I am now the proud owner of a blue-and-green Nova Scotia plaid scarf, a Christmas gift from my future in-laws. Yes, that’s right. I’m engaged to a Canadian. This may turn out to be just a grand, elaborate scheme to get a green card, but I entertain the hope that he truly loves me. At any rate, a green card isn’t a bad price to pay for a snazzy plaid scarf from Yarmouth and a glitzy Alberta-mined diamond. It sounds like a decent exchange to me.
It has been quite some time since I wrote on this blog and, as my faithful Facebook readers know, I disappeared from Facebook altogether in September 2009, so I suppose a short update is in order. I graduated from Philadelphia Biblical University in December with a B.S. in Biblical Studies. Two days after graduating, I traipsed over to Nova Scotia with my gentleman caller, Joshua Devine, and spent two weeks shivering in the gloriously frigid northern air, drinking copious amounts of PGtips and Tim Horton’s coffee and getting to know the Devine family. Now, I am back in Pennsylvania with a circle of white gold around the ring finger of my perpetually chapped left hand. I am busily finishing graduate school applications and planning a wedding for June 2010. Oh, yeah – I got a job at Dunkin’ Donuts (three cheers for employment!). I make a mean iced caramel latte.
At this juncture in my blogging career, I am undecided as to what to write about next. I would like to build upon my previous posts about Mesopotamian cult statues and ‘Image of God’ in an ancient Near Eastern context, and also include some discussion about semiotics and the relationship of Scripture (word) and the Church (image) working together as divine revelation (don’t worry, I’ll explain ‘semiotics’ later). I want to write about advertising as semiotics and also respond to some of Makoto Fujimura’s blog posts published in his book, Refractions. Although I will not begin graduate studies until Fall 2010 or 2011, I plan to continue doing ‘Image of God’ research related to my Honors Thesis and hope to spin it into a book.
Yes, there is much I wish to write about and even more about which I cannot write. These past few months have been very rich and yet I couldn’t blog about them, such was their weight. I feel I owe my readers some explanation, as I disappeared from Facebook and then turned up engaged to a Canadian. Several of you have asked me to draw up a narrative of my love story and I want to offer you some kind of account (though perhaps not quite a narrative). The thought of taking up this task, I must confess, is somewhat overwhelming. I can answer the, How did you meet? questions and the, How did he ask you? and respond to the, Oh, what does the ring look like? But these are all details that are insignificant when placed outside the context of relationship with a person. My difficulty with such questions is not that I lack memory of details, but that I feel unable to even to comprehend, much less convey, the substance of the relationship. What is love but a turning of one’s face towards another person?
When I try to set my mind to the beginning of our love story, I find it hard to trace its origin in terms of time. (In some ways it feels as though our love began many years ago, as if we had been lovers in some ancient, forgotten life and are just now remembering the old kinship. We must have played together as children, or perhaps our mothers met when we were in their wombs.) Every detail of the past is infused with our friendship as I know it now. In every particular, I see a person. The halls of my mind are flooded with feeling for a person of the present; for a man as I know him now. The person of today is squeezed into my memories of the person of all the yesterdays. It is T.S. Eliot’s ‘stillpoint of the turning world,’ the ‘timefulness’ of which Fujimura wrote, each moment filled with all moments; William Blake’s ‘eternity in an hour.’
Every day demands reinterpretation as my knowledge of Josh widens and deepens. I remember looks and feelings and impressions – broad strokes of memory that are in a constant state of flux. We can only see from the present, and since the present is always moving, the past must also move; not changing what was, but casting light on patches of memory that we saw only dimly, if at all. The New Testament writers gazed at the history of Israel and reinterpreted Israel’s story in light of the Christ event and, in a similar way, people tend to interpret their lives through significant relationships and life events. For Christians, the love of God manifested in Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection serves as the ultimate set of interpretive lenses, the grand narrative through which to interpret every story of the world – past, present and future. Often this love of God is experienced most tangibly through the love of other human beings – humans created in the image of God. Personal encounter evokes reevaluation of the self and the world.
Trying to answer questions about our ‘love story’ is much like trying to answer the question, What is God doing in your life? I must pick and choose and give snippets of stories in an attempt to answer you, hoping that somehow I will be able to convey the enormity, the weight, the mystical richness of relationship with God. To write of love – of its heaviness and the way it permeates my life through the seeming-minutia – this is a difficult, if not impossible, task. What is God doing in my life? I had a bowl of steel-cut organic oats this morning and was thankful for it. The wind blows and I feel cold. God breathes and I live. I tremble with the wonder of this holy mystery.
Josh and I are both artists – he is a composer and I am a writer. (If our story had a beginning, it was here – not in a particular point in time, but in our separate lives as artists which began before we knew one another.) When we first acknowledged our mutual affection for one another, I told Josh that our friendship served as a new set of interpretive lenses for me. This is, to a great extent, what art does. Josh once told me that the artist’s job is to isolate aspects of humanity and show it to people. The artist gives the viewer a new set of eyes through which to view the world and this influences how the viewer engages the world. Take, for example, a well-written novel. The descriptions in a novel compel the reader to slow down and observe details; to gaze steadily at a particular thing, be it a tangible object or an intangible feeling or idea. Similarly, a photograph also isolates an aspect of the world and presents it to the viewer. Art awakes the viewer’s senses to an aspect of the world around him.
Our friendship began to develop during my most massive creative endeavor. I had just returned to PBU after a year studying abroad at Oxford and was busy writing the rough draft of my first novella. I happened to bump into Josh during the last few weeks of his Senior year and mentioned my writing project. He asked me to email him the novella when I was finished, promising to read and critique it. He did this over the summer and when August rolled around, we met for tea to discuss the novella. After that, we began to meet for coffee or to listen to music together, first about once a week and then eventually four or five times a week. I thought very highly of his mind and of his courteous behavior towards others. He asked very good questions and tried to approach them with wisdom.
All the while, everything felt so…well…normal. There were no torrents of feeling, no wild desires (at least on my end). I did not even feel any sort of romantic inclination towards him. Though, oddly, I’d had this feeling ever since May that I was going to marry Josh Devine. I was not particularly thrilled by this thought (not that I was unthrilled either – but I didn’t think about it much). It just felt like the natural course of events; events set in place before the foundations of the earth were laid. I wanted nothing more than to pursue friendship with a fellow artist. Even in friendship, I did not feel as though I had to try to actively make things progress. I knew that the relationship would be whatever it needed to be at the proper time and it would go wherever it needed to go. It was and it did. It is and it does. He is my best friend, my confidant. If I lacked intense feeling then, I have it now a hundred times over.
Unlike my romantic infatuations of yore (which were largely projections of my own desires and expectations onto another person), my feelings have grown in response to an actual person. The love is real, reactive, cognitive and visceral. It is a love born out of limitations. Creativity is sparked by limitations and the marriage relationship is one of the most exclusive, limiting human relationships that exist. It involves a covenant made for life, a binding like no other. Yet in these shackles comes the freedom to encounter another person, to respond and not to run away, to work with the materials which you have been given, to fashion beauty out of chaos, to discover liberty through captivity.
Learning to think as committed lovers rather than single individuals has been a transition, but it has come naturally, though certainly not effortlessly. (For me, as a poet, writing is as natural and necessary as drawing breath, but composing lines is also mentally taxing and takes a good deal of concentration. What is natural is not always easy and, in our present, sinful state, it takes discipline to recall and re-learn our original nature.) Before we encountered one another, Josh and I both enjoyed being single and the kind of freedom it yielded. We each took advantage of the opportunity to move at will without reference to another person’s schedule, to eat as we pleased whenever we pleased, to manage our time and energies in relation to our individual selves. I enjoyed not having to call someone to tell him where I was if I had to stay late at the library. This freedom was, in some measure, good in its time. But now that we have both entered into relationship, we have no desire for the old kind of freedom. We both believe that our unity (and thus good of the relationship itself) transcends individual liberty. You cannot hear the sound of one hand clapping. The hand is free from encounter with another hand, but it touches nothing and makes no impact on the world. We no longer wish to be artists in isolation.
The artist in isolation is dangerous, as is art for art’s sake or any person who exists solely for himself without reference to any other. (This is one reason why God, in order to be simultaneously a personal Being who loves humans and also a Being who is self-sufficient, must be both one and more than one. Because each person of the Trinity lives for the sake the other members, God can be simultaneously self-contained and wholly unselfish.) The stereotype of the tortured, misunderstood artist painting or scribbling away in his solitary garret room is often true. This is the artist in isolation rather than in solitude. In his book, The Intellectual Life, A.G. Sertillanges distinguishes between isolation and solitude this way:
As life-giving as is solitude, so paralyzing and sterilizing is isolation. By being only a soul, one ceases to be a man, Victor Hugo would say. Isolation is inhuman; for to work in human fashion is to work with the feeling for man, his needs, his greatness, and the solidarity which binds us closely together in a common life. A Christian worker should live constantly in the universal, in history. Since he lives with Jesus Christ he cannot separate times, nor men, from Him. Real life is a life in common, an immense family life with charity for its law; if study is to be an act of life, not an art pursued for art’s sake and an appropriation of mere abstractions, it must submit to be governed by this law of oneness of heart. (pp. 12-13, The Catholic University of America Press, 1998)
Why is the isolated artist tortured? The artist is one who takes note of the world around him and brings aspects of it into focus. If there is beauty to be found, it is to the artist ten times more beautiful than to the average person. Colors are more vivid and words are that much more potent. The bright things are brighter and the dark things are darker. The sweet is sweeter; the bitter is bitterer. The artist in isolation, however, has no reference point other than his own feelings. He lives for himself and sees only himself. His own feelings are distorted because he does not experience them in relation to the world in which he lives. His senses are awakened, but often only to himself. He views the world not through lenses, but through a mirror – he constantly projects his own image onto the world instead of encountering it as it is.
(This is one reason why pornography can be so dangerous: it is the awakening of the senses by an image devoid of personhood. Pornography is for the sexual pleasure of the viewer without reference or relationship to a person. The viewer is aroused not in response to a person, but in response to his own needs or desires.)
The artist in isolation has little consolation, for he is blind to the realities of the world, both its pains and its pleasures. He feels, but he feels myopically because his emotion is not in response to a person. Because he is his own end, he is unable to experience anything other than his own pleasure or pain and thus cannot partake of the world in its fullness. He is a world unto himself, self-created, self-centered, autonomous, a god – but an utterly selfish and false god because his senses are not enlivened to the real world. He is, in a certain fashion, dead, senseless.
Our ancestors, Adam and Eve, suffered the same fate. The irony of the serpent’s promise that they would be “like God” if they tasted the forbidden fruit is that humans were already “like God.” They were enlivened images, people with personal identity derived from their relationship to God; people whose senses God had awakened to the world. Because God is both one and three, He is legitimately autonomous, a Being who engages in community in Himself, fully loving and fully independent of any created thing. Humans, however, were created as dependent beings that are incapable of being simultaneously one and more than one. Since a human being is only one person, he must look outside himself for relationship with another person. The world does not live in him, but he in the world.
Adam and Eve were commanded by God to multiply, fill the earth and subdue it – to create with the raw materials they had been given, to be artists alive to the world created by God. Instead of responding to God and the earth, they sought to project their own image onto the world and thus formed a false reality in which they were autonomous, self-created, self-centered, subject to no one but themselves. They were artists who sought isolation over relationship, distrust over intimacy and unlimited creativity instead of working within their God-ordained limitations. Adam and Eve became tortured artists, unable to bear the beauty of the world for which they were made. And we partake of their curse, the deadening of their senses. We are their stillborn children.
But a New Adam has come, Jesus, our Christ. The Creator of all things deigned to lower Himself and become an Adam, a sub-creator. The Artist was tortured and slain not in a selfish quest for illegitimate autonomy, but out of love for the little artists tortured by their inability to feel anything real or to draw forth life from the earth. The limitless Creator God (who is able to create out of nothing; who is creative even without boundaries) limited Himself in order that we might be enlivened and learn by His example to create as limited beings.
I wonder if, perhaps, this is what the writer of Hebrews was getting at when he wrote that Christ “learned obedience” and was “made perfect.” The God of all is subject to no one but Himself. Through Christ’s incarnation, God took on the role of a sub-creator, a new role for the Creator of the universe. As a man, Christ learned obedience. Christ learned limitations. “Creativity through limitations” is not a lesson for the boundless God, but for humans. To identify fully with the human problem of the illegitimate quest for autonomy, the legitimately autonomous God became human and learned obedience.
The more I study biblical anthropology, the more I realize what a weighty honor it is to be human, for we are entrusted with the serious task of living creatively; of encountering our surroundings and making something of them. To love is the most creative act of all, for love actualizes the impossible: in self-abnegation for the sake of another, the self lives and becomes what it is. In death, we live; in exile, we are free. It is the mystery of the Eucharist: we consume Christ’s flesh and blood and we are consumed, yet in this devouring we are made new.
This is our love story: the story of creation, de-creation and re-creation. We were artists in isolation, longing for the Artist to break into our senseless minds and enliven us to meet the world. The Creator descended into His dying creation and died along with it that we, too, might learn to do all things creatively; even to die creatively, that death itself might bring about life. In His death, we die and are re-created. As creators longing to be refashioned by our Maker, we look forward to His return, the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. In this present life, we pursue our vocation to fashion and fill the earth, doing in part what God will do in full when He comes again. We live as artists who desire to empty our selves for the sake of relation with God and man, just as the Artist emptied Himself for us. In the emptying, we are filled and are able to fill the earth.