A Word I Never Thought I’d Like to Define: Sin

“People have so many definitions of sin,” I said. “Do you have one?”

He looked surprised but not offended. He fitted the tips of his fingers together and gazed briefly upwards into the newly leafed branches of the old sugar maple. “A falling short from your totality,” he said. “Choosing to live in ways you know interfere with the harmony of that totality.”

[…]

“But… how do you know what your totality is?”

“You learn. You unlearn. You pay attention. You feel where things balance for you and where they don’t.”

“Oh.”

Gail Godwin, Father Melancholy’s Daughter

picture-108_2You know those books that make you fall in love with fiction and pleasure you into realizing that we do need stories and that novels really can capture and change lives? Gail Godwin’s Father Melancholy’s Daughter was just that sort of novel for me this new year’s week. As I bandy about this new relationship with the Christianity of my childhood, this story of an Anglican rector and his daughter and their frequent conversations about the mystics and the nature of God and the soul was essential reading.

There were so many passages that could have lead to pages of journal entries and much frustration that this was a library book that had to stay safe from my frantic readers’ pen.

This young priest’s description of sin really is an “oh” moment. One of those explanations full of beautifully related words that equal an idea that is at once completely elegant and totally obscure. You just want to sit and unpack it and take as much time as your hectic life allows to really understand what totality and harmony and balance falling short could possibly mean.

I think one reason this exchange seems so foreign and so beautiful is that I never connected “sin,” that foreign word from a long ago recited Act of Contrition, with words that are so universal and abundant.

My thoughts and my meditations used to be nothing but a kaleidoscope of my partial understandings of the religions of the world with healthy doses of an un-mediated worship of Mother Earth thrown in. To realize that aspects of the tradition I once rejected can be described in terms of an individual’s totality and a search for harmony again shows me that all paths lead to a single center, a single Spirit that unites all the Universe.

picture-103I don’t know that I have ever formulated my own definition of sin. Have you? There always seemed to be so many positive things that demanded well thought meaning, that I never thought to have time for the bad stuff. Maybe my search for a personal definition has ended before it even began…

“A falling short from your totality.”

Oh. Yes.

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?

But let me tell you what I think!: Interactive Readership

Over at The Website of Unknowing this morning Carl McColman wrote about the joyful immediacy of the blog world compared to the less “fun” act of book writing and the way that the conversations that mark this electronic realm force one to constantly think and question in new ways. After just over two months writing in this space, I have come to realize how a new appreciation for immediacy has altered my perspective, even the way I read the still beloved printed page.

Today I started a Christmas gift, Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Be Near Me. I have been in a pitiable fiction rut lately, but after only 35 pages, this book reminded what it is I love about literature. The flow of language, the cleverness of the author’s connections, my immediate yearning to understand the “why” of everything that unfolds in this depressed Scottish town that so seem to hate its Catholic priest. All I wanted was to stop and thank O’Hagan for transporting me, for inspiring me again. While I have always been moved by storytelling, this new impulse to drop a book so that I could celebrate how it has touched me is quite new. I am left to wonder how it enhances my ability to interact with a text – to articulate exactly what it is I love (or despise); I also must consider how it might detract from what has always been a meditative, solitary pursuit – breaking the flow of reading another’s work with the need to interject.

Again I am thinking of David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous that I mentioned yesterday: it’s about the way our global culture, which has been created in part through the propagation of the written word, has detracted from our true connection to nature. At the risk of pulling his argument too far from its original course, I believe in some ways it is this new medium that actually can return us, if not to the direct experience of nature itself, then at least to a new ability to be present and responsive to experience.

Perhaps I am bending logic to make sense of this new blog habit that drinks up so much of my time. Certainly I am not considering all that we lose in face-to-face interpersonal experiences by constantly interacting with “virtual” folk. Responding to what we read used to be the stuff of coffee shops and book clubs after all. Maybe I just feel the need to draw connections between narratives that flow through ink on paper with this new form so that I can believe there will be such a think as the spine of a book upon which my name might appear some day. It just might be that the rules really are not written yet and we still have to negotiate what reading and responding will mean in the future. We risk such fragmentation as skip between mediums, always looking to speak rather than listen and contemplate. At the same time, there is beauty in this alternative to reading in a vacuum in which reactions might simply settle to create a thicker mental hummus of vicarious experiences, largely inaccessible and unexamined.

That debate will rage on, but for now I suppose I will have to fall back on that line from Yeats: “Words alone are certain good.” Well, words may not be the only source of good, but they are an excellent rock to cling to.