Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Considered Lilies

S.Bauer USDA NASA/Hubble

Whenever I find myself fretting about finances, I find it useful to recall the gospel passage about considering the lilies. It helps me cut through the mental toiling and spinning and get back to the present task at hand which was, this morning, taking a shower.

This device would probably work less well if I were having bona fide financial woes, and not just wallowing in fretful, catastrophizing overdrive.

Which leads me to ask: could I actually live a life of complete self-sufficiency, a life reduced to the barest necessities. The life, perhaps, of the person I call the river hermit, the inhabitant of the tent in the brush beside the river where I walk ?

I thought of him as I was lying in bed last night, and as I was making the bed this morning. Alone in the dark, maybe with a lantern; alone in the cold, with the winter coming on. Likely forced to adopt his residence not out of spiritual adventure, but out of terrible, painful necessity. I have been trying not to romanticize the river hermit. Just calling him that romanticizes him, I know. Maybe I should simply say tent person.

I like to think that my self-sufficiency prepares me for extremity. In my catastrophic fantasies I am always alone, being self-sufficient. Throw in a husband or a son and the scenario breaks down, becomes impossibly complex.

I could, I suppose, get a tent and set it up by the river, but it would be an artificial experiment; I could always go home, or be rescued. But even in a freely chosen retreat, with a safety net, could I endure privation ?

I don't know.

The more important question, of course, is living my own life. Just as it is, right here, right now.

Nonetheless, I think the comfort I take from "considering the lilies" is more than a cheap mind trick that happens to work to cut through anxiety. I certainly don't "believe" that "God" will provide me with any particular set of goodies, through faith or works or even grace: nothing so economical. It's like reading Julian of Norwich's famous "all manner of things shall be well" as not a particularly temporal nor practically optimistic statement.

One starts by meeting with clear attention whatever arises in the moment. By seeing the greed, hatred and delusion that arise and obstruct clear vision and compassionate action. Sitting, we glimpse that we are like the lilies of the field -- part of the world's glorious raiment, its ten-thousand things -- at whose empty, resonant center, all toiling and spinning stops.

I wrote a poem a few years ago about considering lilies. I had, I think, encountered a Stargazer Lily and realized that the root of "consider" -- con-sidere --
contains a star. (cf. sidereal). As does "desire" (cf. desiderata.)

It's about the beautiful insufficiency of words.

Lola was a patient I had as a medical student in Worcester in 1976; she was an Eskimo, and incredibly beautiful.

The two ungainly German words in the poem mean, respectively, "stargazer," and "lily-of-the-valley."

The latin is from the Song of Songs, the beginning of the second chapter: lily among thorns, apple tree among trees of the wood: so is my beloved.

Poem is circa 1999.


Six-petaled, upright
as wedding bells swung to full arc,
white stargazer lilies
open to cold heaven
while their obituary kin,
lugubrious and waxen,
nod and seem to stare
at the fragrant, upturned earth
from which, to which.

Consider them both, then consider
the lilies of the valley.
Small, nearly vanishing,
they pool with shadows
in the woods’ hollows.
To see them, you must kneel
inside a rising fume
of humus and scripture,
your cloud of knowing.

As you consider these lilies
consider, too,
sterngucker, maiglöckchen
lest the L's enthrall
you from your one desire.
Flush them from your thicket,
all of them, albino
blackbird, Lola from Yellowknife,
her black eyes and black fringe,

musculus, skittering
under the skin and beds
of the darkest ward, skittering
between levity and phlegmon
between charivari and likewake,
into the oldest anaphoras
sicut lilium inter spinus.
sicut malum inter ligna silvarum,

Always stars ! Have you noticed ?
No ? Look closer, then.
Love-blind and mute as lilies,
you arch and crane
toward the blistering pinholes --
do you know them yet ? and yet ?
Your beautiful crayons blaze star-to-star,
consider to desire, seduce to console,
as you want and want and want and never get.

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