Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Down to earth (Patricia Hampl)

Once a month I go to a reading group where we talk about authors who have incorporated Christian themes and experiences into their writing. So far we've read Flannery O'Connor and Frederick Buechner, and last week it was Patricia Hampl (all from the collection "Listening for God," edited by Paula Carlson and Peter Hawkins).

The excerpt that we read from Patricia Hampl was taken from Virgin Time, a memoir in which she thinks through her Catholic upbringing and her current quest / questions. One of the things that struck me about the excerpt we read (chapter 6) was the way in which she contrasted the clouds in the sky with the more solid earth beneath it. As in her childhood encounter with one of the neighbors:
He allowed me to assist him in rooting out his dandelions [...] I introduced religion while he plunged the dandelion gadget deep into the lawn.  
No, he said, he did not go to church. "But you do believe in God?" I asked, hardly daring to hope he did not. He paused for a moment and looked up at the sky, where big, spreading clouds streamed by. "God isn't the problem," he said. 
Some ancient fissure split open, a fine crack in reality: so there was a problem. Just as I'd always felt. Beneath the family solidity, the claustrophobia of mother-father-brother-me, past the emphatic certainties of St. Luke's catechism class, there was a problem that would never go away. Mr. Bertram stood amid his dandelions, a resigned Buddha, looking up at the sky, which gave back nothing but drifting white shapes on the blue.
This is one of the first encounters in chapter 6, and it frames what follows: between the clouds in the heavens, with their elusive and insubstantial character, and the ground, with all its dandelions, solidity, and (mistrusted) certainties. The ground may be more tangible, but it is also more difficult.

In terms of space, and how Christianity relates to spaces, it is interesting to see how Hampl at the end of this chapter locates God - or religious contemplation - at ground level, rather than up above. The encounter with her neighbor is matched at the end of the chapter by an encounter with a woman whom she passes on the street every day. Patricia Hampl, as a girl, was intrigued by this woman because she looked up and smiled at her every time - "a complete smile" - and because she seemed to be praying. Nevertheless the woman "didn't look up to the blank clouds for a response," but down at the ground as she was walking.

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