Speaking of religion…
This poem is the opposite of yesterday’s poem: God as an abusive lover, someone who savages the poet, yet he craves more. I suppose there are all sorts of S and M references I could make, or I could talk about the Stockholm Syndrome: how there’s always that unhealthy person who walks into our lives yet we can’t seem to pull ourselves away no matter how awful it is. Is it self-loathing? Does the savageness imply that we are safe with a monster guarding us? (Despite the fact that it would be safer to have the monster guarded from us.) Perhaps it’s knowing the face of the devil that makes us feel safer – not having to fear the unknown, because it is here in front of us. Or perhaps it’s something deeper, something instinctive: I feel safe because something strong is in front of me, so small and frightened am I.
We should be stronger.
I remember as a kid the preacher would tell us to love god and to fear him. And I knew that it was something deep and symbolic, but the little kid me just felt instinctively as if that was wrong and there was nothing any preacher could do to convince me otherwise. If god needed us to fear him, he did not love us, and if he loved us, he did not need us to fear him.
And when I think of fearing god as an adult, I try to reason it out. I remember an anecdote from the National Geographic where an anthropologist visited a tribe in Africa that was fairly cut off from the outside world. When he gave his credentials they belittled him and laughed at him. When he gave them gifts, they passed them around and treated them shabbily. He tried to figure out this, what we would call rude, behavior, when they explained that in order to fit in he needed to be beneath them, he needed to be humble. If any tribe member started bragging they would make fun of him and start battering at him to put him down. In order for their society to work, they couldn’t have any one member thinking he was better than the rest this caused rifts and the social fabric tore apart.
Yet this isn’t the type of strength (that isn’t really strength) that I’m thinking of. It’s best illustrated from a scene in Schindler’s List where Schindler is trying to save as many Jews from the death camps as he can, without the Nazis clueing in. He’s in a meeting with the man who is in charge of the nearby camp, a relentless and humorless man who hates the Jews with all his propaganda-filled heart. He tells Schindler that a person must be merciless in order to show true strength. Schindler suggests that perhaps true strength, much like a Roman Emperor sitting in the stadium who can determine a man’s fate with the flip of a thumb, is mercy. I tend to agree.
Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God, For You
by John Donne
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town to another due,
Labor to admit You, but Oh! to no end.
Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love You, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto Your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again;
Take me to You, imprison me, for I,
Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.