Variation on a Theme by Bernanos

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail…
until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
. . . . . . —  Chiyono (13thcent.), on her satori

Every experience worthy of the name runs counter to our expectation. —  Hans-Georg Gadamer


“I don’t suppose that if God had given us the clear knowledge of how closely we are bound to one another both in good and evil, that we could go on living….” So said the curé of Ambricourt in The Diary of a Country Priest. The same priest, in whom already coiled the cancer that would kill him, had moments earlier said that “hidden sins poison the air which others breathe.” He knew how we are bound together, and somehow he lived with the knowledge — just as somehow many of us who know continue to live. But the knowing is a kind of cancer, a carrier of death.

In this knowing, this awful communion, the horizon of self is transgressed. I am opened to the unexpected reality of alterity, of the inalienable alienness of myself and others. I cannot withstand this knowledge, cannot go on living. Either I perish or, understanding the otherness in and around me, I become something different, something beyond what I have been. The question is not whether death will come, but whether it will become resurrection.

“Who are you to condemn another’s sin? He who condemns sin becomes part of it, espouses it.” Thrown into the community of alterity in the ineluctable encounter with truth, I lose my standing to condemn or to boast. I must acknowledge that the sin — “There is only one sin” — is ours, as is the good. In this experience I am denied, contradicted; I find myself loving those whom I would hate. Dying to the lie of autonomy, one descends into the madness of love or of hell. “Hell is not to love any more. As long as we remain in this life we can still deceive ourselves, think that we love by our own will, that we love independently of God. But we’re like madmen stretching our hands to grasp the moon reflected in water.” It’s madness, then, like death, in any case: the human condition. When the bottom falls out, do we choose the form of our madness?

I don’t know if I make a choice; it may be that I make only a report. My report is this: somehow, whether by chance or by choice, I want to love.

“Death isn’t like madness —”
“No, indeed. We know even less about it.”
“Love is stronger than death — that stands written in your books.”
“But it isn’t we who invented love. Love has its own order, its own laws.”
“God is love’s master.”
“No, not its master. God is love itself…. If you want to love don’t place yourself beyond love’s reach.”

Not to place myself beyond love’s reach in living hell is not to recoil from love’s kenotic madness. And it is to hope against hope that “the lowest of human beings, even though he no longer thinks he can love, still has in him the power of loving” — to be able to answer that of God in every one, even one who tortures me, even myself. Caught between two forms of madness, unable to escape de–struction, I hesitate, trembling. But I know which way I must go, led, lured, pushed by both fear of hell and hope of resurrection.

2 thoughts on “Variation on a Theme by Bernanos

  1. “In this knowing, this awful communion, the horizon of self is transgressed. I am opened to the unexpected reality of alterity, of the inalienable alienness of myself and others. I cannot withstand this knowledge, cannot go on living. Either I perish or, understanding the otherness in and around me, I become something different, something beyond what I have been. The question is not whether death will come, but whether it will become resurrection.”

    Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times YES, this is what it means to face the Inner self, that Ineffable awareness of conscious reflection, the mirrored bridal chamber of the heart! I am not as far advanced along the path as you are. I am still struggling to comprehend my own gnosis of the heart, but at least I realize now, that I have to; that I must make this effort, to see my psyche remade and reformed (in all senses of the word). THIS is what it means, this is how it looks, have you read The Paraphrase of Shem? (Forgive my own long and rambling paraphrase of it, you can read an excellent translation of the source text here.)

    As always, your posts speak directly to my condition. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for reminding me of exactly what I need to hear, when I need to hear it.

  2. I had not read the Paraphrase; thanks for pointing me to it. The imagery can be difficult, but your comments are very helpful. I was particularly interested in your reading of the images in terms of human brain structure and function.

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