07 October 2011

Some Earthly Good

I don't know if we're living in one of the Great Ages of Satire. But even if I could be sure of it, I don't think I should find much consolation in the fact. For one thing (and I know this from very direct personal experience), satirists are not always the most pleasant literary company. Particularly the great vehement, violent satirists of our human nature and human condition, like Jonathan Swift. Or, a bit more recently, H L Mencken. It's not that they're always blind guides, like the Pharisees. But seldom do they ever manage to see everywhere they're trying to look. Especially when it comes to seeing such little (or much) good as we poor humans actually possess. Under their guidance, indeed, we can often find ourselves regarding Man as such a vilely, repulsively corrupt creature, it might seem an unending wonder that any human being could ever have been loved by anybody anywhere. And an even bigger wonder that God should have bothered to create us in the first place. But God does not make anything merely in order to "show it up": merely for the sake of showing how awful it is, and how wonderful He is. God does not make devils. And it is only as we embrace this simple core truth - that God not only made but fully intended us - that we can begin to understand something of the nature of the good that is in us already, prior to anything we humans think or will or do (much as a wildflower or an oak tree is good, simply by being what it is). And also where that good in us came from, and how it got there. And why, so often since then, it's been so devilishly hard to see and hear.

One reason why, I believe, is that its roots lie considerably deeper than anything we could ever imagine. Because the good in us humans - by which I mean specifically that in us which delights in the beauty of any thing's being all that it is, and having all that it needs* - the good in us, I say, is not just something that's innate. It is in fact much older than anything in us that could ever be revealed by the most clairvoyant of future biologies or sociologies. So old is this goodness, in fact, that so far as it's concerned, the whole debate about which came first - the nature or the nurture - ends up becoming more than a little silly. Rather like debating which grade of weaponry was most decisive in causing the Civil War. And surely, even in so relatively simple a human phenomenon as war, there's a world of difference between what causes, and what merely contours, amplifies, accelerates an event?

* And - if we're to take literally both Isaiah and St Paul - no lion's joy in slaughtering an antelope has ever been greater than its own need for the Savior of the world. 

In any case, the goodness in us goes back much farther than anything any biochemist - or biophysicist - could ever measure, much less any sociohistorian ever document. It is, in other words, a most anciently yearning, brooding, remembering thing. Almost as if it were a kind of junior mirror-image, so to speak, of that most ancient of all broodings, over those very darkest of all waters. Indeed, I suspect we might have a better chance of tracing its beginnings, had we but some real hope of tracing, charting and measuring all the other movements of God.

And yet despite its great antiquity - or perhaps because of it? - the good in us has always had the most brutal and disheartening difficulty making its voice heard. Above, I mean, the din of all the newer, seemingly more urgent and important voices going on within and among us. But that's not to say it can never be heard. On the contrary, it has been known to make the most enrapturingly, heart-achingly lovely, sometimes even eloquent sounds, in the hands of the right coaxer, trainer, elocutionist. And that itself is no exotic event, but something that can happen pretty much anytime, anyplace - given, that is, the right pairing of any one of us with any other. We all have within us the right sounds, and even words, just waiting at eventide, as it were, to crawl out from under the rummage and rubble of our loud, noontime, marketplace voices and selves. And we all have in us the capacity to be the right voice-trainer, given the right student crossing our path. All of which pairings presuppose, of course, that that particular Jesus whom we most often call Christ is already at work in us both. And not just as our covering but as our life and breath. Breath - in other words, spirit. You know, that least understood and most neglected part of us. "I know that nothing good dwells in me,declares St Paul, " that is, in my flesh." Thank God, then, that we humans are so much more than our flesh - more even than the mind of our flesh. For that is where all really Divine work in us begins: beyond any mere carnality, whether of body or of mind. And who knows the way into and out of us - into, and out of, that strange, seemingly inexhaustibly-roomed and -compartmented house of our spirit - better than its carpenter?

Which brings me to my other point. The "evening " good in us is not just hard to hear above the "noontide" noise of our self-importance; most of the time it's all but impossible to see. Like a small, timid animal, that customarily hides because it's grown all too used to being hunted, the good in us usually has to be flushed out. And often - at least when it's not hiding in the house - from out of some pretty dense foliage too. Not to be hunted down, of course, but rather reassured that the coast is clear, that it's now free to move about, provided it keeps to certain paths, and to the company of a certain unrivaled wilderness-guide.

And so again we thank God that we have, in His Son, not just a carpenter who knows the house, but also an explorer well-apprised of its often treacherously-overgrown gardens and other grounds. In short, we have One who knows a thing or two about navigating (and even taming) jungles not just every bit as inhospitable as any found on earth, but more fearsome than any terrain this side of Hell, too. All that - imagine! - inside of us: and each one of us.

Yet it isn't, and never has been, the whole Story. For as I hinted earlier, we too can be trained to keep house and grounds in good order. Both our own and (hard as it may be to imagine in today's semi-Randian America) each other's. But in order for that to happen we need to grasp two things: first, that we even have a spirit, or soul - as well as a mind and a body; and second, a little something of why we have one.

And that is, I find, the one most damning problem with most man-despising satirists, and what makes them so opposite of our wilderness-guide and (if we let Him) grounds-keeper. They can't see the human soul for the human flesh. They spend so much time getting lost in, and angered by, and frustrated and disgusted with, the ill-kept grounds of the estate, that they seldom discover there's a house there at all. Much less the good in that house: the tiny, timid, quavering animal huddled in a dark corner somewhere inside. Rather not unlike Cinderella, quietly lost amid all the commotion of her loudly self-promoting stepmother and stepsisters. But whom did the Prince finally choose?

Which brings me to one last question, apart from which I doubt this essay would even have been possible. For one thing, I'm not sure how far you can judge an entire household merely by who most often comes in and out of it. Or how far you can determine the real worth of a family by considering its Marthas only, and not its Marys. For instance, you'd hardly judge the whole character of even a deceased father's house by ignoring his one surviving daughter, Cinderella; after all, the remaining mother and daughters are only step-. But that's just the problem with most writers of satire: They look at the whole house - the whole man, if you will - from the outside, and they hear the various noises coming from within, and frankly they're no longer even sure the real daughter still exists. I mean, you never see her come out anymore; and in any case she probably always was more or less of an idiot. And, of course, in thus judging "Cinderella" they only succeed in judging themselves, and that the very core, the very heart of themselves. As well of you and me.

Which is exactly my point. For if satirists aren't even sure they have a soul worth bothering about (much less any "Cinderelic" vestige of good in it), on what grounds do they judge and reprimand and castigate ours?

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