Guest post and photos by Brent Livingood.
A little bit ago now, but not nearly long enough, I briefly found myself at the base of a waterfall in Polk County, Tennessee. It was the middle of the week, a Wednesday, I think, and I was at the low end of a long trail on a tall mountain. No one was in the woods but me.
The water thundered over the ridge called Benton Falls slapping the rocks a hundred times before falling back into a susurrant creek. I imagined what it must be like to be the cragged edge enduring the endless water drops. Each drop falling against the exposed strata, one after another, after another. One drop, two, four, eight… Drop after drop until time evaporates. Even rock cannot endure this tortured life.
The creek is my mind that never forgets, each drop a memory splattered against rock – my body, which tallies with all the others, counting up an exaggerated accumulation: all the hurts and pains, the embarrassments and humiliations, the failures and my ruined will. The roar carried between the mountain walls isn’t the sound of water, but the lacerated cry of rock reliving water’s memory again and again.
The history of Christianity is a pageant summoning the greatest sinner, according to Origen’s nemesis Celsus. And we’ve all raised our hands and said, I am. I am. And my hand is raised too, waving with the enthusiasm of an elementary school child who knows the right answer. It is me. It is me. I am the greatest sinner. Shame on me. Shame. On. Me.
I am a disappointment to the ghosts, both here and gone, who hover in my head howling about my drinking, filling in lost stretches of time. I am the greatest sinner, a wretched, lost soul, near the penumbra of hopelessness; sometimes I can no more believe in redemption than I can silence the sound of water’s memory.
And that is my goal, if I have a life goal: to die in quiet – to no longer hear the constant rumble of my mind rehashing long-ago bouts that have been distorted and magnified by the pervasive stream of consciousness.
“But I have calmed and quieted my soul,” writes the psalmist whose description of salvation is a hard-won grace constantly staging an escape. Will I find that laconic repose? Is it possible to live by the falls and be dry? Can I calm and quiet the storm of my mind? Walk on water?
This mind, this creek that only falls, poured down replies; No, no you won’t. You can’t.
I’ve been counseled with many dumb ideas. Surely my favorite is that I shouldn’t be so negative. I should learn to love myself and forgive myself. I should think other thoughts, as though a hostage need only walk away from her captors.
Water can only fall, I want to say, as if those who claim I’m going through a “phase” could possibly understand. It cannot help but fall.
Late in the second century or early in the third, Tertullian, a Christian whose spiritual ardor would later in life fetch him the company of eccentrics and ascetics and, possibly, heretics, said prison was a sanctuary for Christians. In prison, the Christian was “free from causes of offence, from temptations, from unholy reminiscences; you are free from persecution too.” Standing alongside Benton Falls, I take Tertullian to mean that prison is a dry place, empty of thought, amnesia blessed.
There’s that expression, “like water breaking against the rock,” which seems to suggest that the rock is stronger than water. It will endure. It can take the unending assault. But whoever believes this has not watched a rain-filled creek hitting stone. They haven’t heard the cry of the stone. They haven’t noticed the stone’s spooned out curves. The water is winning. The water always falls against the stone. And I think how wise Tertullian was. There is a freedom from unholy reminiscences, a place without persecution. But it isn’t near the river. It isn’t underneath the waterfall. It isn’t in the mind.
Salvation is in a prison without windows, a place where reflection and thought are as forbidden as self-absorption. The unholy reminiscences cannot spoil the soul who flirts with the fatuous slouch; so, I covet his company.
I am fatigued and water is heavy. Take it away. Honor your promise. Wipe the tears from my eyes – these drops that leak and fall from the crevices of my mind.
But this is all wrong. Tertullian wasn’t right. Or better, he wasn’t talking about what I want him to be talking about. The only escape is through the water, not away from it. I must submerge myself, drowned my mind in the water’s cacophony, and remember; “When nothing existed but chaos, you swept across the dark waters.” The water will destroy me, the onslaught of memory and thought – the unholy reminiscences. But this destruction is some sort of reconstruction too. Jesus said to the man hanging next to him that paradise was near, but he also meant that destruction was closer. This gift of water calls to our remembrance the nothing we were so that a tabula rasa awaits – a new start, a clean slate, a mind without experience.
I hiked out of the woods feeling refreshed. Silence will eventually come. And without meaning to, I pulled into the liquor store on the way home.
Brent Livingood is a recovering pastor with dependency issues. As a way of staying healthy, Brent enjoys exploring creation through the lens of faith and creative writing. You can follow his experiences and occasional insights at www.brentlivingood.com.