Tuesday, March 19, 2019

the usual exceptional

Joseph
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

Gabriel
No, you must believe. 
Be silent and sit still.

W.H. Auden, For the Time Being


If we could, with a single interior glance, see all the goodness and mercy that exists in God's designs for each one of us, even in what we call disgraces, pains, and afflictions, our happiness would consist in throwing ourselves into the arms of the Divine Will.

Marie of the Incarnation


How did I get here?

One fragile Friday, I begin to cry during Mass that I arrived to late. Tardiness is often the straw that snaps the last threads of resolve that have been pulling me through a long week. I pour out my tears, born mostly of frustration, at the feet of the Immaculate Conception statue above the altar of this grotto chapel.  I have tried so hard, I silently fret—with more childish bewilderment than bitterness— so. hard. to do "God's will." I have tried so hard to find the "right path." I don't really even know what it means to do "God's will." This is most likely contributing to my frustration. I'm like an ox that's sent out to till the earth, but I'm harnessed to a sickle, not a plow.

(Pardon the metaphor; I haven't spent much time on farms.)

The point is, I've got the wrong image of sowing all together. I'm doing my darndest at the task but I've got a faulty start from square one.

In the midst of the Niagara of hot, frustrated tears, an (even later) Mass-goer slings their backpack over the seat next to me—the appointed latecomer seat closest to the door that I left open for whatever tardy Elijah would appear after me. Oh Great, I think, in large sarcastic font, as snot drips down the gutter between my nose and lip. I need someone sitting next to me like I need a hole in the head (a colorful expression passed down by the West Texas women flowing through my maternal bloodline). As I try to erase the salty Euphrates streaming down my cheeks, the vision of Elijah melts into the familiar visage of my friend Peter's face. And a chipper midcentury voice, faintly dented by the baritone pockets of cigarettes, greets me in a whispered salutation:
Oh hey!

I have known very few people named Peter in my life. But most of them have (perhaps the original Simon Peter's) knack for crashing into scenes and executing a bullish grace, even as they smash all the china. There's something truly holy in the utter lack of craft.

There's nothing like someone sitting next to you to remind you that you are not a brain bubbling in a stewing vat of your own emotions—you are a person, who exists in a world of other people; look, here is one next to you, who knows you and will ask you what's wrong if you're crying. So either be prepared to explain your tears (and it better be a good story) or lay aside your woes for now, and enter into what's here—a reality we're sharing.

As it strikes me how much effort I have put this year into exegeting and executing the will of the Divine Mystery, part of me softens (maybe I have decided to finally abandon the sickle for the task of plowing) and the thought occurs to me that maybe this effort is really all that can be asked. I almost laugh at myself for the sheer amounts of mental strain with which I tugged the sickle. What do I believe in truly? Was it God's providence, or was it the second half of the equation, who helps herself? Good Pelagian that I am, I place most of my trust in my own strength, and when success eludes me, it is only because I haven't exerted enough strength yet. Not that one not ought to give of oneself, pouring oneself, through effort, into the world. But, like men's seed, morality in effort seems to consist in where it's headed and how. Of course it has only one option: go forth, but to what end and by what means—there's the rub.

Perhaps this effort is the task.

This is not an original observation, but when you really love someone, it seems to be impossible that you can make something beautiful enough to adequately express your love for them. Whatever you make for them has to contain the entirety of your love for them. There's an urge for totalizing self-gift that manifests itself in the creative act. John Steinbeck expresses this in his dedication of East of Eden: Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pat didn't ask John for everything, he just asked John to make a box.

That is how I feel trying to write something on the solemnity of St. Joseph. St. Joseph is not Pat, he is not even Peter, he is not a presence of my waking world, who calls me out of myself, who asks me for something: a box, a phone call, a MetroCard swipe. This is maybe absurd, writing something for someone who never even asked for it. Is this melodramatic, self-aggrandizing?

Perhaps. I know I have a tendency towards both. But I also know that today, March 19, is a day imprinted with the sort of meaning you ascribe to birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays—it is dedicated to the celebration of one person or event and all occurrences of the day refer back to him or her or it. It's perhaps the most primal form of love—worship—turning whatever beloved into the ordering principle, the logos of that day or time or season. How quickly, of course, love can turn to idolatry.

I love Joseph, because he offers such great hope. Hope that, actually, the will of God is present even in the most insoluble disasters of insolvency. That, actually, the angels who pop up next to you in chairs and dreams can shepherd you towards salvation. That, indeed, what is asked of us often seems surprising, contradictory, or unexpected. How does one go forward? Love. Just love the Virgin, love the Child, love your carpentry in your quiet, lovely Nazareth.

That is his story, and I love him for it. I love him because if his story of God's love in his life is one of saying yes without knowing what comes next, of trust and silent faith, then it must be, in part, mine, as well.

We are not asked to know the ending of the story, we are not asked to have a strategy, we are not even given one elegant and important proof that the path we are on is the wise, smart, or correct path. We ask for directions but are given no roadmap, other than to burst like Peters into creation, with nothing more than our sincere efforts and good intentions to offer all we have to what we love.

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