The Revised Common Lectionary, a compendium of Biblical passages read in churches each week of the liturgical year, today includes the following verse:

“For our momentary light affliction is producing in us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure and proportion….” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Meditating on scriptures like this can bring to mind interesting thoughts and images, as it did for me today:

Affliction weighs too much sometimes,
enormous gravity that hangs on limbs and ligaments;
shoulders slouch and legs shuffle.

Odd then that such hardship fortifies us
not for the succor of relief but for another weight,
that being glory.

As lilacs have endured the heft of winter cold
that they may then be burdened with the fireworks
of fragrant flowers

so too will we be resurrected in seraphic Spring,
bursting with great blooms of glory,
extravagant beyond all measure.

David Bailly, Vanitas. This is an example of the memento mori tradition

The last year spent isolated in response to covid19 has reminded all of us of our mortality. Now that some of us are getting vaccinated, there’s reason to hope for a gradual return to something like normal. Yet there are lessons to remember from this time. Here’s a poem I wrote about a month ago about what we’re going through; after the first couple verses, it is a conversation with death.

The ravages of death abound
in state to state, from town to town
conveyed upon the mist of breath
unholy virus, you are death.

So I avoid the best I can
death’s ravages, its frigid hand
while hundreds daily still fall prey,
be it by foolishness or fate.

My life for now is circumscribed—
lackluster days and quiet nights.
So, do I fear your dire threat?
No, but I offer you respect,

expecting we may meet one day
not battling, but in embrace,
prepared–by having had full life–
to book the journey you provide.

An ending, yes, but not the last,
for, after death mows me like grass
the king will come with trumpet’s shout,
before him death and I will bow.

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.

Most of my recent posts have been of poems I’ve written and this one is no exception. I regularly drive from Grand Rapids, Michigan to St. Louis, Missouri, and the poem describes something I see during a portion of the drive. A couple words of explanation: Joliet and Normal are cities along I-55, while Nimrod and Antaeus are giants consigned to the ninth level of Dante’s Inferno. That level is kept frozen by the wind made by the devil flapping his giant wings.

 

WINDMILLS

South of Joliet
Illinois looks like an ironing board—
flat and featureless. Thus it’s welcome when,
north of Normal, windmills appear.
They never seem to peek discretely
over the horizon, but stand up suddenly
beside the road, so that I always wonder
why, miles before, I hadn’t seen such giants
c r e e p i n g
in my direction. All of them are white,
pure against the sky. Unlike the mills
my ancestors used, these grind no grain
and show no sign of corpulence. Slender
as sticks, they flail their arms against the
aggravation of the wind, as if Antaeus
and Nimrod had been annoyed by the gusts
conjured by the devil’s wings.

But that’s not it at all. The invisible breath
that the sails then mill to energy comes not
from hell’s pit but from Wyoming’s mountaintops,
gifted by our ever-giving God.

 

I recently went on an Alpha retreat at Maranatha Conference Center near Lake Michigan. We could walk down to the beach, and, though the day was cold and blustery, many of us did, and climbed from there to an outlook deck. Here’s the view from the site:

The stiff wind blowing off the lake reminded me of the description of the Holy Spirit as breath or wind, and the tumult of the waves reminded me of the chaos that, according to the book of Genesis, the Spirit hovered over at the beginning of creation. The next day, I wrote the following poem about that moment:

Come Holy Spirit

The breakers roil, but I am heading up above them,
climbing wooden stairs in search of a deck floating
atop the hill, levitating amidst the bare-branched
trees. I leave a bit of breath behind on the climb,
but, summiting, I’m met with a greater breath, wind
across the waves, rushing through the pristine space
vast between the scudding clouds and troubled waters.

I spread my arms, mindless of the cold, gathering
as much as I can of the robust wind, for it recalls
the fullness of God’s hovering, fecund Spirit
above the primal deep, world-birthing, propagating,
molding, making, all-creating. Let the sea in all
its fullness roar. Breathe on us, Lord, that we may
be renewed. Come Holy Spirit, come, I pray.

Tomorrow is All Saints’ Day, a day for Christians to remember those who went before us in the faith. Remembering our predecessors is part of seeing ourselves as one with them:

“The choice is not to load our ancestors down with honors or run away from them as fast as we can–our countercultural faith requires us to take the past seriously and to receive its people warmly and wisely. It requires us to be generous, and in a fundamental way truly inclusive.” Margaret Bendroth, The Spiritual Practice of Remembering

Here’s a poem I wrote for All Saint’s Day in 2005 and recently revised:

ALLHALLOW

Our fellows stepped along the highways of history,
persevering through the nights and staggering against the storms,
withstanding the pull from clan or past companions,
spurning the flash and sparkle of roadside diversions.
They seldom walked alone
for their strength was in the intertwining.
When the passage was obstructed,
a hundred shoulders pushed as one to clear the way.
When a member of their number fell,
two hundred hands would lift the faltering one,
a hundred tongues would rumble with encouragement.
They were a host but not a horde,
intermixed but each distinct.
These are the saints that constitute the church;
its amaranthine beauty spans the ages.
We now walk along the pathways they inscribed:
we are the ones
following the followers of Christ.

 

I recently read Tish Harrison Warren’s wonderful little book Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. For her, the regular, mundane events of our daily lives are practices that shape our souls. She finds the spiritual significance of such apparently unpromising candidates as making the bed, brushing teeth, and losing keys. This post is about the last of those everyday events.

When she loses her keys, Tish begins with rational problem-solving. When she still can’t locate them, she proceeds to self-condemnation, then anger and blaming others. She searches frantically, then tries to regain her equanimity with self-talk and a quick prayer. Finally she lapses into despair. A little while later, she finds her keys under the couch.

We’ve all been there, losing perspective and panicking over some relatively minor aggravation. Warren points out that such events are more than minor inconveniences. They are apocalypses.

An apocalypse is not just an ancient literary genre characterized by extraordinary creatures, destruction, and divine intervention. The root word actually means “an unveiling or uncovering.” Warren explains this apocalyptic character of her lost keys as follows:

“In my anger, grumbling, self-berating, cursing, doubt, and despair, I glimpsed, for a few minutes, how tightly I cling to control and how little control I actually have. And in the absence of control, feeling stuck and stressed. those parts of me that I prefer to keep hidden were momentarily unveiled.” p. 52

I have such apocalypses regularly. Sometimes it’s about losing something, though losses usually don’t make me melt down to the extent that Warren describes. There are plenty of other situations that are more revealing for me:

  • The train from St. Louis to Chicago is running late and I might miss the train to Michigan. I tell myself that the worse result from not getting there in time would be that I would have to reschedule a few appointments tomorrow and spend the night in a hotel that Amtrak is paying for. Still I fret for hours (and end up missing my connection by 10 minutes). Apocalypse.
  • At my mom’s house, I want to use the kitchen sink but my mom is there. I wait impatiently, annoyed that she’s not moving faster. Truth be told, in my pride I think I’m more important than her and should have access to the sink whenever I want it. Apocalypse.
  • The stock market goes into free fall. I am concerned about my investment accounts. I spend way too much time checking the latest price of the stocks I hold. I tell myself that my security depends on God rather than on my account balance, yet I’m acting as if the opposite were true. Apocalypse.
  • I’m out in the yard when a young woman wearing a sleeveless blouse and short shorts strides by. I stop what I’m doing and watch her. What’s going on in my mind? I’m objectifying her. I’m evaluating her attractiveness, as if she is of greater worth if she is curvy and cute than if she is plump and plain. Apocalypse.

I can make excuses for each of these, saying that they are minor faults that don’t hurt anyone. Yet fretfulness and self-importance and greed and objectification hurt me and also affect how I relate to others. Better to do as Warren suggests:

“In these small moments that reveal my lostness and brokenness, I need to develop the habit of admitting the truth of who I am–not running to justify myself or minimize my sin. And yet, in my brokenness and lostness, I also need to form the habit of letting God love me, trusting again in his mercy, and receiving again his words of forgiveness and absolution over me.” p. 56

This twofold process–admitting how we’ve strayed and accepting God’s forgiveness–isn’t original with Warren. It comes from the time of confession found in many worship liturgies. This practice is essential to our spiritual, emotional, and relational well-being. It also prepares us for gratitude and praise. Thank God for ordinary apocalypses–when we respond with confession and trust, they are the means by which we’re being made whole.

I recently read White Noise Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel. It covers a year in the life of Jack Gladney, a small-town history professor who has made his mark by pioneering the field of Hitler Studies. Jack, who serves as the narrator, lives with his fifth wife, Babette, and four children. The book critiques many aspects of modern life–academic pretentiousness, blended families, parental folly, American consumerism, fear of death, and environmental catastrophe, to name a few. It is not about God or religion, at least not in any obvious way. No one prays for divine help or guidance, no one explains events as having supernatural origins, and no churches or religious rituals are mentioned. There are nuns at the hospital where Jack seeks treatment for himself and someone he’s shot near the end of the book, but these are anything but your conventional Catholics. Jack asks Sister Hermann Marie, who has just dressed his wound, about heaven, but she responds,

“Do you think we are stupid?”

Taken aback, Jack says that nuns must surely believe in heaven, angels, and saints. No to all of this, the sister says. Jack points to a picture on the wall of Kennedy and the Pope in heaven, asking why do they have such a picture on the wall, then? It’s for others, she explains, elaborating:

“As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible.” (Chapter 39)

Only fools believe, the sister is saying, and we’re not fools, but we pretend to believe to make unbelief comfortable for others. It seems that she believes in a version of the Secularization Thesis, the view that religious beliefs will fade and religious institutions lose their power as modernism progresses. As this podcast explains, secularization thesis is not nearly as widely accepted as in the ’80s, when White Noise was written. Maybe the sister should have stuck with religious belief rather than exchanging it for belief in sociological theory!

In actuality, everyone believes in something that to them gives meaning to life. In this sense, Sister Hermann Marie is right: if no one believed, it would be hell. Jack himself is not an unbeliever. He just doesn’t believe in anything as sublime or majestic as God. In this sense, he exemplifies what G.K. Chesterton said about belief:

“When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

Jack and his family worship at the altar of consumerism. He experiences meaning and  a sense of transcendence when he goes to the mall or the grocery store. For example, during a trip to the mall with his family, he encounters a colleague who says something derogatory about him. Jack tells us that this potentially deflating comment “put me in the mood to shop.” Here’s what happens:

“My family glorified in the event. I was one of them, shopping, at last. They gave me advice, badgered clerks on my behalf. I kept seeing myself unexpectedly in some reflecting surface. We moved from store to store, rejecting not only items in certain departments, not only entire departments but whole stores, mammoth corporations that did not strike our fancy for one reason or another. There was always another store, three floors, eight floors, basement full of cheese graters and paring knives. I shopped with reckless abandon. I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise. I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books and pattern books to search for elusive designs. I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me.” (Chapter 17)

What better way to overcome self-doubt than blow a few hundred dollars! Philosopher James K.A. Smith describes the mall as a place that has rituals similar to those practiced by religious believers. According to him, “The mall is a religious site.” He points out how the various aspects of the shopping experience fits this characterization, explaining,

“This temple–like countless others now emerging around the world–offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us. This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires. It compels us to come, not through dire moralisms, but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life.” You Are What You Love, p. 43

The mall has been supplanted in part by online shopping, but the religion is the same–consumerism–and makes the same promise–to give meaning and identity through what we purchase and possess. No, sister Hermann Marie, it isn’t just wild-eyed men, nuns, and monks who believe. Religious adherents are just practicing a faith that, more than consumerism, nationalism, militarism, capitalism, socialism, and all the other -isms that seek our devotion, is likely to actually deliver on promises of meaning, identity, transcendence, and purpose.

DeLillo has a fine sense of the absurdities of American beliefs and behaviors. I definitely recommend this as a fun and enlightening read.