Sunday, April 9, 2017

Gravity and grace

I've been thinking it's time to explain the name of this blog. I tried just laying it out--it has to do with philosophy--and realized that laid-out philosophy is not my forte and for all I know it may not be yours. I haven't read all that much philosophy to tell the truth--it's just that the little I've found myself capable of focusing on has come to mean so much to me. And I really do, I really do have such a hard time focusing on anything so disembodied. It's the ones who don't disembody it that I can actually read. Like Kierkegaard and--at least some of the time--Simone Weil, whom the blog title actually comes from. (A philosopher who, in the last few years of her short life, became a Christian mystic.)

But I'm going to start at the other end this time, with the embodying. With what I've done with what I've learned about gravity and grace; with the secret worry I have, that my new book is going to be "too dark" for the American Christian reader, and why I made the choices I did in writing it.

Because yes, it is dark. If you read it you will see people you've met--people you've seen laugh with their friends and hold their children--deported by the Nazis, and you will never see them again. No-one in the book finds out what happened to them, whether any of them might come back. I could tell you, though--and not because I as the writer decided it. There's not a single deportation in the book that isn't based on a real incident. I can tell you the real names of those who came back, and those who did not. And that is part of why I made the choices I did--because I didn't want to insult the memory of those real people by telling this story as if what happened to them didn't happen.

So I did it because it's the reality of history. But also because it's the reality of life. Gravity; the inescapable force that pulls us down. And because if you skimp on gravity, you skimp on grace. And I did not want to skimp on grace.

The retreat we just hosted was for interns from Emmaus Ministries, a group of people who minister to men in Chicago who engage in prostitution to survive. Most, if not all, of these men are addicted to drugs. The interns are the ones who go out on what they call Outreach: walking around Boys' Town till two-thirty in the morning wearing badges that say EMMAUS in large letters, which mark them as "someone you can talk to, if you want to get out of it." Sometimes they refer to the men they serve as "the guys"--but mostly, they speak of them by name. They give their hearts, not only in charity but in friendship, to people embroiled in choices that are destroying them spiritually and putting them at physical risk. People they know they will have to cry for. One young woman talked about begging a friend, out on Outreach in the middle of the night, not to get on a certain bus--and how broken she felt when he did anyway. Al Tauber, the long-term staff member who came with them, described feeling like a deep-sea diver with the pressure of death all around him, God keeping him alive one breath at a time. He told us a story about a bush in front of their Ministry Center that they had thought was dead for weeks, months, till one day a green shoot rose from it, then quoted to us from a song he wrote recently. The verses were dark and tragic and real; I mean really real, some of them about friends who had died. Then the chorus, sung by his wife in her beautiful voice, which as he described it I pictured rising like a thin golden thread, like a bird: "From the stump a shoot will grow..."

I couldn't see all that well through my tears, but I think all of us in the room may have been crying.

It's just the same message you always hear. It's just the same. There is hope. It sounds so stupid sometimes, so shallow. But when the speaker of the message gives gravity its due, then, then you hear the far, clear music ringing.

What do I mean by gravity? Maybe you know by now, but I'll explain. Simone Weil, in her book Waiting for God, writes about suffering, about how the careless powers of the world--"necessity," the world and its physical laws we cannot escape--can simply crush us. She writes about the beauty of those powers, too: "In the beauty of the world brute necessity becomes an object of love. What is more beautiful than the action of gravity on the fugitive folds of the sea waves, or on the almost eternal folds of the mountains?" The law of gravity is her symbol of this, of the beauty and the indifference and the crushing power of the world.

And then set against it is grace--the miracle. Set against gravity is the Hand that lifts.

It reminds me of Kierkegaard's concept--the only concept of Kierkegaard's I really understand--of infinite resignation and faith. He shows us two men, one of whom has mastered "the movements" of infinite resignation, of giving up the good things he cannot have. But the other goes beyond him: he masters those movements too, but then goes on to learn the movements of faith, and believes that the good things will--may--will--be given back to him. The miracle of the "knight of faith" is that he truly is resigned--if his heart's desire is not given to him, he accepts that without bitterness--and yet he truly believes that God will provide.

It's the word infinite that matters here. Kierkegaard insists, absolutely insists, that the resignation is infinite. Weil insists that gravity is absolute, and cannot be fought. We can give ourselves up to it, or fight it; it will kill us in either case. The man who makes the motions of faith without infinite resignation has false faith--a touching optimism. A short circuit. He's in the final lap of a swimming race having almost touched the wall before turning back.

It's not the shape of the story that matters. It's the same story, whether it's about danger and rescue, or critical injury and recovery--or death and resurrection. And yet it's not.

It's not the shape of the motions that matter. It's going all the way.

Jesus went all the way.

This means so much to me, more than I can say. I had a spiritual experience once--which I may share someday--that seemed to tell me this is what God has given me to offer. To write in such a way as to give both gravity and grace their full weight. That's why I named my blog after this. All my life I have been obsessed with darkness and light.

My book is about the inescapable reality that victory--necessity--gravity--is on the side of the big guns. I had to give that reality its due. I had to grind it into the soul of my character till he felt it in his bones. Without that, the miracle is not a miracle. It's the guilty reassurance we give to a young child because we know we cannot explain and we do not want to terrify, the lie that it's going to be all right, everything is going to be all right.

It's not going to be all right. We are all going to die.

And then God will raise us up.


Image credits: Gloria Wilson (flying bird), Franz von Stuck

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