Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Pieta.


"Belief in the existence of other human beings as such is love."

Simone Weil, "Love," in Sian Miles, ed., Simone Weil: An Anthology (New York: Grove, 1986), p. 270.

This story is for the women I love.


The big day came, but I wasn't interested. The newspapers and television had been filled with the news for weeks. Scientists from all over the world had received messages in something like radio waves -- except they were much more sophisticated and powerful signals -- picked up with all the high tech listening devices that were one part of the human search for extraterrestial life. No one had expected that these devices would provide us with a signal of non-human origin, purporting to come from God, anouncing an exact date for His arrival on earth. God was due to arrive on New Year's Day, at 12:00 A.M., at Times Square, New York.

Dignitaries, politicians, representatives of all the major religions, the U.N. General Secretary -- all had crowded into the city. The subways were even more packed than usual at this time of the year, commuting was impossible with the holiday crowds and all of the "God tourists." The anouncement of God's expected visit had resulted in hotel fees and cab fares going up, of course, but no increases in salaries. Ordinary citizens were to be kept behind barricades and police lines. Photographers had staked out positions all over the place.

As an atheist, I had no interest in the proceedings. If God was coming to earth, I didn't want to meet Him. I don't want to know Him. I don't want to shake His hand or take my picture with Him. What about the Holocaust? What about Darfur? What about the months of agony before my grandmother died? Her blissful happiness at the end of her life is a mystery. She looked at me, as she was dying -- in excruciating agony -- and said: "God is good." I remember, but still do not understand her final smile. My grandmother had been a seamstress. She had nothing. She suffered a great deal in her life. What was the point? How could she describe her life as good?

If there is a God and He shows up, I want to ask Him about Stalin and Pol Pot. Albert Camus was right: "The Last Judgment will be of God, not of man."

Most of all, I want to know why He has placed me on this cross. I love someone, who disappeared. No one knows whether she is dead or alive. I cannot find or speak to her. I cannot stop bleeding from this wound, from the uncertainty and yearning. Is she in pain? Is she suffering? Is she dead? I also cannot stop loving her. I cannot medicate myself out of the pain, terrible pain, because the love and ache is the place where I wake up in the morning and where I eat or try to sleep at night. It is where I bathe, or try to work. It never leaves me. I never leave it. I cannot stop being furious at the misery caused by powerful hypocrites in society, including injustices and offenses that I have suffered personally. The hypocrisy and malice of men and women in robes of office sickens me.

Suicide is no option because there are people who love me, who would be devastated by my death. They would be in the position I am in now, asking "why" for the rest of their lives. I cannot do such a thing to others, especially not to a child. So this place of pain, this space filled with agony, is where I must dwell forever. Why me? What did I do to Him?

I must walk in my bare feet along the edge of this razor for the rest of my life.

I don't want to hear any bullshit about how evil is an "aesthetic" requirement in the great drama of life. An all-powerful God could provide all of that drama with bliss (King Lear as a romantic comedy), without suffering or pain, unless He is a sadist. No nonsense about free will please. God could permit freedom without evil, that's why He's God. If He can't, then He is not all-powerful, just another suffering soul. I know all the trick answers and the boilerplate stuff. I am an ex-priest; ex-philosophy professor; ex-person. I work at the U.S. Post Office now, with lots of other ex-persons. "How many stamps do you need, mam?"

When the big day arrived, I worked late, as usual, then bought myself a paperback thriller on the way home from 34th Street. There was no public transportation, so I could only walk towards my apartment at 89th and Columbus. Midtown was a nightmare. Millions of people crowded the Streets to see God. Vendors were selling t-shirts with many images of God. At midnight, I found myself unable to move, except very slowly, at Times Square (God was nowhere to be found!), as news cameras were aimed at the heavens. He probably wasn't going to show up. Typical. Deus Absconditus.

"I think this is all nonsense." A woman said this.

"Me too."

She was about my age, mid-forties, office worker type, attractive and pleasant. She was cold, so she bundled herself into her simple cloth coat, placed her hands in her pockets. I noticed a brace on one foot, which seemed smaller than the other and realized that she must be hurting from all the jostling and walking.

"I'm trying to get home." She said. I felt terrible about her situation, so I offered to help.

"I'm walking that way, uptown. Do you want to take my arm?"

"Yes." She said.

She moved slowly. We chatted on the way. She was a school teacher, retired because of a degenerative and (I almost cried when she said this), eventually, fatal muscle disease. She spoke of her daily experiences with her brace and of the humiliations of the body. God better not show up. It would take time for the illness to progress, she told me, so she made the most of every day. She loved theater; she read (we spoke of Shakespeare); she visited museums; she had never been married and lived alone. We had to stop pretty regularly because it was difficult for her to walk. I felt so much sympathy for her suffering. I was awed by her dignity and courage.

I never laughed so much with anyone. Also, I had never been so forthcoming about my own troubles. She made me feel relaxed and at peace. I felt that I could say anything to her, just be myself. She understood and accepted me. She liked music. So I offered to play Mozart for her. I had a new CD player. She only lived a few buildings away from mine. I figured we both needed company this night.

Her determination was something to see. The pain she felt in walking, her frailty, the way she hung on to my arm, laughing all the while. It took us a few hours to make it home -- like on 9/11 -- but she did not wilt. Despite the physical torture she must have been experiencing, her concern was for me. She made tea for both of us, and we rested. She listened to Mozart with me. We talked for hours. We even wept a little.

I couldn't allow her to leave, but I felt that it was too soon for any greater intimacy. I prepared a bed for her in the spare room and carried her into it. She laughed all the while, though I could see that she had no strength left, even as I felt so much stronger and more purposeful than I had in years. Strangely, I was filled with hope and joy about the future.

I slept better than I had in years and awoke to find her gone. I only knew her first name, "Regina," but no exact address, no phone number, nothing. How could this happen to me? Then I noticed a green ring made of stone that she had purchased on the street for $5.00. She had worn it throughout the evening. She left it on the nightable, without a note or anything. It was placed next to a small reproduction of Michelangelo's "Pieta," that I had purchased when I was a student in Rome.



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