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The real miracle: to walk on earth


One of the first civilians to enter the German death camp at Belsen a few weeks after its liberation in April 1945 was a sensitive British artist named Mervyn Peake. A successful book illustrator, painter and author, Peake was sent by the English government to document and record the horror, in portrait after portrait, of the starved, dying Jews. Belsen was the transit camp to which Anne Frank along with tens of thousands of others were shipped near the end of the war to die of typhoid and starvation. Peake was allowed to wander at liberty within the barbed wire fences, in a landscape that represented rock bottom in humankind’s capability for evil. The experience left a deep impression on him.

Widely regarded as the greatest book illustrator since Aubrey Beardsley, during World War II Peake’s painterly sensibility turned to literature and the creation of a monumental work of fantasy known as the Gormenghast trilogy. A brilliant, highly unusual romance set in an enormous, sprawling castle called Gormenghast, his three books, with their sharply drawn characters, present a modern meditation on the nature of evil, on the unavoidable madness and perversity in the world that are woven so tenaciously together with its goodness and beauty.

The first book of the trilogy, Titus Groan, was published in 1946, followed by two sequels: Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959).

The trilogy tells of the birth, childhood and growth to maturity of Titus Groan, heir to the rule of Gormenghast. The plot unfolds slowly. In fact, by the end of the first book Titus is only 3 years old. But his story is secondary to the extraordinary descriptions and to the atmospheric moods summoned by Peake’s remarkable prose. The books tackle no important themes but instead represent an exuberantly rich celebration of life and all its complexity, the achievement of a man who delighted in the intricacies of the world, who believed profoundly in the value of human individuality and who dedicated himself to recording it in all its strange and beautiful manifestations.

Dozens of major characters inhabit the novels, all of them finely drawn, with the solidity and heft of real people. Dr. Prunesquallor, Lady Fuchsia, Lord Sepulchrave, Steerpike, Flay, Swelter, and many others live out the drama of life in Gormenghast with its endless rituals and its claustrophobic, maze-like architecture. Human frailty, death, ambition, devotion, obsession, sexual love -- all are realistically portrayed, with wit and a wonderful transparency of touch.

Peake’s style is unusual, but superbly evocative and powerful. His books are demanding, dark, sometimes ugly, yet brilliantly written and, once you enter their world, absolutely captivating. Though filled with images of skeletons lying pallid in a cloud-shrouded night, crows perching in a bleak, twisted landscape and scheming skullduggery, Peake’s work is not pessimistic. His darkest mysteries are richly colored by the sun. There is also a knockabout sense of humor, a strength and vitality going through everything he creates. And a deep appreciation of life’s diversity and especially of the blemishes, eccentricities and quirks that give us humans our three-dimensional depth.

Hear how he describes two of his characters on first meeting, Flay and Swelter. Flay is a manservant who “appeared to clutter up the doorway as he stood revealed, his arms folded, surveying the smaller man before him in an expressionless way. It did not look like such a bony face as his could give normal utterance, but rather that instead of sounds, something more brittle, more ancient, something dryer would emerge, something perhaps more in the nature of a splinter or fragment of stone.”

Flay’s deadly rival, Swelter, is the chief cook of Gormenghast: “Of Swelter’s acreage, only a perch or two might, if broken, prove valuable loam. That he bled profusely could prove little. There was blood in him to revive an anemic army, with enough left over to cool the guns. Placed end to end his blood vessels might have coiled to the Tower of Flints and back again like a creeper -- a vampire’s home from home.”

Peake’s characters are unforgettable, and the villain of the books, Steerpike, one critic called “the most consummate villain in all of literature, who makes Richard III and Iago look like schoolboys.”

As with many individualistic geniuses, Peake’s achievement was not recognized until after his death. Commenting on the poor financial return from his writing, he told an inteviewer: “I am too rich already, for my eyes mint gold.” And mint gold he did. This sensitive artist saw the very worst that humans are capable of, yet crafted prose that lifts off the page in celebration of the convoluted architecture of being human -- love, quirks and obsessions, heroism and pathology all mixed together in the human soul.

I have loved Peake’s books since young adulthood. Like all great literature, they affirm for me that the revelation of God is directly found in human life and living. A holy mystery shines forth who seems to be in love with our foible- and struggle-ridden universe, with all its ebbs and flows that shape our human souls and make them as different as snowflakes.

This is a God who above all uses chaos to create beauty and order. Because of this, life itself is the great teacher of spirituality.

That’s why, for example, when Fr. Thomas Berry exhorts us to put the Bible on the shelf for about 20 years, Berry is not showing disrespect to the scripture, but rather trying to get us to see, before it’s too late, that God’s revelation is also in our midst. The world is not an expendable backdrop to some remote salvation drama. God is here and now. Every bush is burning. God has been at work for billions of years everywhere in the processes of creation that are still going on.

Religious fundamentalism plagues the world, and its tenets across the religious spectrum include a core belief that the planet and the human world are secondary to a salvation drama with the human spirit at center stage. Our world is nothing more than stage scenery to be struck when the drama is played out.

Another pervasive religious view, contrary to fundamentalism, denies the world in a different way. New Age spirituality often posits a kind of idealism wherein, it is said, we “create” our own reality and can alter outcomes in the real world by changing the way we habitually think. “Our field of energy,” states Shirley MacLaine, “organizes the molecular structure that we perceive, both within and without, as physical reality.” Again, the world around us is secondary to our own inner spiritual strivings and will.

One other religious view has emerged, counter to both New Age and fundamentalist, and it holds that creation, just as it presents itself to us, is the means by which God both creates and communicates to us. “By means of all created things,” said Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “the divine assails us, penetrates us, molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.”

“The task of the saints of the 21st century,” says Fr. Ed Hays, “will be to find God in the ten thousand things of creation.” As a corollary, the task of religious studies will be to update religion in light of what science has been telling us about creation: how it unfolds, how it produced us.

There is a place for the geologians right alongside the theologians.

In 1974, a young woman wrote a book for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. For many, particularly those interested in both the natural world and in religious searching, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was one of those reading experiences that helped illumine and shape our lives.

In this book author Annie Dillard chronicles one year spent exploring her own backyard and the nearby woods in rural Virginia. She followed the seasons, investigating winter, spring, summer and fall, down on her hands and knees, up and about late at night. Her descriptions of a praying mantis eating her mate during sex, or a tree filled with natural lights, or a water bug eating a frog by dissolving its insides and sucking them in, or grasshoppers becoming locusts -- all are graphic and even horrific. She never flinches from looking reality right in the face no matter how unpleasant, ugly or upsetting.

Her observations knit together biology, metaphysics, wave/particle theory, Talmudic scholarship, Zen, Sufi and Christian mysticism and American common sense. She continues this same kind of reality investigation in all of her books: in Holy the Firm, Teaching a Stone to Talk, An American Childhood, and For the Time Being.

Stalking the divine in the real

She wants us to be totally immersed in the present, to look it squarely in the eye and make theology and religious story out of what we see. Her purpose is similar to those who search scripture for gleanings about the nature of the divine. Annie Dillard is simply an exegete of reality, armed with a mind that is overwhelmingly curious, aggressive, daring, vulnerable, intellectually courageous and observant. She states her aim is to pay attention, to observe, to know life in its deepest and most succulent meanings. As with Mervyn Peake’s books, the reader has to bear with Dillard, to stay with her even through the ugly parts, because, in the end, the payoff is big. We see the gothic, yet beautiful, world her anecdotes and facts create only when our full concentration is on the present moment. She stalks God in the present and in the world the way it presents itself to us.

Like Peake, she delves into the complex richness of being alive, grappling squarely with the baffling problems of pain and of dying. Unflinchingly she looks at the neutral-seeming cruelty in the natural world and makes deductions. It is a real adventure of the human spirit, and it’s recorded in her sparkling prose:

On the planet the winds are blowing: the polar easterlies, the westerlies, the northeast and southeast trades. … Lick a finger, feel the now. …

I return from the same walk a day later scarcely knowing my name. Litanies hum in my ears ... alleluia! I cannot cause the light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on a solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go ...

Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me. This is easy to write, easy to read and hard to believe. The words are simple, the concept clear -- but you don’t believe it, do you? Nor do I. How could I when we’re both so lovable. …

Pull the camera back and look at the fork in the road from a distance, in the larger context of the speckled and twining world.

Observing this speckled and twining world in detail, she draws some conclusions: Modern living robs us of the ability to know good and evil. Nature is both rational and chaotic, ugly and beautiful; it loves order but uses messes to get there. Because of this, life is awful and awe-filled. Death and the grotesque are an intimate part of the gift of life. Rage against any religion that requires only blind and innocent faith. Ask ultimate and troubling questions.

In her most recent book, For the Time Being, she tells the story of a British district officer who contacted a mountain village in Papua New Guinea whose tribe had never seen a trace of the outside world. It was the 1930s. The officer described the courage of one mountain villager, who, on the airstrip that had just been hacked out of the jungle foliage, cut vines and lashed himself to the fuselage of a cargo plane that had landed there. The Papuan explained calmly to his loved ones that, no matter what happened to him, he had to see where it came from.

Often the spiritual life is not so much a journey, but more like this lashing to mystery. This is certainly the spirituality that Annie Dillard and other exegetes of reality pursue, writers, scientists and mystics like Loren Eiseley, Barry Lopez, Ursula Goodenough, Gary Nabhan, Terry Tempest Williams, Brian Swimme or Gretel Erhlich. They stalk the divine and wrestle like Jacob with the angels of reality.

They probe reality with rigorous honesty and then tell us what they have found, following the advice of one of the great theologians of the 20th century, Karl Rahner, who urged us to learn about God in that profoundly mysterious arena of God’s self-communication -- our world.

The real miracle

Many Catholics raised in the 1950s can remember being bused from school to see a Hollywood movie, “The Miracle of Fatima,” about the Fatima apparitions. The film told the story of the Portuguese children to whom “a beautiful lady” appeared in 1917. Actor Gilbert Roland portrayed their friend, who is skeptical but defends the children against a hostile church and local government. During the last apparition on a rainy day, the “lady” performs the miracle she has promised, spinning the sun in the sky like the ultimate Texas baton twirl. It loosens itself from the firmament, plummets toward the earth, dazzling the crowd, drying clothes and sending the two-bit communists and other skeptics scurrying for cover.

Never mind that the sun is actually a million times the earth’s size, that our planet rotates around this colossal nuclear furnace and life giver and has done so for 5 billion years, this “miracle” was presented as religious fact. Our alienation from our place in the universe could not have been portrayed more graphically.

What does it mean to be a Christian in a world where the earth revolves around a star spinning not in our sky but on the outskirts of a galaxy that itself is one of a hundred billion? Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu, Fr. Michael Morwood, Sr. Miriam MacGillis, Brian Swimme, Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, the Asian bishops and many others are asking this timely question, challenging us to reshape the Christian imagination, ideas and language in keeping with current knowledge about the whole.

Their intent is not to weaken faith but to make it squarely relevant.

Religion has too often become a kind of science fiction or Gnostic enterprise that purports to put us in touch with a world somehow outside our universe, far away. Some form of right belief gets our ticket there punched; we even assert that the Catholic church is the only vendor. Making the right choices on pelvic matters is seen as the basis of morality, never mind the nuclear weapons, children dying of malnutrition or the manic destruction of the rainforests.

Morwood and others challenge us, for example, to rescue the story of Jesus from the clutches of outdated views of the universe and our origins. If the earth was created exactly 6,000 years ago in exactly seven days, and if our first ancestors’ sin denied us access to God, then Jesus, the incarnate son, must die horribly in order to restore that access. With a new understanding of cosmology and biological evolution, when it is seen that God has been active in the processes of unfolding life for some billions of years, it is high time to revisit that redemption drama and other aspects of our thinking about Jesus.

Jesus’ life was more important than his death, Morwood suggests. He lived among the poor. He was human. He laughed loudly, cried bitterly and loved deeply. He spoke truth to power so that it brought capital punishment down on his head.

What’s more, he did not relate to the poor and sinners on the understanding that God was distant from them. He urged people to reflect on their own experience and to grow in understanding God’s presence with them. In the end he surrendered his life confidently back to its source.

Morwood writes: “God is not present in some places and peoples, absent in others. Our death will not mean travel somewhere else, rather it will be a transformation into a completely different way of living in God, the God who is always present in creation. We live in God, and nothing can change that.” Jesus knew God’s presence is never ever far off (Luke 17:21), that we are face to face with it every time we witness selfless love or the laughter of children.

What is being asked of us here is nothing more or less than a more mature spirituality. It is time to leave our spiritual adolescence and enter adulthood, one characterized by courage, honest observation and engagement with the world as it is, spurning both fundamentalism and self-absorbed bliss-seeking. The earth and its suffering millions groan in agony for it. The awesome challenges of the new century demand this maturity from us.

Or, in the words of spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh: The real miracle is not to walk on water or set the sun spinning overhead. The real miracle is to walk on this earth and notice God’s enormous presence in the material world -- and in each other.

Rich Heffern is NCR’s opinion editor.

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001