Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"The Capacity to Tolerate Difference" or The Case of the Moldy Sandwich

I've had the flu most of this week -- the upper respiratory kind -- and not the most extreme case I've ever had. I missed two of my daughters' Nutcracker performances, have forgotten many more responsibilities than I ordinarily forget, and have been doing an awful lot of contemplation on all the discomforts Christ had to put up with when he became man. I figured, it was the way he wanted to teach me about the Incarnation this Advent (it's always something new and surprising the way this mystery makes itself felt!). The Gospels never mention whether he suffered from a virus, and I have to assume that being capable of rebuking the weather, he could certainly put a few microbes in their places. On the other hand, when tempted by Satan to satisfy his hunger by using his divine power to transform stones into bread, he declined to do it. Still, if the angels ministered to him then, maybe they were also on pesky germ patrol...But what matters is that if a virus can cramp my style, it's nothing compared to accepting the limits of being bound up in skin, using muscles for transportation, and having only five senses at one's disposal when navigating.

But then life, my present circumstances, threw me this curve ball, because for human beings, the discomforts of walking around in a body are not limited to those caused by the vicissitudes of nature -- there are the kinds we bring on ourselves, and there are the kinds that others, wittingly or unwittingly, bring on us.

So, while soldiering on through aches, low grade fevers, painful ears, and other rotten symptoms, a new, totally unexpected and unforeseen factor entered into my life. It was an event!

A turkey sandwich, which had first been rejected as a lunch option by Sylvie (my five year-old), then forsaken at the bottom of her backpack, then rescued much later in the day and consigned to the refrigerator (rather than to the garbage, where it belonged), resurfaced the following morning and was about to be placed back into dear Sylvie's lunch box, when it caught my eye for the first time. Knowing that the sandwich had been made with bread that she hated (which is the reason she rejected it the first time), I intervened. The turkey sandwich went back into the refrigerator, and Sylvie received a fresh sandwich for lunch. Later in the day, I took the sandwich back out of the fridge, added a little olive spread and mayonnaise, warmed it in the microwave, and sat down to feast.

Well, if I had felt bad before eating the sandwich, it was nothing compared to how I felt a half hour later! Let's just say that the results were dramatic. Not knowing the history of this particular sandwich, I blamed everything on the olive spread.

Later in the day, the whole troubling truth came out, and on top of all my physical symptoms (to which had been added new and exotic ones), I began to experience a sense of betrayal, frustration, neglect, and yes, even flashes of anger. How could this episode have happened by accident? There were deliberate decisions that had been made about this sandwich, decisions that yielded (in my opinion) foreseeable consequences!

My first response, whenever I experience this magnitude of trauma, is to take a bath. So, I retired immediately to my tub. Different elements may be employed during the bath, depending on the level and nature of the trauma: music (chant is especially useful -- I highly recommend Anonymous 4), lit candles (preferably unscented), something added to the water (I favor seaweed baths -- I have found this horrid green powder, that when added to hot water, smells exactly like the ocean at a fishing port), and sometimes, reading materials. Submerging myself in water never fails to bring me back to a position of original dependence and gratitude: I am made, I'm alive! But also wonder and amazement: Who, but God, could have ever thought up something so precious and absolutely perfect as water?

The bath helped, but it wasn't enough to help me tolerate (you know, fully -- with charity and joy) the "difference" that led to my physical suffering. So, the second line of defense is to watch a movie or read fiction -- you know, to open out my horizons so as to get some perspective on what is happening in the minuscule corner of the world that is my life. Since I had my daughters home from school with me at this point, I put on Ever After, thinking that Cinderella and I had something in common, and my two younger daughters watched it with me. Ever After works very well as a fractured fairy tale, and like the model it's based on, it has upsetting bits. Sylvie had never seen this movie before, and so she cried when the stepmother and stepsisters were cruel to Cinderella and when Prince Henry behaved like a cad toward her. The original Cinderella is only a story about clothes, but this retelling has more to it. Sylvie's tears were instructive for me. In the face of injustice, dishonesty, and lack of love, the truly human response is sadness, deep sadness. When the film was done, I took a new look at what I was suffering, and tested it against this insight. Yes, beyond questions of who was responsible, or whether the responsible parties cared about my physical well-being or were really sorry for the full breadth of their responsibility, my particular circumstances were simply sad -- not, by any means, tremendously sad, but nonetheless, sad.

In fact, if someone wrongs someone else, deliberately or by accident, it is essentially sad for him. If the offender cannot recognize his responsibility in another's suffering (I am not saying that this is the case with regard to my adventure with the sandwich), then it is even sadder -- for him. "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing..." Who but Jesus has experienced the ultimate sadness? To be able to see into the human heart, and to find darkness and confusion there, to see just how far this darkness and confusion can take the soul down the path of evil...who but the Son of God could bear this species of sadness?

After I got my girls to bed, I still wasn't good for anything besides lying in front of the television and suppressing groans, so my husband and I watched The Passion of Joan of Arc. I really thought that Ever After had done the trick for me, but here was a film I had never watched before, one that is strange in ways that confound my usual way of seeing things. I haven't watched a silent film in years, and even then, music accompanied the images projected on the screen. The silence of this movie was disturbing and revelatory at the same moment, such that the texture of the flagstones, the white curves of the walls, the act of writing a signature, the viscosity of blood, the play of flames as they lick at and devour an object, and so many other visual details seemed saturated with a super abundance of meaning. Exaggerated facial expressions seemed at first cartoonish and later seemed to unveil a hidden order in the realm of human emotion. Watching Joan's pale face, which filled the screen for most of the film, as it tilted, washed with tears, filled with joy, raised and lowered, was an uncomfortable and voyeuristic experience. The film's script, lifted in chunks from the transcripts of Joan's trial, revealed a rather awful connection to the tale of Cinderella -- it seems that for some of her judges, Joan's life was also only about clothes.

My fever has passed, and I managed a bowl of chicken soup last night, after The Passion of Joan of Arc, but I must still be pretty sick because all I can think about at this point, after all my rambling, is this passage from You (or About Friendship), by Don Giussani:

The method the Mystery has used to give Himself, to reveal Himself to His creature is the sacramental method: a sign that in this sense contains the Mystery of which it is the sign. The community of the Church is the aspect of this sign, it is the aspect of that face, it is the visible aspect of that face. It is the clothing of that Presence, like Jesus' garments were for the little children who came near to Him. The tiny children, 4-5 years old, who milled around Jesus, grabbing hold of his legs, sticking their noses into His clothes, didn't see his face, they didn't remember his face, perhaps they didn't even look at it. But they were there with Him. So that the clothes, the seamless tunic in which Jesus was clad, were more fixed in their eyes than His face. In the same way Jesus makes himself perceivable to us in the ecclesial community, as if it were the clothing with which our smallness enters into relationship with His real presence. (page 31)


My family is a particular fold of the garment. Sticking my nose into it may lead to suffering and sadness, but the story about my sandwich is not a story only about clothes.

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."