A Poem for Sunday

I stumbled across this on the web the other day & wanted to share it, as a meditation for Sunday:

by Czeslaw Milosz

A valley and above it forests in autumn colors.
A voyager arrives, a map leads him there.
Or perhaps memory. Once long ago in the sun,
When snow first fell, riding this way
He felt joy, strong, without reason,
Joy of the eyes. Everything was the rhythm
Of shifting trees, of a bird in flight,
Of a train on the viaduct, a feast in motion.
He returns years later, has no demands.
He wants only one, most precious thing:
To see, purely and simply, without name,
Without expectations, fears, or hopes,
At the edge where there is no I or not-I.

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Thanksgiving

2016 has been a hard year for me in several ways, personally and professionally.

But in spite of the difficulties I’ve faced, or perhaps because of them, I am acutely aware this week of some of the blessings in my life.

I record a few here, listed in no particular order, as a memorial.

My computer died recently (I spilled a cup of water on it.) Yet I am thankful I was able to get all the data stored off successfully. (I am especially grateful for the help of my colleague’s help with this!) I am also thankful that said computer works when it is plugged in, as this gives me a few months to save up for a new one.

I bought a car at the beginning of the year. It was a tremendously expensive purchase for me and made me nervous, but the car has chugged along unfailingly through the 15,000 plus miles I’ve put on it since late January. It even survived my first-ever car accident, a fender-bender in a hotel parking lot last February.

I recently had to give up the cat I’d adopted from the shelter, as she was facing some health difficulties I couldn’t deal with. Yet I’m thankful for the month I spent with her, especially for all those cold nights with her curled up against my back or legs as I slept.

My parents too recently lost their kittens, yet I’m thankful for the chance I had to play with them over the summer. Just because a blessing is short-lived is no reason to be ungrateful for it.

While finances are always tight, I’ve had money to cover all my expenses and even some professional development. I am grateful for this.

Over the summer I faced down a few monsters in my life, hang-ups that endangered my spiritual and physical well-being. I wrote about them here. Since then, by God’s grace I’ve seen a few victories, and I’ve seen the monsters retreat a little. I am thankful for this. I am also thankful for the passing of time, which which allows me to see with greater clarity how the monsters in my life are being defeated; this is not something I can easily see in the moment. Grace, as I noted then, is not something easily seen in the moment.

The election was emotionally trying for me, and I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m disappointed with the result. But I’m thankful that God is still sovereign, whoever is president in America. I’m also thankful that in the wake of the election, many people have made a conscious effort to be a little kinder, a little better at listening, a little more willing to speak up for the rights and well-being of others. If it takes the election of someone not known for his empathy to get us all to show more empathy to others, then I am grateful for that.

My life is not as exciting as I sometimes wish. But I’m thankful for some of the adventures I’ve had this year: outdoor art fairs, symphony concerts in the park with friends, and apple cider donuts.

Marilynne Robinson (I noted this in a recent post) observes that “we are contemptuous of transient well-being, as if there were any other kind.” And I feel as though this is sometimes true of us, or at least of me, that we feel as though we have to wait until things are perfect before we can be grateful for them.

She urges instead that we not “devalu[e] present experience because it may be overtaken by something worse.” After all, “Dante,” she notes, “had a place in hell for poeple who were grave when they might have rejoiced.”

And so I am determined, in this moment of thanksgiving, to rejoice. There is much to be grave about, true. But let us rejoice all the more over the flashes of light and goodness which eternally pervade the human experience.

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On Marilynne Robinson

On the day after the election, I wore all blacks and greys to work. (Why, yes. I am dramatic.)

And then I picked myself up, and started reading Marilynne Robinson.

Few writers write as hopefully about human beings as Robinson does. In every soul she sees something wondrous. Nor is her hopefulness naiveté. It is grace, the firm belief that however thorny the world that we live in, behind it and through it, and within us, is the handprint of God, that enables her to see the saintliness of humanity, where others see only sinners.

Of the essays in The Death of Adam, the one that most struck me was “Facing Reality,” in which she pushes back against our gloomy worldview, our anxiety over the health of our bodies and of our 401Ks. This, she writes, is not a reasonable outlook:

When [we] make fear the key to interpretation of history and experience, nothing contains a greater potential for releasing all the varieties of destruction. Fearfulness assumes a hidden narrative – that we are ill despite our apparent health, vulnerable despite our apparent safety. We are contemptuous of transient well-being, as if there were any other kind. Routinely discounting the preponderance of evidence is not the behavior of reasonable people, nor is devaluing present experience because it may be overtaken by something worse.

What I find most fascinating about this passage is Robinson’s thoughts on fear. 

It is first of all fixated on the physical. Robinson mentions illness and health, vulnerability and safety, suggesting that the fear which drives us is fear for our worldly well-being. Later, she writes that “the true name for what we aspire to is nonfailure,” having our “income and credit shrewdly managed” and thus being comfortably well-off. Whatever challenges this comfort, whatever threatens the perception that we are (by worldly standards) successful, this is the cause of our fear.

Our fear is also illusory. Robinson makes no bones about the fact that she scorns the cause of our fear, this concern with worldly well-being; yet our fears are, like most fears, completely irrational. We appear, Robinson notes, both healthy and safe; the “preponderance of evidence” testifies to the fact that we are as well off as can be expected in a changing world. To expect that we will remain forever well off is to expect far more than this world can give.

Robinson suggests in place of fear, a different way of being:

I think we are not taking responsibility for keeping ourselves reasonable, individually or collectively – that we no longer admire or reward reasonableness, because it has lost its place in our imagination.

I like the strength of will in this passage, her emphasis on “taking responsibility” and on “keeping ourselves reasonable.” The truth is, we are physical creatures, and so fears for our physical safety can run very high indeed; the strong, active verbs which Robinson chooses her suggests the difficulty in laying aside fear, in choosing not to make decisions based on fears for our well-being.

Yet lay aside those fears we must; otherwise, we are not being reasonable; we are not seeing the world as it is meant to be seen, as part of a larger whole and shot through with God’s grace.

Robinson’s writing reminds me of a passage from one of my favorite poems, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Eliot writes,

 

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

I find it interesting that Eliot rejects “the wisdom of old men,” for this wisdom is presumably a worldly wisdom, the wisdom of nonfailure. After all, what do old men know best by how to navigate this world which they have lived in longer than any of us?

Rather than the wisdom of old men, Eliot seeks out “their folly / Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession, / Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.”

At first glance, Eliot’s desire to hear the fears of old men seems to contradict Robinson’s refusal to follow the dictates of fear; but the fear which Eliot references here is not the same fear that Robinson refers to in her essay. No, the fear that Eliot’s poem describes is a spiritual fear, the awe and terror of a holy life. This is a “fear of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.” To belong to another is to have that other make claims upon you, claims which threaten your physical well-being; despite Eliot’s provocative phrasing, we enter gladly into such relationships throughout our lives, becoming marriage partners and parents and friends. We become disciples of Christ.

Such commitments are fearful, true. Eliot acknowledges this. Yet the fact that he invites these fears into his life suggests that the thing which he is truly afraid of is having no such commitments. Belonging to others and to God is indeed scary, but it would be more scary to belong to nobody at all.

I am reminded of that passage in The Horse and His Boy, when Hwin offers herself to be eaten by the Lion Aslan, for to her it would be greater pleasure to be eaten by him than fed by anyone else. Being eaten is indeed painful, but to surfeit on the things of this world, and yet find no deeper meaning in life, would be more painful still.

Eliot concludes in the end that “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility.”

I love the contrast here between acquiring and humility, for although we usually seek to acquire wealth, wealth is (as Robinson reminds us) impermanent. The only permanent thing is humility: a correct view of our place in this world, which is so much bigger than what we can see; a correct view of our connections to other people and to our divine Maker, on which we depend.

Ultimately, what Robinson and Eliot remind me of, and this is why I’m reading Robinson after the election, is that we must not let our actions be driven by fears of failure. What else did we expect? Everything in this world fails.

Everything, that is, expect the things which are beyond this world, and its profit and loss.

To those things we must cling.

 

 

 

Prayers for our Country

Today we elect a new president. Whoever wins, this is my prayer for us today. From the Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God our heavenly Father, guide the nations of the
world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among
them that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that they
may become the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And this:

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior,
the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the
great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away
all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us
from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body
and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith,
one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all
of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth
and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and
one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I am honestly afraid for what the next few months may bring, regardless of who wins tonight. But I pray that God may be gracious to us, that He may make us kind and compassionate to each other, and that we may be spared the things we deserve.
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A Word on Fear

As you know, I’m trying to pray more regularly for our country in these last few, insane weeks before the election. I pray that we Americans will be less angry and more compassionate, that we will be less directed by our emotions and more wise; I pray that God will be merciful to us.

I am praying partly because one presidential candidate scares me to death. I fear the cultural anger and hostility towards those we disagree with that may follow in the wake of this person’s election, the predicted economic instability, the threats to our national security.

And so it struck me as appropriate that my daily Bible reading yesterday came around to Mark 4. I want to share it with you now, in hope that it will be an encouragement:

On the same day, when evening had come, He said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side.” 36 Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was. And other little boats were also with Him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling.38 But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow. And they awoke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?”

39 Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. 40 But He said to them, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?” 41 And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, “Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!”

When we talk about this passage, we usually talk about its resolution: Jesus calmed the storms! Jesus can get you out of your troubles! You will be safe with Jesus!

And that’s true, as far as it goes. Jesus does calm the storms in the story, and He can rescue us from the storms of life.

But a lot happens in the story besides Jesus rescuing His disciples.

The disciples shake Jesus awake and tell him they’re all drowning. We usually seize on this as evidence of the disciples’ lack of faith, but notice that Jesus does not contradict them. They are, in fact, about to die.

Thus, having Jesus in our boat (so to speak) does not mean we are not in trouble. Things may get very bad indeed, and although the disciples are rescued, Jesus does not promise to rescue us. Jesus will rescue us is not even the disciples’ takeaway from the whole adventure; they do not learn that they will be safe with Jesus; they learn that Jesus commands the winds and the sea. They learn that Jesus is in charge. And being in charge, Jesus could presumably have slept on, and let the whole boat drown. The disciples didn’t drown, of course, but we may: The winds and storms we face are in His command, and sometimes He lets them rage on. Sometimes we do perish.

And yet Jesus tells us to have faith, to trust Him.

I am not easily comforted simply by knowing that the Lord is in command of the storms. I want the storms to cease. I want that great calm which the Lord gave to the disciples.

Yet I have been realizing lately that our faith should not be in one of the candidates to save our country, but in the Lord alone.

Donald Trump cannot make America great again.

Hillary Clinton will not restore balance to the country after a turbulent election.

And so, our only hope is Christ. He will not calm the storm, though I pray that He will do so; He is not a political candidate, to promise us job growth and a strong economy and a sure national defense.

But He is in charge, and we can find that reassuring.

I pray that we may have the faith to do so.

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