Thursday, December 11, 2008

Incipit vita nova

Acedia and Me is the title of the Kathleen Norris book I have out of the library right now, a book you said I would probably like, Lissla, and of course you are right, though I am only on the first pages. The book starts with the story of the monk who, according to St John Cassian:

wove baskets as he prayed, and subsisted on food from his garden and a few date palms. Unlike monks who lived closer to cities and could sell their baskets there, Paul

"could not do any other work to support himself because his dwelling was separated from towns and from habitable land by a seven days' journey through the desert . . . and transportation cost more than he could get for the work that he did. He used to collect palm fronds and always exact a day's labor from himself just as if this were his means of support. And when his cave was filled with a whole year's work, he would burn up what he had so carefully toiled over each year."

By coincidence, Wall-E arrived from Netflix yesterday, so we all sat down and watched it together (and you probably shouldn't keep reading this if you haven't seen the movie -- I tried to avoid real spoilers but still....) . The charming robot protaganist with his simple (seemingly futile) diligence -- endlessly compacting and stacking seemingly infinite heaps of trash left by the people who had abandoned Earth after ruining it --reminded me of the remedy for acedia of St Anthony of the Desert:

When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, 'Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?' A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, 'Do this and you will be saved.' At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.

The little robot Wall-E does not pray, precisely, but his cheerful orderly work of containing and arranging garbage that somebody else had made centuries before, his careful respect for life even in its humblest forms, his admiration for human ingenuity and liveliness (he endlessly watches Michael Crawford's Put on Your Sunday Best on DVD and carefully sorts and arranges artifacts of civilization such as spoons and hinged boxes), his reverence for the beauty of the robot Eve, and even the several-times-repeated motif of clasped robotic hands evokes Love, an abiding thing that goes beyond the limitations of engineering and becomes something close to embodied prayer. And in the end comes a kind of new life that one could never have imagined, not just for himself, but for the Earth itself and its children.

In the review of Wall-E linked to above, Stephen Greydanus writes of the change that comes to Wall-E's life:

The words of Dante catching his first glimpse of Beatrice apply: Incipit vita nova, “Here begins the new life.”The new life is irrevocable; to go back to being no more than a salvager of curiosities and compactor of trash would be unthinkable. When, to his alarm, WALL‑E realizes it could come to that, he unhesitatingly turns his back on his whole world, risking everything for what he has found. Love has opened the universe to him, in all its splendor, terror and ugliness.

Advent is always a hard time of year for me. It would seem accidic for me, somehow, to try to solve the mystery of why that is by delving too much into my own inner self. After all, if any season is the time to "lift my eyes to the hills" rather than turn them inward to my own psyche, then this is it. Nevertheless, I find myself struggling every year, feeling like one of the descendants of Earth in the movie -- swollen and helpless and weak and on a track I can't quite control. So Wall-E and Kathleen Norris's Abbot Paul helped confirm to me that at least for now, the pain of tedium ought to be bypassed by prayer and hopeful attention to the minutiae of work, without worrying about the outcome of it.

After all, Advent celebrates the beginning of a new life for a people in darkness. Incipit vita nova. It isn't unreasonable that I should feel a bit of the pain of that darkness every season, in my own soul especially, while I am waiting. Again, I feel that Wall-E is a good role model, patiently repairing his incidental hurts without complaining, gazing on a dangerous beauty with love, and finding love which in the end repairs him.

2 comments:

Mama Monkey said...

What a lovely post. I haven't been able to put my finger on what made Wall-E compelling -- and you nailed it. Have I told you lately how much I admire your writing? :-)

lissla lissar said...

I'm glad you like it. I love Kathleen Norris.


We've sent your family a small Christmas present- let me know when it arrives. I'm waiting impatiently because I place no faith in shipping companies. Or airlines. Airlines are not reliable.

Also, let us know how you like it. :)