© 2014 By Bob Litton
Today I turn over the ol’ annual glass again after watching the last, few grains of sand dribble through: I am 75. Hope the married folks don’t mind my commandeering their celebratory gem nomenclature, but I’m doing it anyway, calling this the “diamond anniversary” of my birth.
Did you know?…I didn’t know it myself until about twenty years ago, when a former beer-drinking crony informed me…that we have only one birthday: the day we are born. All the rest are actually just anniversaries of our birth.
Unfortunately, besides the birth year photo above, I possess photographs related to only my 50th (“silver”) and 75th (“diamond”) anniversaries: they appear at the end of the dialogue below. Not thinking ahead, as usual, I neglected to have any photos made around the time of my 25th anniversary. ∗
But before we go any further into that, I want to mention a bit of musical reminiscence here. On observing the several mental and physical problems afflicting me, I concluded that it is not possible or sensible to try to repair them. Such meditating brought to mind that hit song “This Ole House”, composed by Stuart Hamblen in 1954 and made popular the same year by Rosemary Clooney.
Here’s one verse of that commendable poem of a song:
Ain’t a-gonna need this house no longer
Ain’t a-gonna need this house no more
Ain’t got time to fix the shingles
Ain’t got time to fix the floor
Ain’t got time to oil the hinges
Nor to mend the windowpane
Ain’t a-gonna need this house no longer
He’s a-gettin’ ready to meet the saints.
That pretty well describes the way I see myself right now, and I sure wish people would quit asking me, “How are you today, Bob, you ol’ curmudgeon you?”
But I have more to offer you than an accounting of my body’s condition. I wrote the following dialogue last month. I emailed it to a friend in Dallas for her comments. She replied that she and her husband, a retired English literature professor, both liked it. She told me he suggested I read Robert Frost’s poetic colloquy “The Masque of Reason”. I did read it as well as its companion playlet “The Masque of Mercy” and was surprised by the degree of acquaintance with mysticism Frost apparently possessed. In “…Mercy” he refers to Francis Thompson’s great mystical poem “The Hound of Heaven”; and Frost’s main character in his playlet is the biblical prophet Jonah. Both of those mystical works— “Jonah” and “Hound of Heaven” — were crucial elements in my own spiritual journey.
Well, that should be enough of a prologue. Let’s get on with the dialogue:
* * * * * *
A Dialogue In A Cloud
I just woke up a few minutes ago. Not sure how or when I fell asleep. And now here I am (I think) sitting bolt upright on this white fluffy stuff that reminds me of some huge cotton ball. Why the hell don’t I sink? Why doesn’t it sink?
“That’s because it’s not a cotton ball and because you’re not as heavy as you believe yourself to be.” Those words came from a calm, nondescript voice, neither masculine nor feminine, behind and above me. “Look at your hands,” the voice continued.
I held up my hands for a look-see. “Yikes! There’s nothing there. I’ve been amputated!”
“Oh, more than that. Look at your belly button, Carl.”
I looked downward. Nothing there but that fluffy white stuff. I couldn’t gauge whether I was dreaming, in a state of shock after some horrible accident, or dead.
“Sort of dead,” the voice answered my thoughts. “At any rate, that’s the way you people see it.”
Still confounded, by way of trembling response I fell back on a question, “Why did you call me ‘Carl’?” My name is ‘Bob’…or ‘Robert’ when I have to involve myself in formalities. Yeah, okay, my middle name is ‘Carl’, but I never use it except when I have to in a legal document. My father used to call me ‘Robert Carl’ — the way other fathers used to call their sons ‘Billy Jack’ or ‘Donald Ray’; but that was long, long ago.
“And who are you, now that we are in the name-game level of this conversation?” I shivered just as I asked that question, because I already feared the possible answer.
“I AM,” replied the voice. “And I have always thought of you as ‘Carl’. I rather like that name. Anyway, I prefer it to ‘Robert’ or ‘Bob’ or even ‘Bobby’…cute as that last one may be.”
Oops! My game was up; I shivered again. It then occurred to me that some phenomena, although beautiful at a distance, can be too close for comfort: marriage, lightning and God.
“Aaallll right. But how did I get here? I don’t remember any accident or murder or severe fright.”
“Heart attack,” said the voice. “I gathered you to me in your sleep when you had a heart attack.”
“Way to go! I frequently enough asked for that mode of escape from my ‘mortal coil’; but, honestly, I didn’t put much faith in it happening that way; I always tried to steel myself in preparation for cancer or Alzheimer’s. So, thanks, gracias, merci, danke, grazi, xie xie or whatever language you prefer.”
“Oh, you should know me better than that, Carl. I didn’t cause it. It was the natural course of your sedentary lifestyle. I was just there to lift your soul away.”
“Speaking of ‘there’, where am I now?”
“Well, I think a lot of your kind still think of it as a ‘place’ — as Heaven, to be exact. However, surely you are smart enough to comprehend it as another ‘state of being’ somewhat similar to the transition from a pupa to a caterpillar to a butterfly. To be truly basic about your situation, you are within me.”
“Then this is a cloud I am sitting on,” said I. And, looking out over the expansiveness of the white, fluffy stuff, unable to discern an edge, I exclaimed, “Wow! And one helluva big cloud it is, too!”
“No, it’s not a cloud as such, Carl,” said the invisible being with the voice. “It’s what you might call a horizontal curtain that keeps you from gazing at what you have left behind. If you could see all that is happening on Earth as I see it, you would be perplexed and confused by feelings of rage and pity. It is time for you to let all that go. Simply abide in me.”
“Then I am not supposed to see anything, heh? Not even you…oops! Didn’t mean to put it that way. I just mean your voice is all I perceive around me right now, and there is no face to go with it.”
“Oh, come on, Carl! You’ve read the Tao Te Ching thoroughly enough to be aware that faces have lines, angles, borders, while I am unlimited.”
“To be honest with you again, I AM — or should I address you as ‘YOU ARE’? — I don’t think I ever was attracted to the description of Heaven as a place where angels sit around on clouds all day and night eternally and play harps and sing your praises. I don’t believe it even appealed to me in my childhood.
“Nor was I willing to go to that third and final step that Jan of Ruysbroeck called the ‘contemplative’ state whereby, through constant prayer, the communicant moves beyond the ‘yearning’ stage and becomes ‘one-with-God’ while still a mortal. First of all, I never imagined I would be worthy of that state. Secondly, it was a bit too spooky for me. And finally, I wanted to retain my relationship with the world, at least partly.
“I said a long time ago, that if you want to make me ‘at one’ with you, I am sure you can do it, and I won’t try to stop you even if I could. Have at it! However, I am not going down that road on my own initiative….
“Hey, wait a minute! I just said ‘while still a mortal’! Could I be experiencing a transcendent state — an ecstasy? Am I really still alive?”
“No, Carl,” said the voice. “Not in the natural sense. They are scheduling the cremation of your remains now. You are alive, however, in the Spirit. The same Holy Spirit that has been within you all your life. The same Holy Spirit that prayed for you all those times when you slipped into the mire. The same Holy Spirit that applauded you when you recognized what you had done and crawled out of the pit.
“And, by the way, being ‘at-one’ with me is not as spooky or as boring as you appear to believe. You have been there much of your adult life. Can’t you recall all those ‘consolations’ I favored you with?”
“Yes sir,” I replied, “but I took those simply as messages — as signs that I was on the right track…or off it. I never considered they might be ecstasies. And even when I thought it was all over…when I thought I was entering the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’…you kept pelting me with them…like pea-size hail, the most ambiguous kind so that I couldn’t really tell how to interpret them or even be sure that they were ‘consolations’. Maybe they were tricks played by gremlins.”
“Oh, ecstasy in the sense that Teresa of Avila wrote about has been over-played,” said the voice. “There’s a slight bit of hysteria mixed in there because mystics like her didn’t know how to describe the real thing in any other terms that others would be able to understand. And as for the ‘pea-size favors’, they were in fact part of the Dark Night, your spiritual taste buds expressing their hunger for more.”
“Okay…I guess…but I have one other question, if you don’t mind answering it. How is it that you can afford to have spent so much time with me during these precious moments? Aren’t there a lot of other people who could use your attention?”
“Oh yes, oh yes!” said the voice, “and I am with them right now. You are still thinking in natural terms…in the concepts of physics and its limitations on time and space. You forget — temporarily — that I am immanent as well as transcendent. However, I can affect them only if they want to be affected.”
“Really, YOU ARE, I fantasized about the possibility that ‘Heaven’ — for me, anyway — would be oblivion with only a quarter hour or so to savor the absence of anxiety and fear, of unpleasant memories and thoughts, of regrets and illusory hopes…of thinking itself. Yet I recognized that such a dream was most likely an impossibility. So, am I to sit around here for eternity, still thinking?”
“No, Carl. Your intellectual work is over. You will have your oblivion, and this is your moment to savor release. From now on you will feel peace, not think about it.
“But be still now, rest, and abide in me.”
* * * * * *
And now for three more photos, one of the celebration of my 50th anniversary and two on this, my not quite so celebratory 75th anniversary:
∗ Pardon me, for I flubbed! A few days ago but after I had already published this post, I was looking through my pile of old photos and came upon the picture below of me in December 1965 — when I turned 25!!! So I do, after all, have a photo representative of each of my birth and birth anniversaries through all this past three quarters of a century. I don’t like this photo as much as the others; it was obviously taken in a “candid camera” type situation and is neither well-focused nor posed. The setting is the Wesley-Presbyterian Christian Fellowship offices at Southern Methodist University where most of my friends hung out. Poor as the photo is, however, I feel duty-bound to publish it here, for it balances out the other photos above.
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