Sunday, August 28, 2011
The Third in a Series of Mad Hermit Visions
GRAND CONTESTED ELECTION FOR THE PRESIDENCY OF THE UNITED STATES.
WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL.
BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN.
--Herman Melville, Moby Dick
I troubled myself for weeks for a way to render this third vision by the Mad Hermit, but my granddaughter Audrey mentioning Moby Dick and a re-reading of the first chapter of that work of pure genius gave me the plagiaristic clue I needed. Plagiarism: the etymology suggests as snare or net, which I am happy to broadcast to catch, through Ishmael, what I can. But you’ll have to judge the value of my strategy for yourself. One more element in prompting my musings: Tolkien and trees. Night before last I decided to read up on the fifty-foot high American Beech tree in my yard. I found that such trees can grow to eighty feet and live four hundred years. Given its size, this one has already been around, say, since 1811, the year of the first Luddite uprisings and the Great New Madrid earthquake. I also found that the words for beech and book are the same in Old English, German, and the Scandinavian languages, probably since the beech tree was a source for paper pulp. This coalescence of meaning and my memory of Tolkien’s reverence for trees prompted me to wander out at midnight, kerosene lamp in hand, to simply touch this mighty old living thing with a druidic sense of reverence. Reverence, aye, that’s the theme. . .reverence for the things of the earth . . .which point to heaven . . .
Midnight on Masirah Island, Oman, sometime or other, the Mad Hermit speaks aloud (yes, he’s talking to himself again):
Sitting on this sperm whale’s burnished head, and listening to the soft waves of the Indian Ocean (there’s only one ocean on the planet earth really, ain’t it?), I’m remembering what Ishmael said about our mystical reverence for water, and why we sit and stare at it and hunger for water wherever we be. Here in the desert, men seek the small springs in oases or make their way to the sea, an image of eternity. The largest icon we have. And I, sitting on the sperm whale icon, wondering.
What I wonder about is religion and things: air, earth, fire, water. I confess: I love religion, the thing itself. If Christianity is true—which, like Pascal, I wager with my life it is—it must have to do with these things, not just with words. While I was still teaching in Oman, I looked into some things, and in these reveries, they come back to me. Tonight I dug into my little cache and pulled out my stash of frankincense and myrrh. Easy to buy here, piles of it lie in the marketplace, fresh from the trees of Oman.
Let my prayer be set forth as incense before You, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
So wrote David in his poem-prayer. Hard to imagine that he prayed the words only, a metaphor in words. What of a metaphor in things as well? So I prayed tonight as my clouds of frankincense rose from a clam shell filled with home-made charcoal from acacia wood. So, every night, for morning prayer. In the last year of my teaching days, I poked about in things, thinking about the camels of the magi travelling up the Arabian peninsula, bearing their precious cargo from here, the main source of frankincense and myrrh.
The books say it is a “symbol of prayer”; I say no, it is prayer, prayer in things as we have prayer in words. There is all this confusion about symbols and metaphors, as I have found in my literary studies. People would rather run to those confusions than look at, feel, know things themselves, in which the religions of the earth are replete. Incense—in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Native American religions, Judaism (before the destruction of the Temple)—is a universal in human experience. Does God smell only the incense of one group. Caution! Old hermit, will you veer into heresy?
What set me off on this thread of reflection was reading among the “experts” the view that a religion is a “belief system.” A belief system! That reduces religion to ideology, which is something your neo-Marxist deconstructionists love to do to everything. They ignore the great Romanian Orthodox anthropologist of religion, Mircea Eliade, who understood that all religions from the Australian aborigines to the Hopi seek to “live in a sacralized cosmos” which links heaven and earth, and in which the things of the cosmos—air, water, earth, fire—are involved in the prayer of religion. This is, Eliade wrote, the basis of the “religious nostalgia, [which] expresses the desire to live in a pure and holy cosmos, as it was in the beginning, when it came fresh from the Creator’s hands.” Through ritual, dance, sacred music, chant, repetition, smell, sound, sacrament, pictures, icons, temples, the peoples of the earth sacralize time and space to enter the religious experience.
Incense brings together air, fire, plants, and ritual offering. Little wonder that it is one of the oldest religious things.
I can hear the yammerings now: paganism! devil worship! catholic ritual! Yammer on, dear gnostics.
Protestantism and semi-gnostic modernist Catholicism cut the Gospel from the earth and brought in a religion of words, words, words—and talkers with endless talking. During the Reformation preachers were known to preach for five hours. Some of the Catholic priests these days . . . well, it seems like five hours.
The Byzantine priest I met . . . never mind where . . .re-minded me in a fundamental truth of religion: we pray with our bodies, our whole bodies. In the West this has become reduced to a reflexive genuflection in which the knee barely brushes the floor, and now the post-modernist Catholics are building churches with no kneelers or space to kneel . . . Upright are they! Righteous and correct! Paying by credit card!—As the architect of Clear Creek said, the best part of a church is the shadows, where the humble pray. When the winds of evil blow through bland, hygienic churches, I fall to the ground like my Muslim brothers, who got it from the early Christians. . . In the East, the old truths hold, with metanies and full prostrations , prayers standing with arms raised, deep bows from the waist, signs of the cross . . . prostrations? Falling on the ground before the Father? If it was good enough for Abraham, Moses, the disciples, and Jesus himself, well . . .Pride was always thought of as the refusal to kneel, bow, or fall on the ground before God . . .when one falls to the ground, forehead to the earth, he knows his true position in the cosmos.
Gnosticism: fear and hatred of the physical world, Manichean pride. And when I hear such things dismissed as “externals,” I hear the old-new pride, Cartesiansism. Or what Walker Percy called “angelism, abstraction of the self from itself . . .envy of the incarnate condition and a resulting caricature of the bodily appetites.” Or, in short, Jansenism Deluxe.
The one true religion must necessarily reflect and in some way incorporate all the previous ones . . . that is why the one true sacrifice of the Mass completes and supersedes all the sacrifices of all the other religions . . .
Our whole bodies must become prayers . . .
That night in the desert years ago when I went to a student’s village near the mountains. How can I forget that? It was the feast of Eid at the end of Ramadan, and he took me away from the village where I heard the sound of the drums, the men of the village dancing under the light of the new moon. “They don’t want you to know,” Hani the writer told me on a walk in Kuwait (we stayed carefully to the path, all the mines and bombs were still not found), “but look at the mosques, at the crescents, they have always and still worship the moon.” The Lah, the new moon was just up, and the men of the village were chanting and swaying to the drums. Dumfounded, I swayed as well . . . part of me had become Muslim . . . not altogether a bad thing, given the choices nowadays . . .but only because Islam is. as Hilaire Belloc said, the religion of those who have not lost their religion, unlike us, who have . . .I loved them drums . . .
How sad that the Christians after Constantine were consumed with a passion to destroy the shrines and groves of the Roman pagans. Surely if our Gospel is true, it could overcome those things by force of truth, and let people come to us by grace . . .
Now, listening to the surush (new word, coined here and now) of the brownish waves from India and smelling the incense, I return to the water Ishmael spoke of , and his comment on Starbuck: “Uncommonly conscientious for a sea man, and endued with a deep natural reverence, the wild watery loneliness of his life did therefore strongly incline him to superstition; but to that sort of superstition, which in some organizations seems rather to spring, somehow, from intelligence than from ignorance. Outward portents and inward presentiments were his.” Ah, kinfolk seamen, “all these things,” as Ishmael says elsewhere, “are not without their meaning.”
The meaning of things, including of water, which baptizes and sustains the globe, and prompts our universal “deep natural reverence,” awakens the memory of a priest breathing (hahhhh!) upon the new water of Holy Week, and stirring it with the Paschal candle, or water washing the bodies of the baptized in a baptismal trench in Ephesus . . .
Hear the Russian Orthodox Book of Deeds for the Sanctification of Water:
“Yea, thou didst with clay restore the eyes of the blind, and didst bid him wash, and by a word didst make him see, O thou that breakest the waves of adverse passions, and driest up the salt sea of this life . . .who hast given unto us to be invested with a snow white robe by water and the Spirit . . .send down upon us thy blessing.” I saw another Byzantine priest bless the waters of a creek flowing past our parish church. “How far downstream does the blessing go?” asked a scamp.
Forever and ever and ever.
So, before I fall asleep here, let me say that my religion must be earthy and incarnate, and I wouldn’t give a plug nickel for any religion that isn’t rich in created things . . .
and that if a religion contains all the earthiness of all religions crowned by the Divine Liturgy of the Eucharist, Christ Jesus himself, well then, I will be happy to breathe and taste and feel its blessings until the last chrism on my forehead and the last sign of the cross closes my blabbermouth . . . too many words for a hermit.
Boris Kustoviev: Consecration of the Waters at Theophany