Where Do They Go?

Apologies for the lack of writing on here in the last six months. My honors project is partly responsible for this, but it has been done for a while now and is now online and downloadable, so you can see the fruit of my labor! If you are interested in what I still hope to write about in the Church and Gay Literature, this would be something that you might want to read. It interacts with Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, and Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. Disclaimer: it is long. And there are already some things that I have realized I would do differently. But I hope you enjoy it. Click.

CGL: Introduction Part II

[This is the second introduction (oops) to a series of occasional essays I’m calling The Church and Gay Literature (CGL). For my first introduction to the series, look here.]

Before discussing the first text for CGL (which will be Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh—read it if you haven’t yet!) I’d like to talk a little bit more about the purpose of the series and to define some terms. Whereas the following posts will focus on readings of specific texts, here I explain in part how I understand the word “gay”—the understanding I will bring to future posts. It is possible that it will change over the course of the project, but this is where I currently am. I have surely said some of this before, so please forgive me.

I’ve begun an honors thesis at Seattle Pacific University about homosexuality and Christianity in modern literature largely because I crave narratives—I need narratives to wrap myself in, sit in, try on, appreciate, savor, or react violently against to understand who I am and to inform my imagination about what life could be like. As far as I currently understand, identity, in all of its elusiveness, is about the narratives we inhabit. For example, take what I consider to be the most important and most involving narrative I belong to: when I say that I am a Christian, and when, with my church, I recite the creeds of the Christian faith, I am not only saying what I believe, I am claiming my place in a long tradition of imperfect people seeking to know God and to reflect Christ’s love to the world, being transformed ourselves in the process.

When I say I am gay, I could mean a number of things. Like most of my generation, I use the word as a substitute for “exclusively sexually/physically attracted to persons of the same sex as myself.” One syllable versus twenty-four. There has been much discussion about the definitions of words like “gay” and “homosexual” in the past few decades generally and, specifically, within recent months and years in the Church. One common question: Does “gay” merely refer to same-sex attraction or is it also a cultural identification?

I won’t try to answer this question fully here, but for my purposes it is worth some exploration, beginning with the simple admission that the word is certainly used both ways. Both meanings (attraction and cultural identification) are correct at different times, and I don’t believe that they are entirely separable. If someone with same-sex attractions is raised in a society that is dominated by and whose culture is catered to people with opposite-sex attractions in its movies, television shows, books, advertisements, matching towel sets, and religions, chances are that the same-sex attracted person will feel disconnected from the culture at some level. In response, they might remain closeted in order to maintain a façade that allows them to participate in their society’s culture like everyone else. They could possibly gain an affinity for certain films that convey—through the lives and struggles of even heterosexual characters—the sadness and anger of not being understood by others, the alienation they experience within their families, or the crushing weight of expectations society has for someone of their sex and gender. It makes sense that they would relate to Broadway musicals in which a character desires to transcend the drudgery of day-to-day life and by golly does just that, if only for four minute intervals, by bursting forth in joyous, uninhibited song.1 Or if they decide to find a partner, they might choose to move to a place where they can find a partner, live together with a lesser amount of daily harassment and hatred, and be surrounded by people who understand the difficulties they theretofore have experienced (family life, small towns, and, possibly, religious upbringings). They open businesses, form communities, and, like any community, begin to use the same words and develop a particular aesthetic.

Although its particulars vary from place to place and between generations, gay culture is a real thing. But by no means do all gay (same-sex attracted) people participate. It might just not appeal to them or be accessible to them. Or they might define themselves by actively not participating in gay culture. The “straight-acting gay man” is a type, literary and otherwise.2 But even then, it is a type made possible only by the existence of gay culture. Besides an inexplicable fascination with Meryl Streep and the occasional Beyonce binge, I’m not so great at gay culture myself, although I know some straight people who are. Kiki, anyone?

In the Church, the already difficult task of agreeing on terminology is often further complicated by sin, or rather the question of how much of this whole “same-sex attraction” business we can call sinful. Calling someone a homosexual within certain Christian contexts carries with it an assessment, judgment, or condemnation of that person as a pervert or abomination—sometimes this is implied by the speaker, sometimes it is merely inferred by the listener. In this series it is not my objective to cast moral judgment on fictional characters, whether they be guilty of sexual promiscuity or guilty of chasing God’s beloved out of the Church. I do reserve the right to express dismay, sadness, and anger about attitudes held and actions committed in the texts I read, because, even when it is fictional, literature is always an expression of some sort of truth; it reflects the lives of real people.

It is difficult for me to say how exactly I will use the terms “homosexual” and “gay” in reference to all of the texts I hope to cover. In most situations I will try not to use anachronisms. If I were to write about a text from before 1892, when the word “homosexual” was first brought into the English language via a translation of the writings of Austrian sex researcher Richard von Krafft-Ebing (who appears to have borrowed the term from Károly Mária Kertbeny, who invented the word in 1868), I would not use the word “homosexual” without qualifying it.3 In the same way I wouldn’t call a gay man from the 21st century a catamite, minion, or mollie.4 I will definitely use the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or “homosexual” if the character self-identifies as such or if they are described by the author as such. But if it is unclear in the text, I will do my best to maintain the ambiguity in my discussion—I’m not in the business of claiming as “gay” someone or something that is not described as “gay.”

However, some texts that I will choose (like Brideshead Revisited, actually) are not obviously or intrinsically gay. That may be because they reference a specific variety of gay culture that a modern reader might not pick up on (i.e., Oxbridge aestheticism). Or, like the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, some texts might not speak about gay sex or anything that obviously pertains to gay culture while still speaking uniquely to the experience of gay people. If I do write about literature of this variety, I will explain my reasons for including it in CGL.

Returning to the notion that literature reflects reality… While I started my thesis for fairly personal reasons, I share (some of) my findings here because there needs to be more of an understanding between the Church and sexual minorities. LGBTQ people leave the Church in droves because of how they are treated. Equally as important to me, I want to show in some way the value and beauty of Christian faith to those who have given up on it or who have never considered it. These Dated Clouds is partly intended to be an exercise in reconciliation. Following this intention, the CGL series is my attempt to approach the often acidic conversation between Christianity and homosexuality from a new angle and with a different tone.

Finally, I will be putting the vast majority of my time into my honors project these next few months, so time spent on my blog will be rare. Forgive my infrequent postings. When I do get to it, here are some of the texts I would like to write about, in not much of an order:

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Maurice
by E. M. Forster
Brideshead Revisited
by Evelyn Waugh
Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
Giovanni’s Room
by James Baldwin
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
by Jeanette Winterson
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (memoir)
A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan
We Are Water by Wally Lamb
Darling by Richard Rodriguez (memoir/essays)
Selected poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Selected poems by Oscar Wilde
The Road to Emmaus by Spencer Reece (poems)

As always, I will invite your comments and thoughts.

Footnotes

1. See David M. Halperin’s discussion of D. A. Miller’s work on gay men and Broadway musicals: David M. Halperin. How to Be Gay. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012: 93-94. This whole section is heavily dependent on How to Be Gay, which is Halperin’s case for gay culture—not an instruction manual.
2. Halperin. How to Be Gay. 46-7.
3. Norman W. Jones. Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative. Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007: 4; David M. Halperin. “How to Do The History of Male Homosexuality.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.1 (2000): 87-124. Web. 109.
4. These are different varieties of the invert, which is one of Halperin’s categories of prehomosexual male sex and gender deviance. Each type arises from a specific historical period and location, respectively, medieval/early modern England, Renaissance France, and eighteenth-century London. David M. Halperin. “How to Do the History of Male Homosexuality.” 105-6.

The Church and Gay Literature

Last week I turned in the thesis for my second term with BestSemester’s Oxford program. The title of the thesis had to be a question, and mine was, “In Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, from what are Sebastian and Jeanette trying to escape?” The question I chose still seems a bit juvenile to me, but it allowed me to dig into some questions of the novels I’ve been wanting to explore, including “What happens to Jeanette’s faith?” and “To what extent is homosexuality at play in Brideshead?”

Some of the research I did for that thesis will get channeled into my next big paper, the SPU honors project. My tutor in Oxford emphasized the differences of gay history in England and the States, so in my Christianity and Gay Lit tutorial, I focused exclusively on English novelists, playwrights, and poets. In my honors thesis I hope to bring in some American writers like James Baldwin. The difficulty in such a project is that these writers are of different countries, sexes, social classes, denominations, and skin colors. Despite these differences, the books I am looking at share a gay character whose faith and relationship with their church community is colored by their sexuality. While I am not yet sure what the specific focus of my next thesis will be, I hope to look at liturgy in the various texts.

Part of the reason I began researching this topic is because, as mentioned in a previous post, gay Christians do not have much of a cultural history that specifically speaks to their experiences. I do not mean to say that we cannot relate to narratives that don’t explicitly speak to our unique circumstances (that would just be plain false) or that we cannot locate our own story in the narrative of God’s redemptive plan for the world as found in Christian Scripture (that would also just be plain false). I simply mean to acknowledge that humans look to stories to understand their own circumstances and to imagine ways that life could be lived differently, and that there appears to be a dearth of such stories that deal with the unique struggles of gay Christians. Texts I’ve been reading for the project express from different angles the formative and transformative power of stories. James K. A. Smith uses the concept of a “cultural liturgy” to describe how the narratives we interact with—not just in books, but in the rituals of everyday life—”shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.”1

When one who is raised in the rituals of most strands of Christianity experiences attraction to someone of the same sex, they experience something which either has never been mentioned in their church (due to ignorance of, fear of, or embarrassment about the phenomenon) or it has been actively decried from the pulpit—and so, they find themselves standing outside of their tradition, and often thereafter, outside of the Church. To them, the faith community becomes a location of alienation (as is the case in Oranges). Many such people have sought refuge in the City amongst groups of others who have walked similar paths, together forming a new community with a cultural liturgy of its own (what has charmingly been referred to by some Christians as “the gay lifestyle”). The new community is not bound by creed or communion but by a shared orientation, similar stories of rejection, similar hopes and aspirations, and, in some instances, a lot of previously (almost) unimaginable sex.2

This account, which I have pieced together from books, articles, and the stories of friends, is, of course, one of many possible outcomes. For people in some denominations, the following was true in the past, but for many it still holds today that if the gay individual chooses to stay in their church, regardless of whether or not they adhere to a traditional view of sexuality, they find that silence is what guarantees a sense of inclusion or normalcy that would be jeopardized if certain things came to light. The Oxford Movement provided a home in the nineteenth century for men for whom the “need for conscientious avoidance of physical expression of one’s sexuality was a very real problem.”3 Half a century later, Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain depicts one boy’s fit of religious experience in the presence of his black Pentecostal congregation, an experience he demands be remembered if ever one day his secret is discovered: “‘please remember—I was saved. I was there.'”4

The task of figuring out one’s sexuality is bound to the task of figuring out what one believes about God. If a believer is asked to leave her church—the only context in which she has lived and thus the only context in which she has understood God—her faith will change. Perhaps it won’t immediately shatter, but questions will be raised. This is not only a theme in gay literature. Roger Lundin writes, “more often than not in the literature of the past 150 years, the conflict between belief and unbelief has played itself out more readily within the private struggles of individuals than in public battles between the forces of progress and reaction.”5 While branches of the Church certainly are in a public battle over homosexuality, gay literature that interacts with Christianity tends to have a narrower focus: the individual and their beliefs.

As Norman W. Jones has helpfully pointed out, Christian literature and gay literature share three “common foundational commitments”:

identification as incorporating intractable mystery through a dynamic rather than static interplay of difference as well as similarity; personal ethical transformation emblematized in coming-out stories and conversion stories; and the formation of communities defined by nonbiological kinship bonds that are more created than found but are nonetheless foundational.6

In a series of posts I hope to begin writing soon, I would like to introduce to you literature (mainly novels) that deal with both sides of Jones’ coin. I desire to do this for two reasons, both of which I will explain with quotes from Jeanette Winterson. The first reason: “We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.”7 While I begin this essay by lamenting the lack of a cultural history that directly involves gay Christians, there is indeed something of a history there, meager though it may be. The characters I will write about reach varying conclusions about God and the Church, as do real-life gay people. While some readers of this blog might not have access to the wisdom of older people who have wrestled with faith and sexuality, they (presumably) have access to a library or AbeBooks.com. The literature is not a roadmap, but we can learn from the characters we encounter—the questions they ask, the difficulties they face, the mistakes they make, the conclusions they reach. If these things are uncomfortable, if we disagree with certain conclusions, the texts become a path towards a deeper interaction with our own beliefs when we ask ourselves “Why?” in response. The texts can become part of the stories we tell ourselves; they can jumpstart our imagination; they can piss us off; they can help us move forward.

The second reason: “Literature is not a lecture delivered to a special interest group, it is a force that unites its audience. The sub-groups are broken down.”8 If the first reason I provide for starting this series goes along the lines of discovering what it means to live within the walls of being a gay Christian, the second is the necessary work of tearing those walls down in the name of empathy and love. Not all who read my blog are gay and not all are Christian, so it is my hope that interacting with the nuances of books like Brideshead Revisited and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit will help Christians understand why some gay people leave the Church and help atheists understand why other gay people stay in the Church. It seems to me that many middle-of-the-road Evangelical and Mainline churches are trying to figure out how to love gay people. This blog is, in a way, my attempt to facilitate the Church’s efforts to learn how to better love and care for their gay brothers, sisters, and parishioners. As Winterson writes, “More, not less, is the capacity of the heart. More not less is the capacity of art.”9

Thank you for reading.


Footnotes

1. James K. A. Smith. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009. Cultural Liturgies. 25.
2. The City is portrayed as a center of temptation in contexts Christian and non-Christian alike. See James Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Vintage International, 2013. First published in 1952; see also Hanif Kureishi. The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Faber and Faber, 1990. This is due in part to the anonymity that is only possible amongst millions of other people. Gregory Woods writes, “Indeed, anonymity may be the main attraction. It allows for the conditions of self-reinvention, whereby one escapes the prohibitions and inhibitions of family life.” Gregory Woods. “Gay and Lesbian Urbanity.” The Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature. Ed. Kevin R. McNamara. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 233-44. 234.
3. Diarmaid MacCulloch. Silence: A Christian History. London: Allen Lane, 2013. 189.
4. Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain. 225.
5. Roger Lundin. Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. 168.
6. Norman W. Jones. Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative. Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. x. ProQuest. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.
7. Jeanette Winterson. “Testimony against Gertrude Stein.” Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. London: Vintage Books, 1996. 59.
8. Winterson. “The Semiotics of Sex.” Art Objects. 106.
9.  Ibid. 108.

Humble Love, Good Art

After reading “Where Are All the Good Stories about Marriage?” by W. David O. Taylor, over at Christianity Today, some thoughts have bubbled up. I should be working on my thesis, but…

In the article, Taylor addresses—broadly—the role of Christians as culture-makers in a non-Christian society, and—specifically—the way in which recent movies and television series have portrayed gay relationships and not so many straight Christian marriages:

It is my contention that, while movies and television cannot be blamed exclusively for our society’s rejection of theologically conservative ideas about marriage, they have certainly made it easier for our neighbors to imagine that such a marriage, especially its exclusive status, is impossible or undesirable. I also contend that we have not fully reckoned with the power of the artistic imagination.

And therein lies a task for us.

I share Taylor’s concern that Christians have not done enough to use our “artistic imagination”. It seems to me that this problem is a fairly recent one. For centuries, Christians (of various tongues and tribes) have been the creators of luminous art that has expanded and created new artistic forms, inspired generations of people, and glorified God. From catacomb frescoes by early Roman Christians to the icons of the Eastern churches to the Lindisfarne Gospels to Gregorian chant to Dante’s Divine Comedy to Palestrina’s polyphonic masses to the linguistic style of the King James Bible to Christopher Wren to Bach to Dostoevsky to the spirituals of African American slaves to Henry Owassa Tanner (look him up!). Any such list is doomed from the start because Christians have made so much damn good art and it is worth pointing out that a lot of it was created for the purpose of worship—for the Christian community to rehearse its history and tell its stories in new ways, often within the context of a mass or other liturgy.

It is not necessary that art made by Christians be used in such settings. Nor is it necessary that art made by Christians include Bible stories or obviously recognizable Christian images and themes. I don’t watch TV and I don’t watch enough films to say anything very interesting about them, but I do read books. Borrowing the language of Gregory Wolfe, a lot of Christians who write about faith today do not necessarily do it in shouts (think Flannery O’Connor), but in whispers, like Marilynne Robinson. Marilynne Robinson teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop—one of the best writing programs in the world. Nearly all of her publications, fiction and non-fiction, have won prestigious awards, including a book about a midwestern preacher and his wife (note: it’s a straight Christian marriage). The book is called Gilead and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Her new book, Lila (a prequel to Gilead) is about how the two met and how Lila came to Christ. Tomorrow Robinson is talking about Lila at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, a university comprised by people of many faiths and ideologies, not a majority of whom are Christian.

I’ve visited a lot of cathedrals and abbeys over the course of my two terms abroad at Oxford, representing different time periods (from the 12th century to the 20th), different styles, and different locations. However, they all have one thing in common: they are crammed with tourists. I occasionally find this annoying (I’ve seen people take ducklip selfies whilst irreverently standing astride centuries-old graves of Irish nuns), but it is a good thing that these places of worship are still, in various ways, drawing in crowds of curious onlookers.

When Christians make really good art—even if it does unapologetically pertain to topics of faith—others want to see it, read it, watch it, study it, learn from it, be inspired by it, and potentially changed by it.

– – – – –

For my SPU thesis, as well as the shorter one I’m currently working on for my study abroad, I have been reading a lot literature that pertains to Christianity and homosexuality—fiction and theory. If you follow my blog at all (thanks by the way!) you will know that this is a personal topic for me.

Questions of identity are difficult. I’ve spent my whole life living hours away from extended family. When I was ten my family moved from New Hampshire to Michigan. My heritage is a mix of German, Welsh, Swedish, Slavic, Scottish, Swiss, and English, none of which I am extremely in touch with (stay tuned for a post about Sweden). In her essay “Testimony Against Gertrude Stein,” Jeanette Winterson writes, “We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.” Land, clan, and nationality are all powerful contexts in which we hear stories about ourselves that tell us who we are. They are lenses through which we see the world, and my lenses are all fogged up.

Because I am fairly distant from so many of these things that root a person into a larger narrative of life on earth, my faith has become important to me in a new way: it is a narrative through which I can understand myself as being part of something larger than just myself—something ancient, something true—Christ’s Body, the Church. It roots me in a story that begins with the creation of everything and ends with the restoration of everything. In between those points, there are some difficulties.

After slowly coming to terms with the fact that I am attracted to men, I also began coming to terms with the fact that a large part of Western cultural history does not pertain to me. Listen to the radio, watch television or a movie, or, do what I mainly do, and read a book—scan the canons of great literature, and while doing these things, imagine that you are a Christian attracted to the same sex. There aren’t songs for you—certainly not love songs. You have no literary history. There aren’t shows on television for you. You don’t have movies. Now reread the passage from Dr. Taylor’s article:

It is my contention that, while movies and television cannot be blamed exclusively for our society’s rejection of theologically conservative ideas about marriage, they have certainly made it easier for our neighbors to imagine that such a marriage, especially its exclusive status, is impossible or undesirable. I also contend that we have not fully reckoned with the power of the artistic imagination.

And therein lies a task for us.

I have a practical suggestion for those with theologically conservative views on marriage: making movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage for the sake of making movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage not only sidesteps the question of what gay Christians in your community can do, but in the current political climate in which the dominant voices on both sides are loud and angry, it will be taken and responded to (or, more likely, ignored) as just another political act.

Later in his essay Dr. Taylor writes:

As always, we should seek every opportunity to lay down our lives to serve our neighbors, gay or straight or otherwise, offering them the hospitality of Christ in witness to the fatherly love of God. Nothing good will come of holding onto stereotypes. Our neighbors are not our enemies. They are men and women made in the image of God and beloved by him. To them we owe the same kind of humble love that Christ has shown us.

This should change your art. If you want to make a difference with your artistic imagination as a Christian with theologically conservative views on marriage, make movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage learning what it means to love their gay sister, their transexual son, or their intersex neighbor—learning that loving them often has little to do with anyone’s ideas about marriage and has all to do with presence. And if you are trying to rid yourself of stereotypes, try portraying the LGBTQ people as coworkers, faithful Christians, devoted parents, not just condescending portrayals of the prodigal son.

If you want to learn how to seek every opportunity to lay down your life for your gay neighbor, start by making a space for us in your artistic imagination. Most of us know what straight Christian marriages look like. I was so blessed in the parents God gave me, but many LGBT people have been hurt, beaten, and disowned by their straight Christian parents with theologically conservative views on marriage. Try to imagine what you could do to make people with these experiences want to watch your movie, to listen to you. Creating a movie about a wonderful Christian marriage without any LGBT characters in it will tell them something about how you want the world to be.

Someone once said to me about volunteering at my old church’s Vacation Bible School while being gay that “it is clear what will happen to those who cause little ones to stumble,” referencing Matthew 9:42 (“but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea,” ESV). The implication was clear to me. While I disagree with how the verse was used in that instance, it is true that we have great responsibility in how we interact with people, especially about things pertaining to faith. Let it be through humble love, and if there is art involved, good art.

Repeat

The summer after freshman year was when I started to write with any regularity. Mind you, a writer of any amount of discipline would laugh at what I here refer to as “regular”—outside of journaling I write once a week at most, even less frequently at college—but I stand by my word choice. I think that the increase in output can be chalked up to a serious increase of feelings. For people who try their hands at anything creative, feelings, like yogurt, can produce movement and… regularity.

Around this same time the way I pray changed. I began to pray that God would use me—a fairly open-ended prayer that always feels like a cop out until I remember the opening line of the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.” Petitioning God with specific requests is something that I still do, but less frequently. Part of this is has been realizing that, in many times and places, I am unable to see clearly enough to find an outcome worth praying for. So, Thy will be done—in the world, in this city, in my life, and in my writing.

Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It contains her prayers from January 1946 to September 1947, when she was twenty and twenty-one years old, attending writing workshops in Iowa City. Only a few pages in, the prayers are earnest, clunky, and occasionally luminescent. The passage quoted on the back is also from the prayer most frequently quoted in any of the recent writing I’ve seen pertaining to the slim volume. Continue reading

eats stones and leaves

After Elaine prayed for me, there was a bit of a pause. I wasn’t sure whether she would start up again or if she expected me to pray, or if it was just over. She smiled before opening her eyes and saying, “I just got a picture.” The first of several visions Elaine shared with me that night. “I saw water… just… little fountains of water starting to shoot up—not to full height yet, but… does that mean anything to you?” It meant nothing to me. Thinking that she would be expecting something relatively deep, I made a conscious effort to leave my face unchanged as I started formulating some good old fashioned English Major bullshit about water (one of our most fertile symbols). “If it doesn’t mean anything, that’s alright.” My God, she can read me. “I just thought I’d ask…”

“I see the shoots of water as new things God is opening up for you. They’re just starting, but they’re there.”

I told her I’d look  for the little shoots of water. She laughed quietly and said, “Ok.”

—-

Less than ten years ago my father rented a high pressure water gun, the kind used to blast paint off of outdoor surfaces. We were in the front yard, but he needed to get something inside so he handed me the gun, saying, “Don’t touch the water. It could tear your finger off.” I touched the water, just grazed it with my finger. It hurt, but my finger remained attached. Triumph. I later asked my mother for help with the large blister that developed.

—–

Having finished J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy a few hours earlier in Heathrow, I pulled Stoner by John Williams out of my book-crammed backpack. It was a book whose cover caught my attention at Waterstones and Blackwell, two booksellers in Oxford. The cover of the new Vintage Classics edition being sold has three books stacked on top of one another. The blurbs on the back say things like ‘Stoner is a perfect novel,’ ‘A terrific novel of echoing sadness,’ and ‘democratic in how it breaks the heart… It is a triumph of literary endeavor.’ The brief synopsis says it is about William Stoner, who goes to the University of Missouri in 1910 to study agriculture but becomes a teacher instead, marries the wrong woman, leads a quiet life, and is rarely remembered after his death. In the past I read A Separate Peace and, more recently, Brideshead Revisited—both wartime novels involving university students. I loved Brideshead and liked A Separate Peace well enough, so I bought Stoner. By the time my flight touched down in Atlanta I had finished the book’s 288 pages. It was, as a dear professor of mine would say, “dreamy prose.”

Continue reading

Scotland, For I [Part II]

I may not know much about alcohol, but I do know that morning drinking on the train from Edinburgh to Aberdeen will get you a few odd looks—although probably not as many as you’d expect most other places. The man with the food cart came down the aisle at ten fifteen and asked if I wanted anything. “What beer d’ya have?” I asked him. He looked at his watch with a little concern before hesitantly naming a few labels. I’d never had any of them before, so I employed a tactic that I’ve mastered recently. “Foster’s, please,” I said, nearly cutting him off. I may not know much about alcohol, but other people don’t need to know that, so I play connoisseur as well as the next American twenty-year-old.

“Shake It Out” by Florence & the Machine came onto my iPod and I enjoyed a few moments of victory before the train filled up with Scots. A surly young woman sat next to me. “Don’t judge me,” I told her. “I’ve never drunk on a train before and I wanted my first time to be in Scotland. I swear this isn’t sad.” “No, seems reasonable,” she muttered. I put my earbuds back in.

I wrote in my journal a lot on these train rides. An excerpt written while flying past little Scottish towns:

The steeples on the churches here are dark and bleak. If the Christopher Wrens in London inspire awe and wonder and glory, those here seem to say that there is hard, unglamorous work to do before we can get to where they’re pointing. Protestant work ethic and whatnot.”

The next nine pages of my journal are spent on the metaphor of Christ and his Bride. After that, two pages of quotes from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, including the following:

Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.” (7)

On falling in love with his wife:

…it was human love that reawakened divine love. Put another way, it was pure contingency that caught fire in our lives, and it was Christ whom we found—together, and his presence dependent upon our being together—burning there.” (22-23)

I didn’t understand the brogue of the taxi driver who took me from the train station in Elgin to Pluscarden Abbey, the home of the Benedictine community I was to stay with for the week. I did, however, understand the posh and articulate to the point of theatrical Oxbridge accent of the man who greeted me upon arrival—a young visiting dom, ranked somewhere between priest and monk. “Oh, you’re an Oxford man. Oh, so sorry. I’m a Cambridge man of course, which, as I’m sure you know, is better than Oxford for most things. What college? Wycliffe Hall? OH, so so sorry.” I was surprised and smugly pleased to learn a few days later that the dom was, in fact, a mere New Yorker born and bred who did his undergrad at Cambridge, changed his voice, converted from Episcopalianism, and joined an order.

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