We meet the 1st and 3rd Thursdays at St. Gertrude's Ministry Center
(6214 N. Glenwood), beginning at 8:00 p.m. Folks are welcome to join us at anytime.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dorothy's Underground Love

Because God is good. Yes. I’ve decided that life is simple after all. And what else can explain the deeply satisfying sense of love. No. Not so Howard, Dostoevski’s underground man who writes in his Letters from the Underworld (1913),

"As a matter of fact, if ever there shall be discovered a formula which shall exactly express our wills and whims; if ever there shall be discovered a formula which shall make it absolutely clear what those wills depend upon, and what laws they are governed by, and what means of diffusion they possess, and what tendencies they follow under given circumstances; if ever there shall be discovered a formula which shall be mathematical in its precision, well, gentlemen, whenever such a formula shall be found, man will have ceased to have a will of his own—he will have ceased even to exist. Who would care to exercise his willpower according to a table of logarithms? In such a case man would become, not a human being at all, but an organ-handle, or something of the kind." (p. 32)

Boiled down, the thickness of life is love. Formulaic yet so beautiful and hard. To receive. God spoke just now to me, here, with a curious song title: “For a Pessimist, I’m pretty optimist”. All I had wanted was some way to let out of my body what had to get out, this over abundance of the word love. Yes, I’ve experimented reading through a volume of Dorothy Day’s collected writings, marking the margin at every line she uses the word love [1]. What a task! The word is ubiquitous. She’ll say it plainly, piously, and profoundly. Her work is a profuse exclamation of love! “How I loved that statue!” she says about the Blessed Mother likeness. Of Peter Maurin: “He loved people, he saw in them what God meant them to be. He saw the world as God meant it to be, and he loved it.” “We love what is presented to us to love, and God is not much presented” and for days like today: “…a heavy fog. The trees on the Drive were beautiful standing out so alone, the only things of beauty in a gray, dark world. I love such days; so much is hidden, and only single things like a tree or bush stand out.” Meanwhile, as I write my spirit soars and as the lyrics underscore it, the power chords of Paramour “just feel so good”.

You might try such an experiment if you were a Behaviorist. I read of B.F. Skinner who led a school of thought explaining all behavior to be hedonistic. Avoid the pain you’ve had this past weeks from digesting the evil of Guantanamo. Seek pleasure stimuli, sweet, spice, salient foods that you’ve fasted from. Turn to the pages of Moral Disorder and other stories by Margaret Atwood or try Shelley’s Frankenstein. The stimulus-response relationship of the words on a page to the faculties of soul may not be so miraculous as I seem to think after reading Dorothy. I could be wrong about the turns of conditioning that seem to clean me out like flaxseed oil. Her effusions of love may be nothing more than a fiction. Before we can dismiss her though, she prophesies: “Love is a science, a knowledge, and we lack it”. And Dorothy can empathize with the strain of bearing the load of love:

“And now I pick up Thomas Merton’s last book, Contemplative Prayer…He quotes William Blake: ‘We are put on earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.’ And he goes on to say that to escape these beams, to protect ourselves from these beams, even devout men hasten to devise protective clothing. We do not want to be irradiated by love.”

Proponents of Just World Theory hold that defense mechanisms protect one’s psyche. When an incident disturbs our sense of an ordered world the psychologist Melvin Learner proposes that we simply do not want to realize the implications—that perhaps the world is unjust, random, even malevolent. A belief must be protected: “All it requires is an intelligent selection of the information to which one is exposed,” he wrote. “And it has the added advantage of requiring no direct distortion of reality.”[2] I knew that something must be suspect about my desire to chase after the word love, something indirectly distorted. I feel bashful saying this, declaring my love for the word love. It’s embarrassing to admit.

Dorothy admits to her knowledge of God this way: “He is indeed a jealous lover. He wants all.” Of human love she accounts in The Long Way Home: “…With the chill November, he held me close to him in silence. I loved him in every way, as a wife, as a mother even. I loved him for all he knew and pitied him for all he didn’t know. I loved him for the odds and ends I had to fish out of his sweater pockets and for the sand and shells he brought in with his fishing. I loved his lean cold body as he got into bed smelling of the sea, and I loved his integrity and stubborn pride.” And from Union Square to Rome she swells with child: “No matter how much one is loved or one loves, that love is lonely without a child. It is incomplete. And now I know that I am going to have a baby.” Her meditations move forth into the abstract but possibly missing Forster On Pilgrimage (1948) “The soul complains that it wishes a particular love, a love for itself alone. And God replies fondly that, after all, since no two people are alike in this world, He has indeed a particular fondness of reach one of us, an exclusive love to satisfy each one alone.” Perhaps she was missing Forster and realizing that with him she could never have so touched the world except to have begun the Catholic Worker. A God who invites so much taking of responsibility is almost veiling a threat. She continues, “It is hard to believe in this love, it is so tremendous. If we do once catch a glimpse of it we are afraid.”

It is not for everyone to love God as Dorothy did. The man who wrote from the underground lived in a time of terror and he could not realize himself in an openly loving community. He might have never known that it were possible in some place to practice dissent openly as Dorothy could. And so he concluded that the formula of life must be at cross purposes with love and goodness. In a suppressed world Howard could not imagine a public faith that hated the sin but loved the sinner. He could not fathom himself as an instrument of God: "Who would care to exercise his willpower according to a table of logarithms? In such a case man would become, not a human being at all, but an organ-handle, or something of the kind." (p. 32) Unfortunately, something in Howard's life experience had poisoned the well of his faith.

[1] Day, Dorothy. "Selected Writings" Ed. Robert Ellsberg. Orbis Books: New York, 2003.

[2] Tirman, John. “The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars” Oxford University Press: New York, 2011. 355.

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