faith


The sun inhabits Lent’s lengthened days.
Snow sheets first were dappled
like metal pounded lightly by a hammer.
The melt then crept down roads,
disappearing into drains.
Eventually snow skirts pulled back
from houses’ knees.
Now there’s just a snowplowed pile or two,
memories of disappeared abundance.

The uncovered ground still sleeps,
her dreams not even tickled yet by daffodils.
Unbudded trees hope dauntlessly for leaves.

Seasons pass away;
there must always be a death
before a resurrection.

The spectral grave clothes are gone
and sunray fingers knead dirt,
the heart’s about to beat again.

This poem is a meditation on Psalm 77, a lament that seems suitable for the current moment. At the end I reference Marta C. Gonzalez, an Alzheimer’s patient who still retained a memory of her days as a ballerina. At the bottom of the page I link to a video of her that went viral.

Troubles fill the day
and spill into night.
My unresting hands reach out,
refusing sleep’s deficient comfort.

It’s not me, God, who wants
to prop my eyes ajar,
so it must be you.
I remember my night songs,
doves fluttering with hope,
and wonder where they’ve flown to.

“God, will you always be like this?
Did your unending love
reach its end?
Favor, mercy, sympathy—
have they all been chewed to pieces
by your angry jaws?”

Sometimes, I think it to be so,
but stubbornly my mind
recalls your deeds, the wonders
that my eyes have seen,
my ears have heard.

Even if I forget all else,
may your music and your dance
be so implanted in my heart
that I could be like
Marta C. Gonzalez.

She,
though wheelchaired and demented,
became again a ballerina,
filled with grace and light,
when she heard the song.

“Sermon on the Mount” by Aurel Naray. Image: http://www.hungarianartmastergallery.com

Blessed are the destitute, the desperate,
the bankrupt and impoverished,
the penniless, insolvent and exhausted,
all those who know they lack.

Blessed are those who bleed,
cut by the knives of race and class;
blessed are the aberrant,
eccentric, odd, and offbeat,
peculiar, queer, or freakish.

What, though, of the stiff and solid,
punctilious and diligent,
respected and presentable;
what of those who sit on
straight-backed chairs counting silver,
stashing it in sacks?

Which group will be welcomed
into the coming kingdom of rejoicing seas,
elated fields, and delighted, singing trees?
In the teeter-totter world
where the lowly are uplifted
and the pompous are pushed down,
open my hermetic seal to let
the pressured air of pride hiss out.
In emptiness alone
can I be filled.

Here is a meditation on Ecclesiastes 11:1-6, written after I had been hiking on wooded trails in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.

I walk among the fallen trees
recumbent on a mat of leaves;
no matter that they once reached high,
they’ve yielded life, surrendered pride.

One day I’ll join them, lying down
and, north or south, it’s still the ground
that will receive my tired limbs
consumed by rot, or felled by wind.

Until that day I’ve no complaint;
I’ll watch the clouds, receive the rain
divide my share by spilling seed
to sprout out from the teeming peat.

I’ve cast my bread, and it’s come back
in countless ways; it’s only apt
that God be praised, for it is he
who planted, nurtured, treasured me.

Here is a reflection on Ecclesiastes 9:11 as it played out one night:

I rush, intending to be finished early—
wash the floor and vacuum,
fold up clothes and fix tomorrow’s lunch.
I’m hoping to have time to sit
out on the porch and read a bit.
All goes well until
it quickly doesn’t.

The sink is the first to balk;
the disposal chokes on a chunk of metal
dislodged from its innards.
Water spills into the space below,
soaking boxes and bottles and jugs,
a variety of oddities. Everything
needs to dry. A plumber
will have to come. Oh, boy.

Meanwhile, it’s started raining
I had left some stuff—a mask,
a paper napkin, and a music player—
on the car trunk. Soaked. Toss
the napkin, dry the mask,
will the music play?

The chair on the porch is wet as well.
No reading there tonight.
The shower curtain falls as,
too quickly, I snatch a towel
to absorb disordered water.

Swiftness does not win the race,
nor strength the fight or smarts the cash;
welcome time and chance
and watch tranquility dissolve.
Remember, Bob, that you are dust
and give to God your trust.

 

 

The description of Babylon in the book of Daniel seems oddly familiar 2500 years later. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek take on that empire and all empires from then until now:

Just settle in, assimilate
ignore your grief, ignore your ache
and when the music plays, bow down
before the king of Babylon.

You will be taught (tuition free)
all magic spells and oddities;
it may seem strange, it may seem wrong;
it’s how things roll in Babylon.

Our businessmen are savvy whores,
there’s merchandise in all the stores;
buy fig trees now on Amazon!
wealth does accrue in Babylon.

So I give thanks, at night in bed
for clothes and houses, wine and bread,
and I decide that I belong
consuming stuff in Babylon.

The king is petulant, it’s true:
“Tell me my dream, or off with you!”
The vision comes before the dawn
to men who prayed in Babylon.

There’s just a few who will not sing
their native songs, or anything.
They think instead of days begone
and turn their hearts from Babylon.

The kingdom of the Lord will come
and we’ll rejoice before the Son,
while waiting though, we still are fond
of all the charms of Babylon.

Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Lord, may your Spirit rush through us today,
this day of mourning for the lives blown out,
of impotence transmuted into rage,
of fear that’s masquerading as a shout.

Breathe, Spirit, that the one deprived of breath
may in his perishing bring something new
in this divided, dismal land; may death
bring life to justice, righteousness, and truth.

Come, Spirit, bring your love, defeating hate,
convict obdurate hearts of racial sin
burn off what separates us with your flame,
and blow away excuses with your wind.
Lord, we are lost unless you offer aid;
come recreate us once again as kin.

Pentecost, by El Greco

Photo by Victor He on Unsplash

I continue to write poems every Sunday. Recently, I’ve focused on the devastation caused by the coronavirus. Yesterday I wrote about the remarkable ways in which our life in the public places of society have changed. The poem ends with Lamentations 3:26: “It is good to wait in silence/for the salvation of the Lord.” The book of Lamentations describes the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC., so it has much to say about life in times of sorrow and hardship.

Chairs sit in shuttered restaurants,
waiting like forsaken dogs for the return
of those who might not come.

Plazas have been emptied of the thousands
who once poured through them like sand;
just a few grains remain.

Cars that used to prance about mostly stand
in their stalls, hoping for the day they will
return to roaming.

The city’s hum and throb has ceased,
engines stilled as the hands that goaded them
suddenly slack from their endeavor.

Life is paused in midstep as an enemy invades,
we listen to dispatches from the front,
mourning all the fallen.

I rest in the stillness, where comfort is
proportional to trust: it is good to wait in silence
for the salvation of the Lord.

I am practicing the discipline of writing a poem every Sunday; I’ve posted a couple of them on this site. I’ve recently finished reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, and some of the poems I’ve written were in response to Dante the pilgrim’s journey through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. For example, in Canto III of Paradiso, Dante arrives at the lowest sphere of heaven, where he encounters Piccarda Donati, the sister of an old friend of his. He asks whether she is satisfied here or instead yearns for a higher position. She replies that she is completely content, telling him to:

“think carefully what love is and you’ll see
such discord has no place within these rounds,
since to be here is to exist in Love.” The Portable Dante, tr. Mark Musa)

Dante reflects, “Then it was clear to me that every where of Heaven is Paradise.”

It seemed to me that Piccarda’s mindset could serve us well here on earth, that we, too, can everywhere live in God’s love, if only we look at the world through that lens. As I wrote, I thought about walking the day before through a park. The calendar still said winter, but spring was clearly afoot. Here’s the poem:

If “every where of heaven is paradise,”
then what in all creation is excluded?

Today’s a joint where winter bends towards spring:
snowpiles wounded by the warmth
bleed bracing rivulets;
the sun’s become a bright and blushing debutante;
trees yet unbudding stretch tall so golden rays
can trace their fuzzy silhouettes;
marsh grasses from last summer weave tan tangles
that, like oldsters everywhere, murmur
about their former days of glory.

Where can I go that heaven won’t infuse?
Even in a darkened room
sunlight pokes its fingers through the blinds
and, in the splay, blissful dust specks dance.
So I sit in my cell as in paradise.
To be here (or anywhere)
is to exist in love.

 

 

I’ve been making it part of my spiritual practice to write a poem each Sunday. Sometimes I have an idea days before, but other times on Sundays I have no idea what to write about and I’m looking for some touch of grace, some glimpse of the transcendent, to try to put into words. Such was the case the last Sunday of 2019. Earlier in the day I went to a show of 17th century Dutch painting at the St. Louis Art Museum and was particularly struck by one portrait by Rembrandt. The subject was an older woman, rather plain in appearance but vibrant nonetheless. She’s been identified by scholars as Aeltje Uylenburgh, 62 years old at the time and wife of a Protestant minister.

 

In her book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Margaret Bendroth described the modern tendency to think that only the present matters. She wrote:

“If time is always moving forward, the past is always becoming more distant and irrelevant. In a sense, modern people are ‘stranded in the present,’ without a meaningful connection to anything that has gone before.”

As the title of her book indicates, she thinks that reflecting on the lives of earlier generations can be a meaningful spiritual practice. As a Christian, she especially encourages believers to engage with the lives of those who have preceded us in the faith. Aeltje Uylenburgh is quite likely to have been one such predecessor, and Rembrandt’s portrait of her was the occasion for me to reflect on her. Here’s the poem I wrote:

Aeltje Uylenburgh, who are you?
I saw your portrait at an exhibition that toured from Boston;
before that the canvas had time-traveled almost five centuries.
I doubt that even in your day
your black gown and black fur-lined cape were stylish–
same with the flat white collar and cap equipped with side flaps.

What calls across the years is not your clothes but your face.
You were old when painted; wrinkles and some sag
along the lower jowl attest to this, and decades of experience
seem encompassed by your gaze.
Your trunk is turned a little to the left, but your head turns less
and your eyes come near to looking out directly,
so that as I stand before you they aim just over my shoulder.
It seems you’re seeing something in the distance.
I suspect the sight is beatific; some such holy vision could account
for why you appear both old and childlike all at once.
You are ageless though of a particular age.

You’re Dutch enough you won’t permit yourself a smile,
but I can see it’s nearly there despite yourself.
I almost know you, sister! One day, when the saints unite,
I hope to recognize you amidst the throng.
I’d like it then if you’d describe
the touch of grace reflected in your face.

Next Page »