The Library

I like the library. During two undergraduate degrees, I had been told that I'd like working in the library and found, instead, that I found peace and inner quiet in the student union, where a person could smoke and drink endless cups of tea while doing what passed for work. But now I am older, and while tea is still fine, the smoking went quite a while ago, and I find that I like this university library. It's a quietly friendly place, serious enough but not oppressively reverent. At my back and overhead, the books lurk in their tens of thousands, infinitely inviting, on their metal shelving. It's summer, and there are only a handful of faculty around, no students, and the place has a casual, friendly, desultory air.

There is a table over by a window, and the table is close to a plug--essential, since I am now encumbered by much electronic baggage, the laptop and the CD player (which stands in for smoking and tea these days). I stagger in with my big laptop bag, unload all the gear, I plug everything in (myself included) to the amusement of the other users, who rarely carry anything more than a notebook, and settle down to read.

This is not Rrrrreal Rrrrresearch. I have always been too frivolous for that sort of thing. No; this is just garden-variety respectable reading, Macquarrie, Brown, Pelikan: before I start the project I have in mind, I have to do some real reading, some fresh and reasonably serious learning, and this is a good place to do that in. I have already spent substantial sums at the xerox machine so that I can mess up the copied pages, scribbling and marking passages up. Now I am happily wallowing, slashing away with my yellow marker, pouncing on the laptop to make a note.

If you'd asked me ten years ago what was the dullest subject I could think of, I might have listed early church history: certainly, it's something I've avoided quite successfully up to now. But now my subject takes me back to those first centuries, and I find myself being first inordinantly fascinated, and then close to startled.

I was expecting doctrine, dry as dust, endlessly argued by dry old men in dry old rooms dry centuries ago. But what I find, at least in part, is poetry. *Poetry*. Similes and metaphors, bits of Old Testament, images and visions, all seized and played with by those long-ago Early Parents--played with as intently and gracefully as a kitten plays with an empty walnut half-shell. I'd expected all sorts of abstract and abstruse philosophizing, and there is some of that. But in reading of that very-long-ago, I also find the trace of the human spirit striving not only to understand, but (at least sometimes) to put together longing and language in ways that make the real sort of myth, the genuine article: not in the least false but interested in truths that go far deeper than mere factoids. This stuff is *fascinating*!

It seems so sad, then, that this playfulness, this imagery and longing and music of the heart, all somehow manage to get frozen into doctrine. Now, I am no iconoclast: I tend to feel that if a couple of millennias'-worth of Christians have felt strongly about a particular belief, there's probably enough truth in it that I should take it seriously. Doctrine is what keeps us from charging off in all directions; it, like doubt, helps to keep us honest. But so often, stuff gets proclaimed as God's green truth that I can't see any literal truth in; and even if I see the figurative truth, I can't see what the fuss is about. And then I have to figure out where it all got started in the first place, and that's what this project is about. Which is why I am in this library, felt-tipping madly away.

But the lesson I am learning from this exercise isn't, perhaps, what some would want me to learn. I'm not learning to kneel in frozen awe at the feet of our Early Parents. Instead, I'm finding out that from the beginning, Christians have approached our faith with imagination. Finding too little about (say) Mary in the New Testament, they let themselves dream and extrapolate and play around with Old Testament texts in ways that satisfied some need --and the need, it seems, wasn't for dry and sober certainty, but for poetry, for dreams in deep colours and complicated music. The old stories are full not of academic wrangling, but of passion and darkness and brilliance.

And if that's what it was then, what are we supposed to do now? We keep their dreams, of course; it's a rich inheritance, far too yummy to dispense with. But aren't we supposed to dream too? or are visions only valid if their dreamers are long dead and canonized? If we somehow lost our right and ability to grasp at God poetically, rooting through Word and experience and imagination to make sense of God and life--when did this happen? Is there some magical date before which our visions are right and respectable and after which they must be viewed with deep suspicion? I don't know. If our dreaming days are supposed to be long gone, what, then, of John Bunyan and C.S. Lewis?

Of course some of the Early Parents were 'way off base--and of course all the old heresies are still very much with us, Docetism, Arianism, you name 'em. In that sense, nothing really changes. But we seem to be so afraid of being wrong that we clamp down on taking the risk of being right. And that, it seems to me, is a form of choosing life over death. I do not believe that we are meant to live our lives with God in a state of perpetual anxiety. I do believe that God is so delighted that we're pointing ourselves Godward that He'll give us part-points for getting at least some of it right, instead of whipping our knuckles with a ruler because we didn't get it perfect.

Old poetry may be immortal, or it may need reams of footnotes and hosts of literary critics to make any sense at all. I may love poetry, but I can't read the langue d'oc worth a damn and so the vision of 12th-century Gascon troubadours isn't apt to do a thing for me. I need to make my own poetry, my own sense of all this God-stuff, and so I need to bring to bear my own vocabulary and imagery. The delightful thing is how often it all turns out to be a restatement of what the _trouveres_ were singing all those years ago. That's how we know when we've tapped into something permanent and constant and important, not just the product of our own wishes: the poetry we write turns out to be grounded in the song the church has sung for all these centuries: variations on a classic theme.

Of course some people don't get metaphors, just as some people are colour-blind or tone-deaf. Many do better with logic than with music. But our Lord constantly used metaphors to teach with, and dreams and visions and poetry run through Scripture. We have our dreamers and visionaries--Julian, Hildegard, St. John of the Cross--and they seem to have a grasp on sound, sweet truths that elude the doctrinaire. I'm not knocking logic, which is good in its own way; but what's at the heart of faith is mystery and logic can't handle mystery. Trying to handle mystery with pure sweet reason is like trying to nail jello to the wall.

So: if we're supposed to emulate the Early Parents, it's all right, then, for us to dream and play and get inventive with Godstuff, because that too is our tradition, going back to the very first days practically, to the very act of Pentecost:

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men hall see visions
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days, I will pour out my Spirit
and they shall prophesy.

Yes, some of what we dream and imagine will be mistaken, and some of the mistakes will be small and unimportant and others will be serious. But that's no reason not to dream at all. For God can be trusted--deeply trusted--to sort through our dreams and visions, our poetry and music, mercifully and lovingly, seeing what virtue is in all our imaginative makings as well as where they fall short of the mark. We just have to be willing to listen, to learn, to trust--to be as happily at play in the Lord as the children we really are.

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 12 Aug 2000
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