Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ecclesiastes at 3 a.m.

Reflection on a portion of My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2013).  Read my reflection on his poetry collection Every Riven Thing, and my reflection from months ago, "Beyond Belief."

Existential worries don't keep Luis awake.
A professor at Duke with the wonderful name Orville Wintermute suggested that an atheist wrote Ecclesiastes, that we have it in Scripture solely because Solomon is mistakenly supposed to have written it.  Though Prof. Wintermute preached the Gospel on Sundays, he felt obliged as a scholar to point out that the author of Ecclesiastes dismisses as "vanity" and "weariness" everything that's supposed to make life worth living: pleasure, learning, achievements.  At the end of each disgusted rant, we find a little hymn telling us to praise God anyway, which the professor read as irony.  I studied Ecclesiastes at the same time that I studied modernist literature, and felt it summed up by the final words of atheist Samuel Beckett's novel The Unnamable:  I can't go on; I'll go on.

You don't have to be an atheist to feel like the author of Ecclesiastes when you wake at 3 a.m..  I try to steer my mind away from its Ecclesiastes groove, but within seconds one wheel has dropped over the edge and I'm off the road and in a rut.  "Things done and things left undone" hem my mind in on all sides. 

If I'm lucky, Luis will sense that I'm awake and he'll bat my cheek with his paw to draw my attention to scratching his ears, where it should be!  But the thoughts don't go away. I flip on public radio's "Music through the Night" and listen to now-familiar voices (Scott Blankenship is one of them - see the program's Facebook page) saying interesting things about interesting pieces. (Thanks to Mr. Blankenship for selecting Beethoven's 4th symphony this morning: I was fascinated by the way Beethoven leads us down a long, dark pathway to a sudden brightening -- still on the same path.)

With these thoughts comes the yearning for a peace that lasts.  Can I never just finish my projects and be done with them?   But it's not to be:  Every one who achieves something lives in its shadow, afraid to try to match it, afraid not to.   In an interview on the occasion of yet another lifetime achievement award, my hero Stephen Sondheim said essentially that to NPR's News Hour. I've written musicals, too, and I've taught good courses, and I've directed good plays: What good are any of those now, when a new set of students will show up January 6, and I have performances of a musical slated for February, and an original mystery dinner theatre play to write before March?  As my own grandmother Thelma once said, "Scott, there's always something."

Poet / essayist Christian Wiman has written his own pensees in a book called My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.   He writes with the authority of a scholar and the added authority of a husband and father who has persevered these last several years with an uncurable, unpredictable, excruciating bone cancer.  He reasons that change is an essential part of what defines life:

 "All creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together," says Paul [an image of giving birth?], which is exactly right.  But also this:  all creation, including every atom of our selves, groaneth and travaileth toward something -- not toward some ideal existence from which "sin" has irretrievably separated us, and not toward some heaven that is simply this existence times eternity. No. Faith is not faith in some state beyond change.  Faith is faith in change.  (104)

That makes sense, and it precludes the eternal rest that I long for at 3 a.m.  As Wiman writes,

Death is here to teach us something, or to make us fit for something.  To project ourselves beyond it is to violate not only the terms of this life, which include a clear-eyed awareness of the end no eye can pierce, but also, I suspect, of the next.  (105)

Wiman, too, knows those ruts that a mind falls into at 3 a.m. : "We disparage ourselves endlessly...with a kind of black clarity ... that reaches right past all that we have done or have not done... and fingers us at the heart of what we are" (106).  This, he writes, is what we might call "original sin," but that's a blanket term, a comforter, when this self-loathing is painfully particular to us.  The comfort is in the knowledge that Jesus, God Himself, felt it when he cried out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"  Wiman imagines the thoughts behind those words: "Is it because I have not lived up to you, am not worthy of you? Is it because you are ashamed of me...?"

So, I long to arrive, wherever I can stop worrying about the next thing; but that will never happen.  I worry that I'm not up to whatever it is, but I'm not alone feeling that way. 

Now what?  Wiman has more answers, but it's dense stuff.  I'll save that for later.

The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has an answer tucked into "Daily Devotions" for "In the Morning" (BCP 137): 

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day; Preserve us with your might power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


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