lenten journal: turns of phrase


    I started rereading A Passage to India today.

    One of the people I work with at the Durham restaurant was asking for books to read and I suggested my favorite of E. M. Forster’s novels. When she said she was going to read it, I decided I would go along for the ride. The flyleaf of my copy, which now has duct tape for the binding, says I bought the book in 1994, when I was working on my Masters at UMass Boston. I was taking a class on the English novel and wrote a paper on Forster, which required my reading of all of his novels. When I started teaching Honors Brit. Lit. at Winchester High School, I found a stack of them in the book room (the editions were older than I was at the time) and gave them to my classes. My copy has margin notes and markings in three different ink colors, for each of the three years I read the book with my students.

    I remember passing one of them in the hall at school one day and asking her how she liked the novel. “It’s OK,” she said, “but you get so excited when you talk about it that I’ve kept reading.” I wasn’t two pages into the book today when I remembered why I got so excited. I love this book.

    I’m a week and a half into teaching high school again and I feel like I’ve tapped back into something familiar and strong, like finding an old record album I listened to for years and having the songs come to life again inside of me. The heart of it lies in stories, but more so the living ones in front of me than the written ones I’m trying to get them to read. When I first started teaching at Charlestown High School, which was made up of kids from all over Boston, seventy-five percent of whom were nonnative English speakers and first generation immigrants, and she would say, “Whatever happens, don’t take it personally.” It took me a couple of years to catch on, but I finally did. I also learned that perspective works fairly well with most adults in any number of settings. The amazing thing about my job is I have a daily opportunity to be kind to people who are still learning what kindness is. Or not.

    I got to thinking about it because of a phrase in the first chapter of Passage that has nothing to do with school, teenagers, kindness, or America, for that matter, but it set my mind sailing:

    . . . so that new-comers cannot believe it to be as meagre as it is described, and have to be driven down to acquire disillusionment. (4-5)

    We acquire disillusionment; it isn’t built in.

    Forster is describing the colonial compound that sits on the mountain above the beleaguered city of Chandrapore, India. It’s location comes with the most incredible view that allows people to overlook the poverty and squalor that exists below. People had to literally be driven down to see what colonialism had actually wrought. The phrase hit me metaphorically as I read this morning and left me wondering what is capable of driving me down to disillusionment, and what bus I need to catch to ride back up and out of it.

    The phrase also hit me because of another phrase I’ve been carrying around for a week or so, thanks to Nora Gallagher, its larger context being a prayer of St. Augustine that she quotes:

    Keep watch dear Lord with those who work, or watch, or weep this night and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for love’s sake. (38)

    As with Forster’s book, this is not my first time reading Practicing Resurrection, and that phrase caught me the first time around. Today it came back to me almost as soon as I read about acquiring disillusionment: shield the joyous. As tenacious as joy may appear, it is tender and vulnerable. A joyous heart is an open one; open hearts are sitting ducks. Shield the joyous.

    Abel, my cooking partner, is a joyous soul. He works tirelessly, supports family members here and back in Guatemala, and is constantly looking to learn. I asked him tonight what he has been reading and he answered, “Cooking books.” He turned the steaks over on the grill and said, “And another book by someone named Rick Warren and it asks this question: what on earth am I here for?” He pointed his tongs my way and said, “That’s a good question.”

    Yes, it is. Part of the answer is we are here to do more than acquire disillusionment. We are here to be joyous, and to shield one another. We are here, as the Body of Christ, to incarnate all the verbs in Augustine’s prayer: tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous.

    All for love’s sake.



    1. What an amazing comment, “shield the joyous.” For to be joyous, you must be somewhat child-like: in some ways naive, but it some ways wise & old beyond your years. Joy is a hard thing for many people to take, or even be around. Sometimes I wonder how rare it really is; as Michael Stipe from R.E.M. sings, “Not/ everyone/ can carry the weight of the world.” Not everyone can carry the JOY of the world.

      Thanks, Milt — again.

    Leave a Reply