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Lovesongs & ReproachesPASSIONATE CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD
By L. William Countryman
Morehouse PublishingCopyright © 2010 L. William Countryman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAnd there was light
You there! Maker of all! Why did you not do better? Let there be light! Ah, yes, the fireworks at the beginning were a good touch, appealing to the ten-year-old in everyone. But the working out of the details has proved as much failure as creation. Your resources are infinite, but you cast half-finished works aside as if you had no time to bring them to perfection. Mars circles the Sun, frozen and dry. The mammoths are gone. And just look at us! We used to say we were the crown of your work—much honor it did you! Yes, we, ignorant, stupid, petty, arrogant, cooperating with evil when not inventing it ourselves. Why did you not do better? Do we ask so much? To be safe from pain and disaster and from one another, to have what we need when we need it. Call us self-centered, but do we have a choice? We know our limits—one life here and then whatever's hidden in your hand. Don't try to buy us off with flashes of beauty. The perfect sunrise today only means the drought continues and deepens, not that the weeds in my garden notice.
Your choice of canvas—that's the problem. Your canvas was too small. This vast universe is still too limited. Every yes entails a no somewhere. The clash, the conflict, the competition shapes us who we are. Evolution was a sloppy choice, a clumsy tool. What could it do but cobble monsters together, leaving inside us scraps of the past, fish-parts that fail the demands of life in air? Perhaps you thought it generous painting your infinite vision across this poor world, this patch of clay. We live in the gulf between the vision and your choice of medium.
Still, there is sunrise in tones of gold and rose with birdsong to welcome it. Who can turn his back on it? Who refuse the renewal of the day?
Chapter TwoOutsized Supernatural Bodies
In the old time, I think it was easier. There was a god for everything, small gods with one thing to do and doing it well. Grant me a holiday with Horace at the spring of Bandusia, the sacrifice, the feast to follow, the assurance of water, clear and cold, whatever the season. One thing to hold onto for certain. O fons Bandusiae, splendidior vitro! There was the war, of course—and Horace on the wrong side. But he came through all right. Mars must have liked him—and Augustus, himself a god-to-be.
All right, I've fallen into the pit of travel-writing: the romance of being pampered for a week in foreign places, other times. No one dreams of being a field slave on Horace's farm. What god cared about them? Better yet, we want to visit Phoebus—his palace "lifted up on towering columns ... brilliant with flashing gold, sleek ivory covered the roofs, wide doors gleamed with silver, the artistry outdoing even the materials." Yes, we do remember that Phaethon came to no good there. But we will moderate our desires, stay out of the solar stables, just enjoy the view—and hope no rival, jealous deity has noticed us peering over the balustrades at the world below.
Oh yes! I know the danger. Euripides taught me: a devotion too single-minded, court paid too exclusively to one god among the many—this endangers a mortal. Artemis for the hunt, but don't forget to honor Aphrodite for her gifts or you'll wind up like Hippolytus, a torn mess of blood and bones, lying in your chariot's wreckage.
But superstitious folk never lack for worries anyway. How much is that "too much" that transgresses a god's prerogatives? Where to draw the line? When to supplement the humble service of Pomona on your farm with offerings to the gods of state, averting war and the tax collector? And, for those of us kept safe by some kind deity (is it Hygieia?) from the curse of paranoia, we know that, good or ill, all comes from the will of the gods, each governing a separate sphere, sometimes quarreling with each other, sometimes taking revenge, sometimes smiling, sometimes colliding, with never a thought of whom they've smashed between their outsized, supernatural bodies.
Chapter ThreeOr Luck
Still, it was easier then. At least, the intellectual labor was less burdensome. We were content with small gods, small explanations, enough to know that this weal, this woe came from her, from him—and nothing to be done. And the old gods were little freer than we. Constrained by fate and one another, they must have learned detachment of some sort. Artemis, in her last scene, admits she cannot interfere with Aphrodite's revenge, bids her Hippolytus farewell and leaves him alone to die, a god's eyes being too pure to watch the climax of mortality.
Who taught us to ask for more? to seek a larger whole? Plato, who made a system of ideas? Or Alexander, who made the whole world dream of mimicking it in empire and in stone, the stone of cities and forts and palaces? Neither, I think. I think it was you—and the ceaseless, busy interaction of all that you have made.
We were unsure, of course, who you might be. Were you Fortuna, long rumored to control the destinies of gods and mortals alike? And was it true, then, that you were beyond all worship, immune to blandishment? No gambler would ever think so. We chose to take precautions. Why not worship the Luck of Antioch with temple, with rites, her image on our coins? It can't hurt. Hey! for centuries it seemed to work. And then not.
Too bad, but we couldn't just go back to the old stories. So Zeus was king of the gods? Yes, but only king. He never could get round his wife in that business of Io. You drove us to think bigger.
If Fate, Luck, Fortune is what there is, so what? An explanation that explains nothing. There is no story there, no Why. Only Democritus' rain of atoms endlessly catching on one another, turning, wheeling, snagging, producing meaningless clumps only to part again. Ah! the atom! yes! Luck with a longer name.
Chapter FourWho maketh the clouds his chariot
Who, then? We couldn't start at the One and work our way down the chain. The One, the Monad, resists division even in the mind. How to connect the ideal, the imagined One with all the little multitudes that fill the world: ants and aphids, pollen, bees, nectar, birds? (The flycatcher perches on the loggia that carries the wisteria, its blooms now shrunken to dry, papery fragments, each with a dot of purple still at its center, then swoops to collect some little flying morsel.) Or we could dig deeper: the swarm of microorganisms that till and enrich the soil, feeding on one another and the earth. The Many are easier than the One.
And so we reached toward you through one of the little gods. Or perhaps you reached toward us. Who can ever tell how a friendship began? Who first saw whom and loved? Whose glance was the one returned and whose the returning eye? Was the admiration and delight a gift or rather the answer to a gift? How could we know, so early on, what treasures would emerge in time?
You were a two-bit desert god, crashing through arid mountains on your chariot of storm, your thunder shattering what your lightning did not burn and torrents of water filling the gulches and drowning whatever could not escape. But then, the aftermath: the flush of green, seeds that had lain in wait for water, grass for gazelles, fat flies for lizards. We knew we could not tame you. But you invited love, the love awakened by cool shadows in hot places, flowing water amid barren stones, the ribbon of green clinging to the streambed in dry lands.
You cannot be surprised if we thought you angry, given the lightning and the flood. It would be a while before we learned your surest, most revealing voice is found in stillness.
Chapter FiveA Riddle for a Name
But so many voices! One who speaks everywhere is hard to hear. How to distinguish tone from tone among the unremitting stream of sounds? Sometimes, perhaps, we hear not yours, but another voice, one that means us no good. Sometimes we hear all wrong; the ear, perverted by the heart, turns "fill" to "kill," turns "love" to "slave." Your showing of yourself, however clear, however vivid, however sharply delineated, always falls at length into our meager yet tenaciously selfish grasp, there to be transformed into the god we want.
Where, then, to begin? You reached out to attract our notice and to claim our love. So the conversation begins, you trying to speak our language, to say in it things that couldn't yet be said, we learning to set your language into our own, experimenting with words and images, failing, succeeding, perverting, purifying, perfecting the words of truth, as we suppose, only to discover that we have locked you out by locking our words in.
The purest grasp of your word is often the clumsy beginning, still full of due uncertainty, still baffled, still thrown off balance by encountering you, the One. There was Moses in the desert, raised a prince and taught the ways of court, washed in the abundant waters of the Nile, on which he'd been set afloat to meet his fate. He learned his dual heritage and rent it apart in an act of violence. And now he lives in the country of strangers, stranger still in its water, not given from above, the great stream bearing it down from distant mountains, but pulled up by human sweat from below. Instead of the rituals of court and its essential gossip, now he learns to tell good pasturage from poisonous. He knows the rites of mating sheep and goats. His days are full of predictable things that his profession tells him how to master. Even the unpredictables are of a finite number and quickly recognized.
And then the bush burns and yet it is not burnt. At first, he thinks it one more foreign phenomenon, albeit rare, of this foreign land and goes to look more closely. The voice warns him to remove his shoes. That alone was enough to call a place of worship into being. But you wanted more. You gave him your riddle-name: "I am what I am/I will be who I will be/I cause what I cause." Warning enough against trying to pin you down! And so you sent him off to do the impossible, save the slaves, lead the unwilling, make a people. When he complained and wanted proof, you said, "I'll tell you what. Once you've done it, you'll come back here to worship."
And this is how you leave us, for ever trying to grasp certainty and for ever coming up short of the whole.
Chapter SixSlay both man and woman, infant and suckling
Become engaged and yet remain aloof. It seems a good plan. Did it work? Not at the first. We made you more ours than you may have meant to be. You made us in your image, the story says. And we have made you in ours, shaping you as the mirror of our own hatred and fear and wrath. How else could it be? Could you save a people in slavery and not strike their masters? Could you love your friends without hating their enemies? Not in that world. Perhaps not in ours. We will not let you.
In fairness, let's assume that it was not Gandhi's hour, that liberation without bloodshed was impossible. And the army that drowned in the Red Sea knew its risks. Still, for every arrogant, slave-holding commander there were scores of peasant recruits, hoping mostly to live long enough that they could go home one day and live in a little house with a grapevine on the arbor, a shapely wife with large dark eyes, and, yes, some children—perhaps one would be a bright boy and become a scribe and do credit to the household. All those hopes strangled in the returning waters.
It's easy to blame the soldiers. We do it still. Even easier to blame the government. But it was you, we're told, that set it all in motion. From there, Canaan and genocide were just a forty-year hop away.
Why did we think you hated them? wanted to wipe them out? Leviticus tells us they were appalling, filthy people and deserved what they got. All those people slaughtered at Jericho and the other cities were just human trash, waiting to be swept into the dumpster of history. You'd never know they were ever here. It's our land now.
All this we laid to your charge, thinking we did you honor. We are your friends; them you must therefore hate. Did you, then, give the command to kill? Can you take so lightly the loss of those you fashioned? No act of creation springs from hatred. You loved them, or you would not have molded Canaanites out of earth's dust with the rest of us.
But this is useless. Whether you commanded the deaths or whether you merely shaped us, the killers, perhaps it's all one. But where is the new green to follow the desert storm, this storm that is all wind and lightning and destruction? Must we wait for ever?
However much you hoped to stay removed, to veil yourself behind a riddle, you find yourself entangled with all our worst. How do you like that? What will you do?
CH7[ God planted a garden
You wanted to make friends. Not slaves, not subjects, not robots, not automata to sing your praises through eternity. You wanted to make friends. The mere being of all things is itself praise enough. If that were all you wanted, it was yours. You chose, instead, to step back, to throw the uncertain mix of chance and freedom into the pot. Did you even know, with certainty, what sort of universe would explode out of your beaker? Stone praises you, in its low tones, as well as angels with their high, fluent, unfading melismas. But if you wanted friends, there had to be room for "yes." And the space for "yes" is also the room, the stage, the podium, the reviewing stand where "no" is spoken. Do you get more "yeses" or "noes"? I would guess "noes." Perhaps that's where all the missing antimatter of the universe has gone, burned up in our repeated refusals of friendship. You loved the Garden, didn't you? We loved it, too, in our own wavering, uncertain fashion. We are finite, after all. We never quite know where we are or who. We do, however, know regret for what is lost: the simplicity of infant and mother, perfectly connected by breast and mouth and eye; the uncomplicated joy of a perfect spring morning, cool and warm at the same time, crocuses with fire in their purple chalices and a pure, faint green spreading along the branches. But you don't miss the Garden. Where you are, the Garden always is. You miss the quiet evening stroll, the meeting with old friends, the sharing of the day's events, all made important by the love of each for other. That's what we destroyed in grasping for control, seeking not love but power. We flung ourselves into a world of force and counterforce, of measurements and lack, who's up? who's down? a world not friendly to friendship, a world of masters and slaves. You saw and gave it voice: "The snake will bite your heel, and you will stomp its head. And you will slave for one another." And you waited—waited through sweat and misery and murder and loud threats of eternal vengeance, waited for an Enoch who could find in the regret for Eden a hope for here and now. Again you had a friend to walk with in the green and flowering dusk, the two of you arm in arm, laughing over the tangled history that brought you to this point, happy in one another.
Excerpted from Lovesongs & Reproaches by L. William Countryman Copyright © 2010 by L. William Countryman. Excerpted by permission of Morehouse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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