An Unexpected Burden of Lent

burnedoutforest

It has been an unusually difficult Lent. An infant concretizes time in ways never before considered. Against the season, nothing moves slowly. A baby’s cry at 3am assures that. If I want to do anything, I have to give myself a buffer of thirty minutes to even get started. I have to plan in ways I never thought I would have to. I have that lingering fatigue that comes with first-year parenting. Lenten disciplines quickly fall prey to the demands of new life.

I did not write nearly as much as I said I would or wanted. But I continued to try to live in the spirit of abiding, of traveling in the Wilderness. What struck me one day as I was contemplating detachment and exile was that in past years, my Lent and exile was my own, a Kierkegaardian secret of my own. But this year in my wandering, I had a beloved infant that I could not abandon, that I would not leave behind. Even in my personal reflection, he was still there, very much in need of my attention.

If you have ever held a small child in your arms for any significant amount of time, you will understand when I say that my infant is a burden, a weight that can never be forgotten or ignored. My exile is no longer a solitary one, for he comes with me, whether he wants to or not, because I cannot abandon him. My attentions are different. My path is different. He makes the journey paradoxically lighter and heavier. This Lent, I moved much more slowly than I anticipated. Such is Lent.

There are some who see God and God’s loving action in the miracle of birth. With the birth of my child, in the midst of my astonished wonder and joy, I became keenly aware of the millions of suffering, starving children right at this very moment, the millions of pregnant women and young mothers who have no safety because of violence and/or socio-economic injustice. There are no easy theodicies. In fact, atheodicies – whatever that word could mean – seem more viable, more plausible. Such is the miracle of birth.

And today, Holy Saturday, we remember that all hope, for a particular time (we tell ourselves), is dead. The remains of Jesus of Nazareth sealed off from us, because, well, dead bodies tend to swell and stink. Any Easter worth its salt must be more than just the easy expectation of resurrection. Contemplating the death of Jesus, I find myself interpolating between the belief that some sectarian rabbi got himself executed for sedition and that God’s self suffered death and was buried or some possible paradoxical smearing of the two. Or maybe something else. But Easter must possess within itself absolute Death. And today is that Day of Death. It is a Day of Death that is as real as the late-evening hour when I said goodbye to my father for the last time and the dawn-breaking moment of his last, fluttering heartbeat. Jesus is gone. God is gone. It is over. It is finished. We were told so.

Easter is the belief that it is not. Kierkegaard writes that there is no difference between the first century individual and anyone later, when it comes to belief in Christ. Proximity in time or space offers no advantage towards one’s understanding of who Jesus is. The absurdity of it all is timeless. Biblical criticism and theology brings us, ultimately, no closer. There is the paradox of immediacy and absolute distance. And while this might give the naive impression that faith is somehow easier, somehow more accessible because time has no weight, the reality is that faith is all the more difficult, because time means nothing and has no meaning. So we make time of our own.

We create Lent to manufacture a sense of pacing, to ensure our reflection on ephemeral and absolute things and events. Our rituals are our meaning-heavy repetitions of actions. There is a pacing required. An infant creates new rituals that are constantly in flux. Ignore the rituals, ignore the child, and the child suffers. If you are not always already paying attention, the child could die. Time is not my own, anymore – or was it ever? How much did I waste before it keenly belonged to my son?

Like an infant, Easter ruptures all time. We are fatigued and exhausted, with the tree line, the ruins, the desert, the ocean just behind us. Place and time do unspeakable, unfathomable non-Euclidean things. But not today. Today, everything is silent and dead. As I write this before 6am, my son and wife are asleep. It is silent and seemingly dead, as rosy-fingered Dawn stretches out across the sighing sky. It is a moment of peace and quiet, when Jesus is dead, when all is lost. It is clear outside my Brooklyn window. Cold air seeps through the cracks. It is like a tomb, if only for a few more uncertain minutes before Søren awakes, hungry and soiled.

We tell ourselves the Wilderness of Lent is ending. The ritual says that the season’s end is nigh. We squint and tell ourselves we can see something beyond the trees, beyond the tree line, the ruins, the desert, the ocean. We are not there yet, but we tell ourselves “soon… soon.” And if you have an infant in a sling sound asleep, you know well you have no idea what soon means. And, in certain ways, you secretly dread it.

Interlude

Lower Manhattan skyline at dawn from Brooklyn Heights Promenade. I didn't take this.I live on the liminal sounds of the city, not even a mile from the harbor, where the boats mourn to one another. Their sorrowful cries echo about the sleeping streets. The water is cold. The air is cold. Taxis hiss down below me. Brooklyn is waking.

Rosy-fingered dawn runs her hands along my windows and beckons me out to see her. She is a mute goddess. She shares no secrets of the day’s events. She seems to abhor all disappointment.

These are moments before the war begins, before life’s tremolo rises in my gut and heart. On my wall, my clock ticks, moments of life tapping by. A few seconds less than I had before.

But I don’t care. The calm is a seducer, a lazy lover pulling me deeper into morning sheets. I am not yet thinking of the dizzying anxiety of freedom. I am merely breathing with the cars outside and moaning with the boats that are soon to be tossed among their icy waves.

Our Uncanny Wilderness

http://www.climateinstitute.org.au/climate-change-science.html

Make no mistake: there has always been theological Wilderness. The Genesis writer described a Garden in the midst of the Wilderness. Before the Fall, there exists Wilderness. Wilderness is a part of Creation. It did not come into existence with humanity’s Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was part of the separation of the Earth and Sky, the Land and Sea. Separation is distinction and offers the opportunity for analysis and reflection. The Wilderness was already Good. Humanity just became aware of it through the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Wilderness is not necessarily what has not been explored (we find ourselves in the same Wilderness all the time), but what has not been mapped and catalogued. Though theological Wilderness can be analyzed, it is that space and place that can never be mapped and catalogued. Every time we enter the Wilderness, we say “Ah! This is familiar. I am in the Wilderness.” But in no way does that mean we know how to navigate it, to comprehend it. The Wilderness is always already the Wilderness.  Every map and category is made strange upon one’s return. To steal from Heraclitus, you can never step into the same Wilderness twice. And so, we humans have devised ways to never step into it at all.

Biblically, Cain is the founder of civilization.  He builds the eponymous city Enoch for his son and his descendants. He carves out society in the midst the Wilderness. Born in the Wilderness, he destroys the Wilderness to create safety and stability. Cain creates the familiar, not God. God creates the Wilderness. Cain created place. God created absence.

To venture into the theological Wilderness is the closest to the Garden of Eden that we will ever come. For Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden and they entered the Wilderness. The Wilderness is our return to our roots. It is our home. And homecomings are always difficult and disconcerting. One never can really go home again. It is not home anymore. Ah! This home is familiar. I am in the Wilderness.

The unfamiliar familiar is what we label as “the uncanny.” The German word is Unheimlichkeit, “un-home-ness.” The Wilderness is the uncanny, the unheimlich, the eerie and unsettling. It is familiar and unfamiliar. This is why it is all the more disconcerting and causes so much anxiety: Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden. Noah, out of doomed civilization. Abraham and Sarah out of Ur. Abraham and Isaac to Mt. Moriah. Israelites out of Egypt and so many other lands. Joseph and Mary out of Judea into Egypt. Jesus into the Wilderness. Over and over and over again, the biblical narratives put humanity back in the familiar place of the unfamiliar. Accept that anxiety is our norm. Home is ever being destroyed. Why? We cannot understand this: home is ever being destroyed. Cain’s destruction of the Wilderness is trumped by our constant return to the Wilderness. Anxiety is not sinful, but an expression of who we really are: human.

To be human is to constantly re-encounter the unfamiliar. In Lent, we emphasize this unfamiliarity by venturing voluntarily yet again into the Wilderness. We cannot describe God, yet we continue to return to the Wilderness to encounter God. And this is why we go. What we find instead is God’s absence and we encounter what God is not. In the Wilderness, God overturns all expectations and every certainty. In Lent, every preconception is overturned.

The radicality of Easter’s hopeful claim unnerves us. Already, we expect an empty tomb, a barren home of the dead. But still, again, it is uncanny, unheimlich. Behold! The dead God is not at home! And this is eerie. It troubles us, deeply so. The dead is said to be risen. Immediately, anxiety ensues. The Wilderness does not end with Easter. We are in perpetual Wilderness. Lent is merely the season of our lives’ year when we choose to acknowledge the productive, familiar role of anxiety, of displacement, of uncertainty.

Ultimately, the only limits in the time and place of Wilderness are Eschaton and Parousia, End and Presence. But this is only what we’ve been told. These are stories we share with one another by the fire under the stars in our Wilderness. These familiar stories we share are about the limits of death and suffering, when every tear shall be wiped away. Or so we hear.

They Had Tears in Their Eyes. [Wilderness]

Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures, “Wilderness

Lent is our migration into exile, into our Wilderness. For the next forty days, we make it our home. We are nomads, dislocated from our familiar lands, with only our tattered pasts as markers, seeking out uncertain futures toward Easter. Forced on, our power of travel seems transcendent. We cross place and period. We have no idea how far we’ve gone, how long we’ve walked. It’s dizzying. We travel far and wide through many different times. What do we see there?

We see dust and ash. When we imagine the Wilderness of the Bible, we romantically conjure vast dunes of sand and wide acres of scrubby trees. But today is Ash Wednesday. Our Wilderness begins in dust and ash, the very material of our flesh, itself. I saw the saints and their toys. This season starts smudged on our foreheads, above our eyes and against our thoughts. We are reminded that we are created from burnt decay. And to decay we shall return. Among our ruins, we find the familiar. We are not so different from the Wilderness, are we? Why does it not seem easier, then, to dwell within it?

In our Wilderness, with little left to reassure us, we force to focus our gaze. Our vision painfully sharpens. All about us, we see outlines of ruins, of whole cities and cultures, of our selves and our expectations. Understand, now, that everything is dust. Nothing can last. This is not so strange. Indeed, chances are you do not remember last year’s Lent so well. See? You do not even remember your own exile or what you even wanted. What did you see there? I saw all knowledge destroyed.

The Church seems to be our safety, but let us not be foolish. It is as safe as we are to ourselves. The Church created the season of Lent to remind us of our mortality, of our life and death. I travelled far and wide to prisons of the cross. And are we not the Church here in the Wilderness? What did you see there? The power and glory of sin. That which brought and brings death, itself, that selfish tyrant and banner, into the world. These complexities of our mortality. The traces of power and glory smeared onto our faces. Dust and ash, the paradox of vast civilizations’ ruin and the very grains of our good, created bodies. What did you see there? The elements are the same. On Ash Wednesday, we have our black and oily marker. But there is another: The blood of Christ on their skins. 

Realize that in Lent, everything is up for grabs because everything is all for naught. Lent is that abandonment. It is the offering of stones as bread. It is the season of risk, of distillation, of wheat and chaff. Lent is the abandonment to risk the hope for real and lasting embrace. I travelled far and wide through many different times. Lent is dangerous living. Our Lent is a hard Lent, not a soft one. It is not simple denial of simple pleasures and desires. 

I travelled far and wide and unknown martyrs died. We are lost here. In a way, we never make it out. Real parts of us never make it out of the Wilderness alive. A good Lent cannot be entirely survived. What did you see there? I saw the one-sided trials. For and against our selves, we die in the Wilderness, in exile, lost. 

What did you see there? 
I saw the tears as they cried, 
They had tears in their eyes, 
Tears in their eyes, 
Tears in their eyes, 
Tears in their eyes.

Our Lent begins. What will we see there?

 

Eat fast. You’re gonna need it.

A crucifix is seen in the deserted city of Pripyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine. 47,000 residents of the city of Pripyat were evacuated after the explosion on 26 April 1986. Photo: EPA

Gear up. Load up. Eat fast. Prepare. Be ready. Lent starts tomorrow. Hurry. Now.

We don’t think about Mardi Gras in this way, but it is a subtext. Eat all the sweets you can before you can’t. You’ll be fasting. You’ll have given up chocolate or… whatever it is you’ve decided to give up. But today, eat it. Eat a lot of it. Because you’re going to need the energy when we first move out.

Drink the beer. Eat the sweet. You’ll need the sugar. Cheap carbohydrates. You’ll need the rush. We are going into the Wilderness. There is nothing sweet there. There is little to drink. It’s probably bitter, anyway, what we find.

Lent is about going slowly, yes. Lente, yes. Taking more time to be considerate in one’s life and actions. Shifting from our time to God’s time, yes. But this Lent is different. We are casting ourselves out into the Wilderness. We are moving far afield. We are moving slowly through our Wilderness. We take our time.

Lent is a time when we traditionally abandon our worldliness to focus on God. But this year, we are abandoning our easy tether to God. We are venturing out into the worst world, the Wilderness. We enter our desert, our wasteland, our Chernobyl, our dead zone. The place of abandonment is what we embrace.

How is God our albatross? How is God the noose around our neck? Is this God or is this Christendom, this American culture we deceive ourselves with, taking the leap of faith that our prosperity is God’s safety for us. We choose to leave this safety. But from safety to where?

Mardi Gras is our last chance to abandon ourselves the day before we abandon everything else except ourselves. Eat. Eat fast. Consume while it’s available. Eat all the king cake. Flash your boobs for beads. More syrup on your pancakes. Eat fast. The end is coming.

Is this despair, what we are about to engage in? The abandonment of the sacred and the holy? The refusal to taste and see because all things taste of ash and dust, the dust from which we were created and to which we shall return? Despairing of what? The failure of hope in what? What are you hoping for? 

Some consider Mardi Gras profane. But in the Wilderness, profanity is a good thing. Profanity is not what we seek, but what we have. The profane is who we are. In the Wilderness, we are outside the temple, for that is what profanus means.

This Lent, we are moving past Mardi Gras, beyond Carnival. We are profane. We are outside the temple, leaving it far behind us. We are uncertain what we will find, but we are sure we will find what we do not want. We do not abandon meat or chocolate or porn or Facebook to find what we do not want. We abandon those things because we do know what we want: God.

What, here, on the verge of Christendom, do we want? The Wilderness. Is God there? Perhaps. Is there no God there? Perhaps. But all of us have encountered a Wilderness. Often, that is more familiar, more real than God. Maybe that makes this Lent all the more believable. Jesus! What the fuck have we gotten ourselves into?

A post-punk counterweight to joy.

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