The God of Small Things

Kate wrote me the most beautiful thing yesterday; she wrote, Sarah, you’d make such a good Catholic. I keep thinking that when I see your posts and reading material.

I laughed and wrote back that I’ve always loved Catholics because of their long and rich, beautiful, bloody traditions. I should clarify something that I know she understood, but which not everyone might: when I say bloody, I mean it in a symbolic as well as historical way. This quote from Chesterton’s The Red Town sums it up:

Red is the most joyful and dreadful thing in the physical universe; it is the fiercest note, it is the highest light, it is the place where the walls of this world of ours wear thinnest and something beyond burns through. It glows in the blood which sustains and in the fire which destroys us, in the roses of our romance and in the awful cup of our religion. It stands for all passionate happiness, as in faith or in first love.

The word “awful” as used above evokes what I meant to evoke. I think Chesterton used it in its original sense, as in, full of awe. The awful angelic chorus which frightens the shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem. A vision of beauty so glorious and terrifying that the shepherds fled.

Kate said that what made her think that, about my making a good Catholic, was my sacramental approach to life and my conception of grace. I loved that because it’s true; it’s true for me and it’s true for her. Her writing is full of it. When she chats online with me or sends emails, her anecdotes are living breathing creatures. She throws out half a dozen images in thirty minutes which most people would work on for a day. She’s like a whirling dervish with a bellydancer’s scarf, scattering coins  from her hips and beads from her rosary. I keep trying to get her to write a journal, but she’s  busy dancing and painting her nails red and tending her garden and nursing her baby these long solstice days.

I think the people I love best are those who also have the sacramental approach to life. The ones who see my ecstatic posts about refinishing the wooden table and who recognize my paean to the god of small things. Martha sees the image of Chinawood oil (a chance phrase used by an author of a very dull website on tung oil, a lyrical image which sent me into transports, it conjured up thousands of years in imperial palaces among lacquered tables so reflective they were mirrors and brocades and silk worms harvested carefully for their skeins, woven by delicate hands)– Martha shares the joy in my ragtag bit of wood, sees the whirs like the scrawls of bird feet which are actually part of the grain, no sanding will undo them. Iris knows the contrast of a burnished edge, a trope which I borrowed from her work on leather; she stains her fingers and the edges of her belts dark and rubs them till they’re smooth. These are the people I love, the visionaries. The ones who see an ocean in the grain of a table or in a grain of sand. That’s what philosophy is, by the way. It’s the most general of interest, it’s a love of wisdom for its own sake, it’s the mindset which had its heyday in our grandparents’ generation, the archetypal gentleman who frequented museums and knew something of everything, the men and women for whom nothing was too small. It was Marie Curie and polonium, it was James Agee who wrote Let Us Now Praise  Famous Men, absolutely one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever read, a 600 page anthropological look at Alabamian sharecroppers, of all things, a book so lyrical that it’s difficult to shelve. I once stood up in a Southern lit class and delivered a panegyric which ended in tears because my classmates didn’t understand the ecstatic passage on bedbugs, they thought it was insensate and condescending.

So, yes. The ones I love are those for whom life is an incantation and a sacrament, the ones who, like Annie, taste life and dirt and grass like the white Host on their tongues.

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