Between Two Times

"Waiting," Tuscany, 2015

"Waiting," Tuscany, 2015

Everywhere in the world people have invented stories about the Beginning, about how the universe was created. All mythologies are a way of coming to terms with the fact that man lives between two times. He is born and he dies like every other animal, yet he can imagine the origin and the end of everything. And as a result of this imagining, he lives with the eternal, with that which preceded time and will follow it, with that which is continually there behind time.
— John Berger, "Go Ask the Time," Granta 15 (1985)

Dear Friends,

I recently watched a few behind-the-scenes videos of the final days of filming Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), namely the last lines/shots of two of the main actors: Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood. (I should mention that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a literary-and-filmic mythological terrain to which I consistently turn for spiritual comfort and intellectual perspective, a sort of regular — albeit domestic — contemplative retreat, if you will. I've watched the movies so many times that to estimate a number would be both misleading and useless.)

After Mortensen's final shoot, hundreds of people burst into an emotional applause. Minutes later, the New Zealand-based stunt team performed a Haka for Mortensen, a ceremonial honor rooted in the Maāori culture and typically reserved for foreign dignitaries or persons of specific international significance. Wood's final shoot was protracted by director Peter Jackson for reasons that may in fact not be reasons. Beyond any search for a perfect iteration of the lines or flawless emotional depiction of character, Jackson seemed to be asking Wood to linger in the moment, to rest — as himself and as Frodo — in the community of the entire film crew. To act as an excuse (a conduit) for prayer.

I mention these seemingly sentimental and industry-privileged events out of appreciation and concern for humanity's treatment of all things final, especially those things which bear some special relevance to a sense or expression of community. Holding John Berger's thought from his "Go Ask the Time" and watching Elijah Wood recite the same script lines with subtle emotional variations over and over again in a completely crowded yet utterly silent room, the staying power of the human imagination became for me somehow palpable...

I think of paintings and poems. The common formal denominator would seem to be the stroke, of brush or of pen. Of course there are so many ways to deal with colors and letters, but the stroke is a reliable archetype. Stroke after stroke — however casual or contemplative — the painting or poem comes into existence, framed in a particular suggestion of space (the canvas, the page, the route). Framed in a particular suggestion of space: the actor on a screen or a stage, the monk or the prisoner in a cell. Which brings me to Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King Jr., contemporaries and compatriots in a wildly divergent and fatefully convergent American times-pace. First, King:

Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

Citing St. Thomas Aquinas ("an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law"), King clarifies the correlation between ethics and morality (i.e. the code from without and the code from within, respectively). His words demonstrate the fact that where law (and, consubstantially, language) is concerned, so is a human being. King speaks of personality — the particular expression of a collective experience — that we might ground our lives in right-living, not just our minds, which are easily convinced of things, especially as they pertain to our image. You may know that King wrote the line in a Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell, where he was placed unjustly and where his genius seized the opportunity to contemplate the "tragic separation" that burdens humankind. Here are his words in continuation:

All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote these words in judicially imposed isolation, and in isolation he both discovered and revealed a greater judicial authority: that of the conscious being. From here we can move to Thomas Merton who, in a 1968 letter to friends announcing his travels in Asia, allies himself (and the friendship by which he knows himself) with silence. It is but one example of the contemplative's imperative, the willingness to be willed, to be wielded for a greater (more loving, more lasting) purpose. The self-aware human being — infinitely connective, invariably alone — knows in silence the greatest connective force, a feeling void of particulars: a host.

I shall continue to feel bound to all of you in the silence of prayer. Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action. I pray that we may all do so. God bless you. With all affection in Christ.
— Thomas Merton

Permit me the following rapture: For the music within the word. For the necessary sound in speech, the fitting sound, the one that carries meaning like a swaddled baby. For the sound in speech that is breathing for song. Here, living a life rich in detail, there is more to do than count. If counting is the best we can do, there will ever be too much to accomplish. A dear friend and I used to discuss the phenomenon of the list that grows each time an item is crossed off. An apt analogy for the human spirit: It grows, boundlessly, like a tree shedding fruit. 

Again, for the music within the word. The word is not confined to gestures beyond itself — re: King transcending the confines of a Birmingham jail — even if the word is prefigured by that which it is without. There is a sacred pulse inside each of the miniatures, a capacity to breathe, an objective isness, a swallowing like quietude, a fullness like blue. Beauty beyond all politic. Space within all things.

There is much in the news about confronting the "real" problems, announcing the various dilemmas faced by humankind with precision and integrity. Yes, but no more than admirable folly insomuch as the language is used in pursuit of a conclusion. Solutions are crippled by our addiction to the sense of the final, the worship of that which culminates, the adulation of the positive moment. The sentence as masturbation, the period as orgasm. False, where birth is no revelation. (Note: This is not to suggest that masturbation is somehow criminal or sinful, but to simply remind that it becomes no living thing. A true solution is a living, mixing, blending, molding entity.)

A journalism that seeks to fix (and finalize) is no more worthy of praise than the false protector gods of office (public, private) who insist upon thought-barren answers blindly attached to numb ego-matters. There is no sense to make where making is devoid of process. The poem is virtually all process, which can be strangely hurtful to the modern mind, a mind grown accustomed to the resolution of man-made forms. We must relearn to hear in the poem the practice (the pain, the pleasure) of the poet. And the poet must strive to produce messages worth reciting: breathing in time.