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Sunday, December 26, 2010

When words fail

In the all-too-brief visit to my home congregation in Adelaide, fresh from the zeal and excitement of beginning theological study, I receive the sobering news that one of my congregants (with whom I had formed a warm relationship over the past few years) has effectively been handed a death sentence: palliative care. Cancer treatments have failed, and all that is left is the waiting for the inevitable end.

Oh please, can we not do this?
His attendance at last Sunday's service required a Herculean effort, though I did not know it at the time, to honour the relationship we had formed, by attending. I feel unworthy of this, and had I known, I would have begged him to forebear.

Ministers jokingly refer to the "rites of passage" function of our work as the "hatch, match, and dispatch department." It's a blithe way of filing events of emotion and mystery and great significance so we don't have to take our role in them too seriously, and avoid the crushing sense of responsibility that comes when people actually NEED us to AD-MINISTER these passages.

The hatch and the match can be "diarized" around other commitments, and are negotiable and non-urgent.

The dispatch, however, is nobody's poodle. It comes when it will and you need to be ready to drop things and just be there for the people in your charge. And, in cases like this one, where you know and love the departing, you have to wrestle your own grief and sadness and sense of impotence into a firm choke-hold, so that the engagement doesn't become all about you.

People most need religion, it seems, just like they most need poetry-- that is, when the usual order of life drops away, and the abyss is glimpsed.

For all the keyboard-jousting I've been doing, for all the libraries chock-full of theological texts I've been gorging on, for all the jumping-through-verbal-hoops I'm called to acrobat--what USE is any of it, in the face of what Phillip Larkin calls:

... the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

And how does a minister comfort one facing this without the customary blandishments of "God" or "Heaven" or "Eternal life"?

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

So, failing an appeal to child-like faith, can stoicism be any real comfort? Brave words, after all, are just words.

Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no-one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

I see now that the month I spent at my dying father's bedside in 2003 changed me utterly and forever, and constituted a second puberty, a rite of passage, for me. For all the false hope and happy talk that went on around him that month, we all knew what was coming. He knew I did not share his bog-Irish Catholic faith, and to his credit he did not ask me to pray with him or for him, though I would have, and without a nano-second's hesitation, if I thought it might comfort him. But he knew me better, and this showed he loved me better than I loved him, and I loved him a lot.

In the end all I could do for him, as he drifted in and out of consciousness, was to be there, quietly witnessing ('with-nessing'), suffering it with him, in what I can only call 'solidarity'. In the end, words failed. Much of his conscious time, we just held each other's hand, and I can feel his calloused palm now in mine as I type this sentence.

If this is what is wanted, I can do this, and an age of theology cannot teach it. Solidarity with suffering has to be learned (what cannot be taught can still be learned) by bitter experience. It took me a month with a dying man I loved to move from false hope ("surely God will save him") to silent witness (Mary and Mary Magdelene weeping at the foot of the cross, powerless). That he was my father intensified the urgency, made me learn it quick.

What were they thinking, back in the day, when 20-something, fresh-faced young virginal males were the preferred ministerial livestock? What in that time could they have suffered? What could they have known about counselling, say, the bereft, or the couple locked for years in bitter marital strife? No wonder churches got a reputation for being staffed by irrelevant, dreamy, bookish bird-brains.

Butter could not melt in that mouth

Every time I complain about how old I'm getting, I need to remember that if this work is worth doing, I actually NEED the aches, pains, losses, scars, and open wounds I carry from a half-century of living on this 'b*tch of an earth' (as Beckett put it).  All the dark stuff we enshadow to make ourselves look so capable and invulnerable--the doubt, fear, and despair we keep constantly at bay--is precisely what gives us solidarity and communion with our fellow beings. It is easier to feel closer to someone like Larkin, who puts all this out there, tells his secret terror of death, than to someone like, say, Donald Trump, who has evidently never had a moment's self-doubt (even about that absurd comb-over of his).

Sir, your mortality is showing...

In fact, now that I think of it, Trump's combed-over quiff is an excellent emblem of the armour of persona, the shiny shop-front we construct to meet the world that doesn't want to hear about our fears and failings and mutability. All such constructed selves are usually absurd, swept as they are over phrenologically lumpy underside writhing with demons of mortality and decay. As more hair falls out and the lumps begin to show, more hair spray, more elaborately concupiscent blow-waves are needed to hide the awful truth--and the construct gets stranger and stranger.

Such a natural look-one of the many faces of denial

In an age of Berlusconi's hair-transplants (which he denies), Clooney's nip'n'tuck (which he admits), and washed-up rock-chicks' collagened lips (looking for all the world like a transplant from Nemo), we have never in human history been in greater denial of aging, and the only end of aging.  There is nothing more mutable than the flesh, but you wouldn't know it. We seem to have lost the knack of aging gracefully, in full realisation and acceptance of the life cycle. Perhaps this is because no-one any longer believes in heaven, and the idea of fitting your INNER life for the next world seems pointless.

You can always tell the age from the hands, they say.

If this is IS all there is, it's hard to argue with that ethic. But notwithstanding all the glossy surfaces, "to this end must we come" as Hamlet said, and the dying man I will sit with today is having to weigh all this--fear, faith, doubt, meaning, purpose--and in that grapple, it's good to have someone in your corner, ready with the water and the towel, a witness without words, to "ad-minister" some comfort.

The "ad" part means "to the other". Let me not forget that today.

Solidarity forever.

Post-script: news today that my friend has passed away, Christmas morning. I had visited him two days earlier, and the fore-going was written around that visit.

In accordance with his wishes, I have been asked to conduct the memorial service. Past suffering now, he goes ahead to discover the great mystery. I will do my best for those of us who remain and will miss him.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Some assembly required--notes toward a pre-Christmas address

Congratulations on your purchase of the new Christmas 2010, Millenium edition! Once assembled, it will give you 12 days of shiny, fluffy service, creating rosy nostalgia that will long outlast what you ever intended!

Please ensure that the following parts have been included:

Parts list:

12 months a-paying off credit cards

11 cards from people you’ve never met.

10 metric tonnes of shredded wrapping paper

9 unwrapped bottles of undrinkable wine

8 hours whiled away a-tv watching

7 9-volt batteries needed

6 buttery puddings

5 useless things!

4 maiden wickets

3 invitations declined

2 hours at church

....and Her Majesty’s Christmas address!

Assembly instructions:

Step 1: Fold ‘goodwill toward men’ into 'peace on earth'. Note: this may require the use of force.

Step 2: Insert token incarnation of God into large corporate-profit-driven consumer orgy.

Step 3: Screw financial solvency.

Step 4: Hold ever-dimming fragments of nostalgic Christmas memories in your hands. Do not worry if they dissolve like wet cake in the rain. This is normal.

Step 5: Join these fragments of memory together with lashings of exotic foodstuffs and liberal amounts of drink

Step 6: Place well to the back of your mind the nagging sense that you should be giving all this money to charity and spending time working a soup kitchen

Step 7: Nail Samaritans' number directly above phone.

Step 8: Wipe with clean soft swaddling cloth and lay in manger. (Avoid contact with livestock if planning to travel.)

Please discard packaging responsibly. Or in the Coles parking lot dumpster.

Congratulations! your Christmas 2010 millennium edition is now IN-complete.

(If for any reason you are not completely happy with your purchase, contact one of our service centres for support. Note: due to factors beyond our control, response times may vary up to, well, eternity.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Haggling over the price"

Churchill (drunk) to Socialite: "Madam, would you sleep with me for a million pounds?"

Socialite to Churchill: (thinks a moment) "Why of course, Winston."

Churchill to Socialite: "Madam, would you sleep with me for 10 pounds?"

Socialite (outraged): "Of course not! What do you think I am?"

Churchill: "We've established what you are; now we're simply haggling over the price."

The story may be apocryphal, but it sure sounds like him.

As I write this, Derek Jacobi, one of the greatest classical actors of his generation, is featured in a series of UK TV ads wherein he plays Ebenezer Scrooge in order to shill Sony electronic products for Christmas gifts. This, while he prepares form a national tour of King Lear.

Why oh why did he not choose a dignified retirement?

Also during the silly season, Dame Helen Mirren cheerfully spruiks Wii Fit for Nintendo. Apparently it keeps her the fit GILF she is widely reputed to be. And she never needs to leave the house to do anything so common as join a gym.

What next, the Ab-swing?

John Malkovich features along with Clooney in an ad for Nescafe instant coffee. They both look a litle embarassed.

One imagines their lives are actually a lot like this.

These are a just a few examples. The list goes on.

All actors do ads. But you'd think you'd get to a certain level of success, or wealth, or notoriety, or at least self-respect to be able to turn demeaning dreck like this down.

I have a pretty good idea of what they'd say to this carping--"Oh yeah? Do you have any idea how much they're PAYING me to do this? I'd have to run Lear for ten years before I made this kind of money. You, son, are just jealous no one wants to give YOU a millions quid for an ad. Or for anything. Grow up."

The depressing thing is that there just no longer seems to be an answer to this sort of logic anymore. Ads pay well; money's what it's about. Too much of it is never enough. There's always another chalet, another island, another private jet to buy, or whatever. A buck's a buck.

 I mean, I know if you do a film, you're essentially fattening up the bottom line for some multi-national conglomerate, that's just part of the game. But getting in front of a camera, and charming poor in-debt slobs out there in a major recession to buy more junk they don't need with money they ain't got? And doing it only because it makes you more stratospherically rich than they? Is that what you spent years honing your talent, developing your career, giving up the easy blandishments of a normal life for? Is this finally, what you've come to?

Have you, finally, no sense of shame?

I've been trying to think of great actors that never sold anything, never became a corporate shill, not once, not ever. I'm struggling...Any suggestions?

I've done ads, but had no noteworthy and respected career to foresake or to cheapen by doing so. Yes, they paid insanely well, totally disproportionate to any "acting" involved. I once made 12 grand over two years just for showing up on a given day, eating french fries, and doing one smirk to the camera. I do the smirk at parties now. I call it "my 12 grand look". There were many others, some better paid, and none of them worth the money I was getting. This is where the real dough is in the acting game.

Mamet called acting "A whore's profession", and this sort of thing makes it easy to see why. I used to get the standard question from casting agents: "Is there anything you wouldn't advertise?" 

"I draw the line at land mines," I used to joke.

But I think we both knew that if the check were big enough, that qualm might be sorely tested. Toward the end, I refused anything connected with drink or gambling or the financial sector--in Australia, this represents quite a lot of commerce. And if you're going to have scruples that discount advertising obvious social ills, you might as well quit. Which I did.

I don't claim moral credit for this, and the Catholic in me suspects that the stains on my conscience will not wash off as easily as the make-up did. Once you take money for something you know to be disgraceful, your soul dies a litte bit, and like brain cells, the bit that dies never comes back.

For, once upon a time, and not that long ago, I looked squarely into my soul, and saw that if the money was right, I'd have f***ed Churchill too.

The horror. The horror.