Small Screens, Big World

Easter in Florence, the fiction of Mark Helprin, and a Lent without glowing rectangles.

This article originally appeared in, 8 April 2015.

For some reason, any kind of fasting prompts questions about logistics. So, to start with the F.A.Q.:

Did you really turn off all screens for all of Lent? Mostly, yes. My laptop and tablet disappeared into a cabinet. I turned off my email altogether. Same with Twitter, Instagram, Feedly, and the rest of my familiar digital companions—all gone. I deleted nearly every app on my smartphone except those relating to weather and travel plans. And I kept my phone and message apps active to communicate with family and friends.

So it wasn’t a total fast. But compared to my normal life, in which a rectangle is glowing in front of me seven to nine hours a day, it was a dramatic and initially disorienting change.

In the absence of that constant digital flattery, feeling much smaller and less significant, I was more free to pay attention to the world I am called to love.

Wait. No email? How did you get your work done? Thanks to a six-month sabbatical that started in December, my daily email had already slowed from the usual deluge. I hired my teenage daughter as my administrative assistant and had her read and respond to especially urgent messages, but with rare exceptions I didn’t see or send a single email myself. I already have a well-established practice of turning my email off for two weeks every summer during our family vacation. This was just a longer version—only possible, to be sure, because I am taking an extended (unpaid) break from my usual work.

So what did you do with all that time? I practiced the piano seriously for the first time in twenty years—trying to learn Schumann’s dashing, difficult piano quintet in E-flat. I worked toward getting my 2000-meter rowing time under eight minutes and my consecutive pull-ups above 20. I read books, real books—though not as many as I had expected at the beginning of Lent. It turns out life has a way of filling up no matter how much you subtract, and there were plenty of family activities and neglected projects around the house. And, a few wonderful days, there was just quiet and an absence of hurry to get to the next thing.

I traveled during Lent, visiting family and friends in the U.S., spending two days on lectio divina and conversation with a friend in Canada, and finally, the last three weeks, taking an epic trip that the airlines might describe this way: EWR-HKG-BKK-SRP-PNH-BKK-LHR-CTA-FLR-FCO-PHL. The first leg of that trip was a pilgrimage of sorts to learn from people who serve vulnerable children in Cambodia and the Greater Mekong Subregion; the last leg, in Italy, was a pilgrimage of a different kind, shared with Catherine and our two children, who were touring Sicily singing Italian sacred music with their high school choir. Poverty, privilege, beauty, chaos, disappointment, delight—the whole dynamic range of our world. It was unforgettable and now, eighteen hours after our plane landed in Philadelphia, already seems a lifetime ago.

So are you going to write about your fast when you’re done? Yes, in a way, I am.

Among the books I read on my long plane flights over the past few weeks, the one that moved me the most was Mark Helprin’s 2004 collection, The Pacific and Other Stories. It is surprising how little known Helprin is among readers and writers, something that may be partly attributed to his unfashionably conservative views on political and especially military topics. (In addition to being educated at Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford, he served for a time in the Israeli defense forces.) But his fiction goes far deeper and broader than stereotypes of political conservatives would allow. I know no other writer, except Marilynne Robinson, who can craft such moving sentences in such simple words. Helprin’s language rarely calls attention to itself, but it never fails to make you pay deeper attention to the world and your own life. As I read the stories in The Pacific, I kept thinking I had to read them aloud to Catherine some day, but then I realized I cannot imagine reading Helprin’s work aloud without being incapacitated by tears.

In the short stories collected in The Pacific, originally published over several decades in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and other outlets, Helprin constructs pristine portraits of tragic and brave moments of decision. Some of his characters are absurdly accomplished in a New York Athletic Club way—a world-class solo sailor, a gorgeous operatic soprano, the owner and builder of a multi-million-dollar home on the Atlantic coast. Others are more ordinary—a young wife separated from her husband during the Second World War, a clerk working in a forgotten corner of a vast office building. But all of them confront the bottomless depth of tragedy that comes with every human life, even the most privileged, and the moral challenges that come from deciding whether to face that tragedy or turn away from it.

Critics of Helprin are sometimes frustrated by the fact that at those decisive moments, his characters invariably do the right thing. In this, too, he is an unfashionable writer. There is plenty of irony and skepticism in Helprin’s work, but there is not one drop of cynicism. (Here again he resembles Robinson.) His characters choose paths of courage and sacrifice that leave you breathless and shaken at what it takes to live faithfully in this broken world.

And I do mean “faithfully” quite particularly. In most of Helprin’s stories God appears by name, and as a central subject, both in the characters’ lives and in the narratives’ logic. (Though Helprin is Jewish—I am not sure whether he is in any way observant—he spells out God’s name in English, including the vowel, in the usual manner.) The way Helprin weaves God’s name and character into his stories would be unremarkable to most human beings who have ever lived, but it is striking given Helprin’s cosmopolitan themes and our secular age.

In a few stories, God’s presence and action is unmistakable. In the most memorable story in the collection, “Perfection,” God intervenes spectacularly and hilariously on behalf of Mickey Mantle and the 1956 New York Yankees. In most of these stories, however, while God is frequently acknowledged and sometimes invoked, he also fails to appear—or, at least, he fails to act. The challenge for Helprin’s characters, in a way that perhaps only a Jewish writer can fully convey, is to choose the good in spite of God’s apparent absence, inaction, and terrifying patience with evil. It is some measure of Helprin’s skill as a writer that, more often than not, he overcomes our cynicism to make their courage believable.

Helprin’s short stories and novels often cross the line into magical realism, the literary technique pioneered by Gabriel García Márquez that combines fantastic elements with matter-of-fact, even mundane narration. His novel Winter’s Tale features a flying horse, a seemingly immortal main character, and the transfiguration of New York City into a gleaming city of gold—and yet in another sense it is entirely about the very real New York City of geography and history. In the stories in The Pacific and in other novels like A Soldier of the Great War, Helprin generally applies a subtler touch. His genius lies in how long it takes you to realize he has crossed the line between reality and fantasy, and indeed to be unsure of where the line actually lies. A scrawny Hasidic kid hits home run after home run from the plate at Yankee Stadium? Obviously that cannot, and did not, happen. But the tale begins perfectly believably in the transplanted shtetls of 1950s Brooklyn. Where exactly does the possible become impossible? Even the most careful reader will have a hard time answering the question.

The life of any person of serious faith has that exact quality. Late in March, in a French bistro in London’s posh Sloane Square, I shared an order of escargot with an English friend. A Christian, he lives and works among London’s global elite—people who would not be out of place in a Helprin story. Our conversation turned to Charles Taylor’s influential book A Secular Age, and James K. A. Smith’s helpful summary of it in his book How (Not) to be Secular. “That is the challenge of living in this city,” he said. “I live among people completely captured by Taylor’s ‘immanent frame.’ Yet I have seen God do things, supernatural things, things so incredible I could never recount them in this café.” As have I—there are a handful of moments in my life of grace and divine intervention so unmistakable and so holy I would never violate them by speaking casually of them, or speaking of them at all.

Yet here we are, in a world that seems at first—and second—glance to tick along just fine on its own. Well, actually, not “just fine” at all. But on its own, certainly. Some of us are not like so many secular elites (including, perhaps, Helprin himself), haunted by a distant memory of God. We are convinced of him, as sure as we can be of something so fantastic as the Bible’s story of creation, fall, redemption, resurrection, and eventual restoration. Yet in the world as it we have it, maybe that just makes us haunted all the more.

The first book I read by Helprin, several years ago, was A Soldier of the Great War, a novel of epic size and scope that attempts to do justice to one Italian man’s conscription and service in World War I. When I finished the book, I sat in silence for half an hour. I thought later, and still am tempted to think, that I would never fully trust any pastor who had not read it. That seems unreasonable, though, given all the worthy and unread books in the world. Put it this way: I do not think I can trust anyone to tell me the truth about God, myself, and the world if I suspect they wouldn’t care if they did read A Soldier of the Great War. There is just too much tragedy and terror, as well as beauty and grace, in Helprin’s story for anyone entrusted with others’ souls to treat it carelessly.

In its closing pages Alessandro, the old soldier, tries to help his young companion grasp the real human cost of war:

“Look up at the Perseids. You can see them flashing many times a second. They reach the end of their long and silent journeys almost more quickly you can note, but if you watch them for hours you will not see the casualties of even one group of [military] divisions.

“Each of the flashes is like the life of a man… . It would take more than anyone could give to understand the life of one other person—we cannot understand even our own lives—and more energy and compassion than is humanly possible to commemorate even a single life that ends in such a death.

“You cannot know anything but the smallest part of the love, regret, excitement, and melancholy of one of those quick flashes. And two? And three? At two you have entered the realm of abstraction… .”

Helprin’s challenge to us, through Alessandro, is to avoid abstraction—to do full justice to life, one life at a time, this life in which God is so unmistakably present and so achingly absent, this person before me in whom his image is so fully and so incompletely expressed, this moment that offers me the choice of courage or cowardice.

And this is how, at last, I come back to the fast I kept, imperfectly, during Lent. To rise to our calling in the world, as only characters in Helprin’s fiction unfailingly do, requires a fullness of attention that is the very opposite of what our screens foist upon us. What I gained from my fast, in the day to day life at home as much as the dramatic travel, was a small measure of attention. An ability to calm the noise enough to read and cry over a story, or to listen with a friend to one short passage of Scripture read over and over, four times with long silences in between. And the prerequisite for that kind of attention—though I would not want to exaggerate how much I managed to attain it—was a sense of my own smallness.

There is a lot of talk about the ways our devices are distracting us, and that is certainly true. Having spent several weeks away from it all, I’m a bit aghast at how much buzzing and blinking, how many notifications and messages, how much unasked-for stimulation, I’ve let creep into my life over the past few years. But there’s something deeper than just the sheer variety and urgency of data that presents itself to us. The issue is not just cognitive. The deeper danger of our screens, I am coming to think, is flattery.

Our screens, increasingly, pay a great deal of attention to us. They assure us that someone, or at least something, cares. The mediated world constantly falls over itself to tell us, often in entirely automated ways, that we matter every bit as much as we secretly hope we do. They tell us we are liked, retweeted, favorited—that we are significant, useful, and urgently needed. Every generation of devices gets better at this, becomes less a persnickety, recalcitrant technician (does anyone remember the exacting syntax of command-line interfaces?) and more and more an utterly dedicated, ingratiating concierge for our preferred future.

The unmediated world does not flatter us in this way. Stand on a deserted seashore and the creation pays you no evident attention, except perhaps for a few creatures that alter their paths to keep a safe distance. Even our fellow human beings rarely flatter us with the attention we think we deserve. Walk down a street in Hong Kong or Phnom Penh or London or Rome, and unless you are young and beautiful, or possibly rich, no one will pay you the slightest heed. And youth and beauty, even wealth, are fleeting things. I never was beautiful, but I have had some success, enough to know that even at the heights of attention, when the whole room is looking at you, smiling at you, standing and applauding you, the overwhelming experience of life as a human being is smallness and disregard. There is a hunger for attention that all the selfies in the world will never fill, a hunger that only grows as our mediated world breathlessly offers more and more ways to call attention to ourselves.

So the real gift of my absence from screens was that nothing was paying attention to me. Of course my wife and children and friends did, graciously, continue to attend to me (along with gracious hosts in the countries I visited over the past few weeks). But not in the relentless, addictive way that devices do. And in the absence of that constant digital flattery, feeling much smaller and less significant, I was more free to pay attention to the world I am called to love.

At the end of the fast there was Easter, the ultimate magical realist day. It is firmly situated within history, as Jerusalem teeters on the edge of its own destruction, a predicament far more terrible than any that Mickey Mantle’s Yankees ever faced. Its events are presented in the gospels with utter realism—the confusion of the first witnesses, the fear of the women, the perplexity of every encounter with the risen Lord. And yet the claim is that a young Jewish man, in that very specific time and place, conquered death itself, winning Israel’s greatest battle on behalf of us all.

This claim would seem to be fantastical nonsense, given that just a few decades later Roman armies razed the city from top to bottom, given that the Temple has never been rebuilt and probably never in this world will be rebuilt—it would seem to be nonsense except for the fact that history turned on the axis of that day, that we live in a world that for all its awful evidence of God’s patience with evil is now also charged with a kind of grace and hope that no pagan ever could have imagined. The Roman gods and their superficial magic are remembered only in ruins. The children of Abraham’s faith are as countless as the stars of the sky. And we live, all of us, in the light of what the Narnia books call the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time.”

Catherine and I were in Florence on Easter weekend, which sounds wonderful and was, though we were there for a tragic reason. The friends we had planned to stay with, further south in Italy, had been called back to America by the worst of news. Their 18-year-old granddaughter, brimming with beauty and skill and life, had been killed in a car accident. They were keeping company with their son and daughter-in-law in Texas, shattered by grief. So we hastily booked a little room in Florence for the holy days.

On Saturday night we went to the Easter vigil at a small English church in the heart of the city. Liturgically speaking, it was frankly a mess—a tiny, motley congregation, a bewildering array of service leaflets in the C of E fashion, a comically bad organist who turned the Easter hymns into unsteady dirges. But there were still the readings, from Creation through Exodus through Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Jonah into the astonishing and raw testimony of Mark’s gospel. There was a mercifully short and heartening sermon. And there was the bread and cup—this resurrection night, white wine instead of red—and the alleluias and the blessing. The small congregation scattered into the night, into cold, dark, and rain, perhaps more like the disciples on that very first Easter than we had any right to be.

The next morning dawned unseasonably cold and cloudy, but free of rain, so we bundled up to make our way to the city center. For more than five hundred years the city of Florence has marked Easter with what may be the most bizarre and brilliant ceremony the medieval mind ever conceived, “Il Scoppio del Carro,” which is to say, the explosion of the cart. Four massive white oxen, seven feet at the withers and crowned with flowers, draw a multi-storied medieval cart into the Piazza del Duomo, preceded by drummers and trumpeters and flag bearers. There, in front of the cathedral doors, the cart is laden with fireworks while the Easter Sunday High Holy Mass begins. At the moment when the archbishop intones the opening lines of the Gloria, a golden dove sails down a guy wire from the high altar of the church—I swear I am not making this up—flies out the front door, and collides with the cart, igniting a succession of fuses that set off round after round of spectacular soaring, spinning fireworks and explosion after deafening explosion—all, somehow, without any lasting harm to the cart itself, which like Moses’ bush blazes but is not consumed.

This goes on for a good fifteen minutes—completely upstaging, one can only imagine, the Mass that is continuing inside the cathedral—in a riot of color and light and noise, to the cheers of as many people as can squeeze into the square. And then there is one final fusillade of explosions, the smoke drifts away, and after a suitable pause the drummers and dignitaries make way for the oxen to reverse their course, the now slightly battered cart rocking to and fro as it retreats over the cobblestones.

There may be, as a friend says, no seven words in the English language less true than, “If you build it, they will come,” but I think you could make a good case for, “If you blow it up, they will come.” Thousands were crammed in to the plaza with barely enough room to breathe—”come sardine, like sardines,” the man behind us said. This being Europe, the crowd was polyglot, stylish, and as secular as can be—one hundred fifty miles south, St. Peter’s Square may have been throbbing with devotion, but this crowd, as far as I could tell, was there strictly for the spectacle.

And this being 2015, a sea of smartphones, held aloft on selfie sticks, mediated the moment. A thousand screens bobbed over the heads in front of us. Go to YouTube or Flickr and see for yourself—all of them captured it. But I will tell you this: None of them captured it. Because it was louder, and brighter, and indeed more wonderful and more terrifying, which is to say more real, than anything a device can record or represent.

And this is why I had to fast. This is why we all must learn to fast as our screens worm their way closer and closer to our heads and our hearts—not because screens are bad, but because the world is better. Well, also because the world is worse. Because we ourselves are better and worse than we know, than we will ever know if we do not choose something other than our devices’ default settings—always on, always engaging, always flattering, but never truthful.

Only life in the body we are given, in the world we are given, can be fully truthful. Of course, life in the body, in this world, is frequently awful and lonely. But that itself is part of the truth our devices promise—or threaten—to conceal. And the world is charged, too, with a deeper magic, the deeper magic that will outlast the shallow magic of our technology as surely as it outlasted the shallow magic of Rome. That, also, is truth our devices will never fully tell.

There we were, five thousand sardines with selfie sticks, and in our presence—in and only in our embodied presence, I tell you—the cart blazed and banged and shook as the archbishop sang in the church, “Glory to God in the highest,” and we were small and short and would be gone in the blink of an eye, and still there we were as the world, terrible and glorious as a fusillade of rockets, was illuminated by an ancient and everlasting light.