1. Future Light

Reading The Weeks, February Through May

In the red light of an early sunset on brick buildings and red-brown hills, I walk down westward, thinking of the questions I’ve been asked about my perspective on spirituality. It’s hard to talk about those things. There seems to be no language for it these days—how to find one? Make one? ‘Be bold, be bold, be not too bold’–that’s the magic motto of the lady knight Britomart in a story. I take from the red light a sense of a future. Out of what need or hope do people raise these questions?

In some moments we cope with the need for a spiritual grounding—or some kind of grounding in values—we cope by creating time. It’s time as a day to be seized, a window of a moment to look through, not to lose–hope making its own time, valued time in the midst of extreme stress of busyness, a place for presence made by risk. And the risk is also a reaching back of something from a future into this present, something hoped for, not necessary. It’s “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” as the writer of Hebrews says –not seen yet, not except in the redness of the light, which will touch on the violet of dusk, in turn on the green-black of night, then the gray of another day.

The Bhakti Path

“I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” Gospel of John

Nothing other, nothing less
Than red sunlight on seeded brushes
Of soft-white wheat–
Field of it by hillside-tipping field
And fold of land–
Will do.

Nothing less and nothing else
Than mottled blue of river glinting
Up to match the sky
It tracks up canyon walls
To blue-hazed cliffs
Will do.

Nothing fainter, nothing less
Than green and gritty white-lined surf,
The rolling walls of which
One must dive straight through arrow-like
Or be bludgeoned under,
Will do.
The green and blue and red of gold
Will take the gaze out visioning
For the bird of spirit colors.
Nothing other, nothing else
Will do.

2. Timewarp by Logia

“In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God and was God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” So says the opening of John’s gospel. The logos, the word. Post-modern thinkers are all in a stir about it–seem to think it’s caused most of the trouble in Western civilization ever since Plato. But what if we don’t think of logos as a deep principle of ‘wordness,’ of God as ultimate assertion, or original possibility of thrusting out meaning, all phallic and pointy and absolute. What if instead, as a friend once suggested, we think about particular sayings–logia–that define a religion? These are material, they’re bits of markings and sounds that come to carry a people’s identity, because the people have learned to love them. Someone can wear one of them on the body, as in a phylactery. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These make a Jew. Or “The kingly reign of God is within you” as a tiny mustard seed in the ground will grow into a great shrub–someone may wear a mustard seed on her chest. The logia about the ‘kingdom’ make a Christian.

Jesus the Jew also reaffirmed those two sayings of Judaism–they sum up the whole law, he said. The law had been spoken for a tribe of related clans, whose ruling males controlled their land and goods. It was even addressed to those men: you shall do such and such with your bondservant, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, etc. Now, Jesus would teach logia for an underclass–villagers, farmers, and some of their wealthy (mainly women) sympathizers–an underclass doubly ruled, by Roman occupation and by the ruling class fractions of Hellenized Jews, namely the Saducees and Pharisees. How to love God and neighbor with scant resources, keep one’s dignity, and get away with it? The Beatitudes were not just one logion but several logia for taking moral control, trying to live justly and to receive justice when you had no political power. “Blessed are the meek who know they don’t own the earth–it is theirs by touch.” “Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called the children of God.” “If someone takes your coat offer your cloak too.” “Blessed are they that mourn, they will comfort each other.” Whoever lived these would have the reign of God inside them, and among those around them–despite being under occupation.

How have such logia come down to us moderns, across uncounted borders of eras and cultures? I see them like streaks on a screen, like the traces of energy particles. But instead of going forward in time from some null point in the past, they streak, in a series, from a forward moment backward. Someone, out of desire, out of hunger for meaning, reaches back into a tradition, and in the electric charge of that reaching, one of the found logia comes alive, through being somehow revised, remade, refreshed–ego reficiam vos: I will refresh you/ remake you, says the Vulgate rendering of a gospel text. It invites the weary and heavy laden to come. A tired Roman aristocrat reaches back for simplicity, and founds a monastic order. A missionary urging peace between warring tribes reaches back to the Beatitudes and manages to get a treaty. Martin Luther King reaches back to those teachings and leads a revolution against racism. Layer on layer of the remade logia stretch back, time in them becoming a history of plenitude and manifestation–if someone tells it.

Gordon Kaufmann’s definition of God in a talk I heard was: “a serendipitous creativity, initiating radically unpredictable trajectories into novelty”–for example, the unforeseeable phase change on earth from inorganic to organic molecules, to the whole arena of the organism, remaking the planet’s chemistry. Yes. But despite being unforeseeable, the trajectories may not be pushed forward from some early point; they may instead be drawn from out of the future by urge and surge and possibility–layers of motion stretching one by one out to further layers ahead, that they ‘already’ touch on.

St. Augustine by the River

At Ostia they sat on a weathered window seat
Above the Tiber,
He and Monica, his careful mother.
Always she had enfolded her wild son
With blandishments and plans.
Now it was enough he was a Christian,
Weaned of stolen pears.
From the villa
With Venus imaged on a frothy tile-mosaic wave
Cracked with age,
They stared at the low sun’s pulsing line
Along the water.
Below, the waterman’s boy at anchor dozed
Against his boat keel–
Adolescents can always sleep, it seems.

What may a mother be–mater enim quid sit?
The sidelong sun lit her cheek and the garment
Swathing her shoulder, side, and thigh.
They talked of faith, hers lifelong,
His new-minted.
His voice, soft to leave the boy unroused,
Echoed, humming, from the walls.
Hers was softer yet.
He’d found what the prophets knew, he said,
“O taste and see that the Lord is good”–
The sweetness held him, as of pear nectar,
Waking nights and layers of stumbling days. [no stanza]

Yes, she knew it too, the wine and the milk without price,
And the laying down of burdens
For the light and easy yoke–her days and nights
Had answered often to that “Come to me.”

Silent a while,
They watched each other’s hands,
Draped at ease on lap and knees.
He’d been the song-burden of her burdens,
Weight in her womb at his life’s dark egress
Into being,
Weight on her mind through friendship loves
With rhetorician schoolmates,
Weight on her spirit, in Manichean days
Of heady cultic deeps,
Affair with peasant mistress, then
Unlawful child–Adeodatus–
She’d chosen the name, giving him to God.
The sun, horizon-rimmed, sent rays
To the corner mirror
And back-lit now her other shoulder.

The sweetness filled them both
And the shield between them dropped
That blocks off child from mother,
Stiff guard,
Walling off the firepit, deep well of one’s own spirit stuff,
Cooling the surging efflux
To make the mind’s bounded orders
Language, law, taboos, prescription,
Inscription, subscription, description,
All and some,
They sloughed away with the spirit-shield.

Transparent self to unsheathed pristine self they gazed.
The half-sun fire and the mother fire
And the sweetness tasted, and the milk,
And the melting off of sorrows
All and some
Were melded in the gaze they held–
Mother and child, two and one, one and none,
Ancient of days, so fair and yet so old.
New heaven and new earth suffused the room.
The boy below slept on.

The body’s love is just as
As the spirit’s love.
In only sixteen hundred years
This would be known.

3. Body Logia

St. Augustine wrote his autobiography, his Confessions, as one long prayer. Rather than talking about God he spoke to God, making his readers into eavesdroppers on a mental stage. In Bk. 10 he tells how he converted to Christianity in middle age, after a youth of philosophical searching, longing for sacred power, and various sexual loves and losses. He says, “Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you. You were within me, and I was outside, and there I sought for you . . . in the beauties you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you. . . . You flashed, you shone, you scattered my blindness. You breathed perfume, and I drew in breath, and I pant for you. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burn for your peace.”

The beauty both ancient and new–or as a seventeenth-century woman poet put it “so fair and yet so old”–can come to people’s awareness either early or late in life. For myself I would say, “Long have I loved you, Beauty yet so new. You were in me, and with the end of childhood I knew you.” An eight-year-old on my way to piano lesson, walking and singing a hymn, I stopped dead still, God-haunted. You were with ‘me.’ Yet that ‘I’ was not the I who speak now. I look back as if distantly remembering some other person.

Maybe between us two also stretch something like layers of logia–a mind’s and body’s own ‘sayings’ of itself. Mine are bits of hymns and verses that resonated in youth and still do: “I come to the garden alone.” “There is therefore now no condemnation.” “He does all things well.” Their trajectories go back, blip by blip, through body time, with the layers having been made of charges fed in from days and ways, nights and loves, as those played off the chora loved into me the baby by a full-hearted mother and grandparents, while my father was away at war. And the pain of disjunctions–anyone’s starts and bumps and hurts–made gaps of non-meaning that always had to be recrossed, with the energies of bodies, at every stage of the remaking of those inner logia.

For the forging of communion in church, when Christ moves down onto the cross, into the chalice, and the mind moves upward in love, likewise a gap is crossed, as if across a phase-change (gas to liquid, or ice to water). Or, as in the connecting of new-forming neurons in the brain, a synapse emerges–across from the desiring one into a fund of love, ready to flow, with brokenness being the impetus of love’s moving. It is just as the ovary breaks open its outer layer or epithelium, tears it open, in order to release an egg down into the womb (that tissue must then heal again and again). Desire calls from the one waiting with thirst, and desire of the many who have lifted the chalice before, on back to a storied Jesus, cradled in the minds of earliest lovers of his sacramental body, and still further back to a village rabbi who taught non-violent claiming of dignity, in a God-haunted malkuth or ‘kingly reign’ of lived out struggle–and was executed for his pains. The light from shiny surfaces of the chalice may go to a neural center coded in early childhood, when we went through a mirror stage, according to the shrinks. The stage of first learning to think “I” and “myself” by recognizing a piece of our body in a shiny surface. And that left us broken, cut off from our mother–the thinking “I” is even cut off from the self-image (the me-myself seen in the shine). So we were launched into knowing and words. The glistening from the chalice take us back close to home.

From the other angle, from the future of sacred time, the rabbi Jesus is always out ahead, drawing, shining, beckoning. Whether a moment sorts for someone as early or late, it can take on all the fullness of Christ, “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

For a Friend with Huntington’s Syndrome

I. On the Forest Hill Divide

Light angling down a slope of sugar pines
And down the jagged sandstone rocks above the trail Makes all the air
Seem slanted–
As if their orange and twisted pink are piled
With gray from sun-edged clouds across the gorge, Sidelit by sunlight,
Puffed and deep with rain.
We tromp,
Middle-aged and puzzled
By the feel things have around our new

Sun on skin
And muscle-flex in booted legs
Bring warmth to bones in motion Still.

Yet the trail curves off into vistas
Flooding eyes and mind with distances–
As if the rocks and slanted sun
And scent of pines
Have turned us part translucent,
Modules of a light within
Passing to a light without,
Pale on pale, gray on green,
Slanted pink on moistened light,
Our bodies misting off to sheer perception–
As if we could lift
With the linnet’s feather dusted up
By our boots into a drift [no stanza]

4. What’s in the Chalice

In a mass the people must, emotively, help the priest to lift the chalice. Otherwise it would be too heavy. In it is all their sorrow and loss, to be transmuted into the joy they will celebrate. The priesthood of all believers is a matter of declaring wonder, cultivating wonder, until it infuses communal life. For awe and wonder draw together a community of people who can see love from the inside. And then our languages of spirituality are discourses of the inside, in the fullest measure. And our ritual actions become containers for pain transformed by love.

Maybe the strongest liturgy for feeling this is on Holy Thursday, when the priest washes some representative people’s feet and kisses them–a reenactment of Jesus’ goodbye meal with his much loved friends. Then the priest continues with the central part of mass, offering the bread and wine. The ritual can send one’s spirit on a rocket launch into orbit, lasting it might seem seventy times seven days of singing “O altitudo–O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” And then long millennia of singing “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.” This carries on into a sense of being lost in time, because the mass ends with an invitation to stay as long as one wants in front of the consecrated host, to “stay here with me, watch, and pray.” Longer than one’s knees can hold out the ecstasy streams on. The joy verges on the anguish to come the next day, Good Friday–this last farewell dinner of love was preparation for it. So love gives strength for getting through pain, in the life of sacraments.

One week our ‘Renew’ group practiced the priesthood of baptism, the priesthood of all believers. Our organizer, whose husband has Parkinson’s disease and was off his medicine because of jaw surgery, arrived late with her youngest kid, nine year old Angelica. She said she’d just come to return someone’s book, but she couldn’t take part tonight because of things at home; then she tried to leave. She was upset. We got her to stop and tell us what had happened. Her husband had intense pain all weekend, and when she finally reached his doctor and put him on the phone, he made light of it, so the doctor didn’t do anything. And now they’d just had a family blow-up, with him getting into a fight between Angelica and her sister about a game.

We asked them to stay for a quick round of prayers. Sheila, at her crisp Irish tempo, said the Memorare to Mother Mary; — ‘never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection was left unaided.’ I read a psalm as a prayer: ‘I will lift up my eyes to the hills, . . . You watching over us do not slumber.’ Pat, usually a jolly, full-detail story teller, said a brief prayer for the husband. Mike asked Angelica if she wanted to pray one, and helped her start. She went on for a few sentences. So it went around the circle. After we said “Amen,” Angelica said she hadn’t meant to make trouble, and told her version of the fight. She was on a roll, getting to tell it to a bunch of grownups acting like they were on her side. Two women in the group were nurses. They asked a couple of low-keyed questions about the Parkinson’s symptoms, and got the impression that maybe the surgery had pinched a nerve in the neck–miserable but not life-threatening. As mother and daughter left, everyone gave them hugs. We’d been priests for her, as she had been for us in forming the group, and helping us find that we could talk about spirituality. It took about fifteen minutes.

Needing a break, we traded stories of recent happenings, until Sheila the mother of grown children had us laughing uproariously. At a Sunday brunch, a boy crawling under the table, patting the leg of a young guy next to her, made him think that she was making a move on him; and then she mimicked the look on his face. Verdicts ranged from “What won’t the kids do next!” to “What a stick-in-the-mud, he should have just enjoyed it anyhow.” Then we went back to our booklet Praying Alone and Together and did twenty minutes worth of our planned agenda. As we left Mike said, “Why is life so hard?”

For a Friend With Huntington’s Syndrome

II. Above the Mumford Bar, American River

We climb on pine needles
Where a doe ahead bounced off on a tangent
When she spotted us.
Under pines so tall we tip back
To see their tops
You drop, and catch yourself on two hands.
The trail tunnels through springy brush
Of sapling firs
And dwarf oaks, their leaf edges yellow for fall.

Soon the creek we’ve heard a while Appears.
The crossing gives us pause–
Three unflat stones,
One lumpy, one rounded,
One leaning upstream,
Not in a row.
On the facing slope the trail beckons To more green woods.
Upstream a log’s been laid across.
You clamber to its end, take two steps out,
But then, frozen in a pose, you halt,
Arms above the water as for a blessing,
Frozen too I gaze,
Too far back to reach a hand or stick, Knowing not to cry out.
There is nothing I can do.
How far we are from help. [no stanza]
I wait
Till you sink, one leg drops over, then the other,
You grab the log, straddle,
And shimmy back.

The testy rocks look better now.
We stumble across, each wetting one boot.
Half under a mossy boulder
We lean on elbows, eat bananas,
Dangle fingers in whitewater,
Sip from juice boxes meant for kids.
The green shade holds us quite,
Like Adam and Eve as children
Who never were.
On a rock a lizard takes the sun,
Untroubled by us,
Though we talk and hum
And tell each other childhood hymns
And prayers we learned–
Of streams and rocks in other lands,
And a mother never known to lose
Her mortal children.

After these hours of heights
The sun, angular astride the facing ridge,
Unbinds red shafts of light
Like hair let down for evening,
Flings them sideways through green leaf smells.
Two flickers with brown-cream breasts and speckled backs
Call notice of our approach,
Then renew their rattling pecking
In seasoned wood.
Mixed and layered rocks bestrew the trail–
Red ferrous chunks, white quartz, gray shale.
Far below, a river’s twisting strands
Make glad this world of life.

That these upsurging crags,
Boulders, tree giants, plunging canyons,
That they all float on molten stuff
Deep under us,
How shall we think it?–
Black oceans of superheated rock,
Unutterably dense.
If the merest leakage of it surged across the trail
It would crisp us to a powder–
Above us, an exploding sun bombards with angled rays, Below, imploding rocks churn and seethe. [no stanza]

Somehow we live between them
In a layer of woods
And water cool from a spring–
It trickles down a rocky bed and sounds
Like peace.
How improbable this place of moderated matter.
Not root nor wing work only
But psychic work has been done on it.
Fusion fire met brimstone fire,
And on their interface
These moments fell out green and burgeoning.
Deep called to deep,
Molten waves and billows clashed,
And their utterance we

5. ‘Wrinkled Deep in Time’

The deep harms of life prefigure death. Can we find some manner of peace with them? Psychoanalysts tell us they harken back to the early loss that brought us self-awareness. As babies we were at one with a flow of warmth and milk, feeling that we were part of our mother’s body (our mother, or whoever mainly took care of us). But then, through recognizing parts of our bodies reflected in some shiny surface, we began to imagine an “I” that became a separated being, not part of the place of milk and surrounding embraces. Every deep loss carries us back to that originary cutting off and chill, when we launched out into self-awareness. Language is what we mainly use to cram into the hungry gap. We drink in words, and take pleasure in our own speaking, that covers over, makes us forget for a moment, what we are–which explains why unhappy people may talk too much.

Death, as image of the wholeness we lost, is desired as well as feared because it holds out the promise of return to that wholeness. Walt Whitman saw it as mother earth, with long grass as her hair: “Tenderly will I use you, curling grass, for I think you are the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Or in his paean for the dead Lincoln he called to a dark mother who would rock us to sleep: “Come lovely and soothing death,/ Undulate round the world.”

Nursing a baby, as it is pleasurable for the mother, also gives the baby the origins of erotic pleasure, in that place of original wholeness. The poet Spenser in his ‘Garden of Adonis,’ the place of always emerging life forms, portrays this life-love-death in its central bower, where Venus is always again ‘taking the sweetness’ of her boy Adonis. And that erotic pleasure too is lost, in the originary separation that begins awareness and selfhood. Thus we naturally seek a lover with full intensity, especially when life brings us to a time of collapse of some version of our self that no longer works in a new situation. In modern pluralistic societies this will happen more often than in traditional ones, where identity was achieved once at adolescence and may last the rest of a person’s life.

Psychoanalysis teaches that we are doomed always to seek yet never to find that lost place of union with a beloved–we seek it in language and art, or in achievements promising satisfaction, or in lovers, perhaps get some of these things, then usually find that the promised satisfaction subsides and must be sought again. But in some cultures or eras people have not been so pessimistic about our prospects for long satisfaction. Shakespeare’s heroine Cleopatra makes us realize this. For decades she has loved Antony through ‘gaudy nights,’ and so, despite her flaws, has grown into a human ripeness. She has become, from the sun god Apollo’s “amorous pinches, black/ and wrinkled deep in time” (Antony & Cleopatra I.V. 28-29). Believing Antony dead and his earthly greatness ended after the Battle of Actium, she decides to come to him in death. She takes a viper to her breast to suckle like a child, and says to her waiting women, “Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have/ Immortal longings in me. Now no more/ the juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip/ . . . Methinks I hear Antony call . . . Husband I come. Now to that name my courage prove my title.”

But this is ‘only’ poetry, we say? What if, as with Cleopatra, the blood is not sucked from someone unwilling, but given freely. Viewing her action in a Christological sense–as a free giving of one’s lifeblood to those who thirst–we see the possibility of redemptive ‘exchanges of life,’ as the theologian Rosemary Haughton puts it in The Passionate God. These are not delusional because their satisfactions are part of the ongoing life of company and community, where our selfhood will be held even after our death–in memorials, in prayers and new hope, in the ongoing effects of the particular love and gifts we gave and were given. The experience of that outpouring of life blood, leading into a state of greater love, can help us toward a readiness for death. It can be a ripeness of waiting in good hope for death’s time, whenever that may come, but also waiting in open readiness for further life that will bring new ‘exchanges,’ if that is to come. There we can part company with Cleopatra’s dramatic embrace of death. We drink “another juice than that of Egypt’s grape.”

In eating the body of a god in Eucharist, we are like the Hindu earth goddess Kali–a wild and fearsome mother who eats as well as bearing her children. We take someone’s flesh as food, their blood as drink. We take the place of earth woman as, so to speak, a subject position. We enter the earth deity’s perspective, look out through her black eyes and wear her thick black braids. From dust we came and to dust we shall return. But we take generative food, and it brings us renewal through liturgy, tradition, and community–mundane and flawed though these may be, inhabited at times by people we don’t even like. In the finding of Christ alive in each other, we step into that subject position of the goddess, and as children of the divine, begin to live out the motherhood of God.

Rounded Knowing

Lady of floating black hair, black eyes,
Your specialties are dangly earrings, printed scarves,
Muted golds and purples on jazzy blacks– [no stanza]
Night talker, spirit walker,
Gentle with everyone–
You wondered who I am,
If I could forage for bread
In unpalatable dogmas,
Asked me did I believe in the pope?
And did I think that anyone is really damned.

What had you to do with asking that?
Who know the jolliest way
To look at any subject.
With flicking, circling, downturned wrist
You redeem stupidities of malaperts and bumblers
Into tales that send a room of friends
Into gales of laughing,
And even your narrated victims circle in the kindness
Of your mind–
No harm taken, they get up and walk unscathed
Into your next account of drolleries.

I said I feared one might come to ruin
Past repair,
That for me damnation is an image–
Mugshots of mutilators, their eyes
No eyes
But holes unscreening emptiness.
They found no love, ever,
Or none that took.
They wait among us,
Steel traps cocked to strike.

“But don’t you see?” you said,
“A time will come when their eyes will fill!
It can’t be otherwise since God
Is God,
Love flowing through rhythms of knowing
In rounded fullness.”
In Israel such faith was found.
Your atheist father’s Jewish genes
Have danced in you
For all he could do to banish sappy notions–
He loved you so well.
But what unloved layer of me
Waits with steel-trap jaws cocked.
Speak to me again, O black-eyed one,
And my eyes will fill with substance, light,
Or tears.