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Starting Point

In another place, they ‘danced God into coming’


His name is Pat, and he was born and raised in Tanzania. He is a priest, and I met him quite a few years ago.

He came to the parish to raise money for the missions, and I liked him right off the bat. We had dinner together and ended up talking until the wee hours of the morning. He was the kind of person with whom that easily happens.

We spoke of ontologies and epistemologies that long summer evening. Early Bob Dylan played softly in the background, softly enough that it wouldn’t wake the pastor. The kids outside in the church parking lot played ball. Everybody was doing the knowing thing -- how to pass and catch, listen to music, catch a phrase, catch a wink.

We spoke of essences and ways of arriving at them. My foot tapped gently on the rug as I listened to Pat. He used exotic terms but important and interesting ones. He had studied at Marquette and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy.

We spoke of happiness and love and God and history and what these things meant to us. We spoke of Riceour, Foucault, Derrida, Lucan and other luminaries who have helped thinkers and readers plot their myriad ways toward a better grasp of what is real and true and lasting.

Despite all the theological pluralism in Western culture, our approach is pretty much the same: thinking, researching, writing and throwing the end result into the heaving and growing Sargasso Sea of scholarship.

It is a sea that has rarely known the folly or craft of play and the need to take unto itself such wisdom. Sameness has deadened the sea with a stagnation that frustrates many a scholar trying to come up with fresh approaches, keener insights, more stunning arguments.

Pat was raised in a simple village. His ancestors did not have libraries, Dewey decimal systems, index cards, stacks or the like. Youngsters were taught by their elders about all that was important; theirs was an oral, preliterate culture. God was very real and important to them. Knowledge of the divine and divine things was stored and handed down in ways very different from what we in the West are used to.

He told me that the Easter Mass was primarily a festive dance. Drums would beat, for it was music and music alone that made God come. Pat said that his people danced and danced and at a certain point just knew that God was there. The dancing made God present among them. As he said this to me, he almost sang the words, and his body swayed back and forth in the chair. “Do you see?” he asked me. “We danced God into coming!”

I went nuts when I caught the drift of his words.

Heidegger stayed in a cabin in the German woods and thought a lot and wrote. He came to his insights by reading, writing, thinking, far from all that might distract him. I doubt he sang and danced all that much. If he did do a jig or two in the woods, surely God came, but I’m not sure Heidegger would have noticed.

Wittgenstein heralded the end of philosophical speculation in the West, declaring definitively that what is real could never be rendered clearly through symbols. It sounded so convincing when I read it. So I kept on reading. In the long run I don’t know if what he said mattered, since philosophy departments still seem quite active.

You see, I suspect that we are bogged down in a way of approaching God we don’t know how to escape. We just keep on thinking and writing in the expectation that the muck will give way, and we will move on the promised land -- a cold artifice of mind.

We assume that articulation or a grasp of the “real” has to do with a verbal capacity to explain things. The more it seems that words can afford a grasp of something, with precision, the more we’re able to believe we “got” it.

Have we created a prison of language? Have we effectively walled out other ways of “speaking” about God, ways that are as telling as speech? Is it possible that there are vast stretches of beauty we simply can no longer see because we have been culturally trained not to recognize them? Is it possible that because of our insistence on tracking God with the radar of the mind we refuse to trust our feet, our heart, our feelings and our intuition?

If so, we haven’t left much room for art, for poetry, for the song of a bird, for sunsets and rivers and dancing and kissing.

I wonder where Pat is these days. What a happy and spirited man he was! What a treasure to have as a teacher! He is a man who refused to choose between different ways of knowing the divine. I hope he is well and shares his memories with those who are fortunate enough either to listen to him or to dance with him. Either way, God comes.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His new book is Grace is Everywhere: Reflections of an Aspiring Monk (ACTA, 1998).

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999