Sunday, April 15, 2007

An Absence at the Center of Being

When I was in a seminar my first year of graduate school on mystics (which integrated not only readings from mystics texts but also from a variety of theoretical sources), I encountered, for the very first time, Michel deCerteau, in his The Mystic Fable. On the second page, he writes these compelling lines:

The One is no longer to be found. ‘They have taken him away,’ say so many chants of the mystics who inaugurate, with the story of his loss, the history of his returns elsewhere and otherwise, in ways that are the effect rather than the refutation of his absence. While no longer ‘living,’ this ‘dead’ one still does not leave the city—which was formed without him—in peace. He haunts our environs. (2)

As part of my final preparation for my oral exams (still not certain, but coming up in a mere three weeks, if I have my way about it), I’ve been reviewing several mystics: Hadewijch of Brabant, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. I’m struck, endlessly, by the mysteries of these women. When I was writing a paper for this course, I remember being annoyed by how what I was trying to write wasn’t really what I wanted to be writing. However, ideas eluded me – I couldn’t quite articulate what it was I wanted to find in these texts, what it was that I was longing to hear. My professor noticed, and in one of the greatest conversations I’ve ever had with a professor, said that although she knew I was onto something, and trusted that it was a significant something – I was refusing to let it come to the surface, and I wasn’t being up front with the real purpose of the paper.

I spent that summer (it was a Spring course) thinking about her words. I realized, sitting at home in the library at Wake Forest, that the reason I couldn’t be explicit about my interests in the paper I was writing was because, in some form, my interest in the mystics wasn’t about their writing. Rather, it was about that indescribable something that deCerteau postulates in the form of “the One.” I didn’t want to read a mystics’ text as a text – I wanted to mine it for the remains of an experience.

In short, I wanted to know – and in truth, I find, still want to know – what happened to these women. The class was frustrating for me – as is every encounter I have with mystics, including tonight. At the heart of these texts are real women, writing about something that had happened to them. Maddeningly enough, no one ever seems to ask the question that, upon much reflection, I think may well be unanswerable: Did anything really happen to these women? Were they crazy? Or did they really have an experience of – for lack of a better word – the Divine?

A pastor friend of mine (one of the approximately 50% of my friends who went to seminary) laughed when I asked him that. His response: it isn’t yours to know. That’s not what literary study is – if you want to know if they saw God, then you’re in the wrong field.

And yet, as I sit here, tonight, in the middle of the most severe rainstorm I’ve ever had in NYC – I wonder if he was right. Because when I think about it – it seems like a lot of the answer to any of those questions has to do with how you define the concept of the “Divine,” not to mention “experience” – and language is most definitely part of my business.

And I wonder if this experience – intense, overwhelming, painful – doesn’t come from seeing the world Otherwise. What I mean by that is seeing the possibility beyond the limitations of the human, beyond the limitations of our small knowledge and short lives. I don’t know what it could comprise – except perhaps, the possibility of a fundamental human lack. Of what? Unknown. Perhaps it’s precisely that – some vague feeling of being incomplete – being unfinished.

It reminds me of Tom Stoppard’s line from RAGAD:
“Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over... Death is not anything... death is not... It's the absence of presence, nothing more... the endless time of never coming back... a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound...
But something, no matter if it was indescribable or if they were mad – something happened to these women. And I guess that’s why I keep coming back to them, over and over again. To find the absence that haunts them. Not to fill it, not to make it disappear or explain it away. But to linger there – to mark in memory their words, to ask them (metaphorically, of course) what they experienced. I ask this question, without hope of answer, out of respect – not paid to an intangible notion of the God who tortured them in his absence – but for the hope they so often recorded in their suffering and longing.

Now, if only that were something I could talk about in my oral exams...