Saturday, April 7, 2012

On Redemption, and Grace

"There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." - Leonard Cohen

From suffering, we can sometimes recognize our experience as a perfect gift. But, despite the insistence of some in the new-age, pop-spirituality racket, this is  not something that happens by force of will, or even by conscious intention, or even through the application of some "Secret" manifestation. We can decide we want to "get over it," we can put in all the mindwork we want to, but ultimately, the moment of redemption happens on its own, and in its own way. Living in that place of not knowing, that's the stuff of faith.  Coming out on the other side of it, that's the stuff of grace.

I use the word grace because it is comfortable for me as part of the lexicon of my religious; but, this isn't a Christian thing. The zen experience of satori--sudden insight--is a name for this universal force as well.  No matter what you call it, it's everywhere.

A personal anecdote to illustrate:

Four years ago, I decided to take a decisive step to create a theatrical performance which had been in my head for two decades. There was an early piece by Bertolt Brecht and Paul Hindemith, the Baden Lehrstuck. For over twenty years, this piece haunted me, and I wanted to present it--not leastly because it included an examination of what it means to be human, asking as its central question, "Does Man Help Man." In typical Brechtian style, it was not what I would call a "laff riot". Dark and didactic, the piece also had in it a Clown Act, in which two clowns attempt to help another (a giant puppet) to be comfortable. In the process of "helping" him, they end up dismembering him, until he lies in a heap on the floor with a stone pressing into his back. Then comes the punch line: "Well, Mr. Smith, you can't have everything!"  See, it's funny...'cause it's true. 

Long story short, I produced it as a part of an entire evening of political cabaret entitled, The Cabaret at the End of the Empire. In general, I was satisfied with how it turned out, the questions it explored, and the conversations it engendered. As a creative artist, this show was the first time I experienced the axiomatic truth of the two most important questions in creation: "What if?" and "Why not?" It was a very fruitful time of resourcefulness and adaptation.

And the poster, by Michael Mormino, totally kicked ass, if you don't mind me saying so.

As a producer of an evening of theater, however, I experienced it to be a true and harrowing ordeal, for a number of reasons throughout the process. I was wrung out, completely drained financially, spiritually, energetically, and emotionally; I couldn't understand why so much had gone wrong on this project that I thought I had done "properly"--that is to say, I got a "Let's Do This" attitude about a long-held creative impulse, built a team, and forged ahead boldly, despite the fear attached to the process. It's where I first realized the value of the two most important questions in creation: "What If? and Why Not?"  Epic. Fail. That is what stayed with me from the experience.

Skip ahead a little over a year later. I'm having lunch with a dear and wise and brilliant friend who was passing through Atlanta for a bit, on tour with a show.  We are catching up, and I tell her about my harrowing experience with C@EoE--that it completely tore me apart. I told her about what I had intended, all the problems that I encountered (rivaling Terry Gilliam's awful misfortunes making Don Quixote only in scale), and sharing the particulars of the Lehrstuck that so inspired me. When I finished my recounting of the experience, she laughed a little and cut right through to the heart of the issue: "You say it tore you apart--kind of like that Clown. You wanted to do that show, and turns out, you lived it."  It all came together in a blink. I had so wanted to do this show, that I "became" Mr. Smith. In that moment, I reframed my entire experience and saw the perfection in it (I reclaimed it). I laughed the laugh of the universe.  (Since then, I've presented the Clown Act as a stand-alone piece, to good effect.). As she reflected back to me so clearly what was there in my experience, what my inner knowing was about this, I now think of her as one of the shiniest mirrors I've ever met.

It was then, in that conversation, that I came to my understanding of just what "grace" is. No matter how much we want or try, or decide, or will ourselves to move on from some painful experience, there is only so much conscious effort that can go into it. Ultimately, the reframing and reclaiming happens spontaneously, when we least expect it.

Between suffering and redemption is a blank space.  All we have to do--all we can do--is to create in that blank space, the possibility of redemption.  We can, in that barren no-man's-land of not knowing, cultivate an openness and the willingness to reframe and reclaim the experience, to have a new understanding revealed to us. Grace, then, comes when we are ready, and not a moment before. And then, it comes as it will, from sources both sought and surprising. 

The Christian Church's observation of Holy Week is like a highly-concentrated version of this process, showing us the suffering/opening/redemption cycle in the story of the passion/burial/resurrection of Jesus. The universal and ultimate truth of the cycle is part of the basic story of human experience, as experienced by individual humans in their lives. As with all myth, the value of the story lies outside of the factual merits of the narrative.  It's important to note, though, that in fact, this requires the presence of the ineffable, the beyond, the divine, the Great Whatever, in order to come to fruition.

So. Do your work, and allow the Unknowable to do its work in turn. That's the lesson I take from this mystery. 

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