Sisyphus and the fair field full of folk

Yesterday, while sitting in the cafeteria, sipping the last of my tea, I scanned the seething mob of students around me. Pockets collected around tables, laughing. Some weaved through the rows of chairs, balancing plates. Most were focused, making beelines through the groups, mumbling excuses and smiling as they dodged bodies and carts, slipping into their own chair. Others took their time, stopping at tables, picking out apples like a chef at a farmer’s market.

Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library
Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library

Each person had a way of being. Some wore exercise clothes, others had prim button-down Oxfords, most shuffled through lines in pajamas. They had places to go, things to do–or an absence of things to do that they filled with conversations and distractions.

Having spent the morning reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, an allegorical dream poem from the 14th century, I recalled one of the more famous lines. The narrator, a mysterious figure named Will, falls asleep and finds himself in the midst of a strange country. He describes it:

I saw a tower on a toft · worthily built; 
A deep dale beneath · a dungeon therein, 
With deep ditches and dark · and dreadful of sight 
A fair field full of folk · found I in between, 
Of all manner of men · the rich and the poor, 
Working and wandering · as the world asketh. 

Will then goes on to describe these “fair folk.” Some toil in fields, while “Wasters” devour their products in gluttony. Some seek after salvation, becoming monks and anchorites; others wear the habit as a means to a escape poverty and cheat others. Merchants sell wares. Pilgrims travel. Kings rule, judges judge.

The poem describes a diverse spectrum of life, from highborn to low, and sandwiched them between these two towers: the one on a hill, the other in a ditch. We later discover that the tower on the hill is the tower of Truth, a symbol for God and salvation. The tower in the ditch belongs to Wrong, providing a symbol for a wasted life and a doomed afterlife. As the poem progresses through it’s many “steps,” visions chronicle Will’s search for salvation through Truth.

In the cafeteria, I considered Will’s vision, particularly this “fair field full of folk,” buzzing, weaving, laughing, and living around me. Where are they all going? I thought. What are they doing? Why are they here? A surge of compassion welled up in me as these questions turned over in my head, rolling one to the other. I felt connected to everyone and detached at the same time, an outside observer with a unique stake in the observation.

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Update

Hey all,

I’ve been on the road for most of this weekend, so I haven’t had a chance to update the blog. I apologize. In the meantime, here’s a video. It’s a two-part video on Kierkegaard from a BBC documentary called Sea of Faith that covers a number of modern philosophers, including Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, and how they approached faith in the modern era.

Enjoy:

Augustine and Evil

My dad closed the door and flicked off the lights, pitching the room into a clean black. Whistler-Nocturne_in_black_and_gold“Goodnight,” he said as he walked way. He footsteps receded as he walked downstairs to rejoin my mom. My brother sat up beside the bed.

“Ready?” he asked.

I nodded.

We piled my stuffed animals and realigned my pillows, burying the human-like decoy in a thick comforter. From the doorway, it looked like a body curled up in deep sleep. Perfect.

My brother and I snuck downstairs, our soft footfalls swallowed by explosions and gunshots from an action movie. We opened the basement door and slipped downstairs to my brother’s room, where we watched kung-fu and R-rated movies, eating chips and dip, until dawn.

I could have asked my parents to sleep downstairs. They would have probably said yes—it was a Friday and I was almost nine. But the thrill of subterfuge tinged my flight. Breaking rules was liberating, saying “no” was exciting. Doing the “wrong” thing was a thrill.

In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo tells a similar story. One night, he and his friends sneak into a garden and steal pears. They don’t eat the fruit but still enjoy the theft for its sinful pleasure. As he writes, “The malice of the act was base and I loved it—that is to say, I loved my own undoing, I loved the evil in me” (Augustine and F.J. Sheed, trans., 44).

One of the many picture's of St. Augustine (by Antonio Rodríguez)
One of the many pictures of St. Augustine (by Antonio Rodríguez)

In my forbidden flight and Augustine’s theft, we broke rules. Using Augustine’s theological language, we “sinned,” turning away from God toward ourselves. In Augustine’s case, he picked a forbidden fruit. In my case, I disobeyed my parents. This “turning away” forms an essential crux in Augustine’s argument defending God against the charge of evil. But to understand his argument one must first understand his notion of being and non-being–gleaned from the Greek tradition.

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Book Review: God is Not Great

I just finished God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the recently

The cover, from Brain Pickings. com

deceased polymath, essayist, and atheist Christopher Hitchens. I bought the book after seeing it linger on shelves and cropping up in my recommendations on Amazon.com for the past year.

It’s a systematic, caustic critique on religion that ends with a plea for secular rationalism and a “New Enlightenment,” a book bound to spur controversy.

I’m no stranger to religion. After an incident involving milk and foam cups at one pre-K, my parents moved me to Gingerbread House, a Catholic pre-K in the nearby City of Syracuse.

My dad drove our blue-green Volvo each day, past the gutted factories and black windows, beneath the low bridges etched with rusty rivulets, and past the sidewalks with tufts of grass and weedy tendrils.

Among the nap-time, craft-time, and play-time typical of most pre-Ks, Gingerbread House had prayer time. Teachers took us to a low, dark chapel with clean floors and a white flame incased behind red glass. A crucifix hung in the front. Now and then, the stories of the Bible cropped up in conversation.

My memory is hazy, but Gingerbread house must have hit something. My mom said I dragged her to the chapel once, and as we stood in the silence, I shushed her and pointed to the crucifix.

“That’s God,” I whispered.

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