Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/07/2011

Emily Dickinson – “I am standing alone in rebellion”

To put an "X" in the box

To put an “X” in the box

Yesterday was an “I-don’t-get-it” day.

It began with a traffic ticket. I was speeding in a school zone before Christmas.  I decided not to fight the ticket but take defensive driving school and avoid another jacking up of my insurance cost.

I sent the requisite photo copies of my license and proof of insurance, the original citation and a check for $137 to the Dallas Municipal Court. When I returned home from Christmas in California, I had a letter from the court saying they had received all of the material, but I failed to check the box on the citation indicating I wanted to take defensive driving. I had sent a letter to that effect. My check was for the amount of the driving course. It was clear what I intended.

But I had not put an “X” in a box on the back of the ticket indicating I wanted the driving course. The clerk’s office (although they deposited my check and it had cleared) could not process my request unless I put the “X” in the box. They couldn’t do it.

On Wednesday I spent an hour on the telephone talking to two different court employees. I went to the court house yesterday. I talked to three employees during the hour I was there, and finally talked to a supervisor who—although she gave me the signed form allowing me to take the driving course—could not tell me for sure in which of the six boxes on the back of the citation I needed to put an “X”.

Last night I attended the Epiphany Service of Lessons and Carols at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church. (They called it “12th Night,” which it is not. “12th Night” is the 12th Day of Christmas, the 5th of January).

It’s amazing that an influential church in a city that is 50% Latino (few members of the church are Latino) can have those dates wrong on their calendar. (Latinos know how to celebrate El Dia de los Tres Reyes). Not wanting to make them put the “X” in the right box, I won’t make an issue.

I remembered last year’s glorious music. I wasn’t disappointed (Palestrina, Walton, Warlock, etc.).

I was, however, ambushed. In the middle of the service, a priest preached a sermon. About meeting Jesus. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when they preach about Jesus in the middle of a church service.

In 1850, during one of the great Revivals in New England, Emily Dickinson wrote to a friend,  “Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered, even my darling Virmie [Emily’s sister Lavinia] believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion, and growing very careless” (1).

Dickinson is not alone. There are lots of us “growing very careless,” not giving much care either if we’re alone or if God notices whether we answer Christ’s call as forwarded by some evangelist (or even a Congregationalist or Episcopalian clergy person). I’ve blogged often about my apostasy, about my burgeoning agnosticism, about my disaffection from religion. What I have not written about is my inescapable sense of the (for want of a better word—knowing that well-meaning Christians have co-opted the word to mean something that Rudolph Otto did not intend) numinous.

Otto was able to decribe the “holy” (the numinous) without associating it at its basic level with “holiness.” His contention was that “the common association of reason and morality with holiness has obscured the meaning of the original substrate of the holy (2).

Otto distinguishes the “holy” from the scientific. Therefore,

. . .  he emphasizes the nonrational, or nonassimilable, nature of holiness. Otto reminds his readers at various points that this perspective on holiness is not meant to diminish the significance of its rational dimension. It is clear that Otto understands ethics as a feature of our higher, more developed faculties. As a result, the originary, precognitive experience of holiness involves, according to Otto, an a priori category; it stands logically and chronologically prior to ethics. . . . In developing a proper view of holiness, Otto insists that the heart of the religious experience should not be misconstrued as subjugation to either morality or belief (3).

Marcus Borg, an Episcopal theologian, writes about what he calls “Thin places.” These places (events, experiences) are

. . . places where the boundary between the two levels [mundane and holy] becomes very soft, porous, permeable.  Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold [the holy] all around us and in us” (4).

I might ask if it’s possible to experience the ‘holy’ during a church occasion in which one does not really believe?” My experience yesterday tells me it is. From the hassle of putting an “X” in the right box to hearing a homily on finding Jesus, my day was uncomfortable—mundane, not holy. Yet last night hearing (and, in the carols, singing) that music I know and love as a part of both my conscious mental life and my unconscious (spiritual?) life brought me to one of those “thin places.”

Carl Sagan, speaking of the experience of the natural world (the cosmos) wrote

 How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths (5).

I have some sense (not being a scientist or a very bright amateur observer of the “magnificence of the universe”) that “this is better than we thought.” My sense of the numinous includes a universe “grander, more subtle, more elegant” than described by those prophets whose writings we heard in the service last night. And the “thin place” the music I love brings me to is much larger than St. Michael’s Church or the Episcopal Church, or the need to “meet Jesus.” It “draw[s] forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped” by my sixty years of conventionality.

12th Night - The Burning of the Greens

12th Night – The Burning of the Greens

My intention here was not to write a religious treatise, nor announce I’ve discovered (or even want to discover) the “idea of the holy,” nor to write about my “religious experience.” My intention was simply to write about the weird jusxtapositions in my day yesterday, hassle and thin places, and try to ponder them—especially in the light of the effect music making has on me. However the writing came out, that’s how it came out.

One more juxtaposition (non sequitur?). I finished reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy yesterday. It brought me to one of those thin places, too. The penultimate paragraph:

The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didnt forget, The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all time (6).

A very thin place, indeed.
(1) Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. Cambridge, MA: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1958. Quoted in: Zapedowska, Magdalena. “Wrestling with Silence: Emily Dickinson’s Calvinist God.” ATQ 20.1 (2006): 379-398.
(2) Caruana, John. “Not Ethics, Not Ethics Alone, but the Holy.” Journal of Religious Ethics. 567.
(3) Caruana, ibid.
(4) Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
(5) Sagan, Carl. The Pale Blue Dot. 1995. Quoted in: Peacocke, Arthur. “The End of all our Exploring in Science and Theology.” Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 39.2 (2004): 416.
(6) McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage International Edition, 2006 (286).


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