Lost Maples

I’ve been in San Antonio for over three months now, and when people ask me how I like it, I answer truthfully: “I love it!” The people here have been good to my housemates and me. The culture is intoxicating. San Antonio has an amazing downtown, its (built-up, commercial, and tourist-clogged, yet beautiful) Riverwalk winding its way past ruinous missions (the Alamo is only the most famous of five), artists’ villages, and the oldest cathedral in the United States. But in looking back at a few of the exciting events I’ve neglected to blog about over the course of the last five weeks, I realize I’m a little nostalgic for home.

On the weekend of October 23-5, the Jesuits were generous enough to send me on a spiritual retreat held at St. Louis University. It was a fine, clear autumn day in Missouri; the gracefully landscaped campus of SLU was lovely, and the leaves in St. Louis were just beginning to turn. Autumn is my favorite season, so great was my delight when two weekends later Father Marty invited my friends Meghan, Stephanie, and a few other parishioners to a state park two hours west of San Antonio called Lost Maples. It is supposedly the best place in Texas to see authentic fall foliage. While it wasn’t quite as staggeringly gorgeous as what I’d see back home in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, it was very beautiful, and the hike we took was pleasant.

Yet perhaps it sufficed more to kindle than to satisfy a desire for natural beauty which I had been neglecting while living for several months in an urban environment.

These two weekends called to mind, each of them, a famous poem by Gerard  Manley Hopkins that expresses the close link between an experience of the seasons and an awareness of the rhythms, and ultimate orientation, of our own lives:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

– Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

It is hard to grow up in a place like New England without a conditioned sensitivity to the changing of the seasons, and without an emotional responsiveness to their myriad signs: the mourning and rejoicing inspired by denuded trees and crisping snow, by melting snow and returning robins, alike. These are things that I miss; much ado is made of the Hill Country ringing San Antonio to the north (and on a visit to a vineyard in New Braunfels on my birthday, my housemates and I got to experience the arid beauty of that place), but Texas is not big on natural landscapes, the kind that grace glossy-paged calendars and impress themselves most deeply on my memory.

For our third and last big trek of the month, my seven housemates and I drove ten hours east to a JVC retreat in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, where we stayed in a few moldy lakefront cabins in the middle of a pine forest. During the day it rained a little; at night the skies would clear, and after a bonfire we would march out to the dock and lie on our backs and gaze at the stars. In the morning we would rise for breakfast and some of us, despite the frigid chill coming in off the water, would tarry by the edge of the lake, where mists were rising from the murky surface like ghosts.

Hopkins was surely right: we do not experience a beauty like this without sadness, even when this sadness is difficult to source or define. When the sadness is not linked to the projection of a loss, as it is for Hopkins’s Margaret, there is still a lonely and introspective spirituality awakened in us by early morning lakes and rained upon forests….a spirituality which the human person needs.

My trajectory lately has not only been a geographic one, from rural to urban; it has also been an internal journey between philosophies. My years in academia were a time of existential questioning and naked openness to a world of daunting ideas. The JVC experience, on the other hand, is about community; it is about solidarity with all the suffering of humanity, yet out of this solidarity, out of this fellowship, we seek to draw a life-affirming hope and a joy. Put another way: I always used to watch films by Tarkovsky and Bergman and Sokurov, gloomy masters of Romantic despair. Recently I have put those artists away in an effort to help “real” people (those who don’t have the luxury of an education that disposes them to call movies “films”) with “real” problems (such as how to pay for the light bill when one’s husband is out on disability and three of the four children are pregnant, themselves — problems that make the so-called “questions of modern man” seem distant if not completely irrelevant). And maybe simply “being good” rather than hypothesizing about morality is the key to living a functional and fulfilling life. Tarkovsky’s grappling with the mysteries of Incarnation allowed him to depict the Crucifixion in a million shattering ways, but far, far rarer in his works are glimpses of that Resurrection towards which I am trying, more than anything, to orient my life.

But I have to be honest with myself: JVC’s focus on community and solidarity and social justice — and even the claim to a certainty about the meaning of our existence which the joy of the Resurrection so often seems to demand — is not the spirituality I knew in my youth, and so it is somehow alien to the God who knew me in my youth. The God of my youth is one who resides in the falling leaves, in the rising mists.

Yes, let’s be honest: it is not always easy to believe that love, in the end, will conquer all — that humanity is beautiful and can be redeemed — that the Resurrection is a reality. These are statements that I do believe in and profess, and I wouldn’t want to stop at moral agnosticism and doubt simply because they hit us harder in the gut than dreams of Paradise. But I am nowadays facing an equally seductive temptation to make my exultant convictions the root of my faith, whereas I wonder whether all they can be are its flowers. The victory of the Kingdom is as yet unseen; what is the difference between taking a leap of faith and setting oneself up for a fall? Better and more pertinently put: I don’t want to blind myself to opportunities for growth or to problems with my current philosophical world view by assuming that life is already, and always will be, simply…peaches.

In “Spe Salvi,” Pope Benedict speaks of faith as

a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. The concept of “substance” is therefore modified in the sense that through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say “in embryo”—and thus according to the “substance”—there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty: this “thing” which must come is not yet visible in the external world (it does not “appear”), but because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence.

So here are my questions: precisely what is the “stable disposition” which I know, unquestioningly, to be real? And what is the “initial and dynamic reality” that I carry within me and which promises some certainty about something? That we have reason to rejoice is an interpretation, a second-order conclusion, and if we’ve gotten the basic meaning of human experience wrong, then all of that confidence flies out the window. Furthermore, even in moments when it seems to us that our tropism towards goodness is manifestly obvious, it must be said that benefits such as the solace of religious belief or our desire for community can be explained, more or less, by a materialist anthropology as readily as by a spiritual one.

What a materialist anthropology cannot efficaciously explain is the sheer fact of our self-consciousness. Indeed, all that is indubitable is that I experience, yet this may not be as obvious and useless a statement as it appears, for it’s not as though it doesn’t invite us, somewhere down the road, to an earnest, true, and beautiful life. There is still somehow no better an explanation for the intensity of our existence than that we possess what we may as well identify as a soul. Go much further than this, and our ethical conjectures, however true they may turn out to be, will become wildly contingent and fragile; and yet I agree with Levinas, in his work on Husserlian phenomenology, that spiritual wisdom is already to be gleaned from the basic understanding that “a subject is not a substance in need of a bridge, namely, knowledge, in order to reach an object, but…the secret of its subjectivity is its being present in front of objects. The modes of appearing of things are not, therefore, characters which are superimposed on existing things by the process of consciousness; they make up the very existence of things.” Doubts, then, about the specific nature of Truth and Meaning may be human, wise, and necessary; but skepticism towards the existence of Truth and Meaning themselves is utterly groundless and basically absurd.

This can teach us a lot. But what does it have to do with the woods of Mississippi?

At our Orientation to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the priest leading the retreat challenged us to identify our basic “images” of God, and gave us a few choices: is God, for me, an old wise man, or a trusted friend? Does he appear to me principally as Redeemer, or as Judge, or as Creator? As I mentioned, for me God is increasingly synonymous with Resurrection (and that is a topic for another post); but my first and enduring “vision” of God will always be that expressed in the opening passage of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth, the earth was shapeless and void, and darkness lay upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving above the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2) Insofar as I can visualize God, represent him as metaphor, I picture him as a long blanket of clouds rolling inexorably over water — perhaps because my earliest childhood memory is of a majestic storm thundering over a vast gray ocean on a long-ago trip to the beach.

The experience of the sublime and of the beautiful — whether it is in nature or in a great film or novel or painting or poem — is that which reminds me more forcefully than anything that I have a soul and that there is some kind of magnificent divinity out there. I approach this realization in the shivering cold of Massachusetts climes (as pleasant as the sunny temperatures of Texas may be in my less existential moods). At the same time, reading back over this post, I’m a bit dissatisfied, because it seems like I’m equating an authentic religious experience with doubt and pessimism, with melancholy or, worse, depression. This is not the case. Rilke wrote of beauty that it is “the beginning of a terror we still can bear, and why we love it so is because it so serenely disdains to destroy us.” As attractive as this line has always been to me, it doesn’t correspond perfectly to my own experience. I do not stop at Margaret’s mourning, and I would go further than Rilke does in his verse: beauty of the kind I am describing does begin in terror and passes next through deep melancholy, but it ends, eventually, with love, because it not only disdains to destroy us, but actually expands us, opens us up. Watching falling leaves or standing long enough beside a lake, with the world “worlding” all around me (to use Heidegger’s wonderful verb), I wind up with a sense that the Truth is coming from afar to meet me, and that I belong, somehow, to this Truth.

It’s exciting.

All great religious traditions tell of figures who encounter God in solitary meditation on this world which, while ephemeral and not our true home, occasionally discloses a sense of what eternal beauty and infinite belonging might feel like. The Buddha attained enlightenment meditating beneath a Bodhi tree. St. Ignatius of Loyola received an overwhelming vision of the interconnectedness of things while praying for hours by the river Cardener at Manresa. In modern times, a young atheist named Avery Dulles, who would later become a Jesuit cardinal, came to a profound conviction that God exists the instant he saw a tree on the Charles River beginning to blossom beneath a steady gray drizzle of rain. While I can’t claim to have had such a dramatic experience on that lake in Mississippi, I am comforted that no less than Jesus himself was always retreating to a mountainside (Luke 6:12), to a lake (Matthew 14:13), to the desert (Matthew 4:1), and to a remote olive grove (John 18:1) to pray. I wonder whether he, too — the hypostatic one — felt as I do: that it is in places like these that one feels most acutely the convergence of our experience as material beings perplexed by doubt and unknowing, and our experience as spiritual beings deeply, inwardly aware of their own transcendence over the world and over death.

One thought on “Lost Maples

  1. This reminds me of my walk in the dark to my home in El Salvador. The dirt road lay right under the Milky Way. Walking home while looking up at the stars made me feel in communion with God and the universe.

    I think the reason Nature’s beauty brings some feelings of sadness is because we are part of Nature, but at the same time disconnected from it. (Like the born child whose umbilical cord has to be cut. We are part of our mother, but disconnected from her. It becomes a psychological crisis when very young children learn that their identity is not the same as their mothers.)

    It is the wish for reunification, reintegration, that is the source of this sadness. I think that is something Chardin would have said.

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