If you know no other prayer this year, know this one: Sunlight in a place you never meant to live. Contents of the safe deposit box stacked on the castoff table, red files in plastic bags, knowing the names of none of your neighbors, the mailbox empty each day—nothing forwarded—because you don’t know how long you’ll stay: the prayer of Where does one go next, anyway?
Nina Simone says you have to learn to get up from the table when love is no longer being served. Takes some learning, that one.
Because aren’t we bound to our tables? If there’s a shortage of love, aren’t we makers and homemakers called, indeed, to get up from the table—but to assemble the needful casserole from our own pantries and dish it into the very absence we feel?
This is the labor of art, the supper of the Lamb, isn’t it? Slice and serve-up yourself for the sake of those seated at the table.
But D.H. Lawrence finds us on the Via Dolorosa, soldiers, “all so brave to suffer but none of them brave enough to reject suffering. They are all so noble, to accept sorrow and hurt, but they can none of them demand happiness….This is what Christ’s weeping over Jerusalem has brought us to, a whole Jerusalem offering itself to the Cross.”
Much of what is served, and how, hangs on the host.
Any engagement, Lawrence seems to recognize, misfires in a glut of hosts: “To me, this is infinitely more terrifying than Pharisees and Publicans and Sinners, taking their way to death. This is what the love of our neighbour has brought us to, that, because one man dies, we all die. One is too raw, one fights too hard already, for the real integrity of one’s being.” Compulsion, he adds, would be the last straw: continuing of obedience to duty, too much to be born.
So when some strike of lightening snaps right on your head, and you realize there’s no love on the table before you—in that novel, among the business, for the faith, in the family—which is the integrity to be maintained? Should the occasion proceed at any cost? Are we called to see it through—to see through it— to proceed in a form we see is hollow?
You’ve toiled steadfastly to build this text, this structure, this belief, this household. Maybe you made a passable novel, but the thing wants to be a poem. Maybe you realize now the grocery list had a back side, or the salt that appeared seasoning was necessary for the bread to rise. Maybe the trouble isn’t that people change but that they haven’t.
You could sit and starve. I think most of us do. You could squeak back your chair, mumble a general apology and disappear. You could throw back the seat you’ve kept reupholstering, scream the now-evident truth and splinter the insufficient table.
Can one be a faithful iconoclast, a devoted home wrecker? Does personhood—the integrity of the individual—stand beside the maintenance of the assembly? Might wholeheartedness, communion—that offensive proposition we all require common nourishment—justify shattering respectable, carefully assembled structures? Or, is personal suffering and sacrifice The Way?
In their romance, Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis fought to find the answer. Lewis kept his distance, denied desire as a trustworthy compass to Life and hunkered down in formality: loyalty to form. Davidman challenged his conclusions and assumptions saying her bruised hands—her personal passion “might have ways to teach you tenderness. More than you have learned from all your prayers.”
Joy offered him sonnets. He rejected them. She tried to sanctify her passions—make them Passion—fit them to the pure, religious institution he understood as love. He “would not have them.” She bitterly concluded, “Woman, take two nails instead and hammer for his sake the spikes where they should go, til there has grown within each empty hand a brilliant rose of sacrificial blood. He might have those.”
Theologian Karl Barth criticizes “the rigidity of our obedience which is no true obedience, the strictness and anxiety with which we observe, watch, and harass ourselves and others, sincerely supposing it to be for the best, the hardness of thought, speech, and will which now usually characterize what are thought to be the best of people, the far too self-conscious and self-assertive attitude of those who want to be Christians in earnest.”
When form preempts function, when the occasion takes precedent the over guest, when establishment trumps esteem, the center does not hold. ‘Occasion’ rises from the Latin ‘toward a fall;’ institutions can be asylum or asylum. These are the lessons of the Pharisees. The idol Jesus sacked, scorched, splintered, smacked, shackled, stained, and split was their holy commitment to right doing over human being.
But Christ said, “Whomever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.” Surely this is a call to suffering—to walk with Jesus down the path of personal pain and sorrows bearing the burdens to which we’ve been sentenced. But we’ve missed the context.
One sentence before this exhortation, Christ calls Peter Satan—the adversary, the accuser, the death-bringer—for “setting your mind on human concerns, not on the concerns of God.” Peter’s human concerns? That Jesus refuse death and be fulfilled within the ruling structures. The concerns of God? That it is no good for one to gain the whole world at the cost of her own soul.
Barth reminds us we are God’s little children—“we must not play the part, then, of adult sons and daughters of God who gradually come to be on a level with their father. We must not try to view our work as a solemnly serious cooperation with God on the part of those who will be or are already becoming his colleagues.”
“We are always, in fact, his little children,” Barth continues, “and our work in relation to his is more play than work.… As God’s children we are in fact released from the seriousness of life and can and should simply play before God.”
Takes some practice, that one.
When we assume it is our call to suffer, to sacrifice ourselves for others and to sustain a world, we forget our place at the table. We have taken the place of the Host.
Play requires flexibility of form (as does dance, as does poetry)—a sheet that becomes a roof, a name that becomes a song, bread that becomes a body, water turned to wine. There is no joy—that holy laughter—without surprise. Dance, poetry, love—the most beautiful things we make together rely on flexing form. Bonhoeffer dared to believe God could call a person even to unbelief so faith itself could take new forms.
Our language has told us this all along, but we have misunderstood. When a thing is too much to be born, it must be born—not suffered, but newly conceived.
So if you know no other prayer this year, know this one: Play—because you don’t know how long you’ll stay. The play of Where does one go next, anyway? A cast-off table, safety deposited, none of your neighbors in files, boxes empty each day; nothing plastic, bagged, forwarded, stacked, or red. Your name known: content in the sunlight of a place you never meant to live.
I start over, trying different tricks, until I can prop each bloom in a semi-erect position. How ridiculous. I know it will be useless. I am perfectly conscious of setting up a sad masquerade. What is this pathetic comedy for? My own sake, I guess. These sunflowers are in agony, maybe already dead, but I have to pretend I’m doing the impossible to rescue them. I’m doing it, no matter the cost.
That day we explored this passage in Brothers Karamazov, I saw in my professor a humbling acknowledgment—that there are things which belief fails to fully reconcile. That something like suffering and the weight we feel because of it seem, at times, incompatible with the love and reconciliation we so desperately seek in our horizontal and vertical lives.
The radar confirms what I sense. An amorphous green mass, outlined with yellow and red, tilts from the well of Texas to the roof of Michigan. I wait for it—the sky like a pressure cooker, eager and dangerous with its current of heat and force.