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meditation

Augustine never says an angel spoke to him. Rather it is a child nearby:

I heard a voice from a neighboring house. It seemed as if some boy or girl, I knew not which, was repeating in a kind of chant the words: “Take and read, take and read.” Immediately with changed countenance (note the physical “converts” first. He is in the midst of violent weeping when he hears the voice). I began to think intently whether there was any kind of game in which children sang those words; but I could not recollect that I had ever heard them. I stemmed the rush of tears, and rose to my feet; for I could not think but that it was a divine command to open the Bible, and read the first passage I lighted upon.

In terms of revelation, this most well-reasoned church father, this prince of rhetoricians, this ghost that haunts the whole of Derrida is left weeping violently under a fig tree and allowing the chanting voice of some gender undetermined child to determine the course for the rest of his life. So…is this Magic 8-Ball thinking? Well, to a certain extent, sure, but there is a precedent for such epiphany. For example, Elijah in the cave when he is literally at the end of his tether and does not find God in the mighty roar but in the whispering breeze. There are also the words: “A child shall lead them.” Augustine, being a good persuader, even comes up with a recent precedent for such conversion by words in a moment of transit. He cites St. Anthony (the desert father) who converts upon happening to enter a church where these words from the gospel are being read: “Go, sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.”

For Augustine, words are the most malleable and porous of substances. As a master of rhetoric, he knows how they can be bent, distorted, used to flatter, to convince, how empty they are, and yet he is a man of words, and it is by the event of the right words at the right time that he converts. It is written: conversion comes from hearing the word of God.

I think this could be changed to “overhearing” the word of God for, to a certain extent, the will of God in any conversion narrative works like the Eucharist: the actual presence of divine intention under the signs of chance–always the signs of chance. I know someone who converted because, while he was changing a car tire a pouring rain, he cursed: “jesus Christ!” And immediately, for no reason at all, felt a sudden sense of Christ’s presence. He said: “I’d been cursing like that for years, and I was not intending to do anything but take his name in vain, but, for no reason I can think of, my curse was a prayer and he answered it in the middle of the highway. I went to church for the first time that Sunday, and I haven’t missed since.”

Augustine longs for conversion, but his longing must take the form of chance, of the ordinary substance of chance under which hides the extraordinary presence of grace. When the moment of conversion comes, Augustine is not a master rhetorician, not a doctor of the church, not the first creative non-fiction writer: rather, he is a desperate screw up under a fig tree begging God not to delay his conversion any longer. He is in the place of terminus, at the threshold and end of his own effort where grace may act: and grace acts with the same substance that Augustine had used to gain favor with emperors, to seduce women, to lie and outsmart opponents: with words, and not with eloquent words, but with a repetitive, jump rope song: “take and read, take and read.” So under the signs of a child’s repetitive phrase, God’s grace comes to give Augustine the peace nothing in the world can give–the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Still Augustine is not merely passive. He must “hear” these words as the words of God and this is an imagination, a necessary leap into the absurd (some child is speaking for God) that most modern people, even religious folks would caution against. They’d say: “perhaps, but be careful>” They’d say: “faith is not a moment of overwrought emotion.” They’d say a lot of intelligent, well reasoned cautionary stuff, at which time, they’d be unconsciously, doing the work of Satan–for it is hard to see God in a world that no longer believes in Eucharistic reality–that reality of God’s actual presence hidden under the signs of the world–and not only the world, but the most inconsequential and dubious signs of the world–that all of existence might be fired in the kiln of God presence, and yet God is looked for in everything but the voice of some random and genderless child. Our ears, unlike a dog’s, are never at attention. God is always passing, but we hear the sounds of our day and nothing more.

Since I was old enough to remember, I was fascinated by the voice of a child that I always seemed to hear above the din of other children playing blocks away. As a kid, I made up stories that this voice was that of a child who had died a long time ago of some long illness that would not allow him/her to play. After the child died, God allowed the voice of the child to be heard on the street. The child was free to play. If you listened really hard to any group of children playing you could hear this voice.

Often I hear the voice of children playing in the distance.
There is always one voice louder, shriller than the rest.
It cuts through my life and makes its dark incision.
It is the thumb of Father Riordan, pressing home the word.

In this poem, children go to Father Riordan because he thumbs the ashes deep into their foreheads, and they like it. It’s a game: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The narrator of the poem, a nun, remembers her childhood. Father Riordan is long dead. She hears this shrill voice of a ghost child as if it were the thumb of sacramental grace–the sign of her own mortality and God’s presence in the world. This is the child she did not have because she has wed her self to Christ. It is her moment for God to speak to her as her lost child–and to remind her she is dust and shall return to dust, but the voice of the child is eternal.

To read Augustine is to be reminded that humility and majesty are not separate occasions. In lowliness, a person weeps and falls down on the body of Christ and is raised above the angels. This conversion narrative is, like all conversion narratives, both a transcendence upwards and downwards: words become the word, and the word comes to live under the signs of words–the mundane, the overheard, the ambush of a single phrase when our hearts are broken, our ears are desperately alive, and we are ready to hear.

I have a copy of Milosz’ Facing The River, which is translated both by the author and a poet I greatly admire, Robert Hass. In it, there is a wonderful and spiritual dance between memory and effacement, and, yes the effacement of memory, for anyone who has ever lost a person, or a country, or a language knows that there is a double hell: the effacement that transpires when one must “move on” from that place, or language, or person, and perhaps worse: the effacement that memory assures since to remember anything is to distort it, to make a sort of selected works out of that which once had full life and depth, and which breathed independent of one’s own consciousness. Kafka, speaking of writing, said: “the minute you write, ‘she opened a window’, you have already begun to lie.” Memory is lie, but it has an ethos, a virtue and grace in that one feels this awful gap, one does not tread lightly as one remembers. Nostalgia has no such conscience which is why it ought to be feared as a sort of sociopathic order of memory. It lies without caution, without even the slightest troubling of the waters it fouls with “the happy good ole days.” Memory, especially, in its intimacy with loss, has the terror of the angelic and the beautiful, but it is a distortion, a much more covert yet more powerful form of effacement, and, the best way a poet or writer knows if they are affecting memory rather than mere nostalgia is if they feel this weight, this sense of effacement.

Proust’s great work is neither of memory or nostalgia since these are exactly the forces which adhere the final death masks to all that is vital within consciousness. Proust is in search of lost time, not remembrance. Remembrance is effort. The Proustian moment has no sense of effort, but is grace: for a brief thunder clap, one has recovered the exact co-ordinates of lost time, and, by this recovery, time itself is made unstable. It sputters, and loses its death grip. Time and space flicker, and, in the flicker, time is shown for the inconstant fraud and cheat it is. So let’s make a distinction between memory, nostalgia, and Proustian invocation, which, though most finely delineated in Proust’s great work, is not Proustian at all, but is at the source of all great poems: invocation, the raising of the dead, through style, through verbal ceremony, through the liturgy of man’s ontological fear of oblivion. We must remember that even the triumphs of a great poem are temporary. This is what gives them the power of the sacred: we go down into the underworld, perform the rites just so, the dead speak, yet, when the poem ends, the dark that has surrounded the poem floods back in. In the poem, “A Certain Neighborhood,” Milosz plays with all three registers of nostalgia, memory, and invocation. Like many fine poems, this work by Milosz, is a hortatory act—a meditation on the registers of nostalgia, memory, and invocation, and the great dance of intimacy and distance between restoration and effacement. When I first read this poem I was reminded of my father making a thirty mile detour to show his children and my annoyed mother the street he once lived on in Chester, New Jersey. We complained. We grew bored, but he was a man on a mission. He wanted us to see, but what he wanted us to see was not possible: the sudden longing to collapse thirty years of distance, to reclaim a landscape that did not exist, and, perhaps, had never existed as he “remembered” it. The “driveway”, he kept passing turned out to be the street. Memory had distorted space, expanded, enlarged what was small, and nondescript, and far less attractive to us than the diner nearby where we could pee. I will never forget the look of shame on my father’s face, and of stunned grief. My brother laughed at him, and he turned on my brother, and, seething, hissed: “you’re a smug little bastard.”

We must always be as careful with nostalgia as we are with most forms of vulgarity: it is too close to the whore’s heart, and can be used by politicians to promote a “purity,” an Edenic return that supports the most vile sense of the volk. Nostalgia carries the worst ideas of the purgative. It is amoral or immoral, but true memory is moral in that it proceeds with caution, and Proustian invocation is pre-moral, the origin of consciousness and of our sense of the beautiful and the good. At any rate, the poem:

I told nobody I was familiar with that neighborhood.
Why should I? As if a hunter with a spear
Materialized, looking for something he once knew.
After many incarnations we return to the earth,
Uncertain we would recognize its face.
Where there were villages and orchards, now nothing,
fields.
Instead of old timber, young groves,
The level of the waters is lower, the swamp disappeared
Together with the scent of Ledum, black grouse, and adders.
A little river should be here. Yes, but hidden in the brush,
Not, as before, amidst meadows. And the two ponds
Must have covered themselves with duck weed
Before they sank into black loam.
The glitter of a small lake, but its shores lack the rushes
Through which we struggled forward, swimming,
To dry ourselves afterwards, I and Miss X, and one towel
dancing.