Archive for November, 2014

November 30, 2014

his feet moving to the long-ago memory of womb kicks

“The Man Who Was a Lamp” by John Shea:

Legend says,
the cave of Christmas
where the child of light
burns in the darkness
is hidden
in the center of the earth.

Access is not easy.
You cannot just amble to a mantle,
note the craft of the crib child,
and return to the party for more eggnog.
You may see a figurine in this way,
but you will not find the child of light.
The center of the earth is not the surface.
You must journey
and, wayfarer,
you need a guide.

Even the Wise Men had to risk
the treacherous courts of Herod
to consult the map of Scripture.
They knew that a star, no matter how bright,
could not take them all the way
It is true
that sometimes angels hover in the sky
and sing directions,
but they cannot be counted on
to appear.
Besides, you are not one
to keep watch over a flock by night.

There is another pointer of the way,
a map of a man,
who when you try to read him,
reads you.
Unexpected angels are pussycats
next to this lion,
a roar that once overrode Judea.
You may not heed
but you will hear
his insistent,
intruding,
unsoothing voice.
Some say this thunder is because his father
stumbled mute from the Holy of Holies,
tongue tied by an angel who was peeved
by the old man’s stubborn allegiance to biological laws.
The priest was silenced in the temple
because he thought flesh could stop God.
The son of the priest shouted in the wilderness
because he feared God would stop flesh.
His open mouth was an open warning.

His name is John,
a man who was a lamp,
at least that is what Jesus said,
“a burning and shining lamp.”
The implication is clear:
The lamp is a torch through the darkness
to find the Light of the World.
As the lamp comes closer to the Light,
its radiance is overwhelmed.
It is in the presence of a stronger shining.
It decreases as the Light increases.
Yet there is no comparison.

The child cannot be found by competition.
The lamp and the Light meet
in the mystery of communion.
The two become one
while remaining two.
Follow John and find Jesus.
Find Jesus and find the Illness of John.

But John is not so easy to follow.
He is no toady
He lacks senility
and does not work for pay
In truth,
he is more guardian than guide,
more dragon at the gate than porter at the door,
more fire on the earth than lamp on a stand.
Opposite of the sought-after child in every way
The child is round,
this one has edges;
the child nurses on virgin’s milk,
this one crunches locusts;
the child is wrapped in swaddling clothes,
this one is rubbed raw by camel hair.
Yet they know one another
even exchange smiles.
They share a mystery,
this hairy man and smooth child.

Jesus came out of John
as surely as he came out of Mary.
John was the desert soil
in which the flower of Jesus grew.
John was the voice in the wilderness
who taught Jesus to hear the voice from the sky.
John would push sinners beneath the water
and Jesus would resurrect them on the waves.
John was the fast
who prepared for Jesus the feast.

No man ever less a shepherd than John,
yet loved by one.
If you are surprised that Jesus came from John,
imagine John’s prophetic puzzle
when the predicted “wrath to come” came
and he said, “Let’s eat!”
John expected an ax to the root of the tree
and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it.
He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire
and along came a singing seed scatterer.
He welcomed wrathful verdicts,
then found a bridegroom on the bench.
When John said, “There is one among you
Whom you do not know,”
he spoke from experience.

So from prison
John sent his disciples to Jesus.
He will send you too.
Despite his reputation,
he is best at introductions.
It is simply who he is,
preparer, primer, pointer,
a tongue always on the verge of exclaiming,
“Behold!”

His question was, “Are you the One Who Is to Come
or should we look for another)”

This arrow of a question was sent from prison
but the bow was bent in the desert
by “none greater born of woman”
who was awake before the sun,
waiting,
watching the vipers flee before the morning
his eyes welcomed.

“Are you the One Who Is to Come”
is the question of John highway,
his road under construction,
hammer and pick and hardhat song,
“I have leveled a mountain
and raised a valley
to make even the path of the Lord!”

You
are the mountain
his sunburnt muscles
are slamming to cracked rock.
You
are the valley
his tattooed arms
are filling with broken earth.
He will trowel you to smooth,
and when there is no impediment,
when there is nothing in you
which would cause a child to trip,
you will yearn for someone to arrive
and ask the question
that guards the cave of Christmas,
“Are you the One Who Is to Come?”
So do not go fearfully
into John’s wilderness,
beaten from civilization by others
or driven by your own self-loathing.
Go simply because it is the abode
of wild beasts and demons
and, given all you are,
you will most certainly feel at home.
Wrestle with the rages of the soul,
talk to the twistedness.

Try no tricks on him.
Parade no pedigree.
Who you know will not help you.
If the children of Abraham and stones
have equal standing in his eyes,
you will not impress him
with anything you pull from your wallet.

Also do not ready your brain for debate.
He is not much for talk.
He has washed his mind with sand.
Injunctions are his game.
If you have two coats or two loaves of bread,
share them.
Do not bully,
do not exploit,
do not falsely accuse.
Do not object that these actions are
economically naive,
culturally inappropriate,
insufficiently religious.
Just do them.
Afterwards,
you will be unencumbered,
yet lacking nothing,
freer to move, to bend.
The entrance to the cave is low.

John’s desert is the place between slavery and promise,
out of Egypt but not yet in the waters of the Jordan,
Your sojourn there will burn away
the last marks of the shackles
and you will stand unfettered.
You will be between the castle and the crowd,
between fine garments and reeds shaken by the wind.
You will not lord it over others
and you will not be pushed around.
Prophet?
Yes, and more.
But in the thrill of freedom
it will take you a moment to notice
what that more is.
In the emptiness of John’s desert
you will find yourself waiting,
like a bowl that waits for wine,
like a flute that waits for breath,
like a sentinel that waits for the dawn.
You are a highway ready for traffic,
and here comes One
who seems also to have been waiting,
waiting for the construction to be complete.
The more is arriving,
and there is only one question,
“Are you the One Who Is to Come?”

Jesus answered,
“Go and tell John
what you see and hear.”

So they did.
The disciples of John returned on the night of Herod’s birthday
The music and laughter of the celebration
twisted down the stairs to the dungeon
beneath the earth.
They talked to John through the bars.
They could barely make him out
in the shadows.

“We saw a blind woman staring at her hand,
first the palm, then the back,
over and over again,
twisting it like a diamond in the sun,
weeping all the time and saying,
“I can see through tears! I can see through tears!”

We saw a lame man
bounce his granddaughter
on his knee.

We saw a leper
kiss her husband.

We saw a deaf boy
snap his fingers
next to his ear
and jump.

We saw a dead girl
wake and stretch
and eat breakfast.

The poor we saw
were not poor.

They paused.
Although there was no light in the dungeon,
there was a glow around John.
It softened the fierceness of his face
yet took no strength away
When he had preached on the banks of the Jordan,
they could not take their eyes off his fire.
Now this new light made them look down.
“Jesus said
we would be blest
if these sights did not scandalize us.

John was silent.
When he spoke,
the words had no urgency.
There was no strain in his voice.
It was no longer
the voice in the wilderness.
“The guards tell me that Herod,
panting,
has promised Salome
half a kingdom
if she will dance for him.
Surely she will ask for me
for I am half a kingdom.
I can denounce a king
but I cannot enthrone one.
I can strip an idol of its power
but I cannot reveal the true God.
I can wash the soul in sand
but I cannot dress it in white.
I devour the Word of the Lord like wild honey
but I cannot lace his sandal.
I can condemn the sin
but I cannot bear it away
Behold, the lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world!

Yet he came to me
to go beyond me.
He entered the water
to rise out of it.
He knew I would know him when he came
even though I did not know him before he came.
The fulfillment is always more than the promise,
but if you hunger and thirst in the promise,
you will welcome the One Who Is Not You
as All You Are,
and more.
Go back
and tell Jesus
what you see and hear –
John,
not scandalized but fulfilled,
witness to his coming.

When you told me
what you saw and heard,
I knew who I was:
the cleanser of eyes but not the sight that fills them,
the opener of ears but not the word that thrills them.
A prophet?
Yes, and more.
Friend of the Bridegroom.
And more.
It was love in the desert and I did not know it.
It was love by the river and I did not know it.
It is love in this cave and now I know it.
Bridegroom myself!”

The guards clattered down the stairs,
their impotent swords drawn.
They pushed aside the disciples
and unlocked a dungeon of light
to find John dancing,
his feet moving to the long-ago memory
of womb kicks.
Who was about to lose his head to Herod
had lost his mind to God.

The cave of Christmas
is hidden
in the center of the earth.
You will need a lamp for the journey
A man named John
is a step ahead of you.
His torch sweeps the ground
so that you do not stumble.
He brings you,
at your own pace,
to the entrance of the cave.
His smile is complete,
perfect,
whole,
lacking nothing.

Inside
there is a sudden light,
but it does not hurt your eyes.
The darkness has been pushed back by radiance.
You feel like an underwater swimmer
who has just broken the surface of the Jordan
and is breathing in the sky
John is gone.
Notice
from whom the light is shining,
beloved child.

From Starlight: Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long by John Shea (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 174–83.

November 30, 2014

he is curtailed who overflowed all skies

Mary’s Song by Luci Shaw:

Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest…
you who have had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world. Charmed by dove’s voices,
the whisper of straw, he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed who overflowed all skies,
all years. Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught
that I might be free, blind in my womb
to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.

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November 30, 2014

we have found joy in secret

Bethlehem has opened Eden: come, and let us see. We have found joy in secret: come, and let us take possession of the paradise that is within the Cave. There the unwatered Root has appeared, from which forgiveness flowers forth: there is found the undug Well, whence David longed to drink of old. There the Virgin has borne a Babe, and made the thirst of Adam and David to cease straightway. Therefore let us hasten to this place where now is born a young Child, the pre-eternal God.

From the Ikos for the Nativity (Orthodox Christian hymn).

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November 29, 2014

patience joins time to eternity

By Wendell Berry in Poetry magazine (January 2001).

How To Be a Poet
(to remind myself)

i

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

ii

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

iii

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

November 28, 2014

What beauty saves the world?

Is it true, prince, that you once declared that ‘beauty would save the world’? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! And I declare that he only has such playful ideas because he’s in love! Gentlemen, the prince is in love. I guessed it the moment he came in. Don’t blush, prince; you make me sorry for you. What beauty saves the world? Colia told me that you are a zealous Christian; is it so? Colia says you call yourself a Christian.” The prince regarded him attentively, but said nothing.

From The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

November 28, 2014

in real life typical characters are watered down

There are certain people of whom it is difficult to say anything which will at once throw them into relief—in other words, describe them graphically in their typical characteristics. These are they who are generally known as “commonplace people,” and this class comprises, of course, the immense majority of mankind. Authors, as a rule, attempt to select and portray types rarely met with in their entirety, but these types are nevertheless more real than real life itself.

Therefore, without entering into any more serious examination of the question, I will content myself with remarking that in real life typical characters are “watered down,” so to speak; and all these Dandins and Podkoleosins actually exist among us every day, but in a diluted form.

From The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

November 28, 2014

she will believe nothing but that she is a guilty creature

This unhappy woman is persuaded that she is the most hopeless, fallen creature in the world. Oh, do not condemn her! Do not cast stones at her! She has suffered too much already in the consciousness of her own undeserved shame.

And she is not guilty—oh God!—Every moment she bemoans and bewails herself, and cries out that she does not admit any guilt, that she is the victim of circumstances—the victim of a wicked libertine.

But whatever she may say, remember that she does not believe it herself,—remember that she will believe nothing but that she is a guilty creature.

When I tried to rid her soul of this gloomy fallacy, she suffered so terribly that my heart will never be quite at peace so long as I can remember that dreadful time!—Do you know why she left me? Simply to prove to me what is not true—that she is base. But the worst of it is, she did not realize herself that that was all she wanted to prove by her departure! She went away in response to some inner prompting to do something disgraceful.

From The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

November 24, 2014

each stitch was such a ponderous ritual that he couldn’t bear to watch

Various passages from The Book of Strange New Things: A Novel by Michel Faber:

Overall, though, he had to admit that the scenery here was less beautiful than he’d seen in, well, quite a few other places. He had expected mind-boggling landscapes, canyons shrouded in swirling mists, tropical swamps teeming with exotic new wildlife. It suddenly occurred to him that this world might be quite a dowdy one compared to his own. And the poignancy of that thought made him feel a rush of love for the people who lived here and knew no better.

…This was a world where aesthetic niceties weren’t wanted and utilitarianism ruled. It shouldn’t bother him, but it did. All along, he’d assumed that the church he would build here should be simple and unpretentious, to give the message that its outward form didn’t matter, only the souls inside; but now he was inclined to make it a thing of beauty.

…How strange it was to be inside a machine again! All his life he’d been inside machines, whether he realized it or not. Modern houses were machines. Shopping centers were machines. Schools. Cars. Trains. Cities. They were all sophisticated technological constructs, wired up with lights and motors. You switched them on, and didn’t spare them a thought while they pampered you with unnatural services.

…In order to imitate the sounds they produced, he’d probably need to rip his own head off and gargle through the stump. Whereas the Oasans, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Tartaglione and Kurtzberg, and to the zeal of their own faith, had made extraordinary progress in English—a language they were as unsuited to learn as a lamb was unsuited to climb a ladder. Yet they climbed, and Peter felt keenly the pathos of their strivings. He could tell, from the Bible verses they’d managed to memorize, that Kurtzberg had made no concessions to their physical handicaps: whatever was printed in Scripture was what they must voice.

…Oasans handled sewing-needles with the same care and respect that humans might handle chainsaws or blowtorches. Each stitch was such a ponderous ritual that he couldn’t bear to watch.

…”What did he die of? What happened?” Lover Five stroked herself perfunctorily over her arms, chest and midriff, to indicate the entire body. “InSide him, many thingS gone the wrong way. Clean thingS became foul. SProng thingS became weak. Full thingS became empPy. CloSed thingS became open. Open thingS became cloSed. Dry thingS became filled with waPer. Many other thingS alSo. I have no wordS for all the thingS.”

…Halfway into his stay, Peter went through a strange phase which, looking back on it afterward, he could only call the Crying Jag. It happened during one of the long, long nights and he woke up somewhere in the middle of it with tears in his eyes, not knowing what he had dreamt to make him weep. Then, for hours and hours, he continued to cry. Upsurges of sorrow just kept pumping through his bloodstream, as if administered at medically supervised intervals by a gadget inside his body. He cried about the weirdest things, things he had long forgotten, things he would not have imagined could rank very high in his roll-call of griefs. He cried for the tadpoles he’d kept in a jar when he was a kid, the ones that might have grown into frogs if he’d left them safe in their pond instead of watching them turn to gray sludge.

…For years, that poisonous repetition of “If genuine …” festered in his mind, proof of everything that was creepy and cold about his father. By the time Peter was ready to understand that the quarrel was bluster and that his dad had simply been hurt, the old man was in his grave. About all these things and more, Peter wept. Then he felt better, as if purged.

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November 22, 2014

names of all the stars

“‘Mercy,’ cried Gandalf. ‘If the giving of information is to be the cure of your inquisitiveness, I shall spend ther rest of my days in answering you. What more do you want to know?'”
“‘The names of all the stars, and of all living things, and the whole history of Middle-earth and Over-heaven and of the Sounding Seas,’ laughed Pippin.”

From The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien.

November 22, 2014

the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson in Nature and Selected Essays.

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