Sunday, February 1, 2009

The wallflower and the carpenter

It seemed like I was always running; a born escapist.

My parents split before my sixth birthday; some of my earliest memories are of their arguing. Perhaps that is why I learned to read before I even started school—absorbing the letters and sounds as I lost myself in "Sesame Street."

From then on, when Mom and Dad's harsh rebukes to one another sounded in my ears, I had a way out. I could turn off the television, go to my room, shut the door, open a book, and enter another world.

My favorites were stories such as Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, where I could put myself in the place of the bright little girl whose journeys into the unknown began with flight from everyday life.

From the Alice books, I graduated to C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. With it, I received new food for my imagination—and a strange new edge to my longing to escape, one that I did not quite understand.

Like Through the Looking Glass, the plot of Lewis's fantasy turned upon a piece of ordinary household furniture's becoming a gateway to a fantastic new dimension. But the image of the double-doored wardrobe as mystical portal was familiar in a personal, almost experiential way, all the more mysterious because I couldn't put my finger on where I had seen it before.

* * *

My mother had custody of me and my sister. We moved from our beautiful house on Galveston Bay into an apartment with stucco walls and what Mom joked were cockroach electoral conventions on the ceiling. In place of our rather staid former neighbors were a steady trickle of colorful and sweaty houseguests: artists, shipbuilders, yoga fanatics, small-town actresses. When they broke out the jug bottle of Paul Masson, I would close my bedroom door in a vain attempt to shut out the marijuana smoke, the childish giggling, and the ironic strains of my mother's favorite song crackling over the phonograph—Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Teach Your Children."

And I would open a book and fly away.

As long as I had something to read, I was well behaved, which was why Mom let me take my books to temple on Friday nights. She had a Blanche DuBois-like sense of propriety that made her bring me and my sister up in our inherited Jewish religion, even as she herself had taken to spending her mornings at the ashram.

But I didn't spend too much time in my children's books during services. I couldn't; there was too much going on, especially when the Torah section of the service began. The veil of the ark in the wall behind the pulpit would be parted, and the doors behind it opened to reveal the scrolls, covered in embroidered cloths that bore Hebrew lettering and the image of a crown. All in the sanctuary would stand and sing as the rabbi processed down the aisle, bearing a bulky Torah scroll on his shoulder. He carried it as delicately as if it were a baby.

Until the ceremony when I would become a bat mitzvah at 13 and would read from the Torah, that was the nearest I could approach the presence of the word of God. The scroll's parchment, like the holy mountain in Exodus, was sacred, not to be touched except by a special metal pointer, a yad. As the rabbi passed my aisle, I leaned over, as my mother had instructed me; touched the Torah's cover with my prayer book, and kissed the book with solemn devotion.

Then the Torah was uncovered and placed on a table in the middle of the pulpit; the week's Torah portion was read, and we all stood and sang as it was returned to its place in the Ark, a shuttered cabinet at the center of the wall behind the pulpit. I had one last glimpse of the scroll as it stood majestically in its home; then the Ark's doors were shut, its veil closed, and the sanctuary resumed its normal outlines, its aura of holiness diminished.

I was vaguely sorry the Torah was out of sight, though I didn't know why. The presence of it had taken me out of myself. The truth was that I felt terribly alone.

* * *

Aquinas asks, "Is sorrow to be shunned more than pleasure is to be sought?"

If you replace "sorrow" with "loneliness," I think the answer modern culture gives is an unqualified yes. Loneliness is seen as equal to unhappiness, and it is to be avoided at all costs. Fleeing it is perhaps the easiest of temptations. It is especially easy because, in many of its manifestations—like avoiding introspection, burying oneself in work, or networking electronically with friends—it does not feel like a vice.

But the Angelic Doctor thinks differently. We are designed in such a way, he says, that we are able to pursue pleasure more eagerly than we avoid pain—and, since grace builds on nature, there is an "ought" behind that "is."

The pleasure we are to pursue, he makes clear, is not mere hedonism. Pleasure for Aquinas "is desirable for the sake of the good which is its object." The highest pleasure, then, is the delight whose object is the supreme good, beatitudethe perfect union of the soul with God.

We enter into that beatitude through living out the Beatitudes, and the very first of them requires we allow, within our innermost being, an empty space.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Only when we stop trying to lose ourselves in "temporal and perishable" external riches can we begin to realize that we already possess treasures in clay.

The amount of space we make in our hearts for God determines not only whether we receive beatitude, but also how much of it we receive, as St. Therese of Lisieux describes beautifully in her Story of a Soul.

Writing to her sister Pauline, Therese recalls how, as a child, she was "astonished ... that God does not give equal glory in heaven to all His chosen":
I was afraid they were not all equally happy. You made me bring Daddy's big tumbler and put it by the side of my tiny thimble. You filled them both with water and asked me which was the fuller. I told you they were both full to the brim and that it was impossible to put more water in them than they could hold. And so ... you made me understand that in heaven God will give His chosen their fitting glory and that they last will have no reason to envy the first.
Yet, St. Therese's life makes clear that she never thought of being herself only a "thimble." She wanted to have the greatest possible union with her divine Spouse. How she increased her capacity to hold His love is the same way that you or I may increase our own—through beginning with the spiritual poverty that makes room in our heart for God, and opening our heart still more through the theological virtue of charity. The habits of loving we develop in this life are what determine the depth of our union with God's love in the next.

Loneliness then, while not a good in itself, can be turned to the greatest good. It can set us on the path to the highest heaven, provided we are willing to follow it as far as it goes—to the Cross.

* * *

Aquinas observes that both the first beatitude, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," and the last, "Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness," have the kingdom of heaven for their reward.

Experiencing poverty in spirit leads us to the glory of the soul—union of our heart with the crucified Lord. Experiencing persecution for the sake of righteousness leads us to the glory of the body—the general resurrection in heaven. In between, with our heart united to Christ on the Cross, we bear one another's burdens in love.

What, then, is the use of being an escapist? There is, as the atheist Sartre reminds us, no exit. It reminds me of when Alice, having passed into Looking-Glass World, wants to keep moving away from her house. Every move she makes ends in frustration as her house keeps coming up to meet her. She finally realizes that, in Looking-Glass World, she has to walk towards her house in order to progress to the world beyond it.

Everywhere we meet the Cross. We cannot avoid the pain—so we have to eagerly move towards the supreme pleasure, as Archbishop Sheen wrote in Calvary and the Mass:
That is why Calvary is actual; why the Cross is the Crisis; why in a certain sense the scars are still open; why Pain still stands deified, and why blood like falling stars is still dropping upon our souls. There is no escaping the Cross not even by denying it as the Pharisees did; not even by selling Christ as Judas did; not even by crucifying Him as the executioners did. We all see it, either to embrace it in salvation, or to fly from it into misery.

* * *

Easter Vigil, 2006. The day the running stopped.

A newly professed Catholic, I received Christ's Body and Blood.

Gazing upon the tabernacle, my thoughts went back to my earliest experience of the presence of holiness—that is, a sense of the sacred emanating from a place, and not a person I could see.

The memories of my childhood fascination with the Ark came back to me. They still do, on a preternatural level, every time I gaze at what is, for Catholics, the Holy of Holies, where the Real Presence of the Lord—His Eucharistic Body—is reserved. The Church, as well as each individual church, is known as the porta caeli, the "gate of heaven," the expression an awestruck Jacob used when he realized the desert place where he had spent the night was actually the house of God.

That porta truly is the portal to another world. When I gaze upon the veil of the tabernacle, like Alice musing over the looking-glass, I imagine that the other side of it extends into forever. And, like her, I wish I could be absorbed into it while remaining myself.

Indeed, the forever curious protagonist of Carroll's tales, even when propelled into the most fantastic surroundings, remains always the same little girl. As Martin Gardner notes in The Annotated Alice, John Tenniel's original illustrations to Through the Looking-Glass show that Alice, in crossing to the other side of the mirror, retains her original dimensions; she does not change into a mirror-image of herself.

Alice's retention of her original form is accentuated by the fact that, unlike in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in which she is almost continually eating or drinking, she does not consume a single thing in Looking-Glass World. She tries, many times, but the foodstuffs come alive, and, as the Red Queen reminds her, "it isn't etiquette to cut anyone you've been introduced to." All of which makes perfect sense, since, as Gardner observes, Looking-Glass food would have been poisonous to someone from the other side; its isotopes would be reversed.

And it is there that the analogy of the tabernacle to a Looking-Glass-style gateway breaks down. Because I can eat the food from the other side—the panis angelicus, Bread of Angels—and, far from destroying my substance, it perfects it, bringing it closer to being capable of existing in heaven.

"Panis Angelicus"

That is why Mary could be assumed body and soul into heaven without any pain in the transition from an earthly body to a glorified one. She had never sinned, and so, through her "Yes" to God, she lived a completely Eucharistic life.

* * *

Author Anthony DeStefano has observed that Jesus' first action upon rising from the dead was to neatly roll up the cloth that had covered his face.

Christ has passed "through the veil" of the tabernacle of flesh. Far from disintegrating into the Looking-Glass World of death, where the human body's natural processes are reversed, he has transformed the other side, so that "death is swallowed up in victory."

In the light of His Resurrection, it is our world that is the Looking-Glass World. And the first thing Jesus does is put things in order, turning this topsy-turvy universe right side up. He does this work, and is still working, to show us that our true identity is in Him. We have it through the liberty that comes from being made in his image; it grows throughout this life as we are continually converted through our union of love with Him.

"Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord."

So, I gaze upon the tabernacle, and I no longer want to escape from my world. I want to pursue Him into His.