LIGHT, FIRE AND THE RIGHT OF PASSAGE

Mary Jean Irion

So  through the  flow of words coming out of human bodies with real working tongues, teeth, throats, with hands of flesh, bone, blood turning pages of lectures made of paper made of wood while other hands fingered at switches to turn machines on and off, and through the microphone with its wrapped wires and plugs -- and not without the House of the Redeemer with its iron gates and winding stair and the old library with its floor and its chairs -- through all that and so much more,  came the light spirit of ARC, right out of the heavy stuff itself, all things working together for good.  Miraculous, it must seem to us, always, when we think about it: how the flesh becomes word;  and then how word becomes flesh through ears with hairs and wax and tubes and hands with nerves and muscles and  pens with ball points writing down what must be taken home on feet in shoes in trains, planes, cars:  words not to be forgotten, but somehow shared.  ARC has been networking like this, in this time between myths:  all these forty years.

The time between myths -- a favorite phrase of ours, but sounding a little outdated now;  for the spinning out  of linear, connecting insights from Halverson to Tillich to Hopper to May  to Kahn to Campbell -- we see, now! -- was fine and sure, fresh as spider silk.  Here at my screen and keyboard, some weeks later, as I have been editing these lectures and tapes,  the thoughts of the fathers seem suspended in my mind like  a shining network of meaning.  (Hello, Arachne.)  And -- although myth it may be called some distant day -- right now these words feel sticky with truth:  substantial, supple, Nature’s own and humanity’s own creating material coming out of the inner life inseparably together,  confirmed by shared experience.

In these lectures, cohering from various perspectives -- the artistic, the intellectual, the theopoetic, the psychological -- a  construction of religious integrity has taken delicate form, approximate as the orb-weaver’s web that stopped me last summer -- wonderful among leaves in a shaft of sunlight.  A  mother and child were already  captive there by the tree.  Enthralled, the three of us hardly dared whisper, as we watched the dark little creature finishing  its amazing work illumined by distant fire -- doing what it had to. After a while, we walked  softly on our differing ways, going where we had to, rich in the rituals of the dappled morning.

And now, at this moment just before the first Spring in these three zeroes,  I see  how long, how patiently  a little dark organism has been weaving its dreams and ideas together, making something extremely fine and important, whether the cells of that community are 20th Century artists or ARC Fellows or contemporary scholars, teachers, scientists, social scientists -- the new community of feeling and thought, whatever its size or slant in art/religion/culture -- the sacred making  is all the same.  This is web sight -- weaving worldwide connections!    And I see how the whole web of Creation shines in a fresh light.

The myths  of the past, I must believe,  never built better than this with stronger Love.  It reaches far and round as a world (“ambitious,” some call it),  yet straight and flat as the  time it takes to travel from here to there and this to that.  As long as we hear overhead the sizable fly buzzing with bug-eyed despair, myth is the  two-marveled thing that is in us to do:  reason waiting, emotion waiting   “noiseless, patient,” then both together in the spider seizing the day, taking the wild chance, throwing need and imagination out far, far, until with the help of the wind it is surely anchored in the stuff of truth,  ready for the  strong silk to construct its never perfect,  always intelligent pattern.  Only Nature and human nature with  poetry and time can bring to such a worldwide web the gift of substance by building life’s redeeming experience into a multi-dimensional world.

W. H. Auden and Edward Mendelson have spoken for themselves.  Believing still in historical, literal Christianity, their backward  pull gave a useful tension to the day;  we needed to hear what they said.  This pair may walk on ARC’s web any time and be perfectly safe. The new web is capacious and elastic enough to house their weight; and its spider takes their difference as a matter of curiosity with no lack of good will.  Indeed, it enjoys their company.     

But let a fly buzz down abstractly as either slavery or despair (the Thing of idolatry  or  the No-Thing of atheism), and our spider will trap, juicify and swallow it,  digesting and excreting with the precision that only a healthy body knows how to effect.  This fly-drinking is not only its way of personal salvation, it is the orb-weaver’s dynamic way of refusing to “lounge in myth.”   The new mythmaker will take on its obligation to  destroy the superstitions and self-delusions it finds in Christendom or elsewhere with neither mercy nor guilt, whenever those bugs come its way.  This is called good thinking  in pursuit of  intellectual integrity,  and few quests are more precious. (“Think!” said Merlin.  “THINK!”) But the mythmaker chooses to live in peace with professing Christians, atheists and others, being sometimes guest and sometimes host, because people are greater than any system ever spun by any mind.  

True, that celebration of Light  that  brought in the new millennium was only a symbol of our oneness as human beings  and our oneness with the world.  Our holy arrival in a better country was only a hunch that had to find its figure,  a yearning wish hung out in the massive dark, a vision pulled out of the slightly true.    Then days and weeks fell into the usual headlines.

Nevertheless: we did that, whether we knew it or not:  we made the real world brilliant that millennium night,  as surely as ARC spun its abstract web one February day, taking a chance that  sunfire might bless it with Shine. Or maybe everybody, everything was just doing, creaturely, universally, the work each part had to do in a world where Everything is Holy, Holy, Holy, and Every Person is called to be The Hero.  

Tell me: Was the Pillar of Fire any better than this?   Or The Olympian Flame?  Or The Light of the World?   And aren’t they all in us still?  And don’t they together, at best, enable and join this Rite of Passage?

Myth is largely a dream to live into; and -- when it hardens into idolatry -- to live out of.  The process leaves us free to return where Light is real -- a wave and yet a particle -- incredibly mysterious like the whole physical world, real as Earth itself and Water, real as Flesh, real as all these wonders we wake up to when Light itself reveals everything from mountains to seas to lions to worms to people to bedsheets to breakfast, showing us where the absolutes have gone: where they always were:  right here.  Truth has not changed, nor the feel and scope of the sacred.   It is only we who have come home to make mental rearrangements, storing all the fixed myths and their figures in the archives of the heart.

 

Mary Jean Irion is a writer, an English teacher and the Founder/First Director of The Writers’ Center at Chautauqua.  Her poems have appeared widely in poetry magazines and literary reviews, also many in The Christian Century.  Among her awards are prizes from The Poetry Society of America and NFSPS.   Her books are:  From the Ashes of Christianity (J. B. Lippincott), Yes, World (Cambria Press), both nonfiction;  and Holding On (Heatherstone Press),  poems.  Her latest work is an African journal, She-Fire: a Safari into the Human Animal, in search of a publisher.  She is an ARC Fellow.

 

             

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