Friday, August 26, 2005


There are skeptics out there, but as generally understood, the rule clearly embodies ways to carry on our spiritual life, to say nothing of the social relations that go along with it. I had wondered about some of its practical applications. Within Christianity the tenet is quite emphatic and is conjoined at all points with the command to love one another; once committed to obedience however, there are apparently some built-in conditions that cannot be circumvented or ignored. Implicit among them is that I should be prepared to know myself and what I believe, at least to the extent of daring to anticipate what I want and need from others. And that is to say nothing of the parallel requirement to understand what and how much I can and will do for those others. Knowing one’s self is part of the problem, (as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and it is us”). What about our inner life that goes right on, with its deeper resentments, flashes of spitefulness and built-in prejudices of one kind or another --to say nothing of pet hates and resentments crowding in on a daily basis? In short, what about the inner applications of this rule? Apparently there needs to be a silent counterpoint in place even more stringent than mere outward politeness or manners will insure. At this moment a racket from the street interrupts my meditations and brings me smartly to my feet ready to quell the intrusion with sharply worded remarks --oops! The awareness of a rule not quite learned reveals there is something lacking in the way of preparedness.

Even more daunting, it apparently follows that in order to act lovingly towards others, I must first regard myself in a loving way, at least in order to decide what loving ways are; that is, the way I would have others behave towards me. Could I imagine loving myself, really, even if I have heard that God does? Compared to the process of accepting others, including strangers, into my care-circle the difficulty is that I am acquainted with myself intimately and perhaps too well. A confounding condition may be that in expecting largess from others, I must truly strive for humility! As Golda Meir paraphrased an old Jewish joke, “What makes you think you’re good enough to be so humble?” But that does put a crimp in my expectations; if I manage to start from a humble place, presumably I can require only a limited amount from others; certainly not a lot in the way of luxury, praise or appreciation for everything I may do or say. If the need for approval is my bag, I am already probably out of luck –that is, after all, a ringer for the sin of vanity. I should probably not, therefore, leave to the generosity of others what are, (in my “humble” mind-set), sacrilegious wishes for the betterment of my own image. Let’s say I settle for the expectancy that others would at least share their companionship and joy, tolerate me when I want to be left alone, and offer group support. When I am in short supply I hope they will share what provisions they may have in excess of their needs, and provide care and attention if I should be ill or injured. My comprehensive wish-list would probably also include intercessory prayer and occasional help with heavy burdens or tasks–-and love. There is the concomitant hope, of course, that others intend to do me the way they do themselves. Paring the list down, however, it is clear by now that I should not try to garner the “Life of Riley” from those other participants.

Also, this issue unavoidably involves the matter of my doing something for those others. What can I offer --how much, and when? (Jesus made it very clear who my neighbors are). According to the “rule”, that would probably be close to what I think I want and need --do unto others the same. Here arises another snag: what about those others who I may feel are very different from me, the lepers, the street beggars of Calcutta, prisoners-–or the poor, sick and diseased in my own city? What should I offer to them, do for them, to what extent be a companion to them, and for how long? In short, the commandment to do unto others could prove to be a real stumbling block to my future life-style. Can it ever be done fully? If you are anything like this writer, no matter what inspirational good intentions have brought you to the point of commitment, there is that quietly gnawing undercurrent of self-doubt born of “knowing yourself”-–that all too human track-record. In facing limitations honestly and openly the impulse to give the whole thing up as a bad job is ready to hand--or worse, tailor it to one’s own inadequate short arms and shorter temper.

The “rule” is perfectly plain and simple in Scriptures. An ancient Rabbi was once ordered to recite the whole Koran while standing on one leg; he answered “Do nothing to others you would not want done unto you, all the rest are footnotes.” And hear what Christ your savior says in Mat.7:12, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.” Further, “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

But it has been said that “Love your neighbor as yourself…is a radical notion, perhaps the most radical notion possible”. (Bill McKibben,The Christian Paradox, Harper’s Magazine, August 2005). This writer, himself a professed life-long Christian, notes that as a Christian nation in 1004, we fell behind sadly in comparison with other rich nations. “What if we chose some simple criterion—say, giving aid to the poorest people—as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they’d fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner”. McKibben adds that”Because it is so counterintuitive, (meaning unlikely to arise by ordinary human impulses. nlk), Christians have had to keep repeating it to themselves right from the start. Consider Paul, for instance, instructing the church at Galatia: ‘For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment,’ he wrote, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Says McKibben, “The last shall be made first; turn the other cheek; a rich person aiming for heaven is like a camel trying to walk through the eye of a needle. On and on and on—a call for nothing less than a radical, voluntary, and effective reordering of power relationships, based on the principle of love.” It is true that this rule is not easily followed and many Christians lose sight of their purpose in this life. The way is littered with the blandishments of personal fame and fortune—or simply the needs of one’s own kith and kin—but it is not an impossible task.

One thing I know for sure about this rule, Jesus said it and I must follow it –and from Holy Scripture (Phil. 4:13) I know I can do everything in Christ, who strengthens me. Need we refer back to the loaves and the fishes? So what’s to worry? As directed by Him, we are to seek first His Kingdom, where we can find the wisdom we need! Your arms and your hearts, in fact your love, can now be joined with those of your Heavenly Father. Prayer will give strength and provisions you could never provide all by yourself. How wonderful is the news, through the presence of Jesus Christ our Lord, anything one may offer to others in love can be provided by a power greater than one’s own. So spend all your love, there is no limit except in your faith, and even that is God-given. What can be lost as long as we stand ready to give and receive with the Lord?

Friday, August 12, 2005


If it had not been for a piece by Jonathan Rosen titled Writer Interrupted, (about Henry Roth, in the The New Yorker, August 1, 2005, along with the word resurrection), I might never have looked at the poem on page 48. It is called The Edges of Time. What primed my bleary eye for such a thing was this comment by Rosen: “Life being what it is, this last stage of artistic recovery is accompanied by the physical collapse of the reborn artist, whose health woes are chronicled with excruciating fidelity. (Roth is among the few novelists--one thinks of Saul Bellow in his last novel, “Ravelstein”--who have entered old age wearing a headlamp.)” At my stage of life physical collapse hardly ranks large on the list of fun topics, but maybe that is why this poem also caught my eye.

A “headlamp” indeed. Most popular writings about the trials and noble ailments of aging appear, to my nervous grasp at least, to be poorly disguised, sentimentalized carping--hardly suitable for mixed company. The theme somehow puts me in mind of the overly-ogled English rhyme Advice to Young Maiden Ladies on Making the Best Use of Their Time, which begins, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, for time is fast afleeting.” Like romanticized old age, it is after all clearly a ploy to elicit emotional favors without regard for the quality of life before or after. But listen to these words; a real-life, but almost Godless awareness of aging at The Edges of Time, by Kay Ryan:

It is at the edges
that time thins.
Time which had been
dense and viscous
as amber suspending
intentions like bees
unseizes them. A
humming begins,
apparently coming
from stacks of
put-off things or
just in back. A
glittering fan of things
competing to happen,
brilliant and urgent
as fish when seas

The time we live in every day may be compared to an ocean alright, but at its edges, when it is almost gone, it no longer lifts and holds one up. Here in its lonely shallows it is littered with unfulfilled tasks half promised, at least to ones self. What about those worthless, adored keepsakes in old boxes, adored by no one else, and papers, even documents, that should be set aside for other eyes and interests--those photos not yet pasted in mute albums? Those stories still untold, memories unshared and unperfected; unprofessed love, and those deeper slithery things still not adequately forsworn. Once easily brushed aside, they now assume urgencies and a glitter that refuses to go back into their nearly forgotten places. At the thin, drying edges of time all it’s former life forms briefly struggle to keep alive, to float as before, desperately pushing back against that last tide. During this short and fitful struggle what is emerging, fanning out ahead?

Here at it’s edges, it is apparent as never before that time is running out; it had always seemed so endless, sometimes even monotonous and yes, endless until it’s edges came into view. What does become clearer is that time can stop! Time is a fleshly finite thing after all. It becomes clear that time is contained within eternity—but eternity may also be glimpsed within time, if one looks for it. This is not an essay on time, as such—that would be too grandiose a task—but the words of C. S. Lewis get at the meaning of glimpses of eternity during a lifetime: “Earth ,I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell; and earth, if put second to heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of heaven itself”. (From The Great Divorce,1945). The essential question now, at the edges of time as we know it, is what can be glimpsed of a farther, unknown, shore? As Lewis suggests, choosing only a fleshly, earthen life yields a different outcome from choosing it’s spiritual path; none the less, when time runs out, eternity begins—and what we then behold is already familiar in some small part. As the waters of time on earth recede, glimpses of eternity, no matter how brief, begin to follow accordingly—can anyone say more than that?