From out of the shattered ruins of a life, which may be any given
person’s life, speaks, from time to time, a triumphant voice which
is every person’s life, which is Every-man. The wilely Odysseus
escapes the clutches of Cyclops, Polyphemus, by playing the role of
No-man. Each of us wanders somewhere between No-man and Every-man.
We find the heroic at either extreme of this spectrum of Noman and
Everyman. But in the middle ground of the battlefield, the “No-
man’s Land”, we frequently encounter only what we see as failures
and disappointments and poor decisions. But then, “No-Man’s Lands”
are always dramatized by us as a place for inching along, our faces
in the mud, with a hail of bullets just above our heads. The
triumphant voice within these ruined lives we lead exhorts us to
continue in the face of every adversity and to never give up hope.
In the monastery of my youth, a portion of the Psalms was recited
each night in Church, in a low, solemn voice. The hundred and fifty
Psalms were read through completely each week in this fashion. I
would always pause and take notice of that verse which says, “I have
become like an owl in a ruined house” in Psalm 102:
3 For my days have vanished like smoke, and my bones have been
parched like a stick.
4 I am blighted like grass, and my heart is dried up; for I have
forgotten to eat my bread.
5 By reason of the voice of my groaning, my bones has cleaved to my
6 I have become like a pelican of the wilderness;
7 I have become like an owl in a ruined house. I have watched, and
have become as a sparrow dwelling alone on a roof.
8 All the day long my enemies have reproached me; and they that
praised me have sworn against me.
9 For I have eaten ashes as it were bread, and mingled my drink with
10 because of Your anger and Your wrath; for You have lifted me up,
and dashed me down.
11 My days have declined like a shadow; and I am withered like grass.
The symbolism of birds is popular. America is symbolized by the
proud, fierce eagle. The Holy Spirit is symbolized by a gentle
dove. It is the early bird which gets the worm. The criminal world
speaks of “stool pigeons.” Hunters used to use decoy pigeons fixed to
posts (stools) to lure their quarry. The term was later adopted to
describe people who helped the police by luring criminals into police
traps. It later came to mean anyone who helped the police by
informing on others.
Odysseus disguises himself as “No-Man” to escape accusation through
anonymity. When Cyclop’s companions hear his groans and asked “Who
is it that has harmed you?” Cyclops answered, “No-man has harmed
me!” Cyclop’s companions, falling into the linguistic trap which
Odysseus had set, assumed that no person at all had harmed Cyclops.
Noman = Outis = “no man” or “no one” in Greek. When the other
Cyclopes say, “Is some man is rustling your flocks” and “If no man is
hurting you” (9.404, 9.409), they use another Greek form of the
negative, m tis, which means “no one” or “no man.” This word sounds
very much like another Greek word–mtis–which means “cunning
intelligence,” and which forms part of Odysseus’s usual epithet
polymtis, or “much cunning intelligence.” Odysseus himself makes the
pun at 9.411-12, which might be more literally translated as: “my
heart within laughed / at how my name and faultless cunning [mtis]
had fooled him.” (9.402) Polyphemus –In Greek, “much telling”
or “much fame”in other words, a braggart.
But once Odysseus’s ship has reached the center of the harbor, with
freedom and safety just barely in his reach, Odysseus cannot resist
the temptation to confess his true identity and his deed of blinding
Polyphemus. The Cyclopes, enraged by the realization of the manner
in which they have been deceived, cast great stones at his ship,
almost sinking it.
The Holy Spirit is a stool pigeon in a way, a bird which decoys us
into confession and capture. Apostle Paul wrote, “All have sinned and
fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Each of us is a ruined house. Each of us pays the penalty of death.
Is it not curious how Christ resembles an Odysseus as a No-Man who
These strange words echo somewhere in the depths of my being, and I
listen and write them down.
I often feel overwhelmed by the ruin of my own life.
Just at this moment, I struggle to remember a name and a poem. It is
gone from my mind. All I can remember is “the old poet of the city”
and “Alexandria.” Lawrence Durrell wrote of him in “The Alexandrian
Quartet.” I search on these shattered fragments of memory, and
there is the name, “Cavafy.” Only search engines and technology make
such recollection possible.
And here is the poem of Cavafy that I seek:
You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, a better one than this.
Every effort of mine is a condemnation of fate;
and my heart is — like a corpse — buried.
How long will my mind remain in this wasteland.
Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look
I see black ruins of my life here,
where I spent so many years destroying and wasting.”
You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other –
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruinded it in the entire world.
I am reminded of the line from the song, “Hotel California:”
“You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave.”
Someone once conjectured that “checking out” refers to suicide.