Monthly Archives: December 2008

I pray like a robber

My only recourse is the expedient of placing at the service of truth what has been given me by the Father of Lies.

I pray like a robber asking alms at the door of a farmhouse to which he is ready to set fire.

Léon Bloy

A place to begin from

The buildings, doorways, sidewalk cracks, city trees shone bright and precise. He was where he was, all of him, beside a dry-cleaning store, high on the smell of clean brown-wrapped clothes. He was nowhere else. In the window was a secular bust of a man with a chipped plaster shirt and a painted tie. It didn’t remind him of anything when he stared at it. He was wildly happy to be where he was. Clean and empty, he had a place to begin from, this particular place. He could choose to go anywhere but he didn’t have to think about that because here he was and every free deep breath was a beginning. For a second he lived in a real city, one that had a mayor and garbage men and statistical records. For one second.

— Leonard Cohen, from The Favourite Game

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Wary of words

After some time I got wary of words. They were a joy to use and organise, like pieces in some rarefied game whose most important rules were obscure — but how far could they be trusted? It was easy to feel you were in control when you manipulated these strange tools to make them say what you wanted, but lately I found I’d manoeuvre myself, or be manoeuvred, into a corner from which I couldn’t see my way out. There was a danger in words. They wrote me as I wrote them and led me down paths I didn’t always intend to go; but wasn’t it the words themselves that showed me those paths? I fought with the swarm, tried to cut it down to sense. What was insight and what was random remembered phrases? A writer I knew at the time who’d written with great facility all his life dried up mysteriously, then awoke one morning and saw he’d taken the flow of words for granted, yet had only used a tiny corner of them. Now they were showing him they’d used him, not the other way around. Because he’d surrendered to them, they’d given him his thoughts and feelings. But that morning he felt that he had nothing more to offer them, and that they were moving on to someone else, but he didn’t feel free, on the contrary. It’s like those painters in the past who, looking over their work in a lucid moment, suddenly found they’d painted themselves into a corner and that the forms that once opened everything up for them now seemed banal and opportunistic. Were there ways out?

A kind of abstract space

I was standing in a kind of abstract space. My thoughts were unpeopled. Each time I tried to step out of this space, there was a loud bang as if from a giant clapperboard, and I felt an electric buzz in the centre of my body. The further out I tried to move, the louder the bang and the more violent the buzz. After a while I became more wary, and less resistant, until I could no longer move and had to stay in my original space, which from then on became the centre of the universe.

Till we have faces

‘Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than that which you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’ A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

— C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

The craft of devotion

He had thought that his tall uncles in their dark clothes were princes of an elite brotherhood. He had thought the synagogue was their house of purification. He had thought their businesses were realms of feudal benevolence. But he had grown to understand that that none of them even pretended to those things. They were proud of their financial and communal success. They liked to be first, to be respected, to sit close to the altar, to be called up to lift the scrolls. They weren’t pledged to any other idea. They did not believe their blood was consecrated. Where had he got the notion that they did?
   When he saw the rabbi and cantor move in their white robes, the light on the brocaded letter of their prayer shawls, when he stood among his uncles and bowed with them and joined his voice to theirs in the responses; when he followed in the prayer book the catalogue of magnificence —
   No, his uncles were not grave enough. They were strict, not grave. They did not seem to realise how fragile the ceremony was. They participated in it blindly, as if it would last forever. They did not seem to realize how important they were, not self-important, but important to the incantation, the altar, the ritual. They were ignorant of the craft of devotion. They were merely devoted. They never thought how close the ceremony was to chaos. Their nobility was insecure because it rested on inheritance and not moment-to-moment creation based on annihilation.
   In the most solemn or joyous part of the ritual Breavman knew the whole procedure could revert in a second to desolation. The cantor, the rabbi, the chosen laymen stood before the open Ark, cradling the Torah scrolls, which looked like stiff-necked royal children, and returned them one by one to their golden stall. The beautiful melody soared, which proclaimed that the Law was a tree of life and a path of peace. Couldn’t they see how it had to be nourished? And all these men who bowed, who performed the customary motions, they were unaware that other men had written the sacred tune, other men had developed the seemingly eternal gestures out of clumsy confusion. They took for granted what was dying in their hands.
   But why should he care? He wasn’t Isaiah, and the people claimed nothing. He didn’t even like the people or the god of their cult. He had no rights in the matter.

— Leonard Cohen, The Favourite Game

A convincing mystery

He held the half-caste firmly in the saddle and walked on. His feet were bleeding, but they would soon harden. An odd stillness dropped over the forest, and welled up in the mist from the ground. The night had been noisy, but now all was quiet. It was like an armistice with the guns silent on either side: you could imagine the whole world listening to what they had never heard before — peace.
   A voice said ‘You are the priest, aren’t you?’
   ‘Yes.’ It was as if they had climbed out of their opposing trenches and met to fraternize among the wires in No Man’s Land. He remembered stories of the European War — how during the last years men had sometime met on an impulse between the lines.
   ‘Yes’, he said again, and the mule plodded on. Sometimes, instructing children in the old days, he had been asked by some black lozenge-eyed Indian child, ‘What is God like?’ and he would answer facilely with references to the father and the mother, or perhaps more ambitiously he would include brother and sister and try to give some idea of all loves and relationships combined in an immense and yet personal passion… But at the centre of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery — that we were made in God’s image. God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge. Something resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard or contorted itself like a camel in the attitude of sex. He would sit in the confessional and hear the complicated dirty ingenuities which God’s image had thought out, and God’s image shook now, up and down on the mule’s back, with the yellow teeth sticking out over the lower lip, and God’s image did its despairing act of rebellion with Maria in the hut among the rats. He said, ‘Do you feel better now? Not so cold, eh? Or so hot?’ and pressed his hand with a kind of driven tenderness upon the shoulders of God’s image.
   The man didn’t answer, as the mule’s backbone slid him first to one side, then the other.

— Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

A stricken state

I was sitting in a bar on Western Ave. It was around midnight and I was in my usual confused state. I mean, you know, nothing works right: the women, the jobs, the no-jobs, the weather, the dogs. Finally you just sit in a kind of stricken state and wait like you’re on the bus stop bench waiting for death.

— Bukowski, ‘No Way To Paradise’

Ghost

He decided to do the right thing, did the wrong thing and retreated. He stopped listening until he turned deaf and stopped talking until he turned mute. It was true that silence was often the best answer, but not this kind of silence, in which you pass through your own life like a ghost.