It feels splendid to leap into the writing life after a year of absence. Thank you, dear readers, for your interest across this span of silence.
The diagnosis was cancer and the treatment that knocked it off was brutal. Together they left me stunned, wandering in the valley of the shadow of death, at times truly fearful.
Coming now into the light of life, feeling the beginnings of vibrance as I emerge from the shadows, I keep thinking of Lazarus. Not the guy who was raised from the dead, but the other one. Jesus told the parable of a sick and destitute beggar named Lazarus who lay before the rich man’s gate asking only for the crumbs from the table. The rich man turned his back, slamming the gate shut so that no food, care, comfort or goodness could cross over. Behind the closed gate the rich man and his brothers continued their self-satisfied, hard-hearted, opulent and comfortable lives. Lazarus, abandoned and alone, died at the gate. Abraham himself came and took Lazarus away to a better place.
Not long after, the rich man died. From his place of torment in Hades he called to Abraham, asking that Lazarus come to give him relief. Abraham said no: the barrier between the two places was impassable, he said. So the rich man asked if Lazarus could go back to earth to tell the brothers what had happened to him. He thought that if they heard about it from Lazarus they would change their behaviour and avoid the brother’s fate. Again, Abraham refused. He said that the living brothers already had Moses and the prophets. If they would not listen to all the wisdom that was already given, they would not listen to anyone.
This is the true wisdom of the face-to-face: goodness toward others gives life its value, and all anyone needs to know is right before them.
The first part of this powerful story concerns hard-heartedness in the face of desperate need. We are today deeply familiar with the social and spiritual demands of strangers at the gate. Indeed, there are hundreds of thousands of them. Michael Ignatieff recently wrote about the disasters pushing people to flee Syria: ‘Assad’s barrel bombs, Russian and American air strikes, ISIS beheadings, militia murders and persecution’. Ignatieff argues that generosity toward refugees is both ethically good and politically prudent. Far better that people be given the opportunity to make good lives for themselves than that they be pushed into utter, nihilistic desperation. And multicultural experience shows that in general nations are enriched as newcomers settle and flourish. None of this happens without effort, but this is the real work of life’s goodness: to reach out in care and responsibility.
The second part of the Lazarus story also speaks powerfully to life on earth today. Abraham said that all we need to know is actually before us. For him, Moses and prophets held the keys to knowledge. Other times and places hold other keys.
These days I find myself thinking of the animist vivacity that permeates the goodness of earth life. Part of the horror of the shadow of death is that one feels that life’s goodness is being obliterated. In contrast, to see clearly is to see that goodness arises all around us – in the rain, air, ground, light, warmth, the light winds of morning and the golden glow of dusk. Alfonso Lingis explains:
‘We do not relate to the light, the earth, the air, and the warmth only with our individual sensibility and sensuality. We communicate to one another the light our eyes know, the ground that sustains our postures, and the air and the warmth with which we speak. We face one another as condensations of earth, light, air, and warmth ….’
All creatures are the beneficiaries of elemental goodness, and all creatures participate in the webs that nurture and support on-going life. We are face-to-face with goodness all the time, and that goodness gives rise to creatures’ capacity to flourish. It speaks in all the vast exuberant generosity of earth life that flows through birds and bees, predators and prey, flowers and nectar drinkers, creaturely generations, air, sun and water. All around us is this great flourishing. All one needs to know as a grounding for wisdom is the coming forth of diversity, beauty and integrity. The goodness of a human being is here: in becoming a conscious contributor to the generosity of life.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)
Ignatieff, Michael 2015 ‘The Refugees & the New War’, New York Review of Books, LXII (20), pp. 8-12.
Lingis, Alfonso 1994. The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.p.122