Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Both Wax and Fire


Christopher Smart is in my head today.

Smart was an 18th-century poet who spent six years locked up in insane asylums. He got locked up because he prayed too much — like, all the time. In public. Apparently he would drop to his knees on the street and just start talking to God in a really loud, hard-to-ignore voice. Understandably people began to think he was not right in the head, or Baptist. The line between those not being clear, he was confined first to St. Luke's Asylum in Bethnal Green and then to Potter's Asylum, an altogether dingier, darker place.

Mental health care in those days was not what it is today, and if you know anything about mental health care today, you know how bleak a statement that is. By all accounts Kit Smart was a gentle, self-effacing, kindly soul, but for several years Smart was denied all visitors, even family. His cat was his only companion. Not all his friends agreed Smart was really mad, though. Samuel Johnson said this about him:

My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question.

While he was locked up, Smart wrote some of the most lyrical, haunting, whimsical verse in the English language, that challenged the bounds of verse-making and rearranged convention. "To My Cat Jeoffry" is probably the best known, but the Jeoffry section is just part of a much longer piece, the Jubilate Agno, which was not published in its strange, wondrous entirety until 1939. Some of Smart's verses have become hymns in the Anglican tradition, including my particular Easter favorite, "Awake, Arise." These verses in particular haunt me:

His enemies had sealed the stone
As Pilate gave them leave,
Lest dead and friendless and alone,
He should their skill deceive.

O Dead arise! O Friendless stand
By Seraphim adored
O Solitude again command
your host from heaven restored!

It's hard to miss Smart's focus on the entombed Christ as "dead and friendless and alone," and harder still to miss the idea that that may be exactly how he saw himself, locked in that hellhole of a madhouse, abandoned by all, knowing himself to be (as he always maintained he was) sane, but without hope, without any glimpse of a resurrection. It's a powerful spiritual thought, that in contemplating the passion, death, and resurrection of his Lord, Smart may have felt the greatest identity with the dead Jesus, locked in quiet.

I've always thought that Smart's imprisonment was a geographical mishap more than a mental health issue. The biggest indicator of his "madness" appears to have been the uncontrollable religious ecstasy, and if he had just been born in another time and place, things might have turned out differently for him. Smart's story reminds me of one of my favorite Hasidic tales, about a young Hasid who dutifully tries to attend the beit ha-midrash every day to study Torah, but always has to stagger outside after the first two words of the verse under discussion are read. He would lean against the wall of the building and shake with holy laughter and joy, hugging himself, repeating over and over: Va y'omer! Va y'omer! (And He said! And He said!) It was Smart's misfortune to be born into 18th-century England, one of the most unforgiving times and places to be a religious ecstatic I can think of. Had he been born just a little south of there, perhaps across the channel in France, he could have found his way into a religious order — maybe as a mendicant friar, maybe as a Carthusian mystic rapt in prayer in his cell.

Angela of Foligno ate nothing but scabs, lice, and pus
for a period of about ten years, skating right past
crazy to gross.  
For myself, I don't trust religion that has no place to put its crazies. Religion is a fundamentally crazy endeavor, at bottom; no one truly and soundly sane would ever be involved with it. Trying to dress it up like it all makes sense just makes you look more crazy, like the guy who draws detailed maps on beer napkins to explain how the Federal Reserve and the USDA are conspiring to launder the kickbacks from illegal feta-cheese shipping.

 I've also found that the more liturgically orthodox and ritually conservative a religion is, the more tolerant it is of craziness, of noise, and of chaos. Watch the kids in a Russian Orthodox church someday; one of their favorite tricks is to find a forest of low-hanging lampadas and race in, knowing some heedless adult is going to concuss themselves trying to chase them down. Places like that are always full of squirming and talking and general low-level anarchy, from the adults to the kids. Why? Because they have regular, intimate contact with the divine, and that turns humans a little weird. So they tend to tolerate weirdness when it bleeds out at the edges, whether it's in their fourteen unruly kids or their mystic great-uncle who argues aloud with God on his way to the grocery store.

It's only when religion pretends to be rational that it turns intolerant of anarchy. The more liturgically liberal a religion is — the more modern and reformed and humanistic — the less likely it is to be the sort of place your kids can make noise. Those are the places intolerant of craziness, and I use the example of kids because they are the Apostles of Anarchy, and you can tell a lot about a community's comfort level with chaos (and thus with God) by how they treat their little ones. If a congregation of any religion is so full of bleating anklebiters it sounds like a petting zoo, then relax, you're in the right place: crazy is okay here.

Simeon Stylites spent 37 years on top of a pillar in the desert.
People sent food up to him in jars on ropes.
He is the patron saint of tetherball. 
Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Orthodox Judaism are all pretty safe places to be crazy, and they have long experience with how to handle crazy Uncle Mort (or Uncle Haralambos or Uncle Giuseppe.) They would have been able to absorb Smart, as well. It's a fun head game to play: who do you know who really belongs somewhere else? Who do you know who missed the era that would have been able to make sense of them by a few hundred (or thousand) years, or the country they should have been born in?

Smart eventually got out. His friends (among them Johnson) had been agitating for years to free him, and one night they persuaded the warden of the asylum to let Smart come to a dinner party, as long as they provided him a constant escort. So they came to get him for this party, and then they just never brought him back. Smart was a free man.

He lost everything, though: his wife had left him (her father was the one who had originally committed Smart, possibly because of debts or a dispute over publishing rights) and taken their children while he was locked up. He lost his ability to write, too. After his release, he never wrote anything of significance again, and never completed things when he did begin them. There wasn't much left in his life but his God and his freedom, and eventually he lost that again, when he was imprisoned for debt. He died in a debtor's prison eight years after his release from the asylum, in pain and penury. Crazy doesn't pay. Loving God is a dangerous business. There's no happy ending or easy moral.  

And yet, everything he wrote was of joy. Joy bleeds out from his writing just like the crazy does. Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, Smart calls, over and over in his poetry: rejoice in the lamb, rejoice in the name of God, rejoice with the redbird, rejoice with the blackbird. It's as though the smaller and narrower his life got, the larger it got. The interior and the exterior of his life had nothing to do with each other. That's crazy, or it's something else.

Sancte Christofore, ora pro nobis. 






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