The Far Corners of God's Kingdom

Author: Nancy Mairs

I am not especially sanguine about humanity’s prospects. Our technological capabilities have now so far outstripped our moral development that it seems likely we really will blow ourselves up with nuclear devices or suffocate ourselves with petrol fumes or poison ourselves with chemical waste or do ourselves in by some means we haven’t yet devised.

There’s no reason to think that the human species is going to survive over the long term or to view our extinction as an outrage. The cosmos is infinite, and events will keep unfolding forever. One of them might be a minute flare toward the edge of a small galaxy, signaling our passage.

“If you believe that we may be approaching the end,” a friend asks, “how can you keep up your activism? Why don’t you just give up?”

“I guess I’m just cussed,” I reply. “I’m damned if I’m going to let my behavior be shaped by warmongers and death-dealers. As long as I resist them, I bear witness to another way of being in the world.”

I do not doubt the existence, in the here and now, of the condition variously referred to as the kingdom of God, the reign of God, God’s imperial rule or, more recently, the kindom of God. When I first heard this final phrase, I dismissed it as too cute and touchy-feely to be used seriously, but it’s grown on me over time. It shifts the emphasis from God’s domination over us to God’s relationship with us and ours with one another. If God is, among the many things God is, Abba (and Amma) for us all, then we are spiritual siblings as surely as mitochondrial DNA shows us to be biological ones. In which case, we would do well to stop behaving like a dysfunctional family and find ways to strengthen one another.

I’m not suggesting that we strive toward that persistent and pernicious myth, “one big happy family.” In fact, I think that’s where we keep going wrong. We hold out for some Life with Father scenario, which God is going to produce for us in some far future if only we’re good enough. (The baddies will get tossed into a fiery furnace. Unless all of us burn ourselves up in a fiery furnace of our own device, of course.) While we’re holding out for perfection, we hold ourselves back from the work required to establish and enter the state of which Jesus says, “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s imperial rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it” [Gnostic Gospel of Thomas 113:2-4. It’s here all right. The trick is discernment.

You can enter it at will, any time, wherever you are. The key word is “will.” It’s not like a house with open doors or a city with open gates, which you have only to occupy. It’s more like the hammer and nails, the stones and mortar from which houses and cities can be constructed. It’s a process. It’s work. A few people have a lot of stamina and can keep at it without cease. I think of Mother Teresa. Like most, I manage it only fitfully, though more often and for longer periods as I practice. I concentrate on the simplest of rules, codified traditionally as the seven corporal works of mercy:

To feed the hungry. To give drink to the thirsty. To clothe the naked. To visit and ransom the captives. To shelter the homeless. To visit the sick. To bury the dead.

One is supposed to perform these acts in order to secure the eternal salvation of one’s soul. Personally, I’m not concerned about my salvation. My salvation is a question to be settled at another time. I’m concerned about the sheer bodily salvation of humanity. But since I am unable to grasp, either physically or intellectually, the whole of humanity, I have to go about it one person at a time.

Here are a few places I go where I know God lives:

Su Casa. The gate is always locked, because some of the residents wander. One of them, a sweet-faced woman wearing several layers of clothing, hovers near as a worker turns her key to let George and me in.

“Are you going to take me with you?” the woman asks. I can’t tell whether she’s hopeful or apprehensive.

“No,” I tell her. “I’ve come to visit.” She remains by the gate as I wheel onto the patio. A man with flyaway white hair and bulging blue eyes thrusts himself into my path and grasps my hand.

“I’m sorry for your trouble,” he says, glancing at my wheelchair and then staring into my eyes. “I will pray for you.”

“Thank you. I will pray for you, too.”

“Peace be with you.”

“And also with you,” I reply, extricating my hand from his light but persistent grasp and turning so as not to run over his toes. I head down the slope, past a large bed of jonquils, to the building where Sharon lives, one of three assisted-living units that surround Su Casa’s Tucson, Arizona, nursing home.

When I go in, the television is playing to a living room empty but for a puff of smoky fur named Silverbell, who is not watching. Sharon’s room is at the end of a narrow hallway. I tap and then push open the door. She has been sleeping, and I apologize for waking her, but she quickly rolls over and works her way into her wheelchair, chattering eagerly. Like me, she has multiple sclerosis. Although her speech is severely slurred, she appears to be cognitively intact. Since most of the residents plainly are not, she doesn’t get much conversation except with the workers, when they can spare the time, and with me for an hour on Tuesday afternoons. She has four sons, but they live in other states and refuse to visit, she says, for fear of catching her disease. Her sister comes from Alaska about once a year.

“I gotta have a cigarette,” she says, calling an aide to push her. A power chair would make life easier for both her and the staff. I wonder whether I should look into how she could get one. I don’t want to be pushy. Bad pun. We wheel back up to the patio, where another aide circulates like a cigarette girl in an old film, but dumpier, doling out cigarettes and lighting them on demand. Everyone here seems to smoke, and the air under the ramada is rank. This seems odd in a health facility, but the staff may figure that these people have little enough pleasure in their lives—and anyway, several of them light up too.

George is talking with Tim, a man in his 40s, once a construction worker, with a wife and children. The damage caused by surgery for a brain aneurysm has skewed his social judgment, and he tends to act toward me like a teasing adolescent, blocking my wheelchair with his large, soft body, asking me what George has got that he hasn’t. Having found out that Tim loves jokes, George has brought a sheaf of them from the Internet, and Tim happily regales us.

After about an hour, we say our goodbyes. One day I will probably live in a place like this, but for now, by the grace of George, I can still wheel out the gate and across the street to our van and so home to our pretty little house.

“Thanks for coming,” Sharon says when I leave.

“Thanks for letting me visit,” I reply. I mean it. I don’t think I’m very good at this. Reclusive by inclination, I have to force myself out of that pretty little house every week.

Maybe Sharon feels the same way about me. Oh groan, here comes that dumb volunteer again, and I’ll have to be nice to her for a whole hour. But after Sharon has spent an hour with me, my spirits lift. My reclusion then strikes me as self-indulgent, the habit developed by a woman with a long history of agoraphobia in order to deflect the discomfort she feels in social settings. Personal comfort has no particular value for the work of affirming God’s presence in the world. I can’t think of a single instance in the Gospels when Jesus says to his followers, “Make yourselves comfortable.” On the contrary.

SMU II. The road leading from Tucson to the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence slices across hot open desert, and at a distance the buildings and watchtowers shimmer like a mirage. By the time you turn off the highway onto Butte Avenue, they have solidified, squatting in clusters — East Unit, CB6, Cook, Rynning, the Special Management Units (SMU I and II). Each is grimmer than the last. At SMU II you run out of road. You have reached, in every way, the end of the line. The structure is a windowless dark-gray concrete bunker, surrounded by two 20-foot fences topped with giant loops of razor wire. You can’t just walk into this place. Or, needless to say, out. Until the last 24 to 48 hours, when an inmate is moved to the Death House.

Each time George and I come up here, we approach reluctantly. We’ve grabbed lunch at Burger King, the only nearby eatery, but even the unaccustomed Whopper and fries doesn’t account for the churning in our stomachs. We’ve stopped at the prison store, which sells clothing, art and jewelry produced by the prisoners. Except for the men on death row, who aren’t allowed to possess any materials with which they might fashion anything. One, I know, painstakingly unravels his socks and weaves the fibers into crosses, which he smuggles to a woman who sells them, giving him a tiny and erratic income. George wears one under his clothing until the threads give way and he has to put on a new one. Sometimes at the store we buy flannel-lined denim jackets, crudely made but warm, for the homeless people who eat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel and Free Kitchen, run by Tucson’s Catholic Workers.

We’ve driven through the guarded gate, stopping to show our IDs, and wound past one unit after another until we’ve pulled into this enormous and nearly empty asphalt parking lot. We’ve stripped my wheelchair of the nylon pouches I use in lieu of a briefcase or backpack. George has removed his car key and tossed the rest of his keys under the seat. It’s 2 p.m. Time to go in.

“We’re here to see Eric King,” we say to the guard (they call themselves officers), handing over our IDs and receiving badges in return. George steps through a metal detector as another guard wands me, and we join a silent little cluster by the rear door. I’m forever breaking the dress code. The first time I came, I wore a peach-colored silk blouse and was told it was too close to the international orange worn by the prisoners. I also had a string of carved bears around my neck, and all jewelry is forbidden except for earrings and religious symbols. Fortunately, the young female guard, perhaps sensing that I was a novice, declared that my blouse wasn’t really orange and that bears, because they are sacred to many Native peoples, were acceptable. Another time, a different guard wasn’t so indulgent. Because I was wearing a sleeveless top, also forbidden (I hadn’t read the dress code in a while), I would have to stay behind. We had nothing in the car but an old rubber-backed rug, so I spent two sweltering hours with that wrapped around my naked shoulders. The purpose of such restrictions is to prevent gang paraphernalia or provocative dress, of course, but you’d think that few people would mistake me for a cholo or a tart.

When we’ve all been screened, the door in front of us unlocks and a guard escorts us into the space between the fences; the next door doesn’t unlock until the one behind us clicks. We troop across a yard defoliated of even a stray desert weed, truly scorched, and into a vestibule leading to the two visitation rooms. These are dim spaces lined with glass cubicles, each faced by two plastic chairs, and a guard at a desk in the center.

“There he is!” I say, peering swiftly from window to window until I make out Eric’s black face smiling at us. “I need a hug,” he said to me in one of his letters, and I long to throw my arms around him, but death row inmates are never permitted contact visits, not even a farewell embrace before being led to execution. We touch palms through the thick glass and begin to chat. A sensitive microphone conveys our voices, but George, who is normally soft-spoken, tends to shout, as though sheer volume could break down the barriers— not just physical but educational, economic, experiential—between us.

Eric is a large, soft 40-year-old with terrible teeth. “I am always hungry,” he often writes, and although he complains about the food, he eats it, I’m sure, attempting to fill his emptiness. I’m afraid he spends the small money orders we send from time to time on sweets from the prison store. He refuses to exercise, either in his cell or in the small high-walled area to which he could go, alone, for an hour three times a week. He cannot see but can hear the inmates around him, but he refuses to converse with them. He has a television, and once in a while he attempts to read. Months go by between visits from us or from his elderly mother; those of his 10 siblings who aren’t also incarcerated refuse to come.

As a consequence of his isolation, his conversational skills are rusty. At first, we couldn’t make it through the full two hours allotted because the antipsychotic medication he was taking made him so drowsy that his words would trail off and his eyelids droop. More recently he’s been refusing the drugs. The voices haven’t come back, he reports, and we find him definitely more alert. We’re even surprised when the guard notifies us that the visit must end. As we “hold hands,” George says a prayer of thanksgiving for our friendship. Wrung out, George and I plunge into the desert glare. Probably equally wrung out, Eric will be led, in shackles, back to the 8-by-10 space that will be his only “house” until he dies. Letters will pass between us, but months will go by before we steel ourselves for another drive up Highway 79.

Nothing in my religious upbringing prepared me for finding God, wearing an orange T-shirt and locked in a wire cage, grinning in pure delight at the sight of me. Immortal, invisible and wise, God was wholly removed from humanity, a stern and judgmental parent whom we all-but-vainly prayed to please. Whatever an " incarnate Word" might have been, it certainly didn’t have anything to do with bodies. Coming to believe, as experience and reflection have taught me to do, that each of us is responsible for bearing God into the world, I must accept that this task falls to Eric every bit as much as it falls to me.

Not that Eric is God, any more than you or I are. But we each provide a means for God to manifest Godself to our dull senses. Having spent well over half his life in prison, convicted of sexual assault and murder, Eric might be said to have had more limited success than most at realizing the Holy in his being; nor, under the extreme circumstances in which he is incarcerated, is he likely to get much better at it. But his essential value is unimpaired. I don’t understand this. I only know it.

Even here, God lives.

The Corner of Speedway and Euclid. On Fridays I dress in black, sit on a street corner, and smile at the occupants of every car that drives by, practicing what may be the world’s truly oldest profession: peacemaking. So far we are still here, aren’t we, no thanks to the guys wielding everything from rocks and clubs through maces and long bows and muskets to bombs that are smarter than they are. We’ve been standing here from time immemorial. We’ll never “win” against them. For us, human experience is not constructed around victory and defeat. We simply are. And through our being, we affirm the possibility of looking at the world in another way.

Every week since August 2001, at 5 o’clock on Friday afternoons, a group calling itself Women in Black gathers in front of the First Christian Church at one of Tucson’s busiest intersections. Modeled after vigils that were started in Israel in 1988 and have since spread around the globe, the group was formed by a handful of activists to protest against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. After the events of September 11, the focus broadened to a plea for peace everywhere. In the early days, perhaps only a dozen people showed up. Now we get as many as 100.

You don’t have to wear black to attend our vigil. You don’t even have to be a woman. Although many of us engage in religious practices—offhand, I can think of Catholics, Jews, Friends, Unitarian Universalists, Muslims, Presbyterians and Congregationalists—the only commitment required is to nonviolence. This diversity reflects an important point about God’s kingdom that tends to be ignored: The kingdom comes about not because people espouse a prescribed set of principles (too often thought by their believers as the One True Faith), adherence to which will produce a desired result (generally involving the salvation of some but by no means all of creation), but because they behave in ways that enable all creation to thrive. God draws no distinctions among the multitudinous stripes of Christianity, Buddhism, secular humanism or Jainism (though if I were God I might confess a secret weakness for the Jains). God appears whenever any of these use their beliefs to guide themselves toward such behavior.

We stand well back from the street, leaving the sidewalk clear for pedestrians. Some situations call for civil disobedience, but this is not one of them. Those who prefer a silent vigil stand along Speedway, the chatters stand along Euclid. I prefer silence, although the sun drives me around the corner in the summer. Even there, I try to stay out of conversations. This is the one hour in my week in which to focus my whole attention on peace. The people around me hold up signs and banners. Because my weak hands can’t hold anything, I have fashioned a sign out of thick posterboard that can be hung on a lanyard around my neck, white letters painted on a black ground: WAGE PEACE. A mantra suggests itself to me. Sometimes it’s “Be brave. Wage peace.” I repeat this silently, trying to look at individual motorists as I do, to smile at them, to remind and reassure them that even though the government is determined at all costs (and God knows how high these will turn out to be) to wage war, theirs is only a choice, not an inevitability. Some of us will act otherwise. Other times, I admonish myself: “Think peace. Speak peace. Do peace. Be peace.” Or I just hum a peace song. No one can hear my thin tremolo over the roar of buses, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles and automobiles, many of them honking in support, else I’d die of embarrassment.

Every so often, a (generally adolescent male) voice shouts, “F—- you!” or “War! War!” and once we even got mooned. It has occurred to me, in a world where firearms proliferate, that one of us might get shot. Grit coats my teeth. Fumes sting my eyes. God is here.

These examples of my own work and witness demonstrate a couple of points. For one thing, the entrance to the kingdom is neither hidden nor barred. Those who teach otherwise are trying to mystify the way for a variety of reasons, most of them not very admirable. The truth is that if large numbers of perfectly ordinary people began to take care of each other and the creation in which we are all embedded, a lot of people who trade in human misery would lose their access to wealth and supremacy, which are not elements of the kingdom.

I place emphasis on “ordinary.” The fact that a few individuals in every age have been exceptionally proficient at performing works of mercy (think of Mother Teresa) or at witnessing to human wrongs and calling for their correction (think of Martin Luther King, Jr.) does not mean that these require superhuman skills. Even the least among us can perform small and often pedestrian acts of good will: buying disposable diapers for a mother who can’t afford them; spreading peanut butter on day-old bread at the soup kitchen; reading stories to preschoolers at the library; scooping up the poop of other people’s dogs; telephoning your representatives, the president and your elderly mother. Smiling. It’s very difficult to harbor hatred and fear with the corners of your mouth turned up. Don’t wait until you have something to smile about, because you might have to wait a good long time. Just do it.

To the greatest extent you can, take care of the wider world as well. George and I have been able to buy a small, thick-walled house with solar hot water, photovoltaic cells for generating electricity, and xeriscaping so as to conserve natural resources. We have friends who have traded their gas-guzzlers for hybrids. (Unfortunately, a hybrid wheelchair-accessible van hasn’t yet been engineered, so we’re still slurping away.) One principled couple we know buys only goods made in the USA, refusing to participate in the exploitation of poor laborers around the globe. Buy your clothing from secondhand stores and your produce from local growers. If you employ any workers, make sure you pay them whatever the living (not the minimum) wage is in your area. With any luck, some people will follow your example. Many more will not. Don’t worry. You can pray for but you cannot effect conversion in others. Attend to your own.

The kingdom, insofar as we can enter it, is not a place or a space or a state of perfect ease. It is a process, and not necessarily a comfortable one. It is what you do, not where you are. In fact, if you find yourself thoroughly comfortable, you have probably veered away from it into a complacent or distracted condition, which is not intrinsically bad but is beside the point.

To tell the truth, you don’t have all the time in the world. Why waste any more of it than you have to? The frailty of human nature dictates that we will always fill up our hours and our spirits with spiritual rubbish unless we pay more attention to good housekeeping than most of us generally do. Don’t wait! Wake up! Listen! The more often you practice the kingdom, the more aware you become that the Holy is present. In pain. In sorrow. In terror. In delight. Even though you will die, and I will die, and one day, even if we don’t destroy it, the earth itself will die, the Holy endures, unfolding, always and everywhere.

Nancy Mairs, a poet and essayist living in Tucson, has published eight books, among them Ordinary Time, Waist-High in the World and A Troubled Guest.