A recent mishap with a pair of kitchen shears brought to mind Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. I’d been cutting up chicken breasts for a stir fry, and not paying much attention. It was the difference in the density of the meat which gave me pause. “Huh. That must have been gristle I cut through” I thought as I glanced down at my hand. Huh. It was more surprise than anything that registered. A deep V shape had opened up in the pad of my hand, just below the webbing between my fingers. I paused with momentary interest, but then continued cutting up the chicken. I only stopped when the wound began to bleed. It was then that the line from Merchant flitted through my head: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
Bleed indeed! It took a moment to start, but once the bleeding began the flood gates seemed to open. I soaked a kitchen towel in blood trying to apply sufficient pressure to close the gap and achieve hemostasis; I even began contemplating the need of sutures. Gratefully the bleeding ceased (as it will always, eventually…). I then found myself in a state of shock: how could I receive such an onerous wound and not even feel it? I’ve yet to feel pain at the site. The only thing which drew my attention to the wound was that the scissors weighed differently in my hand; that the tension changed from when I was cutting chicken to when I was cutting my hand. How remarkably odd!
That evening, as I laid in bed I thought more about the wound, and then more about the Merchant. There is an intense friendship in this play between Antonio and Bassanio. Antonio goes to great lengths to secure a loan for his friend: offering a ‘pound of flesh’ as guarantee. The description of their friendship borders on the erotic. Antonio doesn’t hesitate to help Bassanio (mirroring the words on Portia’s leaden casket “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath”). It was Antonio’s unexplained depression — “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” —which stopped me in my tracks. Scholars of English literature are all over the place in their interpretation of Antonio’s malaise: some offer back the complex plot line in a very straightforward fashion–that Antonio’s life was at stake, indeed soon to be ended; others surmise there was more than platonic love between the friends than meets the eye–that securing the loan for Bassanio’s betrothal to a Portia caused Antonio great pain. The reader is left to speculate, as we always are with Shakespeare’s ambiguous, colorful characters.
It is Antonio’s indifference, either to his fate or to his emotions, which would not let me rest. It was too familiar: unrequited, impossible love mingled with an unreasonable and disproportionate devotion. The words on the lead casket echo the language I was taught as a child regarding what it meant to be a disciple of Christ (Matt 19:29)–that there was no limit to the sacrifice we might (be called to) make in the name of our devotion; to choose the Way of God is to hazard all things. Of course in Shakespeare’s play, Antonio is saved and everyone has a good laugh. Evil’s plans (in this case, the Jewish merchant, Shylock) are thwarted, and it all works out in the end. But what happens when the potential sacrifice is indeed accepted? What if Antonio paid with a pound of flesh? What if Isaac is bound and splayed out on the altar, and Abraham’s fist clutching the dagger is on its way down, and no heavenly body intervenes?
Can there not be limits to where my devotion might take me? A recent reading the introduction to Craig Keen’s The Transgression of the Integrity of God pushed these buttons for me as well. In it, the editors of the collection of essays (former students of Keen’s) describe a radicality in his devotion which is dangerously inspiring: that nothing would get in Keen’s way of his discipleship. “Everything was up in the air. Everything was to be abandoned to the way in which he felt himself called. Marriage, school, career–everything.”
Such language stirs the valiant among us to nobel ends! It motivates and radicalizes our best inclinations. Our faith takes us to heroic heights, all the while leaving the vicissitude of daily life for others to attend to. In this manner, a sense of proportion is lost: this is how children end up raising themselves; how wives become mere ‘helpmeets’. These sacrifices become the fodder by which the mythology of the saints is built. I know of what I speak! (…says the girl relegated to boarding school so that her folks could do God’s will). Can we not with some semblance of certainty claim that the God worthy of our devotion would not require such fantastic offerings from us?
It is here that this Christian theologian begins finding Siddhārtha Gautama more compelling than the teachings of Jesus; certainly more so than many of the ‘followers’ of Jesus. While Jesus stands singularly as ‘the Way’, Siddhārtha Gautama explored several paths before finally arriving at The Middle Way–—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
When immersed in the pseudo-evangelical holiness world, is it possible to lead a faithful life of moderation? Or is radicality essential? The ends of this radical devotion, martyrdom, bears with it the same ultimate escape of consequences to which the family and loved ones of suicide victims fall prey. Choose the way of radicality and you relinquish responsibility to those left holding your urn.
The Middle Way seems far more difficult; far more challenging; and requires far more devotion to the path. Living the middle way demands perpetual thoughtfulness and readjustment: it bears not the luxury of emotional decision-making, but demands presence without escape. It demands attention: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
Oddly, this middle way bears a strong resemblance to holiness…