Let me hasten to say I’m not comparing myself to St. Paul. But I know what it is to do what you never dreamed of doing, what you never thought you’d be capable of doing. The utter mystification that you experience. “How did I get here? How did this happen?” Let me read from Paul’s Epistles. He doesn’t seem like a murderer: “We know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal. Sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want. But I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want but the evil I don’t want is what I do.”
Let’s think a little bit just for a second about writing, when for any reason you don’t do it, and if you do do it, you don’t do the writing you want to do, and if you do the writing you thought you wanted to do it turns out that you didn’t do it the way you wanted to do it, or you gave it to the wrong person, or the person you gave it to didn’t handle it the way you wanted . . . It’s a mystery. It’s all a mystery to us.
But consider what that was like for him to have his works rejected like that. And when he went out, he said, “All right, so you want me in Rome. You want me working in Rome?” And they said, “Yeah, work in Rome.” And he did. That’s where he died. So all of us can tell our war stories of isolation and humiliation and vacillation in commitment to the faith, which for us is, in this very secular context, the enterprise of fellowship. What I would have you understand is that if you keep coming—you know, Franz Kafka was every bit as crazy as Paul, but he kept coming—and if you sink your roots deep and if you keep coming, you can find an accommodation for anything.
You think you’ve got problems with self-esteem? One day Gregor Samsa woke and discovered he was a bug. So you got problems with self-esteem, now let’s see if you can write. And, ah, that story, The Metamorphosis, is the most beautiful domestic comedy. It’s not about being a bug; it’s about how a family lives with a bug. To paraphrase Yeats, the ladder starts in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. And that ladder, if you keep climbing, will take you out. Here’s the last that Paul wrote:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faiths so as to move mountains, but have not love, I’m nothing. If I give away all I have but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice of wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As per prophecy, it will pass away. As per tongues, they will cease. As per knowledge, it will pass away, for our knowledge is imperfect, and our prophecy is imperfect. But when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see as in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall understand fully, even as I had been fully understood. So faith, hope, and love abide. But the greatest of these is love.”
Now that came to Paul because he kept showing up. After he wrote that, he made a lot of mistakes. And he failed to be fully human a lot of times. But the words abide. And that the words abide perfectly is the little bit of God that we touch, in the same way that when we see our children, you will live outside yourself. As you experience the voices—whether they’re punitive, whether they’re meek, whether they’re shrill, whether they’re placid—understand that love accepts them all. Love redeems them all.
Friday, September 17, 2010
Go Into The Story concludes Milch week with this discussion of St. Paul. For Milch, Paul was a writer who struggled with alienation and guilt and suffering. He became a great religious figure only because he first became a poet. Which is to say, that they are the same thing. Born from the desire to connect with the world around you: