“‘The Book of Ecclesiastes would be fine. Where was it?’
‘Here,’ Montag touched his head.
‘Ah,’ Granger smiled and nodded.
‘What’s wrong? Isn’t that all right?’ said Montag.
‘Better than all right: perfect!’
Granger turned to the Reverend.
‘Do we have a Book of Ecclesiastes?’
‘One. A man named Harris in Youngstown.’
‘Montag.’ Granger took Montag’s shoulder firmly.
‘Walk carefully. Guard your health. If anything should happen to Harris,
you are the Book of Ecclesiastes.
See how important you’ve become in the last minute!’”
~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Trying to broach the subject of being able to see my circumstances and times as they are, is my present endeavor. Each day is stooped over with grim news. It seems there is enough drama and conflict for the media addicts, and enough overwhelm for the exasperated. And it all blends together on the internet. It’s easy to want to run away from the “fair and balanced” of reporting outlets and fear merchants that pervade broadcasting. Even from this relatively quiet corner of the continent, it is all quite daunting. Larger markets are challenged more intensely. But whether there or here, the adage of “testing the spirits” always applies.
When so much that needs help- and far away- cannot be done by a person of modest means, frustration ensues. I have to apply creative ways to donate resources and offer prayers, while having to remain where I am and at my daily employment. And beyond that, perhaps I do join so many others that reflexively pursue diversions to deflect the constant bad news of the “real world.” Well, then, what is reality after all? That is something to always take to heart, at every step- especially when portrayals appear or sound skewed. Must there always be a villain? Or is the fault really between the conflicting parties? Are things actually as cut-and-dry so to fit between commercials? Why even think about such things? Because losing a foundational sense is equivalent to compromising it away to untested notions, catchphrases, and worst of all- fear. Test the spirits. Reconsider perceptions. While pondering such present-day anomalies as contemplative vocations and lives crafted through creative expression, I wonder if an anomaly like me should view this amnesiac world as still more anomalous. That iconic London headline comes to mind, “Fog in the Channel : Europe Cut Off,” reminding me that vantage point is indeed the eye of the beholder.
Anomalous or not, heights and roads are stretched before us to engage our pursuits and contribute our signatures. Immersed in the flow of time from yesterday through today and into tomorrow, one cannot remain unchanged. Perhaps progress implies looking in several directions during forward steps. When imagining an archives of the soul, the idea is one of a living collection loved into existence, trimmed, indexed, and expandable. In some form or another, we are each curators of our gleanings and what we’ve made of our environments. It is for us to comprehend what we’ve gathered, to preserve or release. Our time, with thoughts to fill only so many shelves, is for us to redeem.
But our times both parallel and collide with the broader continuum within which we live, move, and have our being. Anomalies are not without context: as otherworldly as our aspirations might be, we must still live in this world. If societal currents threaten to depersonalize, the power to commit to memory remains with the individual person. It takes some work, but what soul is not worth the effort? This challenges where we place our faith. Hope held fast becomes an eye threading storms that encircle. Engaging and enduring, immersed in this culture yet gazing upward, subjects a soul to everything that can disable. But there is also everything that can strengthen. Still, the marathon must persist through swirls of grim forecasts, terrors, popular fatalism, and closed doors. Remaining hopeful sounds too passive; perhaps with language more like embodying profoundest hopes, a more applicable thought will accompany my steps.
By living our prayer, we can persevere; by persevering, we can live our prayer. This is in itself a present consolation, yet also a bond toward future consolations. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, written almost sixty years ago, continues to offer both allegory and commentary. Consider how the novel’s mural-like “family on the wall” interactive screens in every home foresaw today’s ubiquitous social networks which millions use to avert their solitude. But the Montag character finds something of a network when his escape from armed pursuers brings him to an encampment of individuals who memorize books. Like the ancient apostles who had no printed volumes, these book-people were messengers with entrusted words stored in their hearts. The book-people tell Montag of many others who do what they do- even whole towns whose individual minds constitute whole libraries of literary works. True to the lessons in his novel, Bradbury has Montag personify the book of Ecclesiastes: the wisdom of King Solomon. Granted, our society doesn’t employ firefighters to burn books, nor are we forbidden to read or write- as in the story. But many do wonder aloud as to the present and future states of the intellectual life. Finding roads of kindredship, aspiring to be a positive influence, and cultivating a sense of discerning and analytical knowledge demands tenacity and dedication. And confidence. (I like to translate the French word confiance as confident trust.) Indeed, many more than we realize are out there writing, expressing, mentoring, and walking their sincere prayers.
Various social commentators compare the present century with the era that followed the dissolution of the Roman Empire which Petrarch called the "Dark Ages." Surely there are less simplistic ways to make sense of these times- yet still some parallel aspects are somewhat understandable: warfare in incessant, urban society is fragmented by varieties of isolation, and learning that transcends job skills is increasingly marginalized. But if we entertain the comparison for yet another thought, there have always been exceptions at small and large scales. I like to imagine such endeavors as those of Alcuin’s court (8th century) were among many that may have been undocumented. Once more, with a strained voice of hope, there is brightness to acknowledge and affirm above oceans of darkness. Following through with such an ideal, on a practical level, is a setting-forth toward wilderness. We are far enough away from the early medieval centuries to not only rise above those times but also to learn from history.
If this isn’t a revisitation of the Dark Ages (and it's not), these times might be called a negative age. An ingredient in Postmodernism is to define something by what it is not. Individuals often describe what they aren’t, or what they don’t like, before you hear them tell you who they are. Perhaps in the wake of deconstruction, much focus is assigned to what is excluded, what one opposes, rather than a forthright affirmation of what is definitive- or simply what is. Fear of failure is heaped upon the rest of the menu offerings of purveyors of pessimism. One can just wonder what follows, when such perspective finally becomes too old and tired to perpetuate. Like the book-people, we’ll have to be fluent enough in forgotten disciplines to tirelessly give of them. Newness is intrinsic to thriving trust.
“... if the men were silent it was because there was everything to think about and much to remember. Perhaps later in the morning, when the sun was up and had warmed them they would begin to talk, or just say the things they remembered, to be sure they were there, to be absolutely certain things were safe in them. Montag felt the slow stir of words, the slow simmer.”
~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451