The court was convened, and the books were opened. I watched, then, from the first of the arrogant words which the horn spoke, until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the burning fire. As for the other beasts, their dominion was taken away, but they were granted a prolongation of life for a time and a season.Daniel 7:10-12
Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.Luke 21:32-33
St. Teresa of Avila once acknowledged that she was not blessed with a very good imagination. I have often identified with her self-description, and this comes to mind as we read today from Daniel. I think for me, some of the words of Scripture, be they in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures, to which I am most impermeable are those written in the apocalyptic genre. My parents once told me that my novice master told them, I think in a positive sense, that my feet were firmly planted on the ground. Yet, I sometimes think I am a bit too firmly planted on the ground and so perhaps not as available as I’d like to be to the “more than” that certain forms of art, especially, would call us.
I recently read a magnificent short story, Arizona by John Edgar Wideman in The New Yorker. In the story, the narrator is writing a letter of appreciation to the real life singer Freddie Jackson. He is thanking Jackson for a certain of his songs which the narrator believes opened life and possibility to his son as that son was being driven to jail to await his trial for murder of his friend, when both were only 15 years of age. He imagines his young son listening to this song and experiencing, at least for a moment, a truth about life that transcends the horror of the past moment of his crime, his present reality of heading to prison and trial, and his future serving a life sentence for the murder.
Jesus says that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” There is power in art, in the word, that can, often only for a moment, deliver, as Wideman writes, “inklings and intimations of things very different than I thought they were, are.” The word, be it in the form of language or art, is delivering to us the intimations of a world that is so much greater than our ordinary consciousness. So, I wondered today, how come I am so consistently closed to the word that comes in apocalyptic form. And not only words of this type. I realized that instead of opening and entering into the world which art is intimating and even, as Wideman says, “delivering,” I constrain those works into what I take to be the world, refusing to lift my feet from where I have planted them.
Today as I read the passage from Daniel with its horrific imagery, I awaken for a moment to the dreadful aspect of judgment. The arrogant words of “the horn” are seen for what they are and the worst of the beasts is destroyed and the power of the other beasts is taken away, even though they may continue to rule for a while. The time will come when the arrogance of my words will be manifest, and the power I exert to hold at bay the dominion of the “son of man” will disappear as it is seen, in truth, as the weakness that it is.
Heaven and earth, as we see and create it, will pass away but the power that the Word delivers will never pass away. It is not the Kingdom of God that is the product of our imaginations. It is rather the small worlds we create, and on which we plant our feet with an arrogance that demands our dominance over reality. Our lives are often so constricted because the world we create is controlled by self-imposed rules that are intended to protect us and make our survival possible. But the artist “creates a space with different rules, different possibilities,” says Wideman. When we open to that creation and the transcendence it signals, a space opens for us “that changes that instant.”
So Daniel’s description of judgment is, to my pragmatic eye, ridiculously over the top. I can’t at all identify with all these beasts and the horror and terror such a scene evokes. Except, if I dare to open up a space with different rules, I know the horrors and the beasts. I can not only imagine but remember the sounds of the arrogant words of the horn. Wideman’s narrator is seeking hope in the face of the horror of the present and future life of his beloved son and of his own helplessness in doing anything for him. He longs for a world that is more than it appears because of the hopelessness in the world he can see. So too with ourselves. We are either led to open up to a reality that is so much larger than the world we create, or else we must attempt to create a survivable and bearable world, which will have to suppress and exclude that pain we cannot bear.
Judgment, in the Divine sense, is a judgment on our arrogance, on our perception and understanding. The artist is the one who offers a space for us to recognize “that there’s more in any moment, more to the life I think I’m caught up in, than I can ever know, ever understand, ever come to terms with, make peace with, survive, so much more and more and different and other than it had seemed an instant before the music.” Wideman’s narrator imagines his son, age 16 and yet in the last unimprisoned moments of his life, listening to the Freddie Jackson song and so knowing a world that is “so much more and different and other” than it seems.
To believe and to understand that we are spirit through and through is to continually need the world, as it seems to us, to be judged and broken through. In the space created by the sacred word, in the moment of deep engagement with a work of art, in the experience of communion in the spirit that we sometimes know in prayer, and in the depth of encounter of true love with another human person, we enter into the experience of judgment. In this space we face the arrogance of our ordinary words and actions and the beasts within and without us. We fear judgment because we think we have to hold on to our self-illusion in order to survive. But there is more in heaven and on earth than is dreamed of in our own thoughts. It is in the truth of judgment that “the son of man” appears. We think and fear that we are only the beast in us, that we are but the product of the evil we have done, or thought, or spoken. We are that, to be sure, but we are also the image of the Divine. Our world is frightening, but it is also “very good.”
Great art always affords a space beyond the conventional, beyond the rules we create that we are certain are necessary for survival. For in the spiritual realm, we are made for so much more than survival. Jesus has come, he says, that we “may have life and life to the full” (John 10:10). To be reality-oriented is more than just having our feet planted immovably on the ground of our current experience and understanding. To truly live the “reality principle” means to live in the right kind of fear and trembling that is always anticipating judgment, a judgment on our own self-absorption and reductive understanding of life. It is the beasts in us that actually point to that which we cannot manage and control of our own accord. As they come to light and subject to judgment, our true capacity for life can become manifest. This is why the artist is always, according to society, a subversive. The artist invites us into a space of fuller and greater life, one in which the rules are different. In that space the rules are not merely tools for survival but are the gateway to life to the full.
I ask you because you are an artist, Mr. Jackson, and because sometimes your singing achieves what the best art accomplishes. A song you sing creates a space with different rules, different possibilities. A space opens that doesn’t exist until a listener tunes in and hears your voice, a sudden space that may disappear the very next instant but changes that instant, too, no doubt, and it doesn’t matter that the previous moment and the ones before remain whatever they were and lock a person down with unforgiving, unalterable rules and possibilities. None of that matters when I experience the undeniable presence, the unique truth a particular song can deliver—your song, “URML,” my best example—because then I know time, my time, my life is always more than it appears to me. Didn’t that voice, that snatch of music just remind me that there’s more in any moment, more to the life I think I’m caught up in, than I can ever know, ever understand, ever come to terms with, make peace with, survive, so much more and more and different and other than it had seemed an instant before the music. If I listen, if I let it be, let it alone, just listen to the music while it delivers inklings and intimations of things very different than I thought they were, are, and sometimes I do go there, into a different space, thank you, the music reveals, that other, more than possible place, and I go there, can’t help myself, because I need it, need help so much, I do, I do, I yearn, I hear the music and nothing is what it was an instant before or ever after, maybe, if I listen, keep believing, learning my life is less than nothing and also perhaps a tiny, tiny bit more than everything I believed I already knew, every damned body already knows, if I really listen, let myself hear when a song speaks.John Edgar Wideman, Arizona, The New Yorker, November 25, 2019