[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]
People in my congregation are trying to discern how they can best serve in this crucial moment in history—how to choose among all the ways and places they could invest their gifts and time. This post is one of a series reflecting on that question from different angles. In an earlier related sonnet post, “To the Land.” I wrote:
This poem talks literally about part of my own path to new vision, but it is speaking metaphorically about all our different paths. We do not all find our place of vision in nature, but we all have a land, a place deep within us, a sacred glade, a secret room—a place we reach through some inner journey, some form of quieting that enables us to hear the still, small voice, the silent stirring that is the spirit of life speaking to us the words we need. The world urgently needs us to listen now, and to live by what we hear, and to share what we learn. So whatever form this takes for you, I urge you to go [to that land.]
The poem “Even Here God May Be Found and Served” is a difficult one for me. It feels confessional and defensive because someone I respected attacked me for choosing to live and serve in a rural, natural setting.
I know that I am not alone in this choice, that I am part of a long and, at times, honored tradition of writers and spiritual teachers—from the ancient Chinese wilderness poets like Han Shan to my fellow Ohio-Vermonter, David Budbill (1940-2016), or, in the Christian line, from St. Anthony to St. Francis to Thomas Merton.
Yet I felt like a failure when I finally gave up my years-long attempt to live and serve in urban settings and retreated to these wooded hills and pastoral village churches. I feel uncomfortable with my comfort here when I look at areas that are more on the front line of the racial, economic and environmental injustice I am trying to reform.
A wise 90 year old parishioner heard me wrestling with this once and spoke sternly saying that I needed to live where I lived in order to be able to serve as I served. I think she was right, but I am not sure I will ever be completely free of a nagging counter-argument.
It is hard to spend an hour in meditation or prayer when there is work I could be doing to help people directly. Some days I cut out that contemplative time. The result is always that I am not my best self, and the longer I spend away from my place of inner connecting and centering, the more compulsive and out of balance my work and life become.
I have found the same to be true of where I live: some plants need shade—transplant them to full sun and they wilt.
Others need sun and can’t tolerate shade: a Catholic priest was assigned to a rural parish. He considered it a waste of his life. He felt strongly called to engage in an urban, social justice, direct-service ministry. He complained bitterly to God and to his colleagues. People tried to comfort him saying, “Even here God may be found and served.” They were right, but not for him. His anger subsided into depression, and his parish suffered from his suffering.
He had the same problem I did in reverse, but I doubt that he felt like a failure when he finally was placed in the setting where he was at home. I doubt he felt he had to defend his heart’s clear calling and need. Our culture has a bias of action over contemplation and urban over rural.
As I said in my introduction to “To the Land,” the world urgently needs us to listen right now. It needs us to find the place where we are called to serve and pour ourselves into it. The right place is different for us each. We need to find our own because that is where our positive energy will be nourished and sustained.
Wherever that is for you, you will find it absolutely true that…
Even Here God May Be Found and Served
Some writers go to cabins in the woods
for human silence filled with nature’s noise.
Some go to cafes in their neighborhoods
immersed in human nature’s cares and joys.
A man whom I admired once said I must
go serve in city ghettos for a year.
When I said no, he showed me his disgust,
assuming selfish motives—sloth or fear.
Certainly I am selfish, that is true,
and I would be far better if I went
and walked through broken glass instead of dew
and camped by trash can fire and subway vent.
But I still serve, though ignorant and weak,
and even in these woods may hear God speak.
copyright 2020 Thomas Cary Kinder