First, from Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), p. 128. Lamott's is a kind of spiritual journey, recounting her passage from nonfaith to faith, with descriptions of the on-going struggles that most of us experience. In this paragraph, she reflects Sunday's Gospel reading about forgiving (is it really only 77 times -- as we heard at our place -- or 70 times 7 that Jesus says we are to forgive?).
I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of those Christians who is heavily into forgiveness -- that I am one of the other kind. But even though it was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay this way. They say we are not punished for the sin but by the sin, and I began to feel punished by my unwillingness to forgive. By the time I decided to become one of the ones who is heavily into forgiveness, it was like trying to become a marathon runner in middle age; everything inside me either recoiled, as from a hot flame, or laughed a little too hysterically. I tried to will myself into forgiving various people who had harmed me directly or indirectly over the years -- four former Republican preidents, three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree -- it was "The Twelve Days of Christmas" meets Taxi Driver. But in the end I could only pretend that I had. I decided I was starting off with my sights aimed too high. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, "If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo."
And then this, from the novel by Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), pp. 23-24. This musing near the beginning of an old Calvinist preacher's death-bed memoir. In this "scene," he has just recounted a childhood experience in which he and some friends baptized most of a litter of barn kittens. (Raising some doubt of the sanctification in the lives of those who did not escape the waters of baptism, and in speaking of those that were not transformed into domestic pets, the narrator says, "The others lived out their feral lives, indistinguishable from their kind, whether pagan or Christian no one could ever tell." p. 22). He goes on to think about the depth of joy he felt during his career when he baptized people. And then he switches to this:
Ludwig Feuerbach says a wonderful thing about baptism. I have it marked. He says, "Water is the purest, clearest of liquids; in virtue of this its natural character it is the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit. In short, water has a significance in itself, as water; it is on account of its natural quality that it is consecrated and selected as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. So far there lies at the foundation of Baptism a beautiful, profound natural significance." Feuerbach is a famous atheist, but he is about as good on the joyful aspects of religon as anybody, and he loves the world. Of course he thinks religion could just stand out of the way and let joy exist pure and undisguised. That is is his one error, and it is significant. But he is marvelouson the subject of joy, and also on its religious expressions.
I read Lamott because she is funny (especially when I hear her talk) and insightful -- if a little too pleased about her "dirty little" past. She describes her "conversion" in this book in such a way that I had to give thanks for the little congregation that midwifed her into Christ.
On the other hand, I have had the Robinson since it came out a year ago, and I have not wanted to read it (although knew I should read it because of all the acclaim that it was receiving). But I felt guilty about buying the book and not reading it, and so I've begun it. It surprises me in that it does not strike me as a book out of the Iowa Writier's Workshop (which was also a concern of mine), even though Robinson has taught at the Workshop for years. Her prose is really quite compelling.
In both cases, I think I'll refrain from commenting (even though the liturgy student in me REALLY wants to talk about the baptism passage). I trust the passages to speak for themselves.