Sometimes memory is a curse. I’m fast approaching some milestone memories, the kind that end in zero or five. My 55th high school reunion is next month and the 50th anniversary of my ordination is also. Such milestones give me pause to remember the highs and lows of my 70 plus years of life experience.
For example, for some reason I decided to add up how many U.S. Presidents there have been in office during my lifetime. From Truman to Trump adds up to 13 occupants of the White House since I was born. What shocked me about that number is that it means that I have been alive for almost one-third (13/45) of all U.S. Presidents ever. I wish I hadn’t done the math.
One of the most interesting courses I took in seminary back in the Nixon administration was a course called “Theology in the Modern Novel” taught by Professor Don Webb. In that class I began to learn the power of fiction to reveal a truth deeper than fact. That experience was the beginning of my life-long appreciation for the power of narrative to touch people at an emotional level that rational-logical discourse can never reach. I had not realized till I started writing this piece that my whole appreciation and dedication to narrative rhetoric began in that class and shaped my preaching and teaching ever since. Thanks, Don.
Remembering today the work of the author I studied in that class on narrative theology I found this quote that resonates with my own intellectual and theological journey and may explain how I was drawn to his writing. “Having seen that I was not capable of using all my resources in political action, I returned to my literary activity. There lay the battlefield suited to my temperament. I wanted to make my novels the extension of my own father’s struggle for liberty. But gradually, as I kept deepening my responsibility as a writer, the human problem came to overshadow political and social questions. All the political, social, and economic improvements, all the technical progress cannot have any regenerating significance, so long as our inner life remains as it is at present. The more the intelligence unveils and violates the secrets of Nature, the more the danger increases and the heart shrinks.” (As quoted in Nikos Kazantzakis (1968) by Helen Kazantzakis, p. 529)
As an aside let me throw in here an observation about the mystery of memory and how it leads to different and I hope deeper reflection than expected. By the way, that only happens if we take the time to explore our inner journey—and more importantly to learn from the insights we uncover there. It is a rare journey we don’t usually take time for in our hectic 5G world, and that may be an excuse, at least it is for me, because I may not like what I find if I go spelunking down memory lane. As Barbra Streisand sings in “The Way We Were:” Mem’ries, may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget.”
This all started because I’ve been feeling my age more than usual this week as a head cold has been added to my “normal” aches and pains. The memory I thought was going to result in a light-hearted blog post about the joys of aging was the lyrics to a song in the musical “Zorba,” called “Grandpapa.” The setting for the song is one where the elderly Zorba is being ridiculed for his age by some younger men in a bar. The banter back and forth between Zorba and his tormentors goes like this:
“A young man with no money is better than an old man with no money. Goodbye, Grandpapa!
Grandpapa? Grandpapa? I’ll show you who’s Grandpapa! Zorba! Zorba! Listen! There are two Zorbas. The inner Zorba is as slender as a reed!
Look at that, look at that, poor old man is weak and fat!
He has thirty-two teeth!
Look at that, there’s no doubt, every tooth is falling out!
He wears a red carnation behind his ear!
Look at that, over there, golden beard but long white hair.
This is the outside Zorba!
Look at that, old and feeble Grandpapa”
Trust me, I know the many joys of being a grandfather; I just wish it could come at an earlier age when I could play ball and shoot hoops and get down on the floor to rough house or play like I used to. But all that aside, that “Grandpapa” song led me down a memory trail that resulted in this much longer rambling about the influence on my life of the creator of Zorba, Nikos Kazantzakis.
I don’t remember how I chose Kazantzakis to focus on for that seminary class, but I’ve always been glad I did. My life and thinking have been and continue to be enriched by that decision. Yes, Kazantzakis died in 1953; so many today would not consider his work “modern,” but remember this class was in 1971, just 18 years after Kazantzakis’ prolific writing stopped. I only scratched the surface of Kazantzakis’ work in that class, reading “Zorba the Greek,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Greek Passion,” and “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises.” The latter is described this way by Simon Friar, the English translator of many of Kazantzakis’ writings, “Saviors of God” occupies a central role in the work of the Greek author….where in a passionate and poetic style, yet in systematic fashion, he set down the philosophy embedded … in everything he has written.”
One of the thoughts that has stayed with me all these years from “Saviors of God” is this one about prayer: “My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the petty reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I encountered, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.”
I have often turned to that passage for inspiration when I am weary of the struggle for social justice, even though I don’t like the military metaphors. Too often human struggles to comprehend the mysteries of existence have led to violent conflict because in order to manage our discomfort with ambiguity religious and political get hardened into concrete symbol systems that must be defended at all costs. But the struggle Kazantzakis is talking about is not for one ideology or belief structure about God and the universe. Kazantzakis says in that same work: “We do not struggle for ourselves, nor for our race, not even for humanity. We do not struggle for Earth, nor for ideas. All these are the precious yet provisional stairs of our ascending God, and they crumble away as soon as he steps upon them in his ascent.
In the smallest lightning flash of our lives, we feel all of God treading upon us, and suddenly we understand: if we all desire it intensely, if we organize all the visible and invisible powers of earth and fling them upward, if we all battle together like fellow combatants eternally vigilant — then the Universe might possibly be saved.
It is not God who will save us — it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.”
One of the things that keeps attracting me to such abstract thoughts and images is how my finite little mind is stretched by Kazantzakis’ spiritual language. And like my muscles I often resist such stretching. Even as I write this I kick myself for starting down this path. I am feeling cornered by the impossible notion that I need to somehow wrap this post up with some neat summary of what this all means. But of course I can’t. Any God I could “explain” or capture in human language would be woefully inadequate.
So I will leave you here with one of Kazantzakis’ most mysterious quotes that has tugged at my soul for all these 50 years. This one is also from “Saviors of God.”
“Blessed be all those who hear and rush to free you, lord, and who say: “Only you and I exist.”
Blessed be all those who free you and become united with you, lord, and who say: “You and I are one.
And thrice blessed be those who bear on their shoulders and do not buckle under this great, sublime, and terrifying secret:
That even this one does not exist!”
I can’t explain why that image appeals to me, but I recently found another quote from “Saviors” where Kazantzakis at least hints at what it meant to him:
“Nothing exists! Neither life nor death. I watch mind and matter hunting each other like two nonexistent erotic phantasms — merging, begetting, disappearing — and I say: “This is what I want! I know now: I do not hope for anything. I do not fear anything, I have freed myself from both the mind and the heart, I have mounted much higher, I am free. This is what I want. I want nothing more. I have been seeking freedom.”
Most appropriately that passage was used for Kazantzakis’ epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”