Mom and I went out shopping this morning to support Small Business Saturday. She was looking around in a couple stores in Downtown Frankfort, and I wanted to walk over to the trail by the pond. It was a sunny, crisp morning. The water in the pond was lazily brushing up onto the rocks. A little stream was casually running as if on a Sunday drive. I stood still for a moment and closed my eyes, letting the sun hold me close and the sound of the water land softly on my ears. I love small business Saturday. Supporting local entrepreneurs builds community and relationships. There is much good in the giving and receiving of gifts. But this space was a gift we all too often turn away. Rarely even consider a gift anymore. The things of the earth. The earth itself. The beauty of nature. It is a reminder, isn’t it, of ourselves. How all at once the earth can be ferocious and destructive, then calm and uplifting. How sometimes the cycles or habits of nature can seem savage and cruel, yet at other times, breathtaking and brilliant.
“We have two bits of evidence about the Somebody. One is the universe He has made. If we used that as our only clue, then I think we should have to include He was a great Artist (for the universe is a very beautiful place), but also that He is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place).”[Mere Christianity]
I was reading from one of Bishop Robert Barron’s books last night. It’s called Centered: The Spirituality of Word on Fire. The Word on Fire Institute is an incredible means of evangelization and so much more. Please please please check it out regardless of whether you are Catholic or Christian or atheist or agnostic or maybe just a bit bored. Bishop Robert Barron is a compelling speaker who doesn’t drown his audience in persuasion or condescension. The first chapter of Centered introduces the meaning of God. Bishop Barron references early church fathers like Thomas Aquinas in how they defined God.
“God is not ens summum (highest being) but rather ipsum esse (the sheer act of Being itself). God is neither a thing in the world, nor the sum total of existing things: he is instead the unconditional cause of the conditioned universe, the reason why there is something rather than nothing. Accordingly, God is not some good things, but Goodness itself; not some true object, but Truth itself; not some beautiful reality, but Beauty itself.”
“In one sense, God is like the clear unbroken surface of an unroiled sea, or like a single Doric column rising into a cloudless sky, or like a pure solo soprano voice singing the simplest of melodies. There is a peaceful untrammeled serenity to the divine being, since God is the sheer act of existence…There is therefore something clean, pure, untroubled, and uncomplicated about the divine reality.”
A reminder of the divine reality and its business was gifted to me on this lovely morning, the eve of the Advent season and closing of the liturgical year, as I was alone in the company of only the sun and water. Though, not quite as alone as I thought. One more had joined our gathering. It was a beaver. He must have been enjoying a break from his damn building. Second breakfast, I might presume, as it was after breakfast and not quite lunch. As he was delightfully chomping away, I was thinking about him and I. I didn’t bother introducing myself or asking him what he thought of the nice day, whether the calm waters were advantageous for his work or if it didn’t matter too much (I heard on the radio later it’s not that introverts dislike people but rather we dislike superficial socializing…how necessary is small-talk really?). I was glad he didn’t seem insulted I left it out. It ended up being mostly a one-sided conversation, but I considered what he thought of me and what I thought of him. Maybe it was because I just recently watched Pocohontas that this interaction was so illuminating to me. Almost as if it has been cued up, the song she sings to John Smith when he calls her people savages began playing in my head.
“We’ve improved the lives of savages all over the world.”
“Not that you’re a savage.”
“Just my people!”
“No, listen, that’s not what I meant. Let me explain…savage is just a word, you know, a term for people who are uncivilized.”
“Well, when I say uncivilized, what I mean is…”
“What you mean is not like you…You think I’m an ignorant savage, and you’ve been so many places, I guess it must be so. But still I cannot see, if the savage one is me, how can there be so much that you don’t know? You don’t knowwwwwww.
You think you own whatever land you land on. The earth is just a dead thing you can claim, but I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name.
You think the only people who are people are the people that look and think like you, but if you walk the foot steps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.
Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon? Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned? Can you sing with all the voices of the mountain? Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?
…Come roll in all the riches all around you and for once, never wonder what they’re worth…And you’ll never hear the wolf cry to the blue corn moon for whether we are white or copper-skinned. We need to paint with all the voices of the mountain; we need to paint with all the colors of the wind.”
(PS- I’m not sure I needed to include almost the whole song, but I couldn’t help it.)
I looked at that beaver, a wild animal, and I was the one who felt beastly. I wondered if I told him creatures like me killed our unborn, used each other as slaves, “civilized” those who knew less, stepped on each other for power and prowess, blamed each other for sorrows and difficulties, used our communication to devalue and make each other feel worthless, etc., he would call me the savage one. If he would tell me there is so much I don’t know. I think if I were him, I would.
Most of us, when we are young, think we know everything. I certainly did (still do too often). Not only this but we determine older people don’t know much at all about what is relevant, certainly not our parents. I still find myself repenting of this foolishness and admitting more frequently than I would like the rightness of things my mom or dad told me. Knowledge was a major source of pride for me because I was good at it. It came easily. It was all merry in high school and college. Go to class, study, get good grades. Intellect gave me a lofty reputation, and I leaned on it greatly. Even in my faith, I took advantage of this ability for the wrong reasons. I wasn’t going to be the Christian girl who spoke in cliches. I judged and condemned these girls when I was around them. Thinking I knew way more than them, which made me better. Made me more of a Christian. I thought I knew. I thought I knew until I started seeing their cliches come to life in my own life. I started living them, and all of a sudden, they didn’t seem mere cute girlish sentiment and bubbly superficiality (small talk can be a necessary precursor to deeper conversation and that doesn’t make it any less genuine…touché extroverts). I had to put the weight of my whole being on these truths I ignorantly put beneath me or be lost to the abyss of nothingness and the whims of meaninglessness. My head could not do this alone. This was largely a matter of the things of my heart- faith, trust, surrender- and it occurred to me, I was utterly weak. I hadn’t been working out this muscle much.
As my heart continues to be softened, I am committed to unlearning. I am finding out, as John Smith does, all I do not know. I am busy unlearning pride, bias, judgement, condemnation, superiority, and all sorts of other evils within me, to uncover what knowledge is meant to point to. Not myself but the Truth. Pursuing knowledge must stay within the context of seeking Truth. It is not only for those with intellectual gifts but everyone. Truth offers itself to all of us. Believing this, it is tempting to think it follows that the truth is wide, general, and tailored to accept us all. We all have our own “truth.” “Truth” is relative. I have found the opposite.
So many times I desperately want truth to be wide and accepting. Knowledge had always been friendly. It made me likable. Truth does not promise this. More times than not it creates dislike. It is narrow, but narrow for a reason. Narrow to protect goodness and keep a standard. To be solid enough to throw the weight of our hearts on when things don’t make sense to our heads. The Truth can even seem savage.
In the last of the Hobbit movies, The Battle of the Five Armies, the king of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield, and his company have taken back their home, the Lonely Mountain, from the evil dragon Smaug. In the treasures of the mountain the dragon had been so attracted to, a jewel called the Arkenstone remained lost. The dwarves believed the Arkenstone was the heart of the mountain, the king’s jewel. It gave the dwarf possessing it the divine right to rule. Bilbo’s role in the company of dwarves was to find the Arkenstone. To steal it from the dragon and recover it for the dwarves. Reaching the destination of their long journey, this task began to obsess Thorin. The gold in the mountain consumed him. Something the dwarves called dragon sickness lie over it. Thorin was succumbing to this sickness. It raised in him a terrible need for the gold and the Arkenstone. It inflamed a toxic greed for self-preservation. Bilbo and the other dwarves see this, but Thorin cannot. So when Bilbo finds the Arkenstone, he decides not the give it to Thorin, for fear it will only make him worse. Thorin has already gone back on his word about giving some of the mountain treasure to the people of Lake Town to rebuild their city the dragon reduced to ash. The Elves also have jewels they desire from the treasure. If Thorin won’t willingly give what he had previously promised, the men and Elves threaten to attack the dwarves. Thorin will not be moved, even to avoid war.
Bilbo knows Thorin desires the Arkenstone above all, so he gives it to the men and the Elves in an attempt to save the dwarves, who are greatly outnumbered, from being attacked. He believes Thorin will give what he promised in a trade for the Arkenstone. Bilbo risks the wrath of Thorin in the hope he will see reason and regain clarity from the dragon sickness. Thorin hates the Elves, so it should be just the shock and horror to sober him if they possess the Arkenstone. As a true friend of Thorin, Bilbo loves him and desires his best above the possible rejection and ruin of their relationship.
This was a savage move on Bilbo’s part. He knew Thorin wouldn’t take kindly to him giving the heirloom of his people to his hated rival. But Bilbo also knew something Thorin did not. Could not, truly. Bilbo knew Thorin wasn’t seeing clearly. He was blinded by the sickness of the treasure. Thorin was not himself, and Bilbo chose the cost of whatever the consequences may be to protect and bring back to life the Thorin he knew and loved.
I think the Truth is like this. It can be so hard for us to seek and find because mostly, we don’t actually want it. Not as it is. Like knowledge in high school and college, I want the Truth to be easy and merry. I want it to boost my reputation. But unlearning has taught me we set ourselves up for the Truth to be harsh and sobering. To feel as though we have been betrayed by our best friend when it is presented to us. Like Thorin, we succumb to the sickness of self-preservation, greed, control, disordered loves, etc. These things are wide and general and accepting. They tickle our ears telling us whatever we want is right. If I am real with myself, I know most of my wants are not right and good because self-servitude does not bring me closer to God or other people. Thus, I know the Truth cannot be like this. The remedy must be different, and because it is this way, I often will not choose it for myself. One because I might not be able to see the Truth clearly. Two, even if I recognize it is what I truly need, I will not so easily surrender to it, especially if it seems uncomfortable or a blow to my pride. Certainly not if it tells me I do not know or am wrong. This is when I need a Bilbo. I need a friend who is willing to put his/her status and our relationship on the line to preserve the Truth. I need my Bilbo to help save me from myself because I am sick and cannot do it.
“Her willingness to say what needed to be said was a tremendous gift. Especially the way she said it—straight to my face, without hesitation, condemnation, or fear. Instead, she invited me to step wholeheartedly into the truth. I did, and with greater clarity and confidence.”[Liz Kelly_BlessedIs She Daily Devotional 11/12/2020]
Stepping into the Truth can be scary enough. Inviting someone else you love to do so is scarier still. You risk being accused of not knowing or not understanding. You risk being accused of ignorance or intolerance. Of being a savage. Wild and unwanted.
I’m not sure I’ve been in this position enough really. I claim to believe in God who became a Man and told people to eat of His flesh and drink of His blood. This seems rather savage, if I forget the meaning of God. “The sheer act of Being itself…Goodness itself…Truth itself…Beauty itself.” This is exactly what I ought to be feeding myself. What else will satisfy? In the Christian tradition I claim to be a part of, we honor and celebrate this reality sacramentally every day. Sadly, the mystery and awe of this grace has been so lost on us. Growing up, I didn’t think anything of being Catholic. Didn’t treasure the riches of the tradition. Didn’t understand the Sacraments or the Mass. It was all like school. Getting good grades and going to church on Sunday made me look good. The knowledge of God and His Son Jesus Christ was nice.
Life pleaded with me to get out of the confines of my head and the grips of pride. To break free from this lukewarm bondage. To see with my eyes, hear with my ears and understand with my heart. The cold, thick walls of my heart could not stand up to the destruction of pain and loss. My heart was in desperate need of saving. It needed to be set ablaze.
“’Don’t talk damned nonsense.’ Christianity is a fighting religion.”[Mere Christianity]
Lewis speaks of this “damned nonsense” referring to the Pantheistic belief that the closer you get to the divine view of things, you will realize even cancer and slums are a part of God. “If you do not take the distinction between good and bad very seriously, then it is easy to say anything you find in this world is a part of God.”
Dissolving the boundaries of good and bad allows truth to be wide. To be relative. “Nothing is absolutely good or absolutely bad. Ethical truths depend on the individuals and the groups holding them. Knowledge is relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing.” [Merriam-Webster definition of relativism] If we do not take the distinction between good and bad very seriously, then it is cozy to say truth is accepting of all. The boundaries of my being are blurred. I fade into the background of whatever picture I am presented.
1:2_ “Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have revoted against Me. An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master’s manger, but Israel does not know, My people do not understand.”
5:20_ Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
6:9-10_He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand.’ “Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.”
8:19_when they say to you, “consult the mediums and the spiritists who whisper and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?
53:1-3_Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
I no longer go to church to look good. The Father knows I look nothing of the sort. I go for Him. For need. For food, life and Being. Goodness itself. Truth itself. Beauty itself. I go to remember who I am and who my fellow creatures are. I come to my God in prayer and the Word for light. He gives me the confidence to step into truth wholeheartedly because of who He is. Because His Son became like me and endured everything I am called to endure. He witnessed that the truth is uncomfortable and insulting but so worth protecting. He told me the world would hate me because it hated Him first. He was despised and forsaken of men. The very creatures He created and loves.
Righteous are You, O Lord, And upright are Your judgements. You have commanded your testimonies in righteousness and exceeding faithfulness. My zeal has consumed me, because my adversaries have forgotten your words. Your word is very pure, therefore Your servant loves it. I am small and despised, yet I do not forget Your precepts. Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and your law is truth. Trouble and anguish have come upon me, yet your commandments are my delight. Your testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live.
I left the beaver as he finished his snacking and ventured to swim upstream with a realization I would have never considered in this way previously. I ought to join him. In the wilderness swimming against the current. Standing on the narrowness of Truth makes you stand out. Not standing on the width of your own “truth.” Standing out means being different. Thinking and talking unlike other people. Despised and unesteemed. Unwanted.
“I am unwanted…My emotions are unbridled. A wildness. In the blood. I share with my father.”[Winston Churchill, “Darkest Hour”]
I concede there is much I do not know.
“[I am] strong because [I am] imperfect. [I am] wise because [I have] doubts.”[Clemmie, “Darkest Hour”]
But I believe the Truth is narrow. Absolutes give meaning. Relativism is damned nonsense. This may make me wild, but I prefer to share this with my Father than be bound in shackles to the dead. Like Pocahontas, I guess I’m a savage.
PS- the title is not my own. “Savage” is a song by Megan Thee Stallion. I must admit, though, I cannot recommend it.