Saturday, May 27, 2006


I was intending to write one of my hard and unsmiling pieces on illegal immigration. Don't think it isn't coming, cuz it is. But I have been reminded, for a moment, of grace, and that's the most important theme there is.

History is a murder mystery. The universe was fed a slow poison, and we are riding out its death-throes. And mankind, from the first father to the unborn in the womb -- all hold still in shallow-breath'd anticipation of the falling ax. The mystery isn't what will happen in the end, but how it will unfold. Dust reclaims its own. We don't own the land -- it owns us.

That's the plot.

But it's not the end of the story.

Two nights ago I was taking care of a friend's dogs -- he's out of the country. At the front door as I was entering, a matter-of-fact meow at my back caught my ear, and what should I see but the most wretched cat that ever remained on four legs. Starving to death, and fragile beyond all reason. Its shoulder blades stuck out like fins from the black matting of its fur. But it was friendly, and bold, and came up to me like an old friend. To touch it sickened my heart -- it was so frail, and not what you'd ever call clean.

Nice, middle class neighborhood. Normal, decent people. How could this be? How is it possible?

So I have a new pet. Dammit.

How does the book of Jonah end? Remember? The Lord said unto Jonah, Thou hast had pity on the gourd -- for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow -- which came up in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle? And when Jesus says that God knows even when a sparrow falls, the implication is that He has cared for it. But we are God's hands, here. The good that He would have done, He needs us to do. And if my foolish heart is moved by the raw bones of a dying cat, how much more ought it be, for His own children?

Of course, children, and animals, are easy to love. Their innocence makes us so superiour to them that we are safe in feeling affection. There is little merit in such love. Their sweetness and joy makes them lovable, and to pay what is owed is more a responsibility than a virtue. What is so moving about grace, is that it is not owed. In fact, receiving it increases one's debt. But that's why the song is so apt. Amazing grace. Exactly. Amazing. It transforms the play from a zero-sum, into an infinite-sum game. Everyone wins. Creation is enriched.

So I have been reminded, again, as over the years, of the need for patience, and gentleness, in dealing with the people who occupy the world. There is certainly evil, and I have little wisdom in knowing how to deal with it. My formula is simple: fight it, and try to destroy it. But what is meant, by evil? We see, in this life, only people -- they are the instruments of evil as much as they are the hands of God. How am I to know the difference, save by actions? -- actions, which are so ambiguous -- whose outcome I have not foresight to know? Are we to anticipate only evil, from an ambiguous situation? Are we to judge present action always by previous failures? As I said, my wisdom is inadequate to this question. It is a judgment call, a decision of the heart -- which is an organ of general stability, but notorious for its unreliability under extreme pressure ... rather like people themselves.

Here's my point: where we are able, where we can, when we are moved to do so, we must love. We must forgive. We must give of that grace which we know ourselves to have received. There are stories I will never tell, about my foolishness, in loving. There is a cost, almost beyond endurance, to not discerning when love is exploited rather than accepted. But that's why love is a virtue, and not merely a duty. Because unlike animals and children, those who have achieved the age of accountability can work mortal sins -- they can harm us to the quick of our souls. To risk such pain, aside from being foolishness, must -- I tell myself it must -- also be a virtue.

When we receive grace, the world is lovely beyond all expression. We must dare to add new beauty to the universe, by ourselves risking to love. I think this is what is meant when Christians are told that they are offered only a cross. It is the instrument of grace. But it carries its own harsh risk. I suppose all grace is amazing -- that it should be dared.



dilys said...

I think you're describing wrestling not against flesh and blood. Neither indifference, nor the excess zeal of misdirected focus.

From another tradition, skilful means.

Jack H said...

For me, it always boils down to the same question. Who will free me from this body of death. Hardly a reflection of rejoicing always, eh? But we are not cartoons. We have depth. We were given an impossible commandment, *Be ye perfect...* - but the thing that completes us is not owed, it's given, and none of us can receive it perfectly. So we strive for zeal, and work for diligence, but we understand that we have no strength in ourselves. It is an excuse, of sorts. What more can we do, than our best?


dilys said...

Ah, Sanctification/Perfection/Theosis. Addressed also in a spirited, theologically hopeful, and sometimes filling-rattling fashion from The Fathers to the Reformed in an entire thread over at the prize-winning Pontifications.

Gloom -- only one piece of the story.




ELAshley said...

There is also, I believe, a level of personal shame involved in the story you tell, should one ignore the plight of pain and suffering of the helpless... even in starving cats. How can God look at us as having been faithful over so small a thing unless we do our due dilligence? To ignore a starving cat or dog says a great deal about what is in a man's heart-- I speak of spiritual things.

I often find it difficult to justify, in my own mind, God's reasoning in saving me... I certainly don't deserve it, and every attempt to prove to Him how grateful I am always falls flat. I guess my only job is to do what I can with what He has given me. It is not for me to save a single soul, only tell them the good news, and even in this I often fail.

But because of the aforementioned Amazing Grace, there is great comfort in doing my best. For while perfection is impossible to achieve in this flesh, the pursuit of it is not without merit... (that just happens to be my personal motto... how nice of you to allow me an opportunity to share it!)

Thanks for the insight. You did the right thing, Brother.

Jack H said...

Well, I *thought* it was a cat. But it doesn't have any noticiable cat attributes. No grooming, no nose-touching. Turns out it's a pterodactyl. A least, I think it is. Some sort of a missing link - a hairy bird - well, not so much *hair* as some cross between hair and scales. It's like petting a cactus. Who knew? - the Evolutionists were right, it seems. I'm calling him - I think it's a him - "Somalia."


ELAshley said...

I'd be willing to bet no other cat in the history of cats has been blessed with the name "Somalia"

Sounds like a great choice.

Jack H said...

Hopefully he'll see the humor in it, eventually. If we can't laugh at ourselves, at least we can laugh at others.