All posts by Dena Hunt

The Eden Experience

There are universal experiences everyone has and then forgets, over time, either willingly or willfully. Or maybe the experience sticks with them but they don’t know it for what it is. I remember a friend, an English jazz musician in New Orleans (whom I’ll call Peter) telling me that he’d once been a part of a foursome when he was about fifteen—he and a young friend with two schoolgirls they’d met in a park one day in London. He told me about it wistfully.

“There was an innocence about it, you know? None of us were religious, and we were just sort of playing, as children play at being naughty. I saw one of those girls a few years later in a pub and she wouldn’t even look at me. Until that moment, the moment when she turned her head away to keep from seeing me, I never felt bad about that day. But in that moment, I felt bad, dirty even. It’s not that she did anything to make me feel that way. It’s just that I saw it different after that. I saw myself different, like being naked and finding out that somebody sees you.”

It was the Eden experience. Some people don’t remember it, but Peter did, even if he didn’t recognize what it was. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is always a self-encounter. I remember my own experience. I used to tell lies when I was a child. I lied to impress people, to get my way, to avoid punishment—whatever. I didn’t feel bad about it. I suppose it was the way I coped with my little life in my little world. I never lied to hurt anybody, thank goodness. I never even thought about it, and yes—there was an innocence about it.

I must have been very good at it because I didn’t get caught until I was nine. And then it happened. My class at school were going on their annual picnic and we were all supposed to get a note of permission from our parents and bring it to school the day of the picnic. I forgot to get my permission note. When I got to school and everyone was getting ready to board the bus, I didn’t have a permission note. The teacher sent me to the principal’s office to call my mother and get permission. I called her at her job but she couldn’t come to the phone. I lied to the principal and said she’d given permission. I went on the picnic, had a great time, and forgot about it.

The following day, the teacher told me the principal wanted to see me in her office. Mrs. Cunningham sat behind her desk and I stood in front of it.

“Dena, yesterday I let you call your mother to get permission to go on the picnic.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You didn’t speak to your mother, did you?”

“No, ma’am. I spoke to her supervisor and she asked her for me and she said it was okay.” (I was good at lying—very quick on my feet.)

Mrs. Cunningham had short gray curls and she wore a navy blue suit with a white blouse that tied at the neck. She was thin and small. She had one hand on her desk holding a pen. And she said, “Now that’s two lies you’ve told, isn’t it?”

And there it was. I had no fig leaf handy. I said nothing. I looked away from her. I understand why Adam and Eve ran and hid. I saw myself naked for the first time.

“Your mother called back after you left. She wanted to know if something was wrong. Now go back to class.” There was no punishment. I wish there had been.

 

Now, it isn’t that I’d never been made to feel bad before. I had—in fact that was the motive for the lies to impress people, to make myself look good, not just to others but to myself—because we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of other people. Lying was the remedy for all problems. Maybe I’d always believed my own lies—I don’t know. I just know that for the first time in my life I saw myself as I was. It’s an experience of being naked, and of desperately needing cover.

It’s like St. Augustine’s memory of stealing pears from a neighbor’s orchard when he was a boy. It sears consciousness and alters us with the permanent weight of conscience—“with-knowledge.” It’s the Eden experience of seeing ourselves as we are. “Nakedness” is a metaphor. Our knowledge of good and evil comes from a mirror. The girl in the pub was Peter’s mirror, Mrs. Cunningham was mine, and I suppose that Adam and Eve were mirrors for each other.

That was over sixty years ago. I’ve heard other Eden experiences or read about them. People forget, but if the experience “takes,” it’s remembered. Almost always, however, the conclusion is some variation of my friend Peter’s take on it. He somehow managed to blame “society” and religion for creating puritanical notions about sex. Exactly how that accounts for his deeply personal discomfort in the pub is not clear. It was his own knowledge that caused him shame, no one else’s, but he didn’t see it that way.

As painful as the experience is, it is indeed the “Happy Fall,” for it is the door we pass through to contrition and repentance.  “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” is the prayer from the Cross of our Lord, who knew us so much better than we can ever know ourselves. It’s a prayer for the innocent, for those who are ignorant of their own nature, for those who steal pears or tell lies or play at secret unlicensed sex. There may always be people like Peter, who deflect what they see onto “society” or “religion” and who never open that door to repentance, but remain critical, intolerant, and unforgiving all their lives. Clinging to their innocent ignorance, they unknowingly become that which they accuse others of. But those who “look upon him whom they have pierced” know not only what they’ve done but also why they did it, and they pass through that door, and find to their everlasting joy that far greater experience of forgiveness, an ocean of divine mercy.

Faith and Fireflies

In the long evenings of summertime after supper, the grownups would take chairs from the kitchen to the front porch and sit there watching over us children as we chased fireflies in the front yard. It wasn’t the “cool of the evening”; in rural Georgia there was no such thing, but at least work was over, it was deep shade, and every now and then a small breeze did bless us with a brief visit. It was dusk, and it didn’t last for long but we enjoyed it while it did.

The children would run down the steps barefoot and out into the yard, swept clean and clear under Granny’s direction nearly every day, carrying our jars to collect the little glittering stars that flew around us everywhere, teasing us, turning off their lights as we grasped at them to catch them and put into our jars. We squealed and laughed and bumped into each other, not noticing the growing dark. The horizon on the fields across the road grew ever dimmer and the great looming darkness of the pinewoods came ever closer to us.

When one of the grownups would get up and go inside to light a kerosene lamp, we would know that our play was over and we’d have to go inside, wash our feet, and go to bed, but we made the most of the darkness and the play while we could. Sometimes, a little flying star would tease us too close to the edge of our watched-over safety, and we’d hear, “Now, don’t you go past that persimmon tree!” We’d hear that with a child’s kind of unacknowledged gratitude, not with irritation, because it made us know that we were cared far, watched over, and that gave us a freedom that children who have no persimmon tree boundaries can never know.

This image has returned to me many times over the nearly seven decades since then. I’ve learned that freedom exists only within loving boundaries, I’ve learned that we should never take for granted those who wait and watch over us.

When it was time to go inside we released our jarfuls of stars, letting them fly on their way. We never tried to keep them cruelly in their prisons, for we’d had our play and now they should have theirs.

Just after the recent election when people formed mobs and threatened everything from suicide to homicide in their rage and bitterness, a news commentator said, “Well, you have to understand—they have no God, so they’ve made politics their god. Of course they’re passionate. They’re true believers in their ideology.”  In their zeal, these children chase the fireflies into the woods and get lost there. They hold them in their jars until they die and their fire goes out and they have to get new ones to replace them. Because without them, there is only darkness. One so wants to say, Please realize that these are just transient little glittering things. Look at them, enjoy them and let them go. What is real, what matters, is back there on the porch, worrying for you. Where have you gone?

Of Tornadoes and Marches

At Monday’s Mass, our priest made a joking brag that, as the killer tornadoes ran through our area on Sunday and protestant churches were closed, the lone Catholic church in this town said Mass by lamplight. I think I said something like, “Well, we were under holy obligation.” Wrong thing to say? Yes, I do that very often. But the connection I made with his following homily struck me as maybe not-so-wrong.

He noted the sad anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the women’s protest march in Washington going on that day. He remembered two women he knew long ago who told him that they had considered abortion when they became pregnant at a time when having another child would be extremely difficult. They hadn’t gone through with it because of their faith.

Exactly. And that’s the point. The “holy obligation” to obey the laws of their God saved them. Blessed are they. I think of all the words in Scripture at once, the words about treasuring the law of the Lord, about meditating on it day and night, about loving it with all our heart, soul, and strength.

The women marching in Washington were not so blessed. Their defiance, militancy, anger, their often foul-mouthed demands, are not for the right to abortion. They have that. They’ve had it for decades. They want taxpayer-funded abortions, they want an abortuary on every corner, they want our affirmation of abortions they have already had.  They want you, me, us, to affirm and approve of what they’ve already done. They want us to “make it okay.”

They were not blessed with holy obligation to the laws of faith because they were not blessed with faith. They believe only in themselves and make a kind of pelvic goddess for their worship and so become the very thing they accuse men of making them.

For us, it is always, always, necessary in the face of such offense to remember: Who did our Lord come to save? Those already blessed? Or did he come for the unblessed, for those who scream in pain in the streets, demanding something no human law can give them?

Image and Likeness

Full Quiver Press is coming out with an anthology of short fiction related to the theme of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I’m pleased to have a short story in the collection, “Pear Trees,” my first venture into fiction, which was originally published in Dappled Things in 2013.

imageandlikeness

Hurricane Blessings

Hermine has come and gone. There are trees on houses. My neighbor has two trees on her house, a 90-foot pine and a smallish oak, about 40 feet tall. We had some minor flooding, not much, but a lot of strong wind, of course, and because this is such a tree-full town, power lines were down everywhere. That was the problem—no power. It’s not just that the temperature was running between 87 and 89 degrees; here, the temperature is not the problem but the humidity. Without air conditioning, every surface is downright tacky to the touch and breathing is difficult. At night, we did not burn candles because they only added to the heat, and as my neighbor said, the humidity was so bad it would have extinguished the flames anyway. Miserable.

And then, after 24 hours, like a miracle it seemed, the power came back on. The fridge was humming, lights were on, televisions blared, internet was back, and a cool breeze flowed from the a.c. vents. God was back in his heaven. Hell was over. I thought, while sitting in the hot dark, This is Mordor. And when the lights came on and the air conditioning resumed, it was a eucatastrophe worthy of the bards.

Less than six hours later, it was as though nothing had happened. Traffic lights were on, and cars were on the streets, cleared now of dangerous power lines; giant trucks had been at work and all the fallen trees were removed from the streets. You could drive around and look at the damage to people’s houses and buildings. But it was all over. The apocalyptic atmosphere that had pervaded the town only a few hours before had evaporated and it was just another day.

It seemed almost unfair. One wanted to say things like “But what about the storm? Where did it go?” It’s an odd reaction to the end of crisis, of catastrophe, of suffering—not matter what the degree. Where did it go? When the power returned and the hot dark was banished, there was an exhalation of relief, a moment of deep gratitude, even joy—but it was only a moment. Everything is normal again now. We are our ungrateful, joyless selves again, oddly feeling a faint, vague loss—almost as though we’ve been cheated of a grief that had been ours and then was taken from us.

I’m reminded of my aunt talking about the day the war ended. The whole country was drunk with joy. But, she said, a week later, it was almost as though the war—with all its suffering—had never happened, and everyone was whining about the rationing, the delay in getting troops home, all sorts of complaining and worrying about looming unemployment. She said it seemed to her that everyone missed the war, when rationing was just doing one’s bit, and when, most of all, there was an anticipation, a waiting and longing, and heroic patience. She concluded that people were better in wartime.

When are we our true selves? During the storms or during the peaceful, air-conditioned calm? Do we secretly crave disasters of one kind or another because we know deep down that we’re spoiled, because we suspect we need deprivation in order to regain a right appreciation of life? Maybe we know that we have no “rights” to any of our countless blessings. Maybe we know we need to lose them in order to find them again. We do this in our relationships—with each other, with ourselves, and with God. Maybe that’s why God lets us wander off and get lost, so that we can experience the joy of being found again. And maybe that’s why we wander.

How To Spend Your Summer Vacation

There is a growing trend now in many parishes to give little talks or slide presentations to various groups, CCW, youth groups, or men’s groups. Sometimes the same content appears printed up in church bulletins, etc. I speak of “mission trips.”

Sometimes these “how I spent my summer vacation” reports are given in conjunction with appeals to raise funds for this or that impoverished country; sometimes no money is requested—just sympathy and/or admiration.

I’m sure there are people who can afford to spend their own money to buy a plane ticket, pay a hotel bill, and buy their own food in some Mexican or South American, Carribean, or even African location. I’m sure they go to these places to offer help—though the cost of their trip would have been a far greater contribution than just going there and passing out food and clothing. More often, however, these are group affairs, priced and marketed like any other tour, with group rates for flights, hotels, buses, etc.

Doctors Without Borders and other secular volunteer professionals do a great service. And I know of small Baptist churches around here (they have to be small to organize this) who seem to stay packed and ready to go wherever a natural disaster hits—Texas not long ago, and now Louisiana.

What troubles me is the growing market for “mission trips.” The write-ups and presentations given afterwards reveal motivations and gratifications that don’t strike me as wholly Christian charity.  An African friend who lives here now tells me that these summer-vacation “missionaries” were so offensive and condescending that people in his village finally had to be paid to attend their tour-guided handouts. But it’s listening to the tone of those who want to tell us of their spiritual adventures on these trips—not just about how poor the people were but about how their spiritual growth was enhanced, how much more tolerant and loving they became, etc. It all makes one wonder.

I know how cynical this sounds. A couple I know spent over three thousand dollars on a trip to Mexico recently with other Catholic would-be missionaries (arranged by a “Catholic-owned” tour company.) They do talk about how desperately poor the people were, but more about how grateful they were. They tell about the harrowing bus trip into the mountains, about how they worked all day passing out tee shirts and shorts and sandals, dishing up food and serving the people. They want to impress upon their listeners how exhausted they were as they fell into bed in their hotel rooms at night, but how wonderful it felt to help the grateful needy. I have to think about twenty or thirty tourist-missionaries at three thousand each—how much more help that might have been to the grateful needy, but it wouldn’t have provided that gratifying feeling.

As I said, I know how cynical this sounds.