Thoughts on a Sick Day

“Ark,” Michael Sewa

I miss my students, whose classes I had to cancel today. I miss all of my students, every single student I have ever had. I adore asking questions with them, each one of them, and I miss their answers – all of their answers. Even, or especially, the answers that remain with me because they were too much for me to understand.

The classes I teach perhaps strike my students as odd. We circle around the same questions, again and again, digging down into the depths. (Or in any case, I hope we do that.) I do not teach answers. That is my most sincere hope. I hope that I do not teach answers. We learn about people long gone, and ages long crumbled to dust, and thoughts that live and die and live on – and these appear on the exam. In a paper. But they are not answers. They are instruments, living and dying and living on, for asking questions. Really good questions. The kinds of questions with answers too much to understand.

Odd and existential, these moments in the classroom. With my students. I do not know if they know: I am asking them questions for which I myself do not have answers. Together we rise to greet mysteries and troubles and wonders before which I stand speechless. And the more I learn, the more speechless I am.

I do not know if they know: my students, each one of them, are themselves mysteries and troubles and wonders before whom I stand speechless. They are too much for me, my students. Every single one of them.

So I miss them, even now, as I sit half-delirious and addled with illness. I suppose not quite delirious enough to shut me up – but that is what happens with professors. We do not know when to shut up.

“Theologians,” says Hans Urs von Balthasar, “have the bad habit of interrupting the word before it has finished speaking.”

I entered theology to find answers. Answers to questions that terrified me. I found myself even as a child in a darkness that I found frightening. Books and questions became my way to map out the darkness, to make it known – to make it home. To make it safe. I wanted so very much to feel safe in the world, as all children do. As all human beings do.

The more I learned, the deeper the darkness became. The more mysterious the world became. Unsafe and unknown. So I fought harder and harder to know everything I could. To seek the highest answers. The most universal answers, the largest map, the widest reach.

But the questions always outreached me. The answers outbounded me. Always and everywhere, each of them. Each one another way out into a new horizon, a new unknown. As in a ship, out in the bend and sway of a terrible midnight storm.

Thy terror, O Christ, O God;
Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:
The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
Hard down with a horror of height:
And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.

– G.M. Hopkins, “Wreck of the Deutschland.”

Down the deck of the ship I slid as it reeled in the wind, clutching at rope and rigging. Struggling to stay afloat. Lurching from one answer to the next, one battened-down logic to another. But the truth is a lightning storm, quick-flash in the darkness – unveiling a shattered sky and scattered sea. The truth opens us wide. Opens the world wide. Demands mystery, commands mercy, summons bravery.

The truth is a Word spoken from eternity.

There is no end to it. Or we might say – it is…He is…beginning and end.

This is why the truth is beautiful, and why the truth is good. Demanding mystery, commanding mercy, summoning bravery. The beginning and the end. Our questions live and die and live on because the truth is too much for us, and this is beautiful and it is good.

The darkness is a presence, and presence is perhaps most frightful of all. The search is an encounter, and this is perhaps least safe. There is no summing up of that Word; it is its own, endless summary. I am still learning not to be afraid. Learning that the darkness is light. Endless light that is too much for me.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

– T.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets

My students – each and every one of them – stand on the ship with me. At least for a time. Before our inevitable parting. We scramble across the ship amid the sails and rigging, and I cannot keep us safe. I cannot calm the storm. I cannot summarize the Word.  The one Word spoken from eternity: the mysterious and troubling and wonderful Word; the beautiful and good and true Word. So reels the ship before the Feet that rise over the water to greet it.

And we, together on the ship, we keep each other company – and rise to greet the lightning Word in the world.

I would like to think that is what we do. I hope it might be so sometimes. In little moments. Sincerely.

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