Monday, May 7, 2007

CULT II - Benefit of the Doubt

It all seemed strange, that retreat weekend with the unexplained empty casket, the crackling radio turned to a band used by river pilots on the Hudson, the cherubic leader talking inner child theory and promoting Frost and Auden and then reading peculiar poetry of his own. And the people who kept losing it, screaming at each other or beating a rubber figure of Mickey Mouse with a baseball bat -­ and then my realizing, in light of this inner child stuff, that despite all I had done, I still had unfinished business with the people and places of my past.

Yes, I had just been to Italy to look and look and look ­ at a point in what I was doing in drawing and painting when it had become absolutely crucial to get to Italy and see the work of the great masters, and I got them all in, from Giotto to Raphael, a matter of great urgency to connect with these works in their natural context. And yes, I had just settled in Woodstock, in a place surrounded by woods, a studio that rose almost two stories and a bedroom with a skylight directly overhead where birds flew over every other time I opened my eyes. And yes, I had felt a new kind of fear ­ for woods had been there in my childhood, while the many wars I had known - Haiti to Laos to Angola to Lebanon - had been safe in that what I saw and survived had been in cities, and cities were adult territory.

And yes, I had just taken what would once have seemed a
preposterous step, leading to membership in the Catholic church because there was something I needed and Teilard de Chardin and Thomas Merton and Daniel Berrigan -­ and certain liberation theology priests and nuns I had encountered in Managua and Borneo and Taipei and Manila -­ had something I could connect with in just as thorough a way as I had connected with Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico, Alberti and Ghilberti and Fillippo Lippi. In apite of all the horrors of religious war and pedophilia and a right-wing Polish pope who was trying to turn back the clock -­ despite all this, it seemed important to me that it was not mere coincidence that Teilard and Merton and the Berrigan brothers ­- and so many of the great living liberation figures in so many of the dangerous places I loved - were Catholic. And anyway that logical part was such a small part of it all as to hardly count.

So it did not seem strange to me that that I should give this roly poly retreat leader with his coffin and his radio and odd poetry, the benefit of all doubts, sensible as the doubts seemed. Not knowing why the river boat radio was on, or what the casket was doing there, or what these people were doing clutching their stuffed animals - that made it the more enticing. Things for which I had no boxes. No way to wrap them up. Being ready for whatever might follow. And most of these people here were in couples and seemed to stepping into the unknown together, which was wonderfully astounding. The cherubic leader would appear to some to be kind of silly, maybe, but what if I had run in recent years the first time I came upon a silly theologian or a vicious painting teacher?

And anyway I was in a strong position, I thought, since chaos seemed farther away than it had ever been.

I did not need this man to tell me what was wrong with where I came from, and I did not need him for spiritual advice or uplift, or what was and what was not writing. And although he was amusing, so was I and so were most of the people I knew.

In the month after the weekend I went to see him, thinking he had something I
needed. And for some time he did. And I had no sense of when he was lying.

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