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“Let My Cry Come Unto Thee:” An Ash Wednesday Confession [2006-2020]

Being only a man, I often tire of the things of man; of his bottomless vanity and his endless violence which, as all the things of men must, resides in me as well as in you.

Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us.
**

Many years ago, I was browsing through a newsmagazine and came upon a photograph of the machete-hacked corpse of an African child floating like some half-chewed chunk of jetsam in a backwater of Lake Victoria. This was during what we now think of, because we have to think of it as something distinct from our normal run-of-the-mill massacres, as the Rwandan genocide.

It was a crystal clear photograph showcasing an act of genocide like any other, only the meaningless details changed: children, machetes, an African lake. As a professional in the pornography of violence, the photographer had gotten in close. The child’s eyes could be seen. They were without pupils, the irises congealed into a dead fish-belly white; the white of clotted milk. The photographer had done his job well. The smell of it came off the page….

Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen.

I thought then, looking at the eyes in the face of the ruined child in that photograph, that if that child’s eyes could reflect anything they would reflect everythingevery thing — we are.

And in those moments, looking on that picture, I came to know a despair that went beyond any puling despair for my miserable self, one that went out and went out from that photograph, like the ripples from a pebble dropped into dark water, until they lapped up against everything in the world, and rendered it all into hacked meat and mute purposeless matter. And I despised the world, and all of humanity, and, indeed, God himself. But most of all, I despised myself.

At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitul face of hope and of despair.

I despised myself for the reaction I was having to a mere photograph. I despised myself for having the ability to look upon it, to really study it, to feel the revulsion, and then simply put it down and walk away from it; no doubt to a reasonably good dinner. For that was what I had scheduled for myself later that day. After all, a good dinner at a good restaurant was a reasonable reward for another day at work in New York City. Wasn’t it?

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man’s mouth driveling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.

I’d like to say that I did not go to that dinner and I did not enjoy myself, but I did. The moment with the photograph was, for the evening, forgotten enough. It never even came up. Not really the sort of thing you want to chat about over a roasted duck with cranberry sauce and your standard big California Red, is it?

The child rotting in the brackish water was, after all, not a child at all. The child was long since buried or left to dissolve as mere carrion. What had disturbed me was only the abstraction of a child snagged out of the world with photographic film, transmitted across the oceans via orbiting satellites. printed up on sheets of flimsy paper, and delivered to me and millions of others on a weekly basis…. to what purpose?

To    &nbsp What    &nbsp Purpose?

Because I needed to know? What did I know? That we are, each and every one of us, capable of the darkest evil? This much I’d known long before I’d known it.

Did I study it because I needed more confirmation? I’d long been confirmed. And yet the image stuck in my mind, not as an obsession, but as an unbidden harbinger. And in time, I came to know its purpose.

Its purpose was to teach me the one thing I really needed to know to live the life we are expected to live as fully paid-up members of today’s “advanced and enlightened” society. Its purpose was to teach me how to make one decision that would make all the other clauses of this era’s “new and improved” social contract easy to sign off on.

Its purpose was to teach me to hate God.

I’d never practiced that sort of hate before. I’d never hated God at all in all the years I had been “away.” At most, my inclination towards God was a kind of studied indifference. It was casual pose, admired by many and practiced by most of my generation for decades. It was cool and in this age cool trumps everything.

Being a man, and a weak one at that, this unthinking indifference is more persistent than hate. It abides with me today — most days. I am, as I have remarked before, a Christian in crisis only. Only when my happy little world is darkened by something that seems to me at the time to bring down pain and confusion, do I remember God and seek Him. It’s a shabby sort of religion, I know, but at least it is a religion of a sort.

It was not a religion of that sort during the several years I hated Him. It was a white-hot kind of religion. I sought out His hand and His works in all the dark reports that deluge us all on a daily basis. I studied the latest news and kept a clipping file of outrage stored in my soul. I worked on it.

Childhood leukemia? God’s on the job.

A close friend is shot-gunned on 14th street in a mugging? God’s there pulling the trigger.

Yet another mass grave dug up in yet another subdivision of Hell in Europe, Africa, the Middle East? God’s working the back-hoe.

It’s a tough and dirty job and nobody but God has the moral clarity to do it. He’s the original Bastard. A real Professional. To top it all off He had billions of fools convinced of His mercy and His goodness. They were ready to tell you that “God so loved the world….”

Really? I was a tough-minded secularist with the kind of soul that looked at the pictures of life with a hard, unblinking eye. Oh, yeah? Show me.

Any God that had the power to do good and yet allowed evil to exist and to prevail, why that God was….. It’s an old standard, you know the tune and you know the words. I’m not going to sing it again here.

For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

It was a jester that stopped my hate of God. Not a great jester, I’ll grant you, but a jester just the same. He used to caper for donations in the Central Park Zoo. Perhaps he capers there today. I wouldn’t know.

Since this jester’s act was pitched towards humans with no more than five or six years of experience in the world, the only people that ever stopped and listened and watched him were little children with their parents or nannies. And on one particular day, for no clear reason, myself.

He’d clear a circle near the seals and perform a few bits of juggling and some pratfalls. There would be some gentle mocking of the kids’ parents, a bit of mime and a dollop of buffo slapstick. Then he’d go into his finale.

The finale was always the same. It was a frantic dance and pantomime done to a tune blasting from his boom-box. The tune was an old spiritual, “O Sinnerman.” It’s another old standard we all know, but it sounded different to me in that afternoon in the park in early spring:

O sinnerman where will you run to?
O sinnerman where will you run to?
O sinnerman where will you run to,
All on that day?

Run to the mountain.
The mountain won’t hide you.
Run to the sea.
The sea will not have you.
And run to your grave.
Your grave will not hold you.
All on that day.

This frantic show was obviously not being performed for me. I don’t even remember why I was in the zoo at that time.

The world doesn’t circle around anyone of us, but it does, from time to time, pick up its cues. And, since I tend to see the world with the eyes of a poet, I’m always alert to the subtext of experience.

I say “I” because I don’t know any other way to name the observing presence that seems to always be riding on the saddle of my self-awareness. It really doesn’t have a lot to do with me as a person and there are plenty of times I could do without it quite nicely, thank you. But I heed the voice when it has something of value to say, even if comes disguised as a mindless song out of a corny half-baked 20th century jester in fading makeup and tatterdemalion.

Maybe it was because I was tired of hating God at every turn. Maybe it was because I’d simply come to the end of wanting to take the woes of the world onto my shoulders. Maybe it was because I just happened, at that moment, to be ready to snap out of it. Or maybe it was because of the childish message of the song. Urban sophisticates can, after all, be some of the densest matter in the universe, and sometimes need to be spoken to in very simple ways.

For me, the voice said something like, “Oh, come off it and cop to your own shortcomings. I gave you everything there is and now you want Me to fix it? Be glad I made it fixable. And, if I hadn’t made it the way it is, there’d be no you hanging around to hate Me, would there?”

And my hatred of God left me.

There wasn’t any kind of great switcheroo where my hatred was replaced with love and the peace that passeth all understanding. It wasn’t a replacement. It was a departure. And nobody waved goodbye. Least of all me.

I did not forget the photograph. I would never forget the photograph. But I did let go of the idea that the evil it embodied was an Act of God. It took me a long time, a lot of hate, and a very simple song before I came to understand that every act of evil is an Act of Man.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

handofgodpanel.jpg

** Poem quoted is Ash Wednesday by T S Eliot. Full text here. First published, 2006.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • jwm February 25, 2020, 4:29 PM

    No accident you were there when you were there.
    Synchronicity is the vector of Providence. The Book is shot through with it, and so it is with our lives.
    When The Voice spoke, You listened.
    This is one of my favorites of your essays.
    God Bless.

    JWM

  • Patvann February 25, 2020, 4:49 PM

    Posts like this… Why I’ve been a reader and consumer of your’s for over 15 years now, writ large yet again.

    Sir.

  • Cracker Daddy February 25, 2020, 4:49 PM

    This is like the experience described by Ivan Karamazov. It’s his argument to his brother Alyosha in The Brothers K, the chapter before “The Grand Inquisitor,” whose title I forget just now. Similar thought.

  • Auntie Analogue February 25, 2020, 5:02 PM

    “The Serenity Prayer”

    God grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change;
    courage to change the things I can;
    and wisdom to know the difference.

    Living one day at a time;
    enjoying one moment at a time;
    accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
    taking, as He did, this sinful world
    as it is, not as I would have it;
    trusting that He will make all things right
    if I surrender to His Will;
    that I may be reasonably happy in this life
    and supremely happy with Him
    forever in the next.
    Amen.

  • bob sykes February 26, 2020, 5:06 AM

    Q. Who made us. A? God made us. Q. Why did God make us? A. God made us to know Him and love Him…

    The nuns did not elaborate, but later we were told that God wants our love freely given, by rational choice. We, on the other hand, want slavery. Freedom is too hard.

  • TN Tuxedo February 26, 2020, 5:59 AM

    “Urban sophisticates can, after all, be some of the densest matter in the universe, and sometimes need to be spoken to in very simple ways.”

    Such density, while common among urban sophisticates, is not peculiar to them.

  • jd February 26, 2020, 6:54 AM

    A beautiful post, Gerard. You are truly blessed in your writing.
    Have you heard of “These Stone Walls” a weekly blog by Father Gordon MacRae,
    a Catholic priest falsely imprisoned 25 or more years ago? I see a parallel here.
    God bless,
    jd

  • Pat February 26, 2020, 9:14 AM

    Evil, selfishness, brutality–that seems to be the norm. Not surprised by that. But goodness and love, wherever it appears, that is surprising and that is from God. So I have trained myself to look for the good and be grateful. Otherwise life becomes one great sewer.

  • James ONeil February 26, 2020, 9:49 AM

    Was going to write how Sinner Man’s woven into my life/history.

    Instead I’ll just say: Good on yer, Gerard!

  • pbird February 26, 2020, 12:17 PM
  • AbigailAdams February 26, 2020, 12:30 PM

    It’s fun to watch you wrestle with your faith, Gerard. I say this as your younger, “older” sister, ya know. One of the hardest questions to try to find an answer to — even in the Bible — is why God gave no second chance to his garden dwellers. The death sentence seems, now and forever, extremely harsh for a first time offense. Could we really do this to our own children? Hard to imagine and yet there it is. We have to live with it. And yet, perhaps, it was the only thing to be done. Otherwise, we would imagine ourselves to be gods and above spiritual death. I have only one criticism of your essay: in the end man does not have the ability to make it better. We can express God’s love for us in the world, but we can’t go back and fix the original sin.

  • Snakepit Kansas February 27, 2020, 4:34 AM

    I took some extra time to read this in detail this morning. Wow.

  • Vanderleun February 27, 2020, 9:25 AM

    Thanks Kansas. Thanks for the slow walk and the kind words.

  • BroKen February 28, 2020, 4:58 AM

    Just read this to my wife struggling with a similar issue. “How can I enjoy the good things of life, like our daughter’s birthday party tomorrow, when I know there is a little girl being raped repeatedly somewhere, right now!?” Not exactly the same, but similar issue. Your words seemed to help her, Gerard. Thank you.

  • RMJ in TX February 28, 2020, 7:35 AM

    The Darkness, and Yet the Light
    An ode to depression.

    And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not…

    We are walking, wounded,
    Pierced by dark being.
    Souls with black holes
    to keep the light confounded.

    God’s chosen subjects
    We speak meter to the depth
    Of darkness– His raw stone to sculpt
    The exquisite pain, blinding awe.

    Those who walk serene around us
    Sense, shudder, at the terror of this creation,
    Reflected in our vacant eyes, slumped shoulders,
    Hollowed cheeks, shuffling gait.

    We relieve our fellows of their fear of all
    this gut awful nothingness, wrenching at
    Life’s to be: we are sieves, sifting out,
    Then drowning this formless terror.

    We eat the meal prepared for us,
    A bottomless well of sorrow
    Longing for a just reward
    For this bleak hollowing of our souls.

    Our Creator sometimes despairs of his creation;
    But promises his afflicted: some day,
    We few shall revel in the light as He does — free, unbound,
    Ecstatic; yet haunted, remembering, perhaps, too well, the darkness.

    R M J
    May 2009

  • Vanderleun February 28, 2020, 7:50 AM

    Very moving. I too remember well the darkness.