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.
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.
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:
[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.
[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.”
My sister Martha Stevens is a marvelous storyteller. It was her profession for a long time, as she traveled far and wide to hold listeners spellbound with tales from many centuries and cultures. In the late 1980s, inspired by her work, I began to foster retellings of biblical narratives at the Easter Vigil—Creation, Flood, the Binding of Isaac, the Red Sea and the Valley of Dry Bones. Over the years, these Vigil retellings expanded to include theater and multimedia as well as individual storytellers.
Although I have curated creative Easter Vigils with story teams in a wide variety of parishes over the years, I began with an 8-year stretch at Christ Church, an Anglo-Catholic parish in Ontario, California. When I introduced the storytelling component in 1988, the church already had a famously distinctive practice for welcoming resurrection.
While a joyful noise is customary in most churches after the first shouts of “Christ is risen,” this usually means the ringing of bells and the organ’s roar. But to these were added not only dozens of wind chimes placed within the reach of every worshipper, but the boom and blaze of fireworks. After his first experience of the Christ Church Vigil in 1989, visitor David Trowbridge wrote down his impressions. His description of the fireworks reflects the assembly’s collective astonishment in that moment:
“Well, at this point, everybody for at least three miles in every direction who wasn’t awake woke up and knew that it was Easter again at Christ Church. There was a shattering explosion from the courtyard [visible through the nave’s glass wall] as the first of at least 10,000 LARGE firecrackers went off. Then the pinwheels, then the Roman candles, and then the 10-foot high cross in red fireworks with blue fireworks (representing the water of baptism) underneath. Everybody started laughing and exclaiming and jumping up and down, but nobody could hear anything.
“The contrast between the mystical beauty of the Kyrie just before and the almost orgiastic release of the fireworks was exactly right—nothing I have ever experienced has so truly expressed the joy and release that Christians should feel in celebrating the mystery of the empty tomb. We tend to take the story for granted, but at Christ Church, the noise and the excitement made it all new again, and we all felt, for a few minutes, a little of the unbelieving excitement that the disciples must have felt that first Easter Day, when they found that He, first of all [human beings], had conquered death.”[i]
The previous year, I had approached the church’s longtime rector, Jon Hart Olson,[ii] about adding storytelling to the Easter Vigil. Jon, a brilliant theologian, exquisite liturgist, and a generous encourager of my own priestly imagination, welcomed the chance to offer fresh versions of the old stories. The people of Christ Church embraced the idea as well, and it became part of their annual tradition. When I had a chance to revisit their Vigil 20 years after leaving the parish, I was delighted to see the creativity continuing, as Dry Bones came to life in the form of two break dancers in skeleton suits. As they gyrated beneath a blacklight, all we could see in the dark was their dancing bones.[iii]
In his account of the 1989 Vigil, Trowbridge found the storytelling as compelling as the fireworks:
“The priest who told the story of Noah and the Ark was especially entertaining. At one point, describing the animals boarding the ark two-by-two, he named about 100 animals in alphabetical order … He described how cranky and bored everyone got on the Ark, and how Noah organized singalongs for the animals. At this point he got everyone making their favorite animal noises all together. Pandemonium! I was screaming like a chimpanzee, which seemed to provoke the rector, who was sitting nearby, into a fit of laughter. At the end of the reading, the [storytelling] priest unfurled a long cloth rainbow across the room …
“After the [fireworks], the Eucharist proceeded as usual, or so we thought, but there was one more surprise in store for us. At festal Eucharists, it is customary to read the Gospel lesson with much ceremony. The Bible is carried from the altar, the deacon who is to read it is blessed by the priest, it’s carried out into the midst of the congregation with candles and incense … and so it was here. Then, as is customary, the deacon lifted up the Bible and intoned, ‘The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to Luke,’ and we all responded, ‘Glory to You, Lord Christ.’
“And the back door of the church swung open with a loud crash, and a disheveled woman in a purple sweater and black pants rushed in! She shouted, ‘Sit down, all of you,’ and pushed her way to the front, rudely shouldering aside the deacon with the Bible. ‘Sit down! I’ve got something important to say.’
“At this point, I’m sure many people (I know I was) were thinking that one of Ontario’s street people had crashed the service. After a long moment of embarrassment and that ‘what should I do? … should I do anything?’ feeling, the woman identified herself. It was Mary Magdalene, who told us, in the vernacular, instead of in the elevated style of the Bible, what happened when she went to the tomb that morning to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. What a way to hear the Gospel! It was like hearing it for the first time.”
I do wish there were more storytelling in church. There’s nothing wrong with a well-read passage of canonical text—I’m quite fond of a good reading by a practiced and thoughtful voice—but sometimes a telling can reach places which a reading cannot. Instead of a reader as a passive, transparent window for a sacred text to pass through without inflection or distortion, a teller embodies the text in breath, intonation, gesture and movement, making it alive and present and urgent in the moment of its speaking. A story told rather than read has a unique kind of authority, coming from the heart instead of a book. God is not ink. God is breath.
Not everyone is prepared for the energy—and occasional lack of decorum—of good storytelling in church. But many find it engaging, even revelatory. Dennis Dewey,[iv] a brilliant storyteller, is careful to deflect the inevitable praise evoked by his creative delivery of Bible stories: “You make the Bible come alive!” people tell him. “No,” he says. “The Bible already is alive. I just try not to kill it.”
At this year’s Easter Vigil, pandemic protocols were still in place, so we were streaming the liturgy. For the Flood story, I solicited participation by asking parishioners to send me videos of themselves entering the ark (their front door) and staring out the ark’s portholes (their front window). Since we have all been on our separate arks for the past year, I wanted to acknowledge the challenge of our collective pandemic experience, while affirming our enduring faith in the rainbow promise. We’re in the story, and the story is in us.
I added voice-over to the submitted clips, and inserted a segment from a video of my Vigil stories, The Electronic Campfire: New Storytelling from Scripture (1991), made in collaboration with the amazing storyteller Angela Lloyd.[v] I hope you enjoy this short video, “The Flood and the Ark.” Even more, I hope you will be inspired to explore storytelling—and storylistening—within your own faith community.
[i] David Trowbridge, unpublished manuscript (April 1989). David’s wife Nancy sent me this writeup at the time, encouraging me to share it “here and there if you wish.” It only took me 32 years to do so. My memories from several decades of creative Easter Vigils tend to conflate and become less true as memory simplifies and smooths out the details, so I am happy to possess this vivid firsthand impression from an attentive observer having the Christ Church Vigil experience for the first time.
[ii] The Rev. Jon Olson preached at my ordinations to the Diaconate and the Priesthood, and taught me so much about liturgy and spirituality. He was the kind of friend who kept you up well past midnight with luminous (and hilarious) conversations. I cast him as Lazarus in my 1970s film The Investigation, which explores the Jesus story in a modern setting. I will always be grateful that Jon gave this itinerant priest an abiding place of welcome in the unique community he served at Christ Church.
[iii] The break dancers were young men, part of the parish family, who danced professionally at Disneyland. They raced to the church after work to perform Dry Bones (those Vigils started at 9 p.m. and went past midnight). The teller of the story spoke, unseen, from the balcony at the back of the church, while the skeletons danced before the altar.
[v]The Electronic Campfire, not currently available on disc, may be seen here: https://youtu.be/sDDdSKFSWoE Angela Lloyd is not in the Flood story, but is featured in most of the others. Angela took part in most of my Christ Church Vigils. She is not to be missed (“a combination of Maria von Trapp, Mary Poppins, and Tinkerbell”—Donald Davis). For her website: https://www.angelalloyd.com
In the convent of San Marco in Florence, Fra Angelico painted a fresco of the mocking of Christ. The cruelties of Christ’s tormenters are represented as fragments, floating in the space around the white-robed, blindfolded victim: a disembodied head spits at our Lord, a floating hand strikes him with a rod. These fragments are very flat, two-dimensional, as though pasted on the image’s surface. But Christ himself is not restricted to the plane of the image. It projects forward in an illusion of three-dimensionality, into the space occupied by two saints. The suffering Christ emerges from his own time into theirs.
But neither saint is looking at him. They face away from the scene, toward us. The mocking is not something they look at with their physical eyes. It is for them an interior contemplation. And their devotion to the Passion takes two different forms. On the right, St. Dominic, the great intellect and preacher, is looking at a book, open in his lap. The Passion is something he is reading about, and processing in his mind. On the left side, the mother of Jesus, sitting in an attitude of quiet sorrow, has no book. She is apprehending the Passion through the medium of her heart. Dominic is thinking about the suffering of Christ. Mary is feeling it.
On God’s Friday we bring both head and heart to the foot of the cross. We may want to puzzle over the why of it: Why did this have to happen? Why do we keep returning to this bloody act? Why does it matter? Or maybe we just prefer to watch and weep over a mystery beyond all comprehension.
In any case, here we are again, at the foot of the cross. A lot has happened since the last Good Friday—so much suffering, so much struggling, so much dying. We bring all that with us to the cross today, along with our questions, our wounds, our laments. Finding the right words for this strange time is a daunting task.
Wiliam Sloane Coffin, one of the great Christian voices of the twentieth century, once told a young minister not to worry too much about his Holy Week sermon. “Anybody can preach on Good Friday,” he said. “Hell, read the newspaper!”[i]
On Good Friday, 2021, we don’t need a crucifix to remind us of a premature death which should never have happened. We’ve seen it replicated over half a million times in this country alone—worldwide, nearly 3 million times.
We don’t need an ancient form of execution, designed to cause asphyxiation in a sagging body, to remind us of human cruelty. This very week, in a Minneapolis courtroom, a congregation of judge and jury is meditating on the last words—of George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.”
We don’t have to go back 2000 years to learn the story of hatred, violence, and innocent victims. We’ve got Atlanta and Boulder and far too many other examples.
As for the mindless mob shouting “Crucify! Crucify!” in Pilate’s courtyard, we’ve got our own version from January 6th, that epiphany of collective rage by the ones who “know not what they do.”
Yes, we still see crucifixions every day. So why do we keep returning to Golgotha? How is the death of Jesus not like any other? In one sense, it is like every death. In choosing to embrace human experience, to live and die as one of us, the Divine identified completely with our suffering as well as our joy.
Anglican poet Thomas Traherne expressed this truth with 17th-century fluency:
“O Christ, I see thy cross of thorns in every eye, thy bleeding naked wounded body in every soul, thy death lived in every memory. Thy crucified person is embalmed in every affliction, thy pierced feet are bathed in everyone’s tears ….” [ii]
Jesus is not only the icon of God but also the representative human, our “Everyman” and “Everywoman,” who bears our griefs and carries our sorrows. A folksong from back in the day said it this way:
If somehow you could pack up your sorrows, and give them all to me, you would lose them, I know how to use them, give them all to me.[iii]
Why did, and why does, Jesus want to carry the full weight of our human condition? Love. Love so amazing, so divine. God thirsts for us even more than we thirst for God. And as the incarnation of that love, as the divine thirst for communion in human form, Jesus was willing to drink the bitter as well as the sweet.
Why on earth does God desire us so much? It’s not because we’re so easy to love—God knows we’re not. It’s because love is God’s nature, love is who God is. When the eternal self-offering, self-giving, that constitutes the Holy Trinity, got narrowed down into human shape, that loving nature came with it. Jesus loves me, this I know, because Jesus is love incarnate. It’s who Jesus is, and what Jesus does.
And what happens to love in a world gone so wrong? It suffers. Love hurts. On Palm Sunday we sang about “love’s agony, love’s endeavor, love’s expense:”
Drained is love in making full, bound in setting others free; poor in making many rich, weak in giving power to be.
Therefore he who shows us God, helpless hangs upon the tree; and the nails and crown of thorns tell of what God’s love must be.[iv]
Nobody wants to suffer, but it seems to be part of the deal. As Julian of Norwich said in the century of Europe’s most deadly plague:
If there be anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe from falling, I know nothing of it — for it was not shown me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again, we are always held close in one love.[v]
In early 19th century Kentucky, 3 women founded a religious community called the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. They were dedicated, in their words, “to bring the healing spirit of God into our world.” One of their current sisters, Elaine Prevallet, has written some very helpful words about suffering:
Suffering is always about change — either something needs to change, or something is changing. And changing means letting go of the way things are, the way I know them, the way I have put and held my life together…The idol of control holds out to us the hope that suffering and death can be eliminated. ..That false hope, in turn, has the effect of setting suffering up as an enemy to be avoided at all costs. [But] if we are unwilling to suffer, we are unwilling to love.[vi]
Nobody gets off lightly on God’s Friday, not God, not the world, not us. But we get through, we all get through—it is the way, the only way in this mysterious universe of freedom and risk, dying and rising.
You can do several things with suffering. You can try to avoid it or at least repress your awareness of it. Some people make that their life’s work. But avoiding suffering means you avoid a lot of love and a lot of life. Jesus considered this strategy of avoidance, in the desert Temptation and in the agony of Gethsemane. But that “adamant young man”[vii] chose instead to embrace the consequences of his divine nature and his human vocation.
Another way to deal with suffering is to struggle against its causes, to work for its elimination. As both healer and prophet, Jesus demonstrated this way, even onto death at the hands of the oppressive powers. But like the weeds among the wheat, violence and suffering remain a persistent part of the fabric of creation, despite our best efforts. We do what we can, but suffering remains.
And so we, with Jesus, come to the third way: to undergo suffering as a means, not an end. To see suffering not as life-threatening, but life-giving. Suffering, instead of thwarting God’s purposes, becomes part of the repertoire of salvation. God does not create suffering, but does deal creatively with it. Suffering becomes, in God’s hands, formative rather than destructive. The Passion is not a detour. It is the way. As a recent hymn puts it, God is “wiser than despair.” [viii]
I once read about a Quaker meeting held on Easter Day. The assembled Friends were speaking, as the Spirit moved them, about the Resurrection. Then one woman got up and said that her only son had been killed in a car crash some months before. A chord of shared grief was struck in every heart. We know about that, don’t we, here on Bainbridge Island, thinking about Hannah, Hazel and Marina.[ix] But then this sorrowing mother said, “My heart is broken, but it is broken open—this is my resurrection and my hope.” [x]
To speak of the way of the cross as the way of life is not to deny its pain or its horror—Jesus himself cried out in deep protest from the cross: Why? Why? And the way of the cross is more than a simple homily about building character or learning compassion or awakening our own vocations to relieve the world’s pain where we can. Those are all valuable outcomes of our suffering, but on this day, at the foot of this cross, we must say something deeper and more difficult to grasp.
For this dying man, this Jesus upon the cross, is not just one more victim ground up by the teeth of history. This Jesus “bears in His Heart all wounds”[xi] carries our griefs and our sorrows, carries them into the divine heart, into the deepest place of God. Our pain has become God’s own pain, and however long we must dwell in that Pit where there seems to be suffering without end, God dwells there with us. The One who died abandoned and alone now keeps us company on our own crosses—for as long as it takes.
Jane Kenyon, the poet who died too young of leukemia, knew the truth of this:
The God of curved space, the dry God, is not going to help us, but the son whose blood spattered the hem of his mother’s robe.[xii]
God does not create suffering. But God is the place where all suffering comes to rest. “Give it to me, ” God says. “I can take it. I will transform it.” When our suffering becomes God’s suffering, something new happens. It is no longer the tomb of dead hopes. It is the place of new birth.
How does this happen? How does God bring forth good from evil? How does the cross of Christ make all our crosses into trees of life? How does God turn our abyss into a redemptive journey?
We could discuss theologies of atonement and sacrifice, or reflect upon the spiritual and psychological and social implications of Christ’s death. But on this day, we don’t come to the cross for ideas. We come for love.
In Antonello da Messina’s Crucifixion we see, as in Fra Angelico’s Mocking, two witnesses in the foreground: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John, the beloved disciple. John is gazing intently at his Crucified Lord, while Mary looks inward, to her pierced heart. For me this image expresses something written by a present-day friend of Jesus, Virginia Stem Owens:
“Good Friday is the day when you can do nothing. Bewailing and lamenting your manifold sins does not in itself make up for them. Scouring your soul in a frenzy of spring cleaning only sterilizes it; it does not give it life. On Good Friday, finally, we are all, mourners and mockers alike, reduced to the same impotence. Someone else is doing the terrible work that gives life to the world.” [xiii]
So here we are, at the foot of the cross on God’s Friday, while Jesus does the terrible work that gives life to the world.
“Give me your pain,” Jesus says. “Give me your sorrow. I will make it the place where your healing begins. I work good in all things. That is my nature. There is nothing that I cannot make into the means of new life.
“Suffering…fear…grief…illness…anger…depression…despair…abandonment…. whatever your burden, give it to me, join your pain to mine, and I promise you: You shall rise up with me.
For there is only one death in the history of the world, and I have made it mine. And there is only one life in God’s universe, and from now until forever it is yours. I give it to you.
“Die with me today…rise with me tomorrow…It is accomplished.”
This sermon may be seen on video in the Liturgy for Good Friday at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church (Bainbridge Island, WA), available on YouTube starting at noon on Good Friday, 2021.The link is here.
[i] Personal reminiscence by Will Willimon, in “Stunned observers: A Conversation between Richard Lischer and Will Willimon, The Christian Century (March 24, 2021), 35.
[ii] Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, i.86.
[iii] Richard Fariña and Paula Marden, “Pack up your sorrows” (1965). I heard Farina and his wife Mimi sing this in concert in my college years. They were local favorites, and I often played their songs on my campus radio show. A promising writer and novelist, Fariña died in a motorcycle accident a year after writing this song. He was 29. To hear the song: https://youtu.be/NHRNqjOcaMM
[iv] W. H. Vanstone, “Morning glory, starlit sky.” This powerful text is set to a beautiful tune, Bingham, by Dorothy Howell Sheets, in The Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #585.
[v] Julian of Norwich, Showings (the Long Text), 14th century.
[vi] Elaine Prevallet, Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life (“Letting Go,” Vol. 12, No. 2, March/April 1997), 14.
[vii] I love Dag Hammarskjöld’s use of adamant, a Greek word for a hard stone or diamond. This term for a resistant substance came to mean “invincible.” Jesus’ refusal to let his love be misshapen by the world makes this an apt adjective for him. I found Hammarskjöld’s phrase in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 163.
[viii] Brian Wren, “Bring many names” (1989): “calmly piercing evil’s new disguises, glad of good surprises, wiser than despair.”
[ix] The tragic death of these three teenagers in an automobile accident last month has deeply shaken my local community.
[xi] The line is from Edith Sitwell’s poem, “Still Falls the Rain.” Written during the bombing of London in 1940, it does not single out the enemy, but laments the collective guilt of a warring humankind. The last lines: “Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man / Was once a child who among beasts has lain—/ ‘Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.’”
[xiii] Virginia Stem Owens, cited in “It Is Done,” a reflection on the Passion by Watchman Nee in Bread and Wine, p. 244. Nee (1903-1972) was a Chinese Christian who spent his final 20 years imprisoned for his faith.