“The Worm That Gnaws the World”––Trump and the Problem of Evil

Dis gnaws the traitors in the pit of hell (Inferno 34), Codex Altonensis, Pisa, c. 1385.

Trump will eat your soul in small bites.

–– James Comey

What could I say, what could I do to help this wounded creature whose life seemed to be flowing away from some secret hurt?

–– Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest

 

In his timely essay on “The Psychology of Evil,” Frank Batavick summarizes M. Scott Peck’s diagnosis of evil as a personality disorder:

“Evil individuals programatically indulge in scapegoating, blaming personal problems or the problems of society on someone else or another class of people. That’s because the evil parties consider themselves above reproach and must deny their own badness. By lashing out against others and saying they see evil in them, they are able to transfer their guilt. Evil people are also unable to assume the viewpoint of their victims, and so they lack empathy for the hurt they have caused with their cruel words and deeds.”

Such “malignant narcissists” reject all criticism and repress all self-doubt. They cannot bear the pain of introspection. As “people of the lie,” they deceive themselves as well as everybody else. Their own will trumps all others, and they take no responsibility for the damage they do. As Peck put it, “It is said ‘neurotics make themselves miserable; those with character disorders make everyone else miserable.'” [i]

Our country was poorly prepared for such an “evil” person to be given the power of the Presidency. So far Trump has paid little price for defying norms and breaking laws. And his 10,000 lies (since being elected) go largely uncontradicted in the media, which simply repeat them without correction 65% of the time [ii], amplifying his corrosive disinformation many times over. Corruption, collusion, federal child abuse, a shameless war on the poor, the strangling of democracy, and the ravaging of planet earth are all met with a shrug by craven Senators and 40% of the electorate. Even our best-intentioned leaders lack effective means to contain the raging fires of fascism, tribal hatred, and climate suicide.

What’s going on now, what’s driving us all to the brink, seems more than one man’s “personality disorder.” It may be too late for therapy. We need an exorcism.

“The world of evil is so far beyond our understanding!” says Georges Bernanos’ fictional country priest. “Does the Monster [Satan] care that there should be one criminal more or less? Immediately he sucks down the crime into himself, makes it one with his own horrible substance, digests without once rousing from his terrifying eternal lethargy.”[iii]

Bernanos’ image of evil as an eater of souls, a black hole sucking everyone’s crime into its own “horrible substance” seems disturbingly apt for these times. None of us is exempt from its gravitational pull. Even as we resist its malignancy, we risk being tainted by it, feeding it with our own fascinated loathing. Gaze at it too long and your own heart turns to stone.

As Bernanos’ priest warns a young woman whose hatred for her father’s mistress is eating her own soul:

Who are you to condemn another’s sin? He who condemns sin becomes part of it, espouses it. You hate this woman and feel yourself so far removed from her, when your hate and her sin are two branches of the same tree. Who cares for your quarrels? Mere empty gestures, meaningless cries––spent breath. Come what may, death will soon have struck you both to silence, to rigid quiet. Who cares, if from now on you are linked together in evil, trapped all three in the same snare of vice, the same bond of evil flesh, companions––yes, companions for all eternity.”[iv]

 

Eugène Delacroix, Dante and Virgil in Hell (1822)

In the Divine Comedy, Dante finds the direct road to salvation blocked by three beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf, representing “the three dispositions that heaven refuses”–– incontinence (obsessive lust for one’s own satisfaction), violence (the will to do harm, but also mindless rage) and fraud (hatred of truth and betrayal of trust). His only remedy is the downward path into the depths of the human shadow, facing the condition of our fallenness with honesty and humility.

Aided by a wise companion (Virgil) and protected by the powers of heaven, he makes his harrowing descent into the underworld. Along the way, various monsters and demons try to hinder his pilgrimage. The Minotaur tries to bully Dante and Virgil, but it becomes so consumed with “inhuman rage” that it loses focus. “Run past him while he’s going berserk,” shouts Virgil, and the pilgrims slip safely by.[v]

Further down, the hybrid form of Geryon, “that foul effigy of fraud,” seems even more daunting. “Behold the beast whose stench afflicts the world,” warns Virgil. Geryon has the face of “a righteous man, benevolent in countenance.” These are qualities seen nowhere else in hell, but Geryon’s disarming smile is only a mask. His body is that of a serpent (the archetypal deceiver) and his tail wields the poisonous sting of a scorpion. In classical myth, Geryon “enticed strangers to be his guests, only to kill and eat them.”[vi]

But while Dante is left by himself for a time to converse with dead souls, his guide (we know not how) manages to tame the beast, who consents to carry them into hell’s deepest place. It’s a frightening plunge into darkness, with only the blast of air against the poet’s face to measure the speed of their descent. Recalling the tragic images of Phaeton and Icarus falling to their deaths increases Dante’s sense of panic. “I thrust my head forward / and dared to look down the abyss. / Then I was even more afraid of being dropped, / for I saw fire and heard wailing, / and so, trembling, I hold on tighter with my legs.”[vii]

Facing his fear of the beast and accepting the dangers of the downward passage enable Dante to continue. As Helen Luke insists in her Jungian interpretation of the Inferno, the journey toward wholeness requires us to embrace our shadow and hold on tight. “[I]f we have the courage to see the true menace, and will consent to be aware of our own frauds, then Geryon becomes our servant and will carry us down on his back that we may look upon the roots of evil in the [human] psyche.”[viii]

And what does Dante find at hell’s deepest core? He finds Lucifer, or what is left of him, forever stuck in ice of his own making (the bitter wind generated by his flapping batwings freezes the outflow of infernal rivers). His single head has three faces, each with a different sickly hue. The mouth of each face chews without swallowing the body of a notorious traitor. Everything about him is a wretched parody of the Divine. The three faces parody the Trinity, the freezing wind parodies the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit, the eternal chewing parodies the eucharist.

This is not the heroic and colorful rebel of Milton’s Paradise Lost, but a virtually lifeless thing without mobility, speech or thought. The “creature who had once been beautiful” is reduced to “the evil worm that gnaws the world.”[ix] Virgil calls him “Dis”––not a proper name, but a prefix: “away from,” “split-off,” “apart from,” as in “dis-ease” or “dis-order.”

Gustave Doré, Dis frozen in the lake of ice (1861)

Dante scholars Charles H. Taylor and Patricia Finley “dis” the king of hell as the epitome of brokenness : “The figure at the center of the realm of darkness symbolizes what is most split off from consciousness; separated into opposites the ego does not conjoin, giving rise to the psychological splitting and the paranoia that are at the core of destructive pathology. . . Dis stands frozen at the nadir of Hell as the emblem of lovelessness, the coldheartedness at the core of our deepest failures to be human.”[x]

In Perelandra, C. S. Lewis gives a similar diagnosis of Satan as “no longer a person of corrupted will,” but “corruption itself, to which will was attached only as an instrument. Ages ago it had been a Person; but the ruins of personality now survived in it only as weapons at the disposal of a furious self-exiled negation.”[xi]

What does all this add up to? Although these various literary and psychological descriptions of evil seem chillingly on the mark with respect to our current political situation, the point is not to demonize Trump. He is doing a fine job of that without our help, and he is a symptom more than a cause. As Gandalf says of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, “Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know. . .”[xii]

And I make no claim for anyone’s innocence––not even the saints who “persevere in resisting evil.”[xiii] As Will Campbell has reminded us in his succinct summary of the Christian faith, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”[xiv] Or as Pete Buttigieg, the most theological of the new presidential candidates, told Time magazine recently,

“This idea that we just sort people into baskets of good and evil ignores the central fact of human existence, which is that each of us is a basket of good and evil. The job of politics is to summon the good and beat back the evil.”[xv]

Good and evil are not usual subjects for political discourse, but we live in apocalyptic times. Souls are at stake, the human future is at stake, and to ignore the spiritual dimension of our current crisis only gives the advantage to the malignant shadow trying to consume the world. Night is falling, and it is time to put on the armor of light.

But as the Bible says in its most political book, the battle will not be won by our own violent replica of the devouring beast, but by the wounded Lamb of self-diffusive love.[xvi] Bernanos’ compassionate priest is an incarnation of this sacrificial archetype:

“Truly, if one of us, a living man, the vilest, most contemptible of the living, were cast into those burning depths, I should still be ready to share his suffering, I would claim him from his executioner.”

But the priest is also realistic about the soul-eating alternative: “the sorrow, the unutterable loss of those charred stones which once were men, is that they have nothing more to be shared.”[xvii]

Trumeau (detail), St. Marie de Souillac, France, 12th century.

 

Related post: Dante and Lewis Carroll Walk Into a Dark Wood

 

[i] Frank Batavick: “The psychology of evil,” Carroll County Times, March 23, 2017. https://www.carrollcountytimes.com/columnists/opinion/ph-cc-batavick-032417-20170320-column.html

[ii] Matt Gertz & Rob Savillo, “Study: Major media outlets’ Twitter accounts amplify false Trump claims on average 19 times a day,” Media Matters, May 3, 2019. https://www.mediamatters.org/blog/2019/05/03/study-major-media-outlets-twitter-accounts-amplify-false-trump-claims-average-19-times-day/223572

[iii] Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), 144.

[iv] Ibid., 138-139.

[v]Inferno, Canto xii.

[vi] Robert and Jean Hollander, note on Canto xvii.1-3, in their translation of Dante’s Inferno(New York: Doubleday, 2000), 295.

[vii] Inferno, Canto xvii, Hollanders translation.

[viii] Helen Luke, Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’sDivine Comedy (New York: Parabola Books, 1989), 33.

[ix] Infernoxxxiv.108 (Hollander).

[x] Charles H. Taylor & Patricia Finley, Images of the Journey in Dante’s Divine Comedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 111.

[xi] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (1943).

[xii] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (London: The Folio Society, 1997), 162.

[xiii] From the baptismal vows in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979).

[xiv] Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (1975). In a conversation following the killing of Episcopal seminarian and Civil Rights martyr Jonathan Daniels, Campbell was asked to sum up Christianity’s message in 10 words or less. His response indicated that simply pointing the finger at the evil of others did not do justice to the shared condition––and salvation––of fallen humanity.

[xv] Buttegieg, an Episcopalian, has also referenced Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet as model for serving the common good. Time interview is quoted here: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/5/5/1855559/-Pete-Buttigieg-shut-down-homophobic-hecklers-then-got-support-from-a-surprising-sourceThe footwashing quote is here: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/04/07/pete_buttigieg_hypocrisy_of_evangelical_christians_supporting_trump_is_unbelievable.html

[xvi] In Revelation, a beast uttering “haughty and blasphemous” words makes war on the saints. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” everyone wonders. God’s reply is not an angelic army, but the Lamb offered since the creation of the world (Rev. 13).

[xvii] Bernanos, 164.

Lamentation for Notre Dame

The burning of Notre Dame has broken many hearts, including mine. The fact that it happened in Holy Week feels strangely apocalyptic, as if the stability of our world were suddenly under threat. Like the earthquake at the death of Jesus, it suggests a cosmic shaking of the foundations.

Poems from Book of Lamentations, an anguished response to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., are often sung during Holy week. Written to grieve the loss of a sacred place, their eloquent images of affliction and grief were later appropriated by Christian liturgy to lament the suffering of Christ. In gratitude and sorrow for our beloved Notre Dame, here are some of my own past views of the cathedral, accompanied by selected lamentations from the Holy Week lectionary.

How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations. (Lam. 1:1)

Jerusalem remembers in the days of her affliction and distress, all the precious things that were hers in days of old. (Lam. 1:7)

All you who pass this way, look and see: is any sorrow like the sorrow inflicted on me? (Lam. 1:12)

Listen, for I am groaning, with no one to comfort me. (Lam. 1:21)

For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you? (Lam. 2:13)

Cry then to the Lord, rampart of the daughter of Zion; let your tears flow like a torrent day and night. (Lam. 2:18)

He has walled me about so that I cannot escape. . . though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. (Lam. 3:7-8)

But this I call to mind, and so regain some hope: Surely God’s mercies are not over, his kindness is not exhausted. (Lam. 3:21-22)

It is good to wait in silence for Yahweh to save. (Lam.3:26)

 

Photographs and video by Jim Friedrich

Ultreia!

Camino de Santiago, west of Pamplona.

 

The Religious Imagineer is five years old this week. It began during my 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in the spring of 2014, with dispatches on miles I walked, things I saw, people I met, thoughts I had.

No great views today, but the summit where France turns to Spain was a brooding cloud of unknowing where we walked by faith not sight. (April 8, the first day)

 

Crossing the Pyrenees on the first day.

 

The land through which we pilgrims passed today was painted with a few strong colors: dark green wheat, yellow mustard, blue sky, white clouds. Those four colors filled the eye in every direction, with no lesser hues to dilute the effect. To wander through such a scene was a glorious thing. Whatever else the Camino brings, I will have had this day. As a German woman said as she passed me by, “Cherish every step! Cherish every step!” (April 11)

 

Pilgrims moving westward from Castrojeriz.

 

[A 30-second video of my shadow moving along the Camino]: If you want to experience the length of my walk in real time, replay this video 27,000 times. (April 25)

 

Few trees, big sky, only occasional villages, and long stretches where the only human presence was the long procession of pilgrims migrating westward. The lack of distractions and variations tends to make the very act of walking to be the mind’s principal occupation. As Robert Macfarlane puts it in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, walking becomes “sensational” – it isn’t just conducive to thought, it becomes the form thought takes. I walk, therefore I am. Perhaps it is similar to the way that cinema thinks through the movement of the camera. It isn’t forming propositional thought, but is simply absorbing through its attentive motion the shape of the world, the textures of existence. (April 29)

 

Fellow pilgrim Edward “Monty” Montgomery enters San Juan de Ortega on Good Friday.

 

There are many along this road who began it as a form of athletic challenge or youthful adventure or unusual vacation. And many will finish it that way. But in talking with those who profess no religious intention, or who are dismissive of Christianity as something they outgrew, I still hear the spiritual language of pilgrimage breaking through the verities of secularism. One has lost a job and is trying to discern a meaningful alternative. Another is trying to listen to her life from a place of unknowing. Another has no answer to the question of why he is walking, but still presses on to Santiago. To borrow a phrase from the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, every pilgrim is trying to arrive at a place we know not by following a way which we know not. (May 1)

 

Halfway to Santiago, a Camino friend was feeling some pain and discouragement on a particularly demanding stretch. But then he saw a handwritten sign: “Don’t give up before the miracle.” (May 7)

 

 

But can I, having now trod 478 miles in 31 days, really claim any kind of illumination or transformation as a result? I still get annoyed by the loud and incessant talkers who mar the tranquility, I still get angry when a speeding truck comes close to knocking me into a ditch. I have yet to perfect the pilgrim equanimity urged by my guidebook, which sees every irritation as the sand that produces the pearl. But at least I try to make these things part of my walking prayer. As the monks say of life in the monastery, “We fall down and get up, fall down and get up …” (May 9)

 

This morning I performed the final Camino ritual: climbing the stairs behind the altar to hug the gleaming metal effigy of Santiago. Despite the cool hardness of the sculpture, it was strangely comforting. I whispered in the saint’s ear: “Thank you for the beautiful voyage.” (May 12)

 

Statue of St. James behind the high altar, Cathedral of Santiago.

After I reached Camino’s ultimate end in Muxia, on the western shore of northern Spain, my blog just kept on going, continuing its own pilgrimage to God knows where, reporting as it goes. I have written about theology, spirituality, liturgy, poetry, the arts, cinema, music, politics, culture, nature, seasons, time, death and resurrection. My topics––and my influences––may be eclectic, but I trust my Christian faith and Anglican temperament to lend some coherence to these verbal wanderings.

In that spirit, I borrowed my blog’s subtitle from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Where the fire and the rose are one.” This union of contraries––passion and tenderness, danger and beauty, wild instability and serene form––draws upon Dante’s imagery in the Commedia. Fire is purgation, divine light and the flame of love. The rose, perhaps inspired by the rose window of an Italian cathedral, images the heavenly city, containing a multitude of saints within its harmonizing circle. Dante unites flame and flower in his image of the Virgin, whose “womb relit the flame of love––/ its heat has made this blossom seed / and flower in eternal peace” (Par. xxxiii.7-9). In the unfolding future of God’s not-yet, the fire and the rose will indeed be one.

Gustave Dore, The Celestial Rose in Dante’s Paradise (1868)

In The Religious Imagineer’s first five years, there have been 237 posts, 61,913 visitors and 92,870 views. My ten most viewed posts so far have been:

1) The ten best Jesus movies (Jan. 6, 2015)–– I have taught Jesus movies for years, and find cinematic gospels, despite (or because of?) their flaws, to be fascinating case studies for questions of biblical representation and interpretation, as well as Christology.

2) Members of the same body? A post-election homily (Nov. 10, 2016) –– “Can we truly delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together? In one of the darkest moments in American history, this is the work we have been given to do.”

3) Ten ways to keep a holy Advent (Dec. 6, 2014) –– Interrupting, Silencing, Waiting, Listening, Watching, Praying, Reflecting, Loving, Giving, Receiving.

4) A deep but dazzling darkness (Aug. 25, 2017) –– My account of the 2017 eclipse, seen through the lens of mystical theology, continues to find readers almost every day. It has been viewed on more total days than any other post.

5) You can never go fast enough (Sept. 9, 2014) –– This mix of classic cars, road trips, nostalgia and eschatology got a huge amount of traffic when it became a WordPress editors’ pick.

6) 7 spiritual practices: a to-do list for the time of trial (Nov. 18, 2016) –– This brief guide to engaging the powers of darkness without losing our own souls remains all too relevant.

7) Dreaming the church that wants to be (Oct. 7, 2015) –– Eleven Christian artists gathered for 10 days in Venice to imagine a rebirth of wonder among God’s friends. This prologue, and the several posts that followed it, emerged from that quest.

8) The ten best religious films (Oct. 8, 2014) –– “Most of these films refuse the usual manipulations and excitements of mass cinema, and demand a contemplative mind. Transcendental style can be as rigorous as prayer.”

9) The spirituality of running (Aug. 4, 2016) –– A subject dear to my runner’s heart. “What we do with our bodies manifests and expresses inner states, the sacred ground of our being. But bodily practices can also induceinner states. How we move, how we sit, how we breathe, can all make a difference in our spiritual life. Inner and outer are intertwined and interactive. We pray in, with, through our bodies.”

10) Hospital for the soul (April 24, 2014) –– One of my earliest posts concerns a house of hospitality where pilgrims find momentary respite from the Camino’s onward rush. “Everyone is welcome here,” I was told, “but it’s not for everyone. Many people hurry along the Camino who show little interest in the work of the soul.”

Of the top ten, three are on spiritual practice, three are about movies, three are about widely shared experiences (the Camino, the eclipse, and our current political “time of trial”). And three include a number in the title, always a hit with the search engines!

If you want to explore further in these writings, enter a subject in the Search box, such as “Cinema,” “Nature,” “Liturgy and worship,” or “Imagination,” and you will find a range of selections. Or as we enter Holy Week, you might try “What Shall We Preach on Easter Sunday?” (currently featured in the April 10 issue of The Christian Century) or “Just a dream?­­––Reflections on the Easter Vigil.”

I am grateful to you, dear readers, for joining me in this journey of words and thoughts over the past five years. I deeply appreciate your attentive reading and supportive comments. And if you would like to help me expand the reach of this writing ministry by sharing your favorite posts now and then (share buttons are at the bottom of individual posts), that would be an awesome anniversary gift!

And now, as we say on the Camino, “Ultreia!” (“Let’s go further!”). In the days to come, I will always strive to be worthy of your time.

The author at Camino’s end in Muxia.

All photographs by Jim Friedrich

A fig tree and a burning bush walk into a homily. . .

Richard Misrach, “Desert Fire #81” (1984)

This homily for the Third Sunday of Lent is a double feature. The lessons from the Episcopal lectionary, Exodus 3:1-15 and Luke 13: 1-9, are not thematically connected, but I felt both stories demanded attention.

Today’s gospel shows Jesus and some other folks talking about the local news. It’s something humans have always done, shooting the breeze about unusual or dramatic events. We don’t expect our conversations around the water cooler or wherever to be recorded for posterity. But 2000 years later, we’re still hearing about some Galileans slaughtered by the Romans during a sacred ritual, and eighteen unnamed victims killed by a falling tower.

But there’s no film at 11. We are given no further details. Some scholars speculate that both incidents involved the Zealots, Jewish rebels who may have been killed by the Roman soldiers during acts of resistance. Perhaps some Zealots were staging a demonstration in the Temple when the Romans struck them down. They died in the very spot where animals were being sacrificed in an atonement ritual. The image of their blood mingled with the blood of animals sacrificed on the altar was a horrific mixture of violence and the sacred. People wondered, if the animals were dying for the people’s sins, for whose sins did those Galileans die? Could it have been their own?

As for the Siloam tower, could it have been a rebel stronghold destroyed during a Roman siege, another case of those who live by the sword dying by the sword? Or maybe it collapsed in an earthquake, a so-called “act of God.” Or maybe it was built by crooked contractors who used shoddy materials. Or maybe it collapsed for no apparent reason at all.

Whatever the causes of those tragedies, people wanted to make sense of them, so they could continue to live in a predictable universe where events have reasons and everything can be explained. If we’re unwilling to live in a universe of absurdity or blind chance, we need to know why bad things happen to good people. And one of the easiest answers is to say that maybe good people aren’t so good. Maybe in some way they get what they deserve, like people’s bad habits catching up with them, or our collective addiction to oil bringing the climate apocalypse down on our heads. Or maybe human suffering is somehow God’s will, even if we can’t say why.

Jesus quickly dismisses this kind of simplistic blaming of the victim. He says there is no simple correlation between sin and suffering. The victims of those tragedies were no worse offenders than anyone else. The problem of reconciling human suffering with the providence of a loving God remains complex and ultimately insoluble in human terms. Jesus recognized that. And 2000 years later, we are still puzzled by the question of “why?”

But Jesus was not that interested in a theoretical discussion about the problem of suffering. He wanted the people in that conversation to consider their own situation. Did they think their story needed to get different? Were they prepared to change their life?

“Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

What does Jesus mean by this? Without knowing the actual details of those ancient news stories, it’s hard to say for sure. If both incidents involved acts of armed rebellion, repentance could mean a refusal to participate in a world of reciprocal violence. Stop living by the sword, or else. More broadly, it could mean that we should stop describing the world as a place where God dishes out suffering or endorses any form of human violence.

Jesus could have meant many other things as well.  Renounce your self-righteous pride, and stop demeaning those who suffer as less good or less deserving than you are. Never presume your own innocence. No one is without sin, whether it’s personal sin or collective sin. The world’s troubles are not somebody else’s problem. Like it or not, everyone is implicated in a world of interrelated causes. And don’t treat life’s blessings as rewards for good behavior. They are gifts freely given by a generous and loving God, and you should receive them humbly and gratefully.

Stop trying to make the world controllable or predictable with simplistic explanations. Life is complicated and sometimes it’s sad. You can’t always have it go your way or have it make sense. You have to live by faith in love’s bigger picture.

In other words, if any of you think you can live in this world without grace, without mercy,
you have perished already.

Jesus ends this challenging conversation with a parable of mercy. A barren fig tree is taking up valuable space in a vineyard, sucking up nutrients and moisture needed by the grapevines. “Time to cut it down!” says the owner. But the gardener pleads, “Give it a little more time. I’ll add some fertilizer to help it along. That may make all the difference. If there’s still no fruit next year, then you can cut it down.”

That’s how the parable ends, but when next year rolls around, I suspect that the gardener will be telling the owner the same thing: “Just one more year. I know it can be fruitful. It just needs a little more time, a little more nourishment. A little more tender mercy.”

Now let’s leave that fig tree, and travel further back in time, 1400 years before Jesus, to see a very different kind of plant: a bush in the wilderness of Sinai—a bush which burns, without being consumed.

I saw a burning bush once, not in Sinai, but in the hills of Palestine. I was walking on a trail near Ramallah in the West Bank, when I saw a shepherd leading a small flock through a ravine below me. About 30 yards beyond him, a bush was on fire. I never found out why. But having imbibed the story of Moses since childhood, I could only experience this inexplicable reenactment with a sense of wonder. It was a gift, and I received it gratefully.

I heard no voice. For me, only the story speaks now. But for Moses, the voice came from the midst of the fire: “Moses, Moses!”

The Scripture does not tell us whether Moses is surprised, shocked, or frightened by this sudden intrusion of the divine into the routineness of a shepherd’s day, though we might imagine all of those things. All we know is that Moses responds as if his life were made for precisely this moment: “Here I am,” he says.

God calls, Moses responds. No matter how unlikely or uncanny this encounter between divine and human may be, no matter how unprepared Moses might feel for such a meeting, his whole being rises to the occasion. Before the voice even identifies itself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, Moses experiences the kind of recognition described by the mystics, an awakening to a reality so profound, so insistent, so real, that it seems to make perfect sense despite its utter strangeness.

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott wrote a poem, “Love after Love,” about the sudden recognition of your inmost reality, your deepest truth, which was there all along even though you hadn’t quite known it until it suddenly greeted you face to face:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again
the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart. . .

That is what I think Moses must have experienced, must have suddenly known, when he heard his name called from the midst of the flaming bush. That voice, however uncanny and unfamiliar, also produced a sense of recognition. Oh! it’s you, isn’t it. It’s you. The one who knows me by heart!

And Moses, however surprised he may be to meet at last the stranger who has loved him all his life, consents to the encounter with his response: “Here I am.” That couldn’t have been easy, for the divine stranger in the burning bush was not the gentle presence in Derek Walcott’s poem. Whatever Moses knew about God, he believed that it was a fearful thing to look divinity in the face. Mortals were not wired to handle so much voltage. So while Moses listened to the voice, he was afraid to stare into the fire.

So what happens next? As we know from our baptismal covenant, when God calls our name, that is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new life, a life where something is asked of us. Vocare––to call––is the root of vocation. To be called is to be given a vocation. When God calls us, it is to do the holy work of repairing the world.

That work takes many forms, as each of us must discover as we practice our own vocation in a world of such great need. In Moses’ case, his work was to speak truth to power, stand up to the tyranny of Pharoah, and lead God’s people out of bondage to the land of promise.

That was a huge and intimidating assignment. Moses balked at first. “Who am I to do such an impossible thing?” But God was insistent. When God gets an idea, it’s no use saying no. And there’s no turning back. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

Every time we gather in God’s house, the bush burns and the flames speak. We hear the voice of God, the stranger who has loved us all our lives, who knows us by heart, calling our name. But we don’t get to stay by the fire forever, gently warming ourselves in the loving presence of the divine. Mary Oliver’s poem, “What I have learned so far,” makes this point perfectly:

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause?

The poet goes on to say that our only choice is “indolence, or action. / Be ignited, or be gone.”

The voice in the flame is the voice that ignites us and sends us forth, to do the work God has given us to do. Some of that work seems feasible enough. As the Prayer Book says, “tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous.” But some of the work of loving our neighbor and repairing the world can seems overwhelming, even impossible. When we hear words like “racism,” “mass killings” or “climate change,” we cringe at their magnitude. Like Moses, we are tempted to cry, “Who am I to make a difference?”

And what does God say then? Do not be afraid. I will go with you.

Okay, Moses says. But if we’re in this together, I need to understand something about who you are. I need to know your name.

And God says to Moses, “‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh.” It is a strange and mysterious name, whose precise meaning has eluded translators, scholars and theologians ever since. Robert Alter, whose recently published and profusely annotated translation of the Hebrew Bible should be in every library, says that “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” is the most plausible rendering of the Hebrew. But he suggests that its linguistic ambiguities could also produce variations such as “I-Am-That-I-Am,” “He-Who-Brings-Things-into-Being,” and “I-Am-He-Who-Endures.”

But whether the preferred translation stresses the being of God or the doing of God, whether it evokes the eternal source and essence of reality or the ongoing providential activity woven into the causalities of time and history, God reveals to Moses that whatever happens in this finite world or in this transitory life, God is. God endures. God will be. God will be with us.

However dark the night of violence and death, however deep the waters of catastrophe, God is with us. The God who endured the cross and grave, the God who makes a way where there is no way, will share our journey and deliver us to the place of promise.

For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress. . .
[the] soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.

This is not a prescription for passivity, as when people say stupid things like “God will take care of climate change, so why worry?” No. Passivity in the face of human sin and folly is not faith. It is complicity.

To those who are called and ignited by the Spirit’s fire for the work of repairing the world, God’s promise to be with us produces not passivity, but courage and action. Come what may, whatever sorrows, tragedies or defeats may await us: ‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh. Heaven and earth may pass away, but the Holy One remains, arms open wide, to welcome us to our abiding home, the loving heart of the divine mystery.

Or as Jesus put it, “I am with you always, even to the end of time.”

 

 

 

Related post: The voice that allows us to remain human

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gathering God’s Children: A Homily for Lent 2

Stanley Spencer, Christ in the Wilderness––The Hen (1939)

A homily preached on the Second Sunday of Lent at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA (Texts: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 / Luke 13:31-35)

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid. Your story is not over.
It will continue long into the future.”

But Abram can’t believe this. “I have no offspring, no heirs. How on earth will my story continue?”

And God says, “Step outside, and look at the stars––more than you could ever count. So shall your descendants be.”

This kind of thing happens a lot in the Bible. God makes a way where there is no way. God turns nothing into something. God makes a barren marriage the seed of countless generations.

“Great!” says Abram. “But how can I know for sure?”

So God makes a covenant with Abram––a promise binding Abram’s story to God’s story, a promise to be with Abram’s people through the long journey of time.

Now we may find their covenant ritual pretty weird: cutting three large animals in half––a heifer, a goat, and a ram––but that was a common practice in the ancient Near East. The two parties making a covenant would walk between the cloven parts of animals, as if to say, if either party severs the covenant binding us together, there will be blood.

If one of the parties is human and the other is divine, we should not be surprised to find an uncanny dimension to the ritual, as there is in this story. Abram falls into the altered state of a deep sleep, and then God seems to pass between the cloven animals in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, anticipating the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud which will one day lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

This sense of covenant with God, a binding relationship enduring through all the ups and downs of Jewish history, is the central dynamic of the biblical narrative. And by the time of Jesus, twenty centuries after Abram looked up at those stars, the city of Jerusalem had been well-established as the geographical and spiritual center of that ancient covenant, because it contained the Holy of Holies, the enclosed void believed to be the earthly dwelling place of the Eternal. The Holy of Holies, situated within the Temple on the city’s highest place, was so sacred that it was forbidden to everyone except the High Priest, who could only enter it once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to offer sacrifice to the Most High.

Jerusalem’s sacred stature is affirmed many times in the Hebrew scriptures, especially in the Psalms:

Blessed is the Lord out of Zion,
who dwells in Jerusalem. (Psalm 135:21)

As the hills stand about Jerusalem,
so does the Lord surround God’s people,
from this time forth for evermore. (Psalm 125:2)

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalm 137:5-6)

Jesus shared his people’s devotion to Jerusalem as central to both their self-understanding and their ultimate destiny. It was the place where earth meets heaven, where the blessings of God’s ancient promise would be most clearly manifested and fulfilled. And however Jesus thought his own mission would work out, he expected its definitive climax to come in the holy city.

Jerusalem is mentioned 139 times in the New Testament, and 90 of those mentions occur in Luke. His gospel might be called The Journey to Jerusalem. During Jesus’ entire ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming God’s kingdom, Jerusalem is so often on his mind. Every step of his itinerant life takes him closer and closer to that place of destiny. As Luke puts it, “his face was turned toward Jerusalem.”

But when he draws near his goal, some Pharisees try to warn him away. “King Herod wants to kill you,” they said. “Get out of here while you still can.” But for Jesus there is no turning back. “It is necessary for me to journey on,” he tells them. “today and tomorrow and the day after that, because Jerusalem is where a prophet must go to meet his fate.”

So on he goes, eventually making the long climb up from Jericho, through a series of barren hills, until he reaches the Mount of Olives, a high point where suddenly the holy city and its great Temple come into view, stretching across a ridge on the opposite side of a ravine called the Kidron valley.

Have any of you been there, and seen that view? It is a stunning sight. And we might imagine the thrill that Jesus and his disciples must have felt at seeing the end of their long pilgrimage, right there in front of them.

Five years ago, I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago across northern Spain, and I remember vividly the moment when I first saw the goal of my journey, the towers of Santiago’s cathedral, from the top of a hill a few miles away. Pilgrims call that hill the Mount of Joy, because joy is what you feel when you see for the first time the place which has pulled on your soul for so many days and so many miles.

So as Jesus descends the slope of the Mount of Olives toward the eastern gate of Jerusalem, he stops for a moment to take in the view. But joy is not what he feels. According to Luke, “as he came near and saw the city, he wept over it.”

Why does Jesus weep? Is it for himself, because he knows that this is where he is going to die? Or is he weeping for Jerusalem, because it is the killer, instead of the fulfiller, of God’s dream for human flourishing? The name Jerusalem means “city of peace”––salem means peace, like the Hebrew shalom and the Arabic salaam. God desired it to be a place of loving community, a just community, a neighborly community where divine blessings would be freely and gratefully shared with one another.

But the holy city was in fact closer to hell than heaven––divided by warring factions demonizing one another, distorted by vast inequalities of wealth, poisoned by fears and tribal hatreds, governed by political and economic forces resistant to change, and blinded by an obsolete pretension of being the greatest nation on earth.

From his vantage point on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gazes upon the broken and faithless city––and he weeps. Then he says, “If you had only known the things that lead to peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)

This compelling moment is commemorated by a tear-shaped church erected on the slope where Jesus had stood. Most churches are designed to face east, toward the rising sun, but this one faces west, toward Jerusalem, as Jesus did when he lamented the sad state of the City of Peace. The window behind the altar is made of clear glass, so that the worshipper can contemplate the same view which filled Jesus’ eyes with tears. The name of the church is Dominus Flevit: The Lord wept.

What if Jesus had not wept there? What if he had looked at the faithless city, so unloving and so unjust, and been filled with anger and judgment? What if the church were called, The Lord raged? There was plenty to be angry about in the way people lived together and treated each other in that city. But the heart of Jesus was all compassion. He came to show us the God of mercy.

And in today’s gospel, when he responds to those Pharisees who urge him to avoid Jerusalem at all costs, Jesus gives perhaps his most startling self-description in all the gospels:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one killing the prophets and stoning those sent to her, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

Altar mosaic, Dominus Flevit church, Jerusalem

Look at the image of the altar mosaic  in Dominus Flevit. Notice the golden halo behind the hen’s head. This is a holy creature, showing us God in a new way, as a maternal figure, protective yet vulnerable. Not the lion of Judah, or a mighty eagle, but a barnyard chicken! Her chicks don’t seem to be paying much attention to their mother. They are liable to wander off at any moment and get into all sorts of mischief. But Jesus their mother spreads her wings wide, trying her best to gather them in and keep them safe.

There’s another animal in today’s gospel––the fox. That’s what Jesus calls Herod––a fox. Now as leaders go, Herod was pretty deplorable. He was an insecure bully who didn’t care much about the divine covenant or the holiness of Jerusalem. He only cared about himself. And he was little more than a puppet, easily manipulated by a foreign power (it begins with an “R”).

Why does Jesus call him a fox? Did he mean that Herod was cunning? Perhaps. But in such close juxtaposition with the hen and her chicks, it seems more likely that Jesus was describing Herod as a predator. What a predator does is find a way to isolate and attack the most vulnerable. He divides his victims from the wider community, and then he attacks. If you’re a defenseless chick, a fox is very bad news!

Jesus wants to protect the chicks from the fox, but he refuses to do that with violence. That would only make him a mirror image of the fox. As Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says in her memorable commentary on this passage:

“Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.”

For God so loved the world, that he gave the dearest portion God’s own self, that we might not perish. Self-offering for the sake of others, however costly, is the divine way.

When I first heard about the New Zealand massacre, I had just been reading a gospel commentary comparing the protective hen to Vicki Soto, the first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook who died while shielding her little students from the bullets with her own body.

In times like these, the gospel gets very real, and we are confronted with an immediate choice: do we stand with the fox, or with the hen? God forbid that any of us should ever be in the line of fire, but even at a safe distance, we can raise our voices to resist violence, hatred, bigotry and fear. We can spread our wings to shield the vulnerable.

When our leaders echo the rhetoric of white supremacists by referring to immigrants as “invaders,” we need to shout, “No more!” When defenseless children are taken from their parents and put into cages, we need to insist, “Not in our country!” When the toxins of tribalism inspire violence even in havens like New Zealand, we need to confess our divisive ways and beg forgiveness.

As St. Paul urges us, let us all be imitators of Christ, spreading our wings in welcome, offering warmth, protection, shelter and love without qualification. The foxes of the world want to scatter us, but God yearns to gather every single one of us from the places of isolation, alienation, division and rejection, and bring us home to the welcome table.

Look again at the mosaic of the Christlike hen. She is circled by the Latin text of Jesus’ saying, “how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” At about 10 o’clock on the circle is the verb congregare, “to gather.” You see, a congregation consists of those who have been gathered safely under the wings of Christ. You have been gathered under the wings of Christ. And we have all committed in our baptism to spread our own wings in turn, and offer our own selves––our souls and bodies––for the sake of the world.

Now just beneath the chicks, there is one more phrase. It is what Jesus says just after the text in the outer circle: et noluisti (“and they were not willing!”). Jesus wants to gather the scattered, but they refuse. For whatever reason––obstinance, foolishness, blindness, or plain old sin––they just won’t be gathered. They were not willing. And that troubling phrase, et noluisti, explains why Jesus wept as he gazed at Jerusalem, Those word are set apart from the rest of the text, and instead of swimming in the gold of eternity like the other words, they are drenched in a deep red color, the color of blood––echoing the message of that primitive covenant ritual with the butchered animals in Genesis. If you don’t find a way to live together in love, there will be blood.

Jesus offers a better way. He did it in his life and teaching, he did it on Calvary’s hill. The hen’s outstretched wings are like the arms of Jesus on the cross, still trying to gather us in with his last breath. “Father, forgive them,” he prays. Even as he is dying on the cross, Jesus is trying to gather God’s children and bring them home.

In Franco Zefferelli’s 1977 film, Jesus of Nazareth, there is an extraordinary moment during the crucifixion sequence. It is not literally scriptural––the screenwriter invented it––but it expresses so well the heart of the gospel message.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is allowed by a centurion to pass through security to approach her dying son. Then Mary Magdalene tries to follow right behind her, but the centurion stops her.

“Please,” says Magdalene. “I’m one of the family.”

Hearing this, the mother of Jesus turns around sharply, clearly stung by the impudence of this outsider, this woman of questionable reputation, pretending to be related to Jesus. We imagine her thinking, “How dare she try to intrude on our intimate circle!” The centurion asks Mary, “Is she family?” And at that moment, the mother of Jesus has to decide whether she’s going to be tribal and exclusive, or whether she is willing to embrace the welcoming way of her son.

After a brief hesitation, she nods, but it’s not easy for her. “Yes,” she says. “She is one of the family.” And at that moment, at the foot of the cross, beneath Christ’s outstretched wings, the welcoming and sheltering community of mutual and unconditional love is born into the world.

“Flie with angels, fall with dust” –– Appreciating George Herbert

 

Angel guiding Joshua (detail, c. 1500), St. Mary’s, Fairford, Gloucestershire, UK (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

The seventeenth was almost the last century to succeed in looking within without falling in head first and being submerged––probably because its thinkers had as a governing conception not reality conceived as within the individual consciousness, but, rather, the possibility of inner harmony with reality.

–– Rosemund Tuve [i]

When we find words of the right sort to ask about the divine––words like ‘delight’, ‘enjoy’, ‘pleasure’, and persevere’––God can do nothing better than answer us in our own vocabulary.

–– Helen Vendler [ii]

In his lifetime, George Herbert was appreciated for his attractive personal qualities, his pastoral sense and sensibility, and his faithful Christian practice. But his extraordinary poetry, a primary domain for his soul work, remained hidden from the world until after his death in 1633. I have written about Herbert previously (Heart Work and Heaven Work), and return to him often for devotional reading as well as literary pleasure. In celebration of his feast day (February 27), let’s take another look.

Many of Herbert’s poems do not feel entirely accessible today. His seventeenth-century language and syntax require some translation, while his inventively constructed metaphors and images assume a biblical and theological literacy no longer widely possessed. “[T]his change in the sensibilities of his audience,” laments Rosemund Tuve, “damages some of Herbert’s poems appreciably. The waste for us is more unhappy by far than the unfairness to him.” [iii] I myself find the extensive footnotes and commentary in Helen Wilcox’s magnificent edition of The English Poems of George Herbert to be immensely helpful in letting the poems speak with proper force and meaning.

But the form of Herbert’s poems is not the only hindrance for the modern reader. In the prevailing atmosphere of our secular era, we don’t even breathe the same air as the metaphysical poet. As a recent biographer explains, “Divinity saturated and enclosed his world: the whole of it, from the slightest movements of his own inmost being to his external circumstances in time and the natural world . . . Divinity was the cause and the sum of how things are, without remainder.” [iv]

In contrast, even believers can find themselves acting and thinking like atheists these days, excepting the moments when they engage in conscious religious practice. We no longer live in a world––or a cultural consciousness––saturated with divinity. It is too easy to act as if God is neither necessary nor present. Herbert’s fervent I-Thou relationship with the transcendent can seem alien to the secular mind. Who’s he talking to anyway?

Compared to the modern flattening of human experience in a depthless and disenchanted world––no longer “charged with the grandeur of God” [v]––Herbert’s spiritual environment seems so alive with correspondences between visible things and deeper, invisible realities. The Mystery of the world is met in the humblest of circumstances. The burning bush flashes through the surface of the ordinary. Everyday phenomena are saturated with significance. The gate of heaven might be anywhere, admitting the attentive soul to a luminous eternity beyond the self.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy. [vi]

Herbert’s passionate engagement with transcendence––among us, within us, over-against us––was not theoretical or abstract, but intimate and experiential, employing the first-person form of lyric poetry to open a clearing where his inmost feelings could show themselves to both the speaker and his readers. In his striking play of words, images and sounds, a consort of meanings both public and private, we overhear Herbert’s prayers, and witness the argument of his soul. The brilliance of his poetic invention is never for its own sake. He seeks not to show off his skill, but to surrender his will.

Onely thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privie key,
Op’ning the soul’s most subtle rooms. [vii]

Herbert’s humility was one of his most distinctive traits. He was hardly immune to ambition and acclaim, but renounced them for greater treasure. He would die, before his fortieth birthday, as a country priest far removed from the glitter of worldly success.

He seemed perpetually amazed that grace would take up residence in his “poore cabinet of bone.” [viii]

My God, what is a heart?
That thou shouldst it so eye, and wooe,
Powring upon it all thy art,
As if thou hadst nothing els to do? [ix]

He prayed to be worthy of the gift:

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging than a rack or grave. [x]

And he never forgot to praise the Giver:

Blest be the Architect, whose art
Could build so strong in a weak heart. [xi]

Herbert’s life was not all sunshine and flowers. Five of his poems are called “Affliction.” The first of these begins happily enough:

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My days were straw’d with flow’rs and happinesse;
There was no month but May.

But then come sorrow and woe, dissatisfaction and disappointment, illness and loss. After a long litany of troubles, the poem ends with a deceptively simple vow crammed with multiple meanings: surrender, self-doubt, anxiety, acceptance, and perhaps a hint of resistance to the demanding terms of the divine-human relationship.

Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not. [xii]

Even worse than personal suffering was the experience of divine absence. For a faithful person in a religious world, such absence was nothing like the “out of sight, out of mind” of our secular age. If God does not “exist” in cultural or personal awareness, then the lack of divine presence goes unnoticed and unfelt. But for anyone whose heart belongs to God, the times of divine absence are excruciating.

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse . . .
O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing. [xiii]

As the Psalms so often remind us, God is not an easy partner. Luther supposed that God often “hides his grace” to teach us not to grasp the divine “according to our own feelings and reactions.”[xiv] If faith always needs evidence, how can it be faith? Or as Emily Dickinson described her own wrestling with “that diviner thing,” it does not always respond to our advances, but rather “Flits––glimmers––proves––dissolves––/ Returns––suggests––“ [xv]

If it were otherwise, and Presence were always immediate, filling every place and every moment with plenitude, our journey would be over, and we would no longer be the “heart in pilgrimage.”[xvi] Herbert, like every saint, accepted God’s terms with faithful ambivalence. “I will complain, yet praise,” he said. “I will bewail, approve: / And all my sowre-sweet days / I will lament, and love.” [xvii]

And in the end, all shall be well, and all manner of thing be well: [xviii]

Whether I flie with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there:
Thy power and love, my love and trust
Make one place ev’ry where. [xix]

 

 

 

Related post: Heart Work and Heaven Work

 

[i] Rosemund Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 194.

[ii] Helen Vendler, Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery(Princeton, 2005), q. in John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 336.

[iii] Tuve, 103.

[iv] Drury, 11.

[v] Gerard Manley Hopkns, “God’s Grandeur.”

[vi] “The Elixir.”

[vii] “The Holy Communion.”

[viii] “Ungratefulnesse.”

[ix] “Mattens.”

[x] “Christmas.”

[xi] “The Church-floore.”

[xii] “Affliction (I).”

[xiii] “Deniall.”

[xiv] Martin Luther, Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, q. in Richard Strier, Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 219.

[xv] Emily Dickinson, “The Love a Life can show Below” (F285, 1862).

[xvi] “Prayer (I).”

[xvii] “Bitter-sweet.”

[xviii] I hope Herbert would appreciate the poetic conceit of combining fellow English artists the Beatles and Julian of Norwich in the same line!

[xix] “The Temper (I).”

“Deeper and deeper into the world”–– In Praise of Mary Oliver

Go not to the object; let it come to you….
What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye.

–– Henry David Thoreau [i]

We need only unite our minds to the outer universe in a holy marriage,
a passionate love-match, and paradise is ours.

–––– M. H. Abrams [ii]

But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.

–– Mary Oliver [iii]

 

The poet Mary Oliver departed this world on January 17, 2019, in her 84thyear. But her acquaintance with heaven began long before, in the fields and woods of her childhood.

I went out of the schoolhouse fast
and through the gardens and to the woods,
and spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught. [iv]

What Oliver would learn outdoors, in moments of grace, wonder, and the cultivated practice of paying attention, was the holiness and radiance of the natural world, the earthly paradise revealing itself to the receptive eye and heart.

What do I know
But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun
lights up willingly. . . [v]

I imagine her early experiences of nature to be as formative as those of the young William Wordsworth:

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence . . . our minds –
Especially the imaginative power –
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
Such moments chiefly seem to have their date
In our first childhood. . .

Thus day by day my sympathies increased,
And thus the common range of visible things
Grew dear to me… [vi]

While Wordsworth’s epiphanies (“spots of time”) are ancestral to the sensibility of every modern nature poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influence was even more direct in Oliver’s development. “I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy,” she said. “He has taught me as deeply as any writer could.” [vii] Emerson’s voracious engagement with the visible world led his mind––and his readers––into its invisible depths, where “the aroused intellect . . . finds that the day of facts is a rock of diamonds, that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.” [viii]

Persuaded that she lived in a world eager to show itself, Oliver pursued the life of a beholder:

The dream of my life
Is to lie down by a slow river
And stare at the light in the trees––
To learn something by being nothing
A little while but the rich
Lens of attention. [ix]

Writing nature––translating the world around us into words––is a complex, nuanced dance between the subjectivity of the self who writes what she sees and the elusive otherness of the not-self. How much of what we see is constructed and colored by our minds, our feelings, our cultural and aesthetic presuppositions? Is it possible to lay all that aside and become pure receptivity, a “lens of attention” which renounces the perceiver’s interpretive shaping of visible phenomena? Can we look without naming? Can we receive what is outside us just as it is and not only as we see it?

“I long to be,” said Oliver, “the empty, waiting, pure, speechless receptacle.” [x] But the very fact of longing admits defeat––such pure emptiness is unattainable in this world. Even the most receptive poet brings the particularity of self to her encounters with the wider world. And that is how it should be: our own way of seeing, whatever the proportions between shaping and receiving, is itself part of nature’s multiplicity. We do not stand over against nature in a binary opposition, but dwell within it, adding our own unique perception, feeling and response to the mix of Creation’s dance.

This requires humility and reticence on our part, so that nature does not become eclipsed by our response to it. What happens to the self in the encounter does matter, but whatever nature is prior to––or in excess of––that encounter must be honored and reverenced as well. As Sharon Cameron says in her study of Thoreau’s explorations of the world beyond his mind, “nature has an identity separate from what is felt about it.” [xi]

California’s uncompromising poet Robinson Jeffers thought it best to renounce the human altogether for the sake of an impersonal and indifferent grandeur:

Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from
humanity,
Let that doll lie…
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself . . . [xii]

Without sharing the extremes of Jeffers’ chilly “inhumanist” philosophy, Mary Oliver also wondered about the hindrances of ego, and spoke of “vanishing” into the world. “Maybe the world, without us,” she suggested, “is the real poem.” [xiii] But as scholar Laurence Buell argues, the personal is just as much a part of nature as everything else. The goal should not be the eradication of the ego, but “the suspension of ego to the point of feeling the environment to be at least as worthy of attention as oneself and of experiencing oneself as situated among many interacting presences” [xiv]

Wendell Berry describes the inseparable relation between self and world as a dance. Contemplating an old sycamore tree on his farm, he says, “We are moving in relationship, a design, that is definite – though shadowy to me – like people in a dance.” [xv] Oliver’s poetry would devote considerable attention to this choreography of interacting presences. “What I write begins and ends with the act of noticing and cherishing, and it neither begins nor ends with the human world.” [xvi]

As with any significant relationship, the self can grow anxious about getting lost in the other, or violating the other’s integrity through domination, or drifting apart into an irredeemable state of alienation. All these have in fact occurred in our relations with the natural world. That is why a poet like Mary Oliver is so necessary. Her deep feeling for the world about her helps to repair the broken connections, retracing the forgotten path back to the garden. She leads us besides the still waters; her poems restore our soul.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily. . .
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.” [xvii]

It is not always a summer noon in her poetry. Her light is aware of the shadows, though her poems spend little time on her personal struggles. Writing only briefly of her parents’ toxicity, she says, “I mention them now, / I will not mention them again.”

It is not lack of love
nor lack of sorrow.
But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry.

. . . I will not give them the kiss of complicity.
I will not give them the responsibility for my life. . .[xviii]

The shadows are deepest in “The Journey,” her most painful––and redemptive––poem.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice––

The feeling of a backward suction into a vortex of melancholy and suffocation is palpable and relentless. The way forward seems impossibly clogged with stones and fallen branches. It’s like a nightmare where you can’t escape because your body has forgotten how to run. The terror of it makes the poem’s redemptive turn all the more cathartic.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheet of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do the only thing you could do––
determined to save
the only life you could save. [xix]

However autobiographical this poem may be, its impact is universal, and I suspect that “The Journey” has saved more than one reader’s life. But trauma is a rare subject for Oliver. In her writing, the more common counterpoint to joy is not pain but mortality. If you are going to write about self and nature, your subject­­s––“all that glorious, temporary stuff” [xx] ––are ever on the verge of disappearing. However much we may love what is mortal, we need to remember, “when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go.” [xxi]

Accommodating ourselves to mortality is one of the primary spiritual tasks. We may not know why death needs to happen, but we can hold it within a larger theological container, trusting there is something more to our story beyond the horizons of earthly experience.

If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke. . .
He’s the ice caps, that are dying . . .[xxii]

I don’t know what God is.
I don’t know what death is.

But I believe they have between them
some fervent and necessary arrangement. . .[xxiii]

And still, whose heart is not broken every time a beautiful and beloved presence goes missing? Even an armful of peonies can bring tears, as we exclaim of their dearness, “their eagerness / to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are / nothing, forever? [xxiv]

“Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!” cries the poet, cherishing the priceless worth bestowed by impermanence, while at the same time suggesting something more lasting behind the veil of appearances.

The geese
flew on.
I have never
seen them again.

Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won’t.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters
is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly. [xxv]

Thoreau, Oliver’s predecessor and kindred spirit, perfectly described the vocation of nature’s receptive and responsive beholders: “I am made to love the pond & the meadow as the wind is made to ripple the water.” [xxvi] Thank you, Mary Oliver, for the ripples you made during “your one wild and precious life.” They continue to carry us deeper and deeper into the world.

May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,

leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,

still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world. [xxvii]

 

 

All photographs by Jim Friedrich.

[i]Henry David Thoreau, Journal, September 13, 1852.

[ii]M. H. Abrams on the Romantic sensibility of William Wordworth, in Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature(New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973), 27.

[iii]“Terns,” in Mary Oliver, Devotions(New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 158. All Mary Oliver quotations will cite page numbers from this edition.

[iv]“Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer” (191).

[v]“Daisies” (176).

[vi]William Wordsworth,The Prelude(1799) 1.288-296 / 2.215-217.

[vii]Mary Oliver, “Emerson: An Introduction,” in Arthur S. Lothstein & Michael Brodrick, eds., New Morning: Emerson in the Twenty-First Century (Albany: State University of New York, 2008), 8.

[viii]Ralph Waldo Emerson, lecture on Dec. 19, 1838, q. in Ashton Nichols, The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 8.

[ix]“Entering the Kingdom” (406).

[x]“Blue Iris”) 215

[xi]Sharon Cameron, Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal(New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 35.

[xii]Robinson Jeffers, “Signpost,” q. in Laurence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 162.

[xiii]“From the Book of Time” (234).

[xiv]Buell, 178.

[xv]Wendell Berry, q. in Scott Slovic, Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez(Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992), 127.

[xvi]Mary Oliver, Blue Pastures(1995), q. in Christian McEwen, World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing, 2011), 167.

[xvii]“When I Am Among the Trees” (123).

[xviii]“Flare” (230, 231).

[xix]“The Journey” (349-50).

[xx]“On Meditating, Sort of” (22).

[xxi]“In Blackwater Woods” (390).

[xxii]“At the River Clarion” (86-87).

[xxiii]“Sometimes” (104).

[xxiv]“Peonies” (298).

[xxv]“Snow Geese” (180-181).

[xxvi]Journal,Nov. 21, 1850.

[xxvii]“Prayer” (84).