My brother's face is not my face;
His eyes see things mine do not see,
And when I try to take his place
I'm stuck in his alterity.
I do not know what he has known.
I do not think his thoughts with him.
His father is my father. Though
He is not me, he is my kin.
Each other face I daily see,
Each gaze that pierces into pride,
Each face is still a mystery,
A space I cannot climb inside.
And yet I must begin each day
Before my brother's other face,
And hear my unknown sister say,
"Thou shalt not kill" with silent gaze.
And I must stand before a One
Who is not seen, with unseen face,
And yet is like all-knowing Sun
And stands in hated Stranger's place.
when I realise
not that I must always be Somewhere –
fording some Jordan, scaling some Hebron,
engaged in daily grandiose deeds –
but that here, now,
at the interstice of wilful self
and the ever-grinding call
to nothing grand but
a pile of dishes,
a child needing a hug,
a moment of playing at eye-level on the floor,
a gracious word to turn away my own vigilant wrath,
is precisely where
the fear, the trembling, the working-out
of Grace’s grindstone begins.
Was it the breaking of bread that did it,
That act just so like the Bread of Life?
Or was it how the Word opened up the word
And our hearts were like flames within us? Our eyes
Beheld but did not understand, intuit
What lay behind all those parables, rife
With intimations of truth, had we heard.
Until now; saturated presence lies
Within our grasp, and then it disappears
Yet leaves us with the realised, the now-known,
Faith equipped by sight, and hearts to testify.
Manifest amongst us, the truth now sears
Within us where it took a seat. Once shown
The substance of our faith, let Life reply.
One of the great mysteries and wonders that we can be reflecting on this Advent season is the Incarnation: the mystery that the God of the universe would become a human, even a defenceless baby. To explore this mystery, Søren Kierkegaard tells the story of a king who loves a poor and humble girl and wants her to be lifted by his love, not always ashamed of the difference between them. Here is a slightly playful, poetic translation of the story. You can find fuller, more accurate renditions of it in abundance online, but they often leave out the playfulness of Kierkegaard’s style. So here is my offering, for what it is worth. May it give some food for thought this advent.
You ask me how God might be teacher and saviour; you ask how His love might drive Him to teach. You ask how His Love could love over vast distance as divides all low learners from this teacher of Love? Well, once upon a time, a king loved a maiden – No, wait! Is this kids’ stuff? A fairy tale? Where is the systematic doctrine? Don’t patronise with tales… Well, so thought old Athens, when Socrates spoke of food, and drink, and doctors, and trifles; I wish I could only speak of such trifles, for we all, from birth, understand food and drink (and the need to see doctors) and the high ways of kings are so often removed from the eating and drinking of mere men. But let us move on; we mustn’t get stuck. A king loved a maiden; let’s leave it like that. And this king, unlike poets, was not tied up tight with the “wisdom” that hampers clear-headedness; he loved that low maiden (this much we’ve seen), and he loved her without the High Rule of a king. His courtiers said, What a favour the king will bestow on the low one! These words made him sick. They drove him to fury; that wasn’t his love. He would love her, this maiden, such that she’d never see a high, lofty patron, a detached, distant king. Impossible! say the king’s courtiers. You are the king! Overshadow her with your king’s grandeur! Make her feel lowly! Unworthy! You’re king! How can Love straddle the high and low yet not overshadow the low into their grave? Love must become like the lowly it loves. The teacher must be like the student; the king must make Himself low like the maiden.
(Adapted and translated from Søren Kierkegaard, “God as Teacher and Saviour (Guden som Lærer og Frelser)”, from Philosophical Fragments (Philosophiske Smuler), http://sks.dk/ps/txt.xml)
What is a poet?
An unhappy man who
deep in his heart hides
anguish, but whose lips
are so comprised that
when he screams
he makes sweet music.
I’d rather be
a swineherd of the hills
understood by pigs
than a poet
misunderstood by men.
I prefer to speak to children.
At least of them one may hope
that here will grow
a Reasonable Being.
But to those who think they have arrived already…
God have mercy.
Hear this marvel.
To the seventh heaven I was lifted,
and there all the gods sat together in council,
granting me one wish.
“What do you ask for?” Mercury spoke.
“Is it power, or youth, or beauty, long life?
The most beautiful girl?
Or any of what we have to give?
But only take one. What shall it be?”
I paused for a moment,
thrown by the choice,
then I spoke:
“I ask only this:
that laughter might always be on my side.”
Silence. Not one of the gods said a word.
They only laughed, and I thought it was apt.
It would have been crude to say,
“As you wish.”
American philosopher-turned-filmmaker Terrence Malick does not make crowd-pleasers. He does not even feel any great compulsion to actually make films, although he has made more films in the last decade than he did for the first 30 years of his career. A little like Marilynne Robinson’s novels, Malick’s films emerge from some slow, meditative, beauty-processor that cannot be rushed yet almost always satisfies. Sometimes it produces a few masterpieces in quick succession; sometimes it does nothing for a decade. Yet everything that he produces is touched with transcendence and immanence all at once.
Also like Robinson, Malick’s work is generally transfigured by a deeply Christian sensibility. One journalist, Damon Linker, began his review of Malick’s 2016 film Knight of Cups with the question, “What if Christianity is right after all?” Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life blended scenes of cosmic creation with reflections on “the way of law” and the “way of grace”. Belief and unbelief are everywhere in his work, and sometimes the absence of God is the most tangible sign of His reality.
This is perhaps best expressed in the follow-up to The Tree of Life, 2013’s To the Wonder. Malick’s third-shortest film at just under 2 hours, To the Wonder is a slow, sun-dazzled and often heartbreaking meditation on love, hate, rejection and forgiveness, featuring the often unexceptional Ben Affleck in a role so understated that few others could do it so well, with Affleck using muted facial expression the way Hemingway uses silence. Yet the fact that Affleck is in the film is almost irrelevant; he is a brooding presence that demands no more nor less attention than the wheatfields of Kansas or its many broken residents to whom Javier Bardem’s priest character serves communion and offers grace. Malick famously casts prominent actors in his films then does not use most of if any of their footage. George Clooney had a couple of minutes at the end of The Thin Red Line, while John Travolta’s scene in that film was included but not credited. Rachel Weisz didn’t even make it to the final cut of To the Wonder, and Rachel McAdams has only a small, although significant, portion of the film devoted to her. Yet this all seems fitting. The Christianity Today article on the film commented that Malick’s disregard for the famous actors he casts is part and parcel of his view of humanity in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and in To The Wonder this takes on deep spiritual significance when the stars that are cast in the leading roles are given no more dignity – yet also no less – than the drug addicts and prisoners with whom Bardem mixes. Some of the film’s most tender moments come from its unknown and unnamed cameos. Fittingly, in the lead characters’ first wedding, taking place in a courtroom, (they are later married in a church), the witnesses to the marriage are prisoners, still handcuffed. Similar gravitas is granted to the prisoners who receive communion from Bardem through the slots in the doors of their prison cells later in the film.
To the Wonder is no easy Christian allegory, and many Christian audiences will shy away from it. This is first because Malick’s films are hard for anyone to watch without a strong degree of stamina or stubbornness. To the Wonder‘s hour and fifty-two minutes feels substantially longer because of the film’s often speechless slowness (the screenplay must surely only come in at a few pages, and much of what dialogue Malick includes is inaudible, as though the actual words themselves carry little significance). Also, some Christians would struggle no doubt with the way that faith is presented in the film. Most of the characters are torn between love for God and the love that “pulls [them] down to earth”, and love for God is often punctuated by long silences or a thirst for earthly satisfaction expressed in lust and adultery. Yet the film’s portrayal of sex is subtle, and its few moments of nudity are brief and tame. Although the film’s opening scenes might make it look like it is primarily concerned with the line between lust and love, sexual passion seems ultimately to be just one of the many expressions of how humans thirst for meaning and connection, and the film’s most powerful moment is not in any sexual or romantic exchange between characters but is instead the extended sequence towards the end in which we see a nun wash cutlery and Bardem serve communion on desolate streets in his neighbourhood, while in the background Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” plays and Bardem’s voice recites the prayer of St Patrick: “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me…” Thirst for God is everywhere in this film and trumps every other human thirst.
Though I can understand why, it’s a shame that more people have not seen To the Wonder, especially men and women who share Malick’s faith. There aren’t many more powerful evocations of divine love and grace going around at the moment than Malick’s films, and To the Wonder is one of the tenderest.
A friend of mine recently said that he had tried to read Kierkegaard but hadn’t made it. “I need the children’s book version,” he said. Probably not an unusual experience. While I’m not sure I’m the one to provide the children’s book, I thought I could do the next best thing: to try to put a few key ideas of Kierkegaard’s into haiku. Because what else are school holidays for?
So here are my first few offerings.
Kierkegaard Haiku I-III
In the moment, pause.
Life’s a reality, but
The crowd will deceive.
Choice: the potential to do
Wrong, or to find God.
You must stand alone
Before His face and be known.
If what Christians believe is true, then Gide knows now what all of us will know before long. What is it that he knows? What is it that he sees?
(Francois Mauriac, “The Death of Andre Gide”)
Was it better by far to be wily, in the end?
Maintaining to the last where Montaigne had failed,
were you applauded for living your art?
The wager – held firm to the last –
carried you further than most will willingly go.
Even Sartre, expelling God to the margins of thought,
rejected your logic, your choice of your filth.
Was your choice for all? In clenching your jaw,
you made God relevant, at every call.
Once the marriage was destroyed* did the one
take comfort in the other’s halitosis?
And did the other, foul in breath, seek scum
to prove that folly persists in churches
and in the minds of worshippers? If words
are crude and language imprecise, then actions
like his speak loudest: a moral compass
cast aside with mathematical pride.
In this they agreed, though not on the sanctions:
that mankind was tending towards its own turd.
What then? Desecrate a marriage bed?
Render a language unreadable? Abide
in the peace of logic or of Logos?
Or turn to grace’s silent arms instead?
* Bertrand Russell was one of the most famous atheists of the 20th century and T.S. Eliot one of the century’s most famous converts. Russell contributed to the breakdown of Eliot’s marriage by having an affair with his wife.
In a time when the only crime is the refusal of access, I found
all search terms fail, only foreign language yielded, only
the kernel of power, unopening to me.
What beauty I knew to lie within, I could not see: just
umlauts and A-rings, word atoms which Google could not split…
When the pen is mightier than the missile, what is
the untranslated poem, the fixed moment of beauty which refuses us?
I set to work with all that the Web afforded; if posterity had found
this to be genius, why did it lie locked away from me?
There was no such thing as the text I could not read,
only the text which had not yet been found:
a process of twisting, turning words, rearranging how it seemed
to best fit my cloud of knowledge. Yet nothing fits.
Truth must break what moulds we have created, and if
I have found a meaning, it was not, could never have been
what was meant before I tampered. Better perhaps had I
left it where I found it, with its circles and dots denying me entry.
No tampering when we do not touch, yet no being touched either.
The true poem sits where we cannot harm it, and we must fumble –
have no other choice – if the true poem is to enter life,
(To read Karlfeldt’s seemingly untranslated poem, look here. As far as I can tell, it is a masterpiece. I just wish I spoke Swedish.)