February 21, 2007

An Ash Wednesday Confession with Eliot's Ash Wednesday

god.jpgBEING ONLY A MAN, I often tire of the endless things of man; of his vanity and his 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 flipping through the pages of a newsmagazine and came upon a photograph of the machete-hacked corpse of a 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 Rwanda 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, a dead fish-belly white; the white of clotted milk.

        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.

And 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 everything -- every 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 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. What. 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 see 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 it's purpose.

It's 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. A casual pose, admired by many and practiced by most of my generation for decades.

Being a man and a weak one at that, this unthinking indifference is more persistent than hate. It stays with me today -- most days. I am, as I have remarked before, a Christian in crisis only. Only when my little happy 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. And 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 in yet another subdivision of Hell in Europe, Africa, the Middle East? God's working the back-hoe.

It's all 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. Since his 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 and their parents or nannies. 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 on that day:
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 wont 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 it when it has something of value to point out, even if comes disguised as 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, "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, but it was a departure.

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 understood 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.

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Posted by Vanderleun at February 21, 2007 5:21 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.


Posted by: Anonymess at March 1, 2006 2:01 AM

Humans are very interesting, and it is curious how easily we fall into disgusting acts of violence. But we are all capable of carnage. Indeed, it has nothing to do with gods, who aren't nearly as concerned in the affairs of men as we narcissists might suspect. If an all powerful, all knowing god existed, I would hate him - but there is no reason to believe in such a being.

Instead, we can believe in the dead butchered body of a poor African boy. We can believe in the good in all of us that feels sick at the sight or thought of such a horror. We can move on and enjoy our dinners because we are, for now, civilized…capable of creating a better world.

Posted by: Steven Brodie Tucker at March 1, 2006 6:09 AM

Why is it that Man thinks God can only be God if just good is the answer. Take Jesus, he came to absolve us of our sins by being crucified. He did not start a charity for the downtrodden. Does that story tell us something. Man is afraid of the evil side, and maybe this is good. God it is quoted, said he is a jealous God, does that say anything to us. Man, is part of the evil and it cannot be denied. Forgive me, Man does feel anything can be denied, maybe the problem lies there. One thing for sure, God never denied evil was with us he spoke directly to us, it is in the Lord's prayer.

Posted by: jeffersonranch at March 1, 2006 7:05 AM

I know how you felt about that picture. The picture that had the same effect on me was the dead mother clutching her dead child lying on the ground, victims of Saddam and his gas. I'll never forget that picture as long as I live. Whenever a Galloway or someone else of that ilk appears on stage defending the likes of him, that picture appears fresh in my mind, and I dismiss them as people who believe in nothing.

Posted by: jm at March 1, 2006 1:32 PM

Thanks for the great personal essay, Gerard. I read it with great interest, since I've long since thought of you as someone who seeks and knocks like one who truly wishes to find what he looks for. Keep knocking.

Posted by: Jeremiah Lewis at March 1, 2006 7:13 PM

Like the song says, "I have been through to the bitter depths of my soul". Thank you for the glimpse into yours.

It's strange that God does not hate us back. Another of the reasons that He is God and we are not.

Posted by: Chris at March 2, 2006 3:46 AM

Well done.

We can seek whatever we want to in the world, and find it. Hence, what we seek is more important than what we find.

Or something like that. ;)

Posted by: Jeff Brokaw at March 2, 2006 2:43 PM

It sure is inspiring to see you discovering your own personal act of heroism by finding God once again, after shunning him for years. Some day I hope to lay eyes on that magical photograph myself, so I can be blessed with the splendorous wave of divine self-righteousness you felt that day.

To jm, posted above:

It was the Pride we received from The Bastard's Bible, that conveniently abridged edition, that allowed us to turn on our neighbors. You can dismiss that your opponents have morals, opinions, or motivation for what they so desperately plead, which is that we stop the killing. You think we haven't ended the lives of ten times the civilian deaths as Saddam? Do you honestly believe that? Do you honestly believe Jesus told us to vanquish our foes? He died on the cross because he could just could not kill any more Romans?

This is the New America: dismantled democracy and the hedonism of a bath of blood.

Posted by: fred hassel at March 3, 2006 5:13 PM

This is some of the deepest, most personal, and most real work I have come across. Grateful thanks to you for sharing it.
Stephen in South Africa.

Posted by: Stephen van Schalkwyk at February 20, 2007 5:24 AM

Mr. Hassel,

You wrote:

"You can dismiss that your opponents have morals, opinions, or motivation for what they so desperately plead, which is that we stop the killing."

That's what we were doing in April 1994: staying away from the rest of the world, so that our opponents could "stop the killing".

Only, it turned out that what they wanted to do was massacre hundreds of thousands in Rwanda.


Until Bush invaded Iraq, I used to hear numbers batted about for how many Iraqis had died in the U.N. sanctions from 1991 to 2003. Those numbers were in the hundreds of thousands. After Bush overthrew Hussein, and leftists seemed to realize that such huge numbers made a moral case for removing Hussein from power, the estimates shrank -- massively.

Now, it just might actually be true that Hussein's reign was relatively bloodless. (I say 'relatively' because even the Left dimly acknowledges his butcheries, by such wan admissions as "Of course Hussein was a bad man.") And it might also be true that the Lancet's most inflated estimates for the war dead in Iraq since 2003 (estimates much higher than the U.N.'s own) are valid.

But, even granting both of those points, that would not change the fact that many of us who slept through the Rwanda massacres in 1994 later found ourselves morally compelled to support removing Hussein from power -- precisely because we had lived through the sleepwalking 1990s, and had decided that those years had been ethically and politically inadequate.

Right now we seem to be heading back to a time when our country's isolated torpor of the 1990s will again be in fashion. But I feel very safe in predicting that that won't last. For the world is not, in truth, simply waiting for America to "stop the killing". I wish it were.

Posted by: Erich Schwarz at February 22, 2007 10:09 AM

I was ready to email you about halfway through reading this to tell you exactly what you concluded - God gave us freewill. Glad I finished the essay before I started writing. What we do with it constitutes the evil in the world. Evil is the absence of God, not the making of God.

Posted by: Sharon at February 22, 2007 10:29 AM

Dear Gerard,

My memory of Lake Victoria is buzzing the shore in a US Navy A3D - 1963. Flamingos took flight. Thousands? Millions? At least five miles of birds in action. Glorious!

Deeper meanings? I've been thinking about that for more than 60 years. No real good answers. I doubt that there are any. Mysterious. In the mean time I'm going with the Judeo-Christians. I'd like to think them right.


Posted by: Roy Lofquist at February 22, 2007 6:25 PM

Hating God and loving God (and fearing same) are simply two different manifestations of the same illness; Acquired Cultural Delusional Disorder.

Interesting that a common response to the inexplicable is to conclude supernatural agency. Whatever madness that compels men to slaughter children, it is no less anthropogenetic than the inspiration to compose symphonies. It is impossible to explain either, but I refuse to lean on a divine crutch, whatever excuses the human beings involved may invent.

In subsequent posts, Gerard properly despises the catechism of the new Church of the Earth. It is a grisly shuck perpetrated on gullible dull-normals, by invoking fearful fates for those who do not drink the Kool-Aid(R).

And it is just like that Old Time Religion. The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. I don't hate God; I just outgrew him.

Posted by: Alan Chamberlain at March 1, 2007 7:06 PM
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