The Greening

What is this grey? My morning’s window is a minor river, and the sun and sky are blanketed by a never-ending fleece. Late into the season, the trees still stand naked. Their fight to burst forth leaves has been in vain against the cold. A hundred-year chill.

Still they’ve stood trembling in the winds, budding defiantly. I think if they are forced to wait any longer, a mutiny will occur.

The rain comes down, and in the hour I’ve sat by the window, the world has changed. White poplar trunks are no longer quite so pale. Instead of the sallowness of winter dormancy, a faint hint of pale green tints them.

The grasses are dark gold, rich with autumn’s leftover colour and devoid of its lively variety. Grey road, dun world.

I wait a little longer.

Over in the corner of the yard, the tangle of chokecherry and willow is no longer a black scribble on a monochrome world. Red stems reach high like arms stretching to be lifted out of an underground prison.

All across the woods, leaf buds swell, bronzing the treetops. It’s that weekend. The one of resurrection.

What is this grey? Why is the sky weeping?

It’s just what happens at this time of year. Always has been and ever will be. Against this backdrop, the Paschal lamb and a dark night’s flight from slavery to promise. Against this New World thaw, the Roman occupation of the world that was, and the type of military efficiency that could invent a way to torture transgressors for days without requiring its soldiers to engage actively in the extended cruelty.

Crucifixion: An early example of automation, if you will.

Here stand the trees on the other side of the earth, raising fingers toward a sky that’s weeping. This week, of all weeks, spring finally shows herself.

She arrives at a rock wall with a hole hewn into it, expecting to find a decayed corpse well-flayed and left to rot. Death has happened and it’s done. Leaves have fallen. Cold has settled in. Limbs are icy. And it seems that it will stay this way forever and forever, all rumours to the contrary.

Instead, something has happened in the night. A sun’s ray of a soldier has removed the seal of death. Deep in the heart of the earth, a sudden breath is taken. The flaying and the icy cold are irradiated as the world tilts on its axis toward its source of light.

He has no remarkable appearance. Just a man. In the darkness, he unwraps the cloth from around his head, shakes it off, and leaves behind the bindings, neatly folded.

The seal is broken open.

She arrives, prepared to grieve what was and isn’t anymore. A promising and remarkable life, over. A disappointment to outlast all other heartbreaks.

Instead, she finds the Gardener.

Who else would be about so early in the morning dew? Just a man whose daily job is nurturing creation. Through tears she looks at him and past him, still looking for scars and wounds and the first signs of decay. He stands there, upright and with his dignity evident and unassailable, while she’s still expecting defiled nakedness.

She comes looking for an ending. And it is.

Winter always ends.

Deep in the woods on the other side of the world, the snow still lies thick and sodden. Last year’s foliage is crumpled on the ground like discarded newspaper. It has seemed that the resurrection forgot us this year.

The life I lived for the last decade and a half is over — in a way. Re-beginning, in another. It’s just so late. And I wonder if those years were wasted. Sometimes it feels like the biggest mistake I could have made.

But whether they were wasted or not, things are starting over. Always something new to try, something else to learn, some other wonder to see.

Even death won’t change that. This world struggles against itself, tearing down edifices and doing battle over great achievements. What about that other world, when this one’s strife and disappointment melt away?

A greening that will be.

There is no heaven with a little of hell in it.

-George MacDonald

Every Natural Love

“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all… How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

-Penn Jillette, proselytizing atheist

The Great Divorce

“But could one dare — could one have the face — to go to a bereaved mother in her misery — when one’s not bereaved oneself?…”

“No, no, Son, that’s no office of yours. You’re not a good enough man for that. When your own heart’s been broken it’ll be time for you to think of talking. But someone must say in general what’s been unsaid among you this many a year: that love, as mortals understand the word, isn’t enough.”

-C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

There comes a moment in a Christian’s life when one doesn’t want to be a Christian anymore. Very rarely is it for the sake of our own cherished, secret sins. No, those we justify, as Lewis has rightly noted elsewhere. We tell ourselves tales of how our own unrighteous thoughts and inclinations can’t be so very bad, for after all, we’re Christians.

No, the moment when one has a sudden urge to quit Christianity is in the moment of loss. Loss of face, loss of self-respect, loss of valuables or dreams.

Loss of loved ones.

Hypotheses and Realities

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

-Philip K. Dick

A short time ago, a friend listened to me rail against the empty hypotheticals that arrive with profound loss. In general: Oh, she is at rest now. Oh, she is at peace. Or on the Christianish side, oh — perhaps there was some last-hour miracle in which her heart changed, or perhaps all go to heaven due to some overbearingly rude indifference of God toward the will of those who have no wish for a God at all.

My grandmother was one who had no wish for God. From my childhood on, my grandparents were avowed atheists. It was she who taught me the art of thoughtful skepticism: to examine religion and large (or large-seeming) ideas and compare them to how the world actually works. She introduced me to Shirley MacLaine’s New Age notions and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. She mentored each of us in many a late-night conversation, preparing us for the deceits and absurdities of the adult world.

She did for us what was never done for her, and it changed my life.

It was my grandmother’s materialist atheism that taught me to look for and thoroughly question the connection between religious abstraction and concrete reality. In a very real way, her sense of intellectual principle has kept me a Christian all these years. I’m no intellectual lightweight, yet I can’t falsify it.

But I railed because, in the overture of a late and cold high summer, she died.

The Heart Has its Reasons

In the shoals of grief, the Christian quickly runs up against a sudden, fierce anger against God. If God can save whomever He chooses, and it’s nothing of man’s doing, then why doesn’t He save those for whom we pray most fervently? If God can intervene in whatever He chooses, then why doesn’t He save the failing marriage, rescue the broken engagement, spare the innocent child, relieve the suffering of poverty and war?

On the threshold of death, it would be reprehensible to posit some high-minded abstract answer. All I can or should say is that I know this angry struggle. I know it and I’m cut by it to the core of my heart, because she’s gone.

But I cannot, even now, accept convolutions of our love for loved ones. High-minded fancy is blasphemy in the space where reason knows nothing. As Pascal said, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

The afterlife (or lack thereof) is an abstract without connection to our real experience. We don’t know, so we make up fables and judge facts by them. This reversal can tear the heart to shreds in times of grief, precisely because it gives nothing to hang onto. Stop believing in it, and it goes away. That’s only another burden for the heart to bear.

“I Don’t Respect That At All”

Empty platitudes are no solution; neither is trembling at the natural differences of view between us who remain on this earth.

So, then: the anger of loss.

“…someone must say in general what’s been unsaid among you this many a year: that love, as mortals understand it, isn’t enough. Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this (heavenly) country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.”

“That saying is almost too hard for us.”

“Ah, but it’s cruel not to say it.”

(Lewis)

My love is not enough to invoke eternity. Not my love of work, not my love of principle, not my love of others. Only Christ’s love for my soul; Christ who died for me. And for you.

God, then, will have to be enough for me, because I can’t be enough for you. Why should I be? To say otherwise would be a tremendous conceit and a denial of my faith.

You can stop believing in me, and I can go away. In some sense, we ourselves are not a full reality. So, instead, I will entrust you to God’s goodness, and be good to you insofar as I can stumble through, because He is good.

Our Cultural Hells

“You cannot torment yourself,” my friend said, “with images from medieval paintings. Whatever comes after, we know that God is good.”

And he was right. Those images of hell are representatives of a relatively recent and bloody European culture, rife with the brutal treatment of rivals — burnings at stakes and other monstrous tortures. To acquiesce wholesale to them makes grief a vicious weapon that spears us through the heart.

Those are images of this world, not of the blank spaces in our knowledge of hereafter. Neither the outer darkness nor the light of heaven are within our sight while we walk this plane. Only their shadows fall here.

But if as non-Christians we torment ourselves instead with the idea of annihilation — that there is no heaven or hell but what we make for ourselves on earth — then we must believe that every natural love is ultimately destroyed.

That too is a culturally-driven speculation, a thing we can’t know.

I watched it shatter my grandmother when my grandfather died; I sat with her as she broke down and wept and berated herself for the illogic of grieving what, to her, simply didn’t exist anymore. Not him; not their love.

Yet we can’t know this as a fact, not in the way we know the sun rises in the east. Not in the way I know the knife-edge of anger at God in the face of death and loss and evil.

We arrive at eternity’s front path by an indirect route.

To Cross The Salt Sea

She always told me what she believed, because she loved me. Because she knew that to hold convictions on the greater good of humanity, and not speak, is disreputable and cowardly.

She’s gone; whatever comes after, I know that God is good. This, at least, is no abstraction; I can connect it to the concrete reality of life in all its pains, for I’ve experienced His goodness. And when I stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away.

There I begin, over and over again.

She taught me to look for the set of ideas that corresponds most robustly to the world’s visible facts. From there, we may triangulate the way forward, indirect though it be.

That gift takes me through her loss, beyond empirical reason, and charts me a course across the salty seas where reason knows nothing; where the heart’s reasoning rules.

And I arrive, over and over again, at this:

Every natural love is not destroyed. Some rise again, and live forever.

Free Sex and Comfortable Assurances

Just for interest’s sake, I took a look at the Amazon listings from the NYT Bestseller list over the weekend. The trade paperbacks were interesting cultural markers. [Ed. note: Article is from November 2012.]

In fiction: Sylvia Day and E.L. James held the top three slots. Effed-up characters doing outrageously naughty explicit things for the vicarious titillation of readers.

In nonfiction: Proof of Heaven and Heaven is for Real held the top two slots.

So, let’s see. Sin as the panacea for sin for entertainment, and a comfortable assurance that we all go someplace nice in the final reckoning for the next day’s hangover.

Or are they both just symptoms of escapism?

To put this in context, there are also a lot of political volumes on the list as I write this, just under a week after the election. That smacks of engagement, not escapism. I think it would be simplistic to suggest the porn penchant and interest in the hereafter are somehow analogous fictive dreams.

As a cynic about human nature and our ability to delude ourselves about our own goodness, it seems to me the common thread is more likely, “I did it my way.”

Whether gratification or anticipation of final reward, we like to think we’re entirely autonomous determiners of our decisions and our destiny. But even in the degradation of pornographic “redemption” tales, there’s still some concept of good and evil. No matter how screwball and codependent, the thought is there.

If good and evil exist, then we have a problem with this whole self-determinist scenario. What is good? How do we overcome evil? Does anyone actually want evil to continue in heaven? If not, then how serious are we about looking it in the face, here and now?

What happens if it turns out I am evil?

It’s more comfortable, I’m sure, to leave the question cast in shades of grey, and the hope of eternal life in the hands of nebulous personal anecdote. Our way is the highway.