S2E06 Constancy

Joe marvels over the constancy of nature in a post-Easter essay.

Transcript:

Among the many controversies of the early Christian church was the date of Easter. In the first centuries, many Christians celebrated it on Passover. If Easter fell on a Wednesday, so be it. But a Pope began excommunicating those who followed this approach. As the years passed, the date of Easter varied by region and bishop until the Council of Nicea in 325. The council decided that Easter should always take place on the first Sunday following the first full moon of the vernal equinox. Simple enough. Except that because of the eventual split between the Eastern and Western churches—and how each division uses calendars—the ideal of a unified Easter celebration happens only sporadically. In 2020, for example, Western Christians (Catholics, Protestants) marked Easter a few days ago. Much of the Orthodox church will celebrate next Sunday.

In setting Easter, the church tied itself to something constant—the cycles of the moon and the crossing of the sun into the northern hemisphere. This cycle is predictable, though our attempts to mark it—in the Julian calendar or Gregorian—or in the calendars of Babylon, Islam, and Judaism—we make a mess of something simple. We sometimes struggle with aligning ourselves to constancy.

For those of us on the Western calendar, Holy Week coincided with Passover this year, mimicking the New Testament timeline of Jesus’ Passion. Thursday night—Maundy Thursday in the Christian Holy Week—happened on Passover. And yet, whatever cycle or moon or calendar we followed to mark these celebrations, none of us celebrated in the usual way. Apart from those rogue churches or synagogues doing drive-in services, Jews and Christians stayed home. Our family, for example, celebrated Passover with the YouTube feed of JewBelong. We celebrated Easter with a Portland church on Zoom. On our couch. With a dog.

The church’s pastor, one Brady Bunch square among dozens of others, noted the unusualness of a broadband Easter. This Easter without choir, hugs, or sacraments ran counter to every Easter he—or we—had known.

These peculiarities, though, helped the pastor illuminate the generally overlooked peculiarities in the Gospel of Mark. The disciples at the first Easter didn’t run out singing and proclaiming to everyone who would listen, “He is risen,” expecting an echo, “He is risen indeed.” Rather, they responded with fear, bewilderment, and trembling. They hid. They cowered in confusion and terror. In fact, it may be that our usual celebratory Easters have less in common with the first Easter than this year’s muted, anxious, sheltered one did.

This sheltering in place—in the first Easter and in this last one—brought the pastor to offer solace in something that feels somehow lacking at the moment: constancy. That God, in the resurrection, was constant. The resurrection happened regardless of whether the disciples expected it or celebrated it. Whether anyone believed it, Jesus rose. Whether anyone understood it, Jesus rose. Whether anyone rushed off evangelizing or hiding, Jesus rose. The resurrection was an act of the constancy of God, running on its own calendar and pattern, indifferent to human consent or circumstance.

This constancy, though, ran counter to the natural constancy—that, usually, dead people stay dead. The living people, then, who heard that story had to choose between which constancy to follow: the constancy of nature or the constancy of God. Humans have a unique ability to choose between such things.

During this Lenten-Plague I’ve developed more appreciation for the flexibility of humanity and the constancy of the natural order. We humans are adjusting our lives, upending our societies and customs, changing our normals, jettisoning so much of what we believed defined us. Cathedrals that have never closed are now closed. Restaurants and factories that survived the wars of the Twentieth Century are abandoned. Eons of routine and constancy have, through government policy and citizen cooperation, been interrupted. All because we, humans, are inconstant—or, to say it more affirmingly, because we can adjust to new constancies.

There is, outside my quarantine window, a Japanese maple tree, a petite tree with the distinctive leaves that resemble the leaves of every other maple. Except the leaves are small. At full span, they are roughly the diameter of a plum. For most of the last few months, the maple has been barren, even weeks after the magnolia across the street bloomed brightly in pink and white. Even now as that same magnolia has dropped most of its petals. The Japanese maple is full. By some process, some act of constancy, it has returned to the form it had when I first met it. It looks alive. But if I keep watching out this window, by October, those leaves will turn red and orange and look like flame and, finally, fall. Because this is what Japanese maples do. They are constant.

I drove my sons back to Washington on Easter Sunday, and the corridor between Portland and Biggs, Oregon was greener and bolder than it had been on the Sunday before, when I had picked them up. Multnomah Falls flowed, as it always had. Yet, with the parks closed, it seemed both beautiful and sad, like an actress performing to an empty room. Just as all the earth, in its constancy, flows and blooms and dies and comes back regardless of whether anyone watches. There are, of course, interruptions—fires and droughts and earthquakes. But these, unless through human intrusion, are often acts of constancy—the constancy of tectonic plates, the constancy of storms. And the constancy of trees compel the forests back to life.

The pastor’s idea of constancy brought to mind one of my favorite poems, “The Hound of Heaven,” by the nineteenth-century Catholic poet, Francis Thompson. In that poem, Thompson likens God to a pack of hounds pursuing a man. The man, hoping to evade the hounds, calls out to nature to hide him. He cries out to the dawn, to the evening, to the forces and creatures of nature. But they fail him because they are constant. Instead, he says to the night, the “he/his” of this passage referring to the pursuing God:

Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!

I tempted all His servitors, but to find

My own betrayal in their constancy….

Nature, whether a Japanese maple, a waterfall, or a virus, is constant in its indifference. Nature has a blind and unending loyalty—albeit a mindless one—to the god of Nature. Nature carries on in its cycles and instances, apparently unaware or uncaring about whether it has an audience. The great sequoias of California stood here long before there was a camera to film them. And, in this, they show their greatest strengths and weakness. Their constancy, their indifference, means they never squabble about calendars. It means, too, that they cannot adapt so easily to how we change their environment or introduce predators. The koalas, victims of the great fires in Australia, are also victims of their diet—they eat only eucalyptus just as pandas eat only bamboo. When the eucalyptus is wiped out or the bamboo destroyed, they will pass. They are constant, and their constancy preserves them until their constancy fails them. Though, too, as Thompson’s poem notes, nature’s constancy means it can never rebel; only humans are capable of this. Rebellion is a form of adaptation.

Before the Plague, I was invited to Pascha, the Orthodox Church’s celebration of Easter. As we got closer to the date, inevitably, news came that Pascha would not be held next weekend as planned. The church, though, had received permission to celebrate after the shutdown ends. The ceremonial aspect of Easter, apparently, was too significant to cancel; so the church suspended it. I have conflicting feelings about this re-scheduling, as I have had about most adjustments and suspensions and substitutions brought on by the Lenten-Plague. On one hand, I find this hopeful: that the church expects things to return to the old normal, which, I guess, is the essence of being Orthodox. And yet, maybe, in forcing the celebration—on moving the date—it has done a deeply inconstant thing. To me, adapting a celebration away from the method of Nicea or the constancy of the moon and the vernal equinox is the most unorthodox thing to do. Though, maybe, I get some little joy in watching the Orthodox—the people who advertise their constancy—doing something deeply human: adapting.

I wonder if, at least for now, it is best for us to adapt to the current constancy of the natural world. Typically, we fight against it. We turn forests into lumber, meadows into housing developments, mineral deposits into fuel. When the Lenten-Plague began, I thought it was our obligation to fight against hiding, to fight against governments and scientists who wanted us to close our churches. I, still, am not sure that closing so easily was the right thing. But, perhaps we are asked to do what the witnesses to the first Easter were asked to do—to accept that one constancy overrides another. In that first Easter, the constancy of God overrides the constancy of death. In this one, the constancy of nature—in the form of a virus—overrides the constancy of our economy, our habits, and our celebrations. The virus, following its structure, will spread until it can’t spread anymore. It has no other choice. It cannot choose to not be a virus. It cannot choose to show mercy or justice. It is as indifferent as Multnomah Falls or the Japanese maple.

But we can choose. We have choices. We can recognize when constancy is interrupted, even by a constancy. We can understand lightning igniting a forest, a volcano engulfing a stream, or a dead man leaving a tomb. And in our ability to recognize, in our ability to adapt, we show our wisdom and our greatest strength—or perhaps our greatest weakness—the thing that will either save us or destroy us: the constancy of our inconstancy.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com

S2E05 Frost

Joe is done with Lent and the Plague. Instead, he wants to talk Passover and Robert Frost.

Transcript:

I had drafted a long essay on a strange dream I had about cats lurking in the bottom of a pond, like the ancient floating knights in Tolkien’s Dead Marshes. These cats, beneath leaves and in jade green water, waited for unsuspecting ducks to land. The essay was not nearly so interesting as the dream. It was another ponderous entry in my ramblings about the church and Lent and the Plague. I am bored with the Plague now, just as I am bored with Lent. Also, I don’t know that the world needs any more writing about these things. There is, already gestating, countless books, memoirs, poems, and PhD dissertations waiting to be birthed in the decade to come, assuming we don’t all die. And I feel for the science fiction writers: the Plague has made reality more fantastic than Dune or I Am Legend. Just like the last presidential election made political satire nearly impossible—reality eclipsed fiction in its scope, absurdity, and destruction of norms.

The truth is that none of this feels normal. And I’m not resigned to this being normal any more than I think the current world of politics is normal. Instead, I’m more convinced that it’s all unsustainable. It’s the anomaly, not the new norm. We can live this way for a while, but, at some point, we will want adults running countries again, just as we will want—need—live sports, concerts, and high school graduations. At some point, doctors will be bored again, teachers will count the days until summer. Churches will stop trying to convince me that online communion is communion—or that a Facebook livestream is worship.

This fracturing—the way the illusion of control isn’t convincing—makes me think of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall.” That poem, like so many Frost poems, is easy to misunderstand or to remember sentimentally: good fences make good neighbors. But the line that calls to me is the first one: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” It’s a subversive little idea: that the things we build are somehow undone by the ground we build them on. In the poem’s case, the wall is undermined by the ground beneath it freezing and swelling with the natural cycle of seasons—the very foundation rejecting the artifice built upon it. I wonder if there is, in me, something like this: “Something there is that doesn’t love a webcam.”

Perhaps it is the nature of being a Gen X-er, that generation with one foot in the analog, one in the digital. Computers and devices were easy to adapt, but my fingers still trust books—the textures, the weight, the way I remember where an idea is located on the page even if I can’t quite recall the idea.

To my surprise, I’ve found, lately, that my best writing flows when I apply pen to paper. Most of these essays I’m reading originate on screens. Writing with a computer and keyboard is efficient and practical. It allows me to log things, make quick corrections, and keep consistent. I can build a structure quickly and then prune and finesse it. But in a closet in the next room, I have a stack of notebooks. And each morning, I let my pen move across them and I discover things—the slowness and tactileness and unpredictability of the process—that, in using the keyboard, I do not find. Perhaps it is efficiency: that the better I get at typing, the less I hear or the less I’m surprised. I just move forward. I follow the first idea that comes to me. It forms the structure. I add or subtract ornamentation. When I handwrite, sometimes there’s room for a second or third option because it takes me longer to finish the current thought. Or maybe it’s that my right hand, when given full control, is a better and more imaginative storyteller than my two hands, delegating alternating digits, attempting to coordinate in some finger-to-finger popcorn dance.

Yesterday, after a morning of despair and turmoil, I found a glimmer of peace. Perhaps it was simply the result of a nice nap. But somehow I understood that the world would either end or it wouldn’t. And there wasn’t much to be done about it. The quarantines and distancing and economic engineering would, at some point crack. I understood, at some level, that this was either one in a long string of apocalypses or it was the final apocalypse. I am not romanticizing destruction or loss. Instead, I’m aware and awed and terrified by its scale. It awakens something primitive in me. Like in those summers on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University when the sky was free of every particle and Mount Rainier stood monstrous and omnipotent, and I hid behind trees and in buildings to avoid its view. It could have killed me on a whim. I knew it. I felt it. And anytime that I think that this current Plague can take everyone and everything from me, I tremble.

At the same time, perhaps I am a Romantic—it’s all about the sublimity and scale. I am, at some level, excited to be part of a human story, one that connects me to old stories—like the ones that become epic movies. Like the book of Revelation or the story of Passover.

Speaking of Passover, my wife is, in the enviable flexibility of the word, Jewish. We will keep Passover this year, our second together. Last year, was my first non-Christian Passover, by which I mean that I had participated in Passovers, hosted by Christians, pointing to Jesus in them. Christians do to Passover what we do to everything else—look for the secret message and, like me typing rather than handwriting, move so efficiently that we miss what is begging to be discovered.

That first Passover, Hope and I were invited to a family gathering in North Portland. Everyone, except me and Hope, knew one another. The hosts’ parents flew in from Pittsburg to lead the Seder. The food was entirely vegan. It was everything I hoped Portland would be when I got here: perfectly strange and inviting and vulnerable. I drank homebrew kombucha rather than wine. And they invited me, an omnivore Christian, to read along in a story I thought I already knew, but had never quite heard.

This year, Hope and I will take part in Passover through a remote meeting. My boys are here, three Christians among the four of us. Despite that, and the virtual nature, we are going decidedly traditional foodwise: matzah, wine, a lamb shank scheduled for delivery. And I’ve been listening to rabbis lately, talking about apocalypses. How they come and go. How the plagues in Moses’s Egypt are coinciding, in 2020, with the Torah readings—the locusts in Africa, the hiding as if the day had become black as night.

In some strange way, I’m over my disappointment that Easter won’t happen and am embracing Passover. Not that I am rejecting Christianity or Christianizing Judaism. Only, I am accepting that the world ends, which is not exactly the message of Easter, nor is it the tone of Lent. The world ends. Some people know and remember that better than others. It is, of course, good and wise to act in a way that stops the world’s end—or that minimizes the severity and violence of its ending. But when the world wants to end, it ends. If it wants us to stop polluting it, it knows how to shut down our factories and to make oil a burden. It would, of course, be wiser for us to moderate our production, moderate our lives, moderate our ambitions before we have to be reminded that we are not larger than the world, that we are not immune to apocalypses. But, in the end, the world is bigger than us. Just like it is in Frost’s poem, in Creation’s quiet but insistent dismantling of our structures.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The world ends. Then we work to build a new world. Over and over. We build our wall, the ground dismantles it, then we build again. Each time, perhaps we learn to become better builders. Or maybe we find a way to allow the ground to swell and breathe without it needing to topple us. Maybe the world we build, this time, when the ending ends, will be a little better than the one we are being told to leave behind.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com