Death on the Borderlands

20 10 2008

December 8th, 2006

It was right when I passed the 12th Street BART station in downtown Oakland that I realized my life had changed. I had chased my own tail for long enough, and at this point I was throwing in the towel. Up to that time, I thought that God’s role in my life was to prevent me from having to live it. I thought that I would just be carried effortlessly, as if on the gust of the ceaselessly flapping of angels’ wings. But now, it felt like my soul was being ripped out of me. It was turning out that the Cross was no longer going to be some vessel that would lead me across this valley of shadows into the land of happy endings. Now, it was merely going to be a crutch that I would have to use to hobble through the rest of my life. If I did reach the finish line, it would be battered and bruised, defeated and drenched in my own shame. But that was what the score was at that point, and the game was up. I had to stop running.

Anti-Staretz had told me: what you are doing is too superficial, what is inside you? What was inside me, what I have been unfolding ever since, is a faith that is far from pristine, far from sure of itself, far from the technicolor dreams of modern devotional delusions. It is a harsh faith for harsh people, people who expect things to go wrong, who expect retributions for the evils they have done and continue to do. A counselor employed by the monastery used to tell me that we often carry the burdens and pains of past generations in ourselves like suitcases full of cobwebs and dried tears. They still haunt us, even if we have only lived their effects indirectly. I have lived them rather directly, and in my soul, I still see the harsh desert lands of southern Texas where my father’s family lived for two or three generations. The harsh borderland still lives in me, between the land of the dead and the living, between steadfast faith and unbelief, between hope that tomorrow will somehow be better and the surer despair that it won’t, but you will have to continue anyway.

So there I was, on my way back to the Catholic Church, to the Church that had always sparked my imagination and haunted my dreams, where I had grown up and where I had grown delusional. I thought if I only followed the rules, if only I went over with my whole heart and soul, I would be saved from the burdens of this life, the burdens that had been passed down to this weak heart of mine from generations before. If I could only flee that pagan borderland inhabited by miraculous executed criminals and the Grim Reaper herself, looking at me from my grandmother’s altar, I could somehow be assumed into Heaven, body and soul, just like the Virgin. Yes, that was foolish, but I only thought that with just a little more effort, just a few less hours of sleep, only a few more tears, I would make it. Well, I didn’t make it. I was convinced to continue my journey without the traditions of my ancestors (Eastern Orthodoxy) and even without the Church (continuing Anglicanism), but it was in vain. And there I was, on that bus, on the way back: to life, to uncertainty, to the borderlands between the flimsy sense of the sacred and the now dominant and unknown kingdom of the profane. I was done.

On my father’s side of the family, no one is religious. In spite of my grandmother’s best efforts, the harshness of their life left them very cold towards any sort of religion. They are in general a hard drinking lot prone to despair and broken marriages. Since my parents separated when I was seven, I really haven’t gotten to know any of them very well. Due to that unfamiliarity, I have often vilified them in my own mind. But in doing so, I have been vilifying myself.

Recently, a tragedy occured on that side of the family that I am not at liberty to discuss. It has reminded me, however, that in the end, in a world with so much violence, the last thing you should do is do violence to yourself. It may sound sappy and it may sound trite, but I will say it, and cry it from the rooftops: be true to yourself. If you cannot be true to yourself, there is no way that you can be true to others. Do not hide behind vain hopes that you will somehow change. Even if you are a complete bastard, be true to it, all the while knowing that it is not good enough. All things return to God, their unblemished Fountain, through us. No one can live up to that vocation. In all humility we must try our best. Even if you are broken, catch as much light and love as you can. It is always more than you can ever imagine, and more beautiful than you can possibly grasp.

Another light has gone out, another day is done, another song fades into silence. Let its flame burn in us as long as it can; let it shut our weary eyes and haunt our dreams evermore. Remember, even when it hurts, for that hurt will lead to God.

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine
Domine, exaudi vocem meam
Fiant aures tuae intendentes
in vocem deprecationis meae.
Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine:
Domine, quis sustinebit?
Quia apud te propitiatio est:
et propter legem tuam sustinui te, Domine.
Sustinuit anima mea in verbo eius:
speravit anima mea in Domino.
A custodia matutina usque ad noctem:
speret Israel in Domino.
Quia apud Dominum misericordia:
et copiosa apud eum redemptio.
Et ipse redimet Israel,
ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus.


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8 responses

21 10 2008
Andrea Elizabeth

Trying to understand… You thought Orthodoxy would be an escape. I believe a lot of people think this. Instead it ends up showing us a mirror, and the reflection is not pretty. Acknowledging this reality is only the beginning, not the end. We are called to be conformed/changed back into what we were created to be – the likeness of God, which is beautiful beyond compare. But it takes a long, hard road of repentance through the desert to get there. However we are not there alone, His loving presence is with us providing contrast, oasises, and comfort amidst the scary desert beasts. We just have to keep going. Like Dori says in Nemo, “just keep swimming, just keep swimming”.

I really admire your honesty and the beauty of your writing, Arturo.

21 10 2008
Jeff Culbreath

“Then again, speaking of one’s spiritiual life on the Internet is borderline obscene, so I’ll shut up.”

LOL. I have the same aversion.

21 10 2008
Jeff Culbreath

“I guess the revelation in my own life is that growth is the realization of one’s own failure.”

Well, yes. That is growth. But is it necessarily the end?

“I guess it is the ‘Little Way’ for those who have moved passed St. Therese.”

Maybe that’s my problem. Count me as one who definitely has not moved past St. Therese, or for that matter even begun to practice her “little way” with a degree of seriousness.

21 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I guess the revelation in my own life is that growth is the realization of one’s own failure. I guess it is the “Little Way” for those who have moved passed St. Therese.

Read the Fathers of the Desert. The Ladder of Divine Ascent too. A really depressing book, but with a lot of truth. It isn’t about getting there in pristine condition. It’s about getting there. Preseverance.

Then again, speaking of one’s spiritual life on the Internet is borderline obscene, so I’ll shut up.

21 10 2008
Jeff Culbreath

Furthermore, I think this really flies in the face of Christian experience. Backslider that I am, I can still point to some miraculous changes God has worked in my own life and character – deliverance from certain grave sins, for example. The fruitfulness of prayer. You might do the same if you gave it some thought.

Even if a person could not find reason to hope in his own life, there are countless examples in others, starting with the people in one’s own community and ending, of course, in the lives of the saints.

No, I can’t give up hope that I will somehow change. I trust in God. He did it before, He can do it again, and He will see to it that I am prepared. Maybe part of that preparation is knowing in the depths of my soul that I can do absolutely nothing without God, and that my own repeated failures to change are part of that preparation. If I ever begin to understand this, well, that too is change, and that is progress, and there is hope.

21 10 2008
Jeff Culbreath

“Do not hide behind vain hopes that you will somehow change.”

This theme has shown up in your writing more than once. But isn’t that a counsel of despair? Are we then stuck in our sins until death? How is this even remotely Christian?

20 10 2008
Alice C. Linsley

There is a profound sadness in God’s all-knowing heart too. We are not alone, not abandoned in the borderlands.

20 10 2008
The Shepherd

“we often carry the burdens and pains of past generations in ourselves like suitcases full of cobwebs and dried tears. ”

That is so true its not even funny…

take it easy and be safe.

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