Feeds:
Posts
Comments

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.

Continue Reading »

Advertisements

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.

One Year Later

img_1252

Yesterday evening, I was able to drive to El Dorado, Kansas, to Sunset Lawns Cemetery, and Dad’s gravesite. I arrived just after sunset, as last light was fading in purple and indigo. Facing Dad’s headstone, I looked out to the west. To my left, the high-pitched hum of pipes and gauges and pumps of the refinery accompanied the rhythmic chirruping of crickets, underneath an undulating meson of a Kansas breeze.

It was important to me to be there on the anniversary of Dad’s passing. I wanted to mark the day praying the Trisagion at his gravesite. I wanted to share my heart, how much I missed him. To say again those words I said repeatedly a year ago as my family and I shared his final struggles: “I love you, Dad.” And, yes, to cry a little.

The grief is different a year later. A year ago, it was sharp and fresh and new, chaotic and disorienting. A year later it is still as painful, there are still as many tears which still come at the oddest moments. A year ago, the grief was ever-present, extended out over everything. A year later, it feels deeper, more settled. And a year later, in these recent days, it has been stirring deeper things.

A year ago, I was confronted with the previously unthinkable: the mortality of my father. I prayed desperate prayers for Dad’s healing, prayers that he would rise from his bed and remain a while longer with us. A year later, I am more deeply confronted with my own mortality.

What is this life that I am living? Certainly not the one I envisioned newly emerged from my college graduation. Goals and plans and dreams left undone, mouldering in the pile of the untried and undone. What legacy will be mine after my own departure? My daughters are barely on the way to their adult lives. What have I given them, what am I giving them, that can orient them and shape their hearts and minds such that they embrace beauty, goodness and truth? What have I left my fellow man in the way of love and service that will outlast and outlive me? Do I have anything to give? Even something as ephemeral as an essay, a book, a novel? What sort of son and brother am I? What mercies am I offering to family?

Though we now know Dad’s diagnosis was long in coming, the news for us was so sudden, and our final days with him so short. And yet, what grace we were given in that two and a half months. Maybe God can take such a life as mine, one so lately marked by constraints and struggle, and by that same grace turn it in to something.

These rough and undisciplined thoughts begin in politics, touch on art, but ultimately, I hope, plead for thoughtful engagement on persuasion to a more beautiful way of living. They have been catalyzed by the dismaying outcomes of the political processes of this election year. But they have been a realization that has been dawning for some time. Though I am going to attempt to be as charitable as I can in their expression, I doubt I can utterly diminish the deep frustration and irritation I feel at the state of the conservative movement and, relatedly, traditional, or small-o orthodox, conservative Christianity.

Continue Reading »

The End of the Forty Days

To everything there is a season, and the 40 days of daily memorial prayers for my father has come to an end. We will continue to remember Dad in our daily prayers, as we commemorate the departed by name, but the prayers reserved to accompany the departed from this life into the next will now become less frequent. We will pray them again in a little over four and a half months, and then annually. We will commemorate Dad on the memorial Saturdays which occur periodically throughout the year. But this special period of forty days has come to an end.

As much as these prayers are a comfort to the bereaved, it is nonetheless a good thing for us to rest from these labors. And make no mistake, dying, and grieving too I am learning, is labor.

Continue Reading »

This coming June will mark ten years since I wrote a series of blogposts looking at Christianity as a philosophia, a way of living, generally similar to the various ways of living as the various ancient “schools” of philosophy (Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and so on). I first had to deal with the modernist notions of philosophy as some academic subject limited to the classroom and dusty books no one reads. Rather, in the ancient world, philosophy was a way of understanding the world, and of living in light of that understanding. Stoics didn’t just believe certain propositional claims, but, rather, lived their daily lives in way that was unique to their belief-system. Indeed, in the ancient world, Sophists were generally despised because the were considered disingenuous, making certain claims for money, but not from conviction or from a way of life.

At the time, I had read, and clearly was strongly influenced by, Pierre Hadot’s work (his collection of essays Philosophia as a Way of Life and What is Ancient Philosophy?). Although, in contradistinction to Hadot, I don’t see Christianity (that is to say, ancient Christianity) as the catalyst for the demise of the connection between philosophical inquiry and a way of living.

Lately, I have been returning in my thoughts to the content of these essays and considering re-envisioning them, though on a somewhat larger scale. I would like to re-write them in a more wholistic project. I don’t know if that will happen, but I thought I would at least collect all the blogpost links in one convenient place for later reference. I would also like to revise certain comments and lines of thoughts. At the time, I was anticipating the birth of my younger daughter (and in fact, she was born prior to the completion of the last couple of blogposts (on marriage and fatherhood, and the concluding post), so these are grounded in that reality. My life has changed somewhat since then, so it may well be that I have other things to say ten years later.

Christians: Grammarians or Philosophers?
The Way: Christianity as Philosophia
Philosophia and the Modernist Myth of Objectivity
On the Earliest Christian Understanding of the Faith as Philosophia
The Transmission of Christian Philosophia
The Life That is Philosophia
True Philosophia: Christian Way of Life in Opposition to the Schools of Antiquity
Christianity as Philosophia versus Christianity as Grammatike
True Philosophia and the Offense of Christianity
Christianity as Philosophia and Modern Society
Christianity as Philosophia and Evangelization
Christianity as Philosophia and Thoughts on Marriage and Fatherhood
Christianity as Philosophia: Some Concluding Thoughts