Thursday, January 01, 2004

Language Body

Asters are late blooming, and linger into autumn. Up close, they're rayed like daisies. Or, as the name suggests, stars. They are small, white or purple, profusely bunched. Then they turn to fluff: thin, dry, white. Then they are simply brown. The seeds disperse, the skeletons lean, and fall. And, next year, asters return.

I like this picture of dried asters in the snow because it reminds me of bowing. In extreme moments, we express ourselves with gestures, wordless sounds. We ululate. We tear our clothing. We strike ourselves. Confrontation with immensity engenders prostration.

Maybe it's biological, baring the throat as a sign of non-aggression, or a plea: Don't hurt me, I am vulnerable ! Our cats, when we approach, roll on their backs and present their soft undersides. Have mercy on us, oh, large and powerful ones who control the can opener of bliss and make pure the litter boxes of degradation.

Humans are not terribly merciful. We prey on weakness. We like our revenge. Wronged, we are keen to exact blood, money. We hire hit men, lawyers. We watch with horror and fascination the flushed faces of victims that fill the TV screens on the nightly news as they cry out in their pain and loss. We identify with them. We hate right along with them. We enact inflexible laws and prescribe inflexible, harsh sentences for transgressors. Politcians amass capital -- votes -- braying for the death penalty, even as they reference religious traditions that clearly say: do not kill. Forgive. Have mercy.

There is a line in Angels in America that struck me. Among so many other wildly, extravagantly wonderful lines, it is simple, almost a cliche: forgiveness may be where love and justice meet. When the terribly wronged can in fact love -- forgive -- it is breath-taking. Astonishing.

The last words of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, regarding the crowd that was stoning him to death, words that echoes Christ's words from the cross, was a prayer for their forgiveness.

Saint Paul, then Saul, "approved" of the stoning. He later had a change of heart -- a conversion -- and a whole tradition "forgives" him, venerates him, follows his dictates, despite his initial terrible trespasses against the Christ Himself.

President Bush, who makes loud political truck of his own rebirth and his life as a Christian pal of Jesus, when he was Governor of Texas, denied the Born-Again murderess Karla Tucker clemency. And, in public, mocked her plea for mercy.

Why, if "Jesus died for their sins," and prayed for his killers' "forgiveness" as he hung crucified, are Christians so slow to forgive ?

A Roman Catholic Archbishop who expressed pity and sorrow at the image of Saddam Hussein emerging from his spider hole, was vilified. It is not easy to imagine the suffering, the inner hell, of a perpetrator. To posit a kindred humanity. To imagine ourselves transgressing like that .

Sometimes we simply (though we deny it) like to hurt the weak, the small, the already suffering, the different, the Other. To console ourselves about our own weakness with an illusion of strength. A famous image of Simone Weil's is of people kicking a wounded hen.

The President is quail hunting today.

"Fearing God" always baffled me as a child. But what could be more intuitive ? It baffled me because I'd been taught the Sunday School party line: God Is Love. And probably because my own father, the dear Raul Stanati, was, when I was a child, more loving than fearsome. (Though all fathers, I think, are somewhat fearsome.) The God to-be-feared seemed a contradiction.

So, eventually, I gave up on the whole project of religion. It just didn't make sense. How could one reason about what was beyond understanding ? I would venture that there was not one sermon that I heard during my whole childhood or adolescence of churchgoing that even touched on how to approach, think about, talk about, understand, formulate questions about "God."

Perhaps if I had been taught more body language I'd have understood more. The sign of the cross, genuflecting: I envied my little Catholic friends these gestures. They brought the body into the church, into prayer, into speech-to-God.

A prostration seems to me the perfect prayer: face down before the altar, identifying features hidden, pressed against cold stone. The whole body becomes an expression of emptiness, of abjection: I am nothing. I do not know. I submit. I am broken, broken-hearted.

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