Saturday, November 17, 2018

Earning the Funny Hat

Col de Mollendruz, June 2013
Four years' apprentice work to advance human knowledge; what kind of life is it? We could see how it is from way off: thankless, isolating drudgery — no wonder so many have been repelled by what they see, and never consider going down such a path! But those who do go down such a path do so despite this same clear view. Some do it because of a vague sense of destiny, and I just so happen to be one of these loonies.

Four years ago, I joined the PhD programme in a mixed state of boredom interfused with a feeling that I could do anything, marching in with a prayer on my lips — not so much a prayer, but more like a haughty demand to the almighty: I demand the right to be stupid! If what scientists do is exploring the unknown, then what greater raison d'être do we have other than our ignorance? Confront us with what we do not know, and let us charge right through it! And my Rabbouni answered my prayers (or acceded to my tantrums) all through four years. This is his still ongoing story.

Ignorance is in abundance, and there is no question about it. One of the first thing that would strike one freshly entering a community of scientists is how ill-equipped everyone is for tackling the frontiers of human knowledge. At least, it seemed to be the case coming from the undergraduate days, where questions have answers and those same answers could be unearthed in a week by a brilliant enough person. Every answer to a research question, by its very necessity, a stab in the darkness, an oppressive darkness where one could no longer reliably tell between right from wrong, rigour from quackery, or gravitas from frivolity. I did not know much, and the supervisors, with all the experience to bring them where they are now, are only just slightly further ahead, engulfed by the same ignorance, pawing about blindly, just as we are, for a glimpse of the same certitude of truth that existed in memories of bright school days long gone.

It is at the precipice overlooking this snarling void where my supervisor perched me, and let me plunge — or shoved me right into it; it was hard to tell.

With the darkness came failure — persistent, repeated, soul-crushing failure, fatigue and the laughable blunders that it brings, are the demons who walk with us and torment us in our waking hours. I lost sight of any chance of easy victory. If I had fantasies of becoming a trailblazer of scientific progress, I cast them behind me. Failure! Failed attempts became so frequent and numerous that any victory, however small, came to be met with a mute surprise rather than jubilation. Yes, I throw up my hands in excitement whenever things go according to plan! But then I have to weep and repent, because I am again reminded of the weight of my sins, of all the time I have wasted in my failures.

My self-worth was no longer bolstered by achievements, because such events seemed too much like providence, and so I accepted them as such. Defeat is my natural condition, while victory is foisted upon me most undeservedly.

A salient feature of this part of my faith journey is how secular the environment was and how much of my Rabbouni's message was handed down to me by my colleagues, most of whom were non-believers. A collaborator wrote this as part of his email signature: "The role of the scientist is to produce as many bad ideas as possible". Soon after, another colleague whom I have come to admire lived out this role, during our discussions, rattling out all sorts of outlandish ideas at me for me to try for a study. The volume of it was overwhelming, and the bulk of it was bullshit. But it was such apparent frivolity that betrayed a certain nimbleness of mind and a sense of adventure — he was sailing in the darkness, slicing huge gashes into it, not merely prodding at it timidly. Looking at what he does, I realise that despite my conceited demands for ignorance, I was not yet ready to embrace it. I was still a proud man who refused to bend down and lash his nose to the plough, rather than the small Therèse who accepted the littleness of her spirit and could therefore embrace the world in all its oversized and overwhelming ineffability.

No miracle of the sun marked the reconciliation between work-life and prayer-life. The two halves circled the arena like fighting cockerels in a pen, breaking out at times in spectacular bouts of combat... and then, imperceptibly, work took on the intensity of prayer, and prayer took on the rigours of work. My Rabbouni guides me wordlessly, holding me up by the arms like I was a child taking my first steps. He tuts, he hums absently, he says nothing in words. I take a step, I take two; I discover a new corner in the room, and then a new corner again, each new place a paradise of wondrous delights, ever a pleasant surprise.

 (April-June 2018)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

House of Kindness

Bitola (Monastir), 1917 [Source: French Ministry of Culture]
Excerpt from chapter thirty-two of Life in the Tomb (Greek: Η ζωή εν τάφω) by Stratis Myrivilis, in which Sergeant Anthony Kostoulas takes a break from the trenches to nurse his bad leg, and is welcomed warmly into a Slavonic village.

The peasants who are my hosts welcomed me cordially, without any fuss. The moment I remained alone in their midst they began to talk to me all at once in a language which I don't understand but which I never tire of hearing. There are two old men, one youth, five or six women, and a whole army of babies. They all live in two contiguous houses sharing a roofed verandah which is extremely long and wide. There kept speaking to me energetically, all at once, and smiling, until they realized that their language was completely incomprehensible to me.

"Ne znaish... ne znaish?" (Don't you understand?)
"Ne znai?!" (Doesn't he understand?!)

Then, all together, they stopped talking to me and instead began to discuss me among themselves, struggling to divine what answers I would have given to the questions they had been asking for such a long time. While talking they kept turning and looking at me. I looked back at them, and smiled rather stupidly. Then they burst out laughing.

"Ne znaish." (You don't understand.)

But I did understand one thing extremely well: that these were simple, industrious, tormented people. I understood moreover that their words were benevolent, as pure and unadulterated as their bread, all fragrant with compassion and sympathy. That was why tears had welled into my eyes when they surrounded me and wrapped me in their kindhearted loquaciousness; why my hands had strained to enlarge themselves sufficiently to clasp the immense, rough palms as cragged as the bark of an oak.

I tremble in the very depths of my being when Anjo's two little daughters scramble onto my knees. I am bewildered and awkward in their presence; I have been away from children for so long that I don't know how to behave. They rummage endlessly in the bottomless pockets of my greatcoat. Just as they think they've come to the last one they suddenly discover still another (there are no end of pockets in these French coats). I understand their exclamation: "So many pockets!" and I see that the adults share their wonderment.

These two little girls are twins, so identical that they seem like two brightly colored gumdrops pressed out of the same mold. They have red cheeks, blue eyes and blond hair. In their corn-colored pigtails Anjo has braided strips of red and blue cloth with turquoise beads at the ends. The children are always full of mischief, their tiny roses and entire faces always filthy from the roasted corn which they never cease munching. As for their mother, she works away at her loom, her bare feet large and white as they move up and down on the treadles. She too is blond, tall. She speaks slowly, with measured words. Quite frequently she stops, shuttle in hand, and cheerfully scolds my tiny girlfriends who, serious and vociferous, hold veritable conferences about the insignia on my cap. Am I "Grrts" or "Srrp," Greek or Serb? Declare yourself! Their mother tells them that I am a "Grrts," a "dobar kristianin," and... to be careful of my aching leg.

But truly, at this point I am neither a Christian nor a Greek nor a Serb, but simply a human being filled with expectations, nostalgia and fatigue: an exhausted, content human being who admires these people -- envies them -- for being the lovely, openhearted creatures of a beneficent God. I marvel because every one of them (with the exception of the emaciated son) is strongly built and tall, with the simplicity possessed by mankind as a whole before it departed from the straight and narrow path. There are near God and near the earth, all of them. This you perceive from the very moment you set eyes on them. Their home, lamps, clothing, bread, plough, furniture: each is a piece of work which has passed through their industrious hands. Everything inside this house represents a victory in the never-ending battle which these hands have waged against raw material. That is why they are so gnarled, all calluses and knots, as though made of oak.

Their diet consists of cheese pies, peppers, lentils, flour-thickened soup strewn with red pepper, whole wheat bread, and large baked squashes which they cut into immense slices and eat the way we eat melon. They drink cold, refreshing water. They work the soil, which accords them a simple, monotonous happiness. Afterwards, when they grow old and infirm, their large tormented bodies spread over the ground like overripe fruit fallen from a tree, and they return to the earth. There they peacefully dissolve together with all their ancestors. Above them the golden wheat sprouts to its full height once more, the corn soughs throughout the night, and the reapers sing their ancient meandering songs. As for their souls (if we must assume that such things exist) these ascend towards heaven from the earthen thurible, like incense.

I watch these people in the evening as they stretch out on the floor to relax. Propped on one elbow, and using coarsely-whittled holders, they silently smoke a kind of colossal cigarette which they roll ever so slowly and lick with infinite care. The smoke rises to the ceiling and disappears. They watch absentmindedly as its slender bluish-white ribbon leaves the end of the cigarette and, with gentle quavers, ascends either directly or with undulations into the peaceful air which smells of haystacks, threshed cord, and newly scythed grass. This is how their souls will ascend toward the Lord's feet when the proper moment arrives.

Reclining like this for hours, they smoke away in silence. Perhaps they are thinking. Now and then they utter a word or two in a conversation as brief as the exchange of passwords; then they relapse into silence. On the other hand, they may not be thinking at all, and this should be hardly surprising, for simple people have the habit of relaxing not only to the depths of their bodies but to the depths of their minds. Thought for them is not a sickness; it is work. Until recently, they never even realized how happy they were. Only now have they recognized this happiness, now that they have seen the foreign hordes pouring in from the four corners of the earth, rushing to the attack across their fields and cemeteries, trampling their unapprehended well-being underfoot. "They are trampling it," their philosophy must stammer; "ergo it exists." Crossing themselves energetically, they pray God to restore their peace. Months ago a shell came through the ceiling of the verandah and left this House of Peace gravely wounded. This happened one summer; a bit of swallow's nest is still attached to the splintered beam. If only all those responsible for war would come to this place where I am sitting and writing, could fall on their knees in the center of our large verandah and gaze upwards through the gash which the cannons have left in the ceiling of this beneficent home, murdering its swallows! Through this gash they would perceive the blue eyes of an austere, wrathful God -- and then (perhaps) they would stop making war.

I am filled with reverence for this wounded roof which covers so much kindness. Blessings upon this holy sanctuary which has received me so hospitably beneath its red tiles and has stretched its protection over my suffering body. May heaven repay it for everything, and restore its persecuted swallows. Amen.

(Translated from the Modern Greek by Peter Bien)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Sword of Allah in David's City Unsheathed

Source: Reuters / Ahmed Jadallah
The Sword of Allah has been brought down upon the Beast
The Hunter of Ages now has become the Hunted — Alleluia!

The Rabbouni, my guiding light, my walking companion, and my greatest love, has given me sweet succour and help in the past half year. He has healed this obstinate fool, unshackled him from the weight of his sins, by a critical series of confessions. Blessed sacrament, how have we taken you for granted? How have we poor sinners shunned you, made so fearful that our falls be brought to light and embarrass us? Fool that I am, I say with confidence that the greater my folly, the greater the pleasure there is to be called out for it! If Father Robertus had overreacted and yelled at me (who was in such a fragile state back then) in the confessional box, it was only to the effect of delivering me from the maws of the Devil. Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. The world only sees the fanatic thumping of chests, but it was really joy  joy and liberation.

You have heard it said among people debating homosexuality: Love the sinner, hate the sin. We have understood it to be the fine line dividing the sin and the sinner, lest they be condemned in the same breath. Our detractors scoff at it as a meaningless platitude, and I am inclined to take their side. God's mercy on me has started a fire within me, that I have come to not just hate the sin, but hate it with a burning passion, burning with a fire that does not consume. Not just a fine line between sin and sinner may it become an unbridgeable gulf, that the torments and ensnarement of the evil ones will never again touch us! War! Yes, docility and obedience towards God who made us, redeemed us, and walk with us, but violence to sin, and viciousness towards all inclinations to sin. Through mortification we train our self-denial, and through self-denial our blows become quick, merciless, lethal. Indolence and Sensuality have fallen at the vanguard, now more hidden demons present themselves to be torn apart by our hounds. The Sword of Allah, in David's city unsheathed, has been brought down upon the head of the Beast; the Hunter of Ages now has become the Hunted! My hand, my right eye, I no longer want to keep them, but only the bleeding desire to walk in the way of Christ, to be one in will with him!

I still struggle with mercy. Mercy has been given me, but I have been slow to hand it on. I nursed a huge grudge to the ones who brought evil upon me the last summer. I fumed, I fantasized, I schemed to hurt them. But I trembled in fear at the same time, because I am aware that unless I have mercy, mercy shall be denied me, just as it was revoked for the servant in the parable who failed to forgive his fellow worker. The wound festered, dissonance took hold, and I have risked losing the friendship of a number of (other) people because of this. But, more and more, I am becoming aware of the place of those who wronged me on our side of the unbridgeable gulf. Even though my desire to meet them again is long gone, and is gone for good as far as I can tell, I have at least the pleasure to announce that their debts are cancelled. Yes, as He asks of me, and all of us! And let all these experiences set the scene for a new stage in my life.

References: Matthew 10:34 (Sword), Exodus 3:2 (Fire), Luke 16:26 (Gulf), Matthew 5:29-30 (Violence), Matthew 18:21-35 (Forgiveness).

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Hazme de Nieve, Señor

Make me snow, Lord, to human pleasures;
Make me clay to your hands,
fire to your love