Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Into Those Bitter Waters

The secretary of the department in which my father taught for many years was Greek Orthodox. In other words, she Took Lent Seriously.

One day during Lent, my father bought her some bunches of daffodils sold for a charity fundraiser. When he gave them to her she burst into tears, explaining that her Lenten fast had been a kind of spiritual scouring-out of the depths of her soul, a purging of all attachment to beauty, and that the shock of he daffodils' scent and color completely broke her.

I remember this as I slog through teaching music history in the metal-gray days of late February. Coincidentally, I have begun reading Sister Wendy Becket's book Spiritual Letters, which is a collection of letters she wrote from the hermitage where she spent most of her adult life. Sr. Wendy, of blessed memory -- the Art Nun, famous lover of beauty -- writes to a friend in a different religious order:

I do feel that the grain of wheat never dies until, or unless, it accepts to fail. More than just accepts, goes down contentedly into those bitter waters, putting all its hope, now, in Jesus . . . God is always coming to us, as totally as we can receive Him, but from every side . . . the natural tendency is to romanticize the way of His coming. . . And he says: No, - I can't give myself, not fully, in any way that gives self a foothold. Nothing romantic or beautiful or in any way dramatic; nothing to get hold of, in one sense, because it must be He that does the getting hold. A terrible death in every way, destroying all we innocently set our spiritual hearts on: all but Him. So utter joy, in a sense that 'romance' can never envisage. There are depths of self-desire . . . that He must empty so as to fill them.

It seems to me that my father's secretary knew the pain of this hard and pitiless kind of self-emptying.

The thought of that pain reminds me of another gunmetal-gray late-winter day, when a long-ago boyfriend and I were crossing Seventh Avenue. We saw a tiny woolen mitten lying abandoned in the middle of a slush-puddle at the curb, and he grabbed my arm. "This," he cried desperately. "THIS is why I can never have children." And -- though that was one of the reasons we eventually parted ways -- I got his point. Because it breaks one utterly to have to cope with the devastating small losses and goodbyes that one must negotiate every single day with children.

Last week, as I drove past a block of early-twentieth-century houses constructed in a jumble of styles in my old, small-city neighborhood with little J., , he piped up from the back seat: "I love this place. Just driving past these houses makes me happy." My heart started beating fast, both from bewilderment and from recognition -- bewilderment because Who Is This Kid? And recognition because This Kid Is Me -- the kid who saw beauty where it was not, who pulled other kids' discarded drawings out of the trash to smooth them out and admire them, who thought the crumbling urban sidewalks were built with diamonds because of the way they sparkled in the streetlights. Only now my memories of that kind of encounter with the world -- an encounter of breathless wonder -- are hazy, and in fact I'm not sure such an encounter can do anyone any good. Should all beauty, and all pretense of beauty, be stripped away so that we can encounter God without any semblance of beauty? Perhaps; but Isaiah reminds us that when we did encounter him thus, we turned our faces away.