Reliving the past can be an obstacle to grace. The present is the only place where we can encounter God. It’s the reason we exist in the Year of Faith, 2013.
On Ash Wednesday, 2012, we posted “In a City on a Hill: Lent, Sacrifice, and the Passage of Time.” It was about Lent from the perspective of prison, and time was its central theme. It was about a few people you have come to know and the persons they choose to be in present adversity.
This post is also about time, but from a different perspective. It’s about the interconnectedness of time. The threads that run through our human experience of God are a tapestry of creation rather than just a linear existence where we are at the mercy of random events.
The importance of detecting these threads in time and history was recently made known to me by – of all people – Stephen King, and it’s a story filled with its own tiny threads of connection. Ever since reading “Pornchai’s Story” when The Catholic League published it in 2008, I have not exactly been enamored of author, Stephen King. You might remember that Pornchai delivered newspapers to Mr. King’s Bangor, Maine home when Pornchai was twelve years old and barely spoke English.
There was really nothing in that story that I should hold against Stephen King, however. It was just guilt by association, and that’s never fair and just. I wasn’t very happy with anyone in Bangor, Maine circa 1985 after reading “Pornchai’s Story.” If I could travel through time, there would be some things I would try to fix back there. Like all of us, however, I’m stuck in the here and now.
But that’s not really why I’ve been shunning books by Stephen King for all these years. It’s because of that horrible clown! Because of one Stephen King story, I have been associating all his books with evil clowns, and I have a phobia for clowns. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember, and you might be surprised how many people I’ve met who share my disdain for clowns. Even Pornchai mentioned Mr. King’s evil clown in “Pornchai’s Story.”
Early this week, while shivering in the cold waiting in line for a seat in the prison chow hall, a young African-American prisoner was behind me. Someone in line mentioned a clown he saw on TV, and I detected the young man’s shudder, more than just a shiver in the cold. When I turned to him he said, “I can’t stand clowns! They’re creepy!” We spoke of that Stephen King film about an evil clown named Pennywise, and it was the reason neither of us read his books. We agreed that they’re just too creepy, and in prison we have enough that’s creepy on our plates – and we weren’t referring to the food in the prison chow hall that day.
I know Stephen King wrote some good stories that became great films. One, “The Shawshank Redemption,” has shown up in several of my posts. King’s original title was, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption published in a short story collection entitled, Different Seasons.
Pushed by a friend, I borrowed my first Stephen King book from the prison library this week. It’s long – 849 pages. The Stephen King section in this library is huge, not just because he wrote a lot of books but because most of those books are also huge. You might recall from my post, “Les Miserables” a few weeks ago that I haul books to prisoners being punished in “the hole” each week. Prisoners in the hole ask for Stephen King books because they’re long and they fill up the unbearably empty time. I feel like a pack mule lugging dozens of those immense books around. Has this man ever had an unpublished thought?
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
I have to admit, however, that the Stephen King book I’m now reading – and I’m exactly halfway through it – is fascinating. Even its title – 11/22/63 – is fascinating. That date will jump off the book’s cover to lure in anyone who remembers the day President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas. This coming November will mark a half century since that day. I wrote of it, and the tumultuous decade to follow, in one of TSW’s most widely-read posts “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
My friend’s pushing me to read 11/22/63 might not have succeeded, however, if not preceded just the night before by another thread of connection. A month ago, I received a letter from a very nice woman who lives in New Hampshire but is spending the winter in Arizona. She wrote that as a New Hampshire Catholic she remembered some rumblings that I might be unjustly in prison, but never gave the story much further thought. Then, she wrote, while attending Mass in Arizona, the local priest asked her where she is from. When she told him, the priest asked, “Isn’t that where a priest is wrongly in prison for life when he could have been free years ago had he lied?” The priest prompted her to go find These Stone Walls and start reading.
In a second letter, she wrote that she just finished reading “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and found it to be a walk filled with meaning through all those vivid memories of a half century ago. It was the morning after reading this letter that a friend in the prison library shoved Stephen King’s 11/22/63 in front of me.
Such subtle threads of connection are center stage in this riveting book. The threads of history want to be noticed and connected as though some Divine Weaver has always been behind them. Stephen King’s tale in 11/22/63 is narrated by high school English teacher, Jake Epping, who finds himself walking through a portal from 2012 to 1958, the world of my childhood. Living in 1958, the well-meaning teacher sets out to right a few wrongs and prevent some local mishaps and tragedies of the past. Then he takes up a more ambitious plan to go to Dallas and remain there until 1963 to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing President Kennedy.
While living in the past, Jake Epping gradually becomes aware of “the butterfly effect.” Each small change he effects seems to produce subtle alterations and threads of coincidence that tell him that history itself resists those changes. “History is obdurate,” he concludes repeatedly. “It does not want to change.” Jake Epping develops a sense that his meddling with history bears consequences. One altered thread effects another after another until the entire tapestry of time is altered in ways no human could have foreseen.
THE WILL TO LIVE IN THE PRESENT
In a recent Opinion Page in USA Today (“Have We Lost the Will to Live?” January 29, 2013), author Rebecca Costa raised an important point about the “Tragedy in Newtown” that I wrote of in my first post of 2013. Ms. Costa wrote that the solution to the long list of such tragedies is not new government regulations such as gun control, but self-control. She pointed out that the legacy of the last fifty years in our culture is a serious erosion in the will to live. Suicide in our culture has risen 60% over the last 45 years.
For Rebecca Costa, many of the events of mass murder that have so plagued our time involved first a decision to commit suicide, and then an awareness that such a decision removes the consequences for other aberrant behaviors: ” . . . no arrest, no jail, no families of the victims to face, no remorse, no nothing. Dead is dead.”
The Centers for Disease Control reports that one million Americans attempt suicide every year now, a 400% increase since 1988. Without a doubt, for any person of faith, there is a clear thread of connection between that problem and our culture’s sharp turn from a culture of life based upon religious faith over the last half century. It could not be more obvious.
My post, “Tragedy in Newtown” raised the point that without faith, the aftermath of that tragedy for the human community is bleak. It sparked an exchange in the comments on that post about whether faith is really necessary for us to be compassionate and responsible people. My response to that is that the erosion of faith is the single most influential factor in the sharp rise of suicide and hopelessness that has plagued our culture since the 1960s.
Religious historian, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) called the fact that we seem to be at the mercy of the past, “the terror of history.” Eliade portrayed humankind as having evolved not just into Homo Sapiens (Latin for “man of wisdom”) as anthropology has proposed, but also into “Homo Religiosis,” human beings motivated in our essence by our capacity to detect the threads of history through an awareness of God.
For Eliade, humankind evolved with the capacity to detect God, to relate to God, and to view our lives in terms of that relationship. It’s why we are here. My own take on Eliade’s point is that the existence of religious experience is its own proof – even using the principles of Darwin. In Darwinian evolution, the principle of natural selection means that over time our species will enhance traits that contribute to our survival and dominance as a species, and extinguish traits that do not serve our continuation. And yet throughout the course of human history up to the present time, the one unifying factor of all human culture and every human society has been, and remains, our capacity for religious experience, and it is uniquely human.
Our capacity for religious has suffered at various points in our history. It suffers right now. But it has never been extinguished by evolution. Humans were given that capacity because we need it. Humans retain that capacity because we need it. We may not even still be human without it.
Humankind, for Mircea Eliade, came to deal with the terror of history from the viewpoint of faith, detecting threads of connection between historical events translated as religious events. The Israelite account of the succession of divine events in human history revealed time as both linear and connected – more like a woven tapestry than a long string. Our Catholic concept of Salvation History continued the Israelite tradition of event-oriented time connecting our divine events and their central figures – from Abraham to Moses to David to Christ, the central thread of God’s tapestry.
Some people are able to detect these threads, to sense their presence and contemplate their meaning. These are the people of faith, and if you’ve read this far, you’re likely among them. Faith is centered on a conviction that God has fashioned the tapestry of time and views both its threads and its entirety while we see only threads. Without faith, those threads of time’s connections – so obvious to people of faith – become just random events, the experiences of random coincidence without any meaning at all.
As Lent, 2013 begins, it is not religious experience, but rather the hopelessness of this age that is the clearest threat to our continued existence. So I’m spending Lent in this Year of Faith in the practice of the Presence of God. What I’m giving up for Lent is any living in the past, any wishful thinking about what might have been.
One tangible expression of this practice might be to spend time this Lent in the Presence of the Blessed Sacrament, an immense gift to the Church. Whether daily or weekly, this time in the Presence of God is a powerful source of grace, though one that prison has denied to me for over 18 years. If you’ve seen the first part of my post, “The Sacrifice of the Mass,” then you know what it would mean to me if you spent a few minutes of that time before the Blessed Sacrament on my behalf.
There is no greater Lenten grace that you could send to us behind These Stone Walls.
Memento homo, quod cinis es, et in cinerem reverteris.
Remember, O Man, that thou art dust, and to dust shalt return.