I’ve been studying a map of Berkeley and the secret stairs of the Berkeley Hills produced by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association. The characters in my novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail, follow these steps that bridge roads winding into the forests above the university campus, winding up to the Fire Trails.
It is curious how maps organize a broad range of information and yet at the same time help the eye to focus and pinpoint one spot. Maps are like our brains, full of detail, a network of perception of both the past (memory), the present (observation) and the future (plans). Like this shiny unfolded paper that covers my desk, we too are mapped with broad ranges as well as focal points; our brains are miracles of design, epicenters of will and desire.
Novels are stories that connect the dots, draw the lines between moments of intense focus. These moments are often crises producing turning-points. A main crisis propels the major arc of the novel along, as sub-crises propel the chapters, and sometimes even sub-sub-crises propel the scenes. The process is much like walking through Berkeley, coming upon secret stairs that connect the winding roads; sometimes we rise and sometimes we fall.
History is full of these patterns, and these crises often catalyze action, focusing our attention, the attention of our community, the attention of our country, the attention of the world, upon a single incident. The crisis we remembered this week was the horrific bombing of the World Trade Center thirteen years ago on September 11. Our television screens invaded our homes with the shocking news, and although there had been many smaller crises leading up to this one, it was this one that caught our attention, that became America’s and the Western world’s turning point.
We had not been attacked on our own soil since Pearl Harbor in 1941. Our violence since then had been self-inflicted – shootings, riots, demonstrations. Some of us, in our arrogance, tried to deny it was the work of a foreign enemy. How could anyone do this? Each of us recalls, like the day that President Kennedy was shot, where we were and what we were doing when we found out, when we first saw the plumes rising, heard the rumble of the falling towers. It was as though the jets had sliced a knife into our hearts and minds. Our safe and civilized world crumbled; the map of our culture had been ripped apart and was increasingly incomprehensible. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were threatened; our freedom of speech – in word, deed, and worship – was attacked.
They say that the West experienced a similar shock as it counted its dead in the aftermath of World War I, a war we memorialize this year, begun one hundred years ago. Then too, the fire trail was breached, and the flames of barbarism crossed into our peaceful lands, threatening to destroy all that the West had built, over thousands of years since Abraham (then Abram) was called to leave the pagan world of Ur. World War I was a turning point, a catalyst that produced nihilism and despair, Lenin and Hitler and Mao, Nietzsche’s superman and the cold liberal arrogance of academic elite reigning from their own towers, these of ivory.
Church and temple imploded, divided on the path to take. Many of the once-faithful claimed God to be dead, or at least sleeping. Many delighted in such a claim, worshiping themselves and contributing to the anarchy of self-gratification now so fashionable. And so, darkness descended upon the Western world, lit here and there by communities of traditional believers, those who held onto their map, saw the way forward clearly in Scripture, Sacrament, and Creed, and who lit their candles, calling all to come and worship.
There have been three beheadings in the last month, at the last count, and I suppose now the world is watching and counting. We are finally focused. The many lines, the many roads, the many intersections where we weren’t sure which way to turn, have all converged in a single place on our map. Like the World Trade Center bombings, these violent images have stabbed our hearts and minds.
Through it all, the lights lit in our churches and temples burn brightly, calling us together, to gather as one heart and one mind before God. And as I knelt in the pew this morning in St. Joseph’s Chapel in Berkeley, my minutes and days of the week, however scattered, were gathered together in that single hour of worship. In that hour of song and praise and penitence and communion, all that was past was brought into the present and redeemed. All that would come in the future lay in God’s palm, cradled.
The connecting stairs were no longer secret passageways, but right there in beautiful bold print in my Book of Common Prayer. The paths led sensibly through the dark and into the light between the onionskin pages of my tattered Bible. Sin was forgiven, death destroyed. I could turn again, re-pent, re-form, in this weekly turning point. I could face the days ahead of me, the chaos of the world, the burning of the good and the beautiful and the true. For here was the essence, the distillation of the good, the beautiful, and the true. Here was life, for me and for each of us. Here was love that passeth all understanding, love that made sense of all maps.