Ich Kann Nicht Anders

On 18 April 1521, Martin Luther stood before The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to defend himself against charges of heresy. As he rose to his conclusion, he supposedly uttered the famous words, Hier stehe ich; ich kann nicht anders. Gott hilf mir (Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. So help me God). In fact, he didn’t actually say that, but instead offered a prosaic disclaimer about not being convinced from Scripture of the need to recant his views. But since when have the facts kept us from rewriting history to suit our taste for the dramatic? So it is with a sense of irony that I, five hundred years later, rise to this occasion to say what Luther never said: Hier stehe ich. Here I stand.

It’s actually the next phrase Luther didn’t say that fascinates me: Ich kann nicht anders – “I cannot do otherwise.” The way we tend to read them, these words are a defiant declaration, a martyr’s confession, the lone rebel spitting in the imperial and papal eye. And that is certainly one way to translate them. But the words will permit another rendering, and since Luther didn’t actually say them, I feel a certain freedom to retranslate them. Ich kann nicht anders can also mean “I have no other choice,” as though one’s back was against the theological and existential wall, and all the options have fled.

The subtitle for this series is “What I Believe, and Why.” That works pretty well if what you mean by “believe” is something like “agree with” or perhaps, “think.” There’s a certain intellectual elbowroom in that. One can state a proposition and defend it with argument, give a little ground as necessary to satisfy one’s interlocutors, and come away with the sense of having made one’s point. That’s the way, I suspect, most of us think about believing. But for me, believing is not an intellectual exercise, not even a faith claim. Rather, it’s an involuntary reflex, an internal upwelling always slightly out of control. When I say ich kann nicht anders, I mean, I have no choice.

About six months ago, I wrote a poem entitled “Mr. H’s Ordination.” Madison Andrews has been kind enough to publish it last month in Kairos. In my mind, the poem is a sort of internal ordination examination: broken-down old me, relic of the ecclesiastical wars of my lifetime, is examining 25 year-old me, a fresh-faced young graduate of Union Seminary in 1979, ready to take up the task of ministry. In truth, though, old me does all the talking (no surprise there, I guess). I suppose I’m trying to tell myself what I wish I had known all those years ago about what believing means, and what it will cost. The poem begins with the first question everyone ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) answers. It’s an important question, one that asks what you “believe”: Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

Well, do you?

It’s not a choosing, or a being chosen,
not a choice but the end of choices.
It’s the wild mounting desperation
of holding your breath under water
until the will submits, is overcome
by the mindless lungs’ irrational demand.
Even if it drowns you like a rat.
Do you trust like that, Mr. H?

I think that’s as close as I can come to what I mean by “believing.” Believing isn’t thinking. Believing isn’t choosing a position. Believing, as the question suggests, is trust. But even trust itself is not a choice. It’s a reflexive irruption of self-investment in God or in someone I love, as mindless and unrestrained as that ineluctable desperation to breathe when you’ve tried too long to hold your breath under water and you just can’t hold it any more. You cannot not breathe. Even if it drowns you like a rat. I cannot not trust, even if it means harnessing my life to a God far beyond my control.

I think that’s why I love Mark’s story of the woman with the hemorrhage who touches the hem of Jesus’ garment as he passes in the crowd. She is a metaphor for what it means to believe. She doesn’t know Jesus and she doesn’t have access to effective medical treatment for her condition. She can’t prove that touching Jesus will work. But she does it anyway, because she has no choice, because there is no other course of action left, because something in her persuades her that this hail-Mary of a cure will work when every other cure has come a-cropper. She sneaks up behind him and brushes the hem of his garment, and mirabile dictu she is cured, and Jesus turns and says to her, “Your faith”—your believing—has made you well – has saved you” (it’s the same word in Greek). How did that work, exactly? What theological commitments does one make in order to move from hemorrhage to hem to healing? I don’t know, and I suspect she didn’t know either. She trusted, even when there was no reason to do so, because there was nothing left to do. Ich kann nicht anders. I have no other choice.

This notion that believing is an involuntary thing, a movement beyond my control, has taken root in my poems. Poetry is a curious thing: I find I can get closer to the marrow of things in verse than in prose. A lot of my poems are efforts to come to terms with the question: what does it mean to believe—to trust—at its most basic, most elemental levels? We embed our faith in churchly vocabulary—words like “love” or “justice” or “grace.” But what if that vocabulary is stripped away, and we rely instead on naked experience or even silence? What I’ve discovered about myself is that I am impatient many of our churchly words for and about God, words we use to commoditize faith and justify our politics. But if you don’t use that language, what’s left to say?

I think that’s what I’m struggling with in the third stanza of “Mr. H’s Ordination.” It begins with the central doctrine of our experience of God—the Trinity—but pretty quickly moves from the sublime to the subterranean. Who is “the only Trinity we trust?”

Three in one and one in three: an axiom
of theology. But the only Trinity
we trust is world and death and fire
(as often smothered as smoldering).
In the pitch-black cave-dark, we intuit
light. Reach out and touch the triune rock:
creation’s basement, our prison, and reprieve.
Is that what you believe, Mr. H?

“World and death and fire” are, I suppose, another way of talking about our experience of the triune God: God who creates the world, Christ whose death delivers us, the Spirit whose fire ignites the witness of the Church. But while I don’t deny those connections, I want to get beneath them, too. It’s the woman with the hemorrhage again. It’s not her theology that saves her; it’s her down-in-the-gut trust. Sometimes the only Trinity I trust is not the God of rarefied glory, but the one visible in the grit and grime of this world, the one whose grisly death is my own death writ large, the one whose fire burns beneath the boiling pot of my anger no less than it shines in the sunrises of my inspiration. Most of the time, that’s the God I know, not the beatified trio on a Russian icon. That’s the God I trust. Ich kann nicht anders.

Once, a thousand years ago, I went on a Boy Scout trip to Cumberland Caverns. The group of us made our way through the main entrance and down into the earth, descending along the well-lit path until we reached a large open chamber about a quarter-mile in. We were told to sit down and turn off our flashlights. I happened to be situated on the edge of the group near the chamber’s rock wall. Without warning, the leaders turned out the lights. We froze—except for those of us who screamed. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I froze, because I couldn’t see anyone else. I couldn’t see anything at all. As far as my eyes could tell, I was alone in the infinite darkness. All the light was gone, and there was only the fast-fading memory of light, the flickering, fleeing hope of light. The darkness was palpable, as though I were submerged in a vat of black paint. It was a living thing, monstrous, absolute, uncompromising. I put my hand to my face and felt a bolt of terror when my fingers touched my nose, because the blackness was so complete that I could not imagine my own hand. I felt I was falling through endless, empty space. I began to feel that I was losing my balance, with no reference points to steady me. Instinctively I reached out, and there beneath my hand was the cool, wet rock. The rock steadied me, calmed and oriented me. I knew again where I was. I was saved. In that moment, I learned to believe. In the dark, light is only an intuition. In the cave, with all the lights off and the darkness darker than any dark has ever been, I put my hand on the rock. In the sub-basement of creation, with no visible way to freedom, the rock was the only God that mattered. This, I think, is what I believe, stripped down to the most basic level. I don’t believe anything. I trust the rock in the darkness. Ich kann nicht anders.

But there is more to say. These days, when I think about trusting God, I also find myself thinking about Qohelet, the brutally wise sage and realist behind the words of Ecclesiastes. Everyone knows the famous poem about times and seasons. But immediately after that poem comes a paragraph about the futility of human efforts. “What gain has the worker from all his toil?” Qohelet begins—and then he drops this little bomb:

“[God] has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”

The Hebrew word translated by the clunky phrase “a sense of past and future” is ‘olam, and its meaning is open to interpretation. It means something like “eternity”; the Septuagint translated it with kosmos, the world, the universe. We can argue about this later if you want, but for now, I like the sense that God has given us the capacity to imagine the vastness of time and the emptiness of space, yet has limited us in such a way that we cannot clamber over the barriers of our own brains and bodies to experience it. “They cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end.” Now there’s a sentence for the ages. Qohelet knows that our language—and for that matter, our capacity for reason and thought—will always fail us in the end, that they will never carry us as far as our imagination can envision going. There is always a darkness at the edge of the light, and in that darkness the only faithful response is to put your hand on the rock.

Qohelet, isn’t done, though; he goes on:
“I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves for as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him”.

If we trust, the sage seems to suggest, the trust can be a starting place, a foundation, a baseline contentment with not-knowing. Even if we don’t know what we’re trusting, even if trust means no more than touching the triune rock in the darkness, it will be enough. Just eat your bread and drink your wine and do your work; just be. That will be enough. What was the word Julian of Norwich heard as she agonized over sin and death? “But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Not right, mind you, or just, or happy, but well. All manner of things shall be well. It is enough.

I was trying to say something like this when I wrote “I Seek the Shining Darkness.” Here’s a part of the poem:

I seek the shining darkness,
the basement path beneath believing,
the way that knows but is not known….

I seek the dawn of the second day
not the day of witnessed passion
nor when they found the body gone,

but the last pregnant day of possible,
uterus of a new creation,
with cervix of eternal stone.

Deep inside the shining darkness
believing dies and trust, unborn,
unknown and knowing, waits alone.

As you might have guessed, the image of the second day, Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter is an evocative image for me. The second day is the Sabbath, a day of inactivity and rest, the day after everything we have believed in dies, and the day before the birth of a new creation we do not even know is possible to imagine. It is a day of suspended animation, a day spent in the tomb, in the darkness. Ah, but it is a “shining darkness,” a darkness brimful with possibility, even if ill-defined and unknown. And waiting for us within that shining darkness is trust. When everything else is stripped away, trust is there.

One last passage, and a poem. Tucked in the back of the psalter, amid all the loud lamentations and chorused hallelujahs, is the gentle little lullaby of Psalm 131. Born of humility and perhaps contrition, the psalmist seems to underscore Qohelet’s trust and contentment. As a piece of English poetry, the translation is an unpretentious masterpiece, perfectly balanced alternating pentameter and quatrameter lines. It has become a sort of resting place for me:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with his mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and for evermore.

Last June, I was paging through the collected poems of e.e.cummings, and I stumbled across “I thank you God for most this amazing day,” the poem that contains his delightful phrase, “the leaping greenly spirits of trees.” It was the morning after a storm, and I had been thinking about cummings and about Psalm 131, and the grass in my yard was the shade of green that you only see in the morning sunlight after a rain, and I began to write. The poem is “Green”:

Green is the truest color.
It does not lift its eyes too high.
It does not hate like red, nor rage
with orange
nor put on purple’s kingly pretense,
nor, like cerulean, make promises
it cannot keep.

It has a pulse
like a spring swelling, spilling
over moss-covered stones,
or a tree
planted alongside waters,
grown wise in wisdom’s way;
it does not boast

but knows
green is not the last word;
there will be urgent warnings,
red and orange,
before the nights of ice and brown,
when gray winds growl it bare of truths.
They roil away.

And, too, it knows
a calm slow turning toward morning
on the leeward side of fury,
—not yet but when?—
deep inside the heartwood darkness
there births another green, still furled,
waiting to be true.

I think that’s where believing begins: deep inside the heartwood darkness, waiting for a new green to be true. The wait may be long or short, but green will come in its own time. Our task is to trust. Wir können nicht anders.