The man at the window
After a long day setting up procedures and writing utilities to migrate a client's data to a new platform, I walked across Darling Harbor to the suburb of Glebe. Walking three miles at night to an unfamiliar place multiplies the likelihood of chance encounters. In this case the chance encounter was provided by a six foot three inch British man who stuttered out the directions to the cafe I was looking for: walk on ahead till I came to "carpark which is almost a wasteland then left into a narrow lane, right at the the first corner then up a stairway" would take me to the desired spot. And then he vanished into the dark and so did I in the opposite direction, following his mysterious instructions till I came to a place happy in the knowledge that I had found a secret way.
We live for so long in our skins that it eventually becomes not simply the center of our universe, but subconsciously, the center of everything. It becomes hard to imagine, that from the viewpoint of the six foot three British man, I was the stranger on the street and not the other way around. Peggy Noonan had another chance encounter of a more distinguished kind in Rome, where she heard Benedict XVI give an open-air homily on the subject of his predecessor, John Paul.
And from her point of view Benedict was the stranger; "the man at the window"; tall, white-haired, looking out from his skin at the crowd below. How was he different from the hundreds of faces I had passed on that night walk to Glebe, looking out from their windows into the dark world? The sole palpable difference was that, like other leaders of institutions, he could habitually refer himself in the plural. Benedict is able to speak; is indeed compelled to speak, not simply on behalf of himself, but on behalf of John Paul and all those who have gone before him as well. Benedict is obliged to apologize for historical crimes he did not personally commit as well as shine in the reflected glory of deeds he had no credit for. To become a President or Pope is to submit to the possession of history; to share your skin not only with the echoes of voices past but with the half-heard whispers of what may be coming round the bend. Noonan, looking forward to Benedict's visit, writes about the strange predicament of having to hold mental converse with 21st century American Presidents and ancient Byzantine emperors.
Now Benedict comes to America, his first trip as pope. The highlight in the Vatican's eyes is his address to the United Nations. No one knows what he will say. He will no doubt call for peace, for that is what popes do, and should do. Beyond that? Perhaps some variation on themes from his famous Regensburg address, in September 2006.
There he traced and limned some of the development of Christianity, but he turned first to Islam. Faith in God does not justify violence, he said. "The right use of reason" prompts us to understand that violence is incompatible with the nature of God, and the nature, therefore, of the soul. God, he quotes an ancient Byzantine ruler, "is not pleased by blood," and "not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature." More: "To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm." This is a message for our time, and a courageous one, too. (The speech was followed by riots and by Osama bin Laden's charge that the pope was starting a new "crusade.")
I'm convinced that the strange enthusiasms which grip crowds in the presence of Presidents and Popes spring not only from group psychology but the subconscious acknowledgement of a connection with history. After spending a lifetime in what Auden called the "prison of our days" we become attracted to men condemned to live outside of themselves. And that's because part of us does live outside ourselves; imparted in the memory of those we meet; recorded in the bones of the earth in faint vibrations which will not cease to be heard until the end of time. And that is the lost part of us we seek to reclaim. We stare at the man in the window because it is the group picture of ourselves; the portrait of us as something else.
There are some things we cannot do alone. There are some things we can only do outside our skins. Perhaps for that reason nations outlast men and religions outlast nations. And under those banners we meet the challenges of the coming days. Under that flag we wage the long fight against totalitarism, though it outlast ourselves and the world itself. Benedict is 81. What a strange thing to be young and to be old.
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself, ...
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
Looking back at Sydney while crossing the pedestrian bridge over Darling Harbor at 6:57 pm local
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