8 – Beauty Become As Darkness

THE HEAT WAVE has finally broken.

 Today the sky is grey and pours cool rain upon an exhausted city, burnt lawns. In the countryside thirsty fields and crops drink the water so long awaited.

We three priests here juggle dates so holidays and retreats can be completed before my sabbatical starts in a month.

I enjoy a day off and resume this editing of the original notes, the re-drafting, new writing.

 I continue my meditation on the letter of Pope John Paul II to artists, draw comfort, joy, and affirmation of my Spiritual Father’s directive I take these months to ‘write, pray, paint’.

Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.

… In shaping a masterpiece, the artist not only summons his work into being, but also in some way reveals his own personality by means of it. For him art offers both a new dimension and an exceptional mode of expression for his spiritual growth. Through his works, the artist speaks to others and communicates with them. …

… In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. …

… The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force. Christ Himself made extensive use of images in His preaching, fully in keeping with His willingness to become, in the Incarnation, the Icon of the unseen God…..[n]

Reviewing the original notes for this chapter I found myself reflecting on the mystery of beauty and was astounded when a particular passage came to my heart from the Holy Gospel wherein Jesus powerfully cautions us for fear we would allow the light within us to be darkness! [ Lk. 11:35].

In the period of my life under consideration that is something I failed to do. Indeed the darkness was forcing more and more of the light out of my being, because I was choosing the darkness.

The tendency today, of course, is to find all forms of justification, or at least excuse, for inner darkness, aberrant behaviour, and so forth, since we no longer have any concept of sin.

The Twinkie defence, the abuse-excuse, yet while to a degree all these and others may truthfully be said to impact upon one’s ability to freely choose, rare is the case where the impact is such that, short of being totally psychotic, we have lost all possibility to exercise our free will.

I note that here for I would not want the reader, as I continue this telling, to mis-read any of this as an appeal to some form of justification or excuse for my choices.

Where the deliberate or unintended result of the sins of others against me weakened my ability to choose freely, there by His grace I have forgiven.

 There by His healing the damage has been, or is being, undone.

Mostly though I was the agent of my own wounding, a type of emotional and by sin spiritual incision into my soul, causing the haemorrhage of light until I became filled with darkness.

This, of course, did not happen all at once, but over a prolonged period of years.

However by the time I was aware that it was happening I was already so far along, and so filled with fear, that it was akin to drowning or sinking in quicksand. The more you struggle the faster, and deeper, you sink.

Even now as I go over, this afternoon here in my study, the notes about those years I experience uneasiness, a type of restlessness, a wanting not to recall, or face, that period in my life.

But how can I reveal the truth of how His mercy is greater than our capacity to sin if I fail to make a complete confession no matter the illusory assault on my ego?

In her book THE BROKEN IMAGE, Leanne Payne has many short phrased treasures and one which summarizes my mid-childhood is this:

We are more vulnerable to temptations and odd compulsions when we develop one part of the mind or personality at the expense of another.

SUCH WAS my growing experience of, delight in, creation: grass, flowers, trees, birds, clouds, sky, moon, stars, sun, rain, ice, snow, fog, sand, rocks, insects, and especially the ocean.I would as often as possible go off to places alone, in particular deserted harbour areas where I could, if not in the classic sense, pray, at least engage in a type of contemplation, or inner reflection, in an experience of solitude which was a temporary respite from inner terror, danger, the compulsive search for the narcotic of sensual pleasure, or pain, the frantic hunger for affirmation.Creation was no real threat, made no real demands for even summer or winter storms whipping your face and body with salt spray, wind, frozen pellets of a blizzard, bone piercing cold fog, these were no threat but a type of sensual confirmation you were alive!Sometimes, when I was especially mostly one huge ache of aloneness-grief, the elements spoke only of an awesomely beautiful and tender Presence, the One who so gently asked Elijah the ultimate ‘why’ question!  [ 1 Kg. 19: 11-13]The two places in my childhood where I felt secure and alive where first in church before the Blessed Sacrament or out there, somewhere, among the elements, the two being almost interchangeable, and within my own imagination aided by the world of books, adventure tales about mythical figures or real ones, the saints and martyrs of the Church.I was becoming at this stage increasingly aware, though totally un-willing to accept, and even if I had where could I have turned for help I had no idea, that in spite of my best efforts to do otherwise I had virtually no control over my life.So much was changing all the time.The world was changing and each change, even those which you might suppose where at least one step removed from a child, seemed to rattle me deep in my inner being.Steam engines gave way to diesel and so part of the comforting romance of playing around the freight yards disappeared and some of my security with it; radio which you could listen to in your active mind gave way to television which seemed to create a type of intellectual trance; the Korean War reminded you of the dangerous world of nations and the fragility of life was accented every time a newsreel, or later the tv news, showed another atom or hydrogen bomb being exploded in the southern deserts and gradually almost every week in school there were air-raid drills and even the dumbest child quickly figured out hiding under your desk would not keep the invisible radiation murderer at bay.The playful innocence of grade school gave way to the more vicious emerging peer pressure of junior high, the infantile male distaste for girls, who were all just extensions of your sisters, suddenly became transfixed as female classmates developed in shapes and ways no one’s sister ever could.Of course boys at that age are not immune to change either, though for boys it is in many ways a more solitary, if not anymore subtle, affair and one not usually talked about in any sacred manner. Hair began to sprout in places not conducive to comfortable converse, urgent needs to surface with physical change, seemingly always at the most embarrassing moments; strange spontaneous occurrences at night; the street-tale discovery of aspects of puberty’s potential and suddenly sacramental confession became a real experience of humbling oneself.Something else was happening within me too, a growing and relentless anxiety which often, indeed almost daily, was experienced as severe anxiety-panic attacks.I would be certain that at any moment I would go insane or keel over in terrible pain and die or throw-up or all of those at once!More, I was becoming desperate to find a way out of this cycle of desire and anxiety, light and darkness, serene solitude and desperate need for affirmation.My life was a continuous, exhausting treadmill where all the relentless effort led nowhere.Less and less trusting of the world, of adults, of peers, for everyone seemed either to abandon, betray, or demand, I found myself more and more at odds with God, that is the stealing, smoking, sexual activity which I increasingly turned to as anaesthetic alternative to pain, grief, fear, being mortal sins, I’d go to confession more and more desperately, less and less confident there would be a miracle and all would be well. Then there was that horrific summer of the last great polio epidemic when kids were kept         home and for me that meant just too much time to think, think, think, think, until the fall came, and we returned to school and the empty places of those who had died or been consigned to the dreaded half-life in an iron lung.The cycle became terribly simple: smoke, steal, fight, engage in sex, wallow in guilt, fear, have a massive panic attack, go to confession, pray. For a day or two be somewhat a normal kid, drown in aloneness, confusion, wonder, smoke, steal, fight, engage in sex, wallow in guilt, fear, have a massive panic attack, go to confession, pray, for a day or two be…… 

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this world well knows, yet none know
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

 I was becoming insatiable as one who read.Thought.Questioned.Always questioned.There was within me an immense inner need to know, to understand.So I would wander the corridors of books, the pathways of ideas, the streets of the city, the strategies of prayer, desperation of relationships, anywhere that I might find a fragment of an answer, piece of the puzzle, hint of my identity, possibility of the why of I and life!My parents, teachers, parish priest, each in their own way desperately tried to help me, but none had the whole picture because either they were not with me all the time..teachers only saw me in school for example…or I never gave them the complete account of anything…if my parents found me in tears I’d have no explanation, if a priest tried to find out if a particular sin was part of a pattern I’d never go back to him for confession, so no pattern would be discovered.Put by my parents into a summer program for troubled and delinquent juveniles I’d slip away within an hour of the program beginning and be about the waterfront and hanging out with my so-called friends and then slip back into the building and out the front door with the other kids as if I had been there all day.Yet, from my reading of the penitential practices of saints, I’d walk about with pebbles in my sneakers and do other mortifications like skip meals in order to try and curb my appetites, do penance for my sins.Even when most of my buddies had abandoned all but the obligatory attendance at Holy Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation I remained an altar boy, trying to keep from being severed the thread of light that might lead me from the darkness.That was the fundamental problem — I — was trying to handle it all on my own.I was ever more bent towards myself.