On Tenterhooks

There’s just nobody like him.

We had a surprisingly settled Saturday. Well, Jonah had a surprisingly settled Saturday. I woke up slowly and sadly, though not unsettled. I’ve been experiencing a string of maladies over the course of the last few weeks, one of which has required me to wear my glasses for ten days. I commend you all, brave glasses wearers. They drive me nuts. The boys bumps them. The snow spots them. There’s those painful little divots they make behind my ears and the way they fog up when I come in out of the cold.

John was all kindness, despite his own crunch to get papers graded at the end of the semester. He made me breakfast. He did the dishes. The boys and dogs and I walked in the snow. Jonah ran from wonder to wonder:  “I can hardly believe it! It’s sticking to that rock! Look at that bush! It’s sticking to the leaves! It’s sticking to the dirt! Look at your coat!” Part of my reluctance to set forth in the world today (something Jonah had no qualms about whatsoever) had to do with my intention to go to confession.

I both look forward to and am more than slightly agitated by the thought of going to confession. Taking a good clear look at yourself (as much as that is possible) is actually a clarifying experience; it’s the thought of doing it and then spilling that to another human being in the presence of God that puts me on tenterhooks. That person having been given the authority to forgive and absolve. When I stop and consider this, it’s a little whacky, but I cannot deny what the act of confession does. C.S. Lewis’ “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” comes tangentially to mind. Read in context, it’s a prescription to read old books (from the introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation):

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

I love the word “palliative,” but it seems as though Lewis actually means something more along the lines of corrective. Even restorative. Palliative seems to connote an alleviation or a soothing, but Lewis is talking about being kept in check, about keeping our perspective wider than our immediate circumstances and experiences.

For me, the buildup to confession is much worse than the confession itself. As I sat and waited my turn, young and old approach the kneeling bench. The priest put his stole over each head. He counseled them. He repeated the same prayer he repeated over me, granting them absolution. I realized how effortlessly I forget that we’re all in this together. I don’t even know any of these people (yet), but I’m in it with them. And if I not in it with them, I’m not in it at all. Without them, there’s no me.

St. Symeon the New Theologian wrote, “For Thou knowest, O Lord, that I want to save myself, and that my evil habit is an obstacle. But all things are possible unto Thee, O Master, which are impossible for man.”

The fast leading up to the Nativity of Christ is nearly over. As usual, I’ve failed pretty miserably. In the last weeks, my body has failed me too. It’s out of whack and stressed out. Flipping back to that phrase, on tenterhooksI read that “tenter” comes from the Latin tendere, to stretch. Left in the open, stretched to dry and straighten my weave. I love how physical words are. Enlivening, aren’t they? This morning Jonah said, “Dad, I’m counting on you. One, two three, four…”

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