in greeting as across the water one of them raises a hand to him. There's some of an old German cousin in him who looked like the Kaiser and walked through forests with his cane in the air naming trees. No need to list more of what went into my old man's making. It is enough to say that it is I who made him and not he himself. I speak not of Michelangelo's old man in the cloud but of the old man in the novel I am here to try to write. He is my old man, and it is in me that he lives and moves and has such being as he may be said to have.  

It is true that he has never run away with the book as novelists are fond of saying their characters do, but he has on occasion lived and moved in ways other than those I had in mind for him. For instance, he weeps from time to time. I had imagined him as crustier and more remote than that. Also, although I intended him to see ghosts, I did not intend the particular ghosts that he saw—Elizabethan ghosts mainly. He saw Shakespeare's ghost whispering on and on with a faint lisp about forgotten rooms and forgotten faces, and he saw the ghost of Elizabeth herself. "She had the worst set of teeth I ever saw," my old man said, "as if she'd been eating blueberry pie. Now, the dress and all could have been a figment of my imagination," he went on. "The dress I could have dreamed, but not the teeth. It would have taken a dentist to dream a set of teeth like that." It was I obviously who put those words into the old man's mouth, but I had not planned on his saying them any more than the old man planned on the Queen's bad teeth. It is the same way, I suppose, as with people you dream about. They have only your dream to move around in and they are your creatures, but they move with a curious freedom. It is my godlike task this morning to start the old man moving again. 

With the rain beginning to let up a little, I read back over the work of the last few days, an absurdly small amount for all the hours of my life I spent on it, only three or four pages in a script so nearly unreadable even to myself that I assume that at some level of my being I do not want it read, sentences written and rewritten and then so befuddled with interlineations that I have to copy them out all over again in order to read them and then in the process of copying rewrite them into illegibility again. I read it all over only to discover when I am finished that it is apparently not the words that I have been listening to but the silence in between the words maybe or the silence in this familiar room where I have spoken the name of Christ and signed myself with his cross. I have understood nothing of what I have read so I have to go back and read it all over again.   

-Originally published in The Alphabet of Grace


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A Doorway Opens

AT ITS HEART, I think, religion is mystical. Moses with his flocks in Midian, Buddha under the Bo tree, Jesus up to his knees in the waters of Jordan: each of them responds to something for which words like shalom, oneness, God even, are only pallid, alphabetic souvenirs. "I have seen things," Aquinas told a friend, "that make all my writings seem like straw." Religion as institution, as ethics, as dogma, as social action—all of this comes later and in the long run maybe counts for less. Religions start, as Frost said poems do, with a lump in the throat, to put it mildly, or with the bush going up in flames, the rain of flowers, the dove coming down out of the sky. 

As for the man in the street, any street, wherever his own religion is a matter of more than custom, it is likely to be because, however dimly, a doorway opened in the air once to him too, a word was spoken, and, however shakily, he responded. The debris of his life continues to accumulate, the Vesuvius of the years scatters its ashes deep and much gets buried alive, but even under many layers the tell-tale heart can go on beating still. Where it beats strong, there starts pulsing out from it a kind of life that is marked by, above all things perhaps, compassion: that sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside another's skin and for knowing that there can never really be peace and joy for any until there is peace and joy finally for all. Where it stops beating altogether, little is left religiously speaking but a good man, not perhaps in Mark Twain's "the worst sense of the word" but surely in the grayest and saddest: the good man whose goodness has become cheerless and finicky, a technique for working off his own guilts, a gift with no love in it which neither deceives nor benefits any for long.  

-Originally published in The Alphabet of Grace


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"Rejoice is the Last Word"

A YOUNG MINISTER acquaintance of mine said not long ago, "There are two kinds of Christians in the world. There are gloomy Christians and there are joyful Christians," and there wasn't the shadow of a doubt which kind he preferred with his smile as bright as his clerical collar, full of bounce and zip and the gift of gab, and there is little doubt as to which we all prefer. And why not? Joy is at the end of it, after all. Astonishment and joy are what our faith finally points to, and even Saint Paul, that in a way gloomiest of Christians, said as much though he was hardly less battered than the Jesus he preached by the time he had come through his forty lashes less one, his stonings and shipwrecks and sleepless nights. Yet at the end, licking his wounds in a Roman lock-up, he wrote, "Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice" (Philippians 4:4). But it is at the end that he wrote it. Rejoice is the last word and can be spoken only after the first word. The sheltering word can be spoken only after the word that leaves us without a roof over our heads, the answering word only after the word it answers.  

-Originally published in Telling the Truth


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