Monday, June 22, 2009

The Fog


My usual summer apology for the infrequency of postings!

This morning I woke up to thick fog. From my window, all I can see is a hint of rock, a ghost of tree, and fog. My world has grown very small. My range of vision is constricted by cataracts of gray wet mist. I know the water-rounded, lichen clad boulders rise up in a high cliff to meet the deep blue Colorado sky. I know the Ponderosa pines and junipers spring up out of sheer rock, or so it seems, across the cliff face. I know there are black pockets that hide the possibility of mountain lions. But no matter how hard a squint, I can’t see any of it. All I can see is hints, shadows, ghosts—and the relentless fog.

The scene has set me to thinking about shortsightedness. It seems to me that all of us carry around our own personal fog, settled around the hidden recesses of the ever-probing mind and hiding from us a great deal of what we know or guess or hope to be there. We suspect the existence of a larger world than we can see, but all we see of it is hints, shadows, ghosts—and the relentless fog that shuts us in. The fog is thicker for some of us than others, at some times than others, in some places than others. But it never lifts entirely, this side of the grave.

In fact, so used to it can we become that we cease to believe or guess or even hope that there is more behind it. We then hunker down within our blinding circle of mist and grow comfortable in a deepening certainty that what we see is all we’ll ever get.

It’s an old story. I think of the Israelites, not too far into the desert, screaming at God (or telling Moses to scream at God for them because they sometimes recognize that God might be a dangerous Someone to scream at). They scream because they’re hungry and thirsty and afraid. They’re town dwellers, farmers and laborers, used to a world run by Egyptians, though they carry a dim memory of times when it was not so, of places far away, of heroic ancestors and their God. But so dim is the memory that it has lost most of its reality and all of its power to animate them. It’s mostly, now, a matter of a good story to tell around the fire at night, with the events and names getting scrambled over time until no one knows anymore what really happened or to whom, or if anything really happened at all. Suddenly, they find themselves thrust out of Egypt into the alien, hostile desert as nomadic herders who must live from oasis to oasis because there are no wells, no town squares, no homes to go to at night. All they can see is wasteland and more wasteland and more wasteland beyond that, as far as the eye can reach. And so, quite reasonably, they scream to go home. They might have been slaves—they were slaves—but when they got up in the morning they could see the food in their larders, the water in the water jars, the vegetables and fruits growing in vibrant orchards, the flocks and herds safely penned or tethered or guarded for meat, milk, wool, and skins. Here, all they see is a dry, sandy circle of death closing in on them.

They grew shortsighted. They saw here and now. They saw their children hungry, their animals thirsty, their breadbaskets empty. They saw, in other words, their need. They lost sight of the grand promise of a land running with milk and honey, of a God who could part water and drown armies and restore to them the homeland they had lost so long ago they had nothing left of it but their vague stories.

You can’t really blame them. Hunger, thirst, and the threat of death lurking behind them are very tangible realities. Survival is an overwhelming drive. Let Moses, Aaron, Miriam and God get out of their way to the life they craved. Not long ago I read a novel called Black Monday by R. Scott Reiss. The premise of the novel was that bad guys had created a microbe that ate oil. The villains disseminated it through most of the oil fields of the world. The results were catastrophic: airplanes suddenly fell out of the sky as their oil vanished, cars slid to a silent halt on freeways during rush hour causing multiple vehicle disasters, and all kinds of machinery began mysteriously to break down. (The author paints all this devastation in such gripping colors that one is distracted from asking why the planes even got off the ground or the cars out of the garage if the bacteria multiplied and consumed oil at the rate later tracked by scientists.) The by-product of these mechanical horrors is the rather swift disintegration of the social fabric as families are faced with starvation as food distribution, then food production, grind to a terrifying halt, and homes are threatened with hypothermia as fuel oil ceases to generate heat. Normally law-abiding parents turn into looters, hoarders, hard-hearted guardians of a dwindling food supply for their children. Marginally law-abiding men and women become thieves, raiders and murderers for the sake of the illusory wealth and power available to the “haves” in a rising sea of “have-nots.” Jobs disappear, police can no longer patrol in useless vehicles, soldiers commandeer horse carts to get from one place to the other. The law of the jungle—kill or be killed—becomes the norm of a desperate world. There are heroic exceptions, or near-exceptions, but they are very few and powerless. The picture was dreadfully credible. It made a few complaining Israelites look like small potatoes indeed. (And even a small potato is a very risky thing to be in a world defined by “eat or be eaten.”)

The book made me realize, though, that the short-sightedness that afflicted those Israelites can become lethal. If we cannot see beyond the small circle of the self and its survival, we become dangerous protectors and predators of “us” vs. “them” or, eventually, “me” against “you.” I suspect that this dynamic of short-sightedness may be one way of thinking about what St. Paul means when he writes about the “law of the flesh” vs. “the law of the spirit” (e.g. Galatians 5:16-18). We heirs of a Greek philosophical worldview have often confused this common biblical distinction with “body” vs. “soul,” but the biblical world didn’t operate by those categories. The human being is the clay into which God had breathed the breath of life on the banks of a river in Eden (cf. Genesis 2:4b-7): every human being, good bad or indifferent, is “enspirited matter,” so to speak. In the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s work, “flesh” usually means the world untouched and untransformed by the life-giving Spirit of God let loose by the death and resurrection of Jesus, whereas “spirit” means humanity seized, possessed and made new by that Spirit. “Flesh” is radically self-centered. It is therefore, by definition, very short-sighted indeed: it can see no farther than the feeble circle of light cast by “me” and “mine.” Paul lists a series of nasty behaviors that result from the radical assertion of “me” over “you,” but they are not merely sins of our bodily being (Galatians 5:19-20). They are, as Jesus suggests in the gospel, sins of the “heart” (Matthew 15:17-20). The “heart” in the bible is that center where we take in the random bombardment of experience that assaults us second by second and organize it into a worldview out of which we can understand, think, believe, decide and act. Sins of the heart are actions produced by the way we look at the world and everything in it (and beyond it), including ourselves. If all I can see in the surrounding fog is what I need to survive, then I can readily believe myself entitled to go after it, no matter what that might cost anyone else.

The Israelites did not remain slaves imprisoned in a hostile Egypt. In spite of themselves, they were delivered and sent on their way toward the land promised to their ancestors long before. Even their desert shortsightedness could not, in the end, keep their children from the Land, though it caused most of the Exodus generation to perish in the desert they had chosen (cf. Numbers 13-14). Neither are we condemned to spend time and eternity in the fog. Fog does eventually burn off in the sun. We can look forward to that moment long before it comes, because even the worst fog is permeable to the light while it still hides the landscape from view. St. Gregory the Great describes us in our fogbound existence as people of the dawn:

While we do some things which already belong to the light, we are not free from the remnants of darkness…. When he writes, the night is passed, Paul does not add, the day is come, but rather, the day is at hand. Since he argues that after the night has passed, the day as yet is not come but is rather at hand, he shows that the period before full daylight and after darkness is without doubt the dawn, and that he himself is living in that period. It will be fully day for the Church of the elect when she is no longer darkened by the shadow of sin. It will be fully day for her when she shines with the perfect brilliance of interior light. This dawn is aptly shown to be an ongoing process when Scripture says: And you showed the dawn its place [Job 38:12].

So, in the midst of our self-focusing fog, Paul encourages us to look beyond its dark circle toward the larger world lit up for us even now by Jesus Christ, “the light of the world” (John 9:5): “the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” We may not be able to see very clearly yet, but we have a lamp to guide us through the fog toward the arriving day: “Your word is a lamp to my feet

and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). The Word maps out the basic route pretty succinctly: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).

It takes courage to step out into the fog, but Christ reassures us, out of the light we can barely see, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).

©2009, Abbey of St. Walburga