Sunday, April 10, 2016

Fences: A Sunday Rumination

     “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’” – Saint Catherine of Sienna

     There’s a story from World War I about three American soldiers – one Lutheran, one Jewish, and one Catholic – who didn’t know one another when they first arrived in France, but became close friends as they endured the horrors and hardships of combat together. In those days, now a century behind us, men were more serious about their faiths, as were the pastors and churches that ministered to them. So it was that they vowed to one another that should any of them fall in battle, the others would see to the proper burial of his remains, as his faith directed they should be.

     The war soon claimed the life of the Lutheran lad. The Catholic, upon whom the burden of seeing to his burial fell, searched in vain for a cemetery that accorded with the young Lutheran’s faith. The only Christian cemetery within a workable distance was a Catholic one. Accordingly, the Catholic soldier approached the pastor of the associated church and pleaded for a proper burial for his Lutheran friend.

     Unfortunately, at that time the regulations of the Church forbade the burial of a non-Catholic in a cemetery consecrated to the Catholic faith. The pastor sorrowfully informed the survivors of this, but offered an alternative: he would have the young Lutheran buried immediately outside the cemetery fence. He personally guaranteed that the grave would receive the same care as any of those within the fence’s bounds. The survivors agreed, as there were no alternatives.

     At the funeral, the survivors agreed that three years after the war, they would meet again at their fallen comrade’s grave, to remember him and share reminiscences of their wartime experiences. And indeed, in three years’ time, they returned to that little French church, converged outside the cemetery fence...and found to their great dismay that their friend’s grave was gone! They immediately sought the pastor and demanded to know what had become of their friend’s remains. The pastor merely said “Follow me.”

     He led the two survivors to an area inside the fence, where they found their friend’s grave. The plot and stone had obviously been well cared for. Yet the location clashed with their clear and unambiguous memories that such a thing was forbidden by the solemn regulations of the Catholic Church. They looked to the pastor for an explanation. He smiled.

     “The war was terrible,” the old priest said. “Man’s inhumanity to man made visible. For four years a fence separated our nation from its greatest neighbor...a fence made of trenches and barbed wire, surrounding a no-man’s-land watered with the blood of thousands. After you departed, I thought about that fence, and the one around our cemetery, and went back to the regulations that governed the matter. The regulations were quite explicit: they absolutely forbade me to bury your friend inside the fence. But,” he said with a raised finger, “they didn’t forbid me to move the fence afterward.

     It is, no doubt, impossible to prevent his praying for his mother, but we have means of rendering the prayers innocuous. Make sure that they are always very "spiritual", that he is always concerned with the state of her soul and never with her rheumatism. Two advantages follow. In the first place, his attention will be kept on what he regards as her sins, by which, with a little guidance from you, he can be induced to mean any of her actions which are inconvenient or irritating to himself. Thus you can keep rubbing the wounds of the day a little sorer even while he is on his knees; the operation is not at all difficult and you will find it very entertaining. In the second place, since his ideas about her soul will be very crude and often erroneous, he will, in some degree, be praying for an imaginary person, and it will be your task to make that imaginary person daily less and less like the real mother—the sharp-tongued old lady at the breakfast table. In time, you may get the cleavage so wide that no thought or feeling from his prayers for the imagined mother will ever flow over into his treatment of the real one. I have had patients of my own so well in hand that they could be turned at a moment's notice from impassioned prayer for a wife's or son's "soul" to beating or insulting the real wife or son without a qualm.

     [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters]

     Fences are an important part of social existence. They’re important in many different contexts. (Mine keep my dogs from wandering all over Long Island, and Marty the Mount Sinai Woodchuck from eating the C.S.O’s garden.) But like any implement by which we seek some end, a fence can be misused or misplaced.

     We fence off persons as well as property. Sometimes the fences are entirely practical: against the light-fingered neighbor who can’t seem to resist the lure of your toolshed; the children whose games have repeatedly trashed your flowerbeds; the garrulous old biddy who seems to know everything about everyone...and who already knows far too much about you. But as badly as we need them, we must not allow them to fence off more than they should.

     The Screwtape citation above indirectly describes a fence of sorts. Such a fence separates the notion of one’s spiritual duty to love one’s neighbor from the actual, temporal treatment of that neighbor. You’d think the horror would be too obvious for any self-aware person to overlook...which only means that there are fewer self-aware persons than we might imagine.

     There are other fences of a similar sort. The fence that concentrates our attention on what we lack, wholly ignoring what we have. The fence that precludes our enjoyment and proper use of today out of excessive concern for tomorrow. The fence that clusters the faults of a relative or spouse close around us, while keeping his virtues and kindnesses at a remote distance. Each of these works to degrade our temporal existence, by weakening our appreciation of what is and emphasizing our dissatisfactions.

     Temporal happiness is important. The laws of the universe were made to facilitate it. In a sense, temporal unhappiness is a spiritual danger: an entry point for the seven cardinal sins and the actions they could precipitate. Yet our very natural tendency to look outward in time and possibility, allows us to cheapen the here-and-now in favor of an imagined otherwhen.

     One of the great gifts that’s come my way with my retirement has been an improved sense for the richness of the present: the people and things that are present, and the present moment itself. I did a great deal of worrying about the future while I was still employed. In part, that flowed from my trade, but it was also powered by my concern for trends in our social, economic, and political affairs. Since I let go of wage employment, it’s become much easier for me to enjoy the now. It’s a development I hardly expected.

     A guru of years past, Baba Ram Dass, used as his pet mantra Be Here Now. Say what you will about the gurus and shamans of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties – and some of them were pretty screwy – that’s damned good advice. Now, in the extended sense that includes all that’s around us, is really all we have. God designed us that way. He apparently wants our primary attention on now, coupled to constructive memories of what’s gone by and appropriate respect for what’s to come. The past – our trials, sufferings, and painfully gathered lessons – and the future – what we plan for, hope for, and what might be despite our best efforts – are only as relevant as now – our decisions, actions, and conclusions from present-moment conditions – can make them. Fencing past and future off at a respectful distance, and fencing the realities of now close to oneself, is the best recipe for it all.

     May God bless and keep you all...and put that cell phone away!


Unknown said...

Yes, cell phone indeed... the ultimate communication machine ...but in usage, real communication is cut off, and the user is even more isolated than ever, and becomes a slave to its mechanizma, if I could invent a word for it.
Very insightful, Fran... about the fences... it nudges the concept of "occupy" as applied in Philippians. Seems that modern usage of the Term is every way but the right way.

Brian E. said...

The richness of the present, the here and now.

I do believe you've come to appreciate how much a "present" that the present truly is. Being mindful of the here and now is indeed a gift.