Tag Archives: humanity

Doing sensible and human things.

Not only is my mind typically scattered to the four winds, but it is also buffeted and pushed down and downright dominated by currents of thought — and current events — that somehow turn into raging hurricanes. But in my daily life, they are only passing and mental hurricanes, so when I read this quote from my daughter Pearl, I was freshly encouraged to call frequent moratoriums on the practice of wondering whether it might be a Viking or a bomb or a car wreck that will eventually make my loved ones suffer.

“In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.’

“In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

“This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

—C.S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948)

I also don’t need to spend (all my) time researching how bombs are made, or why the Vikings are so ruthless. Which is great, because it leaves more time for writing a chatty blog post to my friends, which is a very human thing to do, and I hope sensible as well.

September 1st really felt like the first day of fall! It hasn’t warmed up much since, but I’m sure we will get some hot days in the next weeks. My fig tree is absolutely loaded, and one of the four winds that my mind goes to is Preparation for Preserving. Get out the dehydrator, and gear up for the harvest: pushing through the perennials and bushes that surround my tree, and stooping under the low-hanging branches to extract the plump fruits, which are revealed by contrast with the big green layers when one by one they turn black.

I went to a nursery the other day to lay in a supply of echinacea purpurea plants to set out this month. Some areas of my “new” landscaping need reinvigorating after six years, and I have been longing for the standard echinacea species that I used to have. The white ones in my front garden are thriving, the multicolored ones in the back are not.

A friend who was moving across the country asked if I would like any of the potted plants he’d kept on his small patio. I evidently hadn’t paid much attention to them when I’d visited his duplex, because I said I’d take them all, and was quite surprised to end up with 37 pots of plants. Three of them are quite large, and two of those are gorgeous jade plants.

So — I have more lovelies in my garden to keep me company and give me good work to do. This morning I  went out to take pictures of a couple of them to post here, and ended up watering. Not one but two blue jays were visiting my property, and adding to the ambiance with their scratchy voices that make me feel for a moment that I am in the mountains. I noticed a ripe fig, and ate that as a fast-food breakfast. Then… a few ground cherries for dessert! Ah… September.

Areas in which human moods are present.

When I for the hundredth time renew my efforts to be civilized, to sit at the table while taking time to eat my meal, it gives me the opportunity to make progress in one of the print books I am in the middle of. If reading while eating is uncivilized, there is no hope for me.

Today it was Irrational Man, by William Barrett. Since I began reading it I’ve probably acquired a dozen more books, several of which I feel somewhat urgent about. But I’ve noticed that as days and months go by, this intensity of feeling shifts from one book to another, and waxes and wanes, often shrinking away completely to be replaced by an indefinable mood of summer that rules out urgency. The thoroughly warmed state of my bones is a contributing factor. We humans are composed of many parts not to be discounted. As Barrett says in the first chapter,

“Philosophers who dismissed Existentialism as ‘merely a mood’ or ‘a postwar mood’ betrayed a curious blindness to the concerns of the human spirit, in taking the view that philosophic truth can be found only in those areas of experience in which human moods are not present.”

This is a theme in Irrational Man. I may have already reported that some reviewers called Barret an anthropologist. He is also psychologist enough to want to present his own analysis of the whole man, whichever philosopher he is talking about, to help us in “the endless effort to drag the balloon of the mind back to the earth of actual experience.” According to my own Orthodox Christian understanding, he is often insightful. As a true anthropologist, though, he tries to be objective in assessing the “culture” of his subjects, so it is hard to know what his personal religion and beliefs might have been, apart from his voicing them when applicable to his subject. They were probably in flux, too.

I know — I hope — I will keep talking about this book, or at least will keep posting interesting quotes about things I can’t claim to know much about. I appreciate that the author has a vast knowledge of history from which to compose his own thesis, but of course he is nonetheless limited by what has been written down and by his own finite mind and life.  In any case it’s wonderful to me that he could accomplish this book, which does seem to be an act of love. And I repeat, his prose is a joy.

For now, my own time to think and synthesize is severely limited, and I probably should not have even taken so long to write this intro to the quote that is what I wanted to share today, from the chapter on Nietzsche:

“…godless is one thing Nietzsche certainly was not: he was in the truest sense possessed by a god, though he could not identify what god it was and mistakenly took him for Dionysus. In a very early poem, ‘To the Unknown God,’ written when he was only twenty years old, he speaks about himself as a god-possessed man, more truthfully than he was later, as a philosopher, to be able to recognize:

“‘I must know thee, Unknown One,
Thou who searchest out the depths of my soul,
And blowest like a storm through my life.
Thou are inconceivable and yet my kinsman!
I must know thee and even serve thee.’

“Had God really died in the depths of Nietzsche’s soul or was it merely that the intellect of the philosopher could not cope with His presence and His meaning?

“If God is taken as a metaphysical object whose existence has to be proved, then the position held by scientifically-minded philosophers like [Bertrand] Russell must inevitably be valid: the existence of such an object can never be empirically proved. Therefore, God must be a superstition held by primitive and childish minds. But both these alternative views are abstract, whereas the reality of God is concrete, a thoroughly autonomous presence that takes hold of men but of which, of course, some men are more conscious than others. Nietzsche’s atheism reveals the true meaning of God – and does so, we might add, more effectively than a good many official forms of theism.”

-William Barrett in Irrational Man

 

Art credit: “Summer Wine” by Diane Leonard

Born into everyone’s business.

Encounters with strangers often leave me feeling deeply connected at the fundamental level of our common humanity. People you don’t know, who may be needy themselves, or may help you in an emergency, or with whom you share a crisis, are often easier to feel close to than your dearest friend or your cousin you’ve loved since you were children. That is because you have nothing but your humanity to connect with. No offenses given or received have been stuffed into your baggage regarding that person.

Like the Indian woman I once sat next to, so very close to, on a plane from Mumbai to Frankfurt. She actually had been seated behind me when we first boarded, but before we were told to fasten our safety belts the man next to me, I guessed he was her son, traded places with her, perhaps so she could sit by a woman. I don’t know, but she and I liked each other, we could tell by our smiles, though we said not a word to each other during eight hours, not knowing the words.

Today in the Orthodox Church we enter Great Lent with the Vespers of Forgiveness, when we also connect with many people we hardly know, on the ground of our fallen humanity. We admit with a bow and a kiss that we have sinned against them, whether we’ve ever spoken to them or have even seen them before. We exchange the words, “Please forgive me!” with each person in the service in turn, and each of us responds, “God forgives!”

Why? Because, as Elder Sophrony said, “Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us, affects the rest of the universe.”

I’m sure many of us find it difficult to comprehend, but going through this exercise every year will help us learn the truth in our hearts. Father Stephen Freeman helps, too, in passages like this:

The universe as an event of communion, a reality in which we literally participate, is quite foreign to the modern mind. The fiction of our radical individualism is an invention designed to promote the most irresponsible account of human freedom possible. It tells us that our lives “are our own,” and that we can act without consequences for anyone other than ourselves. “It is none of your business!” is the heart-cry of modernity. But this is simply not true.

We are born into everyone’s business and everyone’s business sets the stage and the very parameters of our existence. The language we speak, the thoughts we think, everything in our lives comes to us already burdened with the history and experience of the world around us. The saints treat this reality in the strongest possible sense. “My brother is my life,” St. Silouan says. By this, he does not mean simply that he cares strongly about his brother. He means it in its most literal sense. Not only is my own life not my own, but the life of the other is, in fact, my true life, or my true life certainly has no existence or reality apart from the life of the other.

Read the rest of the article: Why We Forgive

And if you are keeping Lent, I pray that through your efforts and God’s grace you and we all will grow in understanding of this life that we share. God bless you!

Seoul, Korea

*pictures found online

Ivan was not ready.

This month our women’s book club at church read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Sunday afternoon we met at my house to discuss it. That day on the liturgical calendar happened to be the Sunday of the Last Judgment, with the Gospel reading from Matthew 25.

In that passage, before we come to the day’s reading, Christ has been speaking privately to His disciples about the end times, and telling parables. One is about virgins getting enough oil for their lamps, and the other about servants making good use of the gifts they were given. Both parables end with someone arriving and some people not being prepared.

Ivan Ilyich was most certainly not ready for the arrival of his death. He and his friends were like many people in that they avoided thinking about that inevitability. The story opens with the fact of it, and his funeral, which doesn’t affect his friends very much, because thank goodness, it wasn’t their death, so they can go on as they were before. Then the author takes us back to see Ivan’s life over the years, and close to the end when he could no longer avoid suffering, and had to face a reality that didn’t fit into his life’s theme of doing what was pleasant.

The Gospel for the day is sobering, and our pastor reminded us of what his late father, also our priest, used to say, that the task of the preacher is always to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This passage continues in the thread of being about Someone’s return. Christ, the Son of Man, begins to talk to His friends more directly, if metaphorically:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” And by what criteria exactly does He sort them? If you haven’t read that account recently you might want to look at it; the whole process is laid out with much detail in Matthew 25. Our preacher said it is like getting the answers before the final exam.

I was teaching my usual church school class afterward, and read in preparation a sermon by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that I liked very well; I shared it with the students, too. A quote:

“We are told that when the Day of Judgment comes, those who will stand before God – and those are all of us – will not be asked about their creed, about their theological knowledge, about their theoretical convictions. They will be asked direct and concrete questions, that can be summed up in one: have you been human, or not?”

Steve Robinson wrote similarly: “The separation is this: Who was paying attention to life itself, our Life in a constant icon before us, and fulfilling the Image in which we are created? Who is, in love and sometimes even in ignorance of the Name of the Image, paying attention to what is ultimately our Salvation now, and ever, and unto the ages, even though we do not know it.”

It is the disruption of Ivan Ilyich’s pleasant life, the pain of his illness, and the growing realization that he is dying, that make him pay attention, and even pray. His prayer is along the lines of, “What did I do to deserve this?” but nevertheless: “Then he was still, ceased weeping, held his breath, and was all attention; he listened, as it were, not to a voice uttering sounds, but to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts that rose up within him.” 

He begins to consider that perhaps “he had spent his life not as he ought….” Eventually, Ivan “saw distinctly that it was all not the right thing; it was a horrible, vast deception that concealed both life and death.”

This idea of the right thing ties in to what we heard in the homily at church, that God’s judgment is not of the sort we exercise and endure by the same name in the world. His judgment is essentially what happens when the One Who understands everything and is perfect Love sets things right. It would appear that as soon as Ivan prayed the feeblest prayer, his Father began this process.

The end, when it came for Ivan, leads us to believe that he passed from death to life. It did not come without agonizing struggles. He had missed life while appearing to be alive, all the while not preparing for death, which turns out to be the beginning of his true life.

Until they were separated, the sheep and goats had been in the flock together, being cared for by the Shepherd. Steve Robinson points out that sheep and goats alike were clueless about how their fate had been decided; it wasn’t fear of judgment that made the sheep love their fellows and act like sheep — or leaving the metaphor, as the humans God created them to be. Neither did they see Christ in the needy person whom they clothed or fed or took into their homes, but they loved that person anyway.

Metropolitan Anthony ends his sermon with this exhortation: “One day we will stand before Him. He will meet us with His infinite love, but looking at Him we will see that He has been our victim throughout life in the person of every one whom He loved and whom we have neglected, humiliated, rejected, allowed or caused to suffer. And how terrible it will be at that moment to look at Him and know that there is no anger, no hatred in Him, but deep, deep pain. Let us think of that, and remember… if you want to be divine, first be truly human.”