Goodbye, Louisiana. I Tried
The image above is artist Alice Tait's fairytale map of Starhill, the country settlement where I grew up. It is the endpapers of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, the 2013 memoir that I produced upon returning to my hometown following the cancer death of my sister Ruthie. Today I end my return to Louisiana, by moving to Europe. I never, ever could have foreseen this denouement. My heart is beyond broken. But this is the way.
You shall leave everything you love most dearly:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first: You are to know the bitter taste
of others' bread, how salt it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
descending and ascending others' stairs.
Dante, Paradiso, 17:55-60
I just woke up here in Baton Rouge on the day that I am going to fly into exile. It sounds like such a pretentious word -- "exile" -- but that is exactly how I'm experiencing this move to Budapest. Don't get me wrong: I'm very, very pleased to have a place to go where I will be surrounded by friends, and can do good work. But this move today lands in me with the power of myth. The last time I had this feeling of dread in the face of the necessary was the day I left Catholicism to become Orthodox. I knew that the exile could not be avoided, but that did not remove the pain. I'll explain below.
That passage of Dante, by the way, is a prophecy his ancestor Cacciaguida, in heaven, makes about the poet's coming exile (in real life, Dante had already been living in exile). It's quite poignant the way Cacciaguida makes his point: in Florence, uniquely in Italy, the bread contains no salt; with every bite of his daily bread, Dante would be reminded of his exile. At the beginning and end of each day, coming down to start it and going up to bed to end it, he would be reminded that he is dependent on the charity of another man. That's what this feels like to me, what is happening to me today. Again, I'll explain below.
When I awakened, I had been dreaming that I was interviewing a young American Jewish man who had moved to Israel, and was learning how to be Israeli. (His name was "Ben Schachter," which is the name of the husband of an old friend, though I've never met Ben in real life, and have no idea what he looks like; such are dreams.) I was very eager to learn his secret, but he was too busy learning how to be Israeli to schedule much time with me. After awakening and thinking about this dream, I recalled the passage from Houllebecq's Submission, in which the melancholy, dissolute François pities himself when his sometime-girlfriend, Miriam, a Jew, tells him that she and her family are escaping the Islamification of France by moving to Israel. François wishes for a moment that he had an Israel to move to. But there is no Israel for people like us. This is not a complaint; it's just the truth. Maybe the dream was a warning not to expect more from Budapest than it can give.
Looking up that Houllebecq quote, I ran across this description of the central part of the novel, via The Imaginative Conservative:
François is not the only Frenchman dissatisfied with secular liberalism, and Ben Abbas wins the run-off. The university shuts down indefinitely. Myriam, in the days leading up to the election, leaves François to join her family in Israel. François, bereft of work and woman, heads aimlessly into the French countryside and finds himself at the shrine of Our Lady of Rocamadour, better known as the “Black Virgin,” where he stays for a few days.
The interlude at Rocamadour is the most piercing part of the book. Here, for the first time in the story, François gives his full attention to the transcendent. He sits every day before the statue of Mary, over a thousand years old, before whom Christian saints and kings knelt. “It was a strange statue,” he says. “It bore witness to a vanished universe.” He describes both Our Lady and the Christ on her lap as “erect” and distant, their eyes closed, full of regal and spiritual power. Here, François begins to have an almost mystical experience of what religious belief meant for the medieval person: “Moral judgment, individual judgment, individuality itself, were not clear ideas in the mind of Romanesque man, and I felt my own individuality dissolving the longer I sat in my reverie before the Virgin of Rocamadour.” Here in this shrine, in the presence of the Lady of Christianity and her incarnate Son, François finds an alternative to secular liberalism, one in which the purpose of human existence is conformity, in community, to the reality of Christ’s lordship. For a tantalizing moment, he does not resist that alternative.
But the next section begins, “Still, I had to get back to Paris.” As soon as the remembrance of his daily life—his career, still on hold in the reorganization, the new political order, the absence of Myriam—intrudes, François loses his glimpse of the transcendent. He tries once more to attain that glimpse but fails. In the most poignant sentence in the book, he says, “After half an hour, I got up, fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body, and I sadly descended the stairs that led to the parking lot.” In a way, this reversal of Dante’s journey in The Divine Comedy is the climax of the book. Everything that comes after is denouement, an epitaph of this conversion that was not.
I have told readers of my subscription-only Substack, where I write about spiritual things, and am workshopping my forthcoming book, that the purpose of the book is to entice readers to go to Rocamadour (so to speak) in their own lives, and to give once again attention to the divine, to the transcendent; to learn to see what is always there, and to allow this vision to change you. This is a long way of saying I am focusing on how to re-enchant the world, from the point of view of Christian truth. I believe that we will not be able to solve our many problems unless we experience true metanoia -- repentance and conversion to a radically new way of seeing the world. In this book, I'm going to talk about what this means, and how it is to be done. Events of this year have convinced me that this is the most important book I ever will have written.
Below is a slightly modified version of the last piece I published on Rod Dreher's Diary, my Substack (click here if you'd like to go to the subscription page). It is about saying farewell to Louisiana, where I returned on a nostos journey eleven years ago this fall. I arrived with such high hopes; I leave today having been stripped of everything but my faith. Here's what I wrote to my Substack friends:
Last week I had a good night. My friend L. drove down from Birmingham to spend an evening with me before I leave on Sunday to move to Hungary. We rented rooms at the St. Francisville Inn, a terrific, elegant old hotel in my hometown. We sat on the front porch and drank cocktails till dinner time, then ate in the hotel’s restaurant. After dinner we walked a mile down to Grace Episcopal Church, and talked about our lives, our wives (or ex-wife, in my case), and our families. We met again at breakfast this morning, and then said farewell.
Over coffee that morning, I told L. that I could never in a million years imagined things would turn out for me as they had. Eleven years ago, I moved here with my wife and children to be close to my Louisiana family. I expected to stay in St Francisville for the rest of my life. I wanted to. Now I am leaving Louisiana with all of that in ruins. I have been careful not to give too many details, out of the respect for the privacy of others, but when I tell you it’s all in ruins, I don’t exaggerate. If I could stay here in Louisiana, I would, but circumstances are such that there is nothing left for me here but pain and brokenness. (I owe it to others not to get into the details in public, and anyway, that's not important; I would only remind you who are eager to judge, and who think you know what's going on, that you really, really do not have all the complicated facts.) I am going into exile, comforted only by two things: the certainty that God is with me (which entails meaning to this suffering), and the knowledge that Dante’s exile was the making of him. I’m not Dante, heaven knows, but I have faith that this pain can bear good fruit in time, if I let it.
I thought that with The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, I had written a good book about Home, and Homecoming. I still think it’s a good book. It is a tribute to my Louisiana family, and — here’s the thing — everything in it is true! I'm not kidding. Those people, my family, really were as good as I wrote. I found myself re-reading passages these past few days, and marveling over the fact that all of this was completely true, but that coming tragedy cast it all in a certain light. That is, it wasn’t the whole truth, as I found out. Here, from the penultimate chapter of the book, is the epiphany that brought about this doom. The date is early April, 2012, and I am walking up the Boulevard St-Germain in Paris with my sister’s oldest child, who is about to tell me something about her two younger sisters:
“Uncle Rod, I need to tell you something,” Hannah said, her voice rising. “I really think you and Aunt Julie should stop trying so hard to get close to Claire and Rebekah. It’s not going to work.”
“Because we were raised in a house where our Mama had a bad opinion of you,” she said. “She never talked bad about you to us, but we could tell that she didn’t think much about you and the way you lived. We could hear the things she said, and Paw too. I had a bad opinion of you myself, until I started coming to visit y’all, and I saw how wrong they were.”
“I was 15 the first time I did that,” she continued. “My sisters are still young. They don’t know any different. All they know is how we were raised. It makes me sad to see you and Aunt Julie trying so hard, me knowing you’re not going to get anywhere. I don’t want y’all to be hurt.”
I had had no idea. It was true, too, as I later found out — but my folks and the Leming sisters stood by that truth. The problem wasn’t that Julie and I weren’t doing enough for them all. The problem was who I, and we, were. Learning this — that I had dragged my wife and kids into this trap out of sacrificial love of family — caused my health to collapse for years. And this, in turn, led to the collapse of my marriage. I came here offering them everything. I leave here with nothing. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away: blessed be the Name of the Lord.
That’s the story I’m trying hard to hold onto. Actually, I'm not trying at all; the fact that I'm holding onto it is entirely a gift of faith, from God. It is the rock atop which I have taken refuge in the tempest that my life became this spring.
Yes, I am bitter, but I’m fighting hard not to let bitterness overtake me. It can only destroy. It is strange how trying to find meaning and purpose in all this is propelling my research and writing of the re-enchantment book. On the drive back into Baton Rouge that morning, I got to thinking about the things I have been learning this year from my reading and research are helping me deal with this personal crisis in a more constructive way, and particularly in a more faith-filled way — which might well make the book more relevant to readers. For example, the things I have learned about the importance of focusing one’s attention has given me both impetus and techniques for cutting off my incessant drift into pointless nostalgia for the happy life I used to know — a nostalgia that blinds me to the good things God has for me now, despite it all.
As I left my hometown, I was aware that this was the end of my disastrous Louisiana sojourn — that this was goodbye. Ten years to the day from when Julie, the kids and I left for a month in Paris, to enjoy a month there with money I had earned from Little Way’s advance, I leave for Europe alone (though Matt will be joining me later). That was our last happy time as a couple, October in Paris. That formerly blessed memory is now darkened in my mind by the shadow of what was to come. It’s strange how the curse of divorce taints even the happiest memories.
As I motored southward, I turned off Highway 61 on the Powell Station Road, an oxbow that forms a semicircle around a nuclear power plant. When I was a small boy, before the plant was built in the 1970s, my dad would drive us down that picturesque country lane, looking for wildlife. I usually had my head in a book, which frustrated Daddy. Why don’t you look at the wonder of this world? he would ask, one way or another. Because this book is more interesting, I would reply, one way or another.
I can’t say if I was morally at fault, or not. A kid wants what he wants. I wish I had developed more of a natural interest in the woods, but my passion was elsewhere. I look back on it now, and know that Daddy just did not know what he was dealing with, in me. He handled it badly at times, but I can also recognize that he had a limited capability of understanding what he was doing. To what extent was he morally responsible for the deformations in our family system that led us to its demise, and to what extent was he caught in the jaws of something he did not understand? Does it even matter now?
I think it does. I’ll get to that in a second.
I passed by the old plantation house on the land that, in the 19th century, my ancestor Columbus Simmons, a Civil War veteran, had been the farm manager. My beloved aunts Lois and Hilda grew up on that land. Down at the bottom of the hill, on the other side of Grant’s Bayou, there were once train tracks, and Powell Station. That’s where the old aunts — one born in 1890, the other in 1893 — caught the train for a journey that ended with them working at the Red Cross canteen in Dijon, in 1918. It was from them that I caught my love for Europe — Hilda’s tale of being seized and kissed on the Champs d’Elysées when the armistice was announced lived vividly in my mind as an icon of romance and adventure. As a very small boy, I played on the front porch of the aunts’ cabin with a cardboard model of Powell Station, which no longer existed in the 1970s.
I stopped last week to photograph myself standing in front of what would have been Powell Station. From here, in a way, I depart for a life in Europe:
Look at how the vines and the grass have obliterated all trace of what was once a busy depot. Made me think of the young woman who waited our table at the Inn the night before. She’s from West Feliciana Parish, she told me. I had no idea who she was, or who here people were. She didn’t know us, though she did hear about my late sister. It was jarring, but that’s how time works, isn’t it? “I don’t know anybody around here anymore,” my dad would complain, to convey his confusion and frustration over the fact that the familiar place was changing in ways he couldn’t comprehend. I thought about those drives down country roads we would make as a family in the 1970s, and all those names I would hear from my folks, connected to old houses, even shotgun shacks — That’s where Guv and his wife lived. That was Daddy Romy’s place, and Miss Nanny’s. Mr. Fletcher Harvey lived over there, and under those trees was where Mr. Joe Cutrer lived alone. And so forth.
All those people are long dead. Their names won’t mean anything when my generation passes. Time really is another dimension of reality. It flows through matter and changes it. The desire for stability is human, and not wrong, but if we fail to grasp that time cannot be stopped or avoided, we become agents of destruction. I regarded my sister’s untimely death as an opportunity for renewal. I saw my Starhill family, and West Feliciana in a new light because of Ruthie’s heroic struggle to survive, and her death. I also knew that if our family was going to remain in Starhill after my parents passed, it would fall to me to establish myself and my wife and kids there. To push past all the friction between us, and to make it work through and because of love, and a duty to the Family. We thought that continuity would be a worthy thing, Julie and I did.
They -- my Louisiana family -- did not. They judged that the way to keep stability was to live as they always had, as a kind of bulwark against change. They did not see that opening up to us was not only the decent thing to do, but necessary for the family’s continuing. That, as the clever line from The Leopard has it, things have to change in order to stay the same. They froze in place as a response to the catastrophe of my sister's untimely death. And eleven years later, here we are. My move with my wife and kids back to West Feliciana Parish was my way of trying to graft us on to my family roots. It destroyed us.
Was my desire hubris? I don’t know. I’ll have the rest of my life to think about it. The unbinding of families, like the splitting of an atom, unleashes immense destructive energy, and that’s where Time has us all now. I would not wish this on anyone. My wife filed for divorce in the spring, but you should know that I believe she did the right thing, ultimately, because continuing in this ferocious pain after ten years was destroying both of us. It is a relatively amicable split, one that even our priests had suggested was finally the right thing. But even relatively amicable splits are terrible, and I beg your prayers for us all.
I stopped by the Starhill Cemetery to visit Daddy’s grave to tell him goodbye, and also Aunt Lois’s and Aunt Hilda’s graves, which are being absorbed by the earth:
I did not pray at my late sister’s grave. Too much turmoil in my heart right now. I passed by the little red house in which I grew up. The new owners have painted it white. It looks good.
I got to thinking last night about the destruction this divorce is wreaking on our three children. I started thinking about my sins against them. I’ll protect their privacy by not listing them here, but I felt very deeply last night all my failures as their father. I did right by them a lot too — I think more often than I failed them, but that’s not really for me to say. I pondered in depth last night the sins I know I committed against them — sins of omission, sins of commission — and resolved to confess them (to the kids, to Christ via my priest in Budapest) and to repent.
I also understood that my own dad was probably not so different from me. Given my own particular brokenness, my own limitations, and my own burdens, I was blind to certain needs my children had, and certain things they had a right to expect from me. It hit my heart: your folks and your Starhill family caused a hell of a lot of damage, but what about what you have done to your own kids? Do you have a plan for resolving that?
I thought about how sin is a force that flows through Creation, commingled with grace in the sense that both energies pulsate through all things. My Starhill family received both grace and sin, and the quality of their characters decided whether and how that force would pass on to me. It is the same with me: I am a refractor and a transmitter of that destructive energy -- but also, if I choose to be, of grace.
Then it came to me, and I think this was straight from God: the only way to stop the flow of sin is through forgiveness. There is no other way. This is a spiritual law as real as any physical law. I am going to have to find some way to forgive, if I want my kids to forgive me for whatever role I played in the destruction of their family. To be clear, I want you readers to know that neither my wife nor I were ever unfaithful. But that doesn’t mean that we did not fail. We did. I did. I have to own that.
I don’t know how I’m going to manage this, but I have no choice. One of the things that I have learned from my reading this summer for the re-enchantment book is that spiritual laws are as real as physical laws, and that if I want to participate in the restoration of order and harmony, I need to submit to the Logos — and that means confessing, repenting, and forgiving. This is hard. Oh God, is it. I dread it. But to do anything other than this is to live by lies.
Then it hit me: this is a key to re-enchantment! To know — and not just to know, but to feel — that the connection between spirit and matter is intrinsic and irreducible, and that what I do in the world of spirit and in the world of the flesh matters at the deepest level of reality. It’s not a relationship of analogy, of abstraction; it’s the realest thing there is. Last night, lying in the dark in my room, praying, I felt this very strongly — the connection, I mean. I felt it so strongly that it gave me new strength to get on with this book, having lost so much forward motion this summer to having been poleaxed by the divorce.
It was kind of a mystical experience, what happened to me last night. I had been listening to Jordan Peterson’s new podcast interview with Matthieu Pageau, about his book on symbolism in Genesis. I ordered the book on Kindle, but hadn’t read it yet. This graf from Alastair Roberts’s generous review of the Pageau book is what I was thinking about yesterday, from the Peterson podcast interview:
We see this at a number of points within Scripture. Light and darkness, again, are related to these themes. Light is the central, overarching principle that helps to illumine those things that are material beneath it. The matter relates to those things that express and give power to that light. On the one hand, you can have the darkness of the earth that is unlit, and matter that is opaque and inscrutable. But then, you also have the dazzling reality of the light, which is very hard to perceive either. It is the bringing together of those things: the light—which does not have the same materiality, flesh, strength, and force to it—and the earth—which can be opaque, and lacking in light. Bringing those things together brings illumination. Light can be dazzling and matter can be confounding, but the two come together in symbolism and bring understanding.
Last night, lying in bed in the dark, listening to Arvo Pärt and praying, I felt this in my bones. It’s not just an abstract principle to me, not anymore. It’s as real as the table on which my laptop sits.
What, then, do I make of the last eleven years, and (to use Walker Percy’s term) my failed re-entry into West Feliciana? Julie and I decided to make this move because every sign indicated that we should. We prayed about it. I am still sure that we followed God’s will in doing so. But people have free will. I can think of any number of occasions in which the choices particular people made when faced with a moment of decision might have averted this catastrophe. But they didn’t — we didn’t — and again … here we are.
Yet I am grateful to God that I was able to tell a story of family — a good family, my own — and a beautiful place, West Feliciana Parish, which is full of good people. That story, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, will endure, I hope, because it is full of truth, beauty, and goodness. The way it ends, redemption was there for all of us — if only some would have taken it. The promise remains, though. The shattering of my health that came from my family’s rejecting led me to Dante, and reading Dante drew me to the depths of understanding my own heart, and repenting of my sins. I learned to accept the love of God the Father, for the first time in my life. And thanks to God’s grace through Dante and the ministry of my then-priest, I pushed through on loving my Dad even though he didn’t love me the way I wanted and needed — and was therefore able to hear him say before he died that he was sorry. This is what I posted in this space on the day he died. The fact that the day I had long anticipated as absolutely shattering to me ended with deep peace and harmony, because we had reconciled, was one of the most precious gifts God ever gave to me. It would not have happened had I not persevered with love, even when I didn't want to. That is so precious. This story is all in the paperback and Kindle editions of How Dante Can Save Your Life.
It cost me my marriage and my own family, though. If you ask me today: Was it worth it?, I would say, God, no! I wish I had never thought to move back. I bet I would have an intact family if I had. Or would I? Who can say what would have happened. All I know is that my wife and I obeyed God’s leading in coming to Louisiana. The rest of it, who can say? It did not have to end this way, but it has. On Friday afternoon, I stopped at the shoe repair shop to pick up something, and fell into conversation with a Portuguese woman who told me I should move to Lisbon -- that she wants to return there when she finishes her work at the university here. I told her that my wife and I had gone to Lisbon on our honeymoon, and had visited Fatima too. "Ah, Fatima!" she said, brightening. "You are Catholic!" No, I said, Orthodox, but I love the Holy Virgin, and depend on her prayers.
I noticed the woman was wearing a cross and a medal inviting the protection of St. Michael the Archangel -- a saint who has shown up repeatedly in my work on this book. It turns out that this Portuguese woman is also going through a divorce, and is also relying on Christ to carry her through it. What do you know, but her court date is on the same date that Julie and I met all those years ago -- a date significant to the Fatima visions. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but it made me pay special attention to her last words to me before departing: trust in God, because for all you know, all these bad things are happening as part of a grand plan.
The Portuguese woman's words sent me back to this passage from Little Way. In it, I recall lying in Ruthie's bed at her home, while she and her husband were at the hospital recovering from her surgery. She had just learned that she had Stage Four cancer. I was sleeping in her bed at home, with her youngest child sleeping next to me.
Till that point, I hadn’t allowed myself to give in to my emotions, but there, in Ruthie’s bed, under cover of darkness, I let go. I wept convulsively, and wordlessly demanded that God justify what He had allowed to happen to my sister and her family. I knew that God could not by His nature will evil, but He let this happen for some reason. Why? I screamed silently, scalding tears rushing out of the corners of my eyes.
Then, suddenly, I became aware of a presence in the bedroom, hovering over the bed. It instantly sobered and quieted me. I had my eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling dimly illuminated by the security lights outside the window. Nothing was visible there. But something – someone – was there. Was it God? Was it an angel? I can’t say. I can’t even say if it was male or female. But I sensed that it was a being of some sort, and that it conveyed authority and strength that was almost physical. It felt as solid, as cool, as serene as a marble altar. Something, or someone, was there.
I did not hear a word with my ears, but in the half a minute this experience lasted, words formed in my mind. I cannot remember them precisely, but the presence communicated to me that Ruthie would not survive this cancer, but that I should not fear, that all would be well, because this must happen. It was in the order of things.
And that was all. The presence departed, leaving me with a sense of calm resignation. If it must be, it must be. But I cannot tell anybody but Julie about this, I resolved, because I don’t want them to lose hope. Then I fell asleep.
I did tell Julie about it. From that point on, we did not believe Ruthie would survive, but of course we kept this knowledge to ourselves. I still believe that God cannot will evil and suffering, but that somehow, He brought good out of it. I have been approached by people over the years, who read Little Way, and who told me how it led them to make big changes in their lives. I will never know this side of eternity what good Ruthie's story did for people. Similarly, I have to have faith that He will bring good out of the pain that my wife and kids and I are enduring now.
When I looked in the Little Way manuscript for that passage, I found this, telling about the days immediately following Ruthie's return home from the hospital with her cancer diagnosis:
That first cancer weekend at home, Ruthie retreated to Paw’s pond with Mike, their children, and their fishing poles. Hidden in the embrace of a pine grove, the pond, no wider across than a strong man could throw a stone, had always been Ruthie’s refuge. And now she had returned once more, to gather herself before undertaking the fight for her life.
John Bickham knew what chemotherapy would do to Ruthie’s body. He understood that this afternoon would likely be the last time the Lemings would be together, looking like themselves. He asked Mike for permission to linger unobtrusively in the pine grove, taking photographs of their day together. He thought these pictures might mean something to them one day. Mike agreed. That day, John took a shot of Ruthie in a black track suit, pole in hand, line in the water, inside a hazy golden ball. It was probably a trick of light on the lens, but it looks for all the world as if Ruthie at that moment was literally dwelling within light.
“I know I’m standing right in the middle of God’s will, where he wants me to be,” Ruthie told me by phone on Sunday night, after I’d returned home to Philly. Though her breathing was labored, she sounded so sure of herself.
For Ruthie, standing the middle of God’s will was as simple as casting for bass. For her tortured, unsettled brother, it was not so simple. Several years earlier, I had broken camp and continued my religious pilgrimage, leaving the Roman Catholic church and settling among Orthodox Christians. Five years of thinking and writing about the Catholic child sex abuse crisis had eroded my ability to believe the claims of the Roman church. I had assumed that as long as I had the theological arguments straight in my head, my Catholic faith could withstand anything. Yet the anger, fear, and loathing within me at the Catholic bishops who had allowed this corruption to flourish eventually overcame the intellectual foundations of my Catholic faith – and, I worried, threatened my ability to believe in Christianity at all. For my wife and me, from a theological point of view, Orthodoxy was the last place left. We washed ashore in Orthodoxy as victims of shipwreck.
Leaving Catholicism – or, to be more accurate, having my Catholicism torn out of me – was the most painful thing I’ve ever gone through. I don’t know what my sister thought of this, but if she gave it any thought at all, she probably figured it was more of Rod’s churchy nonsense.
Becoming acquainted with the Orthodox way of approaching God, though, helped me understand how and why I had failed. And the image of Ruthie standing in the light called to mind a story I had learned about St. Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian Orthodox monk and mystic of the early 19th century. In the Bible, figures who are dwelling within the will of God – Moses on Mount Sinai, Jesus on Mount Tabor – are seen by followers surrounded by dazzling light. The monk Seraphim is believed to have shown this to Nikolai Motovilov, a religious seeker who came to visit him at his forest hermitage near the rural town of Sarov.
Motovilov wrote that the elder explained to him that the purpose of living a Christian life is not to say prayers, fast, receive the sacraments, and go to church. Those things, rather, are only good if they help one “acquire the Holy Spirit.” On that day in the snow outside of Sarov, Motovilov asked Seraphim to explain what he meant by this. Seraphim took his guest by the shoulders and said: “We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?”
Seraphim’s face and clothing had become a luminous white, shining so bright it hurt the seeker’s eyes to look at him. The saint told Motovilov that he too was in the shining. This, he explained, is what it means to be illuminated by grace. Seraphim told the young man to go into the world and tell what was revealed to him so that others might believe more deeply. Said the elder, “The Lord seeks a heart full to overflowing with love for God and our neighbor.”
Whether John Bickham’s camera captured something mystical about my sister, or more likely caught the sun’s rays at an odd angle, there was no doubt in my mind that I was seeing the beginning of a transfiguration within Ruthie. The week before, she was, to my eyes, just my sister. She was a kind, happy, loving country girl, certainly, and a friend to all – and that was more than enough. But now I began to suspect that something else was going on, that there was more to Ruthie than I had imagined -- and that it was slowly being revealed.
Was I guilty of the “narrative fallacy” – that is, imposing a story I wanted to see and needed to hear on an ordinary cancer patient’s experience? Maybe. Or maybe I was seeing grace. Whatever the truth, my skepticism was not strong enough to prevent me from reaching out to an estranged Louisiana cousin and asking his forgiveness for hurtful things I had said and done many years earlier, when we were on opposite sides of a political fight. He graciously accepted my apology, and offered one of his own. We agreed that what we had seen these past few days in and around Ruthie had given us a new vision of life, and how we could live together as a family, in spite of our past.
It is an awesome thing to realize that forgiveness is always possible to offer, and to receive. Ruthie was no more special or kind or loving today than she was the week before, the month before, or the year before. The only difference was that we now knew that she was really sick. It took this catastrophe of cancer to make me see Ruthie as she really was -- and to see myself as having the opportunity to live within that purifying light.
I remember thinking at the time: Why is it like that with us? Why do we turn away from the opportunities for grace and mercy, and withhold them from others, who need them as much as we do? Like Motovilov, we fallible creatures sometimes need to see something amazing to make us grasp that life is a miracle, and that hope and redemption is in all things, every day of our lives, if only we could be humble enough to accept it.
Perhaps God was bringing about harmony and healing of souls through the radical disharmony Ruthie’s cancer was causing in her body. Her ultimate healing – that is, her final reconciliation with God, which might or might not include the healing of her body – would, I thought, depend on her being confident that God's hand is in whatever happens, and that He will bring good out of it.
I needed to read that this morning, like I needed to breathe.
If there’s anything I’ve learned since the artist Luca Daum, and the late Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky came into my life with their truth-bearing art, if God has a single message for me now, it is this: DON’T LOOK BACK WITH NOSTALGIA!
I found this in Alastair Roberts’s review of the Pageau book:
But when [the people of Israel] are cast into the sea, and they are wandering in the wilderness, that is the dominion of time—when there is a transformation, a breaking down, an overwhelming of space by this realm of disordering chaos and transformation.
Integration to the core principle is the drying out of the flooded land. So, the more that we bring things into integration with core principles—which is what he is trying to do in this book, in a number of different ways—the ‘land’ is being dried out. For instance, in your reading of the Bible, there can be a lot of the drying out of the land. You are reading a text, and a lot of it is mysterious and strange. And then you start to find these principles that make sense of things. For instance, the identities of priests, king, and prophet, and how those different vocations relate to each other. For me, that was a very important principle that helped to dry out the land of Scripture and to integrate it to a more central principle. Now, there is much of that land that is still covered by water—or pockets of it that are covered by water—but that core principle establishes a dry order within that flooded land. And it gradually dries it out.
When you come to difficult passages and you have that integrating principle, it helps you to make sense of things. You read those passages now, and they are no longer strange in the same way, because there is a core principle that can relate the concrete details and bring them into a larger symbolic structure. And this is a lot of what he is doing within the book.
On the other hand, you have a failure of integration leading a flooding of the land. And so, when there is some point where the order breaks down, where the order does not hold, where some fact overwhelms things—some stumbling stone that you trip upon—then the order breaks down and the land is flooded. It can be very hard to establish order again within that structure. You have lost the order, and so there must be some new integrating principle that must come along if you are going to re-establish that.
I had this intuitive sense, reading that, that the core mission of this book I’m working on is to create arks for people to climb aboard to survive liquid modernity. That’s what The Benedict Option is, and Live Not By Lies too. But this is at the deepest spiritual and metaphysical level.
And yet, for these principles to matter, to be able to be appropriated by others, they need to be embedded in a story. Maybe that’s why all this is happening to me. Maybe the destruction I’m living through now can be turned to good somehow, by helping others find God, and find harmony and integration. I have to believe that this is possible.
One of the gifts that has come into my life this year is getting to know Martin Shaw, the Englishman who is a specialist in myth. Martin is a recently converted Christian. He was at the end of a 101-day sojourn camping in the Dartmoor forest, when out of the sky one night came a glowing rainbow, like an aurora borealis come to earth. He didn't understand it. He went to his tent, and to sleep, and was tormented all night by dreams that he was being hunted by a stag. When he awakened, he was certain that the stag was Jesus Christ. He sought baptism, and became a Christian. Well, this morning I read his latest Substack entry, in which he describes his recent pilgrimage to the Isle of Patmos, where St. John had his apocalyptic revelation. Excerpt:
It’s clear to many we are also living in apocalyptic times, but do we speak an apocalyptic language, down at the deepest level? Apocalypse is more than a horror show, a perpetual unease interspersed with flat out terror.
Media tells us every moment of every day that catastrophe is omnipresent. That part we get: climate emergency, war, poverty, plague. We get the outward manifestation of the ‘revealing’. Which often feels more like falling apart than emerging wisdom. So what about the inner? What we rarely have is the symbolic field through which to glean deeper meaning. We get the rupture but we lack the rapture.
If John turned up with a new letter, could we even understand it?
Where in modern Christianity are the apocalyptic listeners? The ones reporting back? The canaries down the mine? I doubt the divine world has decided to abandon this register of communication. We need the contemplative and hermetic traditions more than ever. I’m suggesting taking the mystical road within Christianity seriously.
I think many Christians are slightly embarrassed of it. It’s so far from their daily lives it’s effectively in exile. It’s too unwieldy, asks too much, speaks in tongues of fire. But shun that and you’ve exiled your own God. You’ve exiled the Holy Spirit because it’s simply not convenient.
It’s heartening to me that the early Christians could ‘think’ in the way John was laying out.
Another thing about biblical apocalypse is that it involves the return of Christ, rather than resulting in bleak nothingness. Something astonishing is coming. The Divine King returns. This is something that happens over and over and over in the life of a spiritually awake person. So revelation is actually a passage not an ending, it’s leading somewhere. If we hear about the apocalypse these days, we are more likely to hear about zombies than Yeshua. Nothing grows from it. It’s a diminishment not an alchemy.
And there are times in our lives when everything must go, nothing must stay the same. There are points of no return. And the bible seems to track those moments. Every time I pick it up it seems to highlight an issue that is flared up in my life right now. It swoops along beside like a hawk. It is wonderfully and troublingly alive. So whilst I ask about what a modern apocalyptic letter may look like, I still return to the old book for the most up to date news. Amazing how it does that. Nothing in the bible has stopped happening.
Nothing in the Bible has stopped happening. Marvelous, isn't it?
I could be wrong, but I have a sense that my life doesn’t belong to me from this point on. St. Galgano’s sword miraculously pierced a stone, revealing to him that the Lord is the Lord of Creation, and can make it obey Him. The sword symbolizes Galgano’s will to power. He surrendered it to Christ. In Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, Andrei only finds harmony when he directs all his attention to the candle he was ferrying across the bleak pool as an act of love for a suffering friend. He dies after placing his candle on the stone, Andrei does, but I read that as a sign that we can only ever know true harmony and completeness outside of Time, in eternity. Our task in the mortal life is to place serving Him, and others, ahead of fulfilling our own egos. Lord knows that is an evergreen lesson for me. This astonishing final scene in Nostalghia -- a model of self-sacrificial focus and patience -- is a blueprint for the rest of my life. Light the candle. Start walking. Like Andrei, I want nothing more than to be at Home with my family. That's no longer possible. So what do I do? Well, what I do not do is what I've been doing for a long time: mourning, paralyzed, over what I have lost, and cannot get back.
Leaving Louisiana now, I know that I’m gone for good. I also know that I will probably be like Dante for the rest of my days: moving from place to place, tasting the salt of other men’s bread. But God brought great good out of Dante’s exile. The thing that I wanted more than anything else in this world, and have wanted from the time I was a little boy, is to feel at Home in the world, with a father who approves of me. That was not to be mine, except, by God’s grace, in heaven. That part of my life is over. But my life is not yet over. My charge going forward is to keep my eyes on Christ, and not on the serpent spooling out of my mind, trying to distract me with longing for the happy life I once had, or with anger, or bitterness, or unforgiveness. All of that needs to be buried in the stone of my confession of faith.
This is going to be hard for me, because I’m hurting, and my kids are hurting, and my ex-wife is hurting. I want it to stop so badly, and have for the past ten years. But none of us can share in Christ’s victory unless we also share in his suffering. The events of the last ten years could destroy me … or it could make me, and make me into someone through whom grace passes unmixed with the corrupting force of sin. That choice belongs to me. That choice belongs to all of us.
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As Scripture tells us, all Creation groans. It so happens that some of us have been given talents by God that allow us to turn those groans into pleasing and edifying music. Pray that I use what God has given me well, to give Him glory and to lead others to raise their faces to heaven, and receive.
I’ll write to y’all from Budapest. Thanks for your prayers for me, a sinner, and for your support. I think my Substack newsletter is about to go deep again, as we reach the core of the project.