The Formal Network of the Lie
A Catholic Church. Rural Ireland. June 2017. Local faces limp above sloped shoulders, pragmatic gillets and low wooden parapets. The Bishop is tall and youthfully middle-aged, skin smooth and chestnut-toned. He wears a bright red cap. To the right a banner listing the Spiritual Acts of Mercy. Number Two is “Admonish the sinner”; Number Six is “Pardon the Sinner.” To the left is a 3-D representation of the Crucified Christ. Around the walls are pictorial depictions of his thorny passion.
God says: I will bring my people back to me. I will love them with all my heart. . . . Like an evergreen tree I will shelter them. I am the source of their blessings.
– Hosea 14: 4-8
It is my home town. It has been years. It is rarely on my mind. I am here for a family member. There is a question of loyalty. An element of curiosity. I hadn’t expected emotion, but as I walk up the aisle there is an inkling of tears. The event is all to do with the religious life. They are more likely to be tears of resistance than empathy.
He who has suffered you to impose on him knows you.
– William Blake(1)
It is serious. They are serious. The same words are being said that were said when I came here every Sunday with my father, silent and acquiescent. My memory of that is neither happy nor painful. I do remember coming here on my own at seventeen and standing jubilant at the back of the church, crowing over the duped congregation, the incorrect majority. There is no God.
The ancient poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses . . . Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of and enslaved the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects. Thus began Priesthood.
– William Blake(2)
I feel as if I am attending the ritual of some archaic tribe. But, I remind myself, archaism is as much a function of space as time. “The times” are not a homogeneous universal; to be out of step with them one only has to stop watching the news, or watch it in your own way. Naturally, people still come here and say the same words. I am out of step too. In every verbal situation, I am open to tangible affect.
To him who by the means of his power working in us is able to do so much more than we can ever ask for, to God be the glory for all time, for ever and ever.
– Ephesians 3: 16-20
No longer lachrymose, I wonder what it is that God wants to work through us and what makes this language different from pledges of allegiance to a dictator, and whether anybody is listening at all. I think of company loyalties and public service employment. We accept the formal procedures for the prospect of a loaf and a fish. But a company will butter the baguette; the Government will buy the bream.
The love I have for you my Lord / is only a shadow of your love for me.
– Hymn (Senza passione. Dolcemente)
Feudal allegiances made sense. The weak needed protection, so they found a strong leader who could, would, destroy them if they didn’t attach themselves. Serve and live. Old English hlaford is a contraction of earlier hlafweard, literally “one who guards the loaves,” from hlaf “bread, loaf” + weard “keeper, guardian.” “Lord Love,” as a trope, gained particular currency in medieval writings on the formalities of love.
Only those women who are known to have joined Love’s army are considered worthy of true praise among men….
– Andreas Capellanus (1174)(3)
Andreas Capellanus (who was a monk) uses an allegory to illustrate the fate of women who do not join Love’s army: they get stuck in the outer circle of the Garden of Love, which is desperately hot and arid. Here they must sit on bundles of thorns held by strong men who shake them periodically. George Herbert uses a feudal conceit in a love narrative:
A Lord I had,
And have, of whom some grounds, which may improve,
I hold for two lives, and both lives in me.
– George Herbert (1633)(4)
These thoughts make me angry. I shouldn’t be here without right of dissent. Of course I shouldn’t expect the literal. Of course I understand that when the saying is over, there’s silence and that’s a cauldron that needs to be filled with all the salving herbs. What infuriates me is this exhortation to passivity, the exaltation of inaction, the shuffling, the bleak plasticity, the absence of any sense. The lie.
All the activities of this world are a preparation for the wedding feast of the lamb in Heaven.
– Verbatim. Source unknown.
I know that all these forms have complex sources, but the complexity is well hidden from the populus at these gatherings. Maybe that’s necessary for organisational purposes—marketing doesn’t need to describe the long process of production. In fact, scientific descriptions would lose most of the customers, who just want to know how sexy they’re going to be. Commerce again. I still want to know what return the people get for their allegiance.
I had refused to pay any attention to the moral laws upon which all our vitality and sanity depend: and so now I was reduced to the condition of a silly old woman, worrying about a lot of imaginary rules of health, standards of food-value, and a thousand minute details of conduct that were in themselves completely ridiculous and stupid, and yet which haunted me with vague and terrific sanctions. If I eat this, I may go out of my mind. If I do not eat that, I may die in the night.
– Thomas Merton(5)
Thomas Merton uses the word ‘stupid’ a lot in The Seven Storey Mountain, indicating that he has a rigorous set of intellectual standards, an inner master (Lord?) who carps and criticises. This psychological climate is actually what he slates elsewhere—a kind of intellectual and emotional capitalism in which standards are to be reached or exceeded. I don’t see that the religious are particularly averse to achievement or social status. A drive to perfection is part of the life. What Merton is criticising in himself is simply the effect of physical vulnerability. The body feels itself to be weak or declining and becomes fearful of all foreign substances, of invasion by inimical chemicals. It is a natural reaction, to be dealt with rationally or reapplied, but it is not stupid. The “silly old woman” he dreads is the one who, with true humility, decks his altar with perfectly arranged flowers. Give her a crust.
What has to be done has to be done by me. And it is easy to say it. It amounts to my reaching the point zero of my being. . . . The place in itself has nothing essentially religious about it. It can be reached by different techniques and for many purposes. It is the perimeter of our being, the edge of ourselves—the place where we can meet God.
– Mark Patrick Hederman(6)
Hederman describes the meeting with God as an “ontological unity” (love) with Christ as the bridge.(7) The principles of Christ and God, he says, exist in themselves and can have other names. Being is desire and desire seeks "God" in its various versions. I am not as learned as he appears to be, but I disagree with his statement that “At the deepest level of ourselves we are an emptiness.”(8) I experience emptiness of meaning, yes, but the body is full of its own dark operations, and I would prefer to explore these without prejudice than to coral them with a three-letter word, or any one word, or worse, with an intellectual dead end. All his erudition and expansiveness pivots on the inalienable belief that “God . . . created us free to love or not to love.” God created us and we know how he thinks. Even if I were to accept this as an allegory, the narrative leaves me cold and helpless, tending to weep. Science, on the other hand, poetry, intellectual enquiry posited on ignorance, truly exploratory myths, physical and sexual self-discovery, give me the durable skeleton I require: “how the body tells the truth in its rush of cells.”(9)
The loneliness of the liar / living in the formal network of the lie // twisting the dials to drown the terror / beneath the unsaid word.
– Adrienne Rich(10)
It is a lie. An insidious lie with a network of dupes. To be within the organisation necessitates an acceptance of silence about the untenable tenets.
Language lies. We all lie. According to this month’s National Geographic the ability to lie proves your humanity.
“The truth comes naturally,” says psychologist Bruno Verschuere, “but lying takes effort and a sharp, flexible mind. Lying is part of the developmental process, like walking and talking. Children learn to lie between ages two and five, and lie most when they are testing their independence.
– National Geographic, June 2017.
Good liars, the article says, have more cerebral connections than bad ones. It also says that we don’t expect lies, which is why we can be deceived. We want to trust and connect. Those who are most trusting, who are lost for connection, become the flock.
Once you teach people to say what they do not understand, it is easy enough to get them to say anything you like.
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau(11)
Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language is a journey towards a process of deciphering some of the lies that pervade society, in particular those about women. The Church has the greatest possible lie because it resists investigation. You can’t touch It or see It or smell It—but you can feel something inside you that might be It. They claim your doubt and make it their certainty.
If from time to time I envy
the pure annunciations to the eye
the visio beatifica . . .
what in fact I keep choosing
are these words, these whispers, these conversations
from which time after time the truth breaks moist and green.
– Adrienne Rich(12)
I clutch the full questions of my truth as I hurry out, otherwise fleeced.
(from The Lore of the Ancestors)
“A solitary stone is a weak one, prone to obsolescence.
And so the Great Crush decreed unity, amalgamation.
Annexed by the march of empire, one tastes the breadth
of immortality. Little feeds large; morpheme to lexicon.
Pulverised shale is restored in a crystal resurrection.
Behold: the elevation of quartz; the golding of pyrite;
the diaspora of silicates; mica’s foiled rebellion
reforged in the indurated logic of the new state. Agelast
was formed of this unitary spirit, slow in a closed fire.
Its elements endure in the towers and streets, pumping
history through every captive stroke. Hear the gray choir
in utter harmony, each tone pure, discrete, interleaving.
Citizens are offspring, not architects, risen like sparks.
The same close breath, now hot, now cold, transfigured
shale to slate, slate to city, city to its seed and stock.
Agelast, self-conceiving, is its own immanent god”.
– Máighréad Medbh(13)
[This blog might not appear as usual for a few months, due to panic over other projects. Should be back to normal by November. Thank you for reading.]
(1) “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” (Kindle edition)
(2) opus ibid.
(3) The Art of Courtly Love (De Arte Honeste Amandi), Translated and Introduced by John Jay Perry, New York: Columbia University, 1960, 71.
(4) “Love Unknown” (a feudal love conceit) Online here: https://www.ccel.org/h/herbert/temple/LoveUnknown.html
(5) The Seven Storey Mountain, London: Sheldon Press, 1975, 163
(6) Manikon Eros: Mad Crazy Love, Dublin: Veritas, 2000, 101.
(7) opus ibid., 103
(8) opus ibid., 10.
(9) Adrienne Rich. “A Woman Dead in her Forties,” The Dream of a Common Language (1978). New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1993, 58.
(10) “Cartographies of Silence” opus ibid., 17.
(11) Emile. Translated by Barbara Foxley, Everyman’s Library, Dent 1974, 410.
(12) “Cartographies of Silence,” opus cit., 20.
(13) Parvit of Agelast, Dublin: Arlen House, 2016.