Sunday, January 06, 2008

A (Post-)Christmas Meditation from Hans Urs von Balthasar

Christmas has already whizzed by us and we are all well on our way into the new year, 2008. However, on this Epiphany Sunday, before the season completely vanishes into our individual archives of memory, I wanted to share a very interesting and profound scriptural meditation from the great 20th century Swiss priest and theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Lately I have been richly rewarded by starting off each day reading from his posthumously-collected series of scriptural reflections, You Have Words of Eternal Life. Each short reflection takes a brief phrase directly from scripture -- such as the title phrase -- and goes off from it in fascinating, and very often quite unexpected, directions. These were among the last writings he was working on just before he died, and the sense you get as you read them is of a wise old theologian/priest sharing with you the various and valuable fruits of a lifetime of thinking, praying and studying the scriptures. This experience, I am convinced, is the reason that each meditation seems to provide me with an angle on a familiar passage of scripture I had never considered before. The collection is a wonderful blessing from one of the most important and gifted theologians of our time.

I read this one only a few days ago, but then realized it would work very well as a meditation before/during the Christmas season (which, according to the Church, we are still very much in the midst of, even though the stores and homes have all packed away their decorations and lights for another year!). I thought it would be worth sharing on this blog, and as I do so, I wish everyone a blessed New Year -- one that brings with it new and exciting encounters with Jesus, our Emmanuel ("God with us").


"Are You the One Who is to Come?"

The question that a captive John the Baptist sends to Jesus by way of two of his disciples (Matt. 11:3) is the all-encompassing question of the Old Covenant directed at the New. Drawing together all of Israel's longing, John had expected the eschatological Judge who would also be Israel's Savior. He spent only a short time in Jesus' company (John 4:1-2) -- his arrest caused Jesus to return to Galilee (Mark 1:14) and made it impossible for John to keep track of Jesus' activity. But what he learned of Jesus' doings from his prison did not correspond to Israel's end-times expectations. The arrival of the messianic Kingdom seemed to require a fundamental rearrangement of this world's structures and relationships. Whether the last days could begin in the middle of history itself, without a total upheaval of that history, was the question that all of Israel asked Jesus: "Where is the promise of His coming?... Everything has remained as it was since the beginning of creation." (2 Pet 3:4)

Jesus' reply employed words borrowed from the Old Covenant itself: "the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the good news is proclaimed to the poor." (Is. 35:5; 26:19; 61:1). What Isaiah perhaps had intended as a series of joyous images for the dawn of salvation now become literal reality in Jesus' work. He not only had healed the deaf, blind, lame and lepers but also, just before John's question had arrived, had raised the boy from Naim from the dead (Luke 7:11-17). The metaphorical and eschatological had come to pass in history, including the eschatological resurrection of the dead, which was now occurring within time. All this seemed so modest, so powerless to overturn the world's structures. Yet the phrase "the good news is proclaimed to the poor" was also an Old Testament phrase (Is. 61:1), and it precisely the poor whom Jesus lists first among those who are blessed -- yet they are blessed precisely as the poor, not, as the Old Covenant normally assumed, as having been snatched out of their poverty ("he raises the weak from the dust, and the poor from the ash heap" [Ps. 113:7]). The great transformation of which the Magnificat also sings does not take place sociologically -- the "lowly maid" is not changed into a reigning queen.

The Old Covenant simply must bring its expectation into line with the decree of God that was revealed clearly enough in Isaiah 61:1-2: the Spirit of the Lord has sent the messiah to "proclaim good tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted... to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And if "liberty" is promised "to the captives" and "redemption to those in shackles," this apparently means something beyond the sort of political development hoped for by the Baptist suffering in his prison. Social and political developments may well follow from the true eschatological event that Jesus constituted, but the order he established dare not be reversed. Had not Yahweh throughout the course of history repeatedly disappointed, indeed, deliberately crushed, his people's earthly expectations and longings?

When Jesus concludes with the warning "happy is he who takes no offense at me" (Matt. 11:6), he addresses the entire Old Covenant in his direct answer to the imprisoned John the Baptist, who needs to tear down some of his "ideological superstructures" in order to uncover the simple meaning of the divine promises. What a withdrawal process Israel has already begun: the Ark of the Covenant taken captive only to be destroyed by fire later along with the entire temple; not even one stone of the rebuilt temple is left standing upon another; the entire holy city lying in rubble. Should not Christians reflect on this object lesson and ask themselves whether the Crusades, the forcible conversion of the Saxons under Charlemagne, the cathedrals, and the Basilica of St. Peter, can be a basis for, even a mere symbol of, "proclaiming the good news to the captives"?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

On Writing Short Stories: A Kind of Meditation

Not too long ago (July ’07) I posted on this blog a rant, more or less, decrying the current ‘state’ of the short story in America in a very limited and non-scholarly way. Shortly after that a piece ran in the New York Times Book section by Stephen King in which he provided his own assessment of the form, following on the heels of his stint as the editor of the Best American Short Stories series for 2007. (Read King’s take here if you’re interested: )

I based much (but not all) of my opinion on stories I read in the New Yorker throughout the year, and while I realize that this is only a very small portion of the short fiction published in literary magazines, that magazine is still more or less universally regarded as the gold standard for short fiction. At the time I couldn’t believe that what was showing up in the magazine represented the very best of the short story form. What I’ve read since July in the magazine certainly hasn’t changed my view. In fact, right now I am reading the ‘Winter Fiction Issue’ which features five original short stories, as opposed to the regular output of one per week. I’ve read four of the five stories selected in the issue so far, and even though they’re big names (Juanot Diaz, Anne Enright), the only one of them I liked at all so far was written by Raymond Carver in the early 1980s, reprinted in a different format than the published original. (The story is called ‘Beginners’ in this issue but was originally published in a much smaller version as ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’.) The three new stories I have read all seemed boring and pointless to me, although written well. Which is my general complaint with the contemporary short story: they’re well written and almost all of them leave me saying, ‘Who the hell cares??’ I have one story left to read in the issue, by Jhumpa Lahiri, but since she won the Pulitzer Prize for a story collection not too long ago, I am cautiously optimistic. We’ll see.

The reason why I bring this up is that whenever I consider my dissatisfaction with the current ‘state’ of the short story, my next thought is something to the effect of, while the form may be ill at the moment, I personally don’t appear to be the cure. In other words, I don’t seem to be much better. I’ve tried to write them for years, but they never seem to be very good. None of my stories have ever been published, and it’s not for lack of trying. Recently I was saying to a friend that I was 0-for-?? in terms of publishing short fiction, and that got me wondering how many stories I had ever attempted to send out for publication, which in turn made me wonder how many short stories I’ve actually written in my writing life. So I conducted a short experiment in my basement, sifting through all my old and new writing notebooks and files, attempting to determine how many stories I have authored. At first I thought “It must be close to 100.’ Not even close. As my list grew slowly, I could tell I was running out of material! Then I thought, ‘Maybe I’ve written 50 though.’ Nope. As it turns out, as best I can tell, I’ve written a total of 33 short stories. (I am only counting finished stories, meaning stories I wrote until they ended, as opposed to the large number I’ve tried and eventually abandoned.) This number includes a certain infamous tale I was once assigned to write for a high school English class concerning an angel that I, for some reason, still own a copy of, and that only Duke would recognize. It is one hell of a bad story, but I still managed to bring it to an end.

In fact, most of my short stories are rather unsatisfying to me, so I guess in my previous ‘rants’ I am proving the adage that those who can’t do become critics. I’ve written a few that I’m reasonably proud of, maybe two or three, but most of my 33 stories fall way short of the original ambition behind them. That seems true all the way up through the most recent story I finished called ‘In The Throes’, which I sent hopefully to three magazines that all promptly rejected it. Although in fairness I thought ‘Throes’ contained some of my best writing to date. Still, no one bought it, literally. So it turns out that I can recognize very well, I think, what I think ails other stories but can’t do a very good job of writing a good one myself. I guess this is nothing new. Yet I feel like I’m slowly improving all the time, even though each new story still seems to fall short. I often wonder when the one story I am writing will finally be ‘the one’ that busts through, but in seventeen years, that moment has still not come.

Now I find myself writing my 34th short story while my novel is on hiatus, owing to a lack of time and resources for the necessary research to continue (which I’d better fix here right quick!). And this one is coming along particularly painfully, especially since I don’t know much about what I am writing about, which is grief – or, it may be more correct to say, that shell-shocked state of mind a person enters into before they are able to grieve. This time around the writing is coming very slowly, almost a paragraph at a sitting, which probably has a lot to do with how little time I get to actually work on it, but it also says something to me about the arduousness of the job. Particularly with short stories I find the writing to be very difficult. To me the only way to write short stories is on an instinctive basis – meaning you start the story just based on your hunch of where the thing should begin, you end it much the same way, you break off certain segments based on your gut, and you write different sequences of it on the basis of what feels right for the story. More than with a longer fiction work (which of course I am no expert at either), to me writing stories feels like a blind operation – I can rarely see exactly where I’m going and I don’t know what obstacles I’m going to hit, even if I know how I want the story to end.

In my new story, for example, I know how I want the story to end ahead of time, but I don’t really know what it ‘means’ or why I think it needs to end there. I just feel like it should. Don’t ask for interpretations. I also included an early dream sequence that has nothing to do with the actual events of the story and seems awfully cryptic and strange, and yet the images in the dream I invented to me are powerful ones and need to stay even though I can’t explain why or what ‘purpose’ the sequence serves. Also, as I alluded to before, I am writing about someone going through something I haven’t personally had much experience with so I don’t really know how the hell the guy in the story would feel or what he would do in the situation. So what gives me the thought that this is a story I can write? I can’t answer that, but I have been writing stories at least for long enough to know that when an idea grips me and I feel like I have something to say about it, I need to try it, and it doesn’t matter whether I am doing so with the authority of experience or not. My job is to tell the story and to do that you have to just put yourself in the mind of someone else, which is inherently impossible, so in that sense there’s no less reason for me to try it than any of the great story writers who have done so with so much more success before me.

Thus, these days I get up and I grind out what I can of the new story and I don’t worry too much about whether or not it will get there. I just try to write the next sentence. When the narrative arc is curving around to the finish, I will know – that much I do have experience with. The process is so nebulous, so organic that it is hard to know what drives one to do it or what purpose it serves. Yet the instinct is there and it is powerful, and with me it only grows with each new completed story or book review or essay, no matter how few people read it and hear whatever it was I was trying to say, no matter how little success it meets in terms of publication or readership or admiration from someone other than its author. There’s something I must want to say on the subject, and I will stick at it until I’ve said it. If nobody hears it it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s a bizarre thing, but to me it also feels like a pure thing, a natural thing. God created natural things one and all, so if each story is a flame and my work is one big fire, God is the Source of the fire. So you might say that just as each individual story has its own author, the Source of the stories has its own Authority, and I am merely acting upon His edict.