|Take up your walking stick
And go out into the world
(Anne Carson in her introduction to "Herakles" in Grief Lessons.)
When people see me with my walking stick these days they ask what happened. A few have asked if the ironwood stick is a fashion statement, or if I actually need it. So I've been telling them, "I fell on my knees," and some of them wince. It's true that a month ago I did fall on my knees, then flat out on the concrete sidewalk leading up from the road to Casa Chiara. Often this leads to a discussion about care and watchfulness we need to practice as we age.
But one friend simply said, "Now you have fallen on your knees," repeating almost exactly what I'd said, but with far deeper meaning. We speak of falling on our knees before the sacred, the inexplicable, in an attitude or posture of existential wonder. We fall on our knees in humility, in recognition of the paradox of our being, the combination of mud and magnificence, of frailty and glory. We fall on our knees in grief over all we haven't understood, and in awe over what yet will come to be revealed.
Falling on my knees in such a physical way taught me something about spiritual falling that I hadn't considered until I was made aware of that larger dimension. I couldn't get up on my own. I couldn't walk on my own. I couldn't rise from a sitting position. I couldn't sit down once I was standing. In the space of a breath I lost my independence. To the rational mind all this appears obvious. Ask anyone. But when the fall actually happens the rational mind goes dark. The body expects to act as always and is surprised. We fall from pride. We fall from the illusion of independence. We fall from arrogance. We fall from self-centered inattention. We fall from anger and self-adulation and attempts to control. We fall, if we can see and accept it, out of our limited egos into love."
At every level of being life requires love and the help love gives. Falling teaches that. If John hadn't been across the road and seen me, and if he hadn't called our neighbor Cliff for help, I might still be lying there. The three of us leaned on each other.
In the myth even the strongest human ever to walk the earth falls. As Anne Carson explains in her introduction to her translation of Herakles by Euripides: "Herakles ... enters gloriously upright but is soon reduced to a huddled and broken form. His task in the last third of the play is to rise from this prostration, which he does with the help of Theseus. Euripides makes clear that Herakles exits at the end leaning on his friend...a new Heraklean posture...collaborative heroism."
"When I am weak, then I am strong," writes Paul of Tarsus. Why? Maybe in weakness, after the fall, my life-story disappears in the realization that I fabricated the whole thing. When I fall and am picked up and supported by love, the play ends. No more illusion. No more strength based on an invention that I am separate and sufficient unto myself. I am connected. I lean--upon my walking stick, upon my friend--whoever, in any moment, that turns out to be.