Saturday, May 21, 2011

The God Who May Be

I have begun to make my way through Richard Kearney’s “The God Who May Be”.  Kearney’s discourse takes place between a few rival ways that have historically been formative in shaping the cultural content that forms our knowledge of God.   He suggests that the capacity to respond to God comes first by recognizing our own powerlessness, vulnerability, fragility and brokenness.  It is in this paradoxical place that we find ourselves empowered to respond to God’s own primordial powerlessness and to make the potential Word flesh.  There is something in this that rings true – it draws us beyond the limited boundaries of propositional statements about God into the God of the possible – the God who may be.  This evokes a few things in me.  One, it solicits a movement into the unknown of life that actually requires a trust and faith.  This movement terrifies me.  Most of what has masqueraded in my life as faith and trust are really suburban and domesticated desires for security and assurances. Security that I will have enough and assurances that life will deposit me to the end of my days relatively unscathed, money in the account and a memory bank replete with joy, laughter and meaning.   And then the words of Etty Hillesum shortly before she was executed in a Nazi concentration camp, “You (God) cannot help us, but we must help you and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

It's Just Like That

For the most part the west conceptualizes spiritual and emotional resources as a type of personal thermostat with the promise that with well-honed effort and discipline one can establish,fix and control the outcome and trajectory of most experiences. Imagined as such we organize our lives to get the temperature right.  We pour an exhaustive amount of energy into achieving balance, equilibrium and a state of stability. Small adjustments here, larger adjustments there.  The endless pursuit of control.  There is a whole world of unconscious behaviors, impulses and neuro-conditioning that gets organized around this desire for control.  John O’Donohue was right, “it is our minds that make our lives so homeless”.
It is a cruel, disorienting and finally a merciful realization that the life of the spirit is a weak force. Love is a weak power – and sometimes feels like no power at all. Maybe that is its strength.  We want control,love whispers “surrender”; we demand “secured outcomes”,love points toward the path of full-involved participation; we crave probability love sings of possibilities. 

It is the weakness of love that harbors the hope of our transformation. And so our falling apart is not mere testament of our frailty, there is also a healing within it.  As a voice from the east says, “We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Caught Between Our Past and Who Knows What

Barry Taylor is an artist, poet, theologian, cultural muser and has become a dear friend the past year or so.  He sits uncomfortably as the associate rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills California. I say uncomfortably because Barry occupies thought and presence at the outer edges of Christianity, caring little for polishing the relics of orthodoxy while somehow en-living its very intent. He dwells in the hyphenated reality (christian-agnostic-eastern-western-poet-artist-mystic-materialist...)more comfortably than anyone I know. This poem came from a homily where he was reflecting on John 1:29-49.

"There he stood, pointing, pointing
day after day after day
and only sinners came
unwashed to be washed clean
then one day he pointed, hand trembling
gaze fixed on one he saw
pushing us away in his direction
he bid us go, go

and there we stood, wondering, wondering and glancing back and forth and back again we began to walk hesitant, hopeful, eager, afraid we picked up the pace with one last look we saw john turn his back and we were gone, gone

the one before us stopped, stopped
and watched, and watched us approach
caught between our past
and who knows what
then he asked “why?”
we looked at him like children
both of us said “you”
and he said “come, come”
- Mike Mercer

The spiritual path is caught between our past and who knows what's next.  That space of uncertainty, the lack of confidence, our disorientation, the 'not-knowing' is the space where we learn to be human.  Yet our hands grasp for certainty and assurances, the two things that life will not offer and so we are apt to fashion these with our own hands.  Lesser gods that become the gravitational pull of our life. Yet still a Solicitation occurs that will not be extinguished, "go to the limits of your longings...flare up like flame and make big shadows I can move in, let everything happen to you.."(Rilke) There is something irreducible that continues to call us into the depth of our own humanity, longing and life. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Crooked Mouth

Richard Selzer in his book Mortal Lessons: Notes on the art of surgery recounts a story of a young woman and her husband following surgery:  

"I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish way.  A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth has been severed.  She will be thus from now on.  The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve.  Her young husband is in the room. He stand on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private.  Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily?  The young woman speaks, "Will my mouth always be like this?" she asks.  "Yes," I say, "it will.  It is because the nerve was cut."  She nods and is silent.  But the young man smiles. "I like it," he says, "It is kind of cute."  "All at once I know who he is.  I understand and I lower my gaze.  One is not bold in an encounter with a god.  Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works." 

An encounter with love is always though contorted lips. There is no other way to give or receive it. When I was young I marshaled my energies to achieve love under the movements of "acceptability" and various forms of "attractiveness".  But love would have none of it.  Now that I am older I see the twisted lips of my friends everywhere.  My salvation (and the worlds!) comes through the crooked mouth of love.    

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Impermanence We Are

It seems
Our own impermanence is concealed from us
The trees stand firm, the houses we live in
Are still there, we alone
flow past it all, an exchange of air

Everything conspires to silence us
Partly with shame
Partly with unspeakable hope
                                                     -Rilke, The Second Duino Elegy

When I was writing the last chapter of my dissertation a handful of months ago the last two lines of this poem spoke volumes to me.  It intimated a communion among things that should not be together - yet somehow are.  The women in my study had histories of sever abuse and neglect as children, and then later in life alcohol addiction and abusive adult relationships.  As I attempted to make some sense of their narratives I realized the futility in attempting to parse, separate and to consign into discrete piles their experiences of shame and hope.  Now how these two lived together is a discussion for a whole other time (!) - but it mirrors a reality in my own life.   I grew up within a dominate narrative that divided the world into well ordered piles: faith -fear, gay-straight, sin-righteousness,republican-democrat, moral-immoral. These categories made sense and promised to make sense out of the world -  until I actually lived into the complexities of life.  The categories did not hold.  

It is within the confluence of shame and hope; fear, frailty and faith; fracturedness and longing; dying and breathing that we all find our way. In my faith tradition we all construct our histories between "my god my god why have you forsaken me?" and "Lo, I am with you always".  To attempt to live otherwise seems to be a distortion. Conspired to silence, hoping to sing, hungry to be heard. 

I think that Kierkegaard was getting at this when he said: 

What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music.... And people flock around the poet and say: 'Sing again soon' - that is, 'May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful."

It is integral to our own humanity and the communities we are a part of to be open to the formation of our lips but also to create deep space and compassion for our own hollowing and the hollowing of others who lips cannot hold the form.  

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Stunning debut of the repairing of a life

It was the title of the book that caught my eye. The poetic work of Leigh Davis, treasury analyst turned poet who wrote this collection during the 15 months between diagnosis and death.  The Auckland native was largely self published and his work is as much poetry as it is visual feast. "Anarchy" and General Motors" are wonderful examples of the layering of word and image:  

In 2008 Leigh was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer.  He confided in a close friend his worry that during surgery his voice would be taken from him and he would not be able to find coherence, creativity and life in what was to come . The effects of surgery were so sever that he temporarily lost the power of language altogether.  During this time a friend brought him a notebook and pen and encouraged him to write, "Just write, anything, everything, just write".  

The very struggle to regain and find "his voice" became a central theme of his poems for Stunning Debut.  The first 20 pages of this book are filled with hack marks, indecipherable scratches, letters coupled in combinations that form a private language that is incomprehensible.  The reader is given page after page of this notebook, the working from a seemingly endless dark night of the soul.  And then in this awkward and irregular sea Stunning Debut goes through a transformation.  Words appear and are circled as if discovering a treasure, lost objects of invaluable worth.  These discoveries begin to be coupled with other words that take on meaning, content, coherence, beauty.  Some where in this unfolding Leigh writes on the front of his notebook in a hand yet settled "simple, broken, beautiful".

Leigh's work is not something you drink but something you have to swim in - it simmers along gently but there is a wildness to it as well.  Here is how it opens:

I don’t know what I am doing here: I do not that-
I like to read things in the world in time and distance out of disparate connection

Poetry is writing with space in it, but I need more now than before.
‘Space’ is a property of interpretive liberty; the right amount of disjunction,

of content you can ponder and are drawn toward,
of unfinished and unfinishable reflections of variations in texture

everyday, common, exalted, abstract of enigma and its obvious vehicles;
writing that is just – tolerant, its machinery often showing.

Offers bright beautiful surfaces but withholds is meaning, philosophy
and the intransitive manipulation of thought.

I want contemporary forms, that is, to do something new.
I don’t want novelty but archaic ingenuity.

I know what classical is and want to associate myself with it.
I don’t want wit, or argument, pompous thought, but warmth,

speed, trances, voices, celebration, mystery, consolation.
I want expansive, everlasting, continuous vehicles

that are elusive and that command a lifetime of love,
and aren’t mere episodes or observations.

I want writing continuous, surprising, and not production well made things.
I realize at 50 that what I want, what I am ALWAYS tuned for, my revelry,

the gain of my mind, my regulations, my heartbeat,
breathing, motions and balance, how I compose and the source

of the nonstop commitment that I have to do it,
my sense of beauty and meaning, my source of emotion and my peace,

causes the name of anarchy, the balance and the eternity of complex, sly,
disruptive, self-regulated insurgent weather patterns of composition and rules.

Anarchy is the smile in the Mona Lisa, and the fountain of youth.
Another name for it is poetry.

Once the superset of art. It has the tensile strength of great stability,
it prompts but assimilates, contains chaos; it is the source of prophesy,

Of rejuvenation, and the absolute constancy of history.
I want to reflect what I live with, to extract representation’s

subtle body in even the most intimate moments.  It is something
you dive in the middle of with no sense of time having passed

As a writer I am a dog chasing that bus.
It is immensely forceful but with the rich unpredictability of chaos.

Never correct but always accurate.
We are so used to text being straightforward but I am so used

to seeing this as profoundly bent, a much grater gap
between what is obvious and what is mysterious. A place you can love

and in which you are welcome, and where you have never been before. 
My flow is going with time.

Two months after Stunning Debut was published Leigh Davis died, and a month later his work was awarded the Kathleen Grattan Award, New Zealand's biggest poetry prize.