Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Wholly Holey Holy

As one would expect, I'm down with the grim stuff. Ankylosed bolts, dead weeds, the depredations of the powers and principalities and their enablers: bring it on, I say. Let's linger with the  Lamentations a little longer, and sing a few more choruses of those grim psalms. 

Let's requench the candelabra, flame by flame, until we're swamped by shadows and scared witless by the screech of brakes and bash of crumpling metal. And by that song let's rewalk the dolorous circuit around the blasted Garden, the grimmest mummery of all, secure in the fact that we shall never, ever forget our two assigned words in the play.

Let's remember, then, how peevish we were at the strange ablutions, and how understandably horrified we were by by that last meal. And how the horror extended through the long night, a horror from which we could not avert our eyes until the sounds of the still-dark morning reminded us that At the cry of the first bird/they came to crucify thee, O swan --

On a day like this, we thought. A day just like this.

And then the harrowing descent. Always the harrowing descent. Into earth still unwarmed by spring.  Yes: I am down with all this. Down, down, down. I am even down with the last night's grand finale, the fires unswamped by darkness, pierced by a single voice -- Exsultet iam angelica turba caelorum. The cascade of stories -- types and shadows have their ending -- night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth -- ascending on fragrant smoke to the old, old beams.

But then (and here you might want to avert your eyes) comes the morning. One feels a bit hung over, even disinclined. Hic jacet the Easter of one's childhood after all. The Easter of hats, and stiff new clothes, and Congregational grape juice, and fresh-baked loaves that always seemed to arrive with the warm and tasty white flesh all gored out, leaving a crust that resembled, for all intents and purposes, an empty tomb.  The Easter of hard pews between stiffly dressed parents, the Easter of imbibing candlesmoke and JesusLovesYous in an overbright church, the same JesusLovesYous that have hounded you even into the shadowy place of thin, dry wafers and real wine from a common cup taken kneeling as one body, His, even as one seems poised to fly like a shed hair or fingernail clipping into a somewhere less bustling with brightly dressed, happily thronging families -- therefore let us keep the feast ! --

and you realize you have come to inhabit the last uncaulked slit in the church wall, too small for even a mouse, never mind an anchoress, and (or so they say) JesusLovesYou will reach you even there, although you wish they would phrase it differently, you wish they would stop detaching Christ from the Trinity as that super-friendly dude Jesus who'll walk with you and talk with you and tell you that you are his own.

The green blade has risen, it has risen indeed, alleluia, alleluia, and if risen, no matter how, it has risen for all -- even, I suppose, the ones last seen running full tilt down the church walk toward the street, past the Easter-egg speckled lawns (already green) swarming with children -- the back pew singletons who cringe at the happy press and roil of it all --

unable, once again, to tell wound -- sin ! -- from deepest, truest self.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Water Sermon **

    Last service,  Enfield Congregational Church,
    Spring 1938

Brethren, today our text is from the Book
of Water. Two hundred years ago
Pastor Edwards preached at another Enfield,
our surviving sister in Christ’s Connecticut.
He said God’s wrath is like great waters
and nothing but His pleasure holds them back,
a doomed stream, to be sure, pissed
into the firestorms of his homily --
but who could resist the siren call of Water  ? 

In the beginning there was Wind, moving
over Water. There was Word, spoken
by a voice of Water, then of Wind.
It said Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
There were voices in the wilderness,
of freshwater people in a place of small ponds,
saying keihtan, hobbomok, manitou.
In fog, upon a hilltop, one bare tree
yoked heaven and hell. Some saw a bird,
some an open book, others a man
splayed on its branch. Eels insinuated
at its roots. 
                      While the ink was still wet
on the meat pact struck between God and Abel
the east wind put on its flesh of water.
Soon great miasmas would settle in
like an offering of  blankets borrowed from
a lazaretto.  They heralded downpours.
But only one powaw and his webb
foresaw the flood and fled to the mountains
carrying a hare.  There they met Cain,
pockmarked by God’s inoculation,
immune, untouchable. He was what God
made him, a tiller of fields. We must read
the Book of Water for what the Pentateuch
left out between disregard and murder.
Even Jonathan Edwards could not keep
to the gospel of water, and unleashed
fiery floods of God’s fierceness and wrath
which rushed forth with inconceivable fury.
Brethren, let us pray. Our waters loom.

Three hundred years ago John Eliot
sounded God's trumpets of wrath against all vice
at First Church, Roxbury.  Evenings, he walked
between the fencerows twined with bittersweet
and past swamps aglow with ignis fatuus 
thinking  foolish fire, will-o’-the-wisp ,
a man must receive Christ in his own tongue,
feu follet, irrlicht, fuego fatuo,
in these twilights one could mistranslate
jack-in-the-pulpit as skunk cabbage,
its spadix tittering beneath its spathe,
as window lattices twist to eelpots,
Holy Ghost to Manittoo, Satan
to Abbomocho, God to Cautantouwit --
and Christ ?  Wétucks walked across water,
turned men into fishes, but could he explain
Election to a barbarous-tongued heathen ?

With Cockenoe and John Sassamon,
a slave and orphan, both captive-schooled,  
he wrestled King James into Massachusett.
At Nonantum, in 1646,
he drew his first lesson from Ezekiel,
reading     Come from the four winds, o breath,
and breathe upon these slain that they may live,
Then, for his flock, built fourteen praying towns,
where they would live as Christian Englishmen --
subdued, monogamous, waistcoated, shorn --
free from the Devil’s trappings. Sassamon,
Namasket’s minister, Metacom’s scribe,
shuttled back and forth between two worlds
superimposed in a complex double warp
he could not weft. And here we return,
O brethren, to the Book Of Water:
they found him drowned in Assawompsett Pond,
midwinter, after he’d warned the Governor,
that King Philip, né Metacom, meant war.
Three Wampanoags hanged;  one was spared
by a rope weaker than the strands of evidence
that had convicted them. The war was on.

The praying towns became internment camps,
then waystations to exile, then empty.
The Christian Indians huddled on Deer Island,
froze, starved, sickened, died. They left trails
of Indian Bibles from each praying town,
that converged at the icy harbor, then stopped. 
New England, the Puritans had declared,
was a vacuum  domicilium, unfenced, unhoused,
thus, with God’s blessing, theirs. That towns
could shift with seasons was inconceivable.
They could not hear God speaking in a fire,
in water moving over stones, or wind through trees.
The signs they disregarded, blinded by
Election and Property ! When the blood tide ebbed
Eliot surveyed his valley of  dry bones
of  Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Englishman.
They seemed reconciled in anonymity.
He prayed Come from the four winds, o breath,
and breathe upon these slain that they may live.

O Brethren, we might as well implore
the coming flood for mercy. There is none.
We stand at the brink of our exile, Europe of war.
What is our sin ? We called the pure impure,
dressed rape in righteousness. For this, we drown.

St. John, the watery apostle, provides
our last lesson, baptizing us with water
as Christ does with spirit. Lord Jesus Christ
turned water into wine at Cana,
told Nicodemus that he must be born
of water and of spirit to know God,
asked a Samaritan for water, promised her
a spring of water welling up to eternal life,
healed the afflicted at Bethzatha’s pool,
walked across the sea of Galilee,
preaching  if  you thirst, come to me and drink,
and out of  your heart shall flow rivers
of living water, washed disciples feet,
then hanged, saying I thirst.  The vinager
burnt his parched lips. Blood and water flowed
from his side.
                        And thus it comes, O Brethren,
the living water -- clear, bright as a crystal,
flowing from the throne of  God and Christ
down the middle of the street of the city,
past the Baptist Church, King Philip’s Inn
and Eliot Junior High, watering
the Tree of Life with its twelve kinds of fruit
one for each month,  whose leaves are for
the healing of nations. Let the thirsty come
and drink this priceless water. Amen. Amen.


** In my long series of poems about the construction of the Quabbin Reservoir, I imagined this last sermon preached in The Congregational church in Enfield, Massachusetts before the town was flooded.   

In Todesbanden

I was riding bus 70 to Central Square last night, as penitential an experience as I've had so far this Lent. Loud, ceaseless, squealing conversations assailed my ears, the inhumanly molded plastic seats transmitted every unabsorbed pothole shock to my ischial tuberosities and spinous processes, and, every time the bus idled, an eardrum-busting grinding and ratcheting rattle surged like machine-gun fire from the back of the bus. 

I was thinking about invisibility. I'd written about it, yes, but in a half-baked manner. Was it a good thing ? A bad thing ? A neutral state ? Something to be cultivated ? Something to be resisted ? Something intrinsic and immutable ?

Suddenly I remembered the movie The Invisible Man. The hero wraps himself in bandages to make himself seen. There was something in that that has applied to my own lived invisibility: the things I've done in community that call attention to myself function precisely to undo invisibility. Is that their intent ? To be constituted, to be realized in the eyes of the other or of the group ? To be given substance, or, at least, an outline ?

But visibility is dangerous. Without being seen one is not vulnerable. On the other hand, being seen invites a sense performance and an expectation of -- what ? -- appreciation ? Applause ? Reward ? Or, conversely, for all the myriad failures and fallings-short, scorn and rejection. On the one hand, the ego swells, and, as it feeds, grows hungrier and hungrier. Nothing satisfies it short of the impossible: triumph over everything and universal adulation. Becoming, in other words, God. On the other hand the ego fasts, rejects everything, supreme hunger artist, wallows in its own self-loathing crapulence.

The lectionary readings today -- Ezekiel's dry bones putting on flesh, St Paul's rejection of flesh over spirit, and Lazarus emerging, Todesbanden-wrapped from his tomb -- further complicated my reflections on invisibility. If it's the community that unwraps the resurrected one, what of its wrapping of the invisible one ? A wrapping unto death ? The death of the deepest, truest, most invisible self ? Or a wrapping into a life which can only be lived with others ? Our homilist, today, interpreted St Paul's rejected flesh as ego. Are death's strong bands, somehow, the ego ? The carefully cultivated self ? The self of selfies and blog posts, that self takes great pains to cultivate its  brand, its personal style, its ticket to celebrity however local ? The self that strides along, easily, visibly, affably, with its brothers and sisters ? The self which, if it cannot be loved, can at least be admired ? The self that, if it cannot love, can, at least, covet ? The self that wants to be the apple of everyone's eye and yet is, itself, blind ?

The reflections coil inward toward an intimate vanishing point. I drag myself -- despite myself -- into the light, the light that makes visible, resisting the eternally upswelling  I would prefer not to, detecting somewhere within the fume of the communion wine on my tongue a strange whisper of don't be afraid.

I began Lent with re-reading TS Eliot  -- Because I do not hope to turn again -- and, as this ragged Lent draws to a close, the vine-tangled wastes of my favorite landscapes evoke Father Hopkins' --

Not untwist -- slack as they may be -- these last strands of man /  In me --

and even, maybe especially, a bit of Walt Whitman:

A Clear Midnight

This is thy hour, O soul,
thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from Art,
the day erased, the lesson done.
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing
pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

And Found

Maybe this weedy vocation of mine has something to do with making the invisible visible. Now don't get me wrong: there is an upside to invisibility. I am an long-time practitioner of the art.   Small, solitary, quiet, gray-haired, drab -- the world passes right through me in its drive toward the next new, bright thing. 

And why should the vast, sociable, babbling and brightly spandex-clad citizens, their clever, hungry babies in screeching tow,  stop to notice a common weed, battered to the edge of non-being by a long winter ? After all, spring is fast upon us. Already the yellow banners of the witch hazel have prefigured the cold yellow of the forsythia, and then there's no stopping the riotous flowering-forth.

So be it, and it is a good and seemly thing, and yet time after time I return to the tangled and thorny vacant fields on the grounds of the shuttered asylum where the new and the old mingle in companionable invisibility. Last Saturday I returned with a small agenda. On my last excursion I'd lost my hat. Realizing it late in my visit, and too tired and cold to retrace my steps, I reasoned that it would still be there, likely snagged from my pocket by a thorny rosa multiflora branch, when I returned.

I apologized inwardly to my hat for my abandonment. I tend to ascribe an odd and usually melancholic sentience to inanimate objects and my lost hat was no exception. And as the weeks passed --weeks of rain and wind and snow -- I confess I rather forgot about the thing. I even (oh faithless me)  bought a new hat in an even drabber color, olive green.  So when the weather lightened and the dead weeds next called,  I decided to return to scene of the crime.

The day was milder than usual, but not warm. I noticed that someone had pried the board off one of the old administration building windows, and went up the rotting concrete stairs past the towering graffitied columns to look in. It was, of course, pitch black; a musty cold wind seemed to blow from within, and I could (standing on tiptoe) almost make out enormous numbers on a wall.

But that was not my mission. I headed toward the smashed chainlink surrounding a trash-strewn little brook behind the building. The ranks of towering, hive-like condominiums erected on the old asylum site threatened to disgorge their flocks of cheerful citizens into their healthful Saturday pursuits, but I was in little danger of being overtaken. We recently watched Andrej Tarkovsky's Stalker: I realized that mine were the landscapes of The Zone -- vacant lots, ruins, broken temples into which rain and snow is always falling, and over which a deep, forlorn religious melancholy hangs like a fog.

Religious melancholy. A few miles east, Piskie clergy and laity are gathered to elect a new Bishop. Some delegates are live-tweeting the event under the hashtag #Diomass,  an twitter stream that's an oddly miscible admixture of gently ironic snark and sincere invocations of the Holy Spirit. You might guess wherein my own affinities lie.

Bishop Tom Shaw, an SSJE brother who has been undergoing treatment for brain cancer, is retiring. He's awesome, not least for being a celibate monk; having someone with the gravitas of a monastic as Bishop has been an anchor for me in my conflicted sojourn among the Piskies. The other two bishops that I have experienced have been over-prone to whipping out guitars and/or insisting on chipper sing-alongs.

I watched the walkabout interview videos of the seven candidates. Much to my chagrin the candidate that seemed most delightfully engaging (and who was said to have recited George Herbert's "Love" at another session) pulled a singalong during his taped interview. I groaned inwardly, trying to forgive, trying to keep the others straight.

Of course, I have no vote, which is just as well. My criteria (judging from my reactions to the videos) are, at best, suspect, at worst simply silly. I liked the candidate who changed "Damascus moment" to "Emmaeus moment." I wanted another candidate to be my Mom. One candidate's hand gestures annoyed me, as did another's soul-bearing; one's curly hair distracted me, and one I seemed to keep forgetting. And they're all upstanding family men and women, full of piety and administrative acumen,  and none are monks.  And none of them at all mentioned weeds.

And then there's the matter of the Archbishop. No, not the presiding Bishop (whose squishiness has also annoyed me), but the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, Justin Welby, ex-oilman and evangelical, now at the helm of the thing called the Anglican Communion.  At least Rowan Williams, for all his wafflings,  had theological and scholarly gravitas. And kick-ass eyebrows.  The new dude, yesterday, claimed that gay marriage must not be allowed in the Church of England because it will cause Africans to kill African Christians in the belief that that the Christians will "turn them into homosexuals," referencing a mass grave of 369 Christians in South Sudan, all supposedly killed for that reason, and referencing other gravesides of African Christians where he'd stood,  of people "attacked because of something (ecclesial) that had happened in America."

That may have been my own Damascus moment with respect to organized religion.

(Emmaeus man on the first ballot, but a long way to go.)

So, long story short, I found my hat, better than new after its multiple immersions, hanging out to dry on a branch by the dirty brook. And long story short, it's Lent and I am falling head over heels into what's becoming my yearly Lenten apostasy.

But as lost and invisible as I become, I will always have a home among the weeds.