“The year changing its mind”— Embracing Impermanence at the Autumnal Equinox

Cherry Tree, University of Washington.

These are the last days.
Already the stalks of lilies
have withered, and the gold petals
of the rose melt on the grass.

— Patricia Hooper, “Equinox” [i]

Summer has just ended, twenty minutes past noon in the Pacific Northwest. I am always sorry to see it go. The languorous days, granting us license to play and to dream, now bid us farewell. The year’s shadowless noon gives way to the urgencies of time. Poet Penelope Shuttle describes September’s turning point with succinct perfection: “The year changing its mind.” [ii] The autumn may be agreeably mellow at first, but we all know where it’s headed. Every Arcadia must fail in the end, every Paradise be lost.

Yesterday I made my final communion with summer in a tranquil float down the Deschutes River. Ponderosa pines, willows and tall grasses lined the banks. Snowy egrets swept past on radiant wings. An osprey spiraled upward into the blue. My mind sank into stillness. I knew nothing but Now. 

Deschutes River, Sunriver, Oregon.

When I threw some books into my suitcase for an end-of-summer vacation in eastern Oregon, I didn’t realize how autumnal my reading would turn out to be. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople—before he turned 20—preserves his vivid memories of an exotic world, from shepherds’ campfires in the Carpathian wilds to the sumptuous libraries in the country estates of cultured Austro-Hungarian patricians. But Fermor didn’t write his trilogy until he was an old man, long after the Middle Europe of 1934 had been swept away. The reader feels the shadow of not only lost youth but also a lost world. [iii]

Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages documents the passing away, in the cultural imagination of France and the Netherlands, of chivalric dreams of a more beautiful life. Before the sadness of fate and history set the dominant tone, says Huizinga, “in many respects life still wore the color of fairy tales.” [iv] At the end of the 14thcentury, a French poet summed up the spirit of his despondent age: 

La fin s’approche, en verité …
Tout va mal.

The end is truly near …
Everything is going bad. [v]

At a time when so much of our own “reality” seems to be a fading dream—democracy, climate, human health, civic sanity—the poet’s autumnal lament rings true. Happily, I brought a third book, containing a cure for such melancholy themes. In Thomas Merton’s journal of his experiences in the far East, the Catholic contemplative wonders whether he is seeing the “real Asia,” or simply finding “an illusion of Asia that needed to be dissolved by experience.” In a deep valley within the Himalayan foothills, he is instructed by the landscape:

“What does this valley have? Landslides. Hundreds of them. The mountains are terribly gashed, except where the forest is thick. Whole sections of tea plantations were carried away six weeks ago. And it is obviously going to be worse the next time there are really heavy rains. The place is a frightening example of annicca—‘impermanence.’ A good place, therefore, to adjust one’s perspectives. I find my mind rebelling against the landslides. I am distracted by reforestation projects and other devices to deny them, to forbid them. I want all this to be permanent. A permanent postcard for meditation, daydreams. The landslides are ironic and silent comments on the apparent permanence, the ‘eternal snows’ of solid [Mount] Kanchenjunga.”

The landslides become Merton’s teacher. Stability is an illusion. Even the great Himalayan mountain, in all its sublime majesty, is subject to impermanence. Once this is accepted, Merton is liberated from autumnal sadness, and a measure of Edenic summer knowledge is restored. He can live in the given moment, accepting its blessings with a peaceful, unanxious heart.

“The sun is high, at the zenith. Clear soft sound of a temple bell far down in the valley. Voices of children near the cottages above me on the mountainside. The sun is warm. Everything falls into place. Nothing is to be decided … There is nothing to be judged.” [vi]



Photographs by the author.

[i] Reprinted in The Heart of Autumn: Poems for the Season of Reflection, ed. Robert Atwan (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 16. This fine anthology is one of a series on poetry of the 4 seasons. 

[ii] From “September,” Ibid., 17.

[iii] I am currently reading the 2nd volume of the trilogy, Between the Woods and Water (New York: New York Review of Books, 1986/2005).

[iv] Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. Rodney J. Payton & Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 9. This more recent translation is much preferable to the one I read in my youth, The Waning of the Middle Ages.

[v] Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406), in Huizinga, 35.

[vi] Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal (New York: New Directions, 1975), 150-151.

“The only solution is love”—Remembering 9/11

A decade ago, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 fell on a Sunday when I was the preacher. The Scriptures for that day were strikingly apt, a divine Word spoken directly to us in the turbulent here and now. The questions which 9/11 raised about the American future—and the human future—have not gone away. They have only grown more urgent. The text of my 2011 sermon is below.

9/11 Memorial & Museum, NYC. Virgil’s words from the Aeneid were forged from steel remnants of the Twin Towers by Tom Joyce. The background—2983 unique shades of blue painted by Stuart Finch— is entitled, “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning.”

It was one of those perfect late summer mornings, the sky above an impossible blue, the city below humming with life. Suddenly, without warning, the world ended in smoke and fire and falling dust. 

On that day, a great city, and all of us who watched at a distance, suffered a kind of violence strangely new to American experience. In an instant we became citizens of an unfamiliar, nightmarish world. As a Catholic poet noted at the time, on 9/11 “the united states of america spent a night and a day in beirut… walked the length of somalia… entered the gates of auschwitz.” Or as the writer Don DeLillo said about this demise of American exceptionalism, “Parts of our world have crumbled into theirs, which means we are living in a place of danger and rage.”

On the 10th anniversary of that terrible day, the Lectionary speaks to us with an eerie timeliness. From the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear the story of the Red Sea, where Pharoah’s entire army is drowned by an act of God. 

Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians;
and the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

Thousands dead. An act of God?

Now the miraculous deliverance of unarmed slaves from a pursuing army that wants to slaughter them is not the same thing as deliberate acts of violence committed in God’s name. The Red Sea was not an instance of religious terrorism. But the Exodus passage does raise the uncomfortable topic of sacred violence, where God, whether by proxy or direct intervention, saves some and lets others perish. In God’s defense, such actions are always on the side of the powerless and the oppressed in the Bible. As we recite in the Magnificat at Evening Prayer:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.

We find a lot of this casting down in Revelation, a book written to encourage persecuted Christians: Don’t worry. The day is coming when mighty Rome will fall. While consoling to the downtrodden, this is not good news for the powers that be. The 11th chapter delivers this chilling line: the time has come to destroy those who are destroying the earth.(Rev. 11:18). 

These words express the eschatological hope for a better world, but they sound uncomfortably close to the kind of writings that informed the pious, angry young men who hijacked those planes to strike a blow against “godless” modernity. 

John Brown, painted by John Steuart Curry in 1939. After visiting the 9/11 Memorial in 2019, I saw this unsettling portrait at the Whitney Museum. The accompanying commentary strikes a chord in the America of 2021: “Brown’s crazed expression suggests the messianic fervor and wrath that fueled his opposition to human bondage through armed rebellion.”

A critical examination of sacred violence—the blood on religion’s hands—and the way such texts are countered with more life-affirming scriptures—these are complicated subjects for another time. For now let us simply note that passionate religious certainty, and the tendency to escalate difference and conflict into a cosmic struggle between good and evil, is not exclusive to the jihadists. We can find it in our own scriptures. 

On a different day, the Red Sea story might be a joyful celebration of God’s defense of the powerless, or an image of baptismal passage through the waters of death. But on this day—ten years after 9/11—it may simply want to pose a troubling question, lest we be too eager to say that God is on our side. We can’t just dance with the Israelites anymore. We must also weep with the Egyptians. 

A litany published the week after 9/11 embraces this inclusiveness, affirming that Jesus is carrying the “dead, the wounded, and those who mourn; the killers and those who were killed; the frightened, the angry, the sorrowful – Jesus is carrying all of this, all of us, every part of us, into the loving heart of God.”

Our second reading offers the comforting assurance from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans that we hear every time we bury a loved one: 

Yet none of us has life in himself or herself.
If we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die, 
we are the Lord’s possession.

The shock of 9/11 inflicted enormous trauma upon the American people, a trauma that still lives in our bodies. We have never fully worked through the grief process, so eager were our leaders to launch into war, short-circuiting the work we really needed to do. 

A recent PBS documentary, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, explored a wide range of religious questions arising from 9/11. And one of the things people talked about in interviews was the presence – or absence – of God in the face of such evil and suffering. There were no easy answers. 

As one rabbi put it, “Since September 11th, people keep asking me, ‘Where was God?’ And they think because I’m a rabbi, I have answers. And I actually think that my job as a rabbi is to help them live with those questions. If God’s ways are mysterious, live with the mystery. It’s upsetting. It’s scary. It’s painful. It’s deep. And it’s interesting. No plan. That’s what mystery is. It’s all of those things.”

The rabbi goes on to say that he resists any answers that get God off the hook, because “right now, everything is on the hook.”

And yet, wherever or whatever God may be in this, and whether we find ourselves among the living or the dead, we always remain inside the divine mystery, enfolded in the loving arms of God. If I make the grave my bed, you are there also, says the Psalmist. Only such a faith can deliver us from the icy grip of fear and dread. 

Martin Johnson Heade, Approaching Thunder Storm, 1859 (detail). Painted on the eve of the Civil War, the figure peers into the imminent darkness with extraordinary calm.

Today’s final text is from Matthew’s gospel, and what a gospel it is for September 11th! “How long should I keep forgiving, Lord?” And Jesus says, “Oh, about a billion times.” The text actually says seventy-seven, or in the math of King James, seventy times seven. But the point is: stop counting. Don’t keep track. Forgiveness isn’t a one-time transaction; it’s a practice, a way of being. 

We exist to forgive, to reconcile, to mend, to heal— 
generously, unreservedly, endlessly.

A recent feature film, Of Gods and Men, tells the true story of eight French Catholic monks who lived in the mountains of Algeria during a time of civil war and terrorist violence in the 1990s. Their monastery was at the edge of a poor Muslim village, where they lived in harmony with their neighbors, providing the only accessible health care. As the surrounding political violence escalated, the monks were warned by the government to leave the country. But they felt called to remain among the people they served, despite the high probability of martyrdom. Despite their own fears.

Their abbot, Dom Christian, wrote a letter to his family in Advent, 1993, two years before he and his brother monks were killed by terrorists. Anticipating his own martyrdom, he insists that he is not exceptional, since so many others in that land were also at risk.

“My life,” he wrote, “is not worth more than any other — not less, not more. Nor am I an innocent child. I have lived long enough to know that I, too, am an accomplice of the evil that seems to prevail in the world around, even that which might lash out blindly at me. If the moment comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, to ask for God’s pardon … and, at the same time, to pardon in all sincerity him who would attack me…”

What an extraordinary thing to say: Here is a good and humble and holy man confessing his own complicity in the evils of the world. And what does he hope for? He hopes for the presence of mind, in the very moment of being murdered, to ask forgiveness. Forgiveness not only for himself, but for his killer as well. 

The end of his letter is addressed not to his family, his loved ones, but to the stranger who will one day kill him, the stranger whom he calls “my friend of the last moment.” 

“And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this “A-Dieu,” whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father.”

Such faithfulness to the way of Jesus is sheer nonsense to the world, and perhaps to many Christians as well. 

How dismal a contrast we find in the official government reaction to 9/11, when our leaders, most of them Christians, set out to hunt down and kill the “evildoers.” Their violent, retaliatory response bequeathed a dark legacy which continues to poison our common life: the politics of fear and division, the launching of endless war, the shameless profiteering that feeds and encourages armed conflict, the stain of Guantanamo and the worldwide network of secret prisons, and the outrageous authorization of torture as national policy. 

In an article entitled “Did Osama bin Laden Win?” —written just after bin Laden’s death—Mark Sumner offers the analogy of the human body’s autoimmune system, where the worst damage is not done by the original disease, but by the overreaction of “the same systems that fought off and destroyed the invader. Long after the bacteria is excised by the body,” he writes, “the damage lingers.” Then turning to the overactive immune system that gave us two ruinous wars as well as the corrosion of the American conscience by torture and other public sins, Sumner points out that “it wasn’t bin Laden who did this. He could never do this. It’s our response to bin Laden. That’s what has already crippled us, and what may yet kill us.”

But there is an antidote for this poison, and it too rose out of the ashes of Ground Zero. A sample of this antidote is contained in a statement by the Catholic Worker communities of California ten years ago.

The Catholic Worker movement was co-founded by Dorothy Day, one of the true saints of the last century. As an eight-year-old child, she was in San Francisco during the great earthquake and fire of 1906. When she witnessed on the streets of San Francisco the same kind of care and camaraderie among strangers as we saw in New York after 9/11, she asked, “Why can’t people live like this all the time?” 

When she grew up, she explored that child’s question through a network of small lay communities who today continue to live among the poorest of the poor to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and visit the sick and imprisoned. 

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this is what the Catholic workers had to say: 

Even after all this… 

Our grief will not be short-circuited with cries of vengeance nor with acts of retribution. We will not cooperate with incitements to become that which we most oppose, namely perpetrators of violence. 

We will honor the deeper levels of grief, acknowledging the woundedness inflicted upon us, and the woundedness that our nation has inflicted upon others…

We invite you to participate with us in all our wildest dreams and visions for peace. For now we sadly know that our affluence, our power, our possessions cannot serve as protection from harm. We invite you to clamber off the wheel of violence. It is the only worthy legacy we can offer to those who have died…

We are Catholic Workers and we still believe… the only solution is love. 

More love, more love … the angels are calling: Oh children, more love. The love that birthed the universe into being and raised the dead. A love as defenseless and potent as Christ on the cross. 

You can’t build empires with it, 
but it is the only true way out of the abyss, 
the only antidote for evil’s poison.

We saw love at work in countless ways in the days after 9/11: 
So much solidarity, generosity, selflessness and compassion, 
so much courage and resilience, 
so much caring for one another. 

We’ve all been moved by the stories. One of my favorites is of a man in Manhattan’s Union Square. Just as people were filing out of a memorial service, he began to sing: “Start spreadin’ the news…” And one by one, others joined in, until hundreds of people were singing “New York, New York” at the top of their lungs, in streets still swirling with the dust of fallen towers. Who knew there was a resurrection hymn in the Sinatra canon?

Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! But is this enough? Can love’s fragile flowers break the rocks in the desert of abandonment and lament? Can they get us through the time of trial? Can they deliver us from evil? I will let a New Yorker answer that question. 

At the end of the documentary, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, we hear several voices reflecting on the haunting televised image of two anonymous people, co-workers or strangers, we don’t know, who jumped together from the south tower. Just before they jumped, they reached out to take each other’s hand. Then they fell into space. Holding hands. 

For an unbelieving novelist in the film interviews, this was an image of human desperation and despair in an indifferent universe. For an NPR correspondent, the gesture of mutual touch was a frail sign of hope that we are not totally alone when we face the abyss. 

As we hear these voice-overs, we don’t see the image they are talking about. That would be unbearable. Instead, we are shown nighttime shots of the two vertical columns of blue light that shine every year on September 11th in the empty space left by the collapsed towers. Emanating from 88 searchlights aimed straight at the heavens, transparent twin towers: ghostly evocations of presence and absence, absence and presence.

The voices continue over these shots, and finally we hear from a Catholic writer, Brian Doyle, a New Yorker by birth. His words speak for all people of faith:

A couple leaped from the south tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met, and they jumped. I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers, but I keep coming back to his hand in her hand, nestled in each other with such extraordinary, ordinary, naked love. 

It’s the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It’s everything we’re capable of against horror and loss and tragedy.

It’s what makes me believe that we’re not fools to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them, like seeds that open only under great fire, to believe that who we are persists past what we were, to believe, against evil evidenced hourly, that love is why we are here.

Words Fail: Thinking the Divine Name(s)

“… “to think God without any conditions, not even that of Being.” — Jean-Luc Marion

It seems that we can use no words at all to refer to God.

— Thomas Aquinas [i]

As soon as there are words … direct intuition no longer has any chance. 

— Jacques Derrida [ii]   

Dionysius the Areopagite, a sixth-century Syrian mystic, made the classic case for theological modesty. We should not presume to say too much about God. When it comes to what he called the “Unutterable,” he said, words fail. An encounter with divine reality leaves us speechless. 

“Reject all that belongs to the perceptible and intelligible … and lift yourself as far as you are able to the point of being united in unknowing with the One who is beyond all being and all knowledge.” [iii]

Dionysius’ insistence on divine ineffability was a subversive counterbalance to the theological project of the ancient ecumenical councils, which devoted intense intellectual energy to the pursuit of dogmatic precision. Words, phrases, even individual letters had been fiercely debated over the course of several centuries. With the stakes so high, no one wanted to get it wrong. But Dionysius’ caution about saying too much would have a lasting influence on both mystics and theologians from the Middle Ages to post-modernity. 

Thomas Aquinas, whose exhaustive systematic theology, Summa Theologica, used 1.8 million words to speak of God, issued a striking caution in one of his shorter works: “as to the mode of signification [for God] goes, every name is defective.” [iv] A modern Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, agreed, since transcendence “presents itself to us in the mode of withdrawal, of silence, of distance, of being always inexpressible, so that speaking of it, if it is to make sense, always requires listening to its silence.” [v]  That kind of listening without making words is hard, when our heads are so full of ideas. But if we desire accuracy, we must try, as Jean-Luc Marion has said, “to think God without any conditions, not even that of Being.” [vi]

It’s not just that God is unknowable; language itself is chronically imprecise—“a raid on the inarticulate,” T. S. Eliot called it, “with shabby equipment always deteriorating.” [vii] But of the One who is “the Wholly Other, for whom we have no words, and whom all our poor symbols insult,” can we say anything at all? [viii]

The “veil” before the Altar of Presence in the author’s worship installation, “Via Negativa.”

Even Dionysius admitted the necessity of God-talk. We need to understand something about ultimate Reality if we are to be in relation with it. In Divine Names, Dionysius wrote at length about the attributes of God, and so have countless Christian thinkers before or since. While God is always beyond our conceptual reach, we still have religious experiences through which we learn something of who—and how—God is for us. Sometimes we speak in literal terms, as when we say that God loves us. God’s love may be more perfect than human love and mediated in a different way, but it’s love all the same. 

Metaphors, on the other hand, use something familiar to tell us about the unfamiliar. God is not literally a shepherd, a shield, or shade from the heat, but God has been known to be like these things in some way. Those three are all biblical images, but every age provides new metaphors. A British youth minister told me that skateboarders use their experience of what they call “flow” as a kind of divine name. But metaphors are only provisional—“scaffoldings around invisible reality,” in Jerzy Peterkiewicz’s aptly metaphorical image, “liable to vanish” when pressed to become literal. [ix]

What can I say, my God, my life, my holy joy?
Or what can anyone say who speaks of you?”

— St. Augustine, Confessions [x]

St. Augustine’s questions were on my mind when I composed an experimental “creed” for an alternative liturgy at our local Episcopal parish.[xi] The Nicene Creed, crafted by the fourth-century Council of Nicaea to be a concise summary of orthodox belief, is still recited in the Sunday rites of most liturgical churches. Its insertion into the liturgy 150 years after the Council resulted from a now-forgotten doctrinal quarrel, and some of today’s liturgical theologians question its continued use in the rite. [xii]

My own intent, however, was not to critique the Nicene Creed per se, but to explore God-talk in terms of the One and the Many, drawing upon something Thomas Aquinas said about the names of God:

“[We] see the necessity of giving to God many names. For, since we cannot know Him naturally except by arriving at Him from His effects, the names by which we signify His perfection must be diverse, just as the perfections belonging to things are found to be diverse. Were we able to understand the divine essence itself as it is and give to it the name that belongs to it, we would express it by only one name. This is promised to those who will see God through His essence: “In that day there shall be one Lord, and His name shall be one” (Zech. 14:9). [xiii]

I divided the assembly into three parts. Each droned the same Latin text, slowly, in 4 beats: Crèdo in ùnum Dè-ùm (“I believe in one God,” the opening words of the Nicene Creed). They sang on a single tone in unison, but in three harmonizing pitches, with a 2-beat silence between the repetitions. As they continued their droning ground, I both chanted and spoke a descant of divine names.

The people’s repeated line was the One; my recitation of diverse names was the Many. The division of parts was a reverse complementarity: many sang the One and one sang the Many. I drew the names from many sources—hymns, prayers, theologians, mystics, poets, and one filmmaker—absorbed into my own prayer and preaching over the years. I can’t remember exactly where all of the names came from. Some you will recognize. A few sprang from my own religious experience. 

A divine name?

The torrent of words, coming and going so quickly, evoked multiple associations, perspectives and meanings without letting any single “name” linger long enough to permit an idolatrous fixation, as if it alone were the one most accurate or true. No sooner did a “name” appear than it was replaced by another—affirmation and negation in a perpetual dance, just the way Dionysius liked it. People told me later that they stopped trying to grasp individual words and simply sank into the flow, surrendering to the meditative state generated by their repetitive chanting and silent breathing. 

If any liturgists and musicians out there want to try your own variations, please feel free. Trained singers might add more complex harmonies (think Arvo Pärt), and a speech choir could explore creative arrangements of the many names. And of course, you or your community might want to compile a fresh list of names from your own traditions and personal experiences. That this particular list is woefully incomplete is part of the point.

Credo in unum Deum …

Holy and eternal God, 
Beauty so ancient and so new,
Source and sustainer of everything that is. 

Author of life, mender of destinies, 
desire of every heart, the meaning of every story.

Mystery of the world,
most deeply hidden and yet most near,
fount of our being, inexhaustible and overflowing. 
Grace abounding.

Constant and just, wiser than despair, 
joyful Yes against all negation.  

The great I am, beyond all knowing,
yet called by many names:

Creator, Sustainer, Pardoner, Gift-giver,
Goodness, Wisdom, Mercy, Truth, Faithfulness, Blessing,
Alpha and Omega, Ruler of time and history,
ineffable and untamable Spirit.

Presence. 
The depth in every moment.

Eloquent silence, dazzling darkness, blinding radiance,
so far beyond us—and so deep within us, 
in whom we live and move and have our being.

Holy One: Thou—Abba! ThouAmma! 
Love who loves us. 

Our true and lasting home. 

+

Jesus Christ, the Given One, eternally begotten,
who by the power of the Holy Spirit
became incarnate from the Virgin Mary:
fully human and fully divine.

Word made flesh, to live and die as one of us,
that we might see and know the self-diffusive love of God,
and realize the fullness of our humanity. 

As God’s icon, the face of love for us, 
Jesus renounced privilege and power,
living without weapons or self-protection,
giving himself away for the sake of others:
servant and sufferer, healer and helper,
Savior and friend! 

Handed over to the enemies of life,
Jesus died on the cross.
But on the third day he rose again,
breaking the power of death,
opening the way for us
to live in God forever.

+

Holy Spirit, Love’s consuming flame,
the eager, wild wind of divine surprise: 

Quickening power, creative energy, inner light,
divine imagination, disturber of the peace,
dearest freshness deep down things,
the strong force of love, drawing the universe into communion.

Sustainer, Sanctifier,
Counselor, Comforter,
Dancer.

The breath in every prayer, 
the longing in every heart.

+

Holy and undivided Trinity, 
your catholic and apostolic Church belongs to you alone.
We give thanks for the renewing power of our baptism,
making us Christ’s own forever—forgiven and free.

Grant us to live always in the light of resurrection,
overflowing with love and steadfast in hope.

May the faith we confess in this assembly
be visible in the lives we lead and the choices we make. 

Let all the people say: Amen!



Photographs by the author. The view of the sky through the arch of the south porch baldaquin of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Cecilia in Albi, France, is an image for the limits of theological speech: the stairs of language take us upward, but only so far. After that: a wordless sky. You can read about the “Via Negativa” installation here. Arne Pihl’s “Gentle” sculpture (2014-15) was part of an installation in a razed lot in Seattle, responding to questions about the future of a changing neighborhood.

[i] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1a.13.1. Thomas quotes from Dionysius to support this statement.

[ii] Jacques Derrida cited in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Religion, ed. William J. Wainwright (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 489.

[iii] Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology 1.1, cited in Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 247. The anonymous mystic’s name is a pseudonym taken from Acts 17:34 to suggest apostolic authority.

[iv] Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles 30.3. Italics mine.

[v] Karl Rahner, S. J., Foundations of Christian Faith (1983), p. 64, cited in Thomas M. Kelly, Theology at the Void: The Retrieval of Experience (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2002), 130.

[vi] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being (1991), p. 45, cited in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Religion, 484.

[vii] T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” in Four Quartets.

[viii] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (Oxford: Oneworld Publications 1999/2008, orig. published 1911), 337.

[ix] Jerzy Peterkiewicz, The Other Side of Silence: The Poet at the Limits of Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 45.

[x] St. Augustine, Confessions 1.4. The full passage has a wonderful list of divine names: Summe, optime, potentissime, omnipotentissime, misericordissime et justissime, secretissime et presentissime, pulcherrime et fortissime; stabilis et incomprehensibilis; immutabilis, mutans omnia. Numquam novis, nunquam vetus, … Semper agens, semper quietus; colligens et non egens: portans et implens et protogens; creans et nutrigens et perficiens: quaerens cum nihil desit tibi … Quid dicimus, Deus meus, vita mea, dulcedo mea sacnta? Aut quid dicit aliquis, cum de te dicit? (“Highest, best, most potent, most omnipotent [transcendent], most merciful and most just, most deeply hidden and yet most near, fairest, yet strongest, steadfast, yet ungraspable, unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, yet never old.… ever busy, yet ever at rest; gathering yet needing not; bearing, filling, guarding; creating, nourishing, and protecting; seeking though you have no wants … What can I say, my God, my life, my holy joy? Or what can any say who speaks of you?”).

[xi] St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA.

[xii] In his 1995 commentary on the liturgy at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, Richard Fabian writes that Peter the Fuller, Patriarch of Antioch, whose Monophysite party was defeated at the Council of Chalcedon (451), inserted the creed into the cathedral liturgy to show his loyalty to the earlier Council of Nicaea (325). Though he was soon deposed, the creed remained, “a massive monument to doctrinal quarrels ever since.” Its inclusion was resisted in the western church, especially in England, but slipped into English worship in the 15th century, and incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer in the 16th. Today, some question its lack of inclusive language as well as the ancient Greek terminology whose original meanings are obscure to many. And some liturgists wonder about its effect on the natural flow of the rite. (Worship at St. Gregory’s, All Saints Company, 25-26).

[xiii] Summa contra Gentiles, 31.4. As to just how many names there are, I’ve always liked the number from Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God.”

The Courage to Be Nobody: Simone Biles and the Art of Renunciation

Aurélien Arbet and Jérémie Egry, I would prefer not to (2005).

“Wandering away from everything, giving up everything, not me anymore, not any of it.”

— Agnes Martin

In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Herman Melville’s notoriously perplexing short story, his principal character speaks just thirty-seven lines, over a third of them variations on a simple declaration: “I would prefer not to.” Having taken a job copying documents in a law firm, he offers that same maddening reply to every request. He prefers not to perform assigned tasks, or to explain why. When finally discharged by his boss, he prefers not to leave the premises. When, in the end, he lands in jail, he prefers “not to dine,” and dies of starvation.

The story is narrated by his employer, who finds himself “strangely goaded on” to discover the motivation for Bartleby’s eccentric behavior.

“Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable except from the original sources, and, in his case, those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him.” [i]

For his employer, Bartleby remains an unknowable blank, an impenetrable opacity. His past is unknown; he is barely present in the here and now. As Elizabeth Hardwick describes him, “Bartleby is not a character in the manner of the usual, imaginative, fictional construction. And he is not a character as we know them in life, with their bundling bustle of details … He is indeed only words, wonderful words, and very few of them.” [ii]

Every attempt by the bewildered narrator to categorize or interpret his eccentric employee vanishes into the black hole of Bartleby’s essential unknowability. Neither reader nor narrator can solve the puzzle of his abiding negation. And what is true of Bartleby the character is also true of “Bartleby” the story. 

Literary critics and perplexed readers have been trying to explain Melville’s tale for 168 years. Bartleby is clinically depressed. He’s the existential resistance to a deadening, soulless economy. He’s the embodiment of modernity’s “sickness unto death,” the enervation of purpose and will. Or the story itself is Melville’s practical joke on the reading public, luring us down the hermeneutic rabbit hole of a world without reasons. We want to know why, but in Bartleby’s world there is no why. 

Bartleby came to mind this week when “the greatest gymnast in history,” Simone Biles, withdrew from the Olympic team competition after a flawed performance in her first event. The world immediately demanded explanations. Why did she prefer not to perform? Some were puzzled, even outraged, and, like Bartleby’s frustrated colleagues, they rushed to supply their own speculative interpretations.[iii] Unlike Bartleby, however, Biles made known her motivation. She told the press she was taking care of her mental health. Her body and mind had slipped “out of sync” in Tokyo, causing her to feel lost in midair during her twisting somersaults off the vault table. It’s not like dropping a pass or missing a putt. A mistake in gymnastics can mean a broken neck. 

“You have to be there 100%,” she explained in a press conference. “If not, you get hurt. Today has been really stressful. I was shaking. I couldn’t nap. I have never felt like this going into a competition, and I tried to go out and have fun. But once I came out, I was like, No. My mental is not there.”

Her decision was not only good for her. It probably helped the team, which might not have medaled had she continued to underperform. And she has been credited by many for making a memorable case for self-care—mental as well as physical—in the pressure cooker of elite public performance.

In Ethan Hawke’s 2014 documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, we meet Seymour Bernstein, a celebrated concert pianist who disappointed his public by quitting the stage at age 50 after becoming “a total wreck” from the pressures of performance. When Hawke first encountered Bernstein at a dinner party and learned his story, the actor/director found himself sharing his own anxieties with the older man. 

“I decided to confide with him that I’d been performing with a crippling stage fright,” said Hawke in an interview. “The bottom line of the conversation: most artists are not nervous enough .… Pianists have it worse than anybody in the world … If you have to play Carnegie Hall, and you know that one performance will define your whole life, and if you have a memory slip, or if your finger goes rogue, you’re going to be living with the ramifications of it for the rest of your life. They have anxiety like nobody else, and so he was the perfect person to talk to about how to pass through it.” [iv]

Few of us can even imagine the pressures of being the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) who is not allowed to fail, the face of the Olympics, America’s standard bearer, and the always dependable foundation of the team’s success. But her renunciation of these burdens, however temporary, may be her greatest achievement insofar as it helps athletes—and society as a whole—engage with issues of mental health and personal well-being as never before, without stigma or shame. 

William James defined renunciation as “a denial made on behalf of a deeper yes.” In refusing to be shaped by the images and expectations of the world, and by renouncing the projects, desires and identities which do not originate in our deepest place, we begin to affirm and become the truth of ourselves. Taken to its furthest point, this process is a matter of dying to self and living unto God. 

The medieval mystic Henry Suso taught “the science of Perfect Self-Abandonment,” the letting go of “self” in order to merge with the more of God. Until you consent to abandon your inauthentically constructed self, he counsels, “you are like a hare hiding in a bush, who is frightened by the whispering of the leaves. You are frightened every day by the griefs that come to you; you turn pale at the sight of those who speak against you; … when they praise you, you are happy; when they blame you, you are sad.” [v]

In his book, Renunciation: Acts of Abandonment by Writers, Philosophers, and Artists, Ross Posnock examines creatives who made “an exit from the public glare.” For figures of renown, self-erasure is a means of escaping the pressures of public attention, but it may also involve a more radical interior process: grappling with the ego in search of the authentic self. But dropping out of the fame game is suspicious behavior in America. If a gifted person doesn’t crave celebrity, we wonder what’s wrong with them. 

One of Posnock’s subjects is the painter Agnes Martin, who fled the New York art scene in her fifties for the solitude of a remote desert mesa in New Mexico. During her forty years in the wilderness (she died at 92), she continued to make art that was highly praised for its abstract mysticism and formal beauty, but she did her best to keep herself out of sight. When a prestigious museum proposed a major retrospective of her work, she refused, fearing it would be more about her than her art, for which she claimed to be simply a transparent medium. As she told the museum, “the idea of achievement must be given up” if we are “to live truly and effectively.” [vi]

An Agnes Martin could go off the grid without creating a stir, since she was not a cultural superstar. But when the writer J. D. Salinger began to recede from public view in the 1950s after the immense success of Catcher in the Rye, curiosity about his private life grew ever more insistent and, in his mind, more oppressive. 

Behind the walls of his New Hampshire hideout, he crafted his response to what Posnock calls “the culture’s defensive compulsion to label and control,” in the form of enigmatic narratives about the fictional Glass family’s spiritual quests and confusions. Like Bartleby, Salinger preferred his own life to remain a blank, letting the stories speak for themselves. “This blank is his way,” says Posnock, “of outwitting or baffling the arrogant paradigm of meaning production with its ‘menacing pressure’ to generate a legible identity for consumption …” [vii]

“A legible identity for consumption” could describe what the world has tried to make of Simone Biles, before she issued her brave and risky no “on behalf of a deeper yes.” What that deeper yes will be for her, God only knows. May she walk in Beauty.

But renunciation as a spiritual practice is something we all need to think about. Less ego. More grace. And if I were asked to find the right words for this cultural moment, I’d go with the passionate cri de couer of Salinger’s Franny Glass: 

“I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite. Don’t you see that? I’m afraid I will compete—that’s what scares me. That’s why I quit the Theatre Department. Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.” [viii]



[i] Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The employer’s failure to reach any solid conclusions about Bartleby makes him an unreliable narrator for a story he does not himself understand.

[ii] Elizabeth Hardwick, American Fictions (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 9.

[iii] For the critics obsessed with national glory, Biles’ personal well being was of little use. One writer vilified her as proof that “we are raising a generation of weak people.” The deputy attorney general in her home state of Texas called her “our selfish, childish, national embarrassment.” But every gymnast, and I hope most of the public, knew better. 

[iv] Hawke took his title from J. D. Salinger’s story about the unexplained self-annihilation of the fictional Seymour Glass. The Today Show (March 2015) interview is online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqsdmR8fGoo

[v] Henry Suso (German, c. 1295-1366), cited in Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness(Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993/2008, originally published 1911), 405. I have modernized the pronouns.

[vi] Ross Posnock, Renunciation: Acts of Abandonment by Writers, Philosophers, and Artists (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 376. Olivia Laing’s excellent piece on Martin in The Guardian is well worth reading: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/22/agnes-martin-the-artist-mystic-who-disappeared-into-the-desert

[vii] Posnock, 147.

[viii] J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1961/2014), 26.

“What do I know?”

Caravaggio, The Conversion of St. Paul (1601). Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo.

In the year 1570, Michel de Montaigne, age 36, was riding “an undemanding but not very reliable horse” through the woods near his Dordogne estate. It was a leisurely outing, a respite from his duties in local politics and the management of the family lands. He was accompanied by some of his workers, one of whom decided to show off by racing his powerful farm horse to the front of the line. But the show-off misjudged the width of the path. Instead of dashing triumphantly past Montaigne’s horse, he rammed it from behind, “striking us like a thunderbolt with all his roughness and weight, knocking us over with our legs in the air.” 

Montaigne flew a good ten yards beyond his fallen horse, losing consciousness when he hit the ground, “with no more movement or sensation than a log.” His companions thought him dead, and sought to carry his inert body back to his home. Along the way, however, he began to revive, “but only little by little and over so long a stretch of time that at first my sensations were closer to death than to life.”

Over the next few hours, Montaigne’s thoughts “floated on the surface of my soul … not merely free from unpleasantness but tinged with that gentle feeling which is felt by those who let themselves glide into sleep.” For that blessed interval, the pain of his body did “not belong to us.” When that pain finally entered his conscious awareness, its severity felt like a second brush with death, but without the dreamy gentleness of his initial encounter with fatal proximity.

The last thing his mind recovered was the memory of his accident. At first he thought he’d been hit by a stray bullet. The Wars of Religion had reached the Dordogne, and the distant pop of primitive firearms was not uncommon in his neighborhood. Eventually, his memory of colliding horses returned, “but that perception had been so sudden that fear had no time to be engendered by it.” And whatever happened next—his horse disappearing under him, his flight through the air, the hard landing and loss of consciousness—remained an utter blank.[a]

Although Montaigne’s Essais are an essential part of the literary canon, I must confess that I had not read his account of this unfortunate fall until my later years—last month, in fact, about twelve hours after I flew off my bicycle to make my own painful fall to earth. Such a timely reading was itself an accident. I happened to have with me Patricia Hampl’s reflections about Montaigne in The Art of the Wasted Day, and when I opened the book in my hospital room the next morning, her chapter about his fall was the next one up.

My own Montaigne moment occurred after the penultimate session of the Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, where I was spending ten days in athletics heaven. Bicycling across the University of Oregon campus at dusk, I was surprised to discover—too late!—that the sidewalk suddenly morphed into three descending steps, the kind of impossible shape-shifting that only happens in bad dreams or cartoon catastrophes. I remember a violent bounce off the first step, but not what happened next. I probably squeezed the brakes, pitching the bike into a forward roll and throwing me into space, but I retain no memory of my flight path. I can only recall the moment of impact and the immediate sensation of pain in my right side and shoulder. Thankfully, my head was untouched. Unlike Montaigne, however, I did not drift in a painless state of gentle detachment. But I did have the experience of a certain doubleness in my awareness. While part of me was howling with pain, another part was busy assessing the damage, noting the details, and wondering at the strangeness of my new reality.

Thanks be to God, I was soon supplied with angels of mercy—three students, plus a nurse who had finished her shift at a Catholic hospital only two blocks away. These angels helped me hobble to the emergency room. After two days in hospital, I was on the highway home with my wife at the wheel. Three and a half weeks later, I’m pretty much back to normal life while awaiting the orthopedic verdict on a displaced clavicle.

“I am myself the matter of this book,” said Montaigne of his immense and influential collection of essays. Although his voice is very personal in its wide-ranging reflections on self and world, vivid stories about himself are rare in his writings. Many have attributed the inclusion of his riding accident to its significance as a turning point for Montaigne. A year after his fall, he would withdraw from the world for a life of reading, thinking, and writing. For the next 22 years until his death, he spent the majority of his days philosophizing in the stone tower adjacent to his house.

His near-death experience had produced a clarity of purpose. Close encounters with extinction tend to focus the mind on what truly matters. Since I’m not going to be here that long, how shall I spend the time that remains? But what happened to Montaigne was more than a sense of heightened resolve. It also sparked a new perception of how consciousness works. Hampl describes this pivotal shift:

“In being knocked off his horse, he experienced the doubleness necessary to empower personally voiced writing. He experienced the fall—but he also observed the fall. Both. In separate but related strands of consciousness he experienced, and he saw the experience.”[b]

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Hampl compares Montaigne’s fall to the conversion of Saul. While the Book of Acts (9:1-6) says only that Saul “fell to the ground” in the face of blinding revelation, Caravaggio’s biblical painting makes it a fall from a horse, dramatizing the image of transformation as a great tumble from the heights of control and self-assurance, terminating in a shocking, shattering thud. Thus did Saul become Paul, someone altogether new. 

As for Montaigne, he might not have invented the personal essay had he not first been knocked silly, discovering in the process that the self is not just trapped within its own individual experience, but is capable of a larger, less narcissistic, more reflective understanding of mind and world. As Hampl writes, Montaigne’s head wound “gave him a new, enlarged consciousness. In his Essais he found the purpose of this self: to see and then to say. The personal essay was born of a smack upside the head.”[c]

Montaigne’s fall changed the course of his life, but it also changed his relation to death. He struggled with the fear of it through the loss of his father, brother, best friend and five infant daughters, not to mention the persistent slaughters of the religious wars. But when, in the first hours after his fall, he hovered in a strangely tranquil state of letting go, death appeared to have a “friendly face.” It seemed no longer a feared stranger or an impersonal nullification, but a companion as near to us on our first day as our last. 

For the rest of his life, the embrace of our mortality would be a recurring theme. His essay, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,”[d] offers various perspectives to help us live with death:

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it … Whenever a horse stumbles, a tile falls, or a pin pricks, let us at once chew over this thought: ‘Supposing that was death itself?”

Why are you afraid of your last day? It brings you no closer to your death than any other did. The last step does not make you tired: it shows that you are tired. All days lead to death: the last one gets there.

‘Leave this world,’ Nature says, ‘just as you entered it. The same journey from death to life, which you once made without suffering or fear, make it again from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is part of the life of the world.’

I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening. I once saw a man die who, right to the last, kept lamenting that destiny had cut the thread of the history he was writing when he had only got up to our fifteenth or sixteenth king!

Que sais-je?

And what has my own fall produced in me? I am not Paul. I am not Montaigne. But after that close encounter with the precipitous boundary of my existence, can I remain the same person I was before my short flight into the unexpected? 

The meanings of that Oregon night are still sinking in. Time will tell what I will make of them, or what they will make of me. As Montaigne always said, “Que sais-je?” [e]



[a] Michel de Montaigne, “On Practice,” in The Complete Essays, trans. M. A. Screech (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2003), II:6, pp. 416-427.

[b] Patricia Hampl, The Art of the Wasted Day (New York: Viking, 2018), 214.

[c] Ibid., 215-216.

[d] The Complete Essays, I:20, pp. 96, 107, 103, 99.

[e] Montaigne’s motto (“What do I know?”) reflected his suspicion of certainty and final conclusions, and his inquisitive open-mindedness.

Celebrating the Fourth of July When America is in Doubt

Frederic Edwin Church, “Our Banner in the Sky” (1861)

Insofar as the Fourth of July is the American Midsummer Day, full of warm weather conviviality, playful communal rituals, and the climactic glory of fireworks, it is a day of pleasure and joy. As a celebration of our founding ideals, however, it has always been fraught with the ironies of our national and cultural imperfections.

I have noted these troubling ironies in recent years. “Your Celebration is a Sham”—Indepedence Day in an Age of Cruelty (2019) and Fourth of July 2020: Last Rites for a Dying America? are the most recent examples. In light of the January 6 insurrection and all the calamitous behavior in its wake, one could write volumes about the weird vibe of this year’s holiday affirmations about “America.” But a separated shoulder suffered a week ago, when I flew off my bicycle for a painful meeting with unforgiving concrete, has momentarily limited my ability to sit for long at a computer, and I need to go into the garden now to renew my love for America in conversation with Dickinson and Thoreau. But let me pass on a couple of things before I do.

When a friend posted Church’s 1861 painting, “Our Banner in the Sky,” today, it struck me an image of where we are as a country today. When Church painted it at the outbreak of the Civil War, he was expressing his support for the Union cause. In the most tempestuous of times, he assures us, our flag shall yet wave. But to me the painting seems fraught with fundamental tensions. Is that sunrise or sunset in the background? Does the flag made of colored clouds and a patch of clear starlit sky promise the endurance of an ideal written in the heavens, or does the dematerialization of Old Glory signify the vanishing of a perishable dream? Does the withered tree anchoring the flag imply death—or resurrection? In America 2021, the answers seem no more certain than they did 160 years ago.

Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the Fourth of July was an occasion not only to celebrate our ideals, but also to educate the public in the habitual virtues of public life by which those ideals might continue to be realized. A central part of this educative function was the Fourth of July oration, a usually long-winded address that recalled the great deeds of the past, tabulated the growth and progress achieved over the years, and exhorted the listener toward the same zeal for liberty and the common good that had inspired our founders.

In 1852, the eloquent abolitionist and former slave Fredrick Douglass was invited to give such an oration on July 4 by the Ladies’ Antislavery Society of Rochester, New York. But due to the absurdity of celebrating Independence Day while slavery persisted, Douglass chose to speak on July 5 instead.

“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers,” he said, ” is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.”

For Independence Day 2021, in a country still beset by rampant racism, National Public Radio invited young descendants of Frederick Douglass to recite portions of that 1852 speech, followed by brief reflections of their own. Like any truly prophetic text, Douglass’ address condemns our sins, urges repentance, and preaches hope. This video is a compelling and moving updating of the traditional Fourth of July oration, and I hope you will make its viewing (and sharing) a part of your own celebration this year.

Juneteenth: Recalibrating the Narratives of Race in America

Enslaved African Americans in Virginia, May 14, 1862 (Library of Congress).

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (I John 1:8).

I went to have my eyes checked this week. In the waiting room, I had a conversation with a man my age whose family has lived in Washington state for six generations. His great-grandfather had come to the Northwest on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. “He was a Presbyterian minister,” he told me. “Before coming west, he managed the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s plantation in Tennessee.” 

This man was clearly proud of his family heritage, as though the whole history of America were coursing through his veins. But the thousand-acre Hermitage, the source of Jackson’s wealth, had only grown and prospered through the labor of enslaved people. I wanted to ask this man what he knew about his great-grandfather’s story. How did a minister of the gospel end up in charge of such a brutal and evil enterprise? How could he have justified it? How did his descendants feel about this stain on their family tree? How does the descendant right in front of me feel about it?

I sensed that such questions would not be welcomed. And it was not the best setting to explore them. Before I could frame a response, I was summoned to the examination room, where I would learn that my eyes were fine. But what about America’s eyes? When we look at ourselves and our history, can we see clearly now?

In 1989, African-American poet Lucille Clifton took a tour of Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina. She was the only black person on the tour. Throughout the tour, not a word was said about slavery. But when the tour took them to the family burying ground, Clifton noticed some crosses and markers outside its walls—the nameless graves of slaves. So she asked the guide, “Why haven’t you mentioned slaves?” 

The guide said that she hadn’t wanted to “embarrass” her, and Clifton responded, “Well, I’m not a slave, and I don’t know why you think I’d be embarrassed.” So the guide, somewhat chagrined, looked in the plantation inventory and found that there had been ten male slaves there, plus however many uncounted females, who were not considered valuable enough to inventory.

Clifton’s experience became a poem:

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.…

tell me your bashful names
and i will testify.… [1]

After she had read this poem around South Carolina for a while, Ms. Clifton got a letter from the director of the group that has restored the plantation, saying that they had built a model slave cabin and were now telling the story of all the people who lived there. And then, after one of her readings, a woman came up to her and said that her family had once owned Walnut Grove, but she herself had never gone back—she was too ashamed. “The next time I come here,” Clifton told her, “you and I will go together.” [2]

As a white American man, I know that I need to go on such a journey, to the places where the “bashful names” can testify about the racism in our culture and in our selves. I need to get my eyes checked, my ears checked, my heart checked. We all do. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. 

The disturbing eruption of overt racism in recent years has shocked and horrified us—This isn’t who we are!—but perhaps some good may come from its blatant visibility. Issues of race in America are now harder to deny. The need to repent is harder to ignore. A hard diagnosis quickens a healing response. Confession fosters renovation. 

Not everyone in America is willing to do this work.  Right wing cringing over “critical race theory” is reaching ludicrous proportions. Texas politicians are crafting laws to protect fair-skinned children from having their feelings hurt by learning about white folks doing evil things to black folks. A watchdog group in Nevada wants teachers to wear body cams so they will never dare say a bad word about American history. 

But for God’s best friends, the way of fear is the way of death. As Episcopal priest Stephanie Spellers puts it, “many of us long to live as beloved community and to reckon with the pain that racism has inflicted – and continues to inflict – in our personal lives, our churches and institutions, and society as a whole.” [3]

Spellers is part of the team that has created Sacred Ground, a powerfully formative church engagement with race and racism in America, using films, readings and dialogue “to call us from our small worlds and small screens and into intentional, sustained circles in which we can pray, watch, share our own stories, reflect, wonder, reckon, heal, and commit to action.” [4]  In small groups on Zoom, my own local parish has been making this journey on sacred ground over the past seven months. The material is rich and the conversations real. Some of our learnings are unsettling, even heartbreaking, but the trajectory of healing and transformation predominates. We move with our eyes on the prize, toward that promised land undimmed by human tears. [5]

To mark the inauguration of Juneteenth, the new federal holiday celebrating the end of slavery in America, journalist Amy Goodman interviewed writer and poet Clint Smith, author of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. Responding to the criticism that the new holiday doesn’t really change anything, Smith argued that “names and symbols and holidays … aren’t just names and symbols and symbolism. What they are are reflective of the stories that people tell. And those stories shape the narratives that societies carry. And those narratives shape public policy. And public policy, that shapes the material conditions of people’s lives. Which is not to say that taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee or making Juneteenth a holiday is going to erase the racial wealth gap. Of course not. But what it is is part of an ecosystem of narratives and stories and ideas that can help us recalibrate our understanding of why certain communities look the way that they do and what needs to be done and invested in those communities to create a new set of opportunities.” [6]

I encourage you to view or read the entire interview, but let me leave you with Smith’s conclusion, when he recited a powerful passage from his new book.

“I come from a city abounding with statues of white men on pedestals and Black children playing beneath them, where we played trumpets and trombones to drown out the Dixie song that’s still whistled in the wind. In New Orleans, there are over 100 schools, roads and buildings named for Confederates and slaveholders. Every day, Black children walk into buildings named after people who never wanted them to be there. Every time I would return home, I would drive on streets named for those who would have wanted me in chains.

“Go straight for two miles on Robert E. Lee, take a left on Jefferson Davis, make the first right on Claiborne. Translation: Go straight for two miles on the general who slaughtered hundreds of Black soldiers who were trying to surrender, take a left on the president of the Confederacy who made the torture of Black bodies the cornerstone of his new nation, make the first right on the man who permitted the heads of rebelling slaves to be put on stakes and spread across the city in order to prevent the others from getting any ideas.

“What name is there for this sort of violence? What do you call it when the road you walk on is named for those who imagined you under a noose? What do you call it when the roof over your head is named after people who would have wanted the bricks to crush you?” [7]


Beyond the ordeal: A biblical vision

[1] For the complete text, and a recording of Clifton reading it: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Lucille-Cliftons-at-the-cemetery-walnut-grove-plantation-south-carolina-1989

[2] From Clifton’s 1995 interview with Bill Moyers: https://www.modernamericanpoetry.org/criticism/bill-moyers-interview-cemetery-walnut-grove-plantation-south-carolina-1989

[3] The Rev.Canon Stephanie Spellers, https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sacred-ground/message/

[4] Ibid.

[5] For more information on Sacred Ground and how to get it for your community: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sacred-ground/

[6] For the video interview: https://www.democracynow.org/shows/2021/6/18   For the text of the interview: https://www.democracynow.org/2021/6/18/juneteenth_federal_holiday

[7] Clint Smith, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (Little, Brown and Company, 2021).  Available at https://www.clintsmithiii.com

What is God? — A Trinity Sermon

Abbey at Conques on Le Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle, France (Jim Friedrich)

What is God? When the biblical Jews asked that question, they responded from their experience of salvation history.  God is the one who told me to leave behind everything I knew and set out for God-knows-where, says Abraham. God is the one who asked me to go back to the land of oppression and enslavement so I could speak truth to power, says Moses. God is the one who made a covenant with us on Mount Sinai, in the cloud of unknowing. God is the one who remembered us in the days of exile. God is the one who brought us home from Babylon. 

Then Jesus came along, and even though he lived and died as a human being, there were those who experienced the fullness of God in the unique particularity of his life, death, and resurrection. The risen Lord, who said “I am with you always,” would become an object of worship very early in the life of the Church. 

And after the Ascension of Jesus came the Holy Spirit, not only as an indwelling presence but also as a radically transformative force, in whom divine fullness was equally and uniquely manifest.  

For the early Christians, then, the One they called God had been revealed to have three distinct ways of being: Source, Savior, and Spirit. Love who loves us; Word who saves us; Spirit who renews us. And before long they were offering worship not only to the God of Israel, but to Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well. 

They were not polytheists. They rejected pagan notions of a heaven and earth populated by competing deities. But their experiences of God in Christ and God in the Spirit were unique enough to differentiate them from the Holy One who sent Jesus into the world. 

At the same time, the second and third Persons were not understood to be partial or lesser versions of God. Only the true God can save us, as Christ did. Only the true God can sanctify us, as the Spirit does. 

Those first Christians couldn’t deny their experience, or the witness of Scripture. Christ was God. The Spirit was God. But that posed a conceptual problem. 

How can the Three be One? How can the One be Three? Mathematics or logic can’t solve this puzzle. Several centuries of ecumenical councils struggled with the questions, doing their best to preserve the paradox of Three in One and One in Three from collapsing into the simplicity of God as “One is One and all alone.” 

Although it would have put a lot of theologians out of work, It would have been a lot easier just to stick with the Oneness. But that would not have been true to Christian experience. The Threeness is essential to our informed—and formative—encounters with God. As contemporary Catholic theologian Catherine LaCugna puts it, “The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life.” [1]

Does that mean that the friends of God have to master the bewildering terminology and complicated nuances of ancient dogma in order to live the Christian life? Will heaven admit only the most sophisticated thinkers? Let’s hope not. 

I’ve read a lot of theology and Church history over the last fifty years, and I still have trouble remembering the differences between Monophysites, Monothelites, Monarchians, Modalists, Ebionites and Sabellians. As Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wonders, what if we were to exchange the metaphysical tangles of the West for more down-to-earth analogies. For example, he asks, what might the yin-yang of “pepper” and “salt” tell us about the divine nature? [2] Or St. Patrick’s shamrock, for that matter. 

For the Offertory anthem at the liturgy for Trinity Sunday, Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, I’ve assembled 26 concrete images of persons and objects grouped in threes. As you watch the video, I invite you to contemplate the Christian koan of Three-in-One and One-in-Three. 

Now then, what shall we say about the Trinity? One of the sixteenth-century reformers counseled intellectual modesty. “We adore the mysteries of the Godhead,” he said. “That is better than to investigate them.” [3] In a similar vein, a contemporary theologian reminds us that the “triune God is not simply unknown, but positively known to be unknown and unknowable—which is a dear and profound knowledge.” [4]

But on Trinity Sunday, it is the preacher’s ritual duty to offer a sacrifice of ignorance on the altar of unknowing. So here we go.

Back in the day—the fourth century, that is—when the Council of Nicaea was parsing theories of the divine life, theology was a popular sport, and people kicked around trinitarian doctrines the way some of us recite the arcane numbers of baseball metrics today. But in the late Middle Ages, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity went into cold storage. By the time of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant could say that Trinitarian theology had “no practical relevance at all, even if we think we understand it.” [5]

In recent centuries, any sort of God talk has been drained of content for many people. We live in a secular age, where a divine power who is in but not of the world has become increasingly unthinkable. Religion, in the world’s eyes, has become more of a private matter than a public truth. 

And yet, the Spirit continues to work, and in the last few decades we have seen a remarkable resurgence of attention and thought devoted to the meaning and relevance of the Trinity. It’s not just white, western males doing this work. Feminists, Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners and Latin Americans are all bringing fresh and urgent perspectives to Christianity’s core doctrine of God. And their work is of enormous consequence for both our personal faith and our common life.

The Nicene Creed declares that the three Persons are “of one substance.” In other words, whatever God is made of, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have all got it—and in equal measure. 

But what is that “substance?” Is it a divine essence which existed prior to, or in addition to, the Persons themselves? Is there a one God hidden behind or beyond the Trinity? Such a notion would undercut the completeness of the Trinity, making it dependent on something external—in other words, less than fully divine in itself. 

Or is the divine substance like a pie which has been cut into three equal pieces? That would divide God into parts and lose the unity of the whole. It would also make the Persons less than eternal, since the whole pie would have to precede the creation of the separate pieces. 

But what if we were to give up the idea of divine “substance” as some kind of stuff which exists on its own and gets divided into three, or possesses a reality in addition to whatever the three Persons consist of? What if being the divine Trinity does not mean to have a divine substance, a kind of primordial stuff. What if being a Trinity means to be in relation with one another? 

Perhaps the Trinitarian God is best described not as a fixed, objective entity, but as an event or activity, an eternal communion shared between the Persons. The Greek word perichoresisdescribes the divine communion as a dance where the partners are in continuous motion, weaving in and out of one another. 

This conceptual shift from substance to relation is a central theme of contemporary theology. As feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes (using inclusive terms for the Persons):

“The mutual coinherence, the dancing around together of Spirit, Wisdom and Mother; or of mutual Love, Love from Love, and unoriginate Love; or of the three divine persons – this defines who God is as God. There is no divine nature as a fourth thing that grounds divine unity in difference apart from relationality. Rather, being in communion constitutes God’s very essence.” [6]

A couple of British theologians elaborate this point when they say that the divine Persons do not “exist over against the others as self-enclosed centers of consciousness, as with human persons … but rather each dwells in the other through a kind of inter-permeation.” Then they sum it up this way: “The consciousnesses are fused but not confused.” [7]

This is not a new idea. The First Epistle of John assures us that “God is love” (4:8). And love, as we all know, cannot exist alone, without an “other” to share with, give to, receive from. Love exists only by going beyond the self in a process of perpetual self-offering.

Love is not a secondary or optional property of God. Love is who God is, and how God exists. Simply put: “the Trinity is not derived from God’s essence; the Trinity is God’s essence.” The communion and community of the Persons is God’s nature and essence.” [8]

Jürgen Moltmann notes the impossibility of a loving God being otherwise. “God cannot find bliss in eternal self-love,” he writes, “if selflessness is part of love’s very nature. God is in all eternity self-communicating love.” [9] A Kenyan Christian, John Mbiti, who comes from a more communal culture, puts this even more succinctly:

“I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”[10]

We may struggle with this interdependent Trinitarian model because our culture has taught us to think of a person as an autonomous individual, whose identity, mind and will are separate and independent from every other person. 

But what the doctrine of the Trinity tells us is that you cannot be a person alone. You can only be a person in relationship with others. Addressing another, listening to another, conversing with another, loving one another, offering ourselves to one another—these are the means of becoming a person and existing as a person, if we are to live in the image of the relational personhood of the divine, in whom the one does not exist without the many. 

When we hear Jesus say, you must lose yourself to find yourself,[11] we may think he’s speaking of death, either metaphorical or physical, some kind of painful stripping away. And sometimes that is the case. 

But I think Jesus is also describing the divinely grounded process of communion and community. “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” St. Athanasius had a wonderful term for this state of being in communion. He called it “reciprocal delight.”[12]  We are all in this together, God says, and so say God’s friends as well.  

It seems especially fitting at this particular moment to contemplate communion as the essential and constitutive fact of divine life, for in one week’s time we will gather together, in person at last, as the Body of Christ at St. Barnabas. It has been fourteen months since we last did this. What joy it will be to share the sacrament of God’s self-diffusive love once again and celebrate the bonds between us.

After so many words about the Holy Trinity, let me conclude with an image. Thirty years ago, Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski made a series of 10 one-hour films called Decalogue. Each of the films is based on one of the Ten Commandments, and the series is one of the masterpieces of spiritual cinema. [13]

Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

In the first film, there’s an exchange between Pawel, an eleven-year-old boy, and his aunt Irena. Pawel has a great curiosity about God, which his single-parent father, an unbeliever, cannot satisfy. So Pawel takes his questions to Irena, his devout Catholic aunt: 

Pawel: Do you believe that God exists?
Irena:  Yes.
Pawel: What is God?

Irena doesn’t answer with words. 
Instead, she puts her arms around Pawel and pulls him close.

Irena:  What do you feel now?
Pawel: I love you.
Irena:   Exactly. That’s what God is.



[1] Catherine M. LaCugna, cited in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (Louisville, KY: Westminster ]ohn Knox Press, 2007), 179.. This is the opening sentence of LaCugna’s God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (1991). As you will see, I found Kärkkäinen’s study of recent Trinitarian theology to be an invaluable resource. 

[2] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 312.

[3] Philip Melanchthon, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, xvi.

[4] Elizabeth Johnson, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 212, from Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse(1993).

[5] Immanuel Kant, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 206.

[6] Elizabeth Johnson, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 56.

[7] Ninian Smart & Steven Konstantine, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 249, from their Christian Systematic Theology: Theology in a World Context (1991).

[8] Richard Rice, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 140.

[9] Jurgen Moltmann, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen,106;  from Moltmann’s classic Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (1981)

[10] John Mbiti, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 352.

[11] Matthew 10:38.

[12] St. Athanasius (c. 296-373), a bishop in Roman Egypt, was a key defender of Trinitarianism. Cited in in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 39.

[13] See my post, Kieslowski’s Decalogue: A Masterpiece of Religious Cinema (Jan. 28, 2017): https://jimfriedrich.com/2017/01/28/kieslowskis-decalogue-a-masterpiece-of-religious-cinema/

The Spirit That Moves Us All: A Pentecost Reflection

Piero di Cosimo, Incarnation (detail), 1500-1505. “Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

In spite of all the destructive forces [we] let loose against life on this planet, the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways, countering and circumventing the obstacles we put in its path. In spite of my strong tendencies to complacency and despair, I experience the Spirit in myself as calling forth the realistic hope apart from which there is no hope, and I am confident that what I find in myself is occurring in others also … what makes for life and love and hope is not simply the decision of one individual or another but a Spirit that moves us all. 

— John Cobb [1]

Of perfect love thou art the ghostly flame.
Emperor of meekness, peace and tranquility,
My comfort, my counsel, my perfect charity,
O water of life, O well of consolation,
Against all storms of hard adversity …

— 15th century English lyric 

On the fiftieth day of Easter, our liturgical prayer addresses the Holy Spirit more than on any other day. Most of the time our words of supplication and praise address an “other” who is metaphorically outside or beyond: God, Jesus, Father, Mother …. But the dominant prayer of Pentecost calls upon the most obscure and elusive of the divine “Persons”—One who is not “out there” but “in here.”

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come, Holy Spirit.

The tricky thing about such a prayer is that it is not prayed to the Spirit. It is prayed in the Spirit and by the Spirit. The Spirit is not the object of our prayers, but the subject, dwelling within our inmost parts more surely and substantially than the transitory, constructed “I” produced by the particular confluence of history, biology, and personality which has sculpted our individuality over time. When truth speaks through us, when our energies are directed toward the well-being of all, when our lives are written and rewritten as narratives of divine love, the Spirit isn’t just in us—the Spirit is us. 

This is to claim nothing for ourselves. Only those driven by unholy spirits make that mistake. Participation in the divine reality—life “in the Spirit”—is always a matter of giving yourself away, becoming part of something larger. The Holy Spirit’s proper name is communion. When we’re in the Spirit, that’s our name too.  

Compared to writings about “God” and “Christ,” theological expositions on the Holy Spirit can seem relatively thin. The early creeds didn’t have much to say either, making the Spirit seem like an afterthought—oh yeah, and the Holy Spirit too. But this isn’t due to neglect so much as it is to the Spirit’s way of disappearing into the world as anonymous giftedness. As Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky put it: 

“[T]he Holy Spirit effaces himself, as Person, before the created persons to whom he appropriates grace … He mysteriously identifies himself with human persons while remaining incommunicable. He substitutes Himself, so to speak, for ourselves.” [2]

Canadian poet Margaret Avison addresses the Spirit’s indescribability in her poem “… Person or A Hymn on and to the Holy Ghost.” 

How should I find speech 
to you, the self-effacing
whose other self was seen
alone by the only one,

to you whose self-knowing
is perfect, known to him,
seeing him only, loving
with him, yourself unseen?

Let the one you show me
ask you, for me,
you, all but lost in
the one in three,

to lead my self, effaced
in the known Light,
to be in him released 
from facelessness,

so that where you 
(unseen, unguessed, liable
to grievous hurt) would go
I may show him visible.

The poem’s profusion of pronouns makes it hard, at first, to tell which divine Person is doing what. “You” is clearly the Holy Spirit, but who is “him?” Is it Christ, or the Father, or God in general who releases us from “facelessness,” or whom we ourselves make visible in the practice of holy living? The “unseen, unguessed” Spirit may be “all but lost in / the one in three,” but without it (or him, or her, or they), Love Divine could not do its proper work in the world and in the heart.

O fiery Spirit, come burn in us.
O sacred breath, come breathe in us.
O blazing love, come flame in us.…
O delight of life, come live in us. [3]

This past year has generated its share of anxiety, fear, madness and grief, but as John Cobb reminds us, “the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways, countering and circumventing the obstacles we put in its path.” It is in this Spirit that I have shaped my retelling of Ezekiel’s vision in the Valley of Dry Bones (see video below). When the divine breath comes into the lifeless bodies, I layer multiple inhalations and exhalations to make a chorus of breaths. For me that collective sound symbolizes the Spirit’s fierce resistance to every power that would silence and choke us. As the Psalmist says, You send forth your Spirit, and the people are created; and so you renew the face of the earth (Psalm 104:31).


[1] Cited in Marjorie Suchocki, “Spirit in and through the World,” in Suchocki and Joseph A. Bracken, S.J., Trinity in Process: A Relational Theology of God (New York: Continuum, 1997), 180. And yes, masculine pronouns are problematic. Depending on the language, Spirit has been feminine and neuter as well. Do you think She minds?

[2] Vladimir Lossky cited in Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 200), 261.

[3] Jody L. Caldwell, after Hildegard of Bingen, in Voices Found (New York: Church Publishing, 2003), #62.

The Increase of Existence: The Poetry of Marilyn Robertson

Deschutes River, Oregon, April 2121 (Jim Friedrich)

Poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being. Each time we enter its word-woven and musical invocation, we give ourselves over to a different mode of knowing: to poetry’s knowing, and to the increase of existence it brings, unlike any other. 

— Jane Hirshfield[i]    

Spirituality and poetry share a common task: “the increase of existence.” This is holy work, and much of it involves coming to terms with time. Whether we waste it, use it, lose it or save it, it is never ours to keep. It is a gift that comes and goes. Whatever is meant by the increase of existence, it cannot be a matter of longevity. That would deny the fullness of time to those who die too soon, and I believe the universe to be kinder than that. No, the increase of existence is not in its length, but in its depth, what T. S. Eliot called “a lifetime burning in every moment.” [ii]

Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov described this depth as a relationship with the eternal: 

“For [the human person], eternity is not a specially qualified time that will arrive after temporal life, as an event in time itself; rather, it is the depth of [our] own being, a depth known in time and ceaselessly revealing itself. Eternity is [our] rootedness in God, and this eternal life both begins and is accomplished in temporal life.”[iii]

In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a small boy tells his bemused parents, “You’re just lucky you don’t have your whole life looming in front of you.” I wonder if that becomes funnier, the older you get. Certainly the nature of time feels different when it starts to run out. Some of us would not mind a little more looming in our later years.

Marilyn Robertson, Santa Cruz, California, January 2018 (Jim Friedrich)

My oldest sibling, Marilyn Robertson, is a poet. In her latest collection, “Small Birds Passing,” time is on her mind. “I like the moreness of time at low tide,” she writes. “Time for a stretch, a sigh. / Time for nothing perfect.[iv] But the stillness of the unhurried moment, the sense of “moreness,” is not inherent to time itself. It is rather the product of our own attentive awareness.

Days won’t wait for us. 
Hours drift away.
Time never got the hang of lingering.

Yet what if we dropped everything,
Stood still.
Looked around.

That red leaf.
Those cloud-sheep.
All the small birds passing.[v]  

In the first hour and the last, and all the moments in between, pay attention. Sink into the depth of things. Increase existence. Such temporal depth does not come naturally to a society obsessed with speed and surface. We need teachers. 

Animals keep trying to tell me 
how to live: 

cat, sunning herself 
on the grape arbor, 

dog, bouncing along the path, 
in love with everything, 

and rabbit, 
the ardent listener, 

her soft antenna ears 
always tuned to the present.[vi]

In “One Thing,” Moon joins Rabbit in modeling a spiritual practice:

One thing about a rabbit, or the moon,
is that they don’t waste time fretting about
what to do with the rest of their days.

They are living them, one after another,
those tidy packages of hours with their beginnings,
their middles and their ends.

Rabbit, hopping along a path through woods,
into briars and out again without so much
as a scratch on its soft jumpy body,

and Moon, sailing across the infinite ocean of sky,
spilling her poetry of light
into every window she can find. 

And yet, no matter how adept at sounding the depths of the given moment, poets and pilgrims of a certain age cannot help glancing toward life’s horizon. There are too many goodbyes in our latter days, too many deaths, to let us forget the “tears of things.”[vii] 

All the farewells in a lifetime.
All the ships that sail away, becoming pinpoints.
Becoming specks.

“You just missed her.”
“He said to say goodbye.”

All the clicks of latches, shutting of lids.
“Stand back. The doors are closing.”

There are roads. We have feet.
What we leave behind will soon forget our names.

All the losses. All the last words.
The telephone ringing, ringing in the night.[viii]

The last line could signify the news of death, received by phone at an untimely hour, but I hear it as a call to someone who is no longer there to pick up. The unanswered phone is a heartbreaking image of disconnection—the permanent loss of a precious voice. And then what? Is everything, in the end, gone for good? Or does the eternity we experience in the “depth known in time” persist for us beyond the grave?  In “After,” the poet admits our essential unknowing in this matter.  

After the fire,
what will I be?

A thing with feathers?
Or that little pile of ashes

just there, where
the water heater used to be.

And though the poet in her reticence prefers to let the “Thick pages of theology fly / out the window,”[ix] she nevertheless intimates the possibility of resurrection. The title of the collection’s last poem, “The Story So Far,” locates the octogenarian poet in the middle, not the end, of her divine comedy:

old flowers 
tossed on the compost

doorway of loss
blown open by a sudden wind

water jar broken three times
still beautiful

in the heart of the mother
one hundred poems

we are not dying
we are just waking up



For more of Marilyn Robertson’s poetry, see my 2017 post, Running on Fast Forward.

[i] Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), vii.

[ii] T. S. Eliot, “East Coker” in Four Quartets. The poet goes on to say, “We must be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion …” In other words, deeper and deeper into God.

[iii] Sergei Bulgakov (1877-1944), The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 2008), 135. This classic in Christology was originally published in 1933.

[iv] Marilyn Robertson, “Low Tide,” in Small Birds Passing (2020). All her poems and excerpts are from this chap-book.

[v] “Taking Time.” 

[vi] “How to Live.”

[vii] This poignant phrase is from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book I.462. The Latin, lacrimae rerum, lacks the preposition which English requires, creating the ambiguity in translation of “tears for things” vs. “tears of things.” Seamus Heaney’s rendering speaks to the immensity of our grief in this time of pandemic: “There are tears at the heart of things.”

[viii] “Endings.”

[ix] “You Say”