At long last, with many interruptions by small matters such as Christmas and New Year's Day I have come to the end of my series based on the theology of archy, the cockroach, or more accurately, of course, his creator, Don Marquis. That doesn't mean that you won't hear more of it -- there's that poem about the spider and the fly and the one with the wolf, the lamb and the hypocrite, or mehitabel's kittens... However, this is the culmination, for now, of my examination and interpretation of one of the most serious thinkers of the twentieth century. The poetry is so engaging, so simple and straightforward, so downright funny, that it is hard for people to believe in my seriousness in making that claim. I am entirely serious, but thank goodness Don Marquis was not. His humor made his message even more clear.
One of the more enduring pleasures of those of us who are passionate about words is dipping into H. W. Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. He looks not only at particular words but various concepts of how language and usage change. One of those concepts he calls "worsened words." He is resigned to the inevitability of meaning changes, which take a word whose original meaning is neutral or even positive and transform it into one with unpleasant connotations, but you can tell that he isn't happy about it. Specious is an example of such a word. Originally meaning attractive, plausible, persuasive, it now means deceptive. A specious beauty or a specious argument is one that looks good on the surface but is rotten at the core. One of my favorite examples is the word candid. As Jane Austen used it, it meant kindly and uncensorious. "Today," Fowler says, "I must be candid is invariably a warning of unpleasantness to follow."
A word that he does not discuss because of its theological purpose is one that I would also put in his category of "worsened words." In his entry on the difference between transcendental and transcendent, he specifically states that words used in particular philosophical or theological ways are beyond the scope of his book. Nevertheless, I would have liked to read what he would have said about the word faith. If you should happen to approach anyone these days and ask them to define the word faith (an unlikely event) I would wager almost any amount that the answer you would get would be, "belief in something, usually religious, for which there is no objective evidence." Well, the individual on the street might not use exactly those words, but that would be the general drift. "You must have faith," people say, meaning you mustn't doubt or question. Look, however, at the words for which faith is the root: faithfully, faithful, faithfulness. None of them is about unquestioned belief. All of them are about loyalty. Loyalty and something more....
Mehitabel the cat, in her dance with Boreas, seems to me the exemplar, the image of faith. Mehitabel was not an admirable character. She was not more than ordinarily bright, and her morals were those of -- well, of an alley cat. When she produced kittens, as she periodically did, they would soon disappear. If she were asked about them her reply would be, with face and voice of incomprehension, "Kittens? What kittens?" Nevertheless, her dance on that cold winter night was an act of faith -- and one that clearly indicates how faith differs from unsupported belief. She had no illusions. She knew that her end would be floating down the river on a garbage scow. Yet she danced. She could have given up and frozen. She could have merely exercised wildly to keep herself warm, but she danced and sang, and the word was "toujours gai."
Here's an image for you. Imagine that you are walking in a tunnel toward the beautiful light at its end. Like Mehitabel, you don't have to believe in the light. You don't even have to hope for it, but you continue as if it were there. It is the as if that makes faith, and it includes loyalty to the ideal toward which you move, but it also includes courage -- infinitely greater courage without belief than with it, and greater courage yet to continue without hope. I think, though, that there is still something more that makes true faith, the faith of Mehitabel, the faith that moves mountains, and that is grace. Imagine that in the walls of the tunnel there are lights -- lights that are perhaps pale shadows of the great light toward which we travel, the light that may or may not exist, the light for which we may hope or of which we despair -- but lights nevertheless. It is those lights which make faith more than mere doggedness and determination, which make the music for the dance.
So those are the concomitants of faith: loyalty, courage and grace. I think we're probably pretty clear on the meaning of the first two, though the focus of our loyalty may need a bit of examination, but grace is a concept that is a little fuzzy nowadays, even to those whose religion is more traditional than the free faith we practice. It has acquired a multiplicity of definitions and layers of meaning, but it is not one of Fowler's "worsened words" except when it is used as a synonym for luck. "If it weren't for the grace of God, I would have been on that airplane that crashed...in that multi-car accident on the bridge...on my way to the scaffold." Is it the grace of god that lets some die while saving others? This formulation blasphemes God and trivializes grace. Grace is not a gift for some and not for others. It does not save some lives enrich some pockets, load certain specified tables. It is a gift freely given, universally available, and too rarely accepted. It is the lights in the tunnel, the beauty of the rainbow after rain, the music of the dance of life. It is the touch of the holy that makes our journey significant, that gives our lives purpose.
There is no life that contains no suffering, no grief, or loss or brokenness. Even if we never reach the state that Mehitabel was in on that cold night, the dark night of the soul comes to us all. We sometimes feel that the whole goal of faith institutions is to heal that brokenness and that faith will do it. Faith may allow us to transcend it, may indeed heal it, and probably is the only thing that will -- faith as I mean it here -- but that transcendence or healing is not the end but the beginning of the journey of faith, the first step, not the last. We need strength for the journey, because it is not one of peace and contentment but of struggle and transformation, and sometimes we may break again in the process, but with faith we can pick up the pieces and go on. "Toujours gai toujours gai there's a dance in the old dame yet."
That's another thing about Mehitabel. You might think, given her frailties that her song and her dance were methods of whistling in the dark, that she would not have chosen the life that she was leading and the end that she envisioned had she had other options. In fact, as those of us who have read the entire canon know, the life of a contented pet really was one that she had experienced and had rejected. She was reaching for more than that, and though she got much less materially, she would think -- and so would I -- that her soul was far richer than if she had settled for a life of merely material comfort. It was worth the frozen foot, worth the expected end, to be free to dance, even if just to keep out the cold. Her cry of toujours gai is the heart-cry of faith. No matter the pain, living in service to your vision is worth all you pay for it. Choosing comfort, choosing not to risk anything for the sake of a greater vision is the true death of the soul.
The final hymn today is another poem by Marquis in which he hymns -- seriously this time -- a fierce discontent with things as they are which enables the creation of things far greater than we could imagine. Mehitabel the cat is his rebel, and though she herself finds only trouble, she tells us how one must live faithfully. Ultimately, without this rebellious vision, nothing will change and nothing will be created.
What we put our faith in, that which gives our lives purpose, may differ from individual to individual, and many may choose to put their faith in material ends, though they starve the soul, but the religious understanding is that the health of the soul is at least as important as that of the body, and without the nurture of the soul existence has no meaning. Each of us needs to look carefully at that light at the end of the tunnel to see in what it consists, whether in fact it is worth our commitment to it. Ralph Waldo Emerson said,
A person will worship something -- have no doubt about that.
We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts -- but it will out.
That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character.
Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.
Sometimes, of course, we fool ourselves about what we worship as when we think we are worshipping what is holy and have really set our hearts on mammon, and it does take thought and care to discern what is really important, and what is worthy of our faith. I find the gospel of archy a useful guide. He speaks obliquely, through humor and fable, but the message is clear. What is important is service to justice, love and beauty. We need to see reality as honestly as we can. We need to seek the truth. We need to treat one another with compassion and respect. We need to be willing to pay what it costs for the life of the soul. And with those positives he doesn't fear to state the negatives as well. Ugliness, prejudice, injustice, hypocrisy, and idolatry must be resisted. We may not sit on our hands and be content with our own comfort and ease. Accepting the evils of the world, accepting the status quo, is not good enough. Transformation is possible and it is we who are responsible for it. We need to live with courage, loyalty and grace, and we need to be clear about the direction of our journey as well as being committed to it. We also need to keep a sense of humor.
There is a clearness and unsentimentality of vision in the poems of Don Marquis, the creator of archy, which I think is only possible in a humorist. Humor is about the essential fitness of things. It sees the world in its true proportions. Perhaps that in some ways is really what grace is, and faith is incomplete without it. It gives us passion without solemn earnestness, commitment without self-righteousness, and armors us against our own hypocrisy. It tells us we are not bound by the pettiness it so clearly sees, but must be willing to follow the greater vision it can discern. It also gives us the strength, even in the worst of times, to sing with Mehitabel, the alley cat, "Toujours gai toujours gai there s a dance in the old dame yet," and then to dance the dance till the sun comes up -- until all the loveliness of life we can imagine becomes real if we are willing to pay the price for it. That is Mehitabel's dance. It is the life of faith, the life to which we are called.