What We Might Discover in the Heavens

Discovery of HeavenFor the past few weeks I have been making my way through a dear friend’s favorite book, Harry Mulisch’s sprawling novel The Discovery of Heaven. I have been away from my little world of epiphanies mainly because I have been so deeply immersed in sorting out the truly personal; it has seemed impossible to pull such insights into the broader context of these public pages. This hefty volume of fiction may also be partly to blame for my silence, however.

So much of the inspiration for this blog comes from the various spiritual texts that I have been exploring. For months I have neglected reading and writing fiction almost entirely, nourished by narratives that seemed to describe the plot of the entire world. Characters and a storyline seemed too constrictive, and, dare I say it, unnecessary. Then I read a book like this, so full of philosophy and Big Ideas (with an extra large capital “B” and a really big “I”) that I know I cannot possibly be absorbing it all, seeing as I am distracted by the lives of a handful of Dutch intellectuals living through the legacy of Hitler and countless other dramas of modernity. I am mute in the face of all that this book achieves, generally unable to add more words to the tapestry Mulisch has created.

I struggle with some aspects of this novel: its hyperintellectual acrobatics (conversations between an astronomer and a linguist? oh my) and a sexism so pervasive that you barely even notice the cloud it casts. (Oh, wait, that’s just reality of their world that I can ignore, right? For now I reserve commentary on how applicable that description may be to this world.) At the same time, I cannot help but be entranced by a story that is framed by two angels discussing the ways they manipulate the creation of humankind – what accidents of history became necessary so they could bring certain individuals to life at exactly the right time in accordance with “the Chief’s” plan. In a time when religion and science clash over the origins of this universe a book about Heaven’s indignation at the earthly power of science seems more than timely.

One idea that has really struck me is steeped in much more astrophysics that I could possibly understand or do justice, but I must try. Muslisch take us to a complex series of telescopes have been built on the grounds of was once a camp that held Jews before they were transported to Germany. The inordinately wise and sensitive boy named Quintin states:

Max once told me that we see the stars as they used to be. So on the stars they see the earth as it used to be. If the people on a star that is forty light years away from here look at us with a very powerful telescope, then they must be seeing what happened here forty years ago, mustn’t they?

I am not sure how well this quotation encapsulates what it is much longer conversation, but what I hope to convey is way that his question touches on the simultaneous nature of time. Every moment that has ever been lives on in a constant journey deeper and deeper in space. The earth is surrounded by concentric rings of history. All events exist into infinity. Nothing that has happened ever truly disappears if one stands at a certain perspective far away from this world. Isn’t that exactly where we have placed God for so long?

In some ways this makes me shiver, to realize that every heinous aspect of humanity and each shame filled moment of my life I’d love to forget still reverberate through the cosmos. At the same time, however, anything that still echoes through creation like that might yet be able to be redeemed. Perhaps this is a great argument for forgiveness and that nothing cannot somehow, eventually be transformed by love?

Sneaking into Jesus’s House

St. Patrick'sMy husband and I were honored to be asked to be the godparents of two of our friends’ children. We felt comfortable with the broad spectrum of such a role from giving the best birthday presents to offering counsel, spiritual or otherwise, especially in matters they didn’t know how to talk to their folks about. The family sent us a lovely bottle of wine the other day, which only upon closer inspection proved to be less of an early thank you, and more of a way to soften the blow. Enclosed in the box were two innocuous looking sheets of paper – contracts from the Episcopalian church that asked us to affirm our allegiance to Christ and his Church and assure that the children regularly take part in public worship and personal prayer. Personal prayer I have covered, but the rest… Well, the concerns about the above mentioned elements pale next to “I share regularly in the worship and the ministry of my own Church. I live a life in harmony with the Christian faith an the responsibilities of my own Baptismal covenant. My priest/pastor has seen this statement and affirms its accuracy.”

What does it mean that my mind was instantly whirling with ways to beat the system? I was applying the same sort of creativity one must take to traffic court when she is trying to talk her way out of a speeding ticket she almost certainly deserves. Can my mother see the priest at our church from home, where they still attend, and mention that we have been doing a lot of traveling (untrue) and have not had a chance to settle into a parish but that I fulfilled all of the requirements once upon a time? Can we make an appearance a few times at a local church and grin and bear it until we get these pieces of paper signed and then never be seen again?

It is not even the last vestiges of Catholic guilt that make me feel horrifically devious as I try to think of a clever way to prove we are card carrying members at a local house of (a Christian) God. One can laugh about such things if she did not respect so much of what those places stand for, and if she did not feel a deeper sadness at the inability to join one of them.

I don’t think I have ever been to a non-Catholic mass, so I cannot speak for the Anglican service, but I when I attend church a few times a year due to family obligation, I am always so troubled by my my incapacity to recite the Creed. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…” “One holy, catholic and apostolic church…” Perhaps I am missing something, but I cannot make these statements work with my conviction that all true faiths that seek unity with the divine are essentially working toward the same place, simply using different symbols and vocabulary. One cannot claim primacy and still respect other traditions as equally valid – can they? I spend much of my time in beseeching prayer asking whether this is supposed to feel right, if I can love Thomas Merton and Teresa of Avila and feel so conflicted within those walls.

This happens at the same time that I am just beginning to understand what it might mean to worship Jesus, though at this point I am still trying to get comfortable with saying His name. Actually, Gartenfische‘s post simply entitled “Christ” helped me to begin to understand that Jesus is in fact a figure with whom I can feel a deep resonance. It figures, she is talking about a Hindu’s love for Christ. I find I can get a better perspective on His greatness through the writings of other faiths – they do no assume the ingrained belief that is meant to be second nature to a confirmed Catholic.

We have until June to sort all of this out; with the speed that spiritual developments seem to be spinning through my life, I cannot say for certain that I will not have befriended a priest or found peace with a local parish, but at the moment, that doesn’t seem all that likely.

Is there anyone out there who cares to vouch for the fact, if nothing else, I think about God an awful lot? Think I can just email the address of my blog to all of the local pastors and see if anyone can give me points (and a signature) for effort?