Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Deplorable Word

In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God

And the Word was God

He was in the beginning with God.

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

If you have read The Magician’s Nephew, you will know about the Deplorable Word. It is the opposite of the Word that was at the beginning, for it is the Word that brought it all to an end.

The Deplorable Word takes the idea of magic words to the very extreme. As Queen Jadis explains, “It had long been known to the great kings of our race that there was a word which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it. But the ancient kings were weak and soft hearted and bound themselves and all who should come after them with great oaths never even to seek after the knowledge of that word. But I learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it. I did not use it until she forced me to it.”

In my single volume bound edition of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew comes first, but it is not the first one that Lewis wrote. That, of course, was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a tale that raised as many questions as it answered. Who, for example, was the White Witch? Where did she come from? And who was this enigmatic professor with whom the Pevensie children stayed, a man who, at the height of the rational, technological age, could hint that Lucy might not be lying about strange lands beyond the wardrobe, who could shake his head and say, “Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”

The Magician’s Nephew was written right before The Last Battle. It is a story of beginnings – Narnia is created within its pages – while The Last Battle is a story of endings – Narnia comes to an end – but in the way of the sacred imagination, beginnings and endings get all mixed up, so that The Magician’s Nephew deals with ends, while The Last Battle ends with a beginning.

As they explore the various parallel universes which will eventually gel into Narnia, Digory Kirke who will ripen into the Professor, and his friend Polly Plummer arrive at the exhausted world of Charn, glowing lifelessly in the rays of a red sun. In its ruined palace, they pass through a set of golden doors into a hall of kings and queens, beautifully dressed, all seated upon their thrones, suspended, unmoving, a place full of beings who had once been alive. “Why haven’t these clothes rotted away long ago?” asked Polly. “Magic,” whispered Digory. “Can’t you feel it? I bet this whole room is just stiff with enchantments. I could feel it the moment we came in.”

They pass down the rows. The faces go from beautiful to cruel to anguished and dispairing, people who “had done dreadful things and also suffered dreadful things.” Finally, they came upon a woman “with a look of such fierceness and pride that it took your breath away.” And they also came upon a temptation, a pillar, an arch, a golden bell, a golden mallet with which to strike it, and the following bit of verse.

Make your choice, adventurous Stranger,
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.

When I used to read this book to the third grade at St. Paul’s School, I would always stop here, take a significant pause, look over my assembled charges and say, “OK. Here's the moment of decision. Shall we ring?”

The answers were always divided. Some would say “No!” Others would say, “Yes, you have to!” It often, but not always, split between the girls and the boys, the girls counseling prudence, the boys shouting push ahead. Which is, of course, exactly what happened in the book. Digory disabled Polly with one hand, struck the bell with the other and awoke the evil queen.

This is by way of saying that all those self righteous men who blame Eve for the mess we’re in, just might have gotten it a little wrong. In The Magician's Nephew it is Digory who brings original sin into the newborn world by awakening the one who would one day be the White Witch.

Her great sin, of course, was the Deplorable Word. Fitting for a story, I should say, a magic word that at the end of things became Death, the Deplorable Word, shatterer of the world of Charn.

What could such a word possibly be? I suppose that I should not be curious, but I am. What word could be so destructive as to destroy every living being save the one who uttered it? It does me no harm to speculate, for even if, by chance, I should come upon the word, I have no idea of its “proper ceremonies,” and so my utterance of it would be quite harmless. Indeed, it might be helpful for me who, as a creature caught in the snares and delusions of this world, needs all the help she can get to figure out what to avoid.

Deplorable Words actually hover at the edges of Scripture. Consider this most enigmatic of Jesus’ teachings. It appears with slight variation in Matthew, Mark and Luke. I give you Mark’s, as both the earliest and the most vehement: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:28-29) (See also Matt 12:32 and Luke 12:10)

To commit blasphemy is not necessarily to speak a word; it can be a deed or even a “proper ceremony,” but I have always felt that something terrible and irrevocable hovers somewhere in Jesus' warning; indeed, there was a time when a group of us pondered it deeply, usually in connection with something terrible that someone did against us. “Is that person really consigned to outer darkness now? Has he committed the Unforgivable Sin?” It was applied to husbands who slept with other women, to rivals who thwarted my path, business associates who abused their staff, to women who chose abortions. “Has she committed the Unforgivable Sin?” Sermons were preached about the sin so terrible that it damaged relationships forever. Even my dear auntie got into the fray. Heads were scratched. Chins rubbed. A man who confessed to hitting his wife was banished from the men’s fellowship. Eventually, I stopped having enough money to hang out with the members of this church and went elsewhere and forgot all about the Unforgivable Sin. Until I encountered the Deplorable Word.

It came up again about a decade later, during those terrible years in the 'nineties when a Carmelite Convent on the former site of Auschwitz was ordered closed because it defamed the memories of those who died there. There should be no prayer at the place of Unforgivable Sin. So much horrid and painful political business came up in the course of the closure that I froze up inside. I knew I could never understand the mysteries of radical evil and prayed that God would keep me safe from the horrors of my fellow man.

I did not think about it again until quite recently. I was sitting in traffic on an ordinary afternoon when the Deplorable Word at last revealed itself to me. I’m not sure if this was the same word that Jadis used, but given what I know of Jadis, it might have been. I will offer it you without any ceremony whatsoever. I will offer it you rather as it came to me. “What word,” I wondered, “could kill everything but the speaker?” It was a natural kind of question to ask while killing time in traffic. Killing time is itself a kind of blasphemy. I had just come from a conversation about Jadis with my friend Nola and both were very much on my mind.

I don’t like to drive. It feels not like a technological innovation but an evolutionary regression, shedding my human flesh and putting on a metal exoskeleton. The dense and snarling lanes of traffic feel like ants streaming toward the hive, the other people around me shielded from view by tinted glass, their voices overwhelmed by subwoofers and angry idling engines, the soft earth underfoot hardened with concrete and glistening with toxic patches of oil, status and position loudly proclaimed by gas guzzling SUVs and cheap bumper stickers in place of the far more difficult and beautiful task of finding common speech. I don’t like to drive. I don’t like living in a world where my worth is measured by how much I waste. I don’t like living in a world that burns so much up. I don’t like living in a world where children are taught that other children are rivals for the glittering prize, or worse, resources to be used in the promotion of my success.

So I am sitting in traffic and thinking of Jadis. And I wonder what word could be so barbed and so potent as to put an end to all this, leaving only the speaker. And then the word came. It was not at all like the Word in John's Gospel. It was not with God, nor was it God. It was very far from God. It was “I.” And "I" was all there was.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Rage of Jadis

Although the children’s production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church took place over thirty years ago, it is still embedded in the memory of that community. It happened at a golden moment, when a group of brilliant friends had gathered there and decided it would be wonderful to write a play for their children. My friend Nola played the White Witch. Dressed in a red slip covered by a black lace dress, a black cloak rippling down her young teenaged frame, she made her grand entrance to the strains of Jimi Hendrix' Purple Haze:

Purple Haze all around,
don't know if I'm coming up or down.
Am I happy or in misery?
Whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me”

Jimi Hendrix and a black and red dancer may seem a far cry from the White Witch as she appeared in C. S. Lewis’ original novel, but when the magical land is entered from California by the sea rather than Great Britain, perhaps a hot, purple haze is a better curse than a frozen whiteout. “Some say the world will end in fire, others say in ice,” wrote poet Robert Frost. We are just as likely to be burned by our appetites as frozen by them. California does not understand ice, or maybe our climate permits us to refuse to admit that we’re icy. We are closer to the equator than the pole. We fancy ourselves a people of heat, restless, always trying to manage, deal, control.

When, this many years later, I asked Nola what it felt like to play the White Witch, she laughed. “Powerful. I’d never danced in public before. It still amazes me that I got the role and Linda Bellarmy did not.”

It was my turn to laugh. I met Linda Bellarmy ten years ago when she came west to visit friends and turned up for services at St. Bartholomew's. Elegant and fine boned, with hanks of auburn hair, Linda still radiates star quality. Her parents were both writers. After their Inklings days at St. Bartholomew's, they rose to international fame as sages and took up residency on the East Coast. Linda’s parents had adapted the novel for the play, and both Nola and Linda were utterly surprised when the independent casting group awarded the part to Nola. Maybe that’s because they decided that Nola was, and is, the perfect girl to navigate the purple haze. She is powerful because she is so perfectly herself.

To be perfectly oneself is a remarkable achievement, especially in a culture where women are still raised to fulfill others' desires and embody others' projections of beauty. My mother grew up believing that if a woman lacked beauty, there was no other gift that could compensate. There are no funny looking newscasters named Larissa on CNN. While Beauty is a wonderful ideal in philosophy and religion, when it is applied to imperfect people, it becomes a tyrant. Helen of Troy, that great embodiment of beauty, held no office or power beyond herself. Her power was solely her effect upon others. Think about this for a moment. Imagine that the only thing you have is an effect. What else, I ask, is magic, but that? Why else, I ask, have men been lauded as movers and shakers and women burned as witches?

To be the object of desire results in a very paradoxical and deceptive form of self absorption. Lily bound feet, extreme thinness, neck rings, veils, so much energy expended to cast beauty's spell, to shape shift, to turn from being myself into someone else. In traditional societies, men have worn the honor, women the shame. Men have moved through the public sphere and women have guarded the private. With the American home now a shrine of consumerism, the spheres are melting into one another, with the masculine corporate world a pervasive influence now in the most tender and intimate moments of our lives. A former housewife myself, I did not care to be invaded, not at all.

Because girls are raised so deeply in the shadows of others’ expectations and so many other people’s dramas are played out across our lives, a great many of us carry a great deal of frustrated anger. You would, too, if you kept flying into a glass ceiling. We know the difference between biology and self interest. Do not forget for a minute that Sophia, wisdom, is also a woman. Despite the fantasies of medieval monks, Jesus healed Mary Magdalene of wrath, not prostitution, as the recently discovered Gospel of Mary suggests. And so, the aging mother, ignored by a society that can only see women as young and sexy, is cruel to her young daughter. A submissive wife in Texas sinks into black depression and drowns her husband's hateful "seed." A hotshot young attorney sells her body to Playboy believing that to market herself sexually as well as legally is a liberated gesture. Sister turns against sister. Fire in the belly can freeze the soul – such is the pathology of the White Witch and the purple haze. And, I might add, it was precisely this that Nola escaped by playing her. To be able to play that kind of power, to express it, is to begin to understand it and the only cure for the ravages of power I’ve found, is to stand right under it and get wise.

Because the kind of Power that is ravaging the world today expresses itself by crushing the Other, women, as Other, always risk being crushed. Atrocities against women are on the rise. (By nature, anything that is done to a woman cannot be done to a man, which is what makes crimes against women a "safe" way of consolidating power.) When she was just a little girl, Helen of Troy was raped by a Theseus, enraged by her effect on him. Amnon raped Tamar in the Bible and in one generation, brought down the House of David. Power is not clean. In many, many cases, men and women, even as they struggle with one another, love each other deeply. That said, something is still very wrong. Things have grown more wrong in my lifetime. Something is wrong when war becomes the theater of character, where women are victims and men perpetrators. Something is wrong when a woman named Jessica Valenti writes a sober article stating that rape is not acceptable, and is teased and heckled by her interviewer in the name of “setting the stage” for their talk. Here’s what he wrote. (I will spare you the cite, because I am not going to be kind, but if you want to know where the interview is, you can email me.) “As far as explosive signifiers go, there are few more combustible than the word "feminism." It was forged through suffrage and the ERA and Roe v. Wade, and has survived through first and second and third waves to the tunes of Helen Reddy and Ani DiFranco. Dogged by the image of a spectral harpy with hairy legs and an apocryphal burned bra in her hand, it has been declared dead, then resurrected, then declared dead again. But god bless it, there's life in feminism yet.” Would anyone dare preface the racial struggles of African Americans as, “a spectral Hottentot with hairy crown and a drum, but god bless them, we’ve still got the blacks?" Has anyone ever been patronizing toward that poster boy of world development, Columbia professor Jeff Sachs in his book lined ivory tower, pontificating on the necessary evil of shop girls and sexual harassment in the name of economic improvement?

Thank God Valenti knows how to handle these guys."Do you think it's fair that a guy will make more money doing the same job as you? Does it piss you off and scare you when you find out about your friends getting raped? Do you ever feel like shit about your body? Do you ever feel like something is wrong with you because you don't fit into this bizarre ideal of what girls are supposed to be like? Well, my friend, I hate to break it to you, but you're a hardcore feminist. I swear."

Which brings me to back to the White Witch. Are you surprised that she got so sick of the whole thing that she finally just did it, and uttered the Deplorable Word?
(More to come. . .)

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Blue Door

Dreams are sacred texts. Most of what I believe in and live for today was given me in a dream at Yosemite, at the uttermost end of 1996 as floodwaters raced in from the tropics. Fire and ice. The meltwaters of metanoia. I really can't do justice to the sheer power of this vision, but I tried, and on the "Links" section, you may read my attempt.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Another Quote from Joseph Campbell

As I ponder and wrestle with the sacred complexities of the White Witch of Narnia, (which is to say I do not have this week's essay done), let me share another delectable quote from Joseph Campbell. I found it online, so I can't tell you which of his books it's in, but here it is:

“Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends.”

An old rival of mine shared practically the same insight many years ago. We were visiting his friend Roger who was then a freshman at Stanford and who was beginning to realize that being admitted to Stanford was a guarantee for life. It was 1968. We felt sorry for old people who would soon die without finding out what came next. 1968 was a momentous year in which the world lurched toward change. I really believed in the hope of all things new, to an end of hypocrisy and the callous repression of power. Now I am old. 1968 failed. But the ending feels closer than ever.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Second Time: The Wardrobe Revisited

The name Narnia probably derives from one of Tolkien’s old Middle Earth languages in which “narn” is the word for lay, history or story. If this is so, then Narnia is well named, for she is a storied land in every sense of the word; a land that was spoken and written into being, a place whose magic is ultimately verbal. For all of us, to find our own true story (which is sometimes given us in words and sometimes not) is to find our own true way. It is the way I keep up with myself and not with the Joneses. To know myself is to find my power, not as politicians and technocrats and drug dealers are powerful, but as God is powerful. I am created in God’s image. You are created in God's image. This is the very best way we can see one another, through the imagination of God. Which returns me right to Lucy Pevensie. She went through a wardrobe door and found a very powerful story, but when she returned, no one would believe her. I wonder how many of us, upon discovering something dear and true, have come home glowing, only to be rebuffed by the very ones to whom we most want to give it. Did not Jesus himself say that “A prophet has not honor in his own country and among those of his own household?”

And yet, no rejection is ever complete, for even the act of rejecting a story means that someone has heard it. And so Edmund, the little brother, the one who had a bit of a nasty streak, experienced a temptation to find a story for himself, and so, when the time was right, he, too, went into the wardrobe.

Now just as all of us have stories, all of us have a capacity to be horrid, and one of the dangers of discovering truth is that I will discover falsehood at the very same time. This nasty streak seems to be a very important part of human nature. One of the ways that I encounter truth is by stretching it, trying it on, manipulating it around the edges to see how far it can go. Of course that means that I am being tested, too, and the sacred word for this trial of truth is temptation. It is in being tempted that I discover what kind of stuff I am made of. The saints go to be tempted and in this way discover their progress toward God. When little boys and girls are tempted, they discover surprising strengths and weaknesses. Maybe I am less nasty than others say I am; perhaps I am more. It is not comfortable to be small. The trials that children face are so real and terrible to them that we adults, who have forgotten our own, rarely hear the half of them. It is one of the geniuses of C.S. Lewis that, though he had no children of his own, he understood the secret world of childhood.

On the surface of things, little Lucy had a far more dangerous experience in Narnia than would her brother. Lucy encountered a creature that was half man and half goat, who in classical mythology is a seducer of women. Edmund was met only by a woman. In waking life, it is typically considered more dangerous for little girls to run into goat men than it is for little boys to run into women, but Narnia is deeper than waking life, for Narnia is the story of the soul. We know this at once, for at the house of Tumnus the faun Lucy is given food and enchanted music and she falls asleep, further emphasizing the dreamlike quality of Narnia. She learns the great truth of dreams, that they come always in the service of spiritual health and wholeness and they can never harm one. Tumnus repents of his evil before it is even committed and Lucy learns an important lesson. Edmund, on the other hand, ostensibly remains awake for the whole time. In the sleigh of the White Witch, he receives enchanted food which further awakens him, by awakening his every appetite, including, when he and Lucy returned, the chance to belittle his sister, to “reassure” Peter and Susan that they were only pretending a magic land lay behind the wardrobe, to pretend that it was “only a dream.”

There are by now many stories about magic lands and parallel universes, many of which feel desperately contrived, because they are written only as entertainment or as a quick moral lesson for the kiddies or because their authors are mad at the whole spiritual universe and want to turn us back into inanimate atoms, as if such a thing were even possible or could begin to set us free! Narnia, at least to me, remains true. Even when I am critical of some of its details, the stories do not let me down. There are many reasons for this, but the simplest reason is this: Narnia does not take me to a parallel universe or alternate world view. It takes me deep into my own.

I live, as did C.S. Lewis, at a moment of often predatory globalism. He, like my grandfather, faced a suicidal war. I face the suicide of the eternal plunderer. In my world with its vast fortunes and mass culture aristocracy, no corner of the earth is immune from the incursions of travelers, industrialists and the technologies of power. Mongolian nomads drink tea in their yurts and are seduced by super models and the culture of possession as purveyed by television. Such is the state of the world. Perhaps I can own it and control it and turn the whole thing into a box of Turkish Delight for me to consume. But I still cannot escape time. To be born is to enter time. That is why Narnia gives me exactly what I need. Narnia stops time. I may go and live in its time, but when I return to my own, I return to the exact point in the stream where I left it. Narnia gives me the opportunity to step out of the rat race, of the violent world from which my life in the suburbs is the ultimate evacuation, and to learn. I am not learning like a frantic manager, manipulating reality until I am too old to do so and on my deathbed learn the great truth that everyone learns, that my manipulations have accomplished absolutely nothing. When I go to Narnia, I myself become the experiment and I may return to my own world wise, without having harmed anyone. Wisdom is never recanted on the death bed, for wisdom is the one thing I can take with me.

There are, of course, interesting and immediate implications about being able to step in and out of time, questions so thorny that even Lewis did not take them up, such as, what is it like to leave childhood behind, grow up, be crowned a queen even, to explore an ill advised marriage to a Calormene prince, and then to tumble back through a wardrobe only to be a girl of eleven again?

For those of us trapped inside our histories, for those of us trapped inside a culture that worships youth and outward appearances above all else, for those of us forced to work like slaves to fulfill our vocations as consumers, leaving time may be the most important gift of Narnia. Is time, like the box of Turkish Delight the queen offers Edmund, a treat or a temptation?

Monday, May 7, 2007

Primal Wounds - Part I

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
-T.S. Eliot

I was very struck by words written by Curtis White in the May/June, 2007 issue of Orion magazine: “Here’s a bald assertion for which I have no proof scientific or otherwise: a human society would never willingly harm nature. This is a way of saying that violence is not part of human nature. This of course contradicts the opinion commonly held by Christianity and science alike that humans are by nature violent. This fatalism has the effect of making us accept wars, the victimization of the vulnerable, and the rapacious destruction of the natural world as tragic but inevitable.” (P. 29)

I am not a scientist, so I cannot offer evidence from that discipline, but as a Christian, I would like to nuance what White said that Christians believe. The Christian opinion that humans are violent by nature is not entirely accurate. Destructiveness is not natural; it inhered to us as a result of sin, and sin is precisely that which seeks to undermine human nature. Sin entered through the escalation of conflict. Conflict and differences have probably always been around, but not at the level of destructiveness and total war that passes for normal in today's world. Natural conflicts flare and pass. Today nothing passes, but is enshrined in an industry of hatred and fear, of dominance, slavery, revenge and rape. How all this came to be – how humanity went from being mostly benign to murderous – is hinted in the tales of the ancient culture heroes, a group of humans and demi-gods who lived about six thousand years ago, at the turn of our own prehistory.

There were many of them, but here are the ones I will name because I know them best; you may name others. Prometheus stole fire from the gods. Gilgamesh and Enkiddu went off adventuring and killed the forest deity Humbaba and cut down his sacred trees. Adam and Eve grew impatient with being merely human and helped themselves to fruit that they believed would turn them into something better. Cain fell into a jealous rage, killed his brother Abel and mistook God’s forgiveness for vindication. All of these acts were, in one way or another, acts of theft. Prometheus took what had not been given him. Gilgamesh and Enkiddu raped a forest. Adam and Eve helped themselves to food. Cain took a life. Had it been possible to bring any of them before a law court, we might have been able to redeem these acts, but there has never been a simple courthouse for felonies against nature. Nature’s court is all the world and all time and if she is slow to render sentence, at least as we reckon time, it does not mean she won’t. If the earth were my age, these crimes would still be only about three hours old. Three hours after a crime, the getaway car is still careening through the streets. Three hours into a trial, the jury is still hearing evidence.

I have to tell you one thing about Nature’s law. It is not a code that can be manipulated or or argued. Nature’s law is straight, outright Gift. You can't argue with Gift, you can only take it or leave it. The law of Gift compels my proactivity to be ready to receive, not to manage or create. This is only to warn that when Gift is the law, theft represents a very serious infraction.

According to those who have pondered such matters, who are mostly the Buddhists who take nature’s laws with enough seriousness to make following them the center of their practice, the karmic effect caused by theft is loss. If, in a past life, I have taken what has not been given me, I will lose something dear in this one. Following this line of reason, tragedy, death, ecological depredation, capitalist inequality, communist bullying, and a whole bunch more awful things, owe their existence less to human nature than to the fact that human society in the West was founded upon theft. Or, as Al Gore put it, a bit more delicately, "We live in an age of consequences."

“The first hit is always free,” say my addict friends, so, yes, it is possible to delude ourselves that these ancient thefts led to Progress or were somehow compelled by Necessity. Prometheus stole fire, and we enjoyed some warmth, but fire made industrialism, war and slavery possible too. Fire is a deep metaphor for catastrophic drought. Gilgamesh and Enkiddu killed Humbaba and stole his trees which meant that man could build some self-important structures, but the gods demanded Enkiddu’s life in payment and death drove Gilgamesh mad. The Middle East became forever a rocky, deforested land. When Adam and Eve stole the fruit for which they were not yet ripe, they renounced their human nature for the chance to play God which, I must confess, looking at the record, we have not done very well. Cain stole his brother’s life and rid himself of a rival, but when he was forgiven by a generous God, he was already deranged and thought he had gotten away with murder. Cain, by the way, is the Judeo Christian founder of agriculture, which says that the Bible would agree that the agricultural revolution, and not industrialism, is where the problem started.

Six thousand years later, we continue to live, perhaps not with the guilt, but certainly with the consequences of this handful of culture heroes. We know about them because they were enshrined in myth. These were the myths with the hidden meanings, in each story tucked a hint as to what we must give back if we are to be saved: the fires of our impulsiveness, the relentless push toward growth without recession and rest, our illusions of wisdom, and our attachment to survival at all costs.

This great cultural story is recapitulated again and again in billions of individual lives. As children we are primally wounded by parents who themselves have been wounded. In a world that refuses to deal with sin, that calls violence inevitable, each of us is going to be shaped by sins that our fear refuses to name. If I cannot name my sin, I will be stuck in it. But if I can find my sin's true name, I can turn it back into gift. That is, after all, what nature asks of me. Naming is only finding the magic word, the word that can transform me. Naming is trusting what I can imagine, what I receive. Naming is trusting the tale.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.