Saturday, March 13, 2004

The Little Match Girl

The image is bathetic: the little motherless girl, a rag-clad match-seller, crouched in a snowy midnight alleyway on New Year's Eve. Her shoes -- her dead mother's over-large and dilapidated slippers -- fell off as she ran from a speeding carriage, and and a taunting boy has stolen them. She is wretchedly cold and barefoot. If she goes home her father will beat her: she has not sold her quota of matches. In the bright windows along the street are festive tableaux. The smell of holiday food is in the air.

Desperate, she strikes her matches for warmth. At the heart of each flame, she hallucinates scenes from which she is excluded: a warm, bright room, a roaring fire in the hearth; a table set with wonderful food; a magnificent Christmas tree strung with beautiful lights. Scenes of hearth and home, of family, safety, conviviality and celebration. She is the ultimate outsider, the excluded one, the invisible one.

Finally, in extremis, she strikes the last match and, within the flame, sees her grandmother, who descends from heaven, gathers her up, and bears her aloft.

The story ends at daybreak, New Year's morning: her frozen body in the alley . Passersby look on, saddened. In their holiday distraction, they'd overlooked her the night before. Would they have opened their door to her if she'd knocked ?

As a child, I'd always wished that Hans Christian Anderson had left out that last scene, had not sown that poisonous nugget of doubt into the bright dream of beatific reunion. I preferred magic, sleight of hand, the unconditionally happy ending to the near impossible task of faith.

Some of us are born outsiders. It is a biological given, neither virtue nor vice, a constitutional hyper-sensitivity, a defect of filtering, a overdevelopment of wariness and caution, an underdeveloped sense of pleasure with interaction. We marvel at the gregarious, the convivial, at their easy pleasures and unconflicted appetites, at their bulging date-books. We watch them departing for their week-ends, their gatherings, their get-togethers. They are connected even in absentia: cell phone, email. We peer into their well lit windows at their parties, and watch them enjoy themselves . For us the self is not an occasion of enjoyment. It is a barrier, a skin of displeasure, a mirror-hall of dysphoric hyper-awareness. Are we lonely ? Are we hungry ? Are we envious ? Maybe a little bit.

In spiritual circles we are found in hermitages, pursuing the most apophatic of practices. The idea of a "prayer circle" gives us hives. We can be found perched on the edge of a back pew, ready to bolt before the parishioner to our left can tender the Hug of Christ, or the hearty minister can come at us with his beatific handshake and invitation to coffee hour. Better yet, we sit off hours in the empty, shadowy church. Psalmistically speaking, we inhabit the threshold of the house of God. Quick-eyed Love passes us the platter of cold-cuts; we decline, and flee.

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