Blessed are the weak?

I pretty much feel like this today:
daffodil in snow

Everything in me wants sun and warmth. I dream of yellow summer dresses (never mind that I don’t look particularly good in yellow). When I walk, I close my eyes and lift my face to feel what rays I can. I want to feel strong. Strong in my legs and strong in my soul.

But I don’t. Not so much.

My ears still pop with an occasional twinge of pain when I swallow—the remnant of a lingering head cold I haven’t completely fought off. I’m working like mad on an editing project, and I’m certainly not getting enough sleep. While the Holy Week services this week are beautiful, they are also exhausting, and I feel like I must choose between my work, my health, and attending as many of the services I can. I could go on, but I’m tired of listening to myself moan about it.

So it occurred to me as I trudged up a hill I usually don’t think twice about but that was kicking my butt this morning—maybe being weak has an upside.

As a kind of Lenten supplement, I have been reading Shusaku Endo’s Silence. It has been a balm to me, in a strange bright-sadness-kind-of-way. Set in seventeenth-century Japan, it tells the story of Jesuit missionaries and the hidden Christians they serve. Throughout the book, Endo explores the silence of God as the Christians (most of them peasants born into, what seems to be, a life of hardship and suffering) are tortured. The priest need only trample on the image of Christ and the torture will cease.

A Judas figure, Kichijiro, figures prominently throughout. Having apostatized several times, the priest questions him:

“And yet you know how to look after yourself. Mokichi and Ichizo have sunk to the bottom of the sea like stones and yet . . . . .”

“Mokichi was strong—like a strong shoot. But a weak shoot like me will never grow no matter what you do.”

He seemed to feel that I had dealt him a severe rebuke, because with a look like a whipped dog he glanced backwards. Yet I had not said these words with the intention of rebuking him; I was only giving expression to a sad reflection that was rising in my mind. Kichijiro was right in saying that all men are not saints and heroes. How many of our Christians, if only they had been born in another age from this persecution would never have been confronted with the problem of apostasy or martyrdom but would have lived blessed lives of faith until the very hour of death . . .

Men are born in two categories: the strong and the weak, the saints and the commonplace, the heroes and those who respect them. In time of persecution the strong are burnt in the flames and drowned in the sea; but the weak, like Kichijiro, lead a vagabond life in the mountains. As for you (I now spoke to myself) which category do you belong to? Were it not for the consciousness of your priesthood and your pride, perhaps you like Kichijiro would trample on the fumie [the image of Christ].

I keep thinking about this passage. Maybe I would be strong; maybe I would trample to keep myself or those I love (my children, my sisters, my family, my friends) from suffering. In all, hypothesizing is pretty useless, and the distinction between strong and weak matters little. The strong are just as likely to stomp on the weak as they are to help them. Endo (through the priest Rodrigues) says as much in his definition of sin: “Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious to the wounds he has left behind.”

What matters, what Endo brings up in myriad ways, is that we share the suffering. We bear it together. We try to ease it for each other as we can. In the beginning before the two priests split up, they are able to share the hardships they encounter: “When I was with Garrpe we could at least share our fear as one shares bread, breaking it in two; but now I was all alone in the black sea of the night and must take upon myself the cold and the darkness and everything else.”

Later, the silence is finally broken. The priest hears Christ tell him:

Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross. 

The only way God makes sense to me is Christ. So many things in the world scream at me that God is dead or never existed in the first place. But love is real, as real as weakness. And the upside of weakness is that it can lead to great love.

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Present

Finally, birds. Bird song, bird color.

Finally, crocus. Snowdrops. Glory of the Snow. The grass might even need to be cut soon.

glory of the snow

Chionodoxa (Glory of the Snow)

Peter Matthiessen died this past weekend. I’ve only read one of his books from beginning to end, The Snow Leopardwhich I recommend. A nonfiction account of traveling the Himalayans after the death of his wife, it’s lyrical and the kind of stark that strips you down to feel more free than bone-naked.

Matthiessen was a longtime practitioner of Zen; The Snow Leopard  is an amalgamation chronicling his physical journey (in glorious, stay-with-you detail), memories of his wife, and his search for the plainest of mystical experiences: the “wholehearted acceptance of what is” (The Snow Leopard, 242). As Jeff Himmelman in The New York Times Magazine puts it, “the various strands of Matthiessen’s journey cohere into a kind of fable, in which the potential for clarity and insight struggles to fly free of the past and the people that he (we) can’t ever really let go of.”

That combination of mountains, journey, grief and . . . how to say? . . . absolute presence is right up my sky-loving alley. And because life is great this way (or is it because my brain, as a matter of course, sees connections between seemingly disparate readings and/or realities?), I must reference here one of my new favorite voices, Emma, of Emma’s Hope Book. Emma painstakingly makes her words and sentences by either pointing to one letter at a time on a stencil template or tapping the same on a qwerty keyboard connected to an iPad. Here she is discussing how she thinks, in contrast with the way her parents think (with whom she is having the discussion). Her father asks her to describe her internal experience, particularly since she only uses internal dialogue when communicating with non-autistic people.

Emma responds: Know that I am almost always happy and take great pleasure in sounds, color, fabric. Everything in life is beautiful if you are able to be here.

Emma seems to be saying she very much lives inherently present to the moment—the way that Peter Matthiessen wanted to live and think, the reason he trained and practiced Zen meditation for so many years. In “The Tree Where Man Was Born” Matthiessen writes,

Lying back against these ancient rocks of Africa, I am content. The great stillness in these landscapes that once made me restless seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without ever having discovered what it was. 

Which seems to be a kind of holy Presence. Matthiessen calls it that himself, earlier in Himmelman’s story, when describing an experience he had at the end of a meditation session:

The silence swelled with the intake of my breath into a Presence of vast benevolence of which I was a part . . . I felt “good,” like a “good child,” entirely safe. Wounds, ragged edges, hollow places were all gone, all had been healed; my heart lay at the heart of all Creation. Then I let my breath go, and gave myself up to delighted immersion in this Presence, to a peaceful belonging so overwhelming that tears of relief poured from my eyes.

Grace is all I know to call it. And the reality that healing—real change—is possible.