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To Speak of the Sacred

It has been understood for millennia that what makes humans unique above all creatures is our power of speech, that is to say, our ability to communicate.  We certainly have the capacity for the most rudimentary forms of communication: “food,” “water,” “hungry,” “danger.”  But we also have a unique capacity to speak of immaterial realities: “love,” “spirit,” “god,” “heaven.”  In the preceding and most recent centuries, some have taken great pains to explain how alike we are to certain animal species.  But one glorious and irrefutable example suffices to emphasize our uniqueness: we can communicate about things we cannot see, and about those things that are not strictly necessary for material survival.  Monastics who never procreate can speak of the sublimities of divine love.  Yeoman farmers who will never study Kant or Descartes may nonetheless speak of existential angst; which speech does nothing to plant or harvest the crops.

Indeed, it is particularly the most obvious inutility of certain aspects of human speech that make us most unique and make us most human.  But perhaps such inutility is only obvious from a certain perspective.  For the power of articulation is precisely the ability to grasp the abstract realities from concrete particulars.  The observations of dozens of planting seasons yields the deduction of planetary motion.  That is to say, the uniquely human power of speech is the necessary comprehension of the realities underlying the perceived world.

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The Place of Reason and Science

If you’re looking to build a house, a hammer is an indispensable tool.  But it is not the only tool you’ll need.  To build a house, you’ll need a large array of tools and materials.  To insist that a hammer, and only a hammer, is the sort of tool you need to build a house is, at best, impractical.  It may also be delusional.

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Ours is a world of stilted prosody, flat and banal, the flourish of ad copy, the etymology of the focus group.  It is speech calculated to intended effect, never deeper than the sheen, no wiser than the fortune cookie paper slip.  It’s a monotone babble, furiously expounding the nothingness that fills that wasteland of spinning static, born of an ersatz orchestra of twittering chatter.

But we are made for much more.

In a mystery, we come to this at times when we are hollowed out by pain and loss, the trauma that raises that terrible tonicity, the deepening of the heart in lament.  Our mundane routine shifts, that sudden departure from the expected, the wrench that shreds us from within.  Suddenly what was, is gone, its fading imprint turning us inside out.  And the identity which shaped us is shattered at the leaving.  We are torn, the grasp on ourselves loosened.  We turn, looking for the poles.

We cannot speak of it.  The quotidian vocabulary no longer satisfies.  We are dumb, mute before the monstrosity which our world has become.

In that confrontation, sorrow stretches the soul into poetry.  We are given the unexpected meter and rhyme of tears and heartache.  New words are shaped, and we name again the things around us.  Including ourselves.

Trauma and loss are a sort of soul amnesia, the forgetting of the self that once was.  The stanzas which are written by tears, however, call out from the shadows the one we have been and are becoming.

It is through sorrow’s lament, that keening of the soul, that the self remembers whence it came, remembers and burns in that ache and that agony of loss.

In that piecing together of the self from the broken shards amid the ashes, there is a poetry that shakes and shapes, at once terrifying and comforting.  There I am, but who am I now?

We come to ourselves again, in these bits and pieces, glued together by compassionate embrace, the loving exhalation, inarticulate and fecund of meaning.  The breath trembles with the vibration of new harmony, the melody of a minor key, a refrain different but the same.

We are no longer, yet still we are.  New and fantastic, unknown to ourselves, yet known from the foundation of the world.  Poetry creatures in a prosaic world, we are misshapen and misnamed, but still anchored in the love which was ours, given and received, while being born in this strange new moment.

But ever the ache.  Hearts broken and not fully to be mended in this life.  Stuck in between until that reunion of lovers and loved.  Now singing, ever singing, in minor key, but lovely and beautiful.

The U.S. has been affected by three hurricanes and a mass shooting in the last several weeks.  These are only the tragedies that make for news ratings.  There are countless, untold tragedies affecting individuals and their families that occur everyday.  Incapacitating illness, death, betrayal, economic loss.  Suffering and loss are grievous burdens.  They take their toll on all of us, especially if it is our loved ones who suffer and we can do nothing to alleviate their pain.

What makes it even more difficult in our twenty-first century is that we have lost a great deal of our ability to endure suffering and hardship.  Advances in medicine alleviate many great evils that have afflicted humanity throughout history.  The eradication of crippling diseases.  The prolongation of lifespans.  We are trained to end pain as quickly as possible.  A headache requires little else than an acetaminophen tablet and a glass of water.  In minutes the pain is gone.  Psychologically, we are not equipped to endure prolonged pain.  Microwavable meals.  On demand access to entertainment, on our phones wherever we are.  Our whims and desires met at a moment’s notice anywhere, anytime.  So when tragedy strikes, we are not equipped with patience and fortitude.

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The Story of Us

Homo memorator.  Man, the rememberer, the story teller.  Narrative is inescapable.  Apart from mathematical formulae and shopping lists, we rarely merely recall facts and events.  Even the recollection of a mathematical formula is contextualized in the class and the teacher and the general events of our lives.  We didn’t just learn the Pythagorean theorem, but we had this teacher who . . . And we are off into story, narrative, beginning, middle and end.

The movies and books that sell well, however awful the writing and characterization, are the movies and books that tell stories that work.  Are they “formula”?  Yes.  Are they “good”?  Sometimes not.  But why do such things do so well?  Because they tell stories that resonate within us.  Good guys win.  Lovers reunite.  The travelers return from battling dragons with the elixir that saves the dying queen.

Because we are, all of us, storytellers to the core.  We organize the events and facts and desires and fears and all the flotsam and jetsam of our existence into coherent narratives.  Every instance we open our mouths to relate “how our day went” we have already interpreted these things in ways that begin “once up one a time.”  Our narratives are filled with heroes and heroines, victims and allies, villains and curses, and tragic or happy endings.

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Kansas Ground

The memories I carry of Kansas are marked with the feel of grass and earth, of wind, of open, arching skies, of the chill night air pierced by starlight, and the figure of a gibbous moon, chasing me as I looked out the car window, the night going before and after.

There were summers setting fence with Grandpa. That cold Thanksgiving as I sat in the pickup while Dad drilled winter wheat. Football fields and back yards, mowing lawns, weeding gardens, dust and grit, and mud.

From the soil Grandpa brought forth wheat, and Grandma snapped beans. Cattle dropped their excrement over the pastures. Grasshoppers danced along the waving grass, parting right and left as we made our way through the fields. From pastures and fields, I dug up cast off pocket knives, and rusted cans, broken bottles and snipped bailing wire, the flotsam and jetsam falling from tractor and truck.

There were and are, always, things buried deep in the loam of the heart. Pain and sorrow borne in silence. Anger vented in the slamming of a gate. Secret wounds carried, burrow deep under ground, germinating through the rhythm of the seasons. Heart-soil fed with fingers outstretched under the covers in sleep, reaching, seeking connection; or the hand on the forearm laid flat on the dinner table, briefly touching, the fleeting pressure of the grasp; a sigh. Hearts separated by, yet woven together in, the same silence, vocabulary too pale for the vivid colors of the soul. A domestic life, fenced and bounded by the shared look in the quiet home, the ticking of the clock marking the moments of integration.

Ever the contrariness of soil offers the risk of barrenness. It is a chancy thing. The ground is tilled, the seed sown deep, the soil watered and fortified. Yet the blowing wind, the beating sun, the icy blast, may shrivel what the farmer seeks.

He returns to a barn that’s empty, and a house that’s cold. He drinks his bitter coffee, tepid and stale from the day’s pot. The food taken at table is taken alone. He settles in the bed, the weight of her next to him, silent, breathing. The night passes, their backs to one another.

In another home, the same silence, the same pains and sorrows. But though she has taken her meal earlier, his coming late for the harried parsing of the failing sunlight, she sits with him. He eats, drinks his iced coffee. They sit together in the quiet broken by the scrape and clank of knife and fork, the tinkling of the spoon against the Mason jar, stirring. She clears his spot at the table as he rises stiffly to finish his day.

What fruits are harvested from this fertile ground may not be known till the reaping. To some, the yield is heartache and loneliness, the cyclic round of longing and indifference. To others a fecund grace imparts union, connection, the weaving together of sinew and joints, making of two the one. From the sweat of sunburnt brows comes love’s feast, and devotion, the cradling of one’s heart in the other’s hands. The emptying of one’s chest brings the filling of one’s heart. The joy the sweeter for having been broken. The harvest plentiful, watered by tears and sacrifice.

Memory Eternal

It was early, before sunrise, the morning of Wilbur’s funeral, and Grandma was awake, moving about in the kitchen, in her pajamas and bathrobe. She asked me if I wanted come coffee, and from a fresh pot already made, she poured me a cup. I sat at the kitchen table, and she joined me with her own cup of coffee. For the next hour, Grandma told me stories of how she and Grandpa had met, of barn dances, farm life, young romance and hard times.

It was just the two of us. As she talked, I entered with her the stories of her life with Grandpa. Although Grandpa had died more than a decade before, my own memories of Grandpa combined with the stories Grandma was telling.

A few months after that conversation, I found some genealogy documents about the Healy family, and there hidden away in the details of marriages, births, deaths, and hundreds of names of parents, siblings, children, out of nowhere a name leapt to my attention: Clifton Dwight. The name, Clifton, quite literally, appeared out of nowhere among all names listed in the genealogy. Next came Clifton Arthur. Finally, there was Grandpa: Clifton Fitzroy. I knew the rest. My dad was next. I had always been told I was the fifth Clifton. Grandma and Great Aunt Bessie were good to remind me of this all through my childhood. Here, in my thirties, I discovered that chain of names.

Shortly after my father died a year ago, I began to pray the memorial prayers for the dead. These prayers end with chanting, “Memory eternal.” It is a prayer. A plea not simply for everlasting renown, but for everlasting well-being.

Stories and memory, these are the things that make us persons. We do not know who we are apart from stories, the memories of our own lives, and those memories we inherit through story from our parents, our grandparents, our larger families. We do not merely remember events and feelings. We weave those memories together in a narrative. We are the stories we tell ourselves.

The Gospel does not come to us in propositions and syllogisms. It is not a summa, it is a story. Indeed, it is the Story. That is to say, it is the Story that transforms all stories. Our lives are the same group of events, the same set of dramatis personae, but now the plot has changed. In the muddled Middle, there is a twist, a surprise. We see our story differently. It is now part of a larger Story, a subplot that has been woven into the whole. Our memories are reordered. We see things differently.

It is not simply that our own personal stories are reordered and retold. It is that our own stories change. Our plots go in a new directions. We, and all who are ours, become stories in a larger whole. We become part of a community, a community who has its Story. The Story of the Church, the community brought into God himself, the Holy Trinity, by grace. A Story whose beginning stretches from the foundation of the world into a future we do not now see, and a way of everlasting well-being in which our memories, and our stories, will never fade.