An Owl In A Ruined House

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 very-man.
We find the heroic at either extreme of this spectrum of No-man 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 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.

The symbolism of birds is popular. America is symbolized by the proud, fierce eagle. The church 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.

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.

These strange words echo from somewhere in the depths of my being, and I quietly 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:

The City

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 ruined it in the entire world.

– C. P. Cavafy

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.


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