Abraham and Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre

“And the Lord appeared to Abraham at the door of his tent in the heat of the day . . . three men stood before him, and he ran to meet them and bowed himself and said, ‘My lord, do not pass by your servant’ . . . . Then he took curds and milk, and the calf he had prepared, and set it before them. One of them said, ‘I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son’” (from Gen. 18:1-9).

Turn in to me, my lords,
And rest yourselves at noon,
Draw under my pavillion by the well
And let your servant’s bread be yours.
The saying means ‘Safety here,
And hospitality,’
A sacred thing, for who knows?–angels may call.

Sit down, friends, we’ll swap our news and stories, Have cheese and raisins,
Quote favorite lines,
And bless ourselves in pouring out libations.
We’ll have hot bread and roasted calf.
Let our minds at play
Entwine in pungent words and tastes and quenching drafts. Let the talk draw on and swell
Till sounding human ripples fill the air
With thrust and parry, merriment,
And gleanings of affection.

Now the talk at Mamre turns to baby-making, Who does it well or doesn’t–
‘Softly now, shh!–
The women mustn’t overhear
Our tips and tales,
But I’m telling you, try that,
And this time next year when we come by,
I say your wife will have a child.’

From the kitchen tent a laugh breaks out– Me?!
Years out from any blood
Of women’s way across my thighs? It’s long since I kissed the bellies
Of my household Holy Things for luck. ‘All right, my lords out there,
I hear it.
No, no. I didn’t laugh at you–
It was my scullery girl,
Her antics had me tickled.

Say on, my lords, [no stanza]
Ply your talk of bargains, boons, and blessings– Let it be if Yah may grant,
Fear not me–I’m ready.
This time next year turn in to us, my lords,
And rest yourselves at noon.’

A Late Pregnancy—Divine Creativity

A scholar–a specialist in Latin and Greek and ancient goddess cults–went to her doctor one day. She was puzzled over not feeling well. At age forty-seven she was jolly well balanced and unusually healthy. When not working she rode horses, swam laps, played the piano beautifully for relaxation, traveled to digs and did archaeology. Now, a few years into a marriage that had surprised her friends (after her long single life), she had to hear shocking news. She was pregnant. She was not just pregnant, she was carrying twins.

She and her husband went into gear, reshaping their life. An ex-academic and house repairs contractor, he got ready to be a half-time house husband and began remodeling a room for the babies. Her friends were charmed and rallied round, bringing baby clothes and cases of formula, teasing her, taking her swimming in her mountainous state the last weeks before the birth. Her mother was embarrassed—didn’t only working-class people go through with such late pregnancies?

The scholar wanted a natural delivery, but after three nights and two days of labor agreed to a Caesarian section. The babies developed jaundice and needed alarming care. Her milk supply was short and needed more supplementing with formula than she had wanted. But finally, there they were, home. Instant family. A boy looking amazingly like his father, with plump cheeks and a wide head, and a much smaller girl looking quite like her mother, soon with a near-classic nose more formed than any baby’s nose had a right to be.

What unlikely children. Will their descendants be as numerous as the stars in the sky?

My husband and I went to dinner one evening at a poet’s place in Sacramento, a loft apartment surrounded by treetops in a neighborhood of Victorian houses. The murder rate here is known to be high. We weren’t so comfortable parking the car at night and getting out.

As we ate, the talk turned to family lines, and we traded stories. One person’s family was Irish, but her grandmother had long kept secret who was the biological father of her first child, our friend’s father. Just before her death the grandmother said it was a Choctaw Indian that she’d met as a teenager. But she’d kept no contact with him. Another person told of her Jewish paternal grandfather, early divorced from her grandmother, and likewise kept out of her childhood by her mother’s family. My own maternal grandfather had been a late child of an aging couple, the second marriage for his father; he became a failed Baptist preacher (non-active), who liked whiskey and horse-racing–asthmatic, unfunded, finally married to a wife older than he, who was over forty when she had my mother. My husband’s maternal grandmother had married shockingly young in middle-class Danzig, and had a baby right away; then two years later at twenty-two she died of a congenital heart defect.

A pause came over the conversation, and someone said, “None of us should exist. . . But out of all that came these fine people, sitting in this leafy apartment having dinner!”

Samson and the Woman of Timnah

“And behold a young lion roared against Samson and he tore it asunder as one tears a kid. Later he returned and found a swarm of bees in the body. He scraped out the honey and went on, eating as he went . . . . He put a riddle to the Philistines: ‘Out of the eater came something to eat, out of the strong, something sweet.’ And they could not in three days tell what it was” (Judges 14: 5-14).

Samson man of God,
Black curls like ram’s wool
Tumbling down your shoulders,
Folktale hero, riddling muscle man,
You headed for Philistine Gath,
Mind filled with the pull of your new bride’s chamber.
You took a lion’s path,
And when he roared you crushed him,
Leaving the carcass open.
A buzzing swarm in the belly
Made honey.
You’d killed him with bare hands–
An anti-Cupid, no arrows for you–
Used no weapons but your limbs.
You squeezed the Philistines too,
Loved them to death,
Tugging down the keystone post
Of their arena.
God willed it so, the story says.

They’d robbed you of your wife
For making wild and woolly bets and riddles
Too hard for human thought.
You paid off the bet her treachery had lost you
By killing thirty men for their clothes–
Then you turned to fire,
Torches on a brace of foxes
Chased through the grainfields of Philistia.
You crushed their warrior caste,
Freed the hill country of their rule–
For life and bounty,
For song and glory–
But it was all for love.
Out of the eater came something to eat,
Out of the strong, something sweet.

“Love is a flame of Yahweh”
But the Philistines were trying to outlive
Its wild abandon,
Its too great sweetness bred in the guts of hungry death.
What but bloody sacred tales and rites
Can match it?–
And teach us
To know the honey and its price.

The fire arrows of divine love will fly
Come what may,
And shower cascading sparks
Across the sky toward each beloved.
They may burn crops but are
The seeds of life,
Sprouting new selves, fecund with spirit,
Rooted deeper in dying flesh than the gold of buried honey,
Pushing human treasures up to light.

Love and Country

One evening our friend Hussan came over. He had finished his doctorate in chemical engineering, and was packing to go home to Tunisia. He’d been offered a post-doctoral fellowship at Cal. Tech–a plum of an award. Why was he turning that down to go home? Did he have some great job offer, too good to let go?

Hussan had always been a pleasure to visit with–easy going, a warm encouraging listener as well as good teller of anecdotes himself, entirely fluent in French as well as English, besides his native Berber. Shapely from his regular workouts, handsome with his bent north African nose, he had an aura of cheerful confidence. He read American novels, also Moroccan ones in French, that we enjoyed hearing about. We roasted a leg of lamb, and expected an amiable farewell evening.

But Hussan was in a strange mood. No, he had no job at home. How would he live? With his mother, he said, even though she had never taken much interest in him. But at least she had an apartment, and an editing job with a company. That’s how most middle-class people live, he said. Probably one person in a family will have work. Maybe it’s a sister. She puts on her skirt and high heels every day, and takes the bus to work. Her brothers and maybe a parent sit around the apartment, and now and then try for a job.

Why was he going back? To find a wife, he said. He was tired of being alone.

Could he not imagine an American wife? No he couldn’t. The women here were just not right for him. He knew he was on tricky ground, not wanting to insult present company, but something was eating him, and he wanted to explain himself. Well, he liked a woman to have her own ideas and opinions, but not to assert them all the time. Besides, an American wife would always be wanting to fly back to the States to visit, and he’d have no money for that.

How do these things work in Tunisia, we asked, how do people go about it? Do parents arrange the marriages? No, he said, and his mother would never help him anyway. Well, someone joked, I guess you won’t find any prospects at Friday prayers at the mosque.

Actually, he said, women do attend the services in Tunisia, they just sit in a separate place. But a man would never hang around and try to talk to women at the mosque. That would just not be done at all. No, the way people meet is that aunts and uncles, or whoever is able, give parties. And the unmarried people walk around and visit. Or one can go to the beach and hope to meet a woman whose mother or aunt has left her alone a few minutes, so she can visit.
But, he added heatedly, I don’t want any woman who’s out searching for a husband! What? someone said, but you’re looking for a wife!

That doesn’t matter, it’s not the same. I want her to be composed, her own person. And easygoing, so we can agree on how we spend our time.

By now it was clear that something had happened to Hussan. He was in a mood we’d never seen. Someone must have hurt him. As the song has it, “I’ve got arson on my mind.” He was telling America where to get off, post-doc at Cal. Tech. and all. It was time to change the subject.

What were some of the specialty foods at home. Was he looking forward to any? Yes, he said, there was a special soup people always ate in the winter, served in the tea houses where the men sit and visit. Garbanzo beans with a lot of garlic and other spices. Really delicious. He could taste it already.

Job, Jemimah, and the Almighty–Buckle Up Your Belt and Talk to Me Like a Man

“On a day the sons of God came before the Lord, and the satan also . . . And the Lord said, ‘Have you seen my servant Job, . . . a blameless, upright man?’ The satan answered, ‘Have you not . . . blessed his work? But touch all he has, and he will curse you to your face.’ And the Lord said, ‘He is in your power.’ [And the satan moved God to destroy all Job’s children and belongings, and cover his body with boils. Three friends came to comfort him.] (1:6-12). – – – – Job cried, ‘Let the Almighty answer me! . . . I know I am innocent. I would give an account of all my steps’ (31: 35-37). – – – – Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind, ‘Gird up your loins like a man . . . and declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth, when the morning stars sang together? . . . Has the rain a father? From whose womb did the ice come forth? . . . Can you draw out Leviathan, which I made, and put him on a leash for your maidens? The folds of his flesh are immovable. His heart is hard as the nether millstone. He makes the deep boil like a pot. He is king of the sons of pride’ (38:3-7; 28-29; 41:23-24) – – – – And the Lord said to Eliphaz: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and your two friends: for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has . . . . therefore offer up for yourselves a burnt offering’ . . . . And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before, and . . . seven new sons and three daughters, the first named Jemimah . . . And in all the land there were no women so fair as Job’s daughters (42: 10-15).

Plead a case with you, god of storms?
Then let me try it, woman though I am and lightly belted.
What you brought down on my father
Is beyond all nightmares–
Children killed, his work destroyed,
Reputation wrecked and body racked with sores.
To his cries you roared and whistled down the gale
From a whirlwind you were riding,
Desert twister of sand and brine,
Told him the world is past all thinking vast
And killing cold,
Non-human it engulfs us–
Worse yet, in us the crocodile Leviathan,
Our fear of death and nothingness, crushes endlessly,
Drives our hardness to each other,
Rules our bedrock pride of self-protection–
And who was he, this Job, that would not take his knocks?

This should explain a malice so particular?
Let me try again.
So one day you put off your spurs and studded belt,
Quit bronco-busting storms and bedrock reptiles,
And held a court where such a deal my father got Because
He loved you best and did his best?
Your days are as a thousand years.
What sort of day was that,
God of the gods,
When Satan got from you this writ of habeas corpus?—

Tester of angels and humans,
The only good of him lies in cranking up a story.
Puck at the best he is,
Souring neighbors’ loves
By cupping a ventriloquizing hand
To make them hear things never said
By stumble-tonguing throats,
Stirring green-eyed rage, or blood cold running in fear
As ice-fed streams;
He’s trickster Coyote to grassland tribes,
Loki to others–shapeshifter, otter,
Known for crooked horse trades
Wangled even on the gods;
Scum-bucket tail-light-chasing lawyer in lemon polyester sport coat
Soaking bad drivers;
Or prosecutor slicking up muddled doings
Into eloquent regalings to tickle a jury,
Shyster, laying ironies on miseries,
Grabbing a money-making case his fancy likes
While numberless foul deeds go by unmarked;
Or rising D.A., nabbing a victim when someone must fry–
The less guilty the accused,
The slicker the witnesses.
We approach the case.
A cosmic guinea pig my father was.
But there, Satan lost all wit and skill
Unless the trial was of pure perversion–
The less the guilt, the worse the deal.

This you allowed, whirlwind God?
Why was no one’s mother in court, no sister
To raise her fists and cry foul?
Job was smitten, and my mother–
A byline as scolding wife is all she gets–
Her children dead, her garden seared and yearling lambs hauled off.
And Job gets blazing skin boils,
And friends to patter him platitudes
Weeks and days
To the tune of ‘It all must be just and right.’

God of many names, el Shaddai, Adonai of the gods
And name to be Unspoken, who yet in unconsuming fire are
One– Sung by Miriam
You rode Egyptian chariots,
Leaping off the flash flood tips
That took them under
To lead a rescued people’s dancing story of ‘who we are’–
At least, storm rider, you had the decency to roar downwind
That my father was
Right to shout for dignity,
Right to scream to the winds for hearing,
That of your dealings here
His wise and righteous friends had spoken

Now scars have covered my parents’ wounds–
Years will do that,
Will make one dip again the sops by the bowl
And build new vineyards.
But the scarred face of inner years
Presides above their silence.
A storm splintered their world
Just when it came ripe
As beading white October grapes–
The pelting rain had no father, the ice no mother?
And Satan had to have his fun?
And we the human tribe
Another of our darkest numbing stories?
Or was it that I could be born
Belated, called the fairest, to dry my parents’ tears–
A gift? Or sign of horror.

Almighty One, you spoke better words
To our prophets, mothering lullabies,
That you would hold us in your hand
And write our names there,
Almighty One, you spoke better words
To our prophets, mothering lullabies,
That you would hold us in your hand
And write our names there,
Thus says the Lord,
Bounce us on your knees,
Thus says the Lord,
No more dash us down than would a mother do
The sweet-fingered nursling stroking her breast.
What then of the sons and daughters?–
Each ambling gait and sidelong curly grin of them
More loved than any thousand rams you took?
You rode a storm down on their house.
The roof beam crushed their skulls.
The Satan made you do it,
So you say–
That same excuse we use ourselves?
We approach the case.

The unfathered rain and icy motherless hail
And rocky-heart Leviathan
Were the better answer to my father
Though we cling to Satan rather,
Cozy, cruel, and motivated–
Quotidian and almost human.
Did you weep at least
Above their bodies, god of storms,
Those children of my parents’ works and days
And yours?–
Weep like goddess Ashtaroth in our forbidden stories,
Looking on her children floating
Food for fishes
On the flood she’d made?

I hear no answer but the blowing wind.
Then let me mount the storm behind you
Who cover yourself in glory
And ride on thunder clouds,
Clutch your hobnailed belt and pulsing torso,
Cling on for life and bounce– ]
Shout down the wind with you–
Until beyond the splintered wood and bloody tracks
Some still and fresh contouring valley shows Gray-green in early sun,
Under vines with velvet buds,
Where new goat kids lie sucking milk–
A valley cushioned on the hair of your storm-reining arm,
Dangling beneath your breast,
Brooding and breeding God, so in motion, so at rest.

A Nightmare Walks on the Green Grass

Job lived in the land of Uz, but scholars can’t find it in ancient records. Uz seems to have meant “nowhere,” like the land of Oz, a place where a tornado might carry you off to, but so very familiar for all that.

This one was the place where your worst nightmares come true.

A storm blew down the house where Job’s children were partying and killed them all. Livestock raiders killed all his herds and burned his vineyards and orchards. A skin disease covered his body with oozing boils. His reputation and right to speak in the city council were gone; people were sure God was punishing him for something horrible. His wife told him to curse God and die. You can’t say her advice wasn’t à propos. The last straw was when friends tried to get him to agree that his sins must have brought this ruin down on him, or at least, that God had a purpose for it. He began to rage at them.

In our parish some years ago, a family lost a teenage son in a diving accident. A few weeks later their other son, a little boy riding in the back of a friend’s station wagon, was also killed. They’d been rear-ended, the tailgate flew open, and he fell out. The cars were hardly even damaged. It seemed surgical. The father, already an internationally renowned scientist, threw himself into his career. He still had his work, and his health, for what they were worth. The mother visited the boys’ graves every noon time for months, talking to them—the city parks workers built her a special bench. The parish priest at the time was said to have felt that this second funeral was the most suffocating moment of his priesthood. The mayor arranged to have all the town’s churches ring their bells. Some friends of my informant’s children, fellow teenagers and members of a fundamentalist high school club, claimed that the deaths happened because God was punishing the boys for scorning Him. While the kids scoffed at this, they hadn’t been to church nor anything remotely religious ever since.

Job refused to curse God–maybe partly because his wife told him to do it. God is great, he said, I worship God because of His own glory, not for what He gives me. At least, that’s what he said until his friends started in on him with reasonings. Then he fell to cursing indeed–still not cursing God, but the day of his own birth. You never heard anyone curse a day so well. Why did the sun of it ever rise? Why wasn’t it blotted out of the calendar? Why wasn’t the cry of joy stifled when the midwife shouted in that night that a boy child was born? Etc., etc. He had to curse that day and that birth because, last and worst of all, his own selfhood, his own place from which to speak at all, was now being threatened by the explanations that blathered around him, filled with the weight of a thousand years of a people’s proverbs—God rewards the just, punishes the wicked. On and on. It felt as if they were playing with him, to patch up their own consolation, making a veil to protect themselves from what he had to feel. He had to reclaim another life of his selfhood, born on a better day, when the sun did a better job of rising.

Like Don Quixote in his pasteboard armor and chamber-pot helmet, shaking his lance at laughing bystanders and declaring “I know who I am”: a knight called to uphold truth and protect the innocent”–like him Job yelled, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in my flesh I shall see him.” I–shall see Him.

This is what needs to happen when people are have identified as someone who, they suddenly find, can’t be seen or heard by those around them—as Job was heard no more at the city market. They may be someone of color who has mostly just pretended to feel white, and got along well enough until some shocking fence came down around him in a new situation, and suddenly he understood that when his mouth moved, white people didn’t really hear anything, didn’t even see him. Ellison’s Invisible Man. He had no self to speak from that they could recognize. When they detected a noise coming from somewhere outside their horizon, they began to repeat standard reassurances that nothing is out there, everyone is the same, and any voice saying otherwise should hush up.

Or a woman feels she has a calling to be a priest. “I know who I am,” she says, swinging her limp half-stole. But 1300 copies of her book are shredded, unsold, by the Benedictine press that published it. Did we think book-burnings died out in the sixteenth century?

Or maybe someone is deaf. Don’t tell us about that. Don’t bother us with a person at the front of the room doing sign language—the funny motions makes us feel odd. Or someone is bisexually-inclined but has never acted on it and always kept it silent. Something happens to make that silence intolerable—no more complicity in homophobic jokes, innuendoes, rolled-up eyeballs. The person begins trying to speak from a new place. But there is no place to stand that anyone can hear words from, except a ghetto where it’s thought that beings from planet purple live. Awkward first attempts bring a great shushing, and repeating of assurances that nothing is out there, only straight desires are good, we can’t hear about anything else.

In the gospel stories it was blind men yelling to be heard, or collaborator/tax-collectors like the short guy up a tree. Zacchaeus was invisibly short so he made the tree his place to see and speak from, his place of selfhood. Just call me ‘Sycamore,’ he said. I know who I am. The crowd control people around Jesus told such people to shush up. But Jesus said if they did, the stones would cry out.

As for Job, he fought back against his friends’ shushing with his best poetry. It was time for dark words. Counter-poetry. Poetry and activism, that’s what people do when their chance for a hearing, a voice–a self fitting the way they really grew and are–is being squelched, shushed, declared unhearable. Poetry invents not only new language but new places for language. Job said that yes, he was sinful, but he knew he had not done anything so uncommon as to deserve what happened to him. Since no human being at all would listen, he screamed for God to be the audience. Rage and poetry. The best medicines.

“O tell of his might, O sing of his grace
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.
His chariots of wrath the deep thunder-clouds form
And dark is his path on the wings of the storm.”

And so to this human poet with his back to the last wall came the first poet, riding a whirlwind, and thundered such images as Job could never have concocted. Of wild stallions trampling and neighing, caring nothing for anyone’s fences or little ones; of a dragon Leviathan with a heart hard as a millstone–did he expect the beast tied up with a ribbon round its neck to entertain little girls? And where was he at creation when the solid ground was separated from the sea, and all the morning stars sang about it together? On and on the searing chant went, until Job plugged his ears and begged for silence.

The worst of suffering was outdone by the wildest of poetry. And Job came to himself and said he could be quiet now.

Hebrew scholars say that the ending (like the opening stuff about Satan making a bargain with God, and Job’s busy wife pestering him)–that this beginning and ending, this frame tale, was tacked on. It’s in a different idiom of earlier Hebrew, and shows itself to be a folktale. Job gets a new batch of children, new herds, new respectability, etc. So what. We like a happy ending.

We like a story. Please, not so much poetry, we beg. We like a story. It’s our veil of protection, like the rationalizing that Job’s friends kept weaving, and the new kids and herds he eventually got. Master-narratives, about everything coming right in the end, all having had a purpose.

But before the ending is tacked on, the friends are told from the whirlwind to be silent. To ask Job to offer a sacrifice for them, and to find a way to speak their truth about God and their own lives, as he had.

Naomi and Ruth

“Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law farewell but Ruth clung to her and said, “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go . . . . So Naomi returned from Moab . . . . Ruth bore Boaz a son, and the women said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him. Then Naomi laid the child in her bosom and became his nurse’” (from Ruth 1:14-17, 4:14-16).

The Bitter Road
You started up dry water courses, heading
For the rocky fields of Ephraim, Naomi,
Woman mourning husband and sons.
To how many griefs is the mind answerable?
You melted again
For the dear ones setting out with you,
Losing their past–
Friends and kin, village fountain, and gods of home.
‘I’ve no more sons to bind us,’ you said,
‘My daughters, let me die to you.
But Ruth put a hand to your shoulder,
Turned you half about and held your eyes with hers
Till you saw green light inside their brown.
‘My former gods I leave,’ she said,
‘Your country will be mine, I know
My Mahlon cannot come again from your womb and yet
My life and yours are one.’

Goatskins of water on your backs,
You two, walking sticks in hand,
You trudged.
When the flatbread was gone you trusted to gifts
From strangers.
Nights, you doubled your travel cloaks
And cradled together–
Two spirits’ inward parts knitted to one life
In incubation
For a country to be known.

Struggling over the last hill,
Bethlehem and ripe fields in view,
Down the road you came
At evening, women’s time with water jars,
To the well.
Cries of recognition and surprise
Enveloped you,
Draft on cool draft you drank.
Anna, cousin of Elimelech,
She who best remembered you,
Took you by the hand, with Ruth behind,
And led you to her rooftop for the night.

Or, The Elder Brother Gets a Life
The barley’s good this year, tips white.
I’ll get to town at sunup,
Hire more hands.
Get grain rigs too for the asses.
Here come the gleaners,
Watching the scythes we swing.
A boy, an old man, two widows, —
Who’s the young one? scarf tied back,
Chin forward, determined she looks.
Tell the men to drop plenty.
Ah, I saw her yesterday,
Sandals in hand, feet blistered–
Not used to field work.
She sat with the water dipper by at noon
Munching her flatbread,
Slowly rubbed a heel and flexed her hands
Open and shut–
Young Mahlon’s widow, they say,
My father’s second cousin.

Where’s Aharon now with the midday baskets?–
A slacker, that boy, my Miriam’s youngest.
At least he hasn’t the fits
Like my other boy still living.
His mother dotes too much on him as well.
What can I say? It’s Leah my firstwife,
She runs the household
With a tongue and thoughts for order.
Just the one boy we’ve had.

Ah, she’s tied her sandals up the legs for gleaning.
Send a boy to put up the extra wood
From the rigs.
Just the stuff for the booths of festival next month
When we thank Adonai for harvest.
Blessing us he is,
Ruach, breath-spirit, he waves along these fields
White gold with food.

Where was I . . .
Yes, send a boy to hurry Aharon along,
And get the scout’s message to town–
Mustn’t let up posting where they are,
The raiders down valley–
A famine winter if they get our grain.
Now she’s working up this way–
A kindly girl they say,
Wouldn’t leave Naomi.

Evening at last, field greens simmering,
Good with last year’s goat cheese, toasted grain,
New wine in harvest jugs–no harm to tip a few.
Tonight we sleep out with the padded cloaks–
Best way to start the work at dawn.
Finally my aching legs can stretch,
And muscles ease.
Cool air, first flow
Of night across me–sweetness
Enfolding of grain aroma.
My thoughts drift in dozing, timbrels of the mountain shrines
Sound a rustling touch of their beat,
A dance ring circles,
Slows and brings a face around to me,
The foreigner’s, but with my mother’s eyes.
I turn and doze again.

Suddenly, a ripple crosses my feet
Under the cloak.
I curl!
A lizard? field mouse? A hand and fingers.
Then I hear a quiet voice,
‘I am your servant,
The life blood saved of a kinsman lost–
I offer myself.’
My feet and legs awake at the cool hands clasping my ankles,
The grain-scented air on my face.

I gather my wits
And speak kind words,
Say that Eliezer, last son of the village elder,
Is closer kin to her Mahlon.
He must hear of her desire
To wed.
The path of duty must be walked.
But Eliezer has his own new wife–he’ll say ‘no.’
We sit up.
At gray dawn I first admire
Her eyes close up, her smile.
Next week we’ll hear the wedding flutes and timbrels.

Bereavement and New Life

In England in the mid-seventeenth century, a Baptist preacher named John Bunyan was cooped in the Bedford jail, months and years, for troublemaking. He refused to conform to the Church of England, and stirred up the working people. Someone brought him paper and he wrote a story that grew and grew, about the troubles and triumphs of this mortal life, told as a journey to heaven by a brave, wayfaring ordinary Christian. The character’s name? “Christian” of course. How did he make it to heaven? By buckling on that sword and armor of the good Christian that St. Paul tells about in Ephesians and “playing the man,” whenever he faced dangers or temptations on the road. It was a fine swashbuckling story of a working man’s hero, dragon fight and all.

There were a couple of problems with it. One was that Bunyan was adamantly convinced of predestination: people didn’t choose God, he was sure. God chose them to be believers, and only His sheer grace made them able to get anywhere at all on the road to salvation. Now though, his story had made it sound like the Christian thing was to hustle your own way to heaven, sword swinging, and the devil take the hindmost.

Which brings up the other problem. Christian had left his wife Christiana behind, with their children, in their home town of Worldly Ways. Was this a good Christian thing to have done? How was she supposed to get to heaven? She couldn’t go swashbuckling along the road by herself, thumping her chest and “playing the man.” It wouldn’t do. Bunyan knew he had to write another story. So he started over with Christiana’s tale. She’d have to go in company, and trust to getting help along the way. And go slowly.

As the new story–Part II of Pilgrim’s Progress–shaped up, she went so slowly that her four boys grew up along the road. And on the way, Christiana gave order for the oldest, Matthew, to marry a lovely, cheerful young woman of their traveling company, Mercy, who had become the dearest person in this life to her. Christiana wanted to “take Mercy into a nearer relation” to herself. Matthew had no say in the matter.

When the whole company gets to Beulah, the land just on this mortal side of the “River Jordan” or Death, we expect a moving farewell scene between Christiana and Mercy. Instead, just as in the story of Naomi and Ruth, menfolks are plugged in at that point, to benefit from the bountiful love between the two women. A new character, Mr. Greatheart, appears. He is blessed by Christiana, receives her ring, hears her last words of love and encouragement, and ferries her over the River. This river of death is a very erotic and glowing body of water. We feel the joy of heaven coming on the other side.

Actually, in telling the story, Bunyan literally compared Christiana and Mercy to Naomi and Ruth, those two women in the “Book of Books” who traveled so hard a road together, to so good an end. After all, Ruth bore Boaz a child who became the grandfather of the great King David. And Naomi got the joy of nursing him, so he became the grandchild of her body that her two dead sons couldn’t give her. It was, as we like to say nowadays, a “win-win situation.”

The human and emotive bounty that made it work has received a new term from cultural theorists of our latter days: the love of the two women was a “homosocial” relation, drawing on the wellsprings of human love that are erotic and spiritual at once, but often take a form like this, rather than a sexual expression.

For Boaz, the gift of Ruth was pure grace. He probably had a younger brother that had run off with the family bronzes, squandered them, and come home sickly. But not Boaz. He’d stayed at home, always done the right thing, cared for his family, worshipped and honored his God. And then, on a humdrum busy and stressful day of fieldwork, a great joy came to him, billed as his duty. What do you know. Sometimes it happens.

David and Jonathan

“David returned from slaughtering Goliath and brought the head before Saul. When he had finished speaking, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David. And he . . . loved him as his own soul, and stripped himself of his robe and gave it to David, and even his sword, bow, and girdle . . . . Jonathan went out to the field and shot an arrow [signaling Saul’s intent to kill David.] And David fell on his face three times, and they kissed and wept with one another until David exceeded himself. Then Jonathan said, ‘Go in peace, for we both have sworn, the Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendents and your descendents, forever’. . . . [After Jonathan’s death David chanted,] ‘Jonathan lies slain upon your high places, Israel; I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan,/ Your love to me was wonderful,/ Passing the love of women’” (from 1st Sam. 17:57 – 18:4; 18:35-42; 2nd Sam 1:25-26).

Prince Jonathan was heir to Saul
But threatened
By the rising star of David:
Strategist of battles, darling of the crowds,
Spiritual captain.
Some called him king already.
How could they be soul mates?
Or how could they not so love?–
Heir apparent and heir apparent,
Double signs of splendor.

When David sang at the throneroom fire
Harp in hand,
Armor beside him catching light,
Of Elohim and battle courage,
Then of meadow streams on grassy bottoms
For shepherds watering their sheep
And stroking fleecy backs,
Jonathan forgot himself,
And David fell entranced with princeliness.
They swore each other goodness always,
Down to descendants’ days.
What folly though for Jonathan
To favor this ruddy David,
Anointed by war and prophets’ oil
To take his crown.
David the village boy–
Fame fell upon him–lord of his own face
He had a grace
To turn up anywhere
And find himself adored.

But Jonathan prince of self-abandon,
Captain yourself in battles,
For him you stripped off spear and shield,
Gave all your soul for the matching soul,
For the brother-in-arms.
Your prescience failed.
You couldn’t see David dying, directing his Solomon
To kill your son Mephibosheth–
David, “the man after God’s own heart”?
Poet who’d sung the god-presence
Pulsing everywhere from the forming limbs in every womb
To the outer gates of sunset?–
He, on his deathbed, doing what?

It was policy.
David held out, all his long days,
Keeping Mephibosheth at bay,
Honored and watched at the royal table.
But finally, his mere existence harmed–
No way but this to stave off
Bloody strife of heirs.
It was so in your day too,
Jonathan prince of generosity–
Saul and David fought their wars, kin slaughtered kin,
But not by any choice of yours.
Nothing you cared to keep the crown from David.
You lost yourself in glory–
So you entered his high song that moved him
Body and mind:
“Wonderful was your love to me,
My brother Jonathan,
Passing the love of women.
How are the mighty fallen!
Slain on the high places.”

A Star-Crossed Friendship

Many epics have sung the love of brothers-in-arms–Gilgamesh and Enkidu in ancient Babylon, Achilles and Patroklos in Greece, David and Jonathan in Israel, Nisus and Euryalus in Italy. Warrior courage is always its flame, the love of two men side by side—rib to rib—its beauty. But the plots can run different ways. After grand years of fullest life together, Enkidu dies of a wasting disease, leaving Gilgamesh to rage through all the earth and underworld, to find out why. Patroklos dies leading a battle charge that Achilles should have led, if he hadn’t been pouting in his tent–then the Trojans have hell to pay in his sweeping revenge. David and Jonathan were star-crossed friends: politics, conflict for the throne, divided them. Only in David’s death chant for Jonathan could they be long together.

Nisus and Euryalus might have been the luckiest of such storied pairs in that they got to die together. Two soldiers fighting for Aeneas as he conquers Italy to found the Roman people, they plan a sortie past enemy lines, just the two of them. They aim to surprise and kill as many besieging enemy soldiers as possible, then take a crucial message to their leader, Aeneas. Of the Prince Ascanius they ask only that, if they don’t return, he should take in young Euryalus’ mother as his own mother. That promise glowingly made, they set out on their night sortie, and kill enemies till the ground is red with gore. But as they leave the scene of their attack, Euryalus lags behind, and a passing patrol catches him. Its captain kills the young hero, only himself to fall when Nisus rushes back, killing men all the way, and dies taking revenge for his fallen beloved. (These are the terms used in the Latin: lover for the older man, beloved for the younger.) As Nisus dies, he throws himself on the body of Euryalus, so the two are united in death as in life. But let’s hear it in something like Virgil’s own words (W. F. J. Knight’s translation):

Then pierced through/ He cast himself down on his lifeless friend/ And there at last found peace in a welcoming death./ Fortunate pair! If there is any power in my poetry,/ No day shall ever steal you from the memory of time,/ So long as sons of Aeneas dwell by the Capitol’s immovable stone,/ And a Roman Father holds dominion yet. (from Aeneid, Bk. IX)

A Roman Father holds dominion yet?

Well yes, a Roman Father still holds dominion of sorts over a world church, albeit rickety. How could an empire last so long? It’s a question for the post-colonial theorists, too vast to be answered here, deserving mention though, if we think about the loves of brothers in arms, and its underpinning of institutions.

Some cultures have found ways to let the bounty of comrades’ loves be captured as a benefit,
a force within a people’s self-definition. Virgil compares Euryalus’ love and devotion to his mother to the love of Ascanius for his father Aeneas–both are simply love of “parents,” a keynote value in the whole of the Aeneid, in fact the very ground tone of the Roman piety that it celebrates. Nothing is criticized in the two lover-comrades, nothing held against them. That they fathered no children does not matter: through love of their people and their parents they are taken up into the sphere of ideal community–no day shall ever steal them from the Roman memory.

The pity is that the bounty of same sex love seems usually to require a packaging in blood and war—or else a packaging in compulsory celibacy. The Amazon-like warrior Camilla is also sung in the Aeneid. When the brothers in love are brothers in arms, giving their lives for the community’s wars, then they can perhaps be admired and celebrated. Why only then?

“Let us now praise famous ‘men’.” Let us laud partners who live for peace, for a community that sees no enemies, only friends at home and neighbors abroad—or at least, ‘Others’ with whom the best arts of mediation are always to be practiced. This would be the new “manly love of brothers,” even better than that sung by Walt Whitman with his “barbaric yawp.” Will humanity ever catch up to it? “Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,” Whitman said, ” I stop somewhere ahead, waiting for you.”

At a suburban university two men, a life-long couple, have made a career of teaching, and together have founded a biennial conference for scholars. One of them has just retired, and at the dinner celebration for him, at the latest convening of their conference, the hall was packed with colleagues and former students for an evening ringing with toasts and reminiscences. They’ll be remembered for what they made together—spiritual procreation Plato called it—a circulation of bounty through individuals and community. When will we have epics of those who, side by side, fight the common enemies of humankind–disease, poverty, injustice, the lovelessness that brings empty eyes and killing. Can human beings ever learn to fight such battles through strategic alliances, with respect for each other’s ways, not needing to conquer and rule?

The days of Saul, David, and Solomon–the united kingdom–were the time of empire for ancient Israel, the greatest spread of their power over neighboring peoples. Their usual mode was to be among those conquered, though somehow never assimilated, by successive empires–Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Assyria. Yet for a change, it was the wealth and expansionist power of those three kings that took the people’s lore of Yahweh and Elohim into written form and brought it down to us. We should admit this. Jonathan’s father Saul had begun the conquests, but his son was not a man for kingly power, rather for his beloved friend. When will the empires stop ravaging? There’s now a movement for Simple Living in the U.S. Northwest, portrayed in a Public Television documentary called “Affluenza”; it sponsors “uncommercials” and a Don’t Buy Anything day, urging economists to devise new measurements to replace the incessant growth of products now choking the planet—a Gross Well-Being Index instead of a GNP which must be ever balooning. When will more and more people and groups learn to find their treasure in works of craft and spirit and body, not in endless trains of consumer booty, bought and trashed. We may hope that the twentieth century learned to “Make love not war.” The next century must learn to “Make love not garbage.”

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

“When the Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame she came with a very great retinue to test him with hard questions, and told him all that was on her mind . . . . And she said, ‘Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report I heard, happy are your wives and servants, blessed be the Lord your God.’ And she gave the king 120 talents of gold and a very great quantity of spices; never again came such an abundance of spices to him. . . . And King Solomon gave her gifts, as well as all that she desired.” (from 1st Kings 10: 1-12)

She traveled to meet men reputed
Wise–a queen of questions,
Loving well turned answers.
In Solomon’s cedar palace
They two sat on facing thrones
On the inlaid stones adorned with six-winged creatures,
Prophets’ pictures of awe before the unseen god of storms.
Morning to evening they talked and smiled,
Their gestures more sweeping each day.
Solomon so pleased her mind
That all her gold and spices
Were scarcely worthy gifts, she thought.
Spicy his looks, golden his words,
Fitly spoken each turn of talk,
‘Like apples of gold in silver settings.’

‘How may one best deal with enemies?’
‘Ah,’ said he, ‘give them bread and drink, for so
You will heap burning coals on their heads.’
‘And should we save the poor and abused?’
‘What else?’ he said, ‘Rescue those being taken away To death–if you say you did not know it,
Yet he who watches thoughts will know, and requite you Desertion for desertion.’
‘And how should one practice love, O wise one, you With your palaces of wives and concubines?’
‘To love is to come to one’s garden, my sister,
And gather myrrh with the spice,
To eat the whole honeycomb with the honey,
And drink both wine and milk.’

Regal herself in querying, the queen adored his replies.
She laid down her gifts.
He too gave caravans of mementos,
And beyond them, ‘all she desired.’
The Ethiopian Jews, tracing their lineage,
Say this meant love nights–
Regal bodies in mutual honoring of minds
In a love full fledged in Spirit and also
Back to her land with camels in tow she went,
And no one else brought Solomon such spice as hers–
Lover of his dancing mind.
Queen of riches more than kingly.

An Interracial Encounter

The story is of the most glorious king of Israel and Judah having a grand encounter with an African queen. Were there no problems of racism or racialism in that age? This episode seems to have been some grand exception, for the Israelites’ origin story of Noah and his three sons, as fathers of all mankind, portrays Ham (father of the African peoples) as under a curse, condemned to be a slave to his brothers, Shem (the Semitic peoples) and Japhet, the northern (as we would say Indo-European) peoples.

Were the ancient Israelites unusual in being racist? The Japanese are said to consider all peoples but themselves ugly and inferior. The Chinese, in their origin story of the Japanese, say they descended from monkeys. Virginia Woolf spoke of a Sri Lankan independence leader she had seen as looking like a caged monkey. Walt Disney, casting voices for varieties of apes in his animation of Kipling’s Jungle Book, chose African-American musicians–the best (he could pay for them). What possesses the human race, that racialism should run through so many times and cultures?

Consider one corner of it, our eyes and our looking.

Within our own group, in a shared identity (which everyone must have), we grow up noting many subtle variations in faces. We must. It’s essential for our own self-image, and knowledge of other individuals, to scan faces closely, quickly, and to recognize each one—to apply the norms for beauty and other qualities within one’s own cultural scene—or plainness, soulfulness, or whatever may be the categories. For someone who has grown up in a racially uniform community, people with new kinds of features are often hard to ‘recognize’–in every sense. Their looks may not scan on one’s template. ‘Those people’ all tend to look the same, and probably not good –because ‘I’ don’t have a program for recognizing the norms and the variations in their facial type.

Where I myself grew up, almost everyone was Caucasian or African-American. Oriental people I knew only from movie stereotypes.

They were apparently all either laundrymen (all male), or geishas or china dolls (all female), or masses of identical looking communist soldiers on the march.

Recently I walked in from daylight to a dark elevator with my sunglasses on. I addressed a fellow rider by name as an Asian-American person I took him for. It was someone else, though indeed of the same height, build, and age as my acquaintance. My face turned redder than his was yellow.

Oh yes, what about skin color. To native Americans, the first north Europeans were “palefaces,” seeming perhaps like anemic, sickly beings. To blue eyes first seeing Africans in the seventeenth century, a deep brown skin might seem reminiscent of animal hide. This may be understandable, though certainly not apolitical (it’s shot through and through with one’s stereotypes and cultural notions). But when it gets mapped onto differences of power and wealth, then things turn really ugly. And it usually does get mapped onto them.

Why did Solomon and the Queen of Sheba not suffer from these disorientations? For the wealthy and secure, a racially ‘other’ person may seem not less but more appealing than the pleasures one is used to. Exoticism may come into play. And a community of black Jews, centuries later assuming a point of pride against the racism of their fellow Jews the ashkenazi (for oh yes, racism is very much present in modern Israel)—the black Jews could even appropriate that tale of exotic pleasure to their cultural identity. Indeed the Queen may have been a proud ancestor of proud Ethiopian Jewish descendants.

Of course, wealth is not only money and things. It’s also symbolic capital. Two friends of mine, an interracial couple for years, both have rich temperaments and family backgrounds. Not rich in money beyond the average bourgeois, but rich in love, support, appreciation of art and human creations, and good genes for intelligence and cheerfulness. He is north German, she a California African-American, he a literary scholar, she an art historian. One evening we were talking of films, and I told of seeing Lone Star, where a certain scene brought a great belly laugh in the theater.

In a Texas border town, a white army sergeant in his thirties tells his drinking acquaintance, the white sheriff, that he’s getting married to a black woman, also a sergeant. “Are your parents taking it bad that she’s black?” asks the young sheriff.

“Oh no,” he says, “They’re just glad she’s female, they thought maybe I was gay.”

Slowly shaking his head and wide-brimmed hat the sheriff drawls, “One deep prejudice drives out another.” This was what had brought the big laugh in the theater, and we chuckled also.

Our California friend responded that much the same thing had once happened to her. She’d briefly dated a guy whose parents were unhappy that he would go out with a black woman. A few months later, he told them he was gay. “Oh,” said his mother, “what about Christine, why don’t you call her up some time?” We all laughed again. But there were visceral twinges all around the laugh. In the steel-trap categories of current mainstream American identity politics, it’s clear which deep prejudice drives out which other one, even though the oppression of different groups will vary from scene to scene. In a university, people of color may encounter more barriers than gay people. In a mountain ranching town the reverse might be true.

Does it sound like all gay people are white, and all blacks are male? Ludicrously, on the unconscious bulletin board of white straight mainstream America, in the list of who’s fearful and dreadful, black women and gay people of color are blanked out—they just don’t appear. How can people of all identities protest such psychic violence? The question is urgent, because ludicrous notions, embedded in rhetorics of sin or sickness or ‘disability,’ can turn to murder, when dropped into the minds of troubled, disempowered people like the killers of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr.

For one thing, we should get specific with celebrations. Two gay people of color very important to me have been James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. In college years, I learned much about sex, city life, racism, the variety of love, and all sorts of things by reading Going to Meet the Man, Another Country, and many Baldwin stories. Audre Lorde I admired later in life as a poet. And then during treatments for my own illness, I read her cancer journals and drew comfort from them.

Solomon and Her Majesty of Sheba had no one to insult or thwart them. Inside their own story, they were in charge. Thousands “at their bidding stood.” As teenagers nowadays might say, ‘they ruled.’ At least for a while. His wise sayings and poems were being copied out by scribes–many survive now in the Bible as the books of Proverbs and Song of Songs. She may not have had poems, nor even a name, but she had a rich kingdom, and she had good questions.

Our friends from California and ‘foreign parts’ split up for a time. When he took a job in an Appalachian state, his lady was at first too afraid to move there with him. Now she has decided to try it.

Jesus and the City Woman

As he was at table, a woman of the city who was a sinner brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him weeping, she wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, and kissed his feet and anointed them with ointment . . . . Then turning to the host he said, . . . ‘her sins are forgiven, for she loved much’ . . . . And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’” (Luke 7:36-50).

A servant slips me through the kitchen
Right to the head table.
There he is!–reclined on the bench,
Sandals off for supper.
Will I manage it, or be tossed out?–
Me, pushing in among men?
Nothing for it but to try.
Now sidelong he sees me moving–
Good, he won’t be startled.
The ointment is thick and smooth,
I put a dab on his right foot,
Then rub it in, and kiss the scented place.
The remnants of my miscarried loves fall out
In this extravagance.
Whatever adoration may redeem of loss,
This Jesus is its resting place.

The man across the table smirks.
The one beside me reaches to push me off
But stops
When Jesus, leaning forward, looks at him.
Taunts fly at me–
‘Tart, hey pretty piece!
Over here–My feet need a scrubbing!’
I look around. ‘Hold on, now,’
I’ve seen some beards and faces here–
If I slept around was I alone?’
The shouts and laughs renew.
Now they point at each other,
Jeer and catcall at me.
My rage-tears fall on dabs of ointment.

Who cares!
Keep rubbing, toes and instep, arch and ankle,
Right foot and left,
No way will I stop now.
I sob
For my good loves, cut off
By laws, or lack of means or days,
Or sheer confusion or backs of hands–
No place for them in measured life–
I pour the nard,
For the good in me
That finds no path,
Love mangled by fear and need,
And for these leering faces hiding pain.

Now his feet are so wet the ointment runs–
What next?
I hadn’t figured this, now what for a towel?
My hair will do.
Around the ankles, back and forth–finish up.
He looks me in the eye
But speaks to Simon the host
And says–
He says, what I’ve done is good!
That I should go in peace.
‘And to you also peace, Rabboni,’ I stammer.
I hurry, stumbling, out
To the field by Simon’s house, and quiet air.

No Place for Love

In the church discussion groups where I’ve been–“Renew,” or centering meditation, or whatever kind–people are warm and non-judgmental, often quite free in telling their life and faith stories. They could be an insurance agent, a homemaker, a music teacher, a farmer, or a professor. The viewpoint is: “This is my personal thing, that works for me—I want to hear how faith is for you.” ‘Small faith-communities,’ as these groups within parishes are sometimes called if they’re ongoing, are similar to something ecumenical, like the “Tuesday Night Prayer Group” described by Patricia Hopkins and Sherry Ruth Anderson in The Feminine Face of God. A willing vulnerability and openness to the sacred among a group of kind, warmly supportive people–that’s the common denominator, I’d say.

You take a risk in becoming open to the sacred. It’s a reaching back of something from a possible future into a person’s present, something hoped for, not inevitable. It’s also a reaching out–out to other people in a present faith community. And it’s a reaching back from a present moment into the past time of tradition–we pluck something from there: an ancient story of a woman getting pregnant after menopause; a tale of star-crossed friendship; an incident of a woman crashing an all-male dinner party to perform an act of extravagant reverence; or a passage from St. Augustine. We make the ancient things our own. They get remade, resurrected, refreshed in a moment of uptake, of motion into a new life.

Christians call Abraham “our father in faith,” who “believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness.” He did things like pawning out his wife Sarah to a neighboring clan patriarch as a temporary wife, to get safe passage through a district. This did make trouble for the clan leader. Not for Father Abraham, though. He got his wife back and his safe passage too. We need to open up scripture study to all dimensions of human experience.

The sex lives of heroes of faith in the Bible, when you look at the stories, were often not what you’d suppose. The epistle to the Hebrews, in a list of heroes of faith from Abraham to Moses to Jesus, includes Rahab the harlot of Jericho, because she helped the Israelite spies reconnoitring the town! A “harlot” who betrayed her own people!

The woman who poured ointment on Jesus’s feet had learned how to give of herself in extravagant love, and that’s why she was able to give Jesus what he called an anointing for his burial. No one else thought or dared to do it. He said she’d be remembered for this, down through the ages, and she has been. Medieval tradition claimed that this “woman of the city” was Mary Magdalene, who first saw the resurrected Jesus. But there’s no scriptural basis for that idea. In fact, a passage in John’s gospel says it was a different Mary who poured the ointment on Jesus, namely Mary of Jericho, the sister of Lazarus.

People can learn from all aspects of their experience, and gain new abilities. A man moved to our parish who, along with his wife, had trained as a facilitator for centering prayer groups at Snowmass, Colorado, at Father Thomas Keating’s monastery—the center of the ‘centering’ movement. Now he had just gone through an agonizing divorce, which he didn’t want, and followed his ex-wife in moving to our state, because he wanted to stay near his children. He had no job in his field, was doing part-time work, struggling to get visiting arrangements with the children. Urgently needing to break his fixation on his ex-wife, he was generally reachable at his new girlfriend’s place. At church, he didn’t sit passively in the pew but instead started a centering prayer group. Though he couldn’t conform his present life to church teachings, he thought the best thing to do for the time was to bring what he’d learned to other people, as well as gaining from our faith, by initiating us into that calming, mind-emptying form of prayer. He was a small-scale hero of faith in his own way, a man of great love who, while we knew him, couldn’t find a place where it could be fully received. The ‘city woman’ could have been his patron saint.

Mary Magdalene, Disciple, Preaches to the Patriarchs in Purgatory

“When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. Now he that ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?” (Ephesians. 4:8-9)

“Then Mary stood up, greeted them all, and said to her brethren, ‘Do not weep and do not grieve nor be irresolute, for his grace will be entirely with you and will protect you. But rather let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us into men.’” (“The Gospel of Mary” [Magdalene], Nag Hammadi Library, the Gnostic Scriptures)

Through mazy wetland channels
Down the Styx
By light of fog and swamp gas,
Into a cavern, down to further mist
The ferry glides—
Docks by a silent green-black mead
Of sawgrass.

Translucent figures, bearded, seated,
A semi-circle, surround a woman
Gesturing with supple hands,
A prayer stole draped from her shoulders.
Some prop heads on knees, chin sideways,
They will not hear, or speak.
Others turn a shoulder to her,
Unaccustomed altogether
To women’s speech before men.

Now and again her belltone voice
Softly repeals their ancient ways
And igneous intransigence:
“In all my Holy Mountain do no harm,” she says.
They coldly gaze,
The graybeards Father Abraham with Isaac, Jacob, and sons,
Moses calling up plagues
Down to fall on enemies’ heads,
Joshua and Gideon blood-stained,
Purging the land,
David with his spears,
And garments of his trophy wives
And scrolls of battle-singing poems.

Socratically she tries to prod them–
Or is it diotimically? –
For answers.
“I had to work through harms myself,
Out of harm’s way,
Until I knew my gifts,” she grants,
“Seven Powers went out of me, they say.”
The patriarchs do not reply,
But murmur to each other:
“. . . those villages I razed and people wasted,
They were all unclean.”
“Now,” she says, “since Peter’s rooftop vision of the foods,
All blessed, nothing ill,
Everything is clean that God has made.
In all my holy mountain do no harm.

“Who is Peter?” Isaac asks,
“We don’t know anyone named ‘Rockie,’
Nor care what such a man might dream.
Moses taught respect for neighbors’ sheep and women;
They should be clean and protected.”
(Jacob cups his hand and whispers reminiscently to David
How he took Tamar by the roadside,
Daugher-in-law disguised,
And fathered yet more sons of her.)
The voice of the Magdalene peals again,
“In all my Holy Mountain do no harm.”

The length of a summer’s day she prods
In Stygian mist
And through a second day,
Till on the third she pulls from her sleeve
A pipe, and plays, hypnotically.
They slowly rise,
Still talking with each other,
And straggle in a ragged line behind her
To the ferry.
The waterman, at ease with a pole
Leans, ready to push them up to light.

The Trinity–A Travel Journal of Sunday Masses

Feast of Corpus Christi, Iowa City:

Wanting to beat the heat, I scouted for an early mass at the cavernous red-brick Church of St. Mary. On Saturday there’d been a scattering of mostly elderly people, saying the rosary with a middle-aged priest before confession time. The far end of the church presents an array of altarpiece pictures: brightly painted scenes around the central high altar piece, which used to have the broad stone altar just below it. Now of course, new style, the altar has been moved to the front of the chancel so the priest can stand behind it and face the people. Still it all seemed ethnic, south German.

I walked to ‘the Sunday 7:30,’ expecting to see a few sleepy-eyed assorted people. But no, the place was almost full, and a good-looking muscly young priest, as if right at home in farm country and with a fine singing voice, started mass by leading a stanza, a capello, of “We hold a treasure . . . in earthen vessels.” (No organist for that hour.) He said mass at what I think of as an Irish clip. His homily was short and peremptory, though he seemed intelligent–as if he could have done better but was in a hurry. I was thinking, I guess this is how things still are in the midwest. Then after the closing blessing, he suddenly announced that, surprisingly to him, he was being reassigned to St. So-&-so’s in Keokuck, and Father X from there would be replacing him here as associate pastor; this would be his last mass. A rustle of surprise greeted his announcement. Walking out the door, I saw some two dozen people gather around him to say good-byes.

Is this part of a pattern? Are some of the bishops taking a cue from the Chinese cultural revolution? Send the less conformable ones out to the boonies, where no one will listen to them anyhow? Might someone listen?

Late June, Pasadena:

St. Philip’s is another huge church, stucco and Spanishy outside, rather Italianate inside. My husband has some uncomfortable memory of this church from an earlier stint here, so does not come to the Saturday 5:00 p.m. He goes jogging instead. A mural, reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with plump human figures, curves around the back of the chancel–a crowded scene, focusing on a central personage: St. Philip being martyred? Along the side walls of the church, long strip panels of shiny inlaid tiles present gold-tinged biblical scenes. A small altar at the right front, beneath a statue of Mary, has a large translucent blue holder with a candle burning.

A pleasant young Chicano priest with a mellow voice says mass, giving a learned homily, elucidating the three readings one by one. He ends with the epistle: “There exists among you neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor freeman, male nor female.” From there he goes to saying that we are obliged to feel how much God loves us and we love him–a favorite nunly topic for grade school kids. Can one feel something because of being obliged to feel it, I think? I listen up and wonder if he’ll be able to point a way into this ‘obligation.’ But no, he just goes back to the first reading, about the people after the slaughter at Megiddo, grieving as if for the loss of an only son, and says that’s how strong our feelings should be.

I am standing up to say the creed: “We believe in one God, the father almighty,” etc., when I feel the rear of my skirt tug away from the pew with a big piece of gum stuck and stringing. There’s a wiggly, whiny kid about ten behind me, who’s been punching his sister. I go into ‘competent-tolerant-mom-in-church’ mode and start pulling the gum loose from both ends, while bending sideways, continuing to say the creed, and rubbing each bit circularly into a bigger ball, so as to unglue it from my fingers and backside. It occurs to me that this could be a reason for not changing the creed in 1500 years. Who could remember it at such times if it changed often?

Early July, Davis Newman Center:

Masses here are noted for their intelligence, sustaining warmth, and off-the-chart liberalism. (This is the town where alley potholes are left unrepaired because their unique ecosystems of algae and clickbugs must be protected.) As you get books at the door, you look to the board of hymn numbers; the ones to be sung today with God as “she/her” have the female symbol by the number. The first will be “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard what God has ready for those who love her.”

There’s Charlie the retired university shop man, who still talks with his Jersey accent. He pipes up at the prayers of the faithful and turns his into a kind of mini-sermon with fancy words–a worker intellectual without an adequate medium. The music is up tempo, full harmony, folk-style singing with piano, guitar, flute, castanets. Almost everyone joins in with gusto. The place swings. The priest today is a visitor, but the community is so strong that he becomes both welcomed and welcomer in the momentum of the liturgy. For the psalm, each verse is read by a different person, standing up in place somewhere in the fan pattern of chairs around the altar. The last verse is, “You will show me the path of life: in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand there are pleasures forever.”

When it comes time for the eucharistic service, as the consecration ends someone steps into the small brick bell tower, and gives the rope a few tugs for some indoor-outdoor clangs with the sung ‘Amens.’ The crackdown by the new bishop in Sacramento has changed the mode of pass-the-basket eucharist we used to have–we walk forward now, and the home-baked bread that volunteers used to bring every Sunday has been replaced by the white factory wafers. The sister assigned here is no longer allowed to read the gospel before her homily. She and Father Al read the segments of it antiphonally, then he blesses her by laying of hands on her head. The Spirit is strong here but the retrenching steps hurt.

The homily is about the trials of discipleship, from the day’s gospel reading: “keep your hand on the plow, let the dead bury their dead,” etc. The priest links them to Jesus’ prayer of “let it be as you will” in the Passion story, despite his fear and longing to give up. The priest says that any moment of our lives can pose us that kind of pain. This seems oddly post-modern, as if the business of self-construction remains ongoing through life no matter what, rather than being something finished in childhood. Or at least, maintenance and upgrading keep needing to be done on the house of the self–maybe sometimes a drastic earthquake retrofit in the basement? This is what being in California does for one’s metaphors. In Jungian terms, anima, ego, and persona must keep rediscovering a way of getting along, compromising to meet each other’s demands, or the psyche cannot thrive. For Freud I guess it was the id, ego, and super-ego, all having to be fed and not unbalance each other. Somehow it all sounds trinitarian. No wonder we tend to think of God in three persons.

As I listen, I start thinking about the trinity and the sacraments. The sacraments are Christ acting in ritual, giving us a communal presence that in turn leads us face to face with God as parent, ground of being. Christ carries us ‘up’ to ‘him,’ or ‘in’ maybe–in out of the cold. The way you come into a lit and scented church in winter, and your cheeks tingle. And then God the parent in turn emanates the Spirit, to go with us in our spread out moments–as fire of passion, or wind of change. So in a church community, there’s an ongoing circulation through these three persons or faces of God: son, to father, to spirit, again to the son, and so on. God is with us, Emmanuel, not as a thing or entity but as a live process, energizing our selfhood. The sacraments are the center and energy source of community.

Just as there’s a circulation of God in three persons in the faith community, there’s a circulation inside each believer. In contemplative or centering prayer, for instance, we put the actions of our conscious mind to rest, those thoughts and urges that are usually busy enacting selfhood–just as Christ emptied himself out in giving up life for his friends. Not because suffering is good but to take the hit of oppression himself so that they could carry on the God-filled life he had started with them. Centering prayer begins with a Christ motion of emptying out, emptying one’s thoughts; then it takes us into the fuller presence of the Spirit, who gives us sweetness and fire as divine love ‘for me.’ Through that phase, the Spirit then takes us face to face with God as ultimate parent, ground of us as valuing, yes-saying creatures (maybe then we’re attending to what Freud recognized as ‘the father of personal pre-history’–but attending with love). Then we stay in that gaze a while, dissolving into peace and losing our sense of boundaries and maybe of time. Finally, coming back around the other side of the circulation, we find the Spirit again in other forms: passion for justice, thanks and longing, creativity and love.

These in turn feed into sacramental life, so the personal circulation of triune God connects each believer into a communal circulation. And there’s an economy of exchanges. Giving up something, getting something else. Someone opening, someone closing. Replacing x with y, or displacing x onto y. Someone’s ‘yes,’ someone else’s ‘no.’ My giving, another’s receiving. Someone’s rise in status, another’s decrease for a time. My change, someone’s stasis. Some loving and enjoying, some conflict and anger. In all this there must be loss, even anguish. But in the church it can be bearable because our personal economies are, so to speak, overwritten by the circulation of triune presence. Each pain is taken up into the Christological pain, each joy into the flow of Spirit, back to the ground of the church’s calling, the god-presence as parent.

The church is still a mother, still feeding her children. A venerable image that bishops admire. The moves of authority and nostalgia shouldn’t be allowed to cut into her nurturing. Mothering is a combination of feeding, attention, indulgence, solicitude, encouragement, pleasure in the nurtured one’s responses and growth–chewing gum and all. Vatican II brought the nurturing alive, after centuries of bad parenting–at least since the counter-reformation. What are the recent retrenchments trying to do? Impose regimentation, suppression of women, dismissal without due process for church workers not submissive enough? It seeks a supposed ‘good old perfect way’—as though EWTN would show beautiful priests in beautiful lacy vestments saying changeless masses in a changeless, ghostly broadcast cyberspace, forever. So that after earth has long since fallen into the dying sun, some alien civilization can pick up the signal and watch it.

Some of this good old way goes back only a few centuries, to the Counter-reformation time in the sixteenth century, not to the middle ages even, much less to early Christian times. To be alive, the church like any living being must change and grow. Too much strait-jacketing might bring a state of affairs like the ending of the play Death of a Salesman–a spotless house and nobody home. But quite a few long-away Catholics are now returning. May we and they find new reconciliation, new hope.