I woke up to a surprise snowfall this morning, and nowhere I had to be immediately, so I sat down for my morning coffee and continuing conversation with Madeleine L’Engle and Marilynne Robinson. Even though their two books were written two decades apart and, as far as I know, independent of one another, I am fascinated by the resonance I keep hearing between them, and then, also, in me. Both of them were still talking about stars, about the universe, and what it means to find our place in it. Marilynne said,
The thought occurred to me that if the name of everyone on earth who is remembered for any kind of distinction were assigned to a crater or a mountain or a seeming rivulet somewhere in the visible universe, the astronomers would soon be out of names . . . . Scatter the names of all those who have ever lived over the surface of the knowable cosmos and it would remain, for all purposes, as unnamed as if was before the small, anomalous flicker of human life appeared on this small, wildly atypical planet.
Say that we are a puff of warm breath in a very cold universe. By this kind of reckoning we are either immeasurably insignificant or we are incalculably precious and interesting.
She went on to say she chose the latter. Madeleine was thinking about the universe as well, and our connection to—or separation from (dis-aster)—the stars:
Dis-aster makes me thing of dis-grace. Often the wonder of the stars is enough to return me to God’s loving grace.
To lose our sense of wonder is to grow rigid, unable to accept change with grace.
In the margin I wrote, dis-grace, and have wondered most of the day how we separate one another from the grace of God in the ways we treat each other. Madeleine couched it in terms of T. S. Eliot’s question in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Part of her response was,
Sometimes simply being open, refusing to settle for finite answers, disturbs the universe. Questions are disturbing, especially those which may threaten our traditions, our institutions, our security. But questions never threaten the living God, who is constantly calling us, and who affirms for us that love is stronger than hate, blessing stronger than cursing.
In the margin I wrote, courage.
When I moved to Robinson’s book, she was talking about the same thing:
Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate. It assumes that this great mutual courtesy will bear its best fruit if we respect, educate, inform, and trust one another.
At its best, yes. She was also clear about the fear-driven world we live in these days. Though she wrote the essay a few years back, her words felt like a response to what is masquerading as a presidential campaign these days.
Over the years we seem to have become habituated, even addicted, to the notion of radical threat, threat of the kind that can make virtually anything seem expendable if it does not serve an immediate desperate purpose of self-defense—as defined by people often in too high a state of alarm to make sound judgments about what real safety would be or how it might be achieved and who feel that their duty to the rest of us is to be very certain we share their alarm.
In the margin I wrote, dis-courage.
I realize, as David Wilcox says, that there will always be some crazy with an army or a knife, but we are believing a lie when we allow ourselves to be dis-couraged, when we choose fear as the common currency of our culture. To dis-courage is to dis-grace one another, to live as though something can separate us from the love that breathed us into being and made us for each other. Robinson says,
And there is a much larger, more general sense in which we are creators of the universe. We would not be the first human beings to base a universe on fear, and to make sacrifices to allay in which seem unaccountable from the perspective of another culture or generation. We can channel and exploit minds and energies, bending them to use against imagined adversaries. These things have been done any number of times. The alternative is to let ourselves be—that is, to let ourselves be the reflective, productive creatures we are, unconstrained and uncorked.
Courage is not being willing to fight as much as being willing to define ourselves by our calling rather than our cautions, to be fueled by intention rather than suspicion, to live in wonder rather than wariness. To live with courage and grace is to question, to disturb. Madeleine, once more:
Whenever we make a choice of action, the first thing to ask ourselves is whether it is creative or destructive. Will it heal, or will it wound? Are we doing something to make ourselves look big and brave, or because it is truly needed? Do we know the answers to these questions? Not always, but we will never know unless we ask them. And we will never dare to ask them if we close ourselves off from wonder.
I am discouraged when I watch TV and see what passes for political discourse these days. The prospects for the upcoming election are frightening. But I must raise my gaze, go out into the night and stare up at the stars, watch Orion make his nightly trek across the heavens. We are here by the grace of God, born in original love, specks of some significance. Let us chose to reflect the ancient light of Creation rather than this present darkness as it appears on the news channels. Love is stronger than fear.