Empty Hands, Part Three – Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow
“. . . I swiftly accepted the notion of God. It pleased me to imagine a presence above us, in continual motion, like liquid stars . . . I would lie in my bed by the coal stove vigorously mouthing long letters to [Him.] I was not much of a sleeper and must have vexed Him with my endless vows, visions, and schemes. But as time passed I came to experience a different kind of prayer, a silent one, requiring more listening than speaking.” – Patty Smith, Just Kids
I’m not a Christian.
I’m not anything, really.
Don’t get me wrong. Sure, I’ll chuckle at Bill Maher’s jokes about “the Magic Man in the Sky,” and I do find it hard to not acknowledge how much violence and oppression in the world is the result of religious doctrines. But the same can be said for corporations and politicians and greed and bigotry, and so many other human ills. So I’m not anti-religion, by any means. At least not any more than those other things.
Both my parents were raised in Catholic, military families in D.C., but it never really filtered down to my brother and me, growing up in California; except for the fact that they still expect us to show up to seemingly nonsensical (for otherwise non-practicing people) events like Easter dinner (or “Zombie Jesus Day” as an irreverent acquaintance recently dubbed it). We say grace at Thanksgiving, out of a mostly secular sense of gratitude. At Christmas, we play all the religious carols as well as the ones about reindeer and silver bells, and I actually like most of them. I get chills when the chorus sings “Faaaaaalllll on your knees. . . and hear the angel voices. . . ” That shit kills me. (If you can’t tell by now, yes, my heart has made pretty much a permanent stain on my sleeve.)
I’ve been to many churches, which is decidedly different from going to church—meaning, for instance, I’ve been to Notre Dame, the Salt Lake Temple, Westminster Abbey, and of course. . . when in Rome, there is the mindfuckingly awe-inspiring miracle of human design, St. Peter’s Basilica. But I’ve only gone to church a handful of times, mostly for weddings and funerals, or the big Christmas Eve Mass when I was visiting my brother’s in-laws in a small farm town in Ireland. The ceremony was beautiful and mystifying, and my brother and I were clearly the only ones who hadn’t been through these motions a jillion times since birth. I was frankly a little embarrassed to have to mumble along with the various cues and look around to see when to kneel and stand. I was convinced that the whole town was burning holes of judgment through us with their stares. But you’d never know it for sure. Everyone was so polite that I think if my hair had been on fire and I was shooting lasers from my eyes, they’d still smile and shake my hand and ask how my trip was going.
Here in America, far too many Christians appear to have no qualms about presenting themselves as a community of seething, pea-brained, loudmouth imbeciles. As far as I’m concerned, this brand of Christian is the farthest thing from a spiritual person. Any day of the week (including Sunday, that day of hangovers. . . or rather, rest), give me the maniacal Florentines of yore, who would gouge out your eyes and slice off your tongue and laugh while they were doing it; over the red-faced, Wal-Mart-clad legions of dull, drawling ignoramuses (and fuckin’ proud of it). At least the former had Michelangelo and Raphael and Dante, and on and on. The latter: Fox News, Pat Robertson, and small children carrying signs that say “God Hates Fags.”
But I like Jesus. I do. He was obviously an amazing dude. It’s hard to argue with that. His “Son of God” thing is admittedly a bit dubious, and he had no problem making conflicting and ambiguous statements. But that’s cool. As we know, a lot of that comes from all the layers of interpretation and politics and translation and outright falsehoods that have occurred over these last few millennia. But also, life is immensely complicated, is it not? Sometimes you have to turn the other cheek. Sometimes you have to bring the sword. We are all sinners. But even the worst of us can be forgiven. We are inherently flawed beings, yet each of us is divine. It’s powerful, difficult stuff, and has birthed and destroyed whole civilizations, created countless masterworks of art and literature, and waged wars without end. It is not for me to say whether it has saved more souls than it has destroyed, but I do know that it has brought many communities together that might not otherwise have had the chance to do so, and has given certain long-oppressed peoples the strength and courage to rise up and fight for justice.
If the only good things to ever come from the whole history of Christianity were that Martin Luther King, Jr., Flannery O’ Connor, and The Sistine Chapel were able to exist, that’d be enough for me.
But, of course, that’s not the case.
Actually, my absolute favorite thing about Christianity is gospel music. I effing love gospel music. If there is a God, He is most definitely speaking through Mahalia Jackson. Michelangelo’s genius was uncanny and sublime, and very likely divine, but he also had all the riches and resources of the Vatican at his disposal in order to fully express it. All MJ (the OG MJ) needs is the purity of her voice. She can turn night into day with that voice. Entire lives have been changed with that voice. Honestly, I barely register the words most of the time—the battle of Jericho and the lion lying down with the lamb, and all that. But the timbre and the soul and the inflection can always send my heart soaring and make tears pour from my eyes. Over and over again.
Most importantly, it has the power to make me believe that no matter how bad my situation may be, everything might actually turn out okay.
Did the vicious bastards know when they were imposing their religion on the African slaves that they were giving them such a powerful tool for their own eventual emancipation and transcendence? With its doctrine of community and justice and the search for the Promised Land? That when their captives combined these ideas with the songs and rhythms of their homeland, they would create a thing of unspeakable beauty as well as an unstoppable, unifying force for change; a purer, more genuine form of spirituality than the so-called “masters” would ever be able to comprehend themselves?
“Why should I feel discouraged?/And why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely?/And long for heaven and a home?
…His eye is on the little sparrow/And I know He is watching over you and me.” – Civilla Marting and Charles Gabriel, His Eye is on the Sparrow
This song, originally a stiff, turn of the century American hymn, with Mahalia in charge, makes the windows rattle and your bones shake, sends uncontrollable shivers up and down your whole body. Though, my girlfriend, on hearing MJ’s version, and having sung it herself countless times in Sunday school, was miffed that she draws out so many vowels—which to me is actually the whole point. I mean, it’s not like Chaka Khan singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” at some NFL game, and making a warbling, half-assed mockery of The National Anthem (which, no surprise, nearly always chokes me up as well—except when the likes of Chaka or Christina are doing it). To me, in this case, the act of singing is the song.
Either way, it is about God’s ability to see into every infinitesimal fragment of existence, down to the tiniest sparrow. (I suppose “His Eye is on the Amoeba” or “His Eye is on the Quark” were less poetic options.) I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be a comfort rather than a reason for paranoia. He’s not a voyeur or a spy. He’s a guardian. He knows every molecule of every little thing. He knows your every secret and desire, and that is good. Because He made All of it.
And the song invites us mere mortals to look at life the same way.
In Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld, Nick Shay, the protagonist, a cocky, young Fordham student, visits the office of one of his Jesuit professors. During the conversation, the priest removes his shoe and insists that his protégé name all of the various parts. Nick, even after some prodding, can only name the heel, the sole, the tongue and the laces. Admonishing him somewhat playfully, the priest goes on to point out the cuff, the counter, the quarter, the eyelet, the grommet, the welt, the vamp, and the aglet.
“‘Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it,’ he said.
‘An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace.’”
The first step toward knowledge is learning how to see things. In order to see them, one must be able to name them.
Walter Benjamin was a dialectical philosopher and a scholar of Kaballah. (His closest friend, philosophical partner, and correspondent up until his untimely death was the great Gershom Scholem; other illustrious correspondents included Brecht, Adorno, and Hannah Arendt.) While fleeing Paris as the Nazis advanced (a German Jew, he had spent most of the 1930s living in forced exile), Benjamin was unable to secure papers to escape into Franco-controlled Spain. Facing a fate likely worse than death at the hands of the approaching army, he swallowed a fatal dose of morphine pills and died in his hotel room at the border, leaving behind one of the most brilliant bodies of work in the 20th Century, including his massive, unfinished manuscript about the Paris Arcades, one of the few items he had in his possession at the time of his passing.
In his seminal essay on linguistic theory, “On Language as Such and on the Languages of Man,” Benjamin writes about how in the Garden of Eden, the names of all things were inseparable from their essence. Because the entire Universe was one language in and of itself—the language of God. After The Fall (the Biblical event, not the band), one of the consequences was that Man would no longer know God’s true language. He would be forced to create his own. Later (somewhere around two thousand years, according to the eminently reliable Creationist timeline), after humans attempted to build the Tower of Babel, the punishment was compounded. God ordered our species to be scattered across the Earth in tribes, and that our “speech be confounded,” so that we would no longer be able to understand each other. Thus, the birth of our multitude of languages, and a world of eternal dissonance and conflict.
There is an activity that I have been engaging in regularly since I began reading more about Zen. I have no idea if it is a formal practice or not, though that hardly matters to me. Like I said, I’ve never subscribed to any particular doctrine, nor do I plan on doing so any time soon (though who knows, maybe on some unbearably blistering, hot day in the near future, I’ll gulp down the Kool-Aid). It merely seems to me that all aspects of being (or non-being) are contained within Zen, and no philosophy, belief or experience exists outside of it. A grandiose statement, I am aware, and it could possibly take a lifetime for me to even understand what I mean by it, much less explain it.
But I still think it’s true.
Regardless, the activity consists of sitting silently and concentrating on a single object, and much like the priest did with his shoe (although with considerably less precision and formality), acknowledging, or “naming” every aspect of that thing as they flow through the mind. The first object I chose was a bay tree, gazing out at it from the deck at my parents’ house, while a pair of turkey vultures swooped in great circles high above. As I sat and looked at the tree, I had to try hard at first to think about what I saw—leaves, bark, branches, twigs. . . But as I let my mind go, it began to come more effortlessly, and less obviously—cracks, ants, cells, chlorophyll, wind, growth, veins, termites, spider webs. . . and finally into the unexpected—nothing, wild, fear, blue, adulation . . .
Perhaps this last bit sounds like surrealistic foolishness, and well it may be, but at the time these words seemed no less true than the first. I could actually see all of these things. The words shaped themselves, and came together, gradually forming a vision of the tree that was more whole in my mind than a mere picture, or the mere idea of a tree.
To me this is not an exercise in knowledge for its own sake, but an exercise in compassion. The first step toward compassion is awareness. And from there, understanding. This practice has evolved into focusing on a specific person, which needless to say, can be much more complex. Often what arises are more than single words or images. The mind conjures physical traits, shared memories, stories I have heard, stories I purely imagine, mannerisms, the sound of their voice. . .
And regardless of the person and their relationship to me, I try to withhold all judgment. I mean, how often do we spend truly looking at a person without becoming almost immediately trapped in the mire of our own emotions and opinions, good or bad? I can’t claim that this exercise has miraculously improved my relationships or has allowed me to know these people that much better. But it has allowed for unexpected insights, and more ease with finding compassion in my daily dealings; despite a capacity to still bristle at the appalling stupidity and rudeness so abundant in modern life; or the often seemingly absurd, pointless, and petty behavior of friends, coworkers and loved ones.
“Normally we do not so much as look at things as overlook them.”
So observed Alan Watts, the author of The Way of Zen, and one of the individuals responsible for bringing “Eastern Philosophy” into the mainstream of 20th Century Western culture. Watts was the quintessential multi-disciplinarian. He was at different times an Episcopalian priest and a Zen monk (though not ordained). As a scholar, theologian, and a well-known radio commentator, he delved into psychology, anthropology, semantics, cybernetics, sexuality, psychedelics, philosophy, environmentalism, non-violence, politics, and many of the other hallmarks of the fifties and sixties counterculture. He was friends with Carl Jung, John Cage, Joseph Campbell and Timothy Leary. His mother-in-law was Ruth Fuller Sasaki. He lived on a houseboat in Sausalito (near Shel Silverstein, as well my best childhood friend,) and died at fifty-seven in his cabin on Mount Tamalpais, of heart failure, supposedly due to the effects of severe alcoholism.
The bearded, soft-spoken Englishman represents just one of many eternal full circle moments here at Empty Hands Enterprises. Synchronicities. Reincarnations. Affirmations. Self-destructive, bleeding-heart, two-fisted, spiritually-minded black holes, who manage to leave deep gashes in The Great Psyche, for good or for ill. . .
Dare to dream, folks.
In closing this chapter, I leave you with another passage from Dharma Bums, the book that started this whole rant. Rosie, for reference was a stand-in for Neil Cassady’s bi-polar, drug-crazed girlfriend who jumped off a roof in North Beach, just after Jack (Ray) spent a long night trying to calm her down. The scene is he and Snyder (Japhy) the next day sitting in Washington Square Park (in SF, not NYC) listening to a preacher with a booming, gospel-tinged voice:
“‘. . . have you ever heard a greater preacher?’
‘Yeah,’ says Japhy, ‘but I don’t like all that Jesus stuff she’s talking about.’
‘What’s wrong with Jesus? Didn’t Jesus speak of Heaven? Isn’t Heaven Buddha’s nirvana?’
‘According to your own interpretation Smith.’
‘Japhy, there were things I wanted to tell Rosie and I felt suppressed by the schism we have about separating East from West, what the hell difference does it make? We’re all in Heaven now, ain’t we?’
‘Who said so?’
‘Is this nirvana we’re in now or ain’t it?’
‘It’s both nirvana and samsara we’re in now.’
‘Words, words, words. Nirvana by any other name. . . ‘”
Words, words, words… Though this be madness… there is method in’t.
And that’s a fact, Jack.
(NEXT! Part 4 — Survival of the Phattest)