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Category: spirituality

reporter’s notebook: on poetry and peepers and what’s hierophany?

reporter notebook faith and writing

because it’s sunday night, and late at that, and because i promised to ferry home a satchel filled with poetry and wisdoms to mull for a week or a day or a lifetime, i’ll cut straight to the cuttings from my notebooks, the two i filled front and back, draining three fine pens of all their ink.

i will say — because it’s impossible not to — that besides the breathless whirl of words and words and kindness and words that sometimes lifted me from the hard pew on which i was sitting, or the hilarity of anne lamott that made me marvel — and love her rare brand of kooky brilliance — all over again, the most mystical moment came late two evenings, as i walked alone toward the far end of the vast asphalt acre that was the calvin college parking lot.

the moon was half both nights, or nearly so. the sky, a western michigan sodden blue. the daylight not yet rinsed out. the night shadow inking in. and then, from the lacy backdrop of leafless woods, the rising vernal chorus of the spring peepers, that amphibian night song that breaks you out in goosebumps — or it does me, anyway. it’s a froggy croak — a high-pitched rendition, indeed — i’d not heard since trying to fall asleep in the upstairs dormer of my husband’s boyhood home, where the backyard pond and its full-throated citizens lull me to dreamland with their percolating melodies. i wanted to record a few bars for you, so you too could share the goosebumps. instead, i offer this, borrowed from the land of internet.

and now, from my notebooks:

notes from the festival of faith & writing:

reading list*:

william spencer, the poet’s poet according to keats.
brian young, one of the more powerful poets writing today, according to poet geoffrey nutter. died last week. “recollection.”
theodore roethke opened up nature and poetry for poet and scholar kimberly johnson.
before the door of god, religious poetry through history, by jay hopler and kimberly johnson.
“man killed by pheasant,” john t. price. short story.
loren eiseley, “the star thrower.” 16-page essay.
chenjerai hove, zimbabwean author, poet, playwright and human rights activist (outspoken critic of robert mugabe) who lived in exile in norway, wrote the novel bones, and inspired okey ndibe.
jessica mitford, great memoirist, the american way of death.
patricia hampl: “if i could tell you stories.”
“the whaling chapters” of moby dick.
“the inheritance of tools,” essay by scott russell sanders.
lia purpura, “rough likeness.” a book of essays.
john fowles, “the tree.” essay.

* these are the titles i scribbled every time one of the truly enlightened speakers tossed out an exhortation, “you must read…” a reading list in progress (in perpetuity, actually)….

words to fall in love with:

pullulating: means “sprouting.” or breeding or spreading.
hierophany: places where sacred and secular meet. The term “hierophany” (from the Greek roots “ἱερός” (hieros), meaning “sacred” or “holy,” and “φαίνειν” (phainein) meaning “to reveal” or “to bring to light”) signifies a manifestation of the sacred.
petrichor: word for the smell of rain on dry rock. petra, rock; ichor, blood that flows through vein (in greek mythology, the ethereal golden fluid that is the blood of the gods and/or immortals). in modern usage, it’s a glorious word for a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. (who knew there was a word for that most delicious spring perfume?)
adiaphora: “meaningless things.”

a few fine lines, and the lively minds who put breath to them:
notes scribbled from my notebook (in order of appearance over the three-day festival)…

uwem akpan, nigerian catholic priest (formerly a jesuit), author of say you’re one of them, collection of five short stories telling of african horrors, each told through the voice of a child:

“if you’re afraid to fail, then don’t try. sit in your room. don’t marry. don’t give birth.”

“for those who want to be writers, be brave, act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly before your god.”

most poignant moment, after his talk when a young blogger walked up to him and said she’d been writing from darkness all month, in the eclipsed days since feb. 13 when her 29-year-old husband died, after a years-long battle with cancer, leaving her alone with a not-yet one-year-old. akpan, a priest since 2003, magnificently ministered to her with his gift of words. i cried, and through tears, i scribbled some of what he said after folding her into his embrace: “get into rhythm. don’t shy away from anger. the prayers may not come. go to the psalms, let them fall off your tongue. when God sends you on a trip, he arrives there before you.

“right now you’re alone in that body of water, rowing toward the shore.”

geoffrey nutter, poet, author of four poetry collections, most recently, the rose of january. teaches poetry at princeton:

it’s been said that his writing gestures toward what t.s. eliot called, “frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.”

“comprehension is unnecessary in reading a poem. apprehending is instantaneous response: what poetry does best. to poets, the image creates the powerful image more so than ideas. images are more intelligent in the poet, do more work. unfold into resonance. it’s where the soul work is done. poems resonate with mystery.”

“the moment when empathy was born: when jesus, scribbling in the sand, said, ‘don’t judge lest you wish to be judged.’”

calls 17th-century poet henry vaughan “one of my best friends.” adds: “words written in the 17th century in a moment of passion, like a note slipped under the door to us.”

“certainty leaves no room for imagination. if uncertainty can wake up our imagination, our imagination is the beginning of empathy.”

eliza griswold, guggenheim fellow, journalist and poet, author of the tenth parallel: dispatches from the fault line between christianity and islam, and a new collection of poetry, i am the beggar of the world: landays of contemporary afghanistan

“heirophany, places where sacred and secular meet. one of the most fundamental places in my life, this space where the horizontal, secular, meets the ultimate; literally, the shape of the cross. that’s poetry, everyday time is punctured by the sacred….my calling is there, the place where sacred and secular meet.”

mary szybist, poet, 2013 national book award winner for poetry for incarnadine:

szybist, a reviewer wrote, has “an appetite for the luminous; reaches for the heavens without bypassing earth.”

“hard for me to believe faith is possible without doubt. or reverence without irreverence.”

kimberly johnson, poet, translator, literary critic, professor of renaissance literature and creative writing:

“writing a poem is like walking around all day with someone pecking on your forehead. something just beneath the surface is waiting to be let out.”

“i want to live my life in epiphany. i want all my pores open. it’s easier for me when language and culture and stripped away. it’s unmediated experience. my antennae is tuned to stuff that exists beyond the social sphere.” (it’s why she loves nature).

from john t. price, essayist, nature writer, professor of english:

quoting mary oliver: “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.”

okey ndibe, nigerian writer, poet, journalist, author of arrows of rain and foreign gods, inc.:

referring to some not-so-cheery bloke: “no milk of human kindness in him….” (an expression that found me muffling my out-loud sigh of verbal wonder)

“a story that must be told never forgives silence.”

thomas troeger, professor at yale divinity school, hymnist, ordained episcopal and presbyterian minister, who has been quoted as saying (not in this festival, but i couldn’t resist):

“I am trying to map the landscape of the heart that still rejoices in God yet lives in a world that is often oblivious to the spirit.  I believe to live gracefully with this tension is the mark of wisdom.  Such an understanding may baffle the dogmatic mind, but it does not lie beyond the capacity of the poetic imagination.  The imagination often holds together realities that are logically inconsistent yet dynamically coherent.”

reading from his essay, “season of lament”:
“we are living in a season of sorrow for the human community, and part of our role as musicians is to help the human heart relieve its tears so that we might sense anew the resilience of hope that we will never know if we have never wept.”

might i mention that he was a textbook portrait of old-school yankee sartorial splendor, with taut bow tie, tweed jacket, and crisply-creased khakis. all topped off with a mop of professorial white curls.

anne lamott (who was brilliant through and through, and hilarious to boot. oh, and who had just turned 60 the day before her friday night keynote).

“it doesn’t help that when you sit down to write, all your unresolved psychiatric issues choose to come visit you that day.”

(and as she sat down let sunday morning to type a facebook post about turning 60) “all the psychiatric issues sat on the bed with me — and they’d had a lot of coffee. they wanted me to know how they thought it was going — not very good.”

“laughter is carbonated holiness.”

“because we’re religious people we’re not going to spackle our hearts closed to block out the hurt.”

panel with peter marty (pastor/writer), christine byl (seasonal laborer, clearing trails in alaska, where she lives in a yurt with her husband and a band of retired sled dogs, author dirt work: an education in the woods), john t. price (nature writer)

quoting henry james: “a writer is someone to whom nothing is lost.”

quoting patricia hampl: “we don’t write what we know; we write to discover. to go off on an adventure.”

christine byl: “i write about what i don’t know about what i know. that’s where i enter. i enter the familiar with an eye toward the undiscovered.”

fred bahnson, writer, farmer, former peacemaker among mayan coffee farmers, author of soil and sacrament: a spiritual memoir of food and faith

“our job is not so much to make a point but to evoke something. invocation is one of the oldest forms of communication. it’s a priestly urge. the act of focusing your attention on something. creating a shared empathy. they’re not beating them over the head, you’re simply saying, ‘look, attend.’”

mycelium (vegetative part of fungus): “perfect metaphor for prayer.”

amen and amen. and good night.

it’ll be two more years till this festival convenes again. i’ve plenty to read till then, and more than enough to think about….(and in the meantime, big giant thanks to my dear old friend and latter-day pathfinder, bruce buursma, the tribune’s longtime religion writer — later baseball writer — who pointed me to the festival in the first place…what a mensch. and great wise soul.)

anything above strike your poetic fancy? who would you add to an essential reading list of poets and thinkers and brilliant essayists (oh, by the way, some fine soul reminded me this weekend that the word essay, with french roots, means “to try, to attempt.” is that not all we can ever do, weaving words into thoughts into rocket blasts from our heart)? what words would be among the most delicious on your plate? 

the barefoot monk and his God of pots & pans

the tale of brother lawrence

dispatch from 02139 (in which we meet a 17th-century monk with wisdom for the ages….)

the snows have been tumbling since the cloak of twilight fell last eve. a short pause here and there, but mostly tumbling, tumbling. with little sound but the shooshing of slush as it spits out from under thirsty tires on the street below, i’m tucked inside, home alone, curled up with a tiny blue slip of a book.

i’d not heard of the book, nor its author, until just a week or so ago, when a wise woman of letters likened something i’d written to the musings of brother lawrence, he with his God of pots and pans.

she mentioned this in passing, as if of course i knew the fellow. i did not.

no more need be whispered. i stood intrigued. and i set out to unearth this humble fellow who stumbled on the Holy amid the clangings of his monastery kitchen, not long after the pilgrims pulled ashore at plymouth.

i marched straight to the nearest epicenter of literary procurement — aka, the cambridge public library — and there i found the shelves were hollowed of brother lawrence and his sole literary offering, “practice of the presence of God,” a line i’d heard over the years — been struck by, really — though i never knew its origins. nor ever thought to wonder.

my friendly librarian managed to scrounge up a solitary copy from the bowels of some far-flung college archives. she dispatched it swiftly, and it came into my possession just days ago.

this white-freckled morn of mounding drifts offered the perfect occasion for making its acquaintance.

so down i plopped. and here i share the tale.

no bigger than a folded-in-half index card, a mere 80 yellowed pages, the title etched in gold gothic letters across a navy canvas, it’s a wisp of a volume. weightless as the wing of a dove. a book that might get swallowed whole at the bottom of a satchel, where it nearly did get lost this week.

yet it packs a mighty wallop.

it’s a humble collection of conversations and letters of one barefoot monk who, back in 1666, spilled the wisdoms soaked up in its now fragile pages.

the gentle fellow took the name “brother lawrence” upon entering the monastery of the barefooted carmelites in paris, not long after an uncanny conversion that came one winter’s day, staring at a tree, dry and leafless. seems the good brother absorbed the stark emptiness, but in that way that saints and wise souls do, he saw beyond it.

he imagined the possible.

as is written in the six-itty-bitty-page preface: the soon-to-be brother lawrence stood before the naked tree “reflecting on what a change God would make in it with the returning spring.”

and thus he was hit, head-on. the surging sense of the immensity of the Holy One all but knocked him down, realizing the life force, the Beautiful that would burst from the Barren.

again, from the preface: “it may seem strange so affecting a sense of Divine attributes should have been occasioned by so common an incident as seeing a tree, dry and leafless in the winter, and by reflecting what a change God would make in it with the returning spring. this may seem strange; but, in fact, it is rather to be wondered at, that others are not affected as he was, and that the little miracles of nature make so little impression upon us.”

and so, a little miracle of nature led the man, born nicholas herman of lorraine, to the great stone monastery in paris around the year 1626, when he was but 18.

there, brother lawrence, who described himself as “a great awkward fellow who broke everything,” (indeed, so kindred a spirit is my newfound bumbling ally, ol’ larry) found himself dispatched to the kitchen, “to which he had naturally a great aversion.” for some 15 years, he was cook to the society of monks.

amid the pots and pans, he established a profound yet simple spiritual practice: “i began to live as if there was none but He and i in the world,” he writes in the first of 14 letters pressed into the pages of his book.

in his second letter, he writes: “i make it my business only to persevere in His holy Presence…an habitual, silent, and secret conversation of the soul with God.”

in other words, imagine that God is always near, dangling over your shoulder, tucked in the pocket of your dungarees. no need for piety, or gilded cathedral walls. no need for practiced vespers, or slipping away from the cacophony of the everyday. brother lawrence’s is the God of the here and now, especially when it’s messy.

“it is not necessary for being with God to be always at church,” he says. “we make an oratory of our heart, wherein to retire from time to time, to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love…”

from the tenth letter: “He is always near you and with you; leave Him not alone. You would think it rude to leave a friend alone, who came to visit you; why then must God be neglected? do not then forget Him.”

and in perhaps brother lawrence’s most oft-quoted line, and one which i’ll now carry to the cookstove, especially in the harried half-hour when tummies are growling, and what’s in the skillet spews coils of smoke:

“it was observed, that in the greatest hurry of the business of the kitchen, he still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. he was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even composure and tranquility of spirit. ‘the time of business,’ said he, ‘does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, i possess God in as great tranquility as if i were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.’

surely, i was meant to know the barefooted brother. a fellow as likely to be thunderstruck by the lifeless silhouette of woods in winter, a good soul brought to bended knee by delphinium on the brink of brilliant blue. a reluctant cook who carries on heavenly discourse while the spaghetti scorches in the pot.

Brother_Lawrence_in_the_kitchen

who, pray tell, inspired you this week? 

and before i go, a few more lines from brother lawrence:

“…we ought not be weary of doing little things for the love of God, Who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

“our only business was to love and delight ourselves in God.”

“…his prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God…”

“by little and by little”: dorothy day, a guide to loving

dispatch from 02139 (in which, at long last, there is time in the day, here on the banks of the river charles, to take a few lessons from one of the 20th century’s modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries, dorothy day…)

if sabbatical has its roots in sabbath, to rest, to restore, then that is what pulled me, three months ago, to sign up for religion 1004, “modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries.”

i scanned across the list of saints whose lives we’d be studying — gandhi, martin luther king, thich nhat hahn, abraham joshua heschel — and i was hooked. i saw one more — dorothy day — and i was writing the professor begging to be allowed at the seminar table.

dorothy — for i don’t think she’d want me to call her ms. day; she’s not like that — has been my deep catholic hero for a long, long time. her brand of catholicism, the catholic worker movement founded, in part, on hospitality houses for the poor, the lost, the wholly left-to-the-margins, is the brand i still believe in.

i grew up, spent my holy years, in the 1960s.

stepped into my first dark confession box back in those turbulent days — just post vatican II, when the church was turned on its head, a year after JFK was assassinated, at the height of the escalation of the vietnam war — heard the opaque window slide open, heard the priest’s breathing, heard my own heart pounding as i scoured my soul, got ready to spill all my sins there on the ledge. tasted my first dry, wheat-y communion wafer. wondered what to do when it got stuck on the roof of my mouth.

and then, in seventh grade, it got really deep: we had a nun who’d stripped off her habit, who stood there in sweaters and skirts, strummed a guitar, and turned off the lights so we could watch — over and over — “the red balloon,” sing kumbaya. radical jesus — with his long curly hair and sandals, friend to the thieves and the whores — was a god made for the decade of protest, anti-establishment.

all along, i’d spent hours at bedtime, praying that i could be better come daybreak. be more of a saint. try harder. one lent, when i was in third grade, i think, i got up early, rode my bike to 7 o’clock mass every morning. because i thought it would make my soul shine brighter.

i never stopped trying.

and then, along came the likes of mother theresa and gandhi, and later, dorothy day.

they were my brand of catholic. they scooped souls out of gutters, touched the untouchables, turned away from the gilded altar cloths and the chalices locked away in a safe in the dark of the church.

they were what drew me to appalachia in college, what pulled me into a soup kitchen on the west side of chicago. they and my mother, truth be told.

but my mother has never written out her theology, just told me once, in a few short words (all i needed to hear really) that, after my father died, she figured she’d devote all the days of her life to God, and live a gospel of love. so she does, and i watch.

over the years, i’ve read snippets of the life of dorothy day. knew enough to call her my hero, claim her as my personal saint.

but i hadn’t taken the time to pore over her writings, to absorb the whole of her story — in her words.

and right now, because we’re at that part of the reading list, because for the next two weeks, on mondays at 4, i’ll be sitting at the seminar table in the great gray stone tower that is harvard divinity school, i am reading dorothy. curled up on the couch with her all yesterday afternoon, an afghan under my bare toes, a fat mug of tea and an orange fueling me along the way.

i read paragraphs that could change me forever. so, of course, i’m sharing them here. see if you, too, discover a trail to carry you through the rest of your days, even the days when we’re lost in the deep dark woods. (the italics, for emphasis below, are mine.)

“…she did not expect great things to happen overnight. she knew the slow pace, one foot at a time, by which change and new life comes. it was, in the phrase she repeated often, ‘by little and by little’ that we were saved. to live with the poor, to forgo luxury and privilege, to feed some people, to ‘visit the prisoner’ by going to jail — these were all small things. dorothy’s life was made up of such small things, chosen deliberately and repeated daily. it is interesting to note that her favorite saint was no great martyr or charismatic reformer, but therese of lisieux, a simple carmelite nun who died within the walls of an obscure cloister in normandy at the age of twenty-four. dorothy devoted an entire book to therese and her spirituality of “the little way.” st. therese indicated the path to holiness that lay within all our daily occupations. simply, it consisted of performing, in the presence and love of God, all the little things that make up our everyday life and contact with others. from therese, dorothy learned that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured in love might ease the burden of others; such was the mysterious bond within the body of Christ. we could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage. these were the loaves and fishes. we could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase. it was all a matter of faith.”

— from “Dorothy Day: Selected Writings,” edited and with an introduction by Robert Ellsberg.

by little and by little.

now there’s a theology i can grasp, clench in my hot little fist.

we could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage.

these were the loaves and fishes.

we could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase.

most days i don’t have much. but by little and by little, i can steady my wobbles, and put one foot forward.

i can try, with all my might, to live a life of love, by little and by little.

there is much this week to pray for, in the heartbreaking wake of hurricane sandy, who has left my beloved in-laws without heat or light or power on the jersey shore, who has turned my sister-in-law’s new york brownstone into a hospitality house for all those with nowhere to go. who spared us, and our sweethearts in maine. for all the heartbreak, up and down the eastern seaboard, i pray for repair and for strength, by little and by little. 

your thoughts on the wisdom of dorothy day? and if she’s not the one who guides your days, who is?

independent study: the poetry of search

dispatch from 02139 (in which the bleary-eyed one demonstrates that she can rise to fumble with a college paper from 3 till 5 in the morning, return to faux slumber, then get back up and start all over again) …

so here we are, just an hour ago, back before i went to bed the second time, the sky out the front window that looks out over franklin street, and beyond to where the atlantic tickles the shore, it was pitch-black velvet stitched with one french-knot of a star and, dangling just above that, as if buttoned there, one silver crescent of moon.

now, it’s all poufy pink ruffles, backlit in gold, an underskirt of grey inching its way up the legs of the day. the sun rises over boston, over cambridge, over the whole eastern seaboard. the wind in the willows just two yards away, it’s already starting to rustle. the forecast is gloom for today. but when you’re up early, you get the first — sometimes the only — snippets of heaven on earth.

and that’s what i’m looking for here, that’s why i’ve pressed my nose against glass here of late.

oh, i suppose i always knew that behind the story of this trooping off to college, me and my old-fashioned pens and my notebooks (why, i might as well dip quill into inkwell, scritch-scratch my notes onto papyrus, so out-of-date, obsolete, i do seem to be in the land of laptops and iPads), i’d had a hunch that there just might be one other plot line. one other reason for being plucked up and re-planted, half a land mass from home.

i picked up on it early on. back before the start of summer, perhaps, when i first tiptoed through this apartment, spotted the books on the desk of the man who would become my landlord, yes, but more so my lighthouse keeper and guide. he had tall stacks, tomes of poetry, titles that spoke of the sacred. poetry and the divine, it was there in nearly every corner. and i kept poking along.

as i trace my fingers along his bookshelves, in the weeks and months since, i’ve often felt the pull to not leave the apartment, to slide a thin volume off the shelf — any shelf — (there’s wendell berry, thomas merton, a whole thicket of mary oliver, squeezed in between wislawa szymborska, the nobel laureate; there’s e.e. cummings, emily dickinson, and t.s eliot, to run through the c, d and e’s. wallace stevens abounds, as does octavio paz, and a good dash of old robert frost).

i imagine nothing so fine as a seminar for two, if you count bound pages as one half of that pair. i imagine curling up under one of the afghans i’ve pulled from high-above cabinets this week, as autumn’s chill has crept in through the windows. i’ve imagined beginning and launching my poetry school right here where i scramble up eggs, and scrub the sink of its leftover toothpaste.

the school didn’t wait, didn’t dawdle. didn’t put off what october demands (for we pull up stakes, turn back into pumpkins in a mere seven school months).

i knew, back in the summer, that my friend and soon-to-be landlord was writing a book, a book he told me might be the one thing in this world he was meant to make.

the book arrived with a thud on my doorstep this week. it’s titled, “prayers of a young poet: rainer maria rilke,” translated by mark s. burrows.

it’s a beautiful book, a book covered in gold, with a grainy turn-of-the-last-century sepia photo of the great german poet, best known, perhaps, for two works: “letters to a young poet,” published in 1929, and “the book of hours,” in 1905.

“prayers of a young poet” contains, for the first time, rilke’s raw drafts of a cycle of 67 prayers and one long letter written in verse, all penned over the course of three-and-a-half weeks, back in the fall of 1899, in berlin.

they belong, burrows writes, in the genre known as “the poetry of search.”

burrows goes on to tell his afghan-draped pupil that the allure of these prayers is that they give voice to what rilke calls “the stillness between two notes / that don’t easily harmonize.” and there, writes rilke, writes burrows, is where God dwells, within “the dark interval.”

rilke is a poet drawn to the woods, and to the monastery. in these newborn poems, he imagines a monk is the writer, the discoverer of the divine “behind trembling trees,” in the “mushrooms [that] stood up in the forest,” and in the “wet leaves of the blood-red, withering vine.”

but what is pulling me even deeper into the syllabus that spreads across 132 pages is that rilke’s “God,” according to burrows, “is one who is always becoming, ‘the dawning one from whom the morning rose.'”

rilke’s God is not known in intricate trace. rilke’s God is the God of primal darkness, “not sheer absence, but…rather a gesture toward a presence we can ‘sense’ but cannot know.” darkness, burrows writes, is the place of God’s becoming — for rilke, for apostles of rilke.

the poet writes: “I love the dark hours of my being / for they deepen my senses… / From them I’ve come to know that I have room / for a second life, timeless and wide.”

and so, for a student who has dwelled in the murky fog of not knowing for far too long, achingly long, these words come as a trumpet blast of hope.

here, on the pages of a book that landed thwop on my doorstep, i’ve discovered a matchstick to strike in my darkness.

i’m only just 61 pages in, but already i’ve felt its pull, a stirring deep where the pulse begins. i understand that i need to carve out quiet, embroider my days with stillness. it is the poetry of search.

i find it here in the nooks and crannies, the holy sacred rooms this city offers.

in the light-dappled pews of memorial church, on harvard yard, where i slid in yesterday morning, me and my red-strapped backpack, just as the reading began of an amy hempel story that served as scripture.

and, again, just past noon yesterday, when i shoved open the great wood-planked door of the monastery at the bend in the charles river.

i tiptoed in, and found the monks deep in noon song. i fell to my knees on a blue needlepoint cushion. i struck a match, and licked its flame against the wick inside a cobalt blue glass jar.

the blue glowed, a white light of halo within it, behind it. i bowed my head, and did not mind, for once, the not knowing. i am peeling back the poetry of search, and learning that in the darkness of my hours, i just might find what i’ve been waiting for, for so so long.

you can find mark’s rilke book here. who is the author of your most sacred prayer?

must dash (posting this as roughest of  draft); long day of classes, and grammy comes in on the train from portland, maine. big weekend here in 02139.

power cord

week after week, i weigh the passing thought that i ought to set my alarm, oh, a good hour earlier than all the rest of the days so that i could slip out from under the sheets (for it is sheet, not cover weather these past few balmy days) and cloak myself in the velvet hours of night giving way to dawn.

so i could slither into my garden, curl up on the creaky bench, not unlike an inchworm in repose, and spy on all the doings of the morn.

i could, perhaps, watch the shrunken globes of dew catch firstlight, cast a hundred itty-bitty rainbows, a daily morning magic show for those who, like the robin and the cardinal, do not waste the dawn in slumber.

i could, if i was lucky, catch the fronds of fern unfurling, as the fiddleheads let loose their clenched-fist grip, give way to warming rays, awaken to the sun.

i might catch the first flash of golden yellow feathers, papa goldfinch, pecking at the thistle seed.

i might even be there to greet the hungry cat as he moseys back from all his midnight mischief, staggering ’round the garden bend, stopping for a slurpy drink from the mossy bowl where robins splash and preen.

the morning hours on a friday are the ones i call religion. oh, yes, i need to pack the lunches, chase the children out the door. there are chores aplenty all day long. but it’s the one day i set aside for meditation, planned meditation.

i might catch a snatch here or there, gazing out the windows of the el train as it rolls past a cemetery. or peering down an alley, watching a teetering old man picking through the garbage. i find time to stitch deep thoughts all throughout my week. but i don’t have unbroken time too often.

and that’s why i call friday mornings my very own three-pronged power cord.

i plug my soul back into the great generator in the sky. that sounds too flip, and i don’t mean it to be. it’s just that i hear the whispers of the divine when i am crouched down low to the earth in all her glory.

when i am wrapped in birdsong. when the saintly soprano of the wren sends shivers down my spine. when i am close enough to holiness itself to hear the rush of the blue jay’s wing as she flutters by.

when i am filling my lungs with the incense that wafts right now from my korean spice viburnum, a sacrament on branches if ever there was one.

some weeks by wednesday i am limping, grabbing hold of counters, trying to find my middle so i’ve half a chance of staying steady till the workday rushing ends, and before the mad-dash of the weekend reaches out to grab me by the throat.

through serendipity and schedules, friday is my sunday. the unfolding of my sabbath, the day when i drink in my strongest dose of why we’re plopped here in the first place.

for all the hurricanes and sirens that seem to whirl around me saturday through thursday, i am at heart a soul who needs a prayer shawl of quietude, to put my ear to the metronome of heaven here on earth.

i don’t want the breathing of the garden to be drowned out by what’s coursing through some squawky earphones. i don’t want to miss one inch of the slender stalks as they shimmy toward the clouds.

i want to be front-row witness to papa cardinal slipping sunflower seeds into mama cardinal’s beak, the closest thing to kissing, surely, in the feathered world of birds. i want to be the one who’s tiptoeing through the garden when the summer’s first monarch alights, the telltale stained-glass wings brushing by my nose.

and so if i don’t get my celestial dose before the house awakens, erupts in rushing-searching-slurping-dashing, i sit in solitude and bliss once the last dish is rinsed and put away, once the grocery list is scribbled, once the last bed is made, the pillow fluffed, the cat pulled out from hiding under someone’s covers.

it’s some cathedral the place in which i cast my prayers. a redbud branch is my domed ceiling. the lilies of the valley fill the choir loft. the wren’s song is my epistle. and it’s the breeze rushing off the lake that this morning carried me to where i meet the heart, the hand of God.

what on earth serves as your power cord? what recharges you? fills you with saintly essence? where did you meet God this week?

deep-breathing the beautiful

all around us, sometimes, the walls of the world seem to be crashing in. i read the pages of the newspaper, and soak up stories from faraway and not so far. stories of thugs and mobs and rapes and shootings at close range. i read of fathers who kick children with steel-toe boots, and dump lifeless toddler bodies in bags in the woods.

it gets to be deadening. to the spirit. to the soul. to the sparks of the hope that won’t be snuffed, not yet anyway.

and so, with a world whirling around, a world scaring me, making me wonder, i find myself clinging–like oxygen straight from a tube–to the wisps and the inkblots of God’s world that won’t be daunted, won’t be dulled, won’t be wiped away.

the great orange glowing orb of a moon that clung last night just over the skyscrapers along lake shore drive.

the clouds that skittered by, played peek-a-boo, made faces along with the moon.

the wisp of green, lime green, spring green, starting-all-over-again green, here on my kitchen table, branches clipped and brought in from the cold by my dear neighbor who must have known that by week’s end i’d need an infusion.

it is these scant stitches of beautiful, of infinite, that hold me in place, that keep me from sliding off into the pitch- black abyss of human nature gone haywire, and the aftershocks that do in souls like you and me.

there are readers and listeners, i suppose, who take in the day’s news and scurry along, undaunted, undented.

i am not one of them.

last night, riding home on the el, the clackety train that is chicago’s–and my–answer to swift public transit, i pored over the dispatch of nicholas kristof who found himself on the streets of bahrain, in the capital city of manama, and who wrote: “as a reporter, you sometimes become numbed to sadness. but it is heartbreaking to be in modern, moderate bahrain right now and watch as a critical american ally uses tanks, troops, guns and clubs to crush a peaceful democracy movement and then lie about it.”

he writes of seeing corpses with gunshot wounds, of a promising and prominent plastic surgeon who went out on the streets to tend to the wounded and wound up bloodied, unconscious, and nearly raped (the police pulled down his pants, threatened to rape him, before the idea was abandoned and an ambulance allowed to rescue him).

he writes of ambulance drivers pummeled, guns held to their heads. of hospital corridors full of frantic mothers searching desperately for children gone missing in the attacks.

i shuddered, sank low in my hard plastic seat on the el.

but then i glanced out the window, as the train emerged from its underground tunnel, began its rapid ascent to the tracks that run above street level. a bright orange something caught my eye. hyphenated by all the houses and towers the train passed by, i had to hold my gaze to catch that orb again and again.

it locked me. i couldn’t keep my eye from searching the sky. i wanted to tap the shoulder of the long-haired woman next to me, the one plugged in to her wired-in sounds. i wanted to say, “isn’t it beautiful?” but she wasn’t looking. wasn’t open for business. she was locked in her unnatural bubble.

at last i emerged from that train, stood for a good long while on the platform, waiting for the next of my trains. i didn’t mind.

the wind blew. played with the clouds, that played with the moon. while i stood watching, witness to the unending beauty, the light, the certainty that reigns in the sky.

that same moon, i thought, is the moon shining down on bahrain, on egypt, iraq and iran.

it’s the one constant. the one shared link i have at this moment with those souls on the streets, those frantic mothers searching for children.

and here on my table for the last two days, the serviceberry branches, laid on the counter when i wasn’t looking. now upright and sipping up waters, opening, unfurling, reminding: life comes again. the cycle begins, returns, life comes from death.

i find myself returning my eyes to the branches. i can’t get enough. i seem to need to remember, need evidence. i seem to need to deep-breathe the beautiful.

it’s the one thing bigger than us, even in the utter humility of its whispers, the moon in the nightsky, the branches unfurling weeks before their time, coaxed along by the warmth of my house, by the vase full of waters.

it is the beautiful that is eternal, ever here and always.

it is more breath-taking, perhaps, because we need to search for it, peek behind branches, poke through the woods.

once found, though, it sustains us. fills us. offers its grace to all of our emptiness, our shadow.

it is the hand, i am certain, of the Holiest.

it is offered for those of us who get light-headed from all of the darkness, who can’t read the stories and carry on as if all’s well with the world.

when it’s not.

thank God for the balm that comes with the gracenotes of beauty. for the whispers that remind: beauty won’t go away. it’s there, deep in the heart of all that pulses and breathes. and we can’t let the darkness take over…..
where did you find the beautiful this week?

a world cloaked in the beautiful

i was dashing–the verb that most often fits me. the air was the sort that sweeps up behind, roars up your neck, wakes you up with a tingle.

it was morning, not long after dawn.

i’d not quite rolled from the bed. as so often happens, a wisp of the last worry of the night before was there before i was, wriggled into my waking-up-ness, before i was even awake. that sort of pit that weighs you down while your legs, leaden, try to shake off the sheets and the blanket. where one night’s fret melts into one morning’s dread.

i hadn’t had time to shake it off, think much about it. it was simply there, a part of the weight of the still-groggy dawn.

but then, not long after, not too long anyway, i loped out the door, and i saw–beheld, really, stopped and beheld. the tangle of grasses and weeds, transformed into the beautiful. nearly blinding.

the first frost of the autumn, the glass-beaded luminescence that captures the slant of the sun, refracts it, refines it. wraps it up in a ball, makes it more than it was, broadcasts it.

practically shouts: look here, absorb the poetry, the power, that comes without words.

the world is at work in its tasks that trace back to the birth of all time.

there was darkness, there was light. genesis says so.

and so began the miracle of sunbeams captured in wee globes of dew.

or might it be the cold sweat of dawn’s labor, the hard work of night turning to day?

when first frost comes–when the architecture of water and cold finds itself frozen–that morning light is magnified, glorified, held up for ovation, a show that won’t last.

all part of the whole-cloth majesty that is the autumn.

when leaves drop their drab summer-worn green for jaw-dropping amber and gold, copper and crimson. air turns wake-me-up chilly. pumpkins weigh down the vine.

the slant of the sun as it drops in the sky, as we twirl farther and farther away, it all is a call to attention.

don’t pass me by, whisper the blades of the grasses. do not disregard the morning light captured, contained for a fraction of time, the white glow of october’s first breaths.

holiness unfurled like a sparkling carpet. gospel spread forth on the tongue of a bent strand of grass.

without clanging or cymbal, i stumble time and again on the truth that, for me, the natural world is some sort of a 24-7 wi-fi connection to the almighty Divine.

just when you think the only thing that matters is starting the car, getting to school before the big hand sweeps to the 5, getting the boy in the seat there beside you into the door before the scritch of the teacher’s pencil marking him late. just when you dare let that trivial thought distract you, get in the way, the white light of dew frozen stops you.

forget not that this is a web of water and light, air and creation. we are but players. and the dramas and plots we hold in our hearts, they pale put up against the jaw-dropping, breath-taking magnificence that is the first light of the first frost of the autumn.

the Divine is among us, always among us. if only we open our eyes, and drink in the wordless call to attention that dares to stop cold our mad-dashing, our mad-sad-dashing farther and farther away from what truly matters.

big weekend: jack’s baby boy gets married. the man i married marks the official pub date of his latest adventure in book-writing, “terror and wonder: architecture in a tumultuous age.” the firstborn i birthed decides which college. my faraway brother from up in the mountains comes home for a whirl. dear friend’s baby girl is bat mitzvah. so many glories….

what stopped you in your tracks lately?

stirring sweetness

the beautiful thing about leaping into a religion that’s not your own, is there is no rule book.

well, there might be a tome or two on the shelves, but when you’re inventing, you often concoct as you go.

oh, sure you ask zillions of questions, you turn to the texts, pore over pages, searching for answers. but plenty of times, you go with the zeitgeist and, frankly, you wing it.

and so it was i bounded out of bed yesterday morn, on the dawn of the new year, rosh hashanah, and set out to make rosh hashanah bread pudding.

now, nowhere in the cookery books will you find such a sweet and pudding-y dish. there is no step-by-step guide to a sweeter morning than the usual cornflakes and cow’s milk.

ah, but like many a someone embracing something that’s new, that’s just a touch foreign, exotic, i can’t get enough.

give me a rosh hashanah prayer about morning stars and particles of dust floating on the wind, and i am swooning in my pew, thinking to myself, by jove, they’re talking to me, those ancient hebrew poets, the ones who thousands of years ago carved out these words to speak to my heart, here in the waistband of america, where leaves are just starting to rumble with thoughts of shedding their greens, too early just yet to unfurl great bolts of color.

truth is i tingle, through and through, here in these days of downright awe.

i am not a jew. but i love a jew. married him. bore our children. am raising those children in a house that is bathed in the best of two great and rather old faiths: we are catholic and jewish.

and this time of year, in these sacred golden-dripping days of awe, i cannot get enough of a whole-body immersion.

i am cooking it. praying it. setting the table with it. poring over the verses with it. inhaling every last drop of it.

everywhere i turn, there is awe. and it is sweet.

let’s start with the light: have you noticed the great kaleidoscope that is the turning of season has cranked it just to the north a notch, and now the sunbeams that hit us are amber molasses, tinged with spoonfuls of honey?

why yes, they drip on my bed pillows, my pages, my old creaky floorboards.

and then there’s that charge in the air, the one that has us un-sashing the windows, pulling back shutters, clearing the way so that cool night breezes might billow in, that air that seems at last purer and crisper, more certain to clear out our lungs from all the sticky still jungle air that took hold in the long hot summer.

but mostly, there are the prayers and the knowing now what i’ve always known: this is sacred time, new time, time that deeply matters. the days when our steps are counted, our deeds recorded, our fates inscribed in the holiest book.

God is paying attention, rapt attention, and so too must we.

thus, as if to upholster the year, to tilt it toward sweetness the whole way through, we stir it in in great dollops. a handful of raisins here. a bee-bumped macintosh chopped and grated over there.

we are watching as honey drools from a spoon. and wiping smudges, sticky, off from the table.

tonight this old house will be filled. the table as crowded as it knows how to be. if we could have layers of table, we would. i would invite everyone i have ever loved, and then some.

and just as the sun slips over the ledge and sacred twilight comes, having stirred the stews all night, and having set out my grandma’s silver, and the glasses of cobalt blue, i will strike a match and kindle the lights.

i will call on the legions of saints and angels who march behind me wherever i go. i will call on rachel and leah and rebekah.

i will look over (not down anymore, for the top of my head no longer makes it even to the cusp of his shoulders) at my firstborn, and gulp back the tear that comes with knowing he’ll not be home next year, or for years to come for that matter, on these sweetest of days upon days.

i will be humbled and filled all at once. will marvel that i, a deep quiet catholic, was somehow swept into the river that bathes me so richly, so wholly, so anciently. calling me back to where i must have once begun.

i count myself among the blessed, the ones who are stirred by the ancient hebrew poets, a people who marked time by the stirrings on the bough and in the field. who kept time by the heavens, the night star and moon. i read these rosh hashanah prayers through dual lenses, and in them i find such powerful majesty, such knee-buckling knowing of the intricacies of the human heart. today this meander is merely an unspooling, no deep lesson or question, other than this: what is it of this time of year that heightens in you a deep sense of awe, no matter your religion?

p.s. that rosh hashanah bread pudding? nothing more to it than torn-up bits of the night before’s raisin-studded challah, with a fat granny smith grated into it, along with a handful of even more raisins and cranberries (why stop when studding your pudding?) i had promised rosh hashanah bread pudding to my little one who loves a good reason to leap out of bed. and thus, once stirred from my dreams, i had little choice but to come up with a version that lived up to the promise.

inviting in the sacred

someone asked me not so long ago why i search so often for the sacred in my every day.

it’s not so much the searching, really, it’s that i often seem to stumble on it.

it’s just there. kaboom.

i find it, often, tucking little ones to bed. or sitting side-by-side, on stools carved by my brother, in that after-school ebb and flow, when the third-grade day comes rushing out in breathless narrative, and, every paragraph or so, in goes bite of apple, or cookie, or glug of chocolate milk.

i do, yes, find the sacred nearly every time i tiptoe out the door. not the times when i’m near a gallop, racing to the station wagon, keys clunking from my fist, nearly always late for where i was supposed to be, a good 10 minutes ago.

but in the tiptoe times, when every pore of me is wide awake and at attention, when i’m in slow gear, trying not to barrel through, disturb the peace, then it’s almost certain that the sacred will alight on me, as a monarch to a black-eyed susan.

i find the holy breath in birdsong, absolutely. and in the streams of light pouring through the pines, or the crack in the fence that runs along my cottage garden.

i find knee-dropping humility when i spy the moon. or when, weeks behind schedule, a vine i thought had died breaks out in bloom, a resurrection lesson every time.

i find God whenever i’m alone. or maybe that’s the time when at last, i feel the rustling by my side, at my elbow, where my heart goes thump. maybe that’s when at last it’s quiet enough, still enough, for me to hear the holy whispers in my ear.

i do know that God spends time aplenty in my kitchen, at my dinner table. i sink my fists into the egg-rich dough of the challah in the making, and i hear the prayers take off. i dump cinnamon and raisins in a pot of bubbling porridge, and well, i am at one with the heartbeat of all the saints and angels who’ve passed this way, who’ve known what it is to be called to care for others as if you were their mother.

at every meal when we join hands, a circle of palms touching palms, fingers wrapped around fingers, i feel a veil of holiness drop down upon us. especially so when we’ve invited in a friend or stranger we’d not known so well before.
oh, Lord, i even find the sacred scrubbing out the tub. not always. but sometimes. folding clothes. turning on the iron, smoothing out the wrinkles.

isn’t that, at the heart of it, what the sacred brings?

an otherworldly way of living on a higher plane?

isn’t this all just molecules and space between if there’s no purpose to the plan? aren’t we merely moving markers round the gameboard, passing through the stations, checking off the list, if there’s no Teacher, no Comforter, no Great Illuminator?

oh, you needn’t call it by a single name. nor pray a certain prayer.

all i’m thinking here is that to tap into the sacred, to invite it in your home, your heart, your rushing to the train, your talking to the grocery checker, is to take it up a notch. to infuse the beautiful and the breathtaking into the simple act of breaking bread and sipping wine. or stirring soup. or whispering in a child’s ear, “don’t be afraid. i’m here.”

isn’t all of life just a long equation of simple addition and subtraction? don’t we make it into poetry, geometry, by seeing it through a lens that understands, at the heart of every breath, every word, every triumphant act of courage, every heart-crushing blow, that we are not here merely by the power of our own two legs.

but that there are wings all around, holding us afloat, wrapping us, taking us on a sacred flight to everlasting truth and holy wisdom.

that’s why i seem to stumble on the sacred.

i don’t think i’d stay upright otherwise.

do you invite in the sacred? how so? why, for goodness sake?

no darker day

all night i tossed and turned, wondered if i would write how lonely it is. how achingly hard. to be the sole believer in a house i call home.

oh, there are others who believe other things. just no one else who believes what i do.

no one else who spills tears at the thought of the story, deep thought. deeper story, the one of today, the one of good friday, no darker a day.

no one else who came with me to church last night, who stripped off their shoes, stood in line, knelt down to wash the feet of another. no one else who knows what it felt like, how it wrung me right out, the man i don’t know, his deeply brown hands, tenderly, thoroughly, washing my feet.

it is, was, a wholly powerful moment. metaphor, yes. but literal, too. sensual, really. warm water was poured, my bare bumpy feet there in a bowl, a white porcelain bowl. no ceremonial sprinkle and wipe. not this. no.

i could barely look up. couldn’t breathe. all around me, humility loomed. filled the church, right up to the rafters. this church where i went–unlike the one of palm sunday–is a church that i love. it is filled with people of colors, filled with bodies so broken, but spirits that look to be whole.

beaming and grinning and shaking a shaker, the young handsome man strapped to a wheelchair. the boy with the face that is pretty much mangled. the one who was blind. the old lady who only could shuffle, and barely at that. all of them, there. so very there.

for three hours, i think, i was bathed in all of the ritual. the latin, the spanish. the incense, the candles. the bread and the wine. oh, and the song. cello and tambourine. children with bells. and the pouring of water on bare naked skin.

even i, a soul who’s felt not very holy of late, i was pulled right back to the flame deep inside. long long ago, a story was put there. a story i simply believed. over the years, it got jostled around. couldn’t be. yes it could. hmm, i wonder. oh, geez, i don’t know. i don’t even know anymore.

it’s the sad sorry fallout from hours and hours of listening, and hearing the people you love, people whose thinking you trust on all sorts of matters, come down, on this one, on the far side of the fence.

it’s the part of the jewish-catholic equation that isn’t much aired. and sometimes i think that it should be. it might untangle a knot.

there’s the words of the rabbi: you can’t believe it both ways. and the words of the priest: you love the same God. and then there’s me, sometimes lost in the middle.

it’s not likely to happen, perhaps, if you didn’t start out deeply believing. or caring too much. but on both of those scores, i raised my hand.

and that’s where the rub comes: after 20 long years, two-fifths of my life, of listening to scholars who find it all rather unlikely, but even moreso, watching the pain on the face of the man who i love on that long ago sunday of palms, or hearing the words of my firstborn when he says he finds it mostly improbable, my whole core has been shaken and rattled and, sometimes i fear, broken to bits.

i hold onto shards. pray for the blue glowing flame not to go out.

but then, on a night like last night, i go in a church, i take off my shoes and it all floods right back. the whole power and glory of a church that holds up this day, and the ones just before and right after. says, look at this. look how human and horrid and broken we all can be. look how this one single soul was betrayed, was mocked, was beaten, was made to carry a cross. and he died without raising his voice. except to cry out: “Father forgive them. they know not what they do.”

it’s a moment, i swear, to carry me far. it’s a moment i thank holy God for. each year, i come back. and many hours between.

but the hollow deep hole in my chest, when i feel all alone, and not very certain, it makes for some hours of unbearable darkness.

and how uncanny it is that this day, no darker a day on the calendar, somehow is lit from behind. like that sun through the clouds. or a star breaking through in the murk of the night.

it might be, just might be, a soul, after all, that refuses to succumb to the doubt.

perhaps, in the end, that’s what my easter miracle is. the maybe that turns to a yes. the yes that won’t fall to eclipse. do you struggle, when it comes to believing? what brings you home, time and again? is it the power of story, or the break in the clouds? i send you blessings, as we all wait out the darkness, counting on light to come in the dawn.