Thursday, December 4, 2014

but it still falls

" Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine," Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. "'Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your father knowing it.' "
"But the sparrow still falls," Felipe said quietly.

--The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

When my friend first recommended to me a book called "The Sparrow" I thought: Oh how nice: it's probably a great devotional book about Mary or Jesus or St. Francis, or like you know just like gentle lambs frolicking under the providence of God. A sweet devotional book, with some meditation on providence and sparrows flying about in the tender hands of the Lord, singing sweet psalms of praise in the dewy mornings.

That is not this book.
There are no gentle, innocent lambs in this book.
There is nothing sweet and soft in the denouement of this book. The shrouded evil that has attacked, battered, and broken our main protagonist priest is only revealed in the last few pages, and it is an evil so bizarre and ugly that the shock of reading those words will be an impression I remember for a long time.

But in this tale of broken and mangled human nature, I found a story of Divine Providence more powerful than any tale of lambs in meadows. But what an incredible books about providence--more powerful than lambs frolicking in a meadow.

It reminded me of one of my favorite books, Silence, (coming soon to a cinema near you, courtesy of Martin Scorsese, starring Andrew Garfield, whose casting in this movie is courtesy of Divine Providence) While Shusaku Endo's Silence is a sharper novel, more poignant and theologically more mature, The Sparrow follows in its footsteps with delicate artistry and on an unabashed epic scale. They are books where God is felt in His heartbreaking and haunting distance; where the question that runs through each chapter is: Where is God in all this?

My heresy sensors were on red alert throughout the book. "Heresy Sensors" are the name that my friend and I have christened that unique tension that appears, mounting inside of us, as an unknown and as-yet untested homilist begins his sermon at Mass. In the presence of a bringer-of-truth, something screws itself up in your stomach, a fundamental fear of being lied to. You listen to them and wonder: can I really trust this person? Will this person lead me astray or lead me aright?
Some fundamental concern and anxiety screws itself up inside our hearts, and we find ourselves on the edge of our seats, our ears tensed up as we brace ourselves for the first thud of an indelicate, ungraceful sentence of unorthodoxy.

This is not because we are fashioning ourselves as Grand Inquisitors, championing a cold, cruel justice in the name of Correct Thinking. Rather, our Heresy Sensors are what I imagine watching a second Philippe Petit dance between the Twin Towers would be like. You are watching a human being attempt something grand, beautiful, and terrifying: trying to walk the thin, delicate road of Truth. Who can attempt it without falling, careening into the quarter-mile cavern of sky between you and ground? Speaking the Truth is not for the faint of heart, and I tremble as I watch a man step out into the void with nothing but a cable and a long balancing pole to aid him.

 As I turned each page of the book, I felt the thrill of watching these characters dance on the edge of truth, particularly the character who spoke with the author's voice, and her counterpart and foil. It was breathtaking. Just when I thought that the book would just be about to endorse full-fledged, scandalous error, it would spin around delicately and subtly to the brink of orthodoxy. Ms. Russell's lovely, thoughtful, and anything but conclusive prose leads the reader to the edge of truth, but leaves it suspended in the air, inescapable, compelling, yet tantalizingly just beyond an easy grasp. There is never an easy grasp of truth, and Ms. Russell is not going to pander to our wishful thinking that would have it so. Her story has a lovely adolescent, tempestuous theology. It is raw, honest, provocative, with gaping wounds from growing pains, and a firm intuitive grasp of the truth, without the ability to articulate its subtleties.

This book drove me to do what I swore I would never do: follow in my mother's footsteps and read the ending of a novel prematurely. I was stuck on page 100, and I was so curious, fed-up, and frustrated with not knowing what evil had fallen upon poor Fr. Sandoz on this other world of Rakhat that I just read ahead to where he finally choked up a confession of his story. Because, until I finally had the story, I was reading 100 some-odd pages of a man wallowing in his misery. Unless I had a story and a reason behind the misery, I was quickly losing sympathy and patience. So I read the ending before the fullness of time.

I defend my inexcusable choice for two reasons: the suspense isn't spoiled so very much: you know from the very beginning that something tragic happens to Sandoz, and that he ends up back on earth, broken and alone from page one of the novel. And secondly, knowing the pain that Fr. Sandoz was feeling, the book read less as a thriller, with suspense as the driving force that pulled me along until the shocking and heart-breaking end. Rather, it was a tender and bitter Via Dolorosa, that I walked with Fr. Sandoz and his fellow travelers. Which, I felt, brought home the reality of the novel in a deeper way. The Passion that Fr. Sandoz undergoes is truly awful, ugly, brutal, and evil, and knowing that this was the climax of his journey tinged the events leading up to it with a much keener sadness and beauty.

--"What is this man?" 
"He is a soul in search of  God."
--Brother Behr

I have never read a book that has so consistently moved me to tears--tears of sorrow, and tears of great love. Throughout the book, I found myself in awe of a God so beautiful and desirable, that, even in such dark nights, when He is completely hidden from us, when nothing seems farther from us than our Beloved, He is there. That some how all the ugliness of the world cannot tear the desire to seek God out of the human soul. Is that what Divine Providence is in its essence? Is it dangerous, Ms. Russell's book asks, to let oneself fall in love with God? Of course it is.
How can it not break your heart?

 The "passion" that Fr. Sandoz undergoes is brutal, ugly, full of the wickedness of sin. It is harsh, ugly, like Flannery O'Connor-levels of brutal grace and then some. But, perhaps the hope--our grim and desperate hope, as heavy and as essential as an anchor--is that there is really no situation which can break the human being's connection to God. There is no place--in this solar system or another--where we can be held away from God. Not in a sentimental way, but just in a solemn factual way. But, that, we believe, is the entire point of the paschal mystery, of Christ's death, descent into hell, and Resurrection. There is not one part of the human condition into which God will not descend with us.

So: Where is God in all this? He is here. He is not far off; His immanence may be intangible, but it is inescapably true. This may be the only consolation and comfort we ever receive, this terrifying and brutal truth. But maybe this is the consolation that, as we could only confess to ourselves in our darkest nights and moments of deepest honesty, is the only one that fundamentally, truly matters.  

 "He's the genuine article. He has been all along. He is still held fast in the formless stone, but he's closer to God right now than I have ever been in my life. And I don't even have the courage to envy him."--Fr. Giulian

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