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Was there ever a time when “poet” was a legitimate job description? Maybe, centuries ago, you could get a gig as a court poet, or have a de Medici support you as a contribution to the arts. Sadly, today, the de Medicis among us have very little use for poetry. It is a gift, but not a commodity. And spiritual poetry, alas, with its propensity to probe and question, comfort yet cause unease, is relegated to the bottom of the artistic heap. This can disheartening, yet I can’t stop an intense desire to live within the world of words (however imperfectly I receive them) that God supplies so temptingly and freely.
I ask for tongues of fire:
Underneath there is heat,
to melt me to the bone.
If I could bury myself in poetry,
I might burn righteously,
pure as glass, pious as
a Lutheran steeple.
But poetry is no place to live,
even for church mice.
No one subsists on words,
even if they roll off the tongue
like buttered toffee.
I must be content
to live in the world of man.
Secretly, however, I burn.
Life is hard. There’s no denying it. But during this Easter season, we are reminded that there is proof of the resurrection all around us.
Friends will betray you
they will dine beside you
then sell you out for silver.
The road will always be uphill
and the load will nearly break you.
(Others can ease it, briefly,
but they cannot die for you.)
You will taste sweat, blood, bitter
liquid; your body will snap, sag,
breach and be broken. You will die,
One has gone before
holding hope in his hands like a loaf of bread.
Even as you close your eyes
to all of this, you will open them again.
Like an Easter lily, you will wear white.
Like Easter morning, you will be born.
There is a very real phenomenon called “Jerusalem Syndrome”: Someone visits the Holy Land and experiences a psychotic break, fraught with religious obsession. Obviously, this isn’t something one would wish on anyone, but it illustrates rather vividly how some places can overwhelm us with their deep spiritual “footprints.” Some places simply seem more touched by God than others. I was in one of these places last weekend, and it provoked a poetic response:
There are places God has glanced
with lightest touch of hand, some swept,
palm to earth, and some in which God’s hand
sinks into soil like a sculptor’s hand in clay, that shout,
“Here I’ve sent saints; look the proof is all around you.”
And the heart stills, stops, halts — no, you are not
on the moon; the ground grasses green, sky pulses blue,
the smell of the place is ancient but known. And yet.
The silence is deeper, divine, the air crowded with
exemplary souls, and you want to join them —
shrug off your body like an old coat and disappear
into ether. Pierced to the root, overcome by a sun
that seems more heavenward than most, you
fill your lungs with quavering promise and slide
between worlds as easy as a body entering water.
If you could only stay, you would be saved.
“I had to break away from her,” my friend Alice tells me over the phone about someone she once called a friend. Alice isn’t the only one. Lots of folks lately seem to be dealing with toxic people. You know them. We meet them everywhere in the jungle of life. Some are outright predators; others hang back, like vultures, waiting to sink their talons into the weak and weary. The hardest part of dealing with toxic people is that maybe only you see that person for what they truly are. The rest of the gnus keep grazing, blissfully unaware. Yet God commands us to love everyone. It may take time to find a way to love our enemies — difficult things always do — but it also demands of us a certain primal common sense. To wit, the following poem:
This is not a litany of sins.
You have taught me things,
a veritable National Geographic
special. Some creatures,
for whom all touch is enemy,
strike — even if the stroke
is light, a caress.
Some people know pain,
and let it go, others
grow it and sow it,
sweat it from their pores
like tropical frogs or
hold it in their craws
like komodos who will
pursue you, slash you with their claws,
consume you or, in a pinch, lick you,
(a flick of the tongue, breathlessly quick),
let the poison in their maws do its work.
Whichever way they come for you, you die.
How do you love a komodo?
From afar, perhaps, and pityingly.
If peace is a place, where is it?
Do you know it when you find it,
like the Northwest Passage
or the Cape of Good Hope?
Can it be detected only in solitude,
or can others come along?
Do you know it only from the absence
of its opposite? Does peace scream
“Here I am!”?
Does it steal upon you in moments,
like a hummingbird buzzing against your palm,
or does it descend in a wash, like rain?
Can you live there?
Has anyone ever known it,
known it like the scar on the heel
of their hand, like a song sung by heart?
Is it blue (a color that isn’t really there),
like calm seas; does it live in winter,
cracking and thawing like birthed icebergs?
Will I ever find it? — Is it just outside
the reach of my hand or
hovering above my head?
Or will I only see it, minutes before I go,
like a mole I always had but never noticed?
Or is it a destination?
Those miniature mangers we keep around our homes at Christmastime are liars — they make us forget that the three kings (or magi) never hovered around Jesus’ birthplace to adore him along with the shepherds, angels and various ungulates. It took them time to get where they were going. In this, I understand and sympathize with them. It takes most of us time to see the way to God — years and years and years. As such a sojourner, I felt compelled to compose the following.
I didn’t get it
not at first
still don’t, not really
but the portents are present
and I can read them,
the words becoming old friends
to my tongue.
One of these days,
after crossing the desert
or the ocean
or the mountains — any of these
may be —
I will at last decipher the last
of the bent runes,
turn my map counter-clockwise,
realize that where I’ve been
is where I’m going
after all, and then
I will arrive, hot on the heels of magi,
with only my body of stardust to give.
It will suffice.
Often, when I go for my hour of Perpetual Adoration on Friday, there’s already someone there — a little Vietnamese gal who spends so much time in the chapel, I’ve dubbed her “the lady who lives there.” She is a devout soul, spending hours on her knees. But the other week, she actually sat down and nodded off. I have no doubt that she woke full of self-recriminations, but I wanted to tell her not to. It struck me that there might not be a better place to rest than in God’s own presence.
“Stay awake,” said Christ
but surely he knew
how bodies give out, go limp,
sag as if in a warm bath
feeling secure, safe,
safer here than anywhere, ever,
before his presence in monstrance
To sleep before the Lord
is the sweetest of sleep.
The sleep of angels.
The sleep of saints.
Under God’s watchful eye
the soul and body rest,
ready to rise — like bread,
like spirit, like new day breaking.
Have a peaceful Christmas everyone!
Being the last rat off the sinking ship
because it will give the other rats a chance to swim,
or because the ship, to its last gasp, is dear to you.
Not following the crowd, especially when the crowd
is wandering aimlessly and without a working compass,
moral or otherwise. Being a good Samaritan
when Samaritans are in short supply.
Choosing the careful answer when the witty one
is easier and could earn you a seat with the cool kids.
Praying not for things but for things to be as God wills them,
especially when you want something very bad or badly.
To listen without speaking, to accept without
exception, to create when others destroy.
Blessing the last word when it is not yours
and blessing the mouth you wish had not spoken
in language you wish you could unhear.
Appreciating puce, the ugliest of colors,
simply for being different.
Singing, loudly and often.
Hugging for no reason.
Saying yes, of course,
and no as needed.
Flying in dreams.
Remember Madge the manicurist? She was a character in a commercial (I’m dating myself here) wherein her poor client confessed to having “dish-pan hands.” Well, Madge knew just the cure for that — soap so mild, her client was (gasp!) already soaking in it! It was an ad that incited many questions, not the least of which is what manicurist in her right mind soaks her client’s hand in dish soap? Still, that key line —“you’re soaking in it” — still serves as a trenchant reminder of that which we take for granted.
For instance, gratitude. As Ruth so sagely pointed out, our blessings are all around us. Yet how often do we take the time to say “thank you”? With all the goodness surrounding us in this country of great bounty, we forget how rich we really are. We become “blessing-blind,” convinced that our own virtue and hard work have earned us all that we have. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Nothing we do can earn God’s love. That’s freely given. And our material fortunes can be a combination of many things — some of them unsavory, like greed and manipulation. A group called the Calvinists believed that a person’s material wealth pointed to their favor with God: Lucky on earth, lucky in heaven. But as the parable of Lazarus the beggar reminds us, this isn’t always so. In fact, heaven seems set aside for those who might be best described as “losers”: the poor in spirit, the mourners, those who struggle in vain for peace and justice. “Dish-pan hands”? No problem!
I’ve compiled a brief poetic list of blessings. Take some time to note them when you see them, or add your own to the list. And remember to say a word of thanks. God’s no Madge the manicurist — God made an entire universe to dazzle and amaze us. We’re soaking in it.
The cure for blessing blindness:
one perfect fall leaf,
the smell of a loved one’s sweater,
the blue of the sky,
bread baking, soup bubbling.
Humble human touch.
But bigger, beyond —
the thought that though
our planet hurtles through space
our feet stick fast to the floor.
Simple gravity. Simple gratitude.
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” – Luke 13:24
Sometimes the Promised Land seems a lot like Best Buy on Black Friday: Just getting in the door is gonna be a struggle. After all, we’re told that the way is far from capacious — it is a “narrow gate” that can only be entered by striving. And striving requires a lot more than waiting patiently in line. To strive entails working at something, working hard. It demands focus and unwavering will. It sounds tiring.
And yet we are blessed. Our God asks us not to give up, when giving up seems the most human thing to do. And God does not leave us to struggle on our own. Our salvation has already been won, not by anything we have done, but by Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. Christ died for us, and in doing so, provided the lifeboat we so desperately need to rise above the flood of evil and darkness. All we have to do, essentially, is not let go of it.
This may necessitate some striving.
My fingers, pickled, pink,
slip, grow lax, open on air.
I lose my grasp on You
over and over again.
My hand longs to close
over sparkly things
that catch my eye, toys,
distractions. I reach, waver.
Gently, you retrieve me.
Lead me back, O Lord.
Winnow my wants
that I might make
the narrow gate.