Friday, March 02, 2007


Am I belaboring this past all bearing?
[Speak now or forever hold your peace.]

I caught up with the Far-Flung Voice while chugging my morning coffee and checking e-mail this morning... and what does that Catholic boy have to say but that he's still thinking about the question of freedom, the cost of freedom. I had said that the cost of freedom is the loss of the comfort of the "fleshpots of Egypt," the price of a meatless life in an endless waste of sand...

He said he could not see that what I saw as too terrible a price for freedom would be so terrible for him -- there was already too little left of his marriage. But that's my price; for him the price will be different. and I wondered if the price of freedom in his case is not the loss of family support, of family recognition, of "belonging." Those are the things he fears were he to come the rest of the way out. He has already come out more or less by accident to his neighbors, and lived "out" with friends where he works and lives now.

Solzhenitzyn says in one of his books that once you were in the hands of the police, you had to completely abandon your concern for others, because you could no longer help them. Beyond trying not to incriminate others, all you could do was tell some kind of truth (they had forever to catch you in lies, after all, all the time in the world) but beyond that, your concern had to be yourself, the all-important fact that you had to just survive as a soul. That is probably true of any "system," including marriage, a system it should be abundantly clear I am all in favor of. But I think the real import of Solzhenitzyn's comment is that any system will attempt to use the hostages it holds to control your behavior, will use your concern for others to control you. I would call any such system the shadow side of the comforts of "Egypt."

My own "Egypt" is clear enough, and the price of leaving its comfort clear enough; what is not clear is whether or not I can actually survive the knowledge of the price I have paid -- freedom clearly is an "ultimate value" or I would never have dreamed of paying this price for it.

But what has been occupying my [circular? obsessive?] thinking since my last posts has been the question of where the mountaintop, the tablets, and the Golden Calf fit in. It must be clear by now that I am sure they all do. The stories that form us become the stories we tell and seek to find our own place in. This is not idle play on my part: for a thousand years at least, the celebration of Passover has included the explicit message that God did not lead your ancestors out of Egypt, but rather that he does, he will lead you out of Egypt. While God may have acted once in history, the promise is that he will act now to save those who celebrate his Passover just as he did before. So I think I am within my rights to seek the way this story applies to "the mess I've made."

First, let me say a word or two about Egypt. My junior guru was something of an Egyptologist, and spent much of his life returning to the meaning of Egypt based on its own evidence; that meaning informed his understanding of Greece and Israel, which was profound. Most of the calendars of the ancient world contain the notion of the year as a circle, and project that unity and wholeness down to the little circle of the day, and outward to the wider circles of recurring planetary and star phenomena [the Indian and Chinese stargazers worked out recurring cycles of thousands of years, and prided themselves on their ability to comprehend the grandeur of the revolutions above. The Babylonians were so set on the year being reflected in everything else perfect that when they figured out that the year in fact had 365¼ days, they tried to recalculate the circle based on a system of 365¼ degrees. Aren't you happy they gave up?]

The Egyptians were perhaps the first to do this; they certainly very quickly found out that the 360-day calendar they started with did not end cleanly; so they added 5 days outside their neat little system of months to make up the difference. By the time they figured out that they needed to add a quarter of a day to each year, they had already declared the calendar itself to be sacred and immune to change -- down to the Ptolemys, the Greek "pharaohs" of Egypt who ruled after Alexander's conquest, each new pharaoh had to swear to uphold the sacred calendar -- so they adopted a giant "year" of 1460 years, at the end of which the entire system would lock in again and begin at the proper point, measured by the "rising" of the stars at dawn. They went so far as to predict that everything would begin all over again from the beginning when the "big year" came around to completion. That is where Moses comes in.

Because in place of this vast, eternally recurring pattern of stars and events, he establishes the humblest calendar on earth: all of seven short repeating days, the last of which is taken to celebrate the completion of all creation and to anticipate the end of time. The Jewish calendar proclaims, in the face of universal expectation of an endlessly repeating cycle, that God intervenes in history in the grace of the unique event that happens at precisely the "right time," when time is "ripe."

This has everything to do with freedom. Because the proclamation of the unknown future being the gift of God means that you can never anticipate what God will do in any given moment -- I am sure that I have posted somewhere before that the Buber/Rosenzweig translation of the Old Testament translates the four letters of the name of God not as "I am what I am " but as "I will be who I will be. " God's call is always a call into an unknown and therefore uncertain future.

So the fear and uncertainty of the children of Israel makes perfect sense to me. But only in talking to the Voice did it became clear to me what I was doing in castigating myself for leaving my marriage, for the pain and suffering I had inflicted on others. I knew I had made "Egypt" of my marriage, but I could suddenly see that the idol I was erecting was an idealized image of my love for my wife, of her love for me, which now appeared more perfect and more precious than anything I may expect in time to come. As it often does, especially given the world I have been living in since leaving, and as it may yet prove. But I could suddenly see that the idol really is created out of everything valuable thing you own, melted down and formed into an image that represents the security, the comfort, the seductive power of your lost home, the time before you followed a mad dream out into a world that seems to offer only endless wastelands and want.

Moses goes up Sinai, comes down again with the tablets, and finds Israel has turned its back on his promise of an open future to return in their hearts to Egypt by fashioning the Golden Calf. In his rage, Moses dashes the tablets to the ground (and the glory of the Jews is in the fact that his fury and despair are included in the tale -- who else goes to such lengths to portray their heroes "warts and all"?). So here I am, gazing in infinite longing at something that for all its true and lasting value is decidedly a thing of the past; in my heart of hearts, I am with Moses: I know there is no future, no hope for me there.

The hook, of course, is that I can as yet see nothing else that does have a future and does offer a hope: I am of too "little faith" to really believe in the promise of a land of milk and honey. And the promised land is hedged about with dangers, or rather I am unable to believe in the promise of the land because my heart is set on the comfort of the past, making a paradise of an idealized Egypt, raising up another paradise lost. Part of the wisdom of the Old Testament is the projection backward to the dawn of time of the experience that events make history and there is no going back, neither to Egypt nor to any other "paradise." Every paradise is guarded by an angel with a flaming sword.

Now to the Voice's dilemma. For him, his freedom may mean the loss of his parents' love, when they may be old enough that there is not enough time for the wound to heal before the "end of time," as well as the loss of his own generation's love, with the endless years of estrangement that could follow. Both threats are powerful deterrents. But I believe he knows that he stands at the crossroads I know so well: not knowing whether an unknown, unseen future is worth the loss of what has made up your world, has made your world of value? That is where faith comes in, because you can never know, any more than you can tell that any other act of conscience will bring anything but suffering...

You have to act without knowing...

And thereby hangs the tale.

1 comment:

  1. I have read this post and read it again and then again for good measure.

    That leap of faith seems a very big stretch somehow, yet no doubt one that must be taken.

    Indeed I think everyones price to pay will likely differ. Sometimes I wonder if the price is too high?

    In brief moments I wonder if the price is high enough? I still struggle to define freedom let alone peg a value to it.