catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 7 :: 2008.04.04 — 2008.04.18


We are what we keep

How is keeping a thing different from possessing a thing? In our Hollywood-Zen society, “possessing” is a word that has a brackish feel to it—a tinge of near whoreish capitalism. But keeping—now there’s a word with interesting connotations.

“Keeping” doesn’t sound selfish in the way that “possessing” does; there is a tenderness attached to the concept of keeping that doesn’t fit with the notion of possessing. Anyone familiar with the (slightly macabre, in my opinion) children’s bedtime “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” prayer will remember its second line, “I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” Besides the fact that it wouldn’t rhyme, how different would that line be if it read, “I pray the Lord my soul to possess?” A very strange feeling indeed is conjured when the words are switched. There is something vaguely terrifying about having one’s soul possessed, whereas there is something comforting, reassuring, and beautiful even, about having one’s soul “kept” by another. It is as if in keeping, that soul were being wrapped in pink perfumed tissue paper and tucked gently into an old cedar chest.

How different would our perception of reality be if we were to think in terms of keeping rather than possessing? What new light would the items in our households take on? How might we approach our loves, our friendships, and our fears differently if we were to imagine ourselves; like the old man who climbs the stairs to the top of the lighthouse each twilight, as the “keepers” of those things? It seems that we might experience those around us with more gentleness and grace if we were to envision ourselves in that way: as keepers tending to what is sacred in this world.

To soil is to modify, it is to touch. The beautiful is that which we cannot wish to change. To assume power over is to soil. To possess is to soil.
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

Approaching life from a keeper’s perspective might also help us to rid our thoughts and our figurative and literal spaces of un-“necessities”—things that we possess that don’t need keeping. I don't mean to imply a call to arms, or to initiate a triumphal purging of the closet or the soul. On the contrary, I think the truth of what it means to be a “keeper” is much less about ridding than it is about appreciating. It is less a purge of the excess in our lives and more a recognition of the sacredness that surrounds us.

Out of my distress
I called on the LORD;
the LORD answered me and set
me in a broad place
Psalm 118:5

I’ve always loved this verse; it conjures in my imagination a God who heaves me up out of the quicksand and sets me down squarely in the center of a wide grove of ancient Sequoias and towering Redwoods. In this place the ground is soft and the air is earthy-sweet. In this place everything that matters is right there with me, kept in the safe deposit box of God's heart. In this place I need nothing, because I have everything. What would it be like to live in this reality on a daily basis—to view the world through the lens of one who is aware of the sacredness of each moment; to live beyond the confines of money, time, and situation; to view the world in terms of abundance rather than scarcity? For me, this is the message imbedded in Psalm 118:5. Despite my inclination to believe the contrary, I have been set in a broad place—a limitless expanse of ground and sky, spirit and mind, where I lack for nothing.

The ravages of genocide, the injustices of patriarchy, fascism, and oppression—these things only serve to undergird the notion that we are here to be keepers, rather than possessors, of the world and the people around us. In our broad places, we have access to the limitless resources needed to do our keeping well. We must not be satisfied to lay claim to the possessions—the cheap oil, unconscious consumerism, and seemingly easy democracy of the West—that surround us. If our understanding of the world can instead be informed by our role as keepers of the sacredness—the mystery of mortality, vulnerability of loving, and slow beauty of photosynthesis—around us, our concepts of ourselves and our relationships to the world are changed. No longer do we take; instead, we tend.

Lest we freak out to think that we are not enough (not good enough, intelligent enough, spiritual enough, moral enough, compassionate enough) to be keepers, it is important to remember that keeping is as natural an act as possessing. One does not have to go to school or basic training to be a keeper. Keeping is the natural response to wonderment. The task is not to “train” ourselves to learn how to take care of the sacred; instead, it is to clear out our lives and our psyches enough so that there is room left to feel wonder. If I am too fatigued to watch the lunar eclipse, I miss the wonder of that moment. At the same time, if I am too bent on justifying my existence by staying perpetually busy, I miss out on the wonderment of sleep—a physical response that is necessitated by the wonderment that is the human body. This is all to say that what it means to be a keeper looks different depending on who’s doing the keeping. There is no one way to “keep,” but doing so involves being actively passive, e.g., if one chooses to keep, one chooses not to possess, because keeping is about seeking to protect what is sacred, and possessing is about attempting to own what is ephemeral.

Indeed…it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Much of life is a vain attempt to possess objects (a person, a house, a car) that are mere symbols of what is sacred (intimacy, security, freedom) in this world. In the end, it is what we keep; what we care for, tend to, and respect, that defines us. What we possess, along with all of the energy that we put into its possession, merely dissolves into the nothingness from whence it came. To possess is to be easily satisfied with a life of predictability and boredom. To keep is to be open to the wild and unpredictable imagination of the cosmic Creator. If we truly are what we keep in our lifetimes, then we will leave this earth pregnant with the shining, shimmering multitudes of life and death and love that we have borne witness to while here on earth. Compared to a Maserati or a Gucci bag, I’d say that’s pretty dang good.

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