Into the Deep

by Jessica Hickey, (c.) 2010
Wednesday, 20 January 2010

"Three cravings of the self, three great expressions of man's restlessness, only mystic truth can fully satisfy. The first is the craving which makes him a pilgrim and a wanderer. It is the longing to go out from his normal world in search of a lost home, a 'better country;' an El Dorado, a Sarras, a Heavenly Sion. The next is the craving of heart for heart, which makes him, a lover. The third is the craving for inward purity and perfection, which makes him an ascetic, and in the last resort, a saint."
(Evelyn Underhill)

" . . . He said to Simon, "Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch." (Luke 5)

Greek mythology provides us with the famous legend of Apollo & Daphne. Apollo, god of the sun, was pierced through the heart with the golden arrow of Cupid, whom he had offended, causing him to fall in love with the nymph Daphne. Cupid made the punishment more keen by piercing Daphne with an arrow of lead, which filled her with abhorrence for Apollo, so that she rejected and fled from him. As Thomas Bullfinch tells it,

"The god grew impatient to find his wooings thrown away, and, sped by Cupid, gained upon her in the race. It was like a hound pursuing a hare, with open jaws ready to seize, while the feebler animal darts forward, slipping from the very grasp. So flew the god and the virgin—he on the wings of love, and she on those of fear. The pursuer is the more rapid, however, and gains upon her, and his panting breath blows upon her hair. Her strength begins to fail, and, ready to sink, she calls upon her father, the river god: "Help me, Peneus! open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger!" Scarcely had she spoken, when a stiffness seized all her limbs; her bosom began to be enclosed in a tender bark; her hair became leaves; her arms became branches; her foot stuck fast in the ground, as a root; her face became a tree-top, retaining nothing of its former self but its beauty."

The tale ends with Apollo—in what I have always thought an impudent gesture—declaring, "Since you cannot be my wife, you shall assuredly be my tree" and taking her boughs to wear as a crown upon his head. The irony in the story of Daphne, of course, is that, in trying to preserve her Self from the god, she manages to destroy her Self, or at any rate, to effect a cure far worse than the affliction.

I bring up this tale because I sense in the human condition a sort of latent "Daphne syndrome," a terror of the embrace of God, or a feeling that in sanctity, we will lose what we are, and like Daphne, become something other than ourselves, something less, a thing insensate from which individual personhood has more or less departed. I don't mean to say that any such dread is clear and present before our eyes, but that it lies quietly in the background, and shows itself in that sleepy, subtle reluctance, the hesitation or "holding back" in the spiritual life.

If I asked a roomful of my teen students, "Who wishes to go to heaven?" all would raise their hands. But if I asked, "Who would like to be perfectly holy, right now?" there would be a moment of pause, hands would raise and then falter. I would see them thinking, "Wait—do I want that?" They would raise their hands in the end, maybe because they thought they ought to. This may happen to us adults as well. And the reluctance I am trying to describe here is not that which arises from attachment to vice, or our "pet sin," as when Augustine prayed, "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet!" Rather, it is this odd silent conflict, natural to all of us, in which the desire to preserve the self dances a slow circle around the desire for that Other for whom we were made. Somehow, we are chary of being fully caught, lest we not get free again.

C.S. Lewis, in his essay, "A Slip of the Tongue," captures this struggle:

"There is, so to speak, a voice inside me that urges caution. It tells me to be careful, to keep my head, not to go too far, not to burn my boats. I come into the presence of God with a great fear lest anything should happen to me within that presence which will prove too intolerably inconvenient when I have come out again into my 'ordinary' life. I don't want to be carried away into any resolution I shall afterwards regret. For I know I shall be feeling quite different after breakfast; I don't want anything to happen to me at the altar which will run up too big a bill to pay then . . . . . We are like very honest but reluctant taxpayers. We approve of the income tax in principle. We make our returns truthfully. But we dread a rise in the tax."

Lewis summarizes: "This is my endlessly recurrent temptation: to go down to that Sea (I think St. John of the Cross called God a sea), and there neither to dive, nor swim, nor float, but only dabble and splash, careful not to get out of my depth and holding onto the lifeline which connects me with my things temporal."

Jesus has said that we must "Put out into the deep." We must step into that little ship which, in the words of the poet Bridges, "fearest nor sea rising, nor sky clouding." I think our baptism teaches us in a most concrete way, that we should not be afraid to go into that water, to be immersed. For in that depth, we do not become, like Daphne, a shadow of our former self; we become the real self.

In Charles Kingsley's fairy tale of the Water-Babies, the little maltreated chimney-sweep Tom tumbles into a pool on the heaths and is presumed dead, yet in reality, he has taken on a different sort of existence. Like Daphne, his form changes, but in becoming different, he finds he is something more that he was before. Once in the depths, he finds that he can truly breathe this atmosphere, and that his new self is more genuine & delightful than that which he left behind:

"Tom was quite alive; and cleaner, and merrier, than he ever had been. The fairies had washed him, you see, in the swift river, so thoroughly, that not only his dirt, but his whole husk and shell had been washed quite off him, and the pretty little real Tom was washed out of the inside of it, and swam away, as a caddis does when its case of stones and silk is bored through, and away it goes on its back, paddling to the shore, there to split its skin, and fly away as a caperer, on four fawn-coloured wings."

Perhaps our reluctance stems in part from the difficulty of comprehending those realities which are spiritual, eternal, of heaven. Seeing, as we do now, only their dim reflection in the things of earth (including that reflection which is our Self), it is hard to see how the loss of these things can show us something better. Again C.S. Lewis, in his essay "Transposition" offers a description: "The exclusion of the lower goods begins to seem the essential characteristic of the higher good. We feel, if we do not say, that the vision of God will come not to fulfill but to destroy our nature; this bleak fantasy often underlies our very use of such words as 'holy,' or 'pure' or 'spiritual."

There is a difficulty in seeing the genuine qualities of "holiness," "purity," and so on. Often we can only explain them negatively: "the absence of sin." We see what isn't meant to be there, but it's harder to see what is. This is why the idea of being spiritual is full of confusion; 'the spiritual' is represented by things such as the sand-and-rock gardens, empty of life, which are meticulously arranged and re-arranged by the Japanese Buddhists. The concept of the spiritual is associated with gauntness, with distance, with a vision colorless, anemic and perpetually at 71 degrees Fahrenheit. Emptiness: who could desire this as his eternal goal? A voice whispers that we should cling to what we have. Daphne turns and begins to run. But certainly, this vision is not accurate.

I once held a peacock on my lap. It was a present for my grandfather, who raised birds of all sorts, and my job was to keep it still while my mother drove to his house. The bird caused no trouble and was in fact entirely complacent throughout the whole, yet I remember my own disquiet being considerable. It was not that I feared injury, but I looked on the bird and was disturbed. I think it was because it was a thing of beauty such as one rarely may have at such close quarters. The eyes outlined in both white and black, the high crest or coronet, the intensity of its color and the elegant and careful profusion of its plumage--all of this seemed to say more than I could then explain.

My mother said the bird should be called Samson, because he was proud. But the truth was, he was not proud. He was incapable of taking pride in his beauty because he didn't—couldn't—know about it in the way I could. Evolutionary biologists can sometimes point to this or that feature of a living thing as an adaptation for survival, but I do not think the peacock would attract fewer mates or alarm fewer predators had he been made simply black and white, or startlingly ugly rather than startlingly beautiful. The extravagance of beauty spent upon this insignificant creature can be appreciated by man alone, because man sees both with the eyes of the body and the eyes of the soul. The glory that we alone may see reflected in the peacock's plume is a spiritual glory, the tiniest shard bleeding light from a higher world, the stronger meat that we will be prepared to taste after we put aside the thin milk of earth.

"We know not what we shall be," writes Lewis, "but we may be sure that we shall be more, not less than we were on earth. Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like a drawing, like pencilled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in the risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from a real landscape; not as a candle flame that is put out, but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun.

" . . . It is the present life which is the diminution, the symbol, the . . . 'vegetarian' substitute. If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, that is not because they are too solid, too gross, too distinct, too 'illustrious with being.' They are too flimsy, too transitory, too phantasmal."

Within the realm of the spiritual or the heavenly we do not find emptiness or negation or loss. Therein lies the origin of all the good we now see, the blue of the peacock, the scent of the lily, even the dearest and most courageous human love—these are just the foretaste. The more we reach out into the deep, the closer we are to that fullness of glory. Holiness is not a path of abstention, but one of greater and greater partaking. It is not the sand, but the Sea.

"Whither, O splendid ship, thy white sails crowding,
Leaning against the bosom of the urgent West,
That fearest nor sea rising nor sky clouding,
Whither away, fair rover, and what thy quest?"
(Robert Bridges)



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