THOUGHTS OF ETERNITY have always terrified me. Sometimes at night I would try to trick myself into imagining it, the experience of never-endingness, and think myself into a cold sweat, starting from the horror to which I had brought my mind. Most often, my late wife Emily was able to sleepily talk me back down, but sometimes I would have to get up and move around a bit. I would try to work, sitting at our shared desk and reading and writing by the light of an industrial metal lamp that Emily had picked up somewhere before we met. Surprisingly, it cast a warm light, which I found comforting even when it illuminated the print which hung above the desk and which I found desolate and beautiful, especially on those nights. The print was a gift to Emily from her parents and every time I see it, I am liable to fall into orbit, suspended by the mystery of its hold on me. Of course, I was equally troubled by the prospect of nonbeing, so I was a proper existentialist. Emily was untroubled by both potentialities, which befuddled me. This difference of ours was larger than perhaps we realized and marked me, I think, as younger by more than the one year between us.
The print is of a wood-engraving by Fritz Eichenberg, his depiction of Saint Francis of Assisi’s sermon to the birds. It now hangs in my living room above the couch and catches the Mississippi sun streaming through our blinds in the evening. It was created in 1964, which means Eichenberg had been contributing work pro bono to Dorothy Day’s newspaper The Catholic Worker for more than a decade when he etched it into existence. Eichenberg is perhaps best known for his sensitive, interpretive illustrations for editions of classic literature, but his admiration for Day was great enough that, in addition to providing lithographs for her magazine, he illustrated her autobiography. A Jewish convert to Quakerism, Eichenberg presciently fled Nazi Germany before World War II. Like me, he attended the same high school as his first wife, but Fritz and Mary were actual classmates. Though I was only one year behind Emily at Grimsley High School, we did not meet until my last year of college when she walked into the bookstore where I worked and asked for a job. Like me, Eichenberg lost his first wife to cancer after ten years of marriage. Also, like mine, his religious life seems to have been a restless one.
In an interview preserved by the Archives of American Art, Eichenberg explains that he “hit upon wood engraving as the best medium” because it allowed him to “work from dark into light, or from black into white, with all the gradations—which is also symbolic procedure—a process which makes it possible for you to create life out of a void.” A bit later on in the conversation, he talks about his process:
As you face the blank woodblock or the darkened surface of a lithographic stone, you create life out of it by throwing with your first touch of the graver—the first touch of your etching needle, or razor blade.
Out of desolation, a little life—our eternal protest against annihilation. Looked at from a distance, the entire engraving resembles a keyhole with only the smallest light shining through from the other side of the door. In the right light, this impression dominates.
Francis stands in the middle of the scene, his back to the viewer, his arms spread wide. His face is turned upward at an almost impossible angle, but his stance is relaxed, his weight shifted to his left leg. Birds surround him, four perched on each arm. Sixteen birds sit at his feet, and a halo of seven fly above his head. The variety is impressive. There are large birds of prey, a rooster, a crane, and a raven. Two doves upstage an owl. There are a crow, a pheasant and, startlingly, a vulture. Francis is very thin but does not look frail. His feet are bare, and his hips, a walker’s hips, are well defined under the rope around his waist. He is dressed in a simple robe, his beard neatly trimmed. His eyes are closed. Though his brow is furrowed, his gesture and affect seem effortless, his body at peace, his face seemingly backlit by a shroud of blank canvas.
I was not familiar with the story of Francis’s sermon to the birds before I saw the print. The sermon as it comes down to us was apparently written down by a member of his traveling band, one of those young men who fell under his spell of asceticism and renunciation. An Italian monk in the early 1300s first collected the sermon. Brother Ugolino’s work, his “notabilia,” collects incidents in the life of Francis that were overlooked by official records. The story is a charming one, though it’s a long legend for such a short sermon. Here it is in its entirety.
My little sisters, the birds, you ought to praise your creator very much and always love him. He gave you feathers to clothe you, wings so that you can fly, and whatever else you needed. God made you noble among his creatures, and he gave you a home in the purity of the air. Though you neither sow nor reap, he nevertheless protects and governs you without any solicitude on your part.
What I did know of Francis did not move me, particularly. His biography tells the story of the star-quarterback son of a rich father, who enjoys an ideal adolescence of wealth and popularity. He is the likeable West Point graduate, the good soldier who sees the light after being wounded in battle, renouncing his father’s wealth to begin life again as a wandering preacher and animal lover. It smacks of the privilege of guilt, which makes his adoption by twentieth-century ecologists a bit predictable.
After his wife’s death, Eichenberg seems to have turned increasingly to religious subjects. Though he tended to dismiss the aesthetic qualities of his Catholic Worker illustrations in interviews, his work with Day, which began in the early 1950s, succeeded in bringing together both his spiritual interests and his ongoing sensitivity to questions of social justice—questions undoubtedly fueled by political convictions which had, in all likelihood, saved his life two decades before when he immigrated to the United States with his small family against the advice of everyone he knew in Germany.
Before The Long Loneliness became the title of Dorothy Day’s autobiography, it was the title of another of Eichenberg’s wood engravings. This one is housed in the Guilford College Art Gallery in my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina. It was created in 1952, and a print of it hangs in Emily’s childhood bedroom in my in-laws’ house. Mary sits, soul-pierced, on the left side of the print, leaning back and holding her globe-like belly with both hands. Her face is drawn with pain and her eyes, like Francis’s, are closed. Clearly, she is experiencing the pangs of labor. From above and to her right, an angel bends over her, whispering in her ear, a gentle and apprehensive birth coach. Together, their bodies almost form a frame within a frame, but they seem to frame nothingness, the great emptiness of the scene. Every other section of the image is packed with symbolic depiction. On the angel’s other side, a road in the foreground winds its way inexorably toward three small crosses on a distant hill. In the upper right corner, the blank wood has been shaped by Eichenberg into a dove.
Eichenberg’s Mary looks older than the Mary of the Gospels. Perhaps he had been thinking of her namesake, his late spouse. After Eichenberg’s Mary died, it’s said he turned away from the Quakerism of his childhood and toward eastern religions, and while he admired Day enough to stay in the orbit of her pure brand of Catholicism for years, he never, apparently, seriously considered it as a primary source of solace. The woodcut aims at synthesis, a solemn evocation of private and public sacrifice, which makes me think again of the work of my own first wife, Emily, and her book on the near sacrifice of Isaac and its history of interpretation.
One morning, near the end of Emily’s first hospital stay, I promised her I would join the rest of our little family and convert to Catholicism. This spur-of-the-moment decision was absolutely consistent with my religious biography. I have suffered through baptismal ritual four times. Growing up, my family moved from Quaker to Presbyterian, Baptist to Moravian. Every time we joined a new congregation, I would soon experience a rush of conviction and stride down to the font to enact my rebirth as a child of whatever faith had flushed my face and accelerated my heartbeat. When I returned to the pew, my family kindly hid their smiles. My parents finally settled on the Episcopal Church, but I was in college then, and so remained unclaimed, vacillating between the tenets of my childhood and unbelief, steadied occasionally by guilt.
The priest who had married us had come to town to see Emily and had just performed a family mass in her hospital room when I blurted out my promise. Emily was gaining strength by the hour, it seemed, and her numbers seemed to improve with every panel of bloodwork. The antibiotics were clearly working, and she had even begun moving around a bit, sitting for an hour or so in the recliner I had been calling my bed for almost a week. I even got permission to bring our infant son, Langston, and daughter, Virginia, with me on occasion. We overheard some of the nurses refer to Emily’s going-home day, though the doctors had not yet fixed a date. That was over six and a half years ago, and though I did have Langston christened and the three of us often attend mass, I haven’t taken a single formal step toward becoming Catholic. I am not sure I can articulate why, but I am certain it has something to do with those terrors of my nights, which in my mind I have collapsed together with two experiences I had during the summer and fall of Emily’s illness. I must call them spiritual, I suppose, though when I reflect back on them, they fill me with self-doubt and despair rather than consolation. Part of the problem may be how common they seem, however singular they felt to me. Most of it, though, is that they proved meaningless, the void-voice of my vision flinging me only the nothing that is pain.
The first experience occurred early on, during the rush and rattle which succeeded Emily’s diagnosis. Before she was to begin treatment, we were told that she must have a medi-port inserted in her chest because her veins would not be able to withstand the chemotherapy. The operation sounded routine enough but ended up lasting twice as long as I had been assured it would. As I waited, watching the minutes tick by and absolutely not reading the book on my lap, I tried to fight the rising feeling that something was not right. Just as my hysteria was becoming physiological, my body suddenly relaxed. I almost went out of myself, it seemed. I felt I was becoming a part of my surroundings. The cool plastic of the chair’s arm became my own, the hard wall behind my head received me as easily as if it were uncooked dough. Immediately, I sensed Emily beside me. I smelled her, felt her warmth, and I lost track of time. When the surgeon finally emerged to give me his report, I felt sure he was there to tell me something had gone wrong, that Emily had died. Had this all been my mind protecting itself, reassuring the other part of me that refused to admit Emily might be dying? “Sometimes these things take longer than we think. She should be waking up soon,” the surgeon said. My relief overwhelmed me and I found myself actually hugging him.
Over the years, when I have reflected on this incident, part of me wants it to have happened the way I felt sure it was happening, so that I might console myself and my two children that their mother was still near, somewhere out there, that it was only our clumsy way of experiencing the world that prevented us from knowing her. She might be right beside us at any moment, just vibrating at a different pitch, singing a song in a voice too high for our poor ears to hear. It was not the last time I found I couldn’t trust myself, my apprehension of the reality that surrounded me, the wishes of my own mind.
Does Eichenberg’s Mary trust the angel whispering in her ear? The angel has cupped her hand around her mouth. Whatever she is saying, it is for Mary’s ears only. Our senses confuse us, and they are our only way of knowing the world. I tell my students this confusion is essential to an authentic experience of beauty. I caught my wife’s scent despite the smell of institutional disinfectant that saturated the room. I felt her warmth, though she was five air-conditioned rooms and a busy hallway away.
A month and a half later, I heard voices above the quiet hum of her hospital room. It was early afternoon. I had about an hour before I had to pick up Virginia from school. Emily was sleeping in her bed. She lay on one side, facing me, and as I sat beside her I heard singing, a music of sounds, consoling as a children’s choir, but unintelligible. At first I looked to the hallway, but our door was shut, as was our one window, which gave us for a view a thin slice of a parking lot. It was a Wednesday, an ordinary day, no surprises. The team of doctors and students had been by after lunch and, as usual, had been cautiously encouraging. The antibiotics were, as always, having their desired effect. It was hoped that perhaps Emily might be able to go home the first of the week. No one knew (how could they?) that in a couple of days Emily’s kidneys would begin to fail and she would lapse into a catatonic state. No one knew that this stay, our second since she began chemotherapy, would be our longest. It was an ordinary day. I had been reading a new biography of Shakespeare, one that claimed his works were written in a kind of code, that he had been a cautious activist attempting to console and cheer English Catholics under the reigns of Elizabeth and James. Emily and I were alone in the room, but now there was sound, there was alien singing. Something was suddenly there with me, rocking my soul. Let her hear this, too, I prayed. Let her hear only this, now and forever in this place. Spare her the brisk, cheery voices of the staff. Let her fall deaf to the hum and buzz of the machines, the caws of the monitors. Let her be deaf to groans and gossip, the shuffling of slippers on the polished floor, the rattle of IV stands, the flushes and the roll of beds.
When I perceive ambiguities, they tend to lead me only to ambivalence and doubt, my own version of negative capability. It’s hard for me to resist pursuing certainty, though I know I am wrong from the start. I simply must try to see the cause, the why, even if it brings me fresh pain. Emily delighted in ambiguities and was usually inspired by them to hit her books with renewed vigor. I envied her this and wondered often which of our muses was more fundamental to our human existence: hers of confusion or mine of guilt. Now, seeking solace more than clarity or wisdom, I still find myself rereading her book, hearing the echo of that voice that for most of my adult life was both spur and consolation.
Demanding Our Attention, a work “which grapples with the role of the Hebrew Bible in contemporary Christian ethics,” is focused on Genesis 22, the story of the binding of Isaac, also called the Akedah. Emily uses this story as a case study to show just how much more attention those “who identify themselves as working within ethical traditions of biblical religions” ought to pay to their sources. It is an obvious choice for such a study, for what are we to make of God’s inexplicable command to Abraham that he go to the land of Moriah and offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering on a mountain to be named later? After all, Isaac is not just Abraham’s son, but the only means by which God’s earlier promise of offspring, land, and blessing might be realized. Of course, this question has always been at the heart of interpretations of this story.
One of the challenges articulated by Emily in the first chapter of her book, which proves to be a catalyst for her argument, is the “problem of relating to an ancient and strange text as a twenty-first century person.” She asks how “a text produced in (and producing) a world so removed from our own [can] be a crucial source for how we are to act and to be now?” Precisely. Emily was by training an ethicist, but her interests were far ranging, and to answer this question she relied at crucial moments on contemporary cultural and literary critiques, as well as exegesis of biblical narrative, moving from analysis to generative theory. At the very end of the book, she claims that these difficult approaches “are our means of performing actions necessary to be in relationship with God and others; they are our donkey, our servant, our knife.” Everywhere in the book is Emily’s desire for and belief in synthesis, her impulse to draw and sustain connections despite deep divides of discipline and convention.
At the end of her reading of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Emily writes that “the labor of reading the Akedah is an ongoing (and repeated) act, best undertaken when we are ‘laden’ with the awfulness of taking the story seriously, as we try to walk up the mountain with Abraham and Isaac.” We are additionally burdened, she says, by the recognition that we will never be satisfied by our reading of this story. Indeed, our failures may “lead us deeper into self-doubt.” In the final chapter of her book, Emily argues that critical engagement “presupposes that there is something there, a text, a person…that is other than us, prior to and beyond what we make of it.” She notes in her own reading of Genesis 22 “that God appears to be the sole and possibly arbitrary force against the fulfillment of the promise,” which is part of what makes this narrative unique among the biblical narratives of promise and reward. She claims that the Akedah “suggests a deeper complication” in the relationship between God and Abraham than one simply based on promise, obedience, and reward.
Near the end of her book, Emily focuses on the unresolvable ambiguity of this sparse narrative, focusing finally on the ambiguities surrounding Isaac, “whose very existence is orchestrated by God outside the natural course of events.” She notes “the long tradition, evident in ancient midrash, of viewing the story as a trial for Isaac as much as for Abraham.” Isaac and Abraham. Trials of confusion and guilt, tales of doubt and dismay.
Of course, it is chapter 2 of Luke, not 22 of Genesis, which contains the story that stands most directly behind Eichenberg’s etching The Long Loneliness. In it, Mary and Joseph bring an infant Jesus to Jerusalem “to present him to the Lord and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons,’” where they meet Simeon, the righteous and devout. The Holy Spirit is upon him, and, so inspired, he tells new mother Mary that:
Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.
It sounds like hell. I am still grateful that many of my thoughts of that year have never been revealed. How often did my wishes curdle to curses? How often did my desires diminish to base need?
Right after this chapter and verse, the gospel writer introduces Anna, a prophetess, who was “of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four…. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Despite her age and litany of hardships, she kept her senses all her life. They did not fail her, as they failed me, as they continue to fail me, and as they must have failed Isaac. Emily notes that Isaac is depicted in Genesis 22 as an active agent. “He participates in the actions of Abraham, journeying with him and carrying the wood his father has laid on his back. He asks a question,” which “dramatically indicates his real presence as subject, not object.” We can only imagine Isaac’s response to his father’s answer to his question, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Did he roll his eyes? Did his shoulders slump in resignation? Did he laugh to stave off the sensation of his heart dropping to his stomach? What would constitute passing or failing this trial for Isaac? Is it enough to have undergone it? To simply live through it?
The birds of Eichenberg’s Sermon to the Birds are needy. They look like pets. They look as if they are expecting to be tossed a treat, but all Francis has to offer them is words. His face is upturned, as if he, too, expects to be fed. It seems that he is one of them, the harried mama-bird of some nursery rhyme, whose assumed calm is really wise madness, his loose sleeves pulled by gravity into thin wings. What words is he hearing? Why does he trust them so? Some of the explications of this story claim that the birds, when they left Francis, spread his sermon throughout the world, each in its own language. What if a bird dropped out of the sky tomorrow to speak to us? Who among us would trust her senses?
In the autobiographical turn of the concluding pages of Emily’s final chapter, she confesses that her long engagement with Genesis 22 has already changed the conviction, assumptions, and actions of her moral self. In the end, her conviction that the “nature of this interpretive ‘moment’…and the experience of reading itself demand scrutiny” fuels and informs the entire book. For my part, I find I cannot help reading, and reading into, these Eichenberg prints just about every time I stop to look at them. In fact, it is clear my mind has begun to collapse the two narratives behind the etchings into one. Lately, I see Saint Francis of Assisi as another Mary, not the adult Jesus with whom tradition has tried to link him. He’s one of the birds, listening to another angel, invisible because of the brightness of divine light, singing in his ear. His senses have failed him; his eyes are closed. But he’s concentrating. He is trying, impossibly, to comprehend every word.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.