August 10, 2012 by jmar198013
Several years ago, I tried to write a book about a seminary student and what happened to him. The title was to be Searching for To Teleion, an allusion to 1 Cor. 13.10: (“But when that which is perfect [to teleion] is come, that which is in part shall be done away”). My plan was to write the book in fragments and then join them together. This was to be the end.
Calvin winced slightly, as if something had stung him somewhere sensitive, and eased himself up from his perch on the top step. As he did, he put a hand upon the concrete to steady himself; it was cool and moist and felt alive, and also very empty. There was nothing in his eyes but Mara’s face, and that seemed very distant, though always before him, no further, perhaps, than two feet away. There was something standing between them, he didn’t have a name for it; something like an altar of witness which established an everlasting boundary. A mutually-signed and notarized bi-lateral restraining order, unwritten but well-understood, and all the more permanent for not being written. You could burn such a document and pretend it had never been, but it seemed as though the terms written on their hearts in that moment would burn forever and never be consumed. Cherubim now stood between the two of them, with a sword flaming and turning.
This was not how he’d played it out in his mind at all. For weeks he had believed with all his heart that the mountain which stood between them could (and would) at just the right moment, when he had demonstrated how helpless he was, be snatched away and tossed into the sea, that every valley would be filled and every crooked path made straight, and they would fall upon one another like Esau and Jacob and weep and rejoice and kiss like a couple of joyous prodigals who’d just shown back up at home. But now she stood before him like some river-deity with whom he’d wrestled all night, and who now was turning away from him, having left him limping and unblessed. This would have bothered him a lot more than it did if not for the fact that he realized that her letting go was the blessing, as any further strivings might have left him maimed forever. It is better to go limping into the presence of God than to go sprinting into perdition.
Mara was biting her bottom lip, and Calvin didn’t quite know what to make of that gesture; her eyes were as laden and receptive as ever. Was that what Bob Dylan meant when he sang about “warehouse eyes”? Was she taking a mental inventory of the moment, clearing out a spot for this new merchandise, studying the bill of lading?
“Mara”–his was was as flat as a piece of paper and just as sharp at the edges–“I need bed.” He had no idea why he had phrased it that way.
“I know,” she answered. Her voice was so warm and substantial, like the quilt his great-grandmother had made and his grandmother had given him. He felt homesick, so strong he thought he might vomit. She lunged at him, fell on him like a warrior, embraced him like a long-absented relative. He returned the gesture, sort of; he clung to her as he had the oversized stuffed firefly his parents had given him for his fourth birthday, one that actually glowed when you squeezed it. He wished he knew what had happened to that thing. (He later discovered that his mother had donated it to a thrift store shortly after he had left home.)
He let go first. “You’re alright,” he said, his voice quivering, he looked away though at nothing in particular. “Pray for me, yeah?” She squeezed the small of his back, looked down, and nodded. “Goodnight, Calvin,” she whispered. Then she let go, and he blinked back a tear, and when he reopened his eyes, he caught a brief and blurry snatch of the back of her walking through the entrance.
She did not look back, and he neither expected nor desired that she should, for he was baptized with fire now and feared that if she should happen to look upon what she had left smoldering out there…well, we know what became of Lot’s wife.
Calvin did not linger; a burning man does not remain standing still. He longed for some angel to come and stand inside this home-made holocaust with him, but he knew that this fire was only meant to consume a few fruitless branches, though, of course, this did not leave him any less raw.
He wandered toward the eastern parking lot, where his not-so-late-model Ford was waiting to take him elsewhere. This was the way it ended then, not with a bang, nor a whimper, but that sound you make when you’ve burnt yourself and suck in air between your teeth. He had thought to build a ladder into the heavens, and now God had mixed his words up and scattered him all around. He could feel shards of himself being taken up and away on the wind. He was nothing but ashes and smoke, now, and curious to get home to a mirror; he was not at all sure that his reflection wouldn’t appear as disfigured as his soul felt. He would be peering at some stranger, but one he would have to get to know, hopefully soon. He did not wish to feel unwelcome in his own skin any longer.
Calvin was sitting in his car now, staring in the rear-view mirror, studying his eyes, the red-flecked whites sort of grey in the shiny Bible black of a mid-May midnight, the dull, brown orbs all earthy and restrainedly ominous, like north Mississippi hill country blues. He cranked the ignition and was very awre of the presence of his own hands, and the key, and the steering wheel. On with the headlights. “All my life, I’ve lived within myself, and all my life I have been a stranger. How now should I have any trouble confessing that I am nothing but an exile, and alien, and a sojourner? I have never been home.” He was speaking to his own countenance, which was at once new and curiously familiar. This was his salutation to the other who had resided in him all along, whom he had kept chloroformed or otherwise sedated in some basement, who often awoke and kicked against the pricks of Calvin’s ego, and whom Calvin had just now resolved to release without so much as a penny of ransom money. No one, Calvin realized, felt alive like he did at this moment. Sure, he was a refugee, a displaced person of the spirit. But such are of the kingdom of heaven, however you may happen to define that phrase. The public radio station was playing a set of Bruce Cockburn classics, but Calvin had no need to wonder where the lions are; they were inside him, they were no longer pacing about seeking whom they might devour, but calmly grazing with calves as a child tended them. Calvin had calmed and quieted his soul within him like a weaned child.
He arrived back at his apartment seven minutes later, feeling as though the encounter with Mara had happened to someone else, and a long time ago, and that he had only been an accidental voyeur to the whole transaction. He put on his favorite King Crimson album, the one which began with the song about absent lovers. It came to him that absent lovers was a fitting motif for his journey; those two words formed a conceptual framework which provided an appropriate explanation for the sense of homesickness and displacement which had dogged his every movement ever since he began to be cognizant of his own existence upon this massive, orbiting mudball.
Calvin pulled out two sticks of nag champa and got them smoking on his nacre incense burner, stripped out of his daylight garments, and wrapped his soft body in his favorite coarse black sheets. He was reading from the book of Genesis, and the words were burning and squeezing out sparks; they were alive and thinking their own thoughts, shedding their contexts and whispering smoky secrets to him: “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another…no man is with us; see, God is witness betwixt me and thee.” It was all about love and witness and absence and God. What else mattered? Nothing else had any substance…
Calvin shook his weathered head and buried his face in his pillow; these things were too great and too marvelous for him. So he began to reflect upon realities more earthy and tangible. That meant, of course, that Mara had wandered into his mind again. Their non-farewell, the abruptness of it, and all the things they never said had left an absent imprint shaped like her inside him, and he wasn’t sure if he should just leave it there, so that he could occasionally return and carress the contours and remind himself that a gulf had been fixed between them, or if she should just try to put other stuff there. It was still too soon to tell.
He found himself dreaming Jung, though awake, a sort of middle-of-the-night-daydream. It was Jung who had spoken about men trapped in our sentimentalisms and, our expectations frustrated, nursing all manner of resentments. Also, Jung perceived that women are set upon by insinuations and misconstruals. The whole thing seemed ridiculous to Calvin–not what Jung had said, he could agree with it in substance–but the predicament which necessarily presented itself in such an arrangement. With the man and woman caught up in this whirlpool of irrational emotions and misguided opinions (alas, here Calvin recognized that he was grossly oversimplifying the matter and the whole scenario taking on a gratingly banal aspect), how can these two confused creatures ever hope to return to that glorious moment of recognition, when the first man had clapped his hands at the sight of the first woman and her perfect body, which he touched with his mind, and exclaimed, “This at last is flesh and bone of my flesh and bone!” Or rather, “This one is actually made of the same stuff I am!” And there they were, both naked and not disgraced, no feelings of vulnerability before one another, for where there is no evil, there is no vulnerability. The whole thing had gotten spoiled along the way, of course; in the moment when their eyes had been opened and they had seen that they were naked and had hidden themselves, the mutual recognition had ceased. God had looked to the woman and had said, “Your desire shall be toward your husband, but he shall rule over you.” It must have been a very long and silent eastward walk out of Eden that evening.
Calvin’s better nature protested: But I don’t want to rule over anyone! Calvin told his better nature to hush and face the grim reality that not only was he not the only nature who resided in Calvin, but that he was really the one with the stillest and smallest voice. “I am not yet so finely attuned to your way of communicating,” he told his better nature.
This was stupid stuff, Calvin realized. He and Mara had never really been enemies at all. Rather, they were victims of the fear instilled in us all by the original transgression: we are naked, so we hide, and in that hiddenness, we become unable to recognize each other as two individuals who are made out of the same stuff. What’s more, because this is hidden from us, we fail to realize that in most any lovers’ quarrell we are really only arguing with our own projections. Calvin didn’t know what to make of all that, except two ideas stood opposite one another in his mind. The first was that he was ferociously angry at God for what had happened to man and woman, as corporate entities, in the aftermath of Eden. It was, after all, God who had pronounced the curse of inferiority upon the woman, thereby making mutual recognition impossible for the two. Why could God not simply get on some cosmic public address system and announce to the universe: “Hello down there, this is your Creator speaking! Okay, look–she is flesh of your flesh and bone of your bone. He who does not love her does not love himself. I hereby repeal Genesis 3.16b”? The other one, which at first seemed quite irrelevant but soon afterwards he found to be one of the most relevant thoughts he had ever entertained, came to him as some words from Clement of Alexandria: “He who knows himself knows God.” These words caused Calvin to sit straight up on the bed and open up his drooping eyes like shutters being opened to welcome a June morning, as if to say “Eurisko! I have found it!” He had long imagined that he had been striving with God, but no! It had not been God at all; rather, he had been quarrelling with his own projections. He had never been frsutrated by truth, then, only by his own faulty assumptions. The God of his understanding had, in fact, been the God of his misunderstanding. God had only been describing the unfortunate outcome he foresaw in the man and woman’s failure to recognize one another; he had not created it! Calvin was on fire again, though not consumed. “Genesis 3.16b,” he proposed within himself, “is simply a matter of is, and not ought. I am free to choose otherwise! I have known the truth and the truth has made me free. We can all choose to behave otherwise!”
He decided he should probably call upon Mara again sometime soon, when the hangover from this encounter with 200-proof insight had dissipated a bit. He could not call her tonight, perhaps not for a couple of weeks, because his words would probably sound to her like those of a madman. But there was a solution, and he knew what it was. That was all that mattered to him.
Just then, Calvin came to himself and chuckled at his own expense. 200-proof insight? Hardly. “I really must cease this flair for the dramatic,” he reasoned out loud. “I am beginning to annoy even myself.” He sighed.
Now, to say that he backed away from the 200-proof insight bit does not mean that he ceased to view what he had just apprehended as vitally significant. Not at all! He still believed that he had experienced a genuine epiphany. He just knew that he shouldn’t, at this juncture, get too carried away. This had really only been the smallest of revelations; a mightily powerful one, true, but it wasn’t as though he had been caught up into the third heaven or anything like that. Besides, he still had plenty of thorns in his flesh (and elsewhere) to keep him from getting too elated. He arose to go and look at himself in a mirror, as he had proposed to do earlier. He chose the tall one in the corner; it made him seem about two inches taller and twenty pounds lighter, though it could not, of course, disguise the male-pattern baldness. His appearance betrayed no substantial change from the events of the night; he was neither glowing like Moses when he came down from the mountain, nor marked like Cain when he went eastward from Eden. The soft white belly and bestial hair mantle remained intact. He was perfectly flawed and fearfully and wonderfully made, and also very ugly and haggard and frayed at every edge. There was no form or majesty that you should notice him, nothing in his appearance that you should desire him. Calvin grinned and echoed a snatch from the eighth Psalm:
What is man that you should
the son of man that you should care for him?
You have made him a little lower
than the gods,
and crowned him with glory and honor.
He turned and walked away from the mirror and immediately forgot his own reflection, which is not as boorish a thing to do as it sounds. What could the mirror tell him that he did not already know? Why should he continue to peer into its dim and enigmatic reflections when he had seen face to face, and had fully apprehended, even as he had been apprehended?
You can be gazing into a mirror dimly and then someone hurls a rock at it and now you have only a fragmentary image of yourself, and then shards of the mirror will fall out and you are left not only fragmentary but incomplete. Most of us spend a great deal of our lives staring into broken mirrors without even the slightest bit of awareness that we are only seeing a very imperfect representation of ourselves. We may eventually notice that there are some shards missing, and perhaps even find them laying there at our feet. We sometimes even go as far as gluing them back up. Why do we not perceive the truth of one of our favorite platitudes, about a whole being something greater than the sum of constituent parts? To simply pick up the pieces and patch them together again is not to have found wholeness. No–whole is something completely other, something which sweeps away all the fragments and insinuates itself in their place. When that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away