Berfrois

Final Twelve Observations about Goodness

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by Ed Simon

XXV.

Who would have expected the origin to have been with a castration? A consummately violent act. Hacking away at flesh, and the discarding of that bit of intrinsic manhood. But Origen at that origin, in that moment, in that second, in that utopia, felt he had no other choice to unlock the door to the Kingdom of Heaven but by using the dull blade of a butcher’s gelding knife on his balls. Sometime in the third century the Alexandrian monk, whose ruminations upon the Gospels were so often exquisitely beautiful, meandering digressions in the perfumed garden of allegory, read a crucial passage of Matthew and decided, with perilous results, to uncharacteristically interpret the Bible literally. Christ implores that “there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” and suddenly, at this most crucial juncture, a man for whom Genesis and Exodus were subtle allegory, decided that the Lord must have meant this passage and meant it. Contradictions, contradictions, for Deuteronomy says that “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord,” but for Origen it was apparently he who was without stones who would ironically be permitted to caste them. Origen, who embraced mystery and the apophatic had long preached that God himself must be ineffable that, “God is incomprehensible, and incapable of being measured,” and it would seem that one day Origen decided other things must cease to be capable of measurement as well.  The Church Fathers, that collection of men who defined Christian theology in those crucial first centuries while gathered in sunbaked Egyptian monasteries, or upon tall pillars in the desert, or among the acidic shores of the Dead Sea, were a strange group. Jerome, tortured by his devils in the desert and consoled by his pet lion, or Simeon Stylites the Stalactite who sat perched atop a huge column for 37 years outside of Aleppo, shitting down the sides and over the decades making his cylindrical platform look like nothing so much as a melting brown candle. But at least Simeon Stylites got to keep his nuts. Origen rather took that more exquisite path, the way of the castrator’s blade, the better to separate himself from that tag of flesh which signified our connection to the birthright of our original sin. Origen’s was a more radical circumcision, and as Abraham was promised that a great line would descend from him, Origen’s severance of a few more inches would ensure that no such equivalent line would spring from his seed. I wonder what the psychology could be that would inspire one to take knife to scrotum, what fervency, what zealotry, and what greater ecstasy? Hard to imagine if we’re being honest. But Origen, who made himself incomplete so as to be worthy of paradise believed that that same paradise could only ever be achieved in that incompleteness. I wonder if, while that saw was pressed next to greasy flesh and fold of sack, he meditated upon that deity of his youth, who also crushed and shattered himself in hopes of a one day greater reward? When green-hued Osiris, god of the dead and Foremost of the Westerners, similarly stained Egyptian sands red with a sputter of blood from an organ more used to containing it? Osiris – king of the underworld and thus lord of the living – one of those perennially popular Mediterranean gods of resurrection. Mutilated by his brother Set, his organs and appendages scattered to every corner of the kingdom, evoking the harlot of Judges who was similarly mutilated. Devoted and loving Isis’ task, in the various permutations of the myth, was to reassemble Osiris long enough so that he could impregnate her. But the irony was that of all the rediscovered limbs of the felled god, his penis alone remained hidden. And so the pantheon of other gods supplied Osiris with a golden phallus, and Isis was able to conceive their child Horus. Not for nothing in this tale of a resurrected member and god, but it was from the image of Isis holding Horus that the Egyptian Copts were first inspired to depict an infant deity in the arms of his loving mother and who would one day be similarly sacrificed. Whether cultural syncretism inspired Origen or not – for remember that the old gods still held firmly in Egyptian imaginations for half a millennia after the monk explicated the words of that other risen desert god – is impossible to know. But at the core of both stories is one of a whole being shattered into parts, and the possibility of reassembling those parts. They are about the nagging suspicion that something – something perhaps quite big – is missing. And the desire to return to wholeness, to order, to completion. Reading that bit of Matthew which Origen so tragically misinterpreted it’s hard not to see that it couldn’t possibly be asking the penitent to literally castrate themselves. Rather, in making oneself a eunuch for heaven, might Christ not have been claiming that we must sacrifice something huge, that we must make ourselves tender, vulnerable, wounded? And that paradoxically in this very shattering of self we come closer to the fullness of creation, for we have initiated the very process by which universal redemption must ultimately happen, by which slaying low we reach elevation, by becoming incomplete we approach fullness, that by being wounded we heal? And in that manner, I don’t wonder if a regretful Origen had not a dream whereby he wandered through the dusty twilight streets of Alexandria, the sky a gloaming bloodish pink, and that like Isis among the Nile thrushes he found what he searched for. There, behind a rough tan pot full of olive oil, or a stall selling roasted dates, or on the winding stairs leading up to the lighthouse was his complete, disembodied, bloodless penis.

XXVI.

Like so many who provided the intellectual scaffolding of early Christianity, Origen veered uncomfortably into heresy. Tertullian with his embrace of ecstatic Montanus and the latter’s polyamorous apocalyptic Holy Spirit cult comes to mind. It’s why we speak not of St. Origen or St. Tertullian. These were men, for whom though they defined the very parameters of what makes orthodoxy such, departed enough from their very own definitions that they could never be honored with canonization. Too unseemly and torrid, thinkers who flitted about the forbidden margins of faith. Origen is one of these men, so central to the development of Christianity that he can’t be exorcised, but not quite normative enough that we’re going to have churches and Catholic schools named after him. Call it a variation on “The Tertullian Problem” – that the very man who coined the term “trinity” also ended up worshiping a con-artist who claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ while he traipsed through Asia Minor with his two prostitute wives. Origen’s heresy was never quite as dramatic – the castration aside. And incidentally, it wasn’t that occurrence which put him in slight disfavor in the Church, even if literalism is a rightfully recognized heresy in Catholic theology. Rather it was a different “inaccuracy” which condemned Origen the theological genius to the divine antechamber of Purgatory, and that was the universalist theory of redemption embodied by the previously mentioned concept of apocastasis. For Origen, there was to be punishment but no eternal damnation. All iniquity would be reconciled, all sinners redeemed, all humans forgiven. And not just humans, for Origen hypothesized that Satan himself would be reconciled to God in the last moment of existence, and that a final act of contrition would bring creation to its conclusion. All the missing parts would finally be reconciled, as Isis had once discovered Osiris’ member along the banks of the Nile – the ultimate goal would be completion, reconciliation, synthesis, unification. As an old teacher of mine used to quip, “Atonement might as well be at-one-ment.” The sort of idea that, depending on one’s inclinations, is either intensely attractive or a bunch of hippie bullshit. But universalism has had a venerable tradition, from Origen through to the liberal descendants of those New England Puritans, like the good Rev. Ballou, who had once grown intoxicated on the sulfurous fumes of hellfire but had since embraced more tolerant positions. Universalism is a variety of perennialism, an idea that whether it’s correct or not is endlessly attractive to at least some people, and thus the Universalists of antebellum New England need not directly trace their lineage back to Origen, for their credo is one of those things that can emerge from time to time by virtue of its parsimony. Origen’s contention that God “may recall all His creatures to one end, even His enemies being conquered and subdued.” There is an innate attractiveness to finding these similarities in creed, that golden thread connecting Origen to Ballou. No doubt the later must have been aware of the former, even if the historical cords connecting them are less direct than Ballou may have sometimes implied. One wishes to avoid that old fashioned, liberal Protestant reductionism which likes to see all of the world’s religions as mere manifestations of a type of progressive Christianity, interpreting the Buddha as just another saint, or Muhammad as a social justice advocate. Religions are different from each other of course; if they weren’t we’d be denying the wisdom that exists in traditions not our own. We’d refuse to see the beauty of the stranger, preferring to understand all encounters with the different into the narcissistic vanity of the mirror. And yet there is some truth that particular ideas reoccur with different vocabulary across denominations and faiths, whether the unity of God or the ecstatic unification of mysticism. Universalism – either by dint of it being a concept which is fundamentally attractive or by it actually being a true metaphysic – is represented in some form across all of the major religions of the world. More than a millennium after Origen put stylus to wax, and in the Old City of Jerusalem was born Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi, who would come to be known by many of his followers as Ha’Ari: “The Lion.” In the century of Luther, and Copernicus, and Elizabeth, and Shakespeare, the Ari lived in the dusty, backwater, desert homeland of his people. He settled in the town of Safed where he would gather disciples and teach. The Lion was steeped in the the Zohar, and familiar with the sayings of mystical scholars like Rabbi Akiva and Shimon bar Yochai, men who had respectively journeyed into that primordial Garden and seen the Godhead unsheathed or who had contemplated the divine with every fiber of their being among the caves of the Levant. From their observations, Luria crafted his own response to the ruptures, injustices, and inequities of our clearly fallen world. In a city ruled by the Ottomans, filled with the exilic remnant of Jewish refugees expelled from Spain and Portugal, himself the child of the Ashkenazic victims of pogrom, the Ari was attuned to the ways in which our world was deeply and fundamentally broken. Yet his writing – recorded not in the arid syllogisms of theology but rather the ecstatic hymn of poetics – was a response and solution to our reality’s fallenness. From his repose in the groves of pomegranate scented Safed, amongst the orange and lemon trees of warm Levantine springs, the Ari mounted his own kernel of resistance against the fallen kingdom of our material Earth. For Luria, all of us contained divine sparks, concealed in corrupted material husks, but there are ways in which we can rejoin those bits of energy to the fullness of the Godhead, a process which “releases the light from/the shells.” In the variety of mystical Judaism which finds its inspiration in the writings of Ha’Ari, known as Lurianic kabbalah, there is discussion of that which existed before creation, of the Ein Sof, that is the infinite and ineffable ground of being which constituted that which we have imperfectly elected to call God. At creation the ein sof contracted with Itself to make room for the rest of the universe to expand out, a process called zimzum. God limited Itself, hollowed divinity out in what myth has called the “Fall,” but which also allowed for an imperfect creation to exist. The goal of all existence since then has been tikkun olam, the healing of these cracks, fissures, and ruptures. It is in prayer, ecstasy, and most of all goodness that tikkun olam manifests itself, the restoration and elevation of those shards of divinity once cleaved off from the ein sof, all slowly to be restored towards that culminating revelation of what Origen would have recognized as apocastasis. For the Ari, the Sabbath was but a murky reflection of that coming universal harmony, of what Origen would call Millennium. A utopian space, carved out of the calendar of our corrupted years. One which gestures to that which could be done better, and the better which could be done perfectly. We are all fallen creatures, but in the theologies of both men, and innumerable others beside, it is in those moments of grace where we are afforded view of that which is elevated, elemental, eternal. Luria would have called such moments mitzvoth, Origen would have thought of them as good works, but what they are is remarkably similar. They are instances of the immaculate kindness which can act as a connection between human souls, the rare instances of goodness, compassion, and empathy which serve to mirror the possibility of a greater world that supposedly once was, and has yet to come (if it ever existed at all, if it ever can come at all). Origen wrote that “there are many christs in the world, who, like Him, have loved righteousness,” and so coming very close to heresy Origen argued that we are all but little shards of light hidden within these material husks of our corrupted, temporary home; that there are many lamed vovniks. And if we are all christs, then it serves to reason that we can all have little versions of the love manifested at Calgary, little moments of atonement, little windows on paradise. There is a grand drama in the universalist promise of apocastasis, envisioning as it does that fallen Prince Lucifer embracing his Father in the last moments of ongoing creation and thus bringing an end to the whole process, but every act of loving kindness, of empathy, of forgiveness is but an example of that grand type. I am agnostic on final things, of if these windows of paradise look onto any actual reality at all. I am no utopian; no perfect republics shall be established on this Earth. And yet if the view is illusory, there is still great value in a window. For even if there is no universal reconciliation, it is a truth that all acts of kindness are but a kernel of resistance against the fallen world, that all are examples of that which can be better than what we so often are. Of this I cannot but help to affirm. There is – perhaps in our own time more than some – something radical in kindness, in tenderness, in vulnerability, in souls laid bare before each other. The very whiff of not just revolution, but more crucially of salvation. This then is the final axiom: that even if Paradise is a country absent from all maps, that immaculate kindness remains the campus that can still orient us to Paradise. That in the sublime moment of true human connection, of true kindness, there are intimations of heaven, even if no such place exists. That there is the face of God even if She is faceless, even if She doesn’t exist at all. That kindness is, whether there be meaning or not, the only method and purpose to which we can ethically conduct ourselves. And that any account of goodness is but the contemplation of such moments, of gazing out through those windows onto fields of green shade where Isaac Luria sometimes composed his poetry, of knowing that there are no christs except each other. Of such goodness, of such sublime goodness, that we scarcely need be aware of any thing such as angels, for we have perhaps glimpsed these things in the behavior of neighbors and strangers amongst us.

XXVII.

The one and only time that Bill W. had a direct experience of God was December of 1934 at 293 Central Park West. Committed to a sanitarium because of his unquenchable thirst, for nothing had ameliorated the failed business man’s dipsomania. He had spent stints in hospitals undergoing experimental treatments, signed pledges, made solemn and heartfelt promises to his long-suffering wife Lois, and though he could string together short periods of sober time, Bill W. couldn’t help but return to his cups. Now, in the Charles B. Towns Hospital, treated with nightshade and shaking with delirium tremens, the middle aged Vermonter, son of sober, stolid good New England Republicans, was at rock bottom. As he recounted, it was in the pit of blackest midnight despair that he cried out “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!” And then, as every great faith has its moment of theophany – Saul on the road to Damascus, young Muhammad hearing Gabriel, or Joseph Smith encountering Moroni – so too did Bill W. have a visitation from some sort of Higher Power. He remembers that “Suddenly, my room blazed with an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description… The light, the ecstasy – I was conscious of nothing else for a time… Then came the blazing thought, ‘You are a free man.’” Bill W. thought to himself that this “must be the great reality. The God of the preachers.” The great seventeenth-century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal had sewn into the lining of his coat a testament to his faith in the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars.” Bill W.s “God of the preachers” was a wholly more American God than Pascal’s Old Testament deity, for the salesman’s Lord was a God of his “own understanding.” But a God that works is a God good enough, and indeed whatever Bill W. experienced off of Central Park West on that Depression era winter day did indeed seem to work. Perhaps a bit of the Ari’s shards of light, or some trapped gnostic luminescence, whatever it had been it was something which utterly transformed the life of one of our most hopeless cases. But if you are assuming that this theophany, this mystical ecstasy, is an example of that kernel of resistance, the immaculate kindness that saves the world and which I wrote of in previous fragments, you are mistaken. Bill W.’s experience was perhaps some sort of abstract kindness that was imparted upon him, either from within or from without, perhaps the sort of grace that can save a soul, but ultimately not that which saves the world. No, for Bill W. that moment came a bit later, in May of the following year when he found himself in an Akron kitchen talking to a helpless physician whom history remembers as Dr. Bob, and who in the spring of 1935 found that his morning hands would shake so much that he required a few shots of scotch so that he’d be able to perform his duties as a surgeon. Dr. Bob was similarly as hopeless as Bill W. had once been, and had performed the requisite Stations of the Cross which made a show out of newly good behavior only to find himself saddled up at the same bars night after night. But now, talking with Bill, empathizing from him, drawing from his failures, his losses, his embarrassments, his shames, the two could rather instead find a common strength. In their conversations there was no “indescribably white light,” no “ecstasy beyond description,” just a group of drunks, but God all the same. Dr. Bob recalled that rather than anything explicitly divine, what was of more importance in that initial meeting with Bill W. “was the fact that he was the first living human with whom I had ever talked, who knew what he was talking about… from actual experience. In other words, he talked my language.” Let trumpets blare in scripture, and gods descend in myth, the only tangible goodness we have in this world is each other, and that realization, rather than just the intoxication of religious ecstasy, was Bill W.’s great genius. Lights and trumpets didn’t keep Bill W. sober, nor did they keep Dr. Bob on the wagon, but the communion of each other somehow did. If Americans have a particular brilliance for lived theology, then Bill W. is an underappreciated prophet, building a decentralized, non-hierarchical, wide-spread religion from bits of the Oxford Group, William James, Carl Jung, and the smithy of his own and others’ lived experience, and whose churches are simply to be found at the front of the phone book. Writer Michael Tolkin explains this religion which Bill W. and Dr. Bob founded has “no dues, no tithes, no president, [is] protected from permanent officers and the development of cults by rotating leadership for each separate group, [has] no other requirement of membership than the declaration of fellowship in a shared condition…The making good on the American promise that all are welcome. This is not a new idea, but the first institution in America to make this idea real.” For Tolkin, this is “a religion that may yet save the world,” but it is also a faith that offers not salvation precisely, and not redemption exactly, but the promise that no more did a person have to wake up with the shakes, or shitting blood, or in a pile of their own puke, delivered with a one night respite from having almost choked to death. Or even more importantly knowing that they never again have to arise with The Fear. Trading in Eucharistic wine for instant coffee and cathedral sanctuaries for the bingo halls below, and yet such souls sitting in cheap folding chairs have been saved in those church cafeterias. Whatever else God can be defined as, Bill W. took that very American wisdom of the Transcendentalists and married it with a travelling salesman’s intuition and brilliance for marketing to come up with a scripture speaking to particular needs at our very particular time, for as Tolkin explains, Bill W. understood that addiction is “the most modern affliction.” It is “the terrible emotional complement to the assembly line in a consumer society” and that even if it is “a disease and not a sin” it still “demands moral responsibility for the cure of the disease.” If there be disputation over the number and nature of the sacraments, Bill W. remains agnostic on the answer, save for the identification of one – human fellowship. Lights and trumpets are well and good, but it was the kindness in telling Dr. Bob that he understand his experience, and that things could be different, could be better, that Bill W.’s movement was started. With an act of kindness.

XXVIII.

Alzheimer’s is a disease which takes away, strips bare and polishes the soul down to elemental nub. The life of the individual erases backwards, like one of those old recordable tapes slowly spooling to the first song, with God’s thumb pressed down on the button of erasure. Pushing almost ninety, the poet Jack Gilbert spent his days sitting mostly catatonic in the assisted living facility overlooking foggy San Francisco Bay, where he ultimately died. Once the possessor of a nimble mind, Gilbert sang a song of the richness of interiority, the complexity of subjective experience, of a soul observing itself and the world. And now, because reality is cruel and ironic, the very depths of that mind filled in; Gilbert found his brain becoming a shallower and shallower body of water. The mystics speak of kenosis, of the hollowing out of self so that God can come in, but it would take a mean glibness to claim that there was any similarity between that process and what was happening to Gilbert. His collected works are as a spiritual biography of his experience, his mundane and yet totally profound collection of instances spent in a life almost a century long, but now that document was being deleted. The most recent memories would go first, the recent rediscovery by the national literary press upon the publication of his complete works, the feted profiles and the glowing reviews in The New Yorker and The New York Times, the interview in The Paris Review. Then beautiful Michiko, his wife whose love saved him so many times and who cancer took when she was only 36, and he already an old man.  For whom Gilbert “came back from the funeral and crawled/around the apartment, crying hard,/searching for my wife’s hair,” trying to grasp with both tenderness and desperation the physical remnants of love lived honestly and intently, as one day he’d try to hold rapidly disappearing memories, as ephemeral as the thinness of a single long, black hair. Earlier lovers were subtracted; first Laura and then Linda, then Gianna. All of those places of quiet beauty that he had been fortunate enough to make his home over the decades similarly deleted, the “Paris afternoons on Buttes-Chaumont,” the “Greek islands/with their fields of stone,” the “beds with women, sometimes/amid their gentleness.” A career recorded for posterity in the writing of literary critics but loosing from the grasp of Gilbert’s own mind, volumes written whose contents were now inaccessible to his own recollection. Tough Heaven and Refusing Heaven and even Views of Jeopardy with that award from Yale when he was still a young man, forgotten by the very man who created them. Berkeley gone, Massachusetts gone, Japan gone, Greece gone, Denmark gone, England gone, New York gone. Finally even his beloved Pittsburgh, where he and his fellow poet Gerald Stern had once stumbled back from the Squirrel Cage on slippy snow-covered cobble-stoned streets in the dark depths of winter quoting Wordsworth, past stain-glass bejeweled brick row houses punctuating a sky “stained pink by the inferno always surging” in that city of “brick and tired wood.” Those East Liberty alleys dusted white by the Lord Himself would disappear, as would the steel mills where Gilbert worked summers, noting that when surrounded by molten iron and Bessemer convertors pouring metal like it was golden glowing water that it was impossible to “think small.” Peabody High School would disappear, and that family home off of Penn Avenue, and finally Jack himself would vanish, gone, to wherever the milk of substance drains to when identity is gone. Or almost gone. When all else was forgotten, achievements and lovers, accolade and experience, what else could be left? In “remembering something maybe important that got lost?” The answer was always in his poetry, when he wrote that “We find out the heart only by dismantling what/the heart knows.” A friend visited him in the nursing home in the weeks before Gilbert died, now silent, now seemingly having forgotten everything, even the language which was once his medium and he its master. The friend held up a simple pencil and asked the poet if he knew what the word for it was. Gilbert couldn’t place it, didn’t remember. But he formulated an answer: “That’s the thing that makes poetry.”

XXIX.

If, as Socrates argued, it’s true that philosophy is simply preparation for death, then how much more so is poetry? For in verse there is the texture of life, from dewy morn to lonely night, from the drip of snow melting during a Pittsburgh spring to the scorching heat upon a fishing boat sailing the blue Mediterranean in the midst of a Greek summer. Physicians can explain the neurodegenerative specifics of the disease that marked Gilbert’s last years, the entropy of neuron and the fraying of brain matter, but as with muscle memory the poet had written over the grooves of his soul with the specificity of lyric. In preparing for extinction, Gilbert created one of the most striking poems about the grandeur of life, regardless of whether meaning is objectively inherent or not. His “A Brief for the Defense” is morally sublime, for it boldly states how we should live every day even as the darkness grows, and implicit within it is the most pertinent of observations about the non-totalizing nature of goodness and the most important of commandments: to be kind. Gilbert, as for all of us, has no use for Panglossian bromides, for the cult of positive thinking, for unearned optimism. We must honestly admit that there is “Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies/are not starving someplace, they are starving/somewhere else.” Optimism is prosaic, but hope is divine. Gilbert claims that “we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants,” despite deprivation, despite death. No matter how horrific or how horrendous, how nihilistic or negating there “is laughter/every day in the terrible streets” for the “poor women/at the fountain are laughing together between/the suffering they have known and the awfulness/in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody/in the village is very sick.” We laugh and enjoy and smile not in spite of the suffering implicit in all life, we laugh and enjoy and smile because of that suffering. We laugh and enjoy and smile not because we are inhuman, we laugh and enjoy and smile because we are human. And we love, “we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.” A crucial thought – the non-totalizing power of goodness is such that there is no hell where occasionally one can’t feel joy, where one can’t know love. There were prisoners in Auschwitz capable of sharing a joke with one another, there were survivors in Hiroshima who could observe the stars as beautiful. Gilbert’s friend Stern remembered the end of the war, when in that “tiny living room/on Beachwood Boulevard” his family danced to Bolero in celebration, and danced in mourning for the millions of cousins turned to ash and smoke an ocean away. With “the world at last a meadow, /the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us/screaming and falling, as if we were dying.” Gilbert knows that if “We deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, /we lessen the importance of their deprivation.” Such is the kernel of resistance, the ethic of kindness and delight, to “accept our gladness in the ruthless/furnace of this world.” Wisdom for “all the years of sorrow that are to come,” whatever dystopia awaits, whatever nuclear conflagration, whatever oppressions, whatever strengthening of those old systems of injustice and whatever horrific novel inventions are approaching – that regardless “We must admit there will be music despite everything.” Prepare yourself.

XXX.

Margery Kemp was hard to like but easy to love; easy to love because in her insecurities, her fears, her sorrows, even her failings and most often her obnoxiousness she couldn’t help but remind us of ourselves. Fourteenth and fifteenth-century England saw a veritable renaissance of vernacular sacred writing, from William Langland to the liturgical ruminations penned by Julian of Norwich. Kemp’s contribution to this exemplary era was the first full autobiography to be written in the English tongue, a window into the ways that an individual consciousness can both torture and exult us, the mechanism of that soul’s functioning in our fallen world. The devotional reasoning which knows that “wheresover God is, heaven is; and God is in your soul, and many an angel is round about your soul to guard it both night and day.” All of what we know of her is from the Book of Margery Kempe, dictated by its illiterate author to two separate amanuenses, believed to first be her eldest son and then her priestly confessor. A remarkable book, quoted by Wynkyn de Worde in the early sixteenth-century, but in its entirety missing until its rediscovery in an attic in the 1930s. She was an unusually pious woman, even for an era half mis-remembered as being purely one of faith. Kempe’s religious enthusiasms were extreme, not limited to just contemplation and prayer, or even pilgrimage, but indeed for the copious tears which stand out to any reader of The Book of Margery Kempe as one of the most extreme aspects of the autobiography. Kempe cries in sorrow, in adoration, in ecstasy. Author Colin Dickey, reflecting on this saintly woman who was a bit too human to ever actually be recognized as a saint, writes that “More than laughter, mourning, or sex, crying (which can encompass all of these things) is the truly excessive gesture, the limit of emotion available to us.” If anything in our profane existences can qualify as kenosis, it might as well be our tears, and if that be the case then Kempe was one of the holiest empties who ever prayed on this Earth. Dickey observes that you “cannot open her autobiography anywhere without stumbling on a passage of her weeping; it saturates the text.” Kempe, who dictated the book in the third person and who when she didn’t refer to herself by her own name called herself “creature” (as in one who was created by God) recorded that “Her weeping was so plentiful and so continual that many people thought that she could weep and leave off when she wanted, and therefore many peoples said she was a false hypocrite, and wept when in company for advantage and profit.” As a result of her often strange behavior she faced accusations of heresy at several points, though she was acquitted of any of those accusations of Lolardry as they emerged. But that’s not to speak of more personal tribulations, any one of which deserve tears, albeit perhaps not ones of as extreme a frequency as that of the author’s. Kempe, mother of fourteen children who seemingly always wished more to be an anchoress rather than the self-made brewer that she was, who suffered a profound post-partum depression after the birth of her eldest which led to delusions of being tortured by demons, who had to nurse her husband through a debilitating illness and watch him die, and who was threatened with rape when arrested on those previously mentioned heresy charges. Scholars of later periods of literary history can tend to regard the medieval as uncanny, as strangely inhuman. We sometimes argue that this is a period where the writers lacked “interiority,” where individuality was defuse and undifferentiated. But whatever seeming lack of subjectivity exists in the period, Kempe’s memoir disavows us that it was because the people were substantially foreign in comparison to us. Part of what makes her account so moving is that it isn’t a hagiography, that her failings and desires are so on display to us. What has always affected me the most about The Book of Margery Kempe isn’t her saintliness, but how often she falls short, in her simultaneous doubts and misplaced scrupulosity. What moves me is the book’s exquisite sadness. In particular, her relationship with her husband (for unlike so many saints, Kempe was no virgin, something which grieved her). She writes that “this creature advised her husband to live chaste and said that they had often (she well knew) displeased God by their inordinate love, and the great delight that each of them had in using the other’s bodies.” What first struck me when I encountered that passage was the blunt confession of sexual desire for her husband; these two loved one another. And then what should strike the reader is how profoundly sad it is that her piety caused her guilt over that love. The two had what was known as a “chaste marriage” (at least after their fourteen children), an arrangement which the two of them struggled with. In another passage, Kempe writes how “this creature was coming from York carrying a bottle of beer in her hand, and her husband a cake tucked inside his clothes against his chest – that her husband asked his wife this question: ‘Margery, if there came a man with a sword who would strike off my head unless I made love with you as I used to do before, tell me on your conscience – for you say you will not lie – whether you would allow my head to be cut off or else allow me to make love with you again, as I did at one time?’” In my dog-eared and underlined copy of The Book of Margery Kempe I scrawled a bit of red marginalia: “something about this line of questioning is so sad,” an assessment that a decade after having first read her book that I still assent to. Lest one think that it was only her husband who had misgivings about their new celibacy, turn to the passage in which she admits that “if she saw a handsome man, she had great pain to look at him, lest she see him who was both God and man. And therefore she cried many times and often when she met a handsome man,” simultaneously attracted to the idea of Christ’s physicality and repulsed at her own attraction to sensuousness more generally – and fully admitting to looking at men other than her husband. What Kempe, finally, offers us is not her tears or her prayers, but the perspective of just another flawed subjectivity such as our own, another soul trying to do good but so often falling into frustration and myopia and the hubris of faith. Writing of her husband, she explains how she “had very much trouble with him, for in his last days he turned childish and lacked reason, so that he could not go to a stool to relive himself, or else he would not, but like a child discharged his excrement into his linen clothes as he sat there by the fire or at the table… many times she would have disliked her work, except that she thought to herself how she in her young days had had very many delectable thoughts, physical lust, and inordinate love for his body. And therefore she was glad to be punished by means of the same body.” She may have wished to be a saint – all saints perhaps wish to be saints – but she was not one. As perhaps there are no saints. Rather Kempe was simply a person, one who could love and grow frustrated with those whom she loved, as all people do. And in an era where hagiographies were recorded in stain glass and vellum, The Book of Margery Kempe records the activities of a totally more fatiguing, annoying, frustrating, and thus human person, and it is all the more sacred for it. What Kempe offers is occasional empathy and sometimes meanness, as we all do, for who does not find themselves occasionally tender and sometimes short? Dickey explains that “Margery Kempe, finally exhausted by tears, turned to words and traded the immortal life of a saint for the immortal life of a writer.” Her immaculate moment of kindness which she offered was her writing, for from the fifteenth-century until today Margery has given us a view into her mind, into her soul, and what we see is somebody who in all of her imperfections is like nobody so much as ourselves. Somebody always trying to be better and so often falling short, sometimes falling short precisely because of the things she does to try and be better. No superior mechanism for empathy has been developed than writing, no engine for sympathy more finely wrought than literature. Kempe’s kindness is finally not even necessarily that which she showed in the book – in tending to her ill husband or praying for her children – rather it’s in giving us the ability to show her kindness, to show her empathy, in being able to read her book and to feel that warmth of recognition, that comfort of familiarity. Kempe’s kindness, the honest writer’s kindness, is letting us know her and giving us the opportunity in felt connection (even if she be dead) to feel kindness back at her. Pray for souls in purgatory, but better to read the words written by those occupants. To be able to read such a sad pronouncement of that almost-saint that “She thought that she loved God more than he loved her,” and to wish that you were able to embrace her and tell her that it doesn’t matter, since we love her. And to whisper to her that ever true observation of her contemporary and confidant Dame Julian of Norwich, who reminds us that “all shall be well; and all shall be well; and all manner of things shall be well.”

XXXI.

If Margery Kempe’s salvation was in writing, then the character of Vivian Bearing in Margaret Edson’s sublime play W;t experiences a type of salvation through reading, first by a squandered opportunity and then later through the gift of a selfless love. A scholar of seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry, more specifically the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, the play begins with Vivian’s diagnosis of Stage IV ovarian cancer, and follows through with her reflections on her scholarship, her role as a subject in a new experimental treatment, and finally her death. Edson is a nurse by training, and W;t conveys one of the most basic observations of any ethic – that our kindness and morality must always stem from the awareness that we are embodied creatures, with all the frailty and indignity which that implies. Cancer, that “emperor of maladies” as physician Siddhartha Mukherjee calls it, has rarely been represented in popular culture or art with the full impact of its awful power. Reduced to colored ribbons and glib t-shirt phrases which imply that all we need do is “race” and that a cure shall be found. Seemingly omnipresent and completely absent, “cancer” is quietly uttered as if a curse, and the perennially cheery American ethos is such that the disease can be presented as a means for self-growth and discovery. Cancer patients, when depicted on television or in film, are at most shown wearing that red bandana of courage and otherwise looking like the hale and healthy California actors who no doubt portray them. They are rarely presented as emaciated, as covered in sores, as in continual pain, as cadaverous, though cancer patients often exactly look like that and feel like that. Cancer is a negation of the body, a subtraction that is paradoxically accomplished through a cellular addition: the perverse irony of your own physical being turning against you. There are no lessons in cancer. It is not a morality tale, or a war, or something for which there are survivors and losers. Cancer is the betrayal of the body, often painful in a meaningless way, and then often it kills you. Edson and her play never forget that simple fact, and that’s why it’s one of the most crucial depictions of the disease: because the play understands. There is no shying away from the depiction of what stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer does, as Vivian reminds the audience to whom she continually addresses herself. “There is no stage five.” Edson presents cancer as not simply a disease which gives the patient a bit of a haircut, but rather, as her oncologist Dr. Kelekian rather clinically describes it, a disease where the “antineoplastic [treatment] will inevitably affect some healthy cells, including those lining the gastrointestinal tract from the lips to the anus,” in which the professor is made to endure “eight treatments of Hexamethophophacil and Vinplatin at the full dose.” Early on Vivian tells the audience that the cancer treatment “is highly educational. I am learning to suffer,” and indeed if there is any line which fully conveys the singularity of her experience in a play that is ironically filled with finely wrought lines, and is in part about the beauty and failure of finely wrought lines, it’s the almost absurdly prosaic “Oh, God, it is so painful. So painful. So much pain. So much pain” which is delivered with scalp shrinking horror by Emma Thompson in the film adaptation. Dr. Bearing, a scholar whose entire professional reputation is built on her ingenious interpretations of some of the most exquisite language ever crafted, suddenly finds that language completely fails her when she is confronted with the inexplicable enormity of pain. Literary critic Elaine Scarry, our great theorist of pain, writes that “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language… Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.” This is deeply and importantly true, and it is in part what W;t is about. Sometimes the play is remembered as being purely concerned with medical detachment as exemplified by the clinical coldness of Dr. Kelekian and his arrogant resident Jason. And in part W;t is about that, but more accurately the play takes as its subject the failure of all language. Not just the technical jargon of the doctor and of inexact metaphor, but the failure of poetic language as well. Any humanist who watches W;t and sees only excoriation of science is a humanist lacking in introspection, for Kelekian and Jason’s failures of epistemology are mirrored by Vivian herself. Early on, with no less hubris than Jason, she tells us that she knows “all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language.” Edson makes the parallels between Vivian and Jason (who was a former undergraduate of hers) clear: as Jason can’t help but see cancer in purely clinical terms, Vivian similarly can only understand the poetry which she studies as constituting objects which exist to demonstrate her brilliance (which they do). She describes metaphysical poetry as “a way to see how good you really are.” But as she sees no disjunction with using the corpus of Donne’s melancholic art as a means of professionally moving up through academe (with the added pleasure of intellectually shaming lesser scholars) she fears a similar lack of empathy in Jason, describing the inevitable journal article that Kelekian and he will write as not being “about me,” but rather “about my ovaries. It will be about my peritoneal cavity, which, despite their best intentions, is now crawling with cancer. What we have come to think of as me is, in fact, just the specimen jar, just the dust jacket, just the white piece of paper that bears the little black marks.” What a revealing metaphor – Jason will treat Dr. Bearing’s body as simply a book, a “white piece of paper that bears the little black marks.” Of course that is exactly how she has so successfully approached the poetry of Donne. In flashback we are treated to Vivian in her intellectual prime, in discussion with her graduate committee chair E.M. Ashford, as a young teacher taking a bit of sadistic thrill in demonstrating to her students the depths of their ignorance, in asides in which she mocks the intelligence of her humane nurse Susie. She informs us that she was a graduate assistant on her adviser’s edition of Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, appropriately enough Donne’s profound meditation upon his own convalescence, and yet all of this sheer and undeniable intellect abandons her the moment she faces not just her own demise, but pain. Towards the end of W;t she says to the audience that “We are discussing life and death, and not in the abstract, either; we are discussing my life and my death, and my brain is dulling.” The play may be about the failure of science (not for nothing it is sometimes taught in palliative care courses), but just as crucially it is about the failure of art. Or at least about a certain approach to art, of Vivian’s attitude toward literature. A different approach is suggested by the example of Ashford, her former professor. In a flashback we’re privy to a conference between the two, when young Vivian has written a close reading of Donne’s Holy Sonnet X based on the so-called “Revised Sequence” of 1635, which departed from the original manuscripts by “correcting” the poet’s idiosyncratic punctuation and forcing it into something more conventional for the time-period. Ashford excoriates Vivian for not going to the Westmoreland sequence which was closer to Donne’s intent. The edition used by Vivian traded in the subtleties of Donne’s original punctuation for the definitive drama of exclamation marks, semicolons, and capitalization. But as Ashford explains to her student the sonnet is “ultimately above overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life, death, and eternal life…. Nothing but a breath – a comma – separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the proximal punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause. This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.” But for all of her skills of critical analysis, Vivian is lost when it comes to her professor’s close reading: “The insuperable barrier between one thing and another is… just a comma? Simple human truth, uncompromising scholarly standards? They’re connected? I just couldn’t….” Donne’s final line “And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die,” is not postulate, it is not contention, it is certainly not wisdom, for Vivian Bearing it is simply the experimental field on which she can demonstrate her own acute and unforgiving intelligence. But reading is nothing if not an act of faith. Analysis, close reading, explicacion du texte, all have their place as assistant to that honest and inquiring faith, but ultimately it is the clear heart assisted by the head which makes a poem purposeful, not that head by itself. Vivian can interpret the poem, but what it means remains beyond her abilities. Which makes the penultimate scene of the play all the more moving, because Dr. Ashford visits Vivian on the eve of the former student’s death, the only visitor during the entirety of her illness. At this point Vivian’s cancer has progressed beyond any repair, and her pain is so consuming that she has ceased to be verbal beyond monosyllables. Dr. Ashford, who has had a career every bit as illustrious as Vivian’s, is in the unnamed city to visit her great-grandson on the occasion of his fifth birthday, and only discovered her most promising pupil’s illness upon stopping by the English department and learning of Vivian’s treatment at the university medical center. In a play about a humanist, the most potent scene of humanity is this one. Ashford asks Vivian if she wants something recited, “Would you like that? I’ll recite something by Donne.” Vivian’s only response is a gasped “No,” and so Ashford rather elects to read to her student something a bit more elementary, a present she has brought for her great-grandson: The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. The graduate adviser, cradling her now skeletal former charge as if she was her own daughter, reads the children’s book to the dying woman. Two brilliant scholars, experts on the most difficult poetry written in our language, sharing in that communion of language, and the text under consideration is The Runaway Bunny. And the humanity of Edson’s play is that they’re not the less for it, far from it. Ashford dutifully recites all of the permutations that the titular bunny takes in Wilson’s picture book, from trout to bird and so on, eventually uttering the pedagogical aside “Look at that. A little allegory of the soul. No matter where it hides, God will find it. See, Vivian.” What Edson depicts is a sort of teacherly salvation, a type of redemption through reading. Vivian is not a bad person, she never was, but she was very much a broken person. In setting up the contrast between Ashford and Bearing, Edson’s play shows us two different models of instruction, two different models of reading. Viviane’s career was built entirely upon demonstrating her acute intelligence, but her dissertation chair’s perspective has been that “one learns something from” either Donne, or The Runaway Bunny. This moment – inescapably beautiful, quiet, and sad – with the adviser cradling her dying pupil, is one of the most painfully intimate in contemporary American drama. The moment of kindness for Vivian and for the audience is when Ashford tells her student that “It’s time to go. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” We believe it not just because it’s beautiful, but because maybe it’s true.

XXXII.

So many figures to blame for modernity – Luther, Darwin, Freud. But as the solstice of our era approaches, that coming midnight of the century with the occluded clouds of Dionysius once again rolling West, and Frederic Nietzsche seems increasingly responsible for whatever death of truth we now face. Nietzsche, with his drooping walrus mustache and those sad Teutonic eyes, always an ever attractive figure for other sad young men who parrot lines from Thus Spake Zarathustra or The Antichrist. Blamed, rightly or wrongly, for both fascism and anarchism (though I’ll admit that if he’s the progenitor of the later my estimation of his politics would rise quite a bit), he’s one of those ambivalent figures in intellectual history, rightly prized for his prose style as much for the content of his thoughts. Mythic, cryptic, gnomic, aphoristic – Nietzsche could turn a phrase that had the quality of scripture, ironically utilized for the most antinomian of purposes. For whom there “are no facts, only interpretations” and “no philosopher is more correct than the cynic.” The proverbs of hell: “Life is not a product of morality,” “everyone feels superior to everyone else,” “To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more,” “That every will must consider every other will its equal — would be a principle hostile to life, an agent of the dissolution and destruction of man, an attempt to assassinate the future of man, a sign of weariness, a secret path to nothingness,” “The sick are the greatest danger for the healthy; it is not from the strongest that harm comes to the strong, but from the weakest,” “Whom do I hate most among the rabble of today? The socialist rabble… The source of wrong is never unequal rights but the claim of ‘equal’ rights,” “We do not believe in any right that is not supported by the power of enforcement,” and of course “God is dead.” Readers of much greater erudition than I can formulate arguments as to how Nietzsche utilized poetics, metaphor, allegory, fabulism, and fable to construct complex modern myths. Where simply ascribing any particular, literal belief to the philosopher risks falling into simple minded fallaciousness. That’s fine – I still suspect that he was probably a pretty unpleasant man to know. Even if claims that he’s responsible for Nazism or totalitarianism are overblown, and especially if his claim that he was “no man” but rather that “I am dynamite” are similarly grandiose, it’s undeniable that he cuts a wide swatch on the intellectual history of the last century. Placing him in a correct lineage of ideas may be difficult, but it’s obvious that there are certain values he seemed to uphold over others – the ethic of strong over weak, powerful over powerless, pleasure over morality, the individual over community, other humans, or God (only so much bourgeoisie affectations). One would imagine that he might feel that thirty-six observations about goodness are thirty-six too many. Was Nietzsche a cold man, a hard man, a cruel man? Was he mean man, an angry man, a tough man? Was he the anti-Christ he seemed to proclaim himself to be? I know nothing about any of that, leave it to the academic philosophers to suss that out. What I do know is that however cold he may have been, however hard, cruel, mean, angry, tough, or anti-Christian, however much he celebrated strength, power, pleasure, and himself over the values of us democratic sheep, that if there is any redemptive moment in simple human kindness Nietzsche ironically exemplifies it. For, as according to the popular legend, the last free moment the philosopher had in public before he succumbed to syphilitic psychosis were on January 3, 1889, when walking on the Piazza Carlo Alberto in Turin he came upon a poor horse being violently flogged by its owner, ran up to embrace the weak, defenseless creature so as to save it, and collapsed never to utter another sane thought again.

XXXIII.

Vladimir Nabokov, that old White Russian and master of two tongues wrote in his memoir that “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” The depth of my inexperience is too profound for me to ever quite have the confidence he has that an eternity of darkness exists on either side of that brief crack of light which constitutes my life. I’ve heard the observation ascribed to Lucretius (or is it Democritus?) that fear of the finality of death is foolish, for we are not apprehensive about the non-existence which preceded our birth. To which I say, any person not fearful of having had no face before their first birthday is a person who is not living their fear creatively enough. But immortality is not what I’ve come to write about, rather I wish to repurpose Nabokov’s observation by way of a quad erat demonstrandum. That is that whether or not there shall be an eternity of darkness stretching before our birth or after our death, it seems unequivocal that a moral eternal darkness certainly permeates our living moments, perhaps in our own age as much as any. Let the moral utilitarians foolishly argue that violence has been reduced, or that we’re headed towards a positivist utopia based on technocratic pragmatism. The gut knows what the algorithm doesn’t. For in an era in which several countries have the technological ability to destroy the world dozens of times over by reducing it to cold radioactive ash, what counter argument need be formulated against cheery optimism? What calculus of pluck can be commandeered to claim that a veritable golden age of digital freedom stretches ahead, that people are somehow more fundamentally decent now than in the past? For in a period that bottles such horrific violence in the concentrated vial of potentiality that defines the nuclear predicament, one can’t credibly claim that ours is a good age. The abyss that the cradle rocks above is not death, it is our life now, and the eternity of darkness stretches not before and after, but rather throughout. And yet there is that crack of light, still there, and however faint as the night grows blacker, it can provide all of the more striking a glow so that you can read the face of those next to you.

XXXIV.

One awful summer I decided to write an essay about John Donne and Hiroshima: “A dark vision – it is the midnight of our age, and the world’s last night. New York, Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Berlin, London, all the great cities of the world destroyed in whatever war is to come. St. Paul’s Cathedral once laid waste in the Great Fire of the late seventeenth century and almost destroyed again in the blitz of 1940 finds itself in ruins. In the debris one can make out the remains of a chapel built in honor of the men that perished in that last world war. It is dedicated to the Americans who fought alongside the British, and facing that chapel is a statue of John Donne, the base of which is still black from the flames that almost destroyed London in 1666. In this way Donne stares at an America to which he always wished to journey and to which he never did. The statue is based on a drawing of Donne in his death shroud, made while he was still alive, and which he hoped would depict how he would look upon his resurrection at the Day of Judgment. Now I ask, J. Robert Oppenheimer may have convinced us of the reality of apocalypse, but how many of us are naïve enough to still believe in Donne’s millennium which would follow? Can Donne’s grave be broken up again, can any of ours, can the world’s? After such death who can still believe in resurrection? Who among us has faith that on that last day the dead eyes of Donne’s funeral statue will be able to finally open, and that if he could, he would be able to see anything left in that west? Can we still believe in spite of it all? Evidence of hope: after the destruction of Hiroshima the official United States military report predicted that the soil in the city would be so radioactive that nothing would be able to grow there until the year 2020. Yet in the autumn of 1945 a photographer took a photo of a single red canna flower growing through the rubble of the destroyed city. Donne writes: ‘And Death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.’” Of commas and flowers and single lights we pray.

XXXV.

On the day that the towers fell, Fr. Mychal Judge’s dead body was cradled by the rough men of the FDNY who had constituted his flock. Carried out of the lobby of the north tower shortly before it would collapse, photographs of the gentle Franciscan priest depict nothing so much as a pieta, Mary’s white hands replaced by the calloused and dirty paws of the fire-fighters for whom this man acted as chaplain. In the late afternoon of that sunny day of immaculate cloudless blue skies, Fr. Mychal had rushed to lower Manhattan to administer the sacrament of extreme unction to those dying in what remained of the burning candle of the World Trade Center. 107 floors below the smoking rubble above, and Fr. Mychal consoled the dying, dutifully and faithfully repeating liturgical promises, his Brooklyn accent slightly rounded out by the brogue of his parents’ County Leitrim. He was struck dead by a bit of debris while giving someone else their last rites. On a day that would take almost 3,000 lives, and how ever incalculable more of those survivors extinguished from the deaths of their loved ones, from suicide, addiction, or black lungs diseased from the pulverized remnants of life which became the atmosphere of New York that day and the day after, Fr. Mychal would forever be listed as “Victim 0001.” That day of infamy when everything started to go wrong, this day of sorrow, when in the fiery wreckage there were so many moments of human kindness, of human connection, those strangers who rather than asphyxiate would clasp hands together as if they had known each other their whole lives while taking that leap of faith into oblivion rather than burning to death. Men and women who led people whose names they didn’t know to safety through pockmarked stairwells. All those who perished in what the poet Martin Espada described as the “thunder wilder than thunder.” Would you give your life to someone whose name you didn’t know, whose face you never saw? I’m not sure that I would, but many have, and do, and will, and that is enough to demonstrate goodness. Fr. Mychal was one who did, even as the literal world collapsed around him, as Babel fell. But this is not the moment of immaculate human kindness, of selfless mercy, which I have in mind for this observation. For Fr. Mychal knew those streets of lower Manhattan well, and before he was Victim 0001 he recognized Christ in the face of the homeless, the junkie, and most of all the victim of that plague which once ravaged this city so completely. Fr. Mychal was a gay man, who saw no disjuncture between that identity and following the dictates of St. Francis.  He acknowledged being a gay man, a faithful Catholic, a devoted priest always trying to fulfill his obligation. He was no hypocrite – he saddled himself with the hair-shirt of celibacy, faithfully holding to the inhuman decrees of his beloved Church, denying himself the love that is every human’s consolation, but while also refusing to see himself as deviant, broken, wrong. Most crucially his was the love, the agape, of the priest who refused to see others who were like him as being deviant, broken, or wrong. As he said, “Is there so much love in the world that we can afford to discriminate against any kind of love?” Decades before his death, when thousands of men had died in lower Manhattan streets, thousands more than would ever die on that one day in the new millennium, and Fr. Mychal had already lived the liturgy of the living God. In the 1980s, when so many young men came from every corner of this empire to Chelsea, and the East Village, and Tribeca, and the Village to live lives free and full of love only to be struck down by what they called the “gay cancer” – Fr. Mychal would console them. When many were abandoned to death by their families – Fr. Mychal would hold them. When many feared contracting the disease and hospitals were so filled which the convulsions of beautiful, dying young men – Fr. Mychal would sing to them; Fr. Mychal would pray to them. When Ed Koch felt contented by comforts of the closet, and Ronald Reagan’s press secretary could mock the queers dying from this disease, and when the Archdiocese could continue to pretend to be blind and many of the faithful could pretend deep in their black hearts that such suffering was part of any god’s plan, Fr. Mychal was on Canal and MacDougal and Clinton and Bowery with the junkies and the hustlers and the gays. With God’s people. On that hot September day, Fr. Mychal was ready, for he’d already been used to administering the sacraments while the world collapsed around him. It’s not his fault if most people hadn’t been willing to notice those collapsing worlds before, for a monument to the thousands who died in those early days of that epidemic only finally saw their monument erected in 2016. The priest visited one of those men on the day that that man died. A once strong man, now barely 80 pounds; once young, now with an aged, crippled body; once beautiful, now a living cadaver. The man – perhaps from a religious family who had abandoned him, perhaps very far from his home – with labored, sallow breathes posed to Fr. Mychal one of the saddest question that can be asked: “Does God hate me?” And St. Mychal heard his prayer, and St. Mychal answered him, and so St. Mychal held him in his arms and gently kissed his forehead on the night that he died. I think that he was a very good man.

XXXVI.

So. To whatever being there is, to the sacred, to the holy, to the nothing, to each other; who are in heaven, Earth, and everywhere in between; hallowed be your names, all of them; for though the kingdom may never come there are still those moments of grace, kindness, and love; and for that all of our will must be done; especially on Earth, for who knows if there is a heaven? Give us our bread, and our roses too, give us our moments, and mercies, and kindnesses as well; and please forgive us our trespasses, failures, flaws, frailties, brokenness and humanity; as we attempt and too often fail to forgive those who trespass against us, and as we attempt to reach out and embrace those whom we should embrace lest we not be embraced in return; and lead us not into temptation; but deliver us with that piercing light which illuminates the ever encroaching darkness, so that we may be better able to see each other and to fulfill that one indispensable commandment – to be kind so that we may be good. And all shall be alright, and everything will be ok, and all manner of things shall be well. Amen.

Read the First and Sceond Twelve Observations on Goodness.


About the Author:

Ed Simon is the associate editor at The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, he holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

  • S Herb

    From the article: “we can all have little versions of the love manifested at Calgary” – is the reference to the Calgary Stampede, or am I out of my depth?

  • Ed

    Oh no! I’m afraid that it is an unfortunate typo for “Calvary,” for goodness must have ensured that I had Canada on my mind! Thanks for catching!