So wrote T. S. Eliot in East Coker. I read these lines both before and after I became acquainted with the work of René Girard, and, like so many other things in my life, the “before” version required a good deal of updating in light of Girard’s work. The word “bonfire” comes from bone-fire, and it was originally a fire so hot and consuming that it would reduce even bones to unrecognizable ashes. The value of doing this would have greatly enhanced a community’s effort to render a comforting account of the fate of those whose bones – had they survived the fire – might have constituted evidence for a harsher truth than the myth the community is ritually laboring to make plausible. Those familiar with Girard’s work will know where all this comes from and where it leads. I needn’t pursue it further here. I only want to bring into focus the phrase “if you do not come too close.”
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a Summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire.
Many years ago, when the reality of “partial-birth abortion” – the gruesome procedure Barack Obama would later so vigorously defended in the Illinois legislature – was receiving some media attention, I made the mistake of reading a description of the procedure out loud while my 10-year-old daughter was in the room. She instantly broke into sobbing tears. At that moment, my moral revulsion for this barbarous act became more than that. Aña’s completely visceral reaction made me realize what abortion was doing to everyone. Its presence as a “fact of contemporary life” was causing us all to die inwardly. My daughter had exactly the right reaction. Why, I wondered, didn’t I break down as she had? Rather I read the story as though it were just another outrageous development in a world where many outrages exist.
In his “While We’re At It” commentaries in the current edition of First Things, editor Jody Bottum contrasts the stories of two abortion industry workers, Abby Johnson, who resigned her Planned Parenthood job after assisting at an abortion and seeing up close what an abortion is, and a midwest abortionist who experienced a similar “moment of disillusionment” while dismembering an eighteen week old unborn child at the moment when she herself was eighteen week pregnant. Bottum quotes the woman’s own words:
I felt a kick – a fluttery “thump, thump” in my own uterus. It was one of the first times I felt fetal movement. There was a leg and a foot in my forceps, and a “thump, thump” in my abdomen. Instantly, tears were streaming from my eyes – without me – meaning my conscious brain – even being aware of what was going on. I felt as if my response had come entirely from my body, bypassing my usual cognitive processing completely. A message seemed to travel from my hand and my uterus to my tear ducts. It was an overwhelming feeling – a brutally visceral response – heartfelt and unmediated by my training or my feminist pro-choice politics.”Astonishingly, Bottum tells us, this woman managed to suppress this anatomical response to the horror of abortion and continue aborting babies for a living. Given, however, that the woman admitted that performing trimester abortions “did not get any easier after my pregnancy” and that “dealing with little infant parts of my born baby only made dealing with dismembered fetal parts sadder,” there is reason to believe that this is not the end of her moral journey.
The reason I have related these two stories is because, for me, they represent the strongest evidence I know for the existence of an immutable moral law, written on the heart of everyone, as St. Paul insisted it is.
If you do not come too close, certain rituals work fine, but beware of coming too close. Once exposed to them more intimately, the spiritual, moral and psychological price to be paid for ignoring their moral reality is considerable. The heart that would have broken, hardens. The heart of flesh becomes a heart of stone, and it does this so incrementally that one might not realize what is actually happening. Ours is today a world where too many of us – and to a degree almost all of us – have allowed our hearts to harden in this way. But, thanks to sonograms and similar technologies, more and more of us are coming too close to be able to suppress the reality.
Compared to the reality which Abby Johnson found so disturbing once she “came too close,” the reality to which my 10-year-old and the midwest abortion doctor reacted with such visceral revulsion, “feminist pro-choice politics” represents little more than the “weak pipe and little drum” accompanying the pagan fertility cult of T. S. Eliot’s poem. These instruments for warding off reality work for a while, but then – more suddenly than one might have expected – they vanish, at which the erstwhile ritual participant sees – not the charming singing and dancing – but “dung and death.” It is at this point, that one’s spiritual revival begins.