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In an upcoming issue of The Christian Century I say a few things about Mary Oliver’s poem “Gethsemane.” It appears in her book Thirstthe first collection of poems published after the death of her long-time partner, Molly Malone Cook. These poems speak of grief and loss and gratitude, and many also reveal the theological and liturgical edges of Oliver’s work during this period of her life.

She writes about worship with both whimsy and seriousness, and always in her exploration of scriptural theology is the natural world–trees and bees and oceans and honey locusts taking their necessary place in the cosmic story of redemption and restoration.

And because Oliver is not an academic theologian, not even, I would say, a conventional church-going Christian, she brings surprising insight to familiar stories. In “Gethsemane,” for instance, she notes briefly what is always highlighted, often tediously, about this incident recorded in the gospels according to Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke: Jesus asks the disciples to stay awake while he prays in a garden yet they soon fall asleep. Oliver, though, imagines that while humans might have let Jesus down in his moment of crisis and uncertainty, the rest of creation did not.

The “wild awake” world she conjures is arresting, jarring, especially on Good Friday. And on this Good Friday, when it becomes clearer with each passing day that we have neither a president nor a collective public will interested in seeing to the health of a planet in peril, Oliver’s poem is a kind of lament.

Yesterday the United States dropped the “mother of all bombs” in a faraway place on mother earth. How can we “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si’) in the midst of such Holy Week destruction and blasphemy? The destruction of our world, after all, as Wendell Berry has said, is “not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them.”

Jesus prays in a garden. We are asleep. But the precarious earth, beloved of God, suffering unspeakably at our hands, is wild awake.

Gethsemane
by  Mary Oliver

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.

Jesus said, wait with me.  But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me.  And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,
maybe
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

There are scenes of such tenderness in Barry Jenkins’ exquisite film Moonlight that they are almost unbearable to watch. Not because the viewer is made to feel like a voyeur—not remotely—and not because part of the protagonist’s story is his struggle to know and name his body’s desires. In fact, that way of putting it—that Moonlight is a movie about sexual self-discovery—minimizes, I think, both the beautiful sweep of this particular story set in this particular place among these particular people and what it means to know ourselves as desiring beings.

Human intimacy takes many forms and “sexual identity” is not a term that defines one’s personhood in any way that approaches completeness. One of the most breathtaking scenes in the film is when Juan teaches Chiron (“Little”) to swim. It, like much of the movie, is bathed in blue light. As A.O. Scott writes in the best review I know of, scenes like this are “better witnessed than described.” But one thing that can be said is that in the soft, azure evening light Chiron is given a glimpse—maybe the first—of his belovedness. And Juan, too, who cannot be reduced to stereotype or to any of the tired tropes of lesser films about drug addiction and despair, seems to both reveal and discover his own capacity for selfless love. He sees Chiron. And he touches him, cradling him in warm ocean waves, offering him safety and calm for storms yet to come.

And isn’t that what we all want? To be seen and known, to feel safe and loved in the presence of another who wants our good? To experience the touch of another, in all its forms, that communicates our belonging and belovedness, whatever awaits us in this world?

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This week we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and we inaugurate a new president. In one way, the public liturgies of these two occasions will be similar because neither will be completely honest: most observances of King’s legacy will downplay or avoid altogether the radical political theology that got him killed and the personal moral failings that hurt people in his life. And the spectacle of inaugural politics will belie not only a deep divide in our country but a season of unprecedented unkindness and coarseness in which the dignity of many persons–of the vulnerable, especially–was called into question.

In other ways, the juxtaposition of these two events this week couldn’t be more startling. Precisely because of what we have witnessed these last many months, the life and work of King stands in solemn judgment on the body politic and the will of an electorate that brought us to this. For what King can teach us in this particular moment is perhaps less about community organizing and nonviolent resistance—though thank God for heirs of the movement like Rev. William Barber—and more about what it means to see, to behold with unashamed tenderness, the humanity of another.

We have not been willing to regard those around us in such ways, most especially those who are routinely stigmatized, demonized, thrown away. We have been told, falsely, that the first question in staking our claim in political life is “what will you do for me?” instead of “what does my vulnerable neighbor need?” We have been suspicious of and outright hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement because we’ve never seriously reckoned with white privilege and the kind of racism that does the most harm: deeply entrenched patterns of discrimination and exclusion in all institutions of American life.

And then a small, quiet movie is made. (But not without the help of white privilege in Hollywood). And we see the matter of many black lives—the material conditions that leave black bodies and souls black and blue, bruised in spirit, confronting injustices and indignities that would break us in a minute and that often do break these fragile sisters and brothers we don’t (want to) see or know.

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Part of what makes Moonlight hard to watch—while at the same time being absolutely urgent and essential viewing—is what it reveals about ourselves. When Chiron is grown and is able, despite his fears, to make a faltering gesture toward connection and communion, he acknowledges his desire in all its complexity, his humanity in all its fullness. And he is received with a grace rarely witnessed on film.

And isn’t that what we all want? To be seen and known, to feel safe and loved in the presence of another who wants our good? To experience the touch of another, in all its forms, that communicates our belonging and belovedness, whatever awaits us in this world?

 

My turn on the rotation at bLOGOS for the Third Sunday of Advent:

Isaiah 35:1-10 (vv. 1-6a, 10 in Lectionary for Mass)waxing-gibbous-hickory-moon-827pm-5468
Psalm 146:5-10 (vv. 6-10 in LM)
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

“They’re lining up the prisoners and the guards are taking aim.”

Leonard Cohen

A confession: I do not know how to write about these Advent texts as if the events of the last month (and the many months prior) were politics as usual in the United States of America. You know—a couple of slick, scripted candidates square off, make promises they won’t keep; one emerges the victor, half the nation sighs and shrugs, and then we all get back to the business of our busy lives. Good God, no.

In fact, I think the events of the last month and what they portend for the future put into sharp relief the piercing critique that the texts of Advent bring to bear on the politics of fear and intimidation, on authoritarian rule and its contempt for truth, on stunningly ill-prepared leaders and their fragile egos.

The prophets of Israel saw both the farce and pressing danger of corrupt imperial power. And they were relentless in their attempts to rouse an anaesthetized populace who, as Walter Brueggemann notes, had “for so long lived in a protective, fake world that their perceptual field was skewed and with their best looking they could not see what was there to see.”

To read the rest click here.

Almost never do we change a person’s politics with verbal arguments—with reasoned discourse, dispassionate evidence, or passionate speech. It’s disheartening, really, blog-post-picespecially for people who care deeply about language and its power to compel, convince, convert.

But, God in heaven, do we try. With such earnestness, such determination. Why can’t you see I’m right? How can you not be persuaded by this or that article I just posted on Facebook?

With social media—no surprise here—I’m emboldened to say things I wouldn’t communicate in a face-to-face encounter with family, friends, or strangers. And for all that is “social” about it, Facebook and other media platforms are in fact hyper-individualized modes of consumption and dissemination, both through the user’s own choices and tendencies and Facebook’s algorithm logic, inscrutable as the latter may sometimes be.

But here’s the thing. Or at least one thing. A good argument—about anything—and how we make it well is less like a carefully-crafted press release and more like a performance piece, an embodied act intelligible within a set of other actions, convictions, stories, and dispositions.

When a lawyer makes a closing argument, it’s her body language as much as the written text—her physical comportment, her eye contact with each juror, that catch in her voice—that does the necessary work (or doesn’t). We don’t phone these things in—presence and embodiment are everything.

And when it comes to politics—by which I mean how human life is ordered for the good of all and how we routinely fail at this—the arguments we make about this or that “issue” are rooted in a wider set of concerns and convictions about what counts as the good life.

We have honest disagreements about this. And any hope we might have to compel, convince, or convert another to our vision of things is in how well—how beautifully, I would suggest—we perform, embody, live out, bear witness to our particular vision in a deeply social way, a truly social way. No pixels necessary. Real bodies in real time in real places.

From Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement to indigenous North Dakotans and their allies at Standing Rock we do this together. We do it as (if I can quote theologian Kathryn Tanner slightly out of context) “a genuine community of argument, one marked by mutual hearing and criticism among those who disagree, by a common commitment to mutual correction and uplift.”

So we might make something “public” on Facebook and we might talk about our “public discourse” and there is such a thing as “public policy” but the truth is we are members of communities, not members of the public. As Wendell Berry has said, a community is “a group of people who belong to one another and to their place. We would say, ‘we belong to our community,’ but never ‘We belong to our public.’”

May we inhabit our communities and engage other communities with the kind of compelling witness, beautiful belonging, that makes people say, “I want some of that; I could belong there.” And thus may we argue well.

But you were also the red song
in the night,
stumbling through the house
to the child’s bed,
to the damp rose of her body, 
leaving your bitter taste.

From “Rage” by Mary Oliver
in Dream Work, 1986

My sabbatical project includes giving some sustained attention to the prose and poetry of Mary Oliver, whose latest book, Upstream, was released last week.

Oliver is beloved by many. Only Rumi gives her a run for her money in terms of poetry sales in the American market. Yet there is a dearth of critical studies restore-my-heartof her work; accessibility in poetry seems to disincline serious scholarly engagement. It is true that her substantial output is mixed, a hazard for anyone in any field whose published work spans more than half a century. It’s also true, I think, that her best poems are not her most popular poems.

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In the last three weeks a cultural conversation about sexual assault has revealed anew and painfully what is a given: that the violation of bodies–and of minds and spirits–takes many forms. This “conversation”–a descriptor that may be too charitable for the actual exchange of words taking place–has reminded many people (mostly women, maybe, but not just women) of the first time they were “grabbed.” (One of those words that is as ugly as what it names). It has brought to the surface the ways that many of us have internalized, naturalized our fears–how hypervigilance has been our way in the world, how one man’s breathtaking crudeness and moral bankruptcy can leave us shaken for days. (Last week Michelle Obama shook with truth and power and eloquence. Watch the whole speech).

This conversation (okay, this talk-past-each-other shouting match) has made evident that the toxic masculinity which continues to harm boys and poison relationships of all kinds is tolerated with a shrug and a smirk, endorsed with a playful wink. It has shown us how damaging and disgraceful things said about Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, and others–over and over and over–barely register in our public consciousness but, hey, just say something about white women and we are all over it. 

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The theme that pervades the work of Mary Oliver is that of a continual call to attentiveness. Readers of her poetry usually take this, rightly, as a summons to tend to the natural world that she writes about so compellingly–to see it, know it, name it, cherish it. But such a discipline surely extends to the whole of life, to what it means to be a fully alive, fully present human being in the world. In this Oliver is a kindred spirit with Simone Weil who wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

This comes through in Oliver’s poems about people, places, causes she cares about–poems not as numerous, maybe, as the ones about ponds and swans and bears–but significant in her work nonetheless. And the call to attentiveness is present in less overt ways in her poems about the physical and emotional abuse she suffered from her father. These poems are instructive for how she (and we) might think about attentiveness not just as a necessary art for loving the world but as a skill for survival and ultimately for thriving as a human being. Her poem “The Journey” is written in the second person but is about her own life. (She has acknowledged this). In the closing lines Oliver says

. . . you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

One can practice this kind of determination–even if falteringly, in fits and starts, full of self-doubt–only if one has tried to be attentive to everything that has made the very daring of determination necessary, and has attended to one’s own wounds as an act of generosity to oneself.

And I think about how some familiar lines of Oliver’s take on new meaning when read through the lens of this current cultural moment. I would like to think they can be taken as an invitation to try and set aside our fears (but not our outrage), and as a summons not only to attentiveness but to courage. They are words born of the knowledge that to be a fully alive, fully present human being in this world–and to care about that kind of flourishing for all persons–is to speak, even when you’re shaken and shaking, and to tell all that needs to be told.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

From “Sometime” in Red Bird, 2008

“The most beautiful thing in the world is, of course, the world itself.”

Wallace Stevens

I have retreated from the world a bit to write about words and the world and the connections between them. I am mindful of the privilege of it–to be given time and space and money to do this kind of work. It also has its challenges–how, for instance, to thrive in one’s aloneness rather than succumb to loneliness.

I am also thinking and reading and writing about beauty, a word so vast, so large and deep, and at the same time so evacuated of meaning in a culture like ours. We mistake glamour for beauty and either chase it or deride it, without fully reckoning with how enslaved we are–whether we’re sentimentalists or cynics–to a soulless commodity culture that sets the terms of debates and conversations we can’t think or speak or act outside of.

And what of beautiful words? More than fifty years ago, novelist Walker Percy warned how, in a culture of cliches and jargon, words lose their ability to signify precisely, to name reality truthfully.

I think we’re starving for beautiful words in this age of cliches and jargon and of dis-graced speech–the graceless ways of our political rhetoric, the coarse and crass ways we talk to each other, especially on social media, a forum for human interaction that only emboldens these terrible tendencies. This linguistic crudeness falsifies our desires–makes us want to possess, own, control, manipulate. We don’t seek the well-being of the other with whom we speak (or to whom we respond on social media at 2 am); we aim to one-up.

And yet at this late stage in this political economy, what could possibly chastise us? Are we no longer capable of embarrassment or regret? Have we made our peace with our own reckless promiscuity with words?

By beautiful words, beautiful speech, I don’t mean flowery phraseology. I mean the kind of skilled care with words that moves, stirs, compels the hearer or reader with not only its loveliness but its beholdenness to goodness and truth. Beautiful speech is both playful and precise, serious and generous, honest and imbued with humility. Its rarity in our lives, both private and public, is grievous.

And what of this beautiful world? To listen to our current political discourse (and corporate media’s coverage of it), is to encounter not only feverish dishonesty–no gesturing at all toward the beautiful, the good, the true–but it is to surmise that the well-being of the earth and all its inhabitants is of no material concern–unless that concern can be commodified, quantified in terms of economic benefit.

Given the All-Trump-and-All-Clinton-All-the-Time commitment of the major news outlets, one might be hard pressed to know about suffering people and threatened ecosystems around the world. Like a pipeline rupture in Alabama; like the massive protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline; like the terrifying trends related to climate change; like the years-long catastrophe that is Syria and its beautiful people. And so many more.

Where are the words we need so that we might be moved to love the world back to health and wholeness? Who will speak them and how will we hear them?

For me, for now, with a heavy sense of my own privilege, it is back to books, back to poems–the beautiful words of lovers of language and lovers of the world–and down to the river for a run in the late afternoon sunlight. All of which gives me some hope. At least for today.

“Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable.”

Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country”

 

It’s been duly noted that there was much fear and loathing in Cleveland last week at the Republican National Convention. And it’s been widely observed that at their gathering this week in Philadelphia, the Democrats sought to counter the dread and despair with sunny optimism and heart-felt sing-alongs. Fear one week, no fear the next.

I wonder.

(Full disclosure: my upbringing and my instincts put me squarely in the camp of the Democrats. These people are familiar to me. I may not like all of them but I understand them. Republicans–for all the nice ones I know—can seem like exotic creatures: you know they exist but you can’t really explain them to yourself).

For all the carefully scripted idealism on display in Philadelphia, fear lurked in the corners, and sometimes showed itself outright on the prime time stage. The DNC leadership seemed fearful that Americans might take the Democrats for weaklings on national defense, wimps when it comes to taking on ISIS. They seemed fearful that they might lose women if they dared to nuance the abortion debate. They seemed to fear that disaffected Bernie supporters might expose that we live in, um, a democracy. Can’t have them shouting “no more war” when former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is touting Secretary Clinton’s military savvy.

Fear gets you a lot of things in politics, and in these contentious times it’s going to be exploited, as it always has been, by Republicans and Democrats alike.

And then there was the news of Fr. Jacques Hamel in Normandy, France, whose throat was slashed by a teenager claiming allegiance to the Islamic State while he said mass on an ordinary Tuesday morning. Corporate media outlets seemed to fear that if they gave the story any serious, sustained attention during convention coverage they would lose audience share and thus advertising revenue. It was an instructive moment in how “news” is always more manufactured than reported.

Even if CNN or CBS or any other cable or broadcast network had taken up the story of Hamel’s death, they too, I suspect, would have made fear their default hermeneutic. If elderly priests in quiet country towns aren’t safe, none of us is. And the whole “bring your concealed weapon to church” argument would have been given air time. All heat. No light.

The New York Times did run an opinion piece by a visiting professor of public ethics at the University of Chester in England. I’m not sure what “public ethics” is exactly but the professor, Paul Vallely, argues—with fear running through every line of his prose—that we must not call Fr. Jacques Hamel a martyr since that will only result in more deaths at the hands of terrorists—a kind of tit-for-tat jihadism: “our martyr for yours.”

Nor can we compare Fr. Jacques, says Vallely, to other priests like Thomas Becket or Oscar Romero, also murdered at the altar, since the latter two “knew the dangers they were facing, taking a stand against the civil powers of their day.”

Maybe Vallely thinks such things because he’s a “public ethicist.” But it’s astonishing and utterly wrong-headed to assume that because Fr. Jacques was simply “going about his lifelong business . . . as an everyday exemplar of quiet holiness, kindness, and love,” he didn’t or couldn’t have known the dangers he was facing.

To preside at the altar, to offer the sacrifice of the cross in the mass is to enact the non-violent absorption of human violence. It is, at its heart, a stand against the civil powers of the day.

Fr. Jacques, in these fear-filled times, whom I feel sure did not live in fear, pray for us.

 

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