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Essay

I.

The TAXI DRIVER stopped and gestured to the empty desert. “There.”

I saw nothing. “Where?”

“There.” Now I saw, or thought I saw, some irregularity in the distance, about a mile away—the reflection of standing water, or maybe the attenuated shadow of a dip in the ground. After I paid the man, he sped off in a funnel of dust.

No one standing a half-mile away would suspect the existence of this place, which was not so much a valley as a fissure in the earth, a mile long and a quarter-mile wide at the middle, tapering to a point at either end. Stone steps led down to a meadow rife with wildflowers, where a boy lounged in the grass and kept watch over a few sheep. Beneath cliffs brimming with blue sky, a path led beside a tree-lined stream. High on the cliff wall was the hermits’ cave, abandoned a thousand years ago by Christian monks from Georgia, known then as Scythia.

The interior of the cave was rounded and smooth, chiseled from soft stone. I found graffiti in Turkish, ashes and blackened stones from recent fires, some scattered trash. Also, frescoes of religious figures on the walls. The rich garments and outlandish eyes had faded into the rock with the passage of four thousand seasons.

I don’t know why the monks created these images. Perhaps they are depictions of holy men, exemplars of fortitude and self-denial from the age of the desert fathers and mothers, ascetics whose names were legendary to these monks but are forgotten by Christians and scholars today. Perhaps the images lent solace to the inmates during their interminable fasts and prayers.

Why did the monks come to this place, and was their little community sanctioned by the bishop at Ephesus? Perhaps they were a millennial sect awaiting Messiah’s return, or a zealous band inspired by the austerities of the Baptist whose voice, crying in the wilderness, led so many thousands into desert caves in those years. Perhaps they were dissidents, disgusted at the growing spiritual complacency of the Roman church, or fugitives from a decadent Byzantium whose days were numbered by Islam. Maybe they were women. Certainly, they did not want to be found. At least, not by people.

It seems such a sorrowful thing, to give up family, children, social regard, all that is valued by human beings. What did they accomplish? If the words of Jesus and Isaiah exhort believers to alleviate suffering, to fight for justice, then these monks forfeited their duties. They strike me as both courageous and pitiless.

They would have spent their days in prayer, begging mercy for themselves and for all people. They would have prayed for the fortitude to overmaster pride, knowing that all the ugliness in the world was rooted there. If you believe prayer is worthless, then they have contributed nothing to the world. I’ve forgotten the name of that valley where I found the hermits’ cave, somewhere in central or eastern Turkey. I’ve looked through my notes and through travel guides in book shops, but I haven’t been able to find it.

 

II.

 

In 2004, I was pulled over on a highway in Missouri, just west of Saint Louis, and arrested for possession of two pounds of marijuana. At the station I was placed in a cell with a man who was wired on methamphetamine. He stalked back and forth, in an agony of withdrawal, as though he were trying to claw out of his own body. Shirtless, hyperventilating, he pumped his fists and sputtered like a man drowning.

Sometimes, he recalled my presence in the corner of the cell, and I began to feel like an ugly and persistent reminder of something he wanted to forget, or something he wanted to break. At these times I talked to him, as calmly as I could, about the uselessness of hurting me. I told him I was not his enemy, but he would not be placated, and I don’t know if he understood a thing I said.

Over the next two hours, I found myself giving a reasoned argument for my own continued existence, which is a damned harrowing thing to have to do. I don’t recall the exact arguments I used. Probably they were not very compelling in themselves.

Later, when I came to wonder at how unprepared I had been to justify myself, my case remained unpersuasive, even when I could assemble my arguments at leisure and in safety. I came to think of those hours trapped with that tweeker as a sort of live audition for that final interview when we are haled before the throne to render an account of our days.

§

Two plainclothes officers led me to a small windowless room with a bare light strung from the ceiling and informed me that they knew all about me. At the time I was pulled over, they told me, I was shadowing a large shipment of narcotics hidden in a white panel truck. If that truck happened to be pulled over, it was my job to turn off at the next exit, circle back, and run over the patrolman, thereby enabling the truck to get away. The story was so elaborate and absurd that I had to reassure myself it wasn’t true. Several times I asked them to confirm the accusation that I had entered the state intending to kill police officers, and they answered yes. My denial only legitimized the claim.

Over the following days, I was repeatedly brought from the cell to the room, where the same questions were put to me, though cleverly reformulated to catch me in a lie. Unless I supplied the names of those in the truck, the officers said, I faced up to fifteen years in prison for interstate trafficking. But I stuck to my story: I bought the weed for three hundred dollars from a guy in a bar in Albuquerque, and I did not recall the name of the man or the bar. This story had the twin virtues of being easily recalled and mostly true. I never had the smarts or the nerve to be a criminal or a dealer, but sometimes being honest is worse than useless.

A county parole officer named Mike came to visit. He asked me about my military service, which had shown up in my records, and he told me he had served in the army, too, and had also deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1990. I thought I’d found a friend to whom I could appeal on the basis of shared service. I wrote him a letter, asking for his intervention with the prosecutor or with anyone in the system. But he never responded, and I felt the shame and bitterness of having tried to parlay my military experience into some sort of leniency. No one, in fact, owed me anything for those years in the army, and I’d been a fool to expect otherwise, and all I had managed to do was cheapen one of the few things in my life I could call my own. So I got angry.

I pled guilty, the only choice left to me after a series of bad decisions, and was sentenced to twenty-five days in jail and five years’ probation and given fines that equaled my life savings. Since I had no family or work in Missouri, my probation was transferred to my hometown of Cincinnati. Back in Ohio, I worked part-time, got a library card, stopped talking to people, and stayed angry.

I daydreamed of going to Mexico and never returning. In preparation, I checked out Spanish grammars from the library and listened to radio novellas from Panama on the shortwave. But even the sight of a city police cruiser made me nauseous, and I never summoned the courage to get away. Instead, I bought a bird guide and wandered the city parks. I bused downtown and picked through the stones beneath the interstate bridges, looking for fossils, answering some strange impulse to categorize and index things.

Days passed during which I didn’t exchange a word with anyone, except for the routine courtesies at checkout. I observed things and people more narrowly, and felt a growing awareness of the pain that pervaded the city like another element. How a woman on the bus caught the eye of a child who was not her own, merely to convey a smile, and how the smile lingered over the oblivious child until something displaced that gladness and she looked away. How a young man leaned at the bus window, indifferent to what he saw outside, riveted to some inner pain, his face darkened with an anguish that troubled me for days.

Everything struck me as vandalized and wicked. An effort had been made, it seemed, to cover up the true nature of things, but this deception only compounded the ugliness. People wore fixed expressions of fear, mistrust, despair. I hated all of it and wished for it all to be razed to the ground. The city was rotten, society was rotten, and efforts to hide this fact were nothing but a malign pretense. So I decided to begin a program of study that would lead me to the source of the dishonesty and ugliness that pervaded the world. There must have been, I thought, a time and a place when things began to go terribly wrong. I knew then as I know now that I was not in my right mind.

§

By proceeding methodically through the history of western thought, through philosophy to theology, I would discover the roots of our spiritual fragmentation, the point at which the purposiveness of life had been undermined.

I began with the Greeks. I found quiet corners in the upper floors of the library. When I got tired of reading, I wandered the stacks of periodicals, the reams of patiently compiled information in Oil and Gas Journal or Minority Business Entrepreneur or US Catholic Historian, shelves piled nearly to the ceiling, millions of hours of laborious notation and compilation, research, typewriting. I recall, in particular, paging through an issue of Sky and Telescope from January, 1985, and feeling nearly overcome by an immense futility. I read a few lines and put it back.

I was riding the bus one evening—uptown, downtown, crosstown, I forget—and reading and thinking about the attributes of God, his self-sufficiency at violent odds with our insufficiency. This problem dogged me. How can perfection love, and how can one love perfection? For the self-sufficient, mercy and compassion are unnecessary. Human reason was calibrated to love justice, not tyranny. Participation, not submission, was our proper mode. What more predictable and contemptible act is there than to fall on your knees in the blinding light of the all-knowing and all-seeing, to kiss the hand of an indulgent master? No wonder the Israelites were so unfaithful.

“Where you going, sir?” the driver asked.

The bus idled at the curb. The seats were empty. It was dark outside. I’d missed my stop. I answered the face in the mirror above the windshield. “Is this the end of the road?”

“No, it’s the end of the route,” the driver said.

“I’m sorry.”

“You sorry for what, child?”

§

There was a man. His name was Daniel. He wore a ring bearing a silver lion’s head, and he showed it to me. “Daniel from the lions’ den,” he said. He lived in the city park and panhandled along the streets of Corryville and Fairview Heights in Cincinnati. He wore a thick red beard and a wild tangle of red hair and in fact resembled a lion. Sometimes I bought him vodka or a sandwich or gave him some money. At those times, he would weep into his hands and bless me and embrace me. He wore unwashed clothes, and the skin of his bare feet was split at heel and toe and covered with sores. His hands and face were filthy from rummaging in cans, living in the woods, sleeping in doorways. During the two years that I knew Daniel, while I was killing time on probation, his mental and physical condition fluctuated, but he generally deteriorated.

He had difficult winters on the streets. I came across him once in the city park, deep in the gray woods, sitting on a disused bench, sobbing. I sat beside him and he told me that some kids had destroyed his shelter and smashed his few belongings and burnt them. It was cold. The police, he said, had knocked apart a rebuilt shelter. “My brother Jesus says I got to forgive them seventy times seven times,” he said. “And I done that. I asked my brother Jesus, ‘Why do you let this happen? If you’re with me, why do you let this happen to me?’ But I forgave them. And still, there they are,” he said, sweeping the bare trees with his finger. “Lurking. What am I gonna do, man? What am I gonna do?” I went home and returned with a blanket and a coat, some pots and food, but he was gone. I left the things there and walked a long time.

Late winter, in February, when the sun might not shine in the Ohio Valley for weeks, I found him sitting in the gutter along a busy street. He was panhandling, and I sat beside him and talked with him. A young man emerged from a deli and Daniel asked him for change. The man regarded the coins in his palm and tossed them. The coins bounced off Daniel’s coat and he spoke a blessing as he crawled on the pavement to pick the coins from the slush with swollen fingers.

§

I found the Jesuit Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy in nine volumes, used, at the Ohio Book Store on Main Street, and I bought the set for forty dollars. One day I was at the city park, sitting on a bench beside the duck pond. Old men sat at intervals around the water and kept a desultory watch on their slack fishing lines. In volume 2, part I, chapter 2, “The Patristic Period,” I read that “though man by nature has as his proper object of knowledge sensible things, these things are not fully real, they are mirage and illusion except as symbols or manifestations of immaterial reality, that reality towards which man is spiritually drawn.” The soul, therefore, “drawn by God, leaves its natural object of knowledge, without, however, being able to see the God to which it is drawn by love: it enters into the darkness, what the medieval treatise calls the Cloud of Unknowing.” I read the passage twice, three times, put the book in my bag, went to the library downtown, and found a copy of the treatise, a 1961 Penguin edition translated from the Middle English by Clifton Wolters.

The Cloud of Unknowing was composed by an anonymous English priest in the fourteenth century. The style is earnest but unhurried, marked by moments of gentle emphasis. An earthy and optimistic tone pervades the pages, with an old scholar’s mildly ironic encouragement of an eager but untested young man. A genial impatience with propriety combines with a kindly affection for youth to soften the gravity of the theme. In this work, the priest says, there will be moments of deep loneliness and discouragement, but the novice is assured that, in times of despair, God in his mercy will descend “and take you up, and fondly dry your spiritual eyes—just as a father would act toward his child, who had been about to die in the jaws of wild boar, or mad, devouring bears!”

The book reveals no awareness of the wars and plagues that raged in those years, for these things, the author knew, would endure as long as humanity endures. Didn’t Jesus assure his disciples that there would be wars and rumors of wars? Even so. While the shadow of chaos looms over the horizon like an approaching weather front, the priest and the novice concern themselves only with the matter at hand, which is the question of how the young man might pass through the cloud of ignorance that separates him from God.

§

“In itself,” the priest writes, “humility is nothing else than a true knowledge and awareness of oneself as one truly is…. Therefore strain every nerve in every possible way to know and experience yourself as you really are.” And when this is accomplished, a cloud of forgetting will gather between the world and the self that is consumed by sorrow, a desolation beloved by God.

See to it that there is nothing at work in your mind but only God. Try to suppress all knowledge and feeling of anything less than God, and trample it down deep under the cloud of forgetting. You must understand that in this business you are to forget not only all other things than yourself…but to forget also yourself, even the things you have done for the sake of God.

The kingdom, then, is the inheritance of those who disinherit themselves, as Francis did when he stripped in front of the mob at Assisi and handed his costly garments to his father. For the novice, this self-denial is compounded with the sorrow of departure, for in his new awareness of his nothingness, he has severed himself from all he knows. Now, a deep forgetting has opened between himself and the world. Despair is now his sole companion, and he searches in vain for guidance and relief. He calls to God, but God is silent. This is what it means to be buried alive.

§

This is that tyme of the whiche it is wretyn: Alle tyme that is goven to thee, it schal be askid of thee how thou haste dispendid it.

Daniel began to run down during those days. I often found him unconscious, packed into a doorway of an abandoned storefront, a heap of damp clothes in bare feet. Then I would return home and think of the many times he had embraced me for some small kindness that cost me nothing. I thought, I could invite this man into my home and feed him and give him a warm, dry place to sleep. But always I fretted over what the neighbors might say, and what if the landlord found out? The law that governs such things, otherwise known as fear, overrode my conscience. So I never did.

The last time I saw him was a warm spring day. I was walking in the woods in the city park and found him seated on the ground, arranging French fries in a circle. He told me he was setting out the fries to entice his friends the squirrels to visit him. The branches were just then beginning to leaf. He arranged his fries, twelve of them, with trembling precision. “Twelve moons, twelve gods, twelve apostles….” He slumped forward and wept into his hands. “Oh God,” he said, “how am I gonna feed my children like this?” I never saw Daniel again.

I found a poor and sick man. I left him in the cold and he disappeared and probably died. I failed at the only thing a Christian is asked to do, to love and to serve another. I failed at the only thing that gives meaning to life. And I was very discouraged, because it seems impossible not to fail.

 

III.

 

The novice does not speak directly in the pages of the Cloud, but his difficulties can at times be surmised. He must have protested the priest’s enjoinder to stamp out “all remembrance of God’s creation” because the priest insists on looking for the truth that lies beyond language. Language is just so much signposting devised to aid the traveler. It does not reveal truth. That is the heart’s business. As with any map, improper use will only complicate the journey.

But what I will say is this: See that in no sense that you withdraw into yourself. And, briefly, I do not want you to be outside or above, behind or beside yourself either!

“Well,” you will say, “where am I to be? Nowhere, according to you!”

And you will be quite right! “Nowhere” is where I want you! Why, when you are “nowhere” physically, you are “everywhere” spiritually.

§

I read carefully but did not understand how the world might be benefited by a willing withdrawal from every worthwhile thing. It seemed cowardly, counterproductive. The priest counsels inwardness and indifference to worldly values because, as I understand it, it is by these means that we become most loving and generous toward—and most forgiving of—our fellow creatures. This turning inward is really a turning outward.

For the perfect contemplative holds no man as such in special regard, be he kinsman, stranger, friend, or foe. For all men alike are his brothers, and none strangers. He considers all men his friends, and none his foes. To such an extent that even those who hurt and injure him he reckons to be real and special friends, and he is moved to wish for them as much good as he would wish for his very dearest friend.

But still I couldn’t see how it was possible to live my life by these words, and they remained a sort of thought exercise. Godly sorrow and clouds of forgetting were abstractions that did not live to my mind as true ideas live. In order to fully realize these conceptions, a radical re-imagining was necessary, but I was not able to do it.

Moreover, the whole of mankind is wonderfully helped by what you are doing, in ways you do not understand.

I returned the book to the library. Something did break through my dullness, though it wasn’t what the priest intended. I came to suspect that the soul is an affliction, like homesickness, that a person is never fully at ease, not anywhere, for as long as they live. Maybe the soul could be defined, then, as the principle of disquiet, a fever as cureless as malaria, a restless search for, in Emily Dickinson’s words, our “Delinquent Palaces.”

§

Alle men levyng in erthe ben wonderfuli holpen of this werk, thou wost not how.

After a few years, I checked out the book again, this time in the original Middle English, and kept Wolters’s translation nearby for reference. I began to consider whether the ideas contained in the book were facets of a single, overriding vision: that sorrow, despair, self-forgetting, blind love, all of these stood for a kind of longing, longing for second chances, for some quiet space to breathe. This longing is painful because it pulls  in two directions at once. Existence for many is essentially bipolar, because the desire to belong is often paired with an even more intense desire to get away. And this longing takes the shape of an individual’s response to suffering, or to the brief moment of color that catches the eye only in its fading, the moment that leaves us stranded inside ourselves. How existence is like a voice that carries over water, that moves with lambent brevity through the day and will not be still.

§

A probation officer made unscheduled visits to my apartment. Officer Wick was a decent man doing a difficult job, and he showed me the kindness of treating me like a human being. With each visit, Officer Wick appeared more tired. The last time I saw him, I made a pot of coffee and we sat together at the table in my efficiency. He told me about the most recent case assigned to him, a fifteen-year-old who had murdered a man over money, a case that was much in the news at the time. The wreckage of the kid’s life, and the collateral pain involved, grieved him, and the sorrow was written on his face. He looked weary.

I told him that I was hoping to get away from Cincinnati. He understood. “I got bigger things to worry about than you, no offence,” he said, and told me to stay out of trouble, to go do what I had to do. “Just don’t let your name come across my desk.” He thanked me for the coffee and we shook hands and he left. And so my probation effectively, if not officially, came to an end.

 

IV.

 

Lat that thing do with thee and lede thee wherso it list. Lat it be the worcher, and thou bot the suffrer; do bot loke apon it, and lat it alone. Medel thee not therwith as thou woldest help it, for drede lest thou spille al. Be thou bot the tre, and lat it be the wright; be thou bot the hous, and lat it be the hosbonde wonyng therin. Be blynde in this tyme, and schere awey covetyse of knowyng, for it wil more let thee than help thee.

[Let that thing do with thee and lead thee where so it list. Let it be the worker, and you but the sufferer: do but look upon it, and let it alone. Meddle thee not therewith as thou wouldst help it, for dread lest thou spill all. Be thou but the tree, and let it be the wright: be thou but the house, and let it be the husbandman dwelling therein. Be blind in this time, and shear away covetise of knowing, for it will more let thee than help thee.]

In the summer of 2008, I pedaled north from the White Sands desert, through Albuquerque and the Jemez River valley, through rainy and snowy Colorado, and crossed into Utah. Coasting the long downhill towards Moab, I saw a sign for cheap lodging.

The hostel was situated behind the roadside warehouses in a mazy tract of cedar-shaded gravel lanes lined with small trailers that hadn’t moved in years. The trailer residents—underemployed rafting guides and transients and others on various sorts of assistance—paid a small rent to the hostel owners. I settled for a dorm bed for ten dollars per night.

During the following days I sat at the picnic table and read, or napped in the shade of an old tree. I didn’t think to move on. Such a thought didn’t seem to occur very often in that place. Few of the residents were bound to any schedule. Mornings, some went off to low-wage jobs in Moab. Others stayed behind to drink and get high. It seemed to be a simple matter to wander into a place like this and never leave. You intend to stay a few days, and a few years later you’re still there, drinking. I suppose there are worse decisions.

§

A woman ventured out of her trailer every day at midday. Gravely hungover, leaning on an aluminum walker, she made her way down the path between her place and the common kitchen. One morning she paused to mash an anthill with the rubber tip of the walker’s leg, cursing the victims’ pertinacity in building their miserable town in her way. Her walker was festooned with colorful scarves and feathers and stickers insulting to authority.

Her name was Lilith Pendragon, and so it appeared on her medicine bottles. One night in her trailer we drank whiskey and smoked cigarettes. She apologized for not sleeping with me, and when I protested that I had no such motive, told me to go fuck myself. She tried to pee into a plastic bottle but peed all over the carpet. She said she once dated Geezer Butler, bassist for Black Sabbath. She said she wanted to live. She said she wanted to die. I don’t doubt but by now the issue has been resolved one way or the other. I hope she has found some peace.

§

For at the first tyme when thou dost it, thou fyndest bot a derknes, and as it were a cloude of unknowyng, thou wost never what, savyng that thou felist in thi wille a nakid entent unto God.

One night a few residents sat drinking at the picnic table, talking about the Colorado River. I mentioned that I had never rafted white water before, let alone the Colorado. One guy told me he might arrange something, but I didn’t think much about it. Late in the night, after most of the others had wandered off to their trailers and I was finishing my last beer, a young man stood up from the picnic table and began to pace, and to talk. He had sat apart during the general conversation and had not spoken a word. I’d met him here and there over the preceding week, but had never seen him talk to anyone. This is what he said:

A soul goes lost on the long journey to God. Having perceived, in the imagination of her heart, that the sensible world—the world we know by touch and sight—is not reality but a warped facsimile of reality, she disappears into intellectual darkness. In this suspended state of desolation she finds nothing to replace the old, false, comforting certainties. Now there is only nothing. She is trapped somewhere between the world, from which she is banished, and God, who remains hidden in darkness. This indeterminate middle ground that she is forced to wander, is the dark night, which some call despair. It is for her sake that Jesus called himself the man of sorrows, and sought other men and women of sorrow for his kingdom. Blessed are the poor in spirit, he told the crowd, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, but few understood it then, and fewer understand it now.

I’d brought a paperback edition of the Cloud of Unknowing on the bike trip, Evelyn Underhill’s translation this time. Perhaps he had seen it lying on the picnic table. I cannot otherwise account for the fact that he was speaking to me about John of the Cross, the soul’s journey, and the man of sorrows. He paced back and forth as he talked, composing his words with his feet and hands.

During the night of despair, he continued, you must keep the divine vision always before you, in the eyes of the heart. Discipline and long-suffering patience are indispensable, because this night might last years. For many, the night never does end, and these poor souls will wander like Cain till the end of their days, alone, trapped between heaven and earth.

When he finished speaking, he finished his beer, said good night, and went to bed. An old man, the only other person beside myself who had remained listening, said to me, with mild astonishment, “That’s the first time I seen that kid open his mouth.”

In the morning a truck pulled up, towing a raft on a trailer. Some of the residents had gotten hold of a boat and invited me to come along. “You said you wanted to, didn’t you?” the woman said from the passenger seat of the idling truck. “You can’t leave this place without rafting the river.” We rode the river, and as we bucked through a stretch of white water, I saw the guide like a fearless figurehead, one flip-flopped foot planted on the prow, a whiskey bottle and a paddle in either hand, shouting at the rainy clouds.

§

A few days later, I loaded up the bike and left Moab, crossed Glen Canyon, and pedaled the lonely road that winds through the juniper groves of Cedar Mesa, until I arrived at the end of the world, which was not marked on my highway map.

At the southern edge of the mesa, the highway ends and the land drops a clean thousand feet, as though the earth has shifted by a single degree along its central plane, a catastrophic fraction out of true. The plain below rolled away to distant haze, studded with buttes and spires like a cosmic circuit-board. The way down is a graded switchback called the Moki Dugway, a series of hairpin turns gouged from the cliff face. I paused for several minutes at the top, willing myself calm, short of breath, looking down. My fingers shook as I worried the cables and straps. I rode my brakes to the desert floor, passed Mexican Hat at a dead run, crossed the olive San Juan River that flowed quick and deep out of the mountains.

At a shoulderless and busy stretch of highway, I thumbed a ride with a young Navajo couple and sat in the truck bed with my back to the cab and a view of pavement unraveling in dust. The man wore a fedora with a black-and-white turkey feather in the band. The woman handed me a bottle of water and a piece of hard candy through the sliding rear window. My eyes watered in the windblown grit and straw as we sped south toward Kayenta. She tuned the radio now and then, and once or twice they laughed at a shared joke, and I’d have gladly ridden along to Tucson, or Oaxaca, or Uruguay if they were going that far.


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