eight hundred years ago words tumbled from your mouth as you whirled in ecstasy caught by the quill of your scribe creating images read the world over in a future unforeseen a reed burned hollow yearning for your breath a ground knelt upon and kissed in hundreds of ways a house guest greeted warmly as holy visitor
your own blazing love and searching, afire with your Beloved’s glory now the flame that lights now the song that dances me home
Christine Valters Paintner
a modern monk moored in a Celtic landscape contemplation and creativity your stock in trade prayer and painting poetry and dance song and silence evoked by your Benedictine vows and wide awake discerning eyes where illness and grief have polished smooth the cave of your heart making space for the shimmering of earth, wind, sea, and sky and the wisdom of ancients and ancestors to tell their stories and shape your words into offerings for a holy communion
As April is National Poetry Month, in appreciation and celebration, I have written a poem to each of six poets whose words, for me, inspire, instruct, and illuminate. This week, through the lens of sacred inspiration, I write to Rumi, the founder of the Whirling Dervish community of Sufism and author of several of its sacred texts, and to Christine Valters Painter, poet and abbess of the Abbey of the Arts, a global online meeting space for contemplation and creative expression. In the past year, I’ve participated in several of the Abbey’s retreats and shared here impressions and impacts of their numerous prompts and invitations.
This supper a somber affair. The feast of Passover always is, but tonight is more so.
A foreboding hangs in the air, though it appears only the man they call Jesus knows its source. The other men, twelve in total, follow their master’s lead, talking quietly among themselves, unsure of what is unfolding.
I am the unleavened bread made special to order for this gathering. My flavor is bland but when I am broken and dipped into the finest quality olive oil, I come alive in the mouths of those who chew me. I fill their stomachs with a hefty goodness.
Now I hear the man they call Jesus say I am his body. What does this mean?
Now I absorb my cousin, the heavy, dark red wine that each man sips, as the same man says, it is his blood. What does this mean?
Together, I and my cousin, the fruit of the vine made wine, are proclaimed the body and blood of this man. I know not how this is so. But I do know that as each man slowly chews me, and reverently sips my cousin, savors us together with this man’s words, we warm their bodies as we nourish and enliven them.
Now, we are part of them and what is to come.
Now we, in each of their bodies, travel to the Mount of Olives, the home of our friend, the olive oil.
Now, I sit heavy like a stone in their stomachs as they hear their master tell them they will fall away from him. I feel their stomachs clench around me.
One man, emboldened by that inner alchemy between me and my cousin, steps close to his master and passionately declares his love and commitment.
Now, this same man, resisting the bile rising in his gullet from us as we sour in his belly, the reaction to being told he will soon deny his master three times, more passionately denies this.
Soon, for some, our life giving to be denied, too.
– KW –
An experiment in Midrash, the ancient Jewish practice of re-imagining sacred text, I wrote this piece during my participation last spring in the Abbey of the Arts “Soul of a Pilgrim” online retreat. As weekly my photo and poem feature, I’m posting this a day early, in acknowledgement of the Last Supper, commemorated in the Christian tradition on Maundy Thursday.
I’ve been thinking about joy and lament for the past few days. How – as poet Christine Valters Paintner described them – as “sisters,” who make space for one another, even, I’d say, needing one another for a purer expression of each. I had logged onto a live Zoom call with Christine and a couple of hundred others from around the world for this year’s Novena for Times of Unravelling, another soulful offering from the Abbey of the Arts, this time oriented around the principles of their Monk’s Manifesto.
This day’s theme was cultivating creative joy by letting body and “heart overflow with the inexpressible delights of love.” Christine was clear to say this joy “isn’t about happiness, but something deeper…an opening to the capacity to taste paradise…and that this capacity for joy is in proportion to our capacity for grief.”
A few days earlier, I sent a “thank you” email off to another favourite poet, Samantha Reynolds, who writes under the pen name of “bentlily.” I think I’ve mentioned here that every Monday I’m greeted with her past week’s offering of daily poems, her practice for eleven years of musing on life’s daily moments. Included that week was her “17 flavours of joy”, evoking my memory of the “visceral experience of joy hurting a bit, being like an arrow that pierces my heart…unlike happiness, which is lovely, but not nearly as deep, as profound, as indelible.”
Today, a full moon, and in the Christian tradition, Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. Too, the beginning of Jewish Passover. And in a couple of weeks, Ramadan. A “trifecta” of high holy days among the Abrahamic religions. I always intuit a certain potency of energy and possibility during such synchronicities. Maybe even a thinning of the veil. Certainly, an opening to the range of feelings and memories evoked. Life’s joys and laments.
“I want the beauty, the psychedelic wildflowers, the call of the wild birds. I want all of that shimmering beauty to illuminate the northern darkness. We have peace of a kind, but no cultural resolution — the tensions which produced the Troubles are still there. It is important for me to see beautiful Carrigskeewaun as part of the same island as Belfast.”
Michael Longley in On Being with Krista Tippett, March 25, 2021
I like how he describes what being a poet and writing poetry mean for him.
“…good art, good poems, is making people more human, making them more intelligent, making them more sensitive and emotionally pure than they might otherwise be.”
Michael Longley in On Being with Krista Tippett, March 25, 2021
For me, the capacity to hold joy and lament…in one’s life, in situ.
Today I’m flying low and I’m not saying a word I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must, the bees in the garden rumbling a little, the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten. And so forth.
But I’m taking the day off. Quiet as a feather. I hardly move though really I’m traveling a terrific distance. Stillness. One of the doors into the temple.
– Mary Oliver –
“I hardly move though really I’m traveling a terrific distance.” – How this line resonates. A week ago I learned about a live stream virtual travel tour company and have been literally around the world, in real time, sitting still. Paris and Lyon, Florence, Venice and Pisa, Cusco, the desert in Dubai, Dubrovnik, Istanbul – 30, 45 and 60 minute tours hosted by professional guides on a “pay what you will” tip basis. I take photos “postcards”, ask questions, and delight in this remarkable use of technology that is providing a livelihood for guides, and “green” travel for me. One of the guides, Mike from Peru, shared the unforeseen, but countless benefits of this “pivot” for him, his company and community, making it all the more worthwhile. It’s been a door back into the worldand the people living in it.
Please forgive this interruption. I am forging a career, a delicate enterprise of eyes. Yours included. We will meet at the corner, you with your sack lunch, me with my guitar. We will be wearing our famous street faces, anonymous as trees. Suddenly you will see me, you will blink, hesitant, then realize I have not looked away. For one brave second we will stare openly from borderless skins. This is my salary. There are no days off.
~ Naomi Shihab Nye ~
Monday’s post, Our First Panniversary, struck a chord for readers, resonating with their own growing pandemic impatience, frustration, grief and weariness. This week, again, reading of lockdowns in Italy, France and Germany; and another white man going on a shooting spree in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, aimed at Asian Americans prompted posting this poem. My reminder to pause, notice, see, and really take you in through my eyes into my heart.
How do you know what’s essential? Could you have predicted this particular version of paring down? Perhaps your work is essential, but maybe not. The face you wear to the outside world, the picture in the mirror, has probably slipped. Even the fundamentals of human touch might not be required to assure us that we are not alone. Who could have imagine that we would somehow come down to making bread even without yeast? To the fact that with nothing more than food and water and air and time, even the least of us will find a way to rise?
– Lynn Ungar – April 28, 2020
One year ago this week, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Determining what and who was essential continues to be of consideration in decision making. Global vaccination rollouts promise a light at the end of this very long, dark, and lonely tunnel. While this past year, much has changed and too, much has remained the same. Hoarding toilet paper is giving way in some countries to hoarding vaccinations. Home bakers are making their sourdough creations their livelihoods. Virtual meetings, family gatherings and celebrations have become “de rigeur” and may change the landscape of onsite work. Here at home, I continue to feel the absence of essential connections.
A stick, a stone It’s the end of the road It’s feeling alone It’s the weight of your load
It’s a sliver of glass It’s life, it’s the sun It is night, it is death It’s a knife, it’s a gun
A flower that blooms A fox in the brush A knot in the wood The song of a thrush
The mystery of life The steps in the hall The sound of the wind And the waterfall
It’s the moon floating free It’s the curve of the slope It’s an ant, it’s a bee It’s a reason for hope
And the riverbank sings Of the waters of March It’s the promise of spring It’s the joy in your heart
– Antonio Carlos Jobim – 1972
One of Brazil’s greatest songs, inspired by Rio de Janiero’s rainiest month and written in Jobim’s signature bossa nova style, I found myself humming it as Annie and I skirted puddles and crossed street streams during this mild, first week of March. Click here to watch the most well-known version, sung in Portuguese by Jobim, accompanied by famous Brazilian singer, Elis Regina. And what’s become my favourite version, a high school jazz band playing at the 2015 Barcelona Jazz Festival. And here’s an English version sung by its composer. While I imagine we’ll get more cold and snow, this week and this song are joyful reminders of what’s to come.
If you would enter into the wilderness, do not begin without a blessing.
Do not leave without hearing who you are: Beloved, named by the One who has traveled this path before you.
Do not go without letting it echo in your ears, and if you find it is hard to let it into your heart, do not despair. That is what this journey is for.
I cannot promise this blessing will free you from danger, from fear, from hunger or thirst, from the scorching of sun or the fall of the night.
But I can tell you that on this path there will be help.
I can tell you that on this way there will be rest.
I can tell you that you will know the strange graces that come to our aid only on a road such as this, that fly to meet us bearing comfort and strength, that come alongside us for no other cause than to lean themselves toward our ear and with their curious insistence whisper our name:
Beloved. Beloved. Beloved.
– Jan Richardson – Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
I included the first three stanzas of this beauty in this week’s blog, Stirrings.
Polar votex and mid-winter thaw. Valentine’s and Family Days. Pancakes and ashes. Blood work and cardiac test all ok. Poetry reading and writing. Online retreat and travel tours. And the reassuring rhythm of walking with Annie.
It’s been a full, few weeks yet for all of it, not much in the way of words to write. Sat down several times and simply surrendered to not having anything to say which I’ve learned usually means I’m cooking on something. Right this moment I hear Tom Jones – yup, that one from “What’s New Pussycat” fame, now making a comeback – sing about the “talking blues.” A peculiar synchronicity. So again, I’ll rely on the words of others to give shape to what might be simmering in the sacred cauldron.
Last week, on Ash Wednesday, I received another of Barb Morris’ beautifully written – I’d say “inspired” – letters from God, this one to beloved daughters who observe Lent. I’m not sure how I first “met” Barb or encountered her letters from God, but each one has touched a chord. Words like these land especially deep in me:
“Despite what you’ve been taught, “holy” does not mean pure and unearthly. “Sin” does not mean breaking my rules and making me mad. “Penitence” does not mean listing and wallowing in all the ways you’re wrong and bad. “Repentance” does not mean promising to do better to stay out of trouble…
…This Lent, the only fasts I want from you are these: Fast from distractions that allow you to stay wounded and broken. Fast from believing you’re not good enough. Fast from making yourself small, and nice, and silent. Fast from all judgment, especially of yourself.”
Later in the week, again in response to Lent, poet-artist Jan Richardson, another wide-open-hearted woman, sent out her poem, “Beloved is Where We Begin,” from her book, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons (2015). Here, the first three stanzas:
“If you would enter into the wilderness, do not begin without a blessing.
Do not leave without hearing who you are: Beloved, named by the One who has traveled this path before you.
Do not go without letting it echo in your ears, and if you find it is hard to let it into your heart, do not despair. That is what this journey is for…”
Reading it now there’s a beautiful resonance with the recently released, eight episode “3 Caminos,” a Spanish TV production about five people who meet walking the Camino de Santiago, first in 2000, then in 2006, and finally in 2020. This weekend, watching their stories unfold within the magnificent backdrops of land and location, stoked the embers of my own latent, on again-off again, dream to one day actually walk the way.
I rose early on Saturday to attend an online Lenten retreat hosted by Pádraig Ó Tuama. I’ve written here about Pádraig’s eloquent hosting of the podcast, Poetry Unbound. As poet, theologian and former conflict mediator, Pádraig brings a contemporary, justice centered interpretation to scripture. Taking three perspectives of Jesus in isolation – fasting in the desert where with nature’s befriending, he encounters the devil’s three temptations; making the harrowing journey through his own inner hell ; and in resurrection (what does it mean now to be born again after such journeying) – he shared his poetry and invited in our words and memories as touchstones for the inner work and meaning making of our own journeying in times of desert wilderness. Pausing to consider in this past nearly year of sheltering in place – compassionately retreating – being locked down (the term shifts on how long and what day) the room in which we’ve spent the most time, and what in that room we look upon for comfort, solace, grounding. Or writing a “collect” of praise and appreciation to an item or being that has done the same. Over those four hours together on ZOOM, what lingers was one of Pádraig’s recent poems, wherein he imagines an elder Irishman in the local pub, typical and traditional in his abstention from physical touching, but who – after living through the pandemic alone in his home where he first meets his first granddaughter and attends the funeral of his oldest friend via ZOOM – was taken to unabashed hugging and speaking endearingly to kith and kin. Even now as I type, my heart and eyes sting with a tender poignancy and yearning.
What seems to be simmering are the stirrings of the mythic, heroic journey, this time held within the season and story of Lent. This time more sobering because of the pandemic’s isolation.
Saying yes to the call, wittingly or otherwise. Crossing the threshold alone into the desert. Encountering what frightens, tempts, challenges and strips naked. Waiting in uncertainty and in vulnerability. Moving blindly through and into an unknown future. Letting go to let come loss and grief. Clearing the way for the new. Being unaware of benevolent helpers. Remembering blessings that accompany.
Alone. Together. Again and again.
I’ll end with some wonderous words from Vancouver poet Samantha Reynolds. Writing a poem a day as “bentlily,” every Monday my inbox shimmers with seven gems from the week before. This, her Valentine, “All I want from love“:
“May our love for each other grow tall enough to reach forgiveness and big enough that it can never be misplaced.”
Much love and kindest regards, dear friends, as you make your way during this season of waiting and beyond.