August 30, 2014

The Apophaticism Of Persons

CopticI discovered the yellow, fading newspaper clipping at the bottom of a box of my father’s papers after he passed away.  “Local Kissimmee girl wins Beauty Pageant.”  The clipping was from the Orlando Evening Star from March 1947, and it stated that Miss Emma Mae Scoggins of Kissimmee, Florida won a local beauty pageant and was awarded a $50 scholarship to some school in the area.  There was a picture of Miss Scoggins, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and pretty in that unselfconscious way that all women in the 1940s were pretty but probably wouldn’t be considered so today.  There is nobody left in my family who knows anything about the relationship of my father with Miss Scoggins.  My mother knows nothing about her.  Neither does my father’s younger brother.  Maybe Miss Scoggins, in her eighties by now, might know, but I wonder if she would remember him.  He was mustered out of the Navy in Jacksonville after World War II, that much I do know.   I also know that he enrolled in college as a freshman in the fall of 1946, so whatever relationship my father had with Miss Scoggins, it must have been very ephemeral.  Perhaps sending the newspaper clipping was an attempt by Miss Scoggins to keep it from being so.

Anyway, the ebb and flow of circumstance deposited my family in Miss Scoggin’s hometown of Kissimmee, Florida at the cusp of the new millennium.   More people visit the outskirts of Kissimmee than visit the actual city itself.   In 1974, the Walt Disney Corporation transformed several hundred square miles of Florida swampland into the primordial American dreamtown and Kissimmee changed overnight from a town of citrus farmers and cattle ranchers to a bedroom community for The Show That Never Ends.  Kissimmee became a municipal appendage to a sovereign self-governing state-within-a-state owned by a large media conglomerate with dictatorial powers over the chunk of real estate over which it holds sway.   The part of Kissimmee we moved to, however, was twenty minutes from the Mouse That Roared, and probably didn’t look much different than it did when Emma Mae Scoggins was enchanting the hearts of the local swains and perhaps, my father.

I doubt there was a mosque in the neighborhood when Emma Mae lived and flourished amidst the flat-roofed, stucco-bedaubed ranch homes.  The mosque was a recent addition to the Kissimmee religious landscape, and those who frequented it were definitely not Television Muslims ™, who if you believe the media look and act very much like Presbyterians with a Middle Eastern accent.  No, these families were Not-Us with a capital N and a capital U.   The men were fiercely bearded, clothed in kaftans and skullcaps.  The women wore veils over their faces.  Several families lived in close proximity to the mosque they were building and it was apparent that Islam was the focal point of these families’ lives.  After work, it was common to see the men laboring well into the night hammering boards into place or hanging windows or doors.  Their children were indistinguishable from the many Puerto Rican kids that lived in the neighborhood, but they played apart, never mixing with them, or with our children.

My every overture to the men was rebuffed, as were my wife’s to the women.   We washed our clothes at the same local Laundromat and the Muslim women would troop in with their children, speaking whichever language it was they spoke, and looking disdainfully at my wife and myself as we washed and folded our clothes together.  After a while, it became apparent we were never going to be allowed any purchase into their circle, and the imaginary dialogues I held in my head about the relative merits of the Prophet and the Savior,  jewels of interfaith respect and evangelistic zeal, never realized. Even my wife, who is an indefatigable evangelist, could find no entry into the world of these clothed and furtive women.  We left off trying to open any channels of communication with our interesting neighbors and consoled ourselves with praying for them.  We moved from the area almost immediately.   Then, at a safe distance, we heard that two of the World Trade Center bombers had attended flight school in Central Florida and had attended a mosque based on the teachings of the Egyptian Muslim theologian Sayyid Qutb.

May God have mercy on me, but upon hearing this, my wife and I immediately thought of our reclusive neighbors.  It is very unfair of me, I know, but all other Muslims I ever met have been more like the Television Muslims™ mentioned earlier; sociable, open, eager to take their place in American society and avail themselves of the freedom our country still affords.  They have been excited to share with me what their faith means to them, and have listened politely to me as I did the same.   It is just that free association is so much easier than critical thought.  Unfriendly, scary Muslims = terrorists like unfriendly scary black people = criminals.  I have to confess that I have to consciously keep myself from going there, and remind myself that I don’t have enough information to pass judgment.

On the other side of the Laundromat there was a convenience store.  It was owned by an Egyptian fellow.  He, at any rate, was much more open to my overtures than my neighbors at the mosque.  I asked if he were Muslim, and if he attended the mosque.  He turned pale.  No, no, no, he assured me.  He was a Christian, a Copt.  He had no end of trouble with the local Muslims (once again, he never specified), who were continually attempting to get his family and his two brothers’ families to convert to Islam.  It appears that the Muslims took it as an affront that there should be Christian Egyptians in the same town, and subjected them to a low-level sort of agitation and persecution.  The shopkeeper accused them of threats against his wife and his daughters, of encouraging the local townspeople to shoplift from his stores (the families had several in the area), and even of slashing the hoses of the Air/Water machine where he offered these free instead of charging for them as was becoming the custom.  Then he said something I’ll never forget, ever.

He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’ll never, ever give up my Lord or His Mother.  They mean everything to me.  I would as soon stop breathing as abandon them.”  I was shaken to my core.  At the time, I was a true Fundygelical with a lot of Reformed influence who believed that no one from traditional ethnic churches had the Holy Spirit. How could they?  They had never submitted to the Illuminating Law Work, or Accepted Jesus Into Their Hearts As Their Personal Lord And Savior.  Yet here was a splinter from a diamond that had resisted 1300 years of forced Islamification, an Islamification which, if his story was to be believed, was continuing even in the supposed safe-zone of a sleepy Central Florida town.  He invited me to his church, and I accepted.  Coptic services are l-o-n-g.  Anyone who complains about the length of Byzantine Orthodox services should spend some time among the Copts.  Here was a patch of Christianity I never suspected existed, even though I had already been exposed to Byzantine Orthodoxy and was attracted to it. Coptic Christianity is still an undiscovered continent to me, but it is not the fault of the Copts that this is so.

The scary-mosque Muslims are harder to discern.  Any relationship I might have had with them was over before it started, and their brief appearance in the videotape of my life flickered and was gone immediately.  They didn’t like me, and to be honest I cannot fault them as judges of character.  I am an acquired taste.  Even if my prejudices were true, and they were jihadists, nothing could be more important at this juncture than to gain an understanding of Islam from the point of view of those for whom it is a living force in their lives.  I have so many questions.  Alas, my efforts were thwarted at every turn, but in this I am reminded that God, in His mercy, often thwarts my efforts for a greater understanding of Him by hiding Himself.  Why should people not do the same?

But the relationship of my father with Miss Scoggins strikes at the very core of my personhood.  I am who I am today because a particular sperm cell fertilized a particular egg.  I know that my mother came to hate my father, and I suspect that my father was only physically attracted to my mother, and that early on.   My father also confessed that he had always loved a red-headed girl who, unfortunately, was a Catholic, and he was forbidden to marry her.  I cannot tell Miss Scoggins’ hair color from the crumbling news clipping.  It may have been red, a dark red.  Staring at the photo, I had the feeling of spiraling down into an endless abyss.  Who am I? Who would I have been?   Behind my father was my grandfather, and his father before him.  Millions of bifurcating paths opened behind me and in front of me.  Thousands of binary choices, each with their own universes at the end of them.

We know so little about the lives of others.   The fountains of the behaviors of others, their passions and motivations, are mostly hidden from our sight, and they are as irrecoverable and indefinable as the life represented by a newspaper clipping in my father’s effects. That fact alone, that, and our common mortality, should keep us silent and preclude us from making snap judgments.  It seldom does.   I know it doesn’t for me.  A great saint lies hidden in the heart of a blaspheming fisherman, and a mass murderer in the heart of a paperhanger.  We should walk so much more carefully than we do.  Evelyn Underhill, that travel correspondent of the realms of the spirit, said it so very well in this prayer:

“For lack of attention, a thousandfold loveliness eludes us everyday.  Remind me, again and again, of my own utter ignorance of the lives that surround me, and whose uneasy, restless surfaces are all I see; all I can see. How again and again You have taken the turbulent, the unharmonious, the rebellious, and out of this unpromising material You have fashioned Your Saints.”

Comments

  1. “I am an acquired taste.”

    An excellent post Mule. Something I am working on, remembering how little I know of the lives of others; and it’s corollary of learning more about myself. And I guffawed at the quoted line above, how much I resemble that line myself.
    Thank You

  2. There was a fascinating TV programme about the life and work of Vivian Maier last night on the BBC. She was a nanny who took pictures of those on the edge of society, every day, on her own – someone who herself had no home, no family and whose life’s work was kept in storage until she could no longer pay for the storage facility. Her work was bid for, unseen, by strangers and now is recognised as an extraordinary record of unknown and unseen life on the edge of society. I can’t remember where the exhibition of it is, but if I lived in America, I would go and see it!
    “For lack of attention, a thousandfold loveliness eludes us everyday. Remind me, again and again, of my own utter ignorance of the lives that surround me, and whose uneasy, restless surfaces are all I see”
    What you have written today resonates with the work of Vivian Maier – she saw what most of us pass by. Thank you for such a thought-provoking piece.

  3. Robert F says:

    Yes. We are creatures that arise out of the matrix of creation, which is deeply mysterious and contingent. Our bodies and souls are formed together in contingency. It’s not as if our souls are waiting in the wings for our bodies to be ready; that’s the gnostic dream. Rather, body and soul incubate together in the mystery of things, and people, and God. And only God knows how all things work, and have worked, together.

  4. Radagast says:

    Over the last 10 years I’ve had an affection for the eastern lung of the Church, partially due to my trips through the Christian Mystics, but I will admit its probably through a lense of romantic ideal. I attended a Greek festival a few years ago and had a wonderful discussion and tour of the Church from the local priest. The congregants, people of the parish, reminded me of Catholics though, mostly there because of a generational or cultural thing. This was even more evident when I visited a Serbian Orthodox Church down the street. I don’t think they quite understood why I wanted to see their Church and were quick to point out where I could not step. I understood this to be more of a small cultural community thing, so I minded my p’s and q’s.

    My exposure to Islam has been an experience of extremes. Right after 911 I called an Islamic community center to understand, from their perspective, what Islam truly was about (I was teaching eighth grade religious education at the time and wanted to explain to my kids). The person on the other end of the line, with Arabic accent, talked to me about the pillars of Islam and wanted to come for a visit but I declined because I was not sure how my pastor would feel… all in all it was an informative conversation. The next few overtures with members of Islam were met with much paranoia so were not fruitful at all. Then about 6 years ago I had a chance to talk with my boss. She was a Pakistani who was educated in Britain (cool accent) and I asked her humbly, and was amazed at how contemplative the practice of Islam could be. I gained a new respect, at least from her little view of Islam. Although I have never felt the pull to go in that direction, I was grateful to get an inside view of another facet of this faith (and appreciated her openness and willingness to be vulnerable to share, especially in a workplace).

  5. “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”

    Mule – Loved this, thanks. I too have wondered about these sorts of things. Digging through old books at estate sales it is frequent to come across margin notes, yellow newspaper clippings, sometimes even a picture. Who were these people? What did their lives consist of? Maybe something they did actually affected my life today. Touching those things I can almost feel the empty space they left behind.

    And what about those I am descended from? They were my forefathers (and mothers). I know so little even about them but what they did certainly impacts my life today. Then I am reminded that God knows all these stories. The stories of the throngs of people who have gone before and the throngs I move among on a daily basis. Nothing is truly lost.

    “All my days were written in Your book and planned before a single one of them began.”

    • Radagast says:

      I have gone through phases where I have done geneology on my wife ‘s and my own family. Nothing like having an old picture or discovering notes in an old Bible and making a connection with someone from the past. Sometimes that information is lost and you are left to wonder, or romanticize or assume.

      Think about those who came before you and those who live now. I had contact with people who were born in the 1890′s (grandparents). So in theory I knew people who had memories of people who may have been born in the first part of the 1800′s. Wow…. a lot has happened since that time.

      • I’ve done the genealogy thing as well. I even interviewed elderly relatives trying to capture what they remember and their stories before they passed on. These lives that were once full of vitality and purpose but are now reduced to fragile memories… That is why the verses above from Psalms impact me so. My own great-grandchildren may not even know my name, but God will never forget me.

        And then there is the other side of things when I finally get to heaven and get to meet those upon whose shoulders I have stood. The fabric of our lives is complex and amazing and thinking about it makes me feel very small.

  6. I want to be Ethiopian Orthodox so I can have Enoch in my Bible and the Ark of the Covenant in my church service.

    The Watchers and Indiana Jones!!

    • The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox don’t have a canon, per se. Just some books we use in church. I think I have heard more of the Song of the Three Holy Children than I have of Sophonias. This drives the Reformed Booklords a little crazy, because they can’t discern the sources of our traditions.

      As far as Ethiopian Orthodox are concerned, they just built a 500 seat church on the other side of town. Ethiopian restaurants are great places to eat during Lent.

  7. Mule, I enjoyed your writing so much in this piece that I got all the way thru before I realized, “Hey, where’s the doctrine?” I even had to go back and look up that funny word in the title which I had I had forgotten I knew, and then I had to actually think in order to figure out why you used it like that. And I never did get it fully figured out so I’m still thinking. It’s a lot easier when someone plainly states their doctrine so you can judge whether or not it agrees with your own doctrine and thus judge the worthiness or lack thereof of the person behind the indoctrination. Well done!

  8. Radagast says:

    Can we expect a part II ” The Cataphatism of Persons” ?

  9. Rick Ro. says:

    What’s sad is that I need to be continually reminded of what is written here. Why isn’t this stuff easier for me to live out? Shouldn’t I, as a Christian, be MORE like this? Forgive me, Lord and Father, for my shortcomings, and help me to be more like you, Suffering Servant.

    Thanks, Mule, for taking the time to share this with us!

  10. Robert F says:

    If it is God’s mercy which often thwarts our efforts at having a greater understanding of him by hiding himself, and if then we should expect that other people will thwart our attempts to understand them by hiding themselves as well, then perhaps we should not be surprised when we are unable to gain a greater understanding of ourselves because we hide from ourselves, and perhaps this, too, is because of God’s mercy.

    The apophaticism of Persons/persons; “….and all shall be well, and all shall be well…..”

  11. Great post! I feel as if life were more worth living after having read this.

    Our alto section leader is married to a devout Egyptian Copt who keeps inviting me to services. He brags about the length of their Good Friday celebration, which, from what he says, defies comprehension. I really hope I can get down to his church one day. He doesn’t talk much about Mary, though.

    Television Muslims ™, who if you believe the media look and act very much like Presbyterians with a Middle Eastern accent.

    So hilarious and true! I’ve met some of these, but they have been the exception in my experience. I’m sure it depends on your area.

  12. Robert F says:

    This is a beautifully written post, Mule. There is a haunting quality to your meditation on memory, and it is wonderful to see the mysteriousness of existence acknowledged and evoked without being trammeled upon by a pretense of facile familiarity.

    At the risk of appearing heterodox, I must emulate my Hindu friends and say to you “Namaste,” which has sometimes been interpreted to mean “I honor the Light that is within you.” And could this be the selfsame Light that was seen on Tabor? The wind blows where it will…..

  13. Randy Thompson says:

    “We know so little about the lives of others. . . ”

    Well said.

    And, I think we can say much the same thing about ourselves: “We know so little about ourselves.”

    We all truly are apophatic creatures and only God can penetrate the mystery at the core of who we are. We are all strangers to ourselves, constantly amazed both by our own craziness and by our own blessedness. Whenever we think we have found a stable place in our consciousness where we think we know who and what we are, that stable place gives way like a rotten wood floor and we go plummeting into the abyss of ourselves, where only a gracious and merciful God can cushion our fall. And it is there that we know a loving God more deeply and a bit more about ourselves, too. Growing in Christ is repeatedly falling through the floors we make for ourselves to stand on and then discovering a yet deeper identity in God’s patient grace.

    Thanks for your article, Mule.

    • Randy Thompson says:

      While I”m thinking of this. . .

      Would you please explain “Mule Chewing Briars”? It’s a great nom de plume.

      If you explained this elsewhere, sorry I I missed it.

  14. Christiane says:

    defining ‘self’ as ‘person’ in the negative sense is a different approach to understanding identity

    I am the one who DIDN’T take that other road . . .
    I am the one who DIDN’T marry that young man . . .
    I am the one who DIDN’T pursue a vocation I had dreamed about as a child . . .

    there were other ‘choices’, what WAS chosen,

    but maybe there is more self-knowledge to be found along those roads not taken than we know
    . . . I see myself existing in the light,
    but there is still the shadow ‘me’ that dwells at the end of the road I did not take;
    and who would have loved the children of the young man not chosen as a mate;
    and in fragments of dreams, there will always be the ‘self’ whose first calling was not abandoned for what important others thought was the more fitting choice