Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Pray Without Ceasing

Yeats was right. The center cannot hold. It is, in fact, up to us. We have to hold; hold onto the center.

"What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars.
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together,
But every sone would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions."

Disturbance, of course, is a matter of opinion. If the neighbor is a poet, there is much less of a problem. But these two poets (Yeats excluded, for the moment) raise the same question: what life have you that is not lived in community? Even the monk in his cell presumes the presence of an audience, an other, to hear his words:
All alone in my little cell, without the company of anyone; precious has been the pilgrimage before going to meet death.

A hidden secluded little hut, for the forgiveness of my sins: an upright, untroubled conscience toward holy heaven.

Sanctifying the body by good habits, trampling like a man upon it: with weak and tearful eyes for the forgiveness of my passions.

Passions weak and withered, renouncing this wretched world: pure and eager thoughts; let this be a prayer to God.

All human life is lived in community, and in relationship to a center. That center may be many things: but the question is not what it is, but what it does for you. In times of crisis, it may make you despair (Psalm 22, or much of the book of Jeremiah); or be the cause of your ruin (Job). In times of crisis, the question is: does the center hold for you? Not hold onto you; but hold for you.

This is the confession of Israel. This is the confession of Christianity. That no matter what happens, the center holds. It maintains. (Crisis can, of course, be too much good as well as too much "bad." The unknown Irish poet above clearly understood this; perhaps too much, in fact.)

But the center doesn't hold onto you. You do that. The widening gyre of the falcon away from the falconer marks a boundary away from the center, but the center has no power to set that boundary, nor to restrain it. The restraint, the hold on the center, is all ours. Whether the center we grasp can stand the strain, of good times or bad, of slack times or full, is another matter.

How do you hold the center? That is still another question. But (pace Athenae), that may start as a question of theology, but it is "dead" unless it becomes an activity.

For now: we do live "dispersed on ribbon roads," but this is not merely a question of space, of proximity. Our metaphors should not replace what we are concerned with, nor get in the way of our understanding. Even dashing to and fro, we can be in community together. But if the dashing to and fro is not understood spiritually as fully as it is easily understood physically, then we don't even make the first step toward finding a center that will establish us.

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