This is a poem about seeing, both literally and, more importantly, figuratively—about where we focus our heart and mind and what truth we perceive.
How we see ourselves determines how we treat others, it determines our ethics, so it has enormous consequences in the world.
How we see the earth and our place in it determines how we treat other creatures and the ecosystems that support all life.
The Golden Rule, or loving your neighbor as your self, is at the heart of all the major religions and systems of ethics.
Loving your neighbor as your self requires having both a true perception and a healthy love of your self and the world.
Loving your neighbor as your self does not mean merely that you love your neighbor in the same way that you love yourself. It means waking up to the reality that you and your neighbor truly are one self in very slightly different manifestations.
Loving your self does not mean selfishness or self-infatuation or narcissism, because your true self is not your selfish ego. Your true self is the spirit of the universe that created you flowing through you, it is the part of you that every other created being shares.
Your self is not your self, it belongs to the universe. As Teilhard de Chardin saw, our self is not a part of the universe we own wholly, it is the whole of the universe that we own partly. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Science and Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), pp.12-13)
To love your self, then, is to love the whole universe that you share with every other self as one.
We see this truth by shifting our focus away from our old way of looking at our self.
The slogan of John the Baptist and Jesus is translated in most Bibles, “Repent, for the realm of God is at hand.” The word translated as repent is metanoia in the original Greek. In this context it means to expand the vision of our heart, mind and spirit to a new perspective that can see God’s realm of true oneness here on earth.
We have to let go of our old focus in order to have a new focus. We need to empty ourselves of the self-will and craving and clinging of our ego so that we can look more deeply at our true self and the true nature of the universe.
The Christian spiritual path calls this step kenosis, the Greek word used in the New Testament for self-emptying. Kenosis leads naturally to metanoia. When we empty ourselves of our false self the true self becomes unhidden.
The result of kenosis and metanoia is agape, the Greek word for a love that is God-like and Christ-like, that sees universal oneness and loves its neighbor as itself. Agape is not based on the worthiness of others, nor is it trying to make ourselves worthy, it is simply allowing the spirit of the universe to flow through us. It is what we were created to do.
We urgently need to let that spirit flow through us now because our world is in trouble.
Every time we practice expanding and deepening our vision, seeing ourselves and our world more truly, we are moving humanity a step closer to creating the realm of God on earth, a sustainable harmony grounded in justice, compassion and love, what my brother George calls a Golden Civilization.
It all starts with seeing—seeing what is golden in our hearts, and recognizing that same ember in all things.
In All Things Thee to See
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy. from George Herbert’s “The Elixir”
My woodstove has a window in its door
because it warms the heart to watch the flames.
Right now, my vision through the glass is poor,
part glare, part soot. My eyes are playing games.
They seek my presence in the vague reflection,
or fixate on the dark, obscuring flaws.
I have to force my eye to shift direction
and choose to see the gold behind the gauze,
beyond this drawn-down blind that judging mind
can make of anything we crave or hate.
Surfaces hold us when what wait behind
are gifts of light upon a sacred grate.
Training my eye to see past its desire
I pass through glass and fill with golden fire.
The text of this sonnet can be seen at the end of this reflection.
Epiphany comes from an ancient Greek word meaning to reveal. When we say we have had an epiphany we mean the recognition of a truth that has suddenly been revealed to us, an “aha!” moment. The church season after Christmas is called Epiphany because it celebrates God’s presence on earth revealed not only in Jesus but also in the manifestations of light we can see in all people and all nature.
Humanity needs both kinds of epiphanies right now as we search for a way forward through a world that has been made strange to us by our own actions.
We need to see new truths, and we need to see ancient truths anew. We need to shape a new story out of the old, expressing a new understanding of our place and purpose in the universe. Following our old story, our society has become polarized, our earth unstable, greed out of control. Racial, economic and environmental injustice are bringing society to the point of upheaval. And yet the heart of the old story has truth in it that we need to carry forward.
The violent riot that smashed its way into the United States Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 carried signs, shouted slogans and blasted music that identified it as a white supremacist, fundamentalist, Christian-nationalist event.
Everyone can feel joy at Christmas no matter what their spiritual path because we celebrate the birth of a human who attained the highest stage and state of human consciousness, who embodied the oneness with all creation, the universal compassion and love of neighbor that flow from a fully evolved and mature heart and mind.
He saw from his advanced consciousness that anyone could attain this maturity, that humanity could someday get there as a whole and society be characterized by oneness, compassion and love. He called it the realm of God on earth, life in harmony with the spirit of the universe, and he said we were close to getting there.
The reason everyone can feel joy during Advent is that it prepares us to have that same heart and mind. This is the advent we are seeking and now we are two thousand years closer.
That enlightened human urged us to undertake the journey, and he taught us how. .
The future of human civilization and all living beings depends on this shift to a new sustainable, just and harmonious life on earth happening as quickly as possible. We will not survive long without attaining this new consciousness.
That is why Advent and Christmas are such gifts, because if we immerse ourselves in the spiritual journey they map out it will lead to our transformation and the transformation of the world.
Below are three reflections and sonnets for the final days of Advent leading up to Christmas. I hope they help you on your journey and help you undergo the next transformation the Spirit needs you to make. I hope they increase the love and light you shine to transform the world around you.
The Buddhist philosopher Ken Wilber says that one of the things that helps us on the journey toward the most mature level of consciousness is simply knowing that it is there to be attained, and that we are created and called to strive for it. No matter what our age or situation in life, we can move toward it, and it is one of the most important things that we can do for the world.
Madeleine L’Engle, the author of Wrinkle in Time and sixty other books, wrote a profoundly wise one entitled Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. In the passage below she talks about Mary the mother of Jesus as a model for how artists respond to their calling, but I encourage you to broaden the meaning to be about any person with any calling—including the important tasks life is asking of you now. Understand that when this passage says artist it means you, whatever your gifts may be:
“The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver. In a very real sense the artist (male or female) should be like Mary who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command….
“I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.’ And the artist either says, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord,’ and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary….
“What would have happened to Mary (and to all the rest of us) if she had said No to the angel? She was free to do so. But she said, Yes….
“Mary did not always understand. But one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding…there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing—knowing things which we are not yet able to understand.” (pp 18 ff)
Believe There Can Be Fulfillment
“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Luke 1:45
“Blessing always comes from trusting that God’s Word will be fulfilled.” Alan Culpepper in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on this verse
We each are born with our own Mary womb.
We all have gifts that come down from above,
or up from deep within—our Golden Room,
our greatest height and depth, our source of love
and life and light within our spirit’s heart
where truth and beauty rise, a hidden spring
that flows with what is our own form of art,
of bearing Christ, of Mary mothering.
The question is, do we believe that Word?
Even to hear it takes some faith, some trust,
but do we trust enough once we have heard
to act upon it, feeling that we must,
believing in this blessing God has willed
of gifts to share, Christ’s love through us fulfilled?
Advent calls us to wait and watch and pray, to make a contemplative journey through the darkness in preparation for the coming light.
If we take Advent as a time of inner reflection we are likely to see some unpleasant things about ourselves that are hidden in our darkest shadows. We need to face them as part of our preparation for spiritual growth to a new level of consciousness.
Thomas Keating writes about this in his classic introduction to Centering Prayer, Open Mind, Open Heart. “Our so-called good intentions look like a pile of dirty dishrags. We perceive that we are not as generous as we had believed. This happens because the divine light is shining brighter in our hearts. Divine love, by its very nature, accuses us of our innate selfishness.”
Mary serves as a model of how we can be transformed so that love and light can transform the world through us, and it can be discouraging or even downright depressing in Advent when our inner reflections or outer challenges show us how flawed we are compared to her.
The 20th Century Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, said that the perception of Mary as an exalted object of reverence can be misleading and unhelpful. The reason she is highest, he says, is because she is lowest, having the humility and peace “without which we cannot be filled with God.”
Merton says that Mary’s greatest glory is that she “in no way resisted [God’s] love and [God’s] will… She was free from every taint of selfishness that might obscure God’s light in her being…. [She was] as pure as the glass of a very clean window that has no other function than to admit the light of the sun.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp 167-175)
Our calling is to be like Mary as much as we can, but Thomas Keating understood that we do not have to wallow in our flaws, nor do we have to spend years of arduous asceticism, scrubbing our fingers to the bone to purify our panes of glass. All we have to do is let go and return our focus to a simple consent to God’s loving and transforming presence within us.
If we turn our flawed hearts and minds to the light, the light will prepare us for the transformation we seek.
Preparing the Stable
For you to have your birth in this old stable
I need to free up one sufficient stall
and make it clean, as much as I am able:
freshen the bedding; scrub down every wall.
To make of it a Christly habitat
it must be humble, full of love and true,
a place as welcoming to goat or rat
as Spirit made flesh, pure of heart, born new.
But my old habits fight the change I need,
foul matted dung and straw built up for years,
flawed manger, gnawed where my addictions feed,
failed whitewash painted by my shames and fears.
Lost in despair, I look to your star’s light.
When I look back, my stall is clean and right.
Advent was invented as a spiritual journey through a time of darkness when we watch and wait and pray in preparation for the coming of the light.
This time of year is emotionally challenging for many people under the best of circumstances. Advent 2020 is excruciating for millions more who are affected by the pandemic and the glaring economic, racial and environmental injustices that it has only made worse. The usual comforts of the season are largely unavailable to us, making the darkness feel harder.
And yet in the wisdom of our tradition, as we enter the very darkest days, Advent gives us Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent when we light the candle of Joy.
The easy and culturally popular approach to Advent is to practice denial of the darkness, focusing all season on the glittering lights and festive pleasures of Christmas. This is understandable, but it misses the central point of Advent and the transformative wisdom we need right now: joy comes not in spite of the darkness but as a result of our faithful journey through it.
The truth is that we live much of our lives in the dark. The beauty of the night appears only when our eyes have adjusted. Then we can see the stars behind the stars, and the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness does not overcome.
Seeing in the Dark
It was drizzling. The little bit of snow was melting. It was two weeks before Christmas, a dark, dreary afternoon. I was worried about people I love who are suffering from severe depression. I was feeling depressed myself. It had been the hardest and darkest of Advents.
I drove around the bend in the dirt road and our mailboxes came in view, a collection of different shapes and sizes ranging from a shiny stainless steel replica of a sugarhouse to my own green-paint-over-rust veteran of many winters.
I gasped. Someone in the neighborhood had hung beautifully arranged evergreen branches with bright red bows on the two weather-beaten posts holding up the boxes.
A smile covered my worried face like fresh snow and the song “Good King Wenceslas” sprang from the darkness within me. I tacked up a note, “Thank you, wonderful neighbors!”
The intention, I later learned, was “to share some light and hope” in a dark time. It worked. I carried that joy all the way home and through the night.
It worked for the neighbors who gave me that gift, too. Advent leads us to the wisdom that acts of love and compassion toward others give us joy as we give joy to them.
The Wisdom of Joy in the Darkest Places
The wisdom of Viktor Frankl comes to us from his suffering in Auschwitz, one of the densest darknesses of the Nazi holocaust. He wrote, “As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before….
“We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces…. I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Ex lux in tenebris lucet’—and the light shineth in the darkness…” (Man’s Search for Meaning p59f)
Tutu suffered with his people under the brutal violence of apartheid. His prostate cancer had returned as they were writing the book.
The Dalai Lama fled into exile as the Chinese invaded his beloved Tibet murdering many of his people and crushing their cultural and spiritual heritage. He has lived with the grief of continuing traumas for decades.
Yet both of these men shine a joyous light around them.
They credit the same wisdom that Viktor Frankl discovered in Auschwitz. One day the thought of Frankl’s wife came to him in a moment of intense suffering. He did not know that she had already died in another death camp at age 24. He knew she could be dead, but she was alive and vividly present in his mind. He wrote of that moment,
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest good to which [humanity] can aspire…. The salvation of [humanity] is through love and in love. I understood how a [person] who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss…” (p57)
The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu book on joy has a chapter entitled, “Nothing Beautiful Comes without Some Suffering.” The book has sections on fear, stress, anxiety, frustration, anger, sadness, grief, despair, adversity, illness and death. These themes may seem strange in The Book of Joy, but both men insist that the darkness not only cannot destroy joy, but it provides a path to it.
They see that love is the key, in its many dimensions. Their “Eight Pillars of Joy” include humility, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity, as well as humor, perspective and acceptance.
The third and fourth Sundays of Advent traditionally are Joy and Love. The Taoist symbol expresses their relationship to one another, as it does the relationship between darkness and light, and also, perhaps, between a mother and the child in her womb.
Advent Wisdom from the Womb
Lisa Kutolowski of Metanoia of Vermont wrote a beautiful Advent reflection on her journey through the darkness of wanting a baby but being unable to conceive. She writes, “By fully entering the pain of my unmet longing, I received the ability to more freely love my future child. I am exceedingly grateful for this time of waiting. Its fruits are the greatest gift I can imagine giving to Anna…. I am certain that more months or years of waiting would have revealed more layers of attachment and with those revelations, more gifts.”
Lisa ends with this profound insight: “It is essential we are honest about the pain of waiting. Without this honesty, we will find ways to skirt around the pain – avoiding, distracting, deflecting. This attempt to escape feeling the pain almost always transfers the pain to someone else. We seek security, wealth, or pleasure at the expense of someone else and ultimately, millions of people’s unacknowledged pain leads to entangled systems of injustice. Additionally, if we can’t look our personal pain in the face, how can we take an honest look at the grave injustices and inequities in the world? If we can’t acknowledge the pain of our personal unmet longing, how will we ever be free to hear the cry of the poor and the disinherited?”
The Darkness Is Our Teacher
Lisa’s pain became her teacher. The Dalai Lama has said that the Chinese were his greatest teachers. This can be true of all our struggles. The darkness we pass through teaches us much about light that we could not learn to see otherwise.
The Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
In that spirit, here are two Advent sonnets written from within my own darkness. I hope they lead you to compassion and lovingkindness for others and yourself, and to the joy of keeping faith with the Advent journey.
Advent’s Darkest Depths of Silence
The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah… Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John…. Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Luke 1:13-20
Old Zechariah, tongue clamped dumb from doubt—
at least he got to watch her belly swell.
He saw just how his crisis would come out,
how he would have a greater hope to tell
than ever he had dared to think or dream.
He saw the advent that his love was bearing.
He never wondered, are things as they seem?
The angel’s word, proved, kept him from despairing.
In my tongue’s drought, when words wilt, lifeless dust,
when nothing sprouts, no swelling of gestation,
I do my temple tasks, enacting trust.
I pray, write, preach, tend souls, my called vocation,
but get no sign of dawn or worth or child,
just darkness—doubt and faith unreconciled.
Advent of the Christ Self
What was in Mary just before the light,
the voice of Gabriel, the power of God,
came filling all of her—heart, womb and sight?
This morning I am hoping she was flawed,
and not the perfect vessel others claim.
I need to think of her as sad and yearning
for something she perhaps could not yet name,
an aching emptiness where she kept turning,
searching within the lightless void inside
and feeling devastation in the loss
of what she did not find. She prayed and cried
and felt forsaken on her longing’s cross—
sometimes self-loathing, sometimes mere self-doubt
until the Christ self filled her lost self out.
Advent is designed to be a path of inner and cultural transformation through darkness into light. Other spiritual traditions have parallel paths.
Finding and taking a path like Advent to inner transformation is urgent for us each because cultural transformation is now urgent for us all.
I quote Gus Speth over and over because our one hope for survival as a nation and species is that we place his wisdom at the top of our individual life goals and daily priorities:
“Many of our deepest thinkers and many of those most familiar with the scale of the challenges we face have concluded that the transitions required can be achieved only in the context of what I will call the rise of a new consciousness.” (from his book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability)
This post is a continuation of my poems and reflections on Advent. Advent’s path progresses along a series of themes. The first Sunday is hope, and the second peace. They are followed by joy and love and finally the light of transformed spiritual consciousness represented by Christ: humanity fully evolved and matured.
Jesus looked at a society that was in many ways like ours and said, “If only you had recognized the things that make for peace!” (Luke 19:42)
The Hebrew word shalom means peace in the fullest sense of harmony, wholeness and wellbeing—both peace and the conditions that make for peace. True shalom requires a mature, transformed heart and mind capable of recognizing the oneness of all people and all the earth and therefore acting with compassion and justice for all.
Advent calls us to shalom and adds to it the wisdom of Taoism:
No peace in the world without peace in the nation;
No peace in the nation without peace in the town;
No peace in the town without peace in the home;
No peace in the home without peace in the heart.
The Eastern Orthodox saint, Seraphim of Sarov, put the same principle this way: “Have peace in yourself and thousands will find salvation around you.”
How can we find the peace and things that make for peace that we urgently need? Below are three sonnets that reflect on this question.
[The words of this Advent sonnet are printed below.]
The season of Advent represents the most urgently important wisdom the Christian tradition has to teach us right now. It holds the key to the spiritual transformation that we need in order to heal our divided and damaged world.
The word “advent” means the approach or arrival of something. The season of Advent gives us metaphors to understand our current limited vision and way of being as a kind of darkness, and the more developed, mature heart and mind of Christ as a kind of light that can be born within us.
The season of Advent is about preparing to receive this transformation by opening our hearts and minds to the light as widely and purely as we can so that it will fill us and shine through us into the world.
We can seek and find the light in nature, or in art, or in the vulnerable, hurting or oppressed people and earth that we turn to with compassion and a helping hand, but in order to find light outside of ourselves we need to prepare to find it within ourselves. Continue reading →
[The words of this sonnet about Grace Paley are printed below. It is closely connected to another poem and reflection on this site, “In the Shadow of Absence” that you can see by clicking here. It also relates to a recent sermon, “My Feets Is Tired but My Soul Is Rested” that you can see here.]
All Saints Day approaches. One way to define saint is as a hero who also is a great soul. This poem is about Grace Paley who would have laughed at being called a saint. She was a true hero, though, and more than once she was called a great soul. I think it honors the name “saint” to call her one.
We are at a moment of history that needs heroes and great souls. We have no time to wait for them to appear. We need to be them ourselves.
Some feel we need one great leader to emerge, but the world needs every hero and great soul it can get. We don’t have to worry about being just ordinary people. Most heroes and saints have been so only because the moment required it of them and they rose to meet its need.
We feel inspired by stories of people who overcome obstacles to free their voice. Think of Helen Keller or Frederick Douglass. Think of Greta Thunberg rising out of a mute depression to launch her climate protest. Think of all the new voices emerging in the Black Lives Matter protests across America speaking for those who can no longer breathe.
These stories are heroic and uplifting, but there are the other stories, often preludes to those triumphs, that are tragic.
Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring warned of a day when song birds would be extinct because of human production and use of toxic chemicals. The environmental movement and crucial regulations slowed the die-off she saw taking place, but sixty years later we are hearing fewer songbirds by a third and even fifty percent in some regions due mainly to pollution, habitat destruction and climate change. Long standing environmental safeguards are rapidly being undermined. We are accelerating toward that awful total silence.
Systemic injustice against other people imposes another tragic stifling. Racism has deprived people of equal education and forced them into poverty and turned a cold heart away from their cries.
Voter suppression is one of the most unethical, outrageous, horrific acts of silencing. It is hard to believe that politicians are getting away with this blatantly discriminatory abuse of power, but they are, and in many states.
Some of us have a difficult time speaking our truth for psychological reasons—in fact public speaking is right up there with death as one of our greatest fears. Yet if we have the privileges of being heard when we speak and being able to vote without obstruction, we have a moral duty to use our voice and our vote on behalf of those who have been silenced.
Reparations usually refers to paying back the billions of dollars stolen from the African American and Native American peoples, but giving silenced citizens equal and easy access to vote is also a form of reparation.
You can find short descriptions of eight organizations that are working against voter suppression here. There are other organizations as well, including excellent local and state groups. Please act right now to support one or more of them, and please use your voice and vote.
Humanity and our democracy both are at a turning point with survival at stake, and the only way we are going to find our way forward is if we each listen to our deepest, heart’s core, to the spirit of life within us, and speak it. We need to listen especially to those who have been silenced. Their cries of pain are the feedback we most need to heed.
Only when all have been given equal voice can we hear the sound of our complete collective truth and discern the direction that the spirit is calling humanity to take.
Thank you for doing your part.
The Sound of Truth
Rose breasted grosbeak whistles out its trill
and shines a scarlet sign against blue sky
high in the leafing beech. It stands me still
despite onslaught of eager dog, mayfly
and never stopping thoughts. A song so true
clearly expressed—repeats with variation:
is that not what we all are called to do,
to sing our part, one choir of all creation?
How long will you stay furtive, quelled by fear
or dulled by doubt from full rose breasted voice?
Someone is walking by who needs to hear,
who needs your truth right now. Lament, rejoice,
share news of fuzzy sweet green buds you found.
My day was saved by one such honest sound.
This is the second poem I am posting in honor of Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. C. T. Vivian who both died in Atlanta on July 17, 2020. The other was “In the Shadow of Absence” and by clicking there you can read an introduction relating to this poem as well. I talk there about Lewis, Vivian and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement . I talk especially about Grace Paley whose death moved me to write that poem.
I wrote this sonnet after the death of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin. It is a cliché to call a prophet a lion. The late Donald Hall would probably have called it a Dead Metaphor, but the metaphor was alive and well as long as Bill was, and from what I have read and seen on film it lived in John Lewis and C. T. Vivian. If you want to see a living lion, watch this short video of the Rev. Vivian confronting Sheriff Bull Clark in Selma, Alabama:
Or you can see a living lion here in the Rev. William Sloane Coffin even after he had a stroke:
This poem, “They Shall Run and Not be Weary, They Shall Walk and Not Faint,” connects Coffin (and Lewis and Vivian and all lions) to the Hebrew prophets. The title is a quote from the prophet Isaiah. The poem uses a Hebrew word, ruach, which has three meanings, the same as the Greek word pneuma. It means breath, wind and spirit. Here are two passages that show how it is used in the Hebrew scriptures:
“The Ruach of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.”
“Behold, my Servant whom I uphold…I have put my Ruach upon him.”
There is no question that Lewis and Vivian, and Paley and Coffin, were extraordinary people, but what made them extraordinary was the ruach that filled them and flowed through them, and they would insist that it can fill us each.
The hope of the world that Bill talks about in the video above is that the same spirit will fill Jews and Muslims and Christians and people of all faiths and no faith—the hope of the world rests in humans who are filled with the spirit of love and compassion, justice and peace, the spirit of nonviolence that forms beloved community out of conflict and chaos.
The power that formed the earth and informed the prophets wants to work through us to save the earth and save democracy, equity and freedom, values and ideals based on the Golden Rule that ruach has been causing to evolve in humanity for millennia because they are necessary for life to flourish on earth.
Please rise to this moment. Please be as much of a lion as you can in the place and with the life given you. Trust in the spirit to carry you in your weariness. Trust that if you let it flow through you, you will not faint or fall, you will fly. Trust that we can do far more than we can even imagine with this power in us. So say all the lions before us, and they prove it so.
They Shall Run and Not be Weary, They Shall Walk and Not Faint (after hearing that the Rev. William Sloane Coffin had died)
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Adonai is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth….giving power to the faint, and strength to the powerless…. those who wait for Adonai shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:28-31
What happens to old lions when they die?
This morning I looked up above the hill
behind my house and learned. The lions fly.
I saw a golden eagle spread and fill
his wings with ruach—spirit, wind and breath.
I watched him circling up and up to soar
above the shadowed valley of his death,
echoing still with his last ringing roar.
Nothing is lost in God. Have you not known?
Have you not heard? God gives the weak great power
when strong ones fall exhausted to the bone.
Our old guard lion dies. Let us not cower.
Those trusting God mount up on eagle wings.
Old spirit fills new prophets. On it rings.
I am posting this poem in honor of Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. C. T. Vivian who both died in Atlanta on July 17, 2020. This is a sonnet in free verse form that I wrote when I heard that my neighbor, the author and activist, Grace Paley, had died. I know people in Atlanta are feeling this kind of loss of someone near and dear to them, and throughout America and the world.
I was only thirteen when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. I participated in the march of protest, grief and rage through my small town in Ohio, but at the time my impression of the Civil Rights Movement came through my friends and through snippets on national television news. I could name only three or four Civil Rights Movement leaders.
I learned more in high school and college but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that John Lewis, C. T. Vivian and so many other inspiring heroes came alive to me when I watched Eyes on the Prize. (You can stream all fourteen episodes and download a study guide for free by clicking here. I highly recommend it as important historical background to the movement for social, economic and environmental justice today, and as a deeply moving experience.)
The women of the movement whom I had not known particularly moved me, including Diane Nash, Myrlie Evers and Fanny Lou Hamer, among others. Many more men stood out for me, as well besides Lewis and Vivian, like the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. The intensity and intimacy of Eyes on the Prize made these all feel near and dear to me, the way I felt about Grace.
We have lost two at once now and feel that grief, but Lewis and Vivian died with hope in their hearts because at this very moment people as heroic and inspiring as they were are rising in a movement that is fighting not only for individual issues like defunding police or climate legislation but for what King called “a revolution of values,” a “restructuring of society” built on social, economic and environmental justice. It is fighting for the survival of our democracy and democratic ideals, and for the survival of humanity and all living species.
This is the greatest social movement the world has ever seen and the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and Peace Movement and all the liberation movements of the mid-Twentieth Century are the reason it exists. We owe them much, so it is important to take the time now to honor them and grieve their loss and let their memory inspire us to carry on the struggle, giving our all as they gave theirs.
I was lucky enough to serve for many years as the pastor in the Vermont village where Grace Paley lived. We worked on peace and justice campaigns together and we shared poetry (although she was disgusted by my choice of the sonnet form, which is why I disguised “In the Shadow of Absence” as free verse—for my excuse for writing sonnets click here).
I loved most our regular casual encounters at the Post Office or concerts or Town Meeting because even when she was struggling she was full of warmth and love and light.
One of my favorite stories about her was told at her memorial service in the Thetford Hill church. Someone found her late in her life bending over and backing out of a public restroom. It was a comic position, and knowing her sense of humor the person laughed and asked her what she was doing. She said her feet had been all muddy and she was cleaning the floor as she came out so that an underpaid custodian would not have to do it. It was a matter to her of both courtesy and justice. She was generous-hearted, truly great hearted, and I am among the masses that miss her. Continue reading →
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.
We may live in a polarized society but one thing that unites most of us is the perception that many of our social systems have failed to provide the life of our ideals and dreams. They have proven unsustainable and left the vast majority of people economically and environmentally insecure and caused many groups of people to suffer chronic injustice. We need a new vision that can unite us and lead us forward.
The new vision we need is not a campaign slogan, it is not an -ism, it is a way of seeing humanity and our place on earth anew. We need the vision of oneness and sustainable social goodness that the great saints, prophets and philosophers of all traditions have tried to help us attain. We need the transformation of human consciousness that they underwent and showed is possible for us all.
Who is the “we” that needs this? It is not just humanity, not just all living species who are endangered by human activity, it is life itself, the whole project of life on earth beginning with the first living cells billions of years ago and flowing on into the potential lives of billions of years to come. If you believe in a creator God, or a universal force of love and life and light that sparks evolution, that spirit would be part of the “we,” too.
The good news is that this collective “we” of life wants to live, and all successful life-forms have programmed into themselves the ability to adapt and evolve. Human consciousness has proven its ability to do so many times, for instance in the Axial Age when Greek philosophers, artists and writers, Hebrew prophets and the founders of the great Asian religions reflected a major world-wide advance, or in the 17th Century dawning of the Age of Enlightenment.
We have within us the potential to grow rapidly in order to survive and thrive, and we need to fulfill that potential now. How can we do it?
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 Continue reading →
This sonnet is dedicated to: my dear boyhood friend, Bob McPhee; my cousin and companion in countless hours in the fields and woods of his farm, Duncan Kinder; and my friend and colleague the Rev. Dr. Michael Caldwell. They each have been with me on the journeys the poem describes.
Many people have found great comfort out in gardens, parks, fields or woods during this pandemic. Wild or semi-wild nature has always been a source of solace and spiritual connection for me, a place of playfulness and creative inspiration as well as work. Now I long for it and need my daily immersions in it more than ever.
The title of the poem is taken from the first line of Psalm 42 in the beautiful King James Version. I have laid the poem out as free verse, but it is a conventional, law-abiding sonnet if you track the feet and rhymes. I hear it and feel it as free verse, with the rhythms below the surface like cricket sound or a stream flowing on the edge of consciousness.
As the Hart Panteth After the Water Brooks, So Panteth My Soul Psalm 42
A boy escapes
a hot Ohio field,
the gate, high arched white oaks;
cool ferns, the floor.
He feels shade change him,
heat and glare-hurts healed,
as if he had passed
through a magic door.
He hears the soothing sound
of falling stream.
It draws him in,
it draws forth his own songs.
Wonder and play unfold,
a waking dream,
yet true, and safe,
a place where he belongs.
A man escapes to woods
from fields of stress
and though he makes no dam
of stream-dug stone
nor warpaints face with bloodroot,
still no less
does he feel healed, safe, true,
this place his own.
Deer pant for cooling streams,
so sings the Psalm.
His heart is always
longing for this calm.
At the end of the excellent TED Talk below Ibram X. Kendi says what Lin Manuel Miranda says at the end of his emotional sonnet responding to the Orlando mass shooting (also below): love is what is going to change and save this world, love is what must rule the ethics and practical policies and politics of our world if we are to survive.
The “revolution of values” that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus said we need is a revolution of love, and the Dalai Lama’s “revolution of compassion” is the kind of love they meant.
This poem is about the way the revolution begins. It starts in the heart with a particular love of neighbor as our own self, an intimate oneness, whether with a person or pet or place or community or form of God, and then it overflows into the world.
EB White wrote at the start of World War II, “Who is there big enough to love the whole planet? We must find such people for the next society.”
We must make that next society now, but a compassionate oneness with every person, creature and corner of the planet can happen only if our love is grounded in the part of the world that is within and around us. It begins in the flesh.
In the Gospel of John it says that the Word was made flesh. Through the alchemy of love our flesh is made a life-changing, world transforming word.
The Flesh Made Word
Come hold me close and let us both be still
while all the world around us falls apart.
Come kneel beside the spring we share and fill
with evening breeze the cup that is our heart.
Come let us form one small and holy thing,
a summer garden, winter fire, walled tight,
a home where, while it storms outside, we sing
and cook and touch, we meditate and write.
Come, let our falls and false walls heal and then
go—two made one—to take all we have found
within this blesséd Edenistic den
and let earth hear again, through us, the sound,
the voice of love’s creative, cosmic word
reversing death wherever it is heard.
“The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” Martin Luther King Jr. from his 1968 essay “A Testament of Hope” as quoted in “How Do We Change America?” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in The New Yorker.
Today we could add environmental destruction and its health effects and injustice to King’s list of flaws, as well as the undermining of democracy by rightwing super-wealthy individuals and mega-corporations and the politicians they support who share their autocratic ideology.
Mahatma Gandhi’s work remains the greatest model for “radical reconstruction of society.” Many people know of his marches, fasts and acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, but far fewer know that this Obstructive Program was just a small part of his overall movement, and it would not have succeeded without two other far greater programs. Continue reading →
How I Lost an Argument and Won This Sonnet (and a few others)
Writing and the spiritual life both were important parts of my childhood, and when I awoke to adolescent consciousness I found them at the core of my being, where they have remained.
I emerged as a fledgling poet and spiritual and social activist on October 15th, 1969, at age 14. It was War Moratorium Day and I was visiting my brother, George, who lived on the edge of the Harvard campus. The night before he had introduced me to the poetry of William Carlos Williams and the Imagists. That day we watched the coverage on the news of our generation rising up with the power of a mass movement. That evening I wrote my first free verse poem, an imagistic social and spiritual manifesto. I was swept up and rode that wave a long time. I still am riding it, although in different forms.
We were strident those days, and part of my stridency was a harsh judgment of formal poetry. I was a free verse fundamentalist as a Creative Writing Program major at Princeton, arguing with my thesis adviser, Carlos Baker, in a precept, insisting that the Imagists were far superior to Emily Dickinson.
I argued even more vehemently with my mother, who was my first literary and spiritual teacher. She would throw Frost at me: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.” She told me more than once that if I wanted to become a good poet I should write five thousand sonnets.
I would scoff and throw up my hands and walk out of the room—that beautiful room that she created by finding second hand furniture and fixing it up and filling the surfaces with vases of flowers cut from her yard. How I would love to be able to walk back into that room today, how I long for that beautiful, ordered calm, that cool serenity now with our world falling apart.
How I would love to report to her that she won the argument, and I have indeed written my five thousand sonnets, but she died before I had written my first. Continue reading →
I share two sonnets below, “Training Flights” and “Hanging Between Two Dying Ways: A Lament,” both from my collection “Sonnets for the Struggle for Peace, Justice and the Care of the Creation.” I am publishing them here to follow up a facebook exchange that you can see below about the recent use of F-35 war jets to honor medical workers treating coronavirus patients. This is a long introduction, so if you are more interested in the sonnets, skip to the end of this page.
Many reasonable people disagree with my feelings about war planes overhead and about militarism and modern warfare. Some of those people are in my family and among my friends, and I respect them. Their reasonableness and wonderfulness as people does not change my position, but it makes me want to explain myself. Continue reading →
We need to change our society’s way of seeing and thinking about the entire creation, we need to evolve a new collective way of seeing and thinking about ourselves and our place in the order of things, in order to change our society’s destructive way of life.
Ancient spiritual traditions envisioned the cosmos being born out of divine love. They teach us that we are to love the creation as its creator does. Love of neighbor, love of the creator and the creation—these have been handed down to us by our wisest elders as the highest natural laws. The collective, eternal flow of life is a stream of self-giving love, and for those who live in that Tao, individual life is a stream of many such acts over a lifespan, serving our time and place.
The goal is to create the conditions conducive to abundant life for all, for the common good—a sustainable harmony and an equitable and just society.
This is within our reach. We have made stunning advances in understanding and technology, and humanity seems on the brink of making the needed developmental shift to the mature perspective of the wisest spiritual teachers. We could evolve finally to have the heart and mind of Christ and the Buddha and Gandhi and King, and the wisdom and passion of Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai and Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day. We see millions of people now moving toward that vision of compassion and oneness. We have the tools we need. We can do this. And we must do this, for life on earth to survive.
The beautiful, joyous truth is that we each can help make this transformation happen by opening our own heart and mind to be transformed, and by living our own lives in our own place more lovingly. We can do this right now, right here…
And here is where I heard the hermit sing.
And here is where the ermine popped through snow.
And here is where the golden eagle’s wing
sent benediction to the land below.
And here is where I stood to sing of songs
and presences and blessings we pass through.
I do not know to whom this land belongs
except by this one law I know is true:
The spirit of creation makes a claim,
love’s birth, love’s joy, love’s struggle to survive.
We live to serve and celebrate love’s aim.
There is no other cause to be alive.
And here we sing our thanks as loves appear.
And here we make our place by loving here.
O Light, how much you love the mighty trees,
those massive trunks of maple, ash and oak
that cast up vast translucent canopies
beneath which long past generations woke
and we wake still, we lower, lesser things,
we dwellers in their filtered sun and shade.
We hear the wind or thrush high up that sings
the praise of greatness that your light has made.
But we sing, too, our humble, quiet songs
of ray pierced pools that make the rock moss shimmer,
of stained glass ferns that soar above the throngs
of praising beetle, worm and water skimmer.
You love us all, you give each all your gifts,
you bless the slightest song the humblest lifts.