“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return to the earth. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”
Forgive me, my brothers, for crying when I say these words, Fr. Zosima says in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, but they take me back to my childhood.
And I remember the small church in the cemetery, in Fagaras… the great Lent, and many children sitting down in the church, listening to Fr. Aurel… And incense.
But Job is naked, his children died and he lost all things.
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”
“Only evil contradicts good, but not the other way around,” Constantin Noica says in his Becoming Within Being.
“One can love a man only when he’s out of sight; as soon as he shows his face, that’s the end of love.” How can we love a naked face from the “dressed” perspective of our being? The face troubles us, takes us out of our comfort; it tells us to do things we don’t want to do. And we don’t want to do them because we are not naked, but dressed in the “clothing” that we have made for ourselves.
She passes by me and I smile to her. She smiles back. We’re in an airport. Our eyes lock for a moment, they dwell within each other, and I feel so alive. And old woman, with fragile steps, but so much present in the void of these full airports.
She reminds me of the Lady in No. 6; I have no idea about her life, but she lives in me and I in her. The Kingdom is at hand.
Only when we are so old, only, we are aware of the beauty of life.
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return to the earth.” Blessed be this nakedness, out of which streams love.
On the road again, on a bus… A beautiful, sunny day. Three people around me are sleeping. The only one awake is an older man, unmoved, his eyes looking into an absent horizon. And music.
So when I’m all choked up
But I can’t find the words
Every time we say goodbye
Baby, it hurts…
The man is the age of my dad; he just said goodbye to his son, most likely a graduate student. When his father got on the bus, the young man took his phone out of his pocket. “So soon?” I thought. Most likely, though, a coping mechanism: the young man had tears in his eyes.
When the sun goes down
And the band won’t play
I’ll always remember us this way.
Sunny today, but who knows how many storms around me. Does the band still play in the heart of the man who just left his son? He places his jacket on the seat next to him and looks straight ahead, unmoved.
Every time we say goodbye
Baby, it hurts…
I am going to a conference. He’s going home. Both of us have left a “home.”
But all I really know
You’re where I wanna go
The part of me that’s you will never die
Sunny today. Perhaps a storm tomorrow. But let us take our umbrellas and go through it. For truly, The part of me that’s you will never die.
I wake up early, and so I witness moments of remarkable beauty. A dawn that still allows the moon to be seen above a cloud, sun rays breaking through the branches of a tree… moments that I would have missed if I had not waken up. Moments that so many other people miss, and not only because they are not awake at this hour, but because they work, they live in other parts of the world, or simply because they see other moments of beauty, which I cannot see.
There is so much beauty in the world that happens in a second, regardless of whether we see it or not. Beauty in anonymity. Of course, there are those private moments that we occasion for one another, in the anonymity of our lives: the caress a grandmother has for a child, the smile of a parent when a daughter takes her first steps, or the serene forehead of your wife while sleeping next to you in the early hours of the day. Moments of which nobody else is aware–perhaps not even those who allow you to have them.
All of these moments we create for one another and we are aware of their unicity: we even desire them to be so. The caress is for me and no one else. But what about a sunset? Or what about a dawn that is not witnessed? For “my” dawn this morning would not have happened if I chose to sleep in. The sun would have still risen, of course, and the moon could still be seen, people may still have rejoiced in it, but that particular moment in which the beauty of the dawn took life in my soul would have missed its conception.
The world is indeed beautiful. And it is beautiful in anonymity, just as a forgiveness that is always there, always with its arms stretch on a cross, waiting for me to come before it so that it can embrace me.
Dostoevsky was right: beauty does save the world. And it does so in anonymity.
There is something touching about the idea that people live in their own world, in which I belong as a constituent, a world different than mine (I am not a character in my own world, but I am a character in their worlds): the responsibility I have for all because I belong to their worlds (you can read here some musings on this issue). What I mean here is that I don’t have to listen to Tavi, to wait behind him in line at a supermarket, or to deal with him as my spouse or as a driver on the highway. All the other people with whom I interact (and I would claim that all other people in the world, but this is a discussion for another time) somehow need to “deal” with me, depending on the relations that are established between us. So I am responsible for their worlds. At the same time, it is not really “me” who belongs to their world, and this is due to the way in which people see their own lives; or to the way in which people take a bite of their own lives.
There is one more level, though, and I sometimes wonder about the responsibility I have for that level: how responsible am I for the image of Tavi that is created in the discourses other people have about me or about what I say? Consider this situation: Mary and Johnny have a discussion, and Johnny describes something I said, but this description is filtered by Johnny’s own emotions and interests. The result is that Mary is hurt by “my” comments. Am I responsible for Mary’s feelings?
The first response–and this is the response that the majority of my students would give–is that Johnny has responsibility for what he says. I have done nothing. First, the description of my words is out of context. Second, I have not intended to say something that could have harmed Mary. Thus, Johnny is exclusively responsible for any harm Mary may have suffered.
However, the reality is that the event involves me, regardless of whether I contribute to it voluntarily or not. My problem is not whether Johnny is responsible or not for what Johnny does; my problem is how I contribute to his life and, by consequence, to Mary’s life. The paradox is that I am responsible even if I have no control over it.
The prayer before communion
I believe, O Lord, and I confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.
Of course, people hear “responsibility” and believe that this is a “moralist” approach. But the beauty of it is that it is not a moral responsibility, but rather the acknowledgement that I leave a trace in this life, for the good and for the bad. Regardless of my intentions, what I say or do can be interpreted, used, truncated. The point is, though, that I am an ingredient in this wonderful soup that is life (actually, this blog truly started with a text about this; you can read it here: the story about the death of a rabbit). And I cannot complain about its taste. As I was saying before, belonging to it makes me part of its beauty and of its ugliness; it makes me part of its taste. And since I participate in ugliness most of the time, regardless of whether I want it or not, I need forgiveness. It is not the moral or juridical forgiveness, but rather the curative one. If the world suffers and I am part of it, then the world and I need to be cured.
Perhaps everything that happens to us is, if we read it well, another call to humility–one may say that this is the genuine condition of theosis. I cannot say it better than Anthony Bloom:
To me, humility is not what we often make of it: the sheepish way of trying to imagine that we are the worst of all and trying to convince others that our artificial ways of behaving show that we are aware of that. Humility is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed.
And Mitya Karamazov comes to mind: “Gentlemen, we are all cruel, we are all monsters, we all cause suffering to people–to mothers and their infants–but, have it your way, I’m worse than anyone.”
Another paradox: this is an occasion for joy!
Anthony Bloom. Beginning to Pray. Paulist Press, 1970, p. 35.
A friend told me a story about how, in his youth, he and his family visited a lady. It was during lent. The lady went to the kitchen and started cooking the “Romanian way.” She took a pan, threw in some oil, and started frying some onion. “What are you making?” my friend’s sister asked her. “I don’t know yet,” the lady replied.
I find this cooking toward the unknown fascinating, especially because this is what life usually is. We are always “cooking” something toward the unknown, even when we “know” what we are doing and we follow a plan. In this case, however, I think it was a different kind of pursuing the unknown. It was not that the lady did not know what she was putting in her meal; it was rather that she was not making something that she has done before, so she could not exactly know the result. As it usually is the case during lent, you use whatever you have in the house for cooking. At times, those ingredients have not been together in a meal. So, although you know what you are using, you do not know what will come out of it. You only have a guess, according to how you may have used these ingredients previously.
But truly this is just like life. Every day throws at us different ingredients. And we use them to “cook” something with them. We have an idea about what may come out, but we haven’t lived the day previously, so, after all, we don’t know what will come out of it. Things get even more complicated because of the multitude of cooks. The point is, however, to go ahead and start cooking. Thrown some onions into a pot. Somehow, they will end up nourishing someone.
I rarely react to a movie the way I have when I watched A Star Is Born. This is mainly because of one notion: sanctuary.
In fact, I heard some of the actors talking about this idea, that the director created a sanctuary in their midst, and so their creativity could express freely. Beyond the love story, the problems of dealing with addiction, and the various other aspects of the movie, I think that the one thing that keeps it together is the feeling you have when you are embraced without rest, without being asked whether you qualify or not for that embrace.
There are people who give you this feeling; they are oasis of rest in a world deserted of meaning. You’re broken, you do not know where to go, you think that everyone around you judges you and writes you off as something that you do not recognize yourself to be, and then, as in a miracle, one other human being tells you that you can rest your head in his or her palm. This being does not tell you that it’s okay how you are; he doesn’t validate you. He just loves you.
You may say that the main character, played by Bradley Cooper, does this for the young singer who had given up her dream, but I think the movie is more than that. I think it holds together because of the experience of sanctuary that seems so apparent in the actors, but also in you as you watch the movie. It is an atmosphere that is genuinely created and offered by Cooper, who’s also the director of the movie, and this gives you a longing for home. Strangely enough, even if you have nothing in common with the characters on the screen, the sanctuary that takes place there tells you that you are welcome as well.
The main character is a broken individual, one with addictions, who ends up tragically. This is the beauty of it: it does not matter where you are in life. You can always be an oasis for someone else. In fact, every moment of our existence calls upon us to be such people. And we can fail being so even if we believe we accept the others. One of the scenes that I love is when Lady Gaga’s character tells Bradley Cooper’s character that “it is okay.” It is the first time she visits him at the rehab. He had lost control over drinking and embarrassed her in one of the most important moments of her career. He cries, expressing remorse. “It’s okay,” she says. “You don’t embarrass me.” Still, it gives the impression of an empty okay. What you feel at that moment is that a broken individual, one who cries and who feels as the last man on earth, is the one who has already embraced the person who is supposed to forgive him. “It’s okay, it’s not your fault,” she says. And it sounds as if she accepts him. Even if he’s accepted, there’s no sanctuary for him. This is because it’s not about “it’s okay.” Things are not okay. The world is broken. After all, nobody is asking whether things are okay or not. They all just yearned for love, the creator of sanctuaries.
“I hope you’re still with me When I’m not quite myself And I pray that you’ll lift me When you know I need help.”
Words from one of Lady Gaga’s songs for this movie.
“White flowers sing at the gate of the heart. Whoever has lived divine love will understand me and will be happy for my happiness. (…) Man is not saved in the monastery only. (…) The helplessness of human nature pains me, but love makes me happy” (Valeriu Gafencu)
These words were written 71 years ago by Valeriu Gafencu, on the new year’s night, in a communist prison in Romania, where starvation and terror were daily ingredients of life.
Alice Herz Sommer, Holocaust survivor: “Every day in life is beautiful. Every day.” “I knew that even in these very difficult situations there are beautiful moments. […] Even the bad is beautiful, I would say. Even the bad is beautiful… It has to be.”
I am taken aback by the multitude of people who want to tell you “what Christmas is all about.” Here’s my experience: person after person is asking you whether you are ready for Christmas, assuming, then, that we have a mutual understanding of what Christmas is all about, and, at the same time, person after person is trying to convince you that you have somehow forgotten what Christmas is all about.
“Family,” of course.
“Don’t you dare take Christ out of Christmas!”
“It’s just a holiday, and you should treat it as such!”
“It’s all about giving!”
The amount of certainty that surrounds us is absolutely fascinating. Everyone “knows” what Christmas is all about and everyone wants you to know it too. Everyone seems to be ready to harm you in the name of Christ, in the name of no-Christ, or in the name of whatever idea they may have about Christmas.
I don’t know whether the problem is that “we have forgotten what Christmas is all about.” To me, the problem is that we all “know” what Christmas is all about (which also means that we have forgotten it), and anyone who does not agree with us has “forgotten” the meaning. And, good people as we are, we feel obligated to “remind” them.
I read once something like this (I think it was Fr. Stephen Freeman, see his blog here: Glory to God for all things): “God help us from anyone who wants to fix our lives.”
I have heard this question numerous times now for the past three weeks or so : when I go to the bank, when an acquaintance wants to make small talk, or when there is really nothing else to say. Regardless of when I hear it, it startles me every time. What do you mean, being ready for Christmas? Yes, I am ready: I’m in a state of expectation every day… And still… no, I’m not… my manger is not ready… The expectation is only a thirst, but experienced as if there is no water anyway. How can He then be born?…
I respond by returning the question: are you ready for Christmas?
“Well, since it’s coming anyway, I guess let it be.”
“Oh, yes, this time I started early. Everything is prepared. I got everything online.”
“No, I’m not. I have so many things to do, gifts to buy… Maybe next year!”
Run, Forrest, Run!
Am I ready for Christmas?
Socrates, in Plato’s Apology: “You too must be of good hope as regards death, gentlemen of the jury, and keep this one truth in mind, that a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death…”
Even Plato says that you must first get ready; only then are you not harmed either in life or in death. So run, Forrest, run! Towards yourself.
P.S. Today: four years since I started this blog. Thank you!