Friday, April 22, 2011


Anyone who writes (or is driven to write) has some single big thing around which his or her writing is always turning, always navigating. It's an unavoidable bump in the road which the individual's work comes up against, goes over, or simply crashes into, perhaps sometimes breaking down completely.

In good writers, the best writers, this bump is hugely productive. There is enormous skill and discipline exercised in returning to the bump again and again and making the writing do the most amazing things, sailing over the bump, screeching round it, even dislodging the bump entirely and carrying it off like a trophy impaled on the front of the hood. I think of themes of "affliction" and "the void" in Simone Weil, the continual dissolution or disillusion of the ideal in Orwell, the vast undertow of sensuality held in check by Augustine's relentless tide of thought.

I am not putting myself in any way in this company, just simply recognizing the community of the bump: And I have to say, in my case, it something to do with space. More precisely, the lack of it. My bump is really a big hole in the road.

Probably many people lack space. Perhaps even most people on the planet are prisoners of worlds not their own, where they don't actually belong. But it was my poor fortune to be exiled from space in a very particular way, one in which the sucking away of space reached into the depths of my personal being. I was chosen to be a Roman Catholic priest from an extremely tender age by a combination of genuine spiritual instinct and an upbringing that saw the surrounding culture as, in so many words, evil, with the Roman Catholic church as the only viable social alternative. Add the default Platonism of RC discourse back in the fifties and what resulted was the vacuuming away of a huge amount of the earth and its actual territory.

Because of this I used to love travel to foreign countries. As all the signs and symbols were strange I didn't have to assume automatically this was bad space, and it was possible briefly to relax. Now at a point in time when I am about to become a U.S. citizen I rejoice in a perception of the basic neutrality of U.S. landmass for me. It's not native soil, but neither is it alien like my actual land of birth was.

But then what is truly good space? What would it be to experience space as life? It is the possibility of breathing freely. It is moments and occasions when your being and person flow seamlessly into the surrounding environment and you are at one with your world. It is connectedness to everything because the signs and signals of grace have filled the world with peace, joy, love.

Here is Simone Weil, and I have to say I feel a certain affinity with this particular writer's bump!

"All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception. Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void. The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass."

She is talking about empty space and how it can be experienced as grace. I am talking about something somewhat different, the denial of space completely. But then they are related, because if at a certain point the lack of space can be accepted voluntarily as an emptiness, a letting go, a desert waiting to be filled, then in line with what she is saying--but widening the frame to the full scriptural dimensions-- it can make real world transformation begin.

The tension of Christian existence is never toward annihilation--it does not produce Nirvana, the blowing out of the real. Rather it is toward an astonishing reconstitution of the real, the recreation or refreshing of our world by love, with and in all its variety and splendor. To believe in Christ in a world of violence is never simply a vague wishing away of the human space. There is always the concrete witness of the Spirit as love which is a strange physical ability or power to accept the disassembly of the present real and connect it at once to the assembly of the final real. And in fact the only way to reach the final real is to undergo this disassembly which is the overturning and undoing of all our human violence.

In the present Holy Week and Easter time what better description could there be of the cross and resurrection? Crucifixion is the ultimate denial of space: unable to move, to go anywhere, to hide yourself from shame, your own body your intolerable fixed point. But then in the unfathomable depths of the Christ exactly this non-space became an endless space of grace, the inexhaustible sign of love for the real. How could this infinite space of love not be raised up in deathless life? How could it not become the new creation witnessed by Mary of Magdala on one ordinary first day of the week back in first century Palestine?

As for all those holes in the road? Really, perhaps just openings to an empty tomb...

Tony Bartlett

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