At least once or twice a week I dash out of my apartment having forgotten something vital to the day’s schedule: computer charger, cell phone, lunch, paper with impending due date and, on the most invigorating of occasions, my keys. Most of the time when this happens I am lucky to find that my forgetfulness is two-fold and I’d also failed to lock the door; so the catastrophe is short lived. But sometimes I’m not saved the grace of ineptitude and my keys sit behind a locked door.
Such was the case on one recent occasion when my wife and I were going out for the evening. We’d gotten all the way to our car in the parking lot when I realized our keys weren’t in my pocket.
“Can you hand me the keys, babe?” I asked her, hoping for the best.
She looked back at me with a expression akin to frustrated parents of toddlers that consistently fail to grasp the concept of potty training.
“You said you had them.”
“Did I now?”
“Yes. Right before you made sure that I locked the door.”
I wish I could say the world was beautiful and leave it at that. But I cannot lie. And as much as I cannot lie, I can hardly open my eyes without having to confront the persistence of evil that blots itself upon the beauty surrounding me, like cigarette burns on a wedding dress. I open the fridge and find death and decay has begun its work on some cheese or an expired bottle of milk. I read news of an apartment building that burned to the ground two towns over, flames licking the life out of seven residents in the middle of the night. I walk down the street and the carcass of a squirrel attracts maggots on the side of the road; flies zip their death dance around it’s crushed and bloody skull. If I lean in, and look close, I see no beauty in it’s startled eyes. I just see hell.
Our human inclination is to build walls of rationality to keep out the invasion of hell in our world. We install security systems and buy insurance plans, look both ways before crossing the street and take multi-vitamins to slow our own decay. Meanwhile we’re all bracing ourselves, waiting for the next cannon shot of evil to breach our walls: a dreaded phone call,a tornado touching down, or just a harsh and sinister word from a voice in our own heads. We grant ourselves sanitized excuses for self-preservation and lock the door against the very idea of hell.
C.S. Lewis, reflecting on the work of John Milton, stated his belief that the gates of hell are locked from the inside. They’re locked and for extra emphasis we hung a sign on the outside that says “Keep Out!!!” scratched in a color eerily similar to that of our own blood. We push ourselves to deny the hell that required the cross. But in attempting to lock hell out, we also lock out the reality of heaven and our unceasing need for grace. We lock out ourselves.
My fear is that I have not only been dulled into losing sight of the beauty that surrounds me, but that I have also lost sight of the pain. Normality is an anecdote for reality, a numbing shot into my conscience so I can keep my hand near the frying pan without thinking anything might happen. I do not like to believe hell is real though it exists all around me.
And if the artist’s role is to proclaim the beauty that often goes unseen, then they must also give credence to the bleak pain surrounding us; they must sound the alarm of horror that goes unheard when we stroll through life with headphones on. Writers, prophets, pastors, painters and poets are all discredited if they sing only of beauty; like an opera singer who can only function in the major key.
The screaming agony of the cross is the easel upon which the picture of grace is painted. The two must never be separated and the former cannot be ignored.
I had to make a call to our landlord and wait for fifteen minutes to get back into the apartment. After retrieving the keys, I returned to my wife who was waiting patiently by the car and I tried to grin in a “I may poop my pants but aren’t I oh-so-very cute?” manner. She smiled back gracefully.
And isn’t that what it all comes down to? Isn’t that our only hope? For we’ve locked our hearts from the inside, inundating ourselves to the beauty outside, content with the evil within.
But then again, I got my keys back. And pain, hell and suffering, may be real. But grace also exists.
And it has never been locked away.