“Our very life depends on continuous acts of beginning. But these beginnings are out of our hands; they decide themselves.
Beginning precedes us, creates us. There is nothing to fear in the act of beginning.
More often than not it knows the journey ahead better than we ever could."
John O’Donohue

30 January 2013: Glastonbury Abbey II

Left to my own devices,
I wander this house, unable to finish one thing
for beginning another.
Tasks call out fulfillment
from every corner,
and I follow their songs, a willing gypsy.

These are the auspicious days.
On the doomed ones,
I finish everything,
with precision
and certainty of judgment.

When there is space between the minutes
to watch the way
the kitten’s soft white belly rises and unfurls
in the warm pool of winter light
through an unwashed window,

things get done despite me.

The closet piled with holiday anachronisms--
an elf-bear tangled in crepe turkey feathers,
an emerald tinsel clover--
closes, with only a bit of extra force.

The piles of unread books
speak their truth ineffably
into the light of a dwindling fire.
All will be well,
every manner of thing will be well. 

This house I have assembled--
picture frames left unfilled,
unmade beds bearing the twisted shapes
of filed-away dreams--
this holy temporary encampment
will melt away. 

In fact, it’s already happening--
chipped dishes,
the serpentine crack halfway through its journey
from ceiling to floor,
pillows releasing their lumpy hearts
at weakened seams--
trace evidence of the always
and someday unraveling. 

This poem was actually written some time ago by Pablo Neruda, with typical quotidian-ethereal brilliance. 

30 January 2013: Glastonbury Abbey (Seaside Lauds)

 Scallop shell, symbol of the Camino de Santiago--one pilgrimage, many roads.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a stomach full or empty, with plenty or little. Philippians 4:11-12

There are times when the most decisive step you can take into life-as-it-is is a step away. The present tense, whatever it may be, has a railroading nature, a sense of self-affirming momentum that does not readily give in to reconsideration. Stepping away in deliberate acts of forgetting and release is often the most creative means to nurture and fully enter unfolding reality. “Be melting snow. Wash yourself of yourself,” Rumi wrote, but not seeking oblivion or escape: “The full moon is inside your house.

At its heart, this project is about pilgrimage and disentangling, acceptance and return. Each place we enter speaks to us about itself, but it also speaks to us about ourselves and the many places we call home, if we practice gratitude enough to accept contentment no matter its shape or duration. Ultimately, we are both pilgrims and nomads--going somewhere, setting up temporary shelters along the way that each hold a little piece of the home we are seeking. The journey requires both effort and release, or as Augustine exhorted: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”

Several years ago, Fr. Jim Savage gave a homily at St. Paul’s Parish in Cambridge marking the first Eucharist of Ordinary Time following the Easter season. He spoke to the wisdom of the liturgy’s offering of this time, not as an inert placeholder between the high holidays, but as a call to a journey that requires a bit more from us and a bit less from God.

It has occurred to me since that it is quite possible to build a life leaping across the pilings of exceptional moments, just as it is possible to write a quaint history of humanity that hinges on exceptional individuals. But it is not possible to build an honest spiritual life this way. There is a despair that sets in over time, when we allow recovery to bleed into anticipation repeatedly, without intentionally occupying the space in between the milestones of our lives. We become anxious and inconsolable, always needing a new injection of external energy to make sense of our days. 

In ordinary time, we are forced to use metaphor in place of revelation. It is the space where we teach our souls reverence for the basic materials of existence, which array themselves beautifully at times but which more often simply rest in their own truth, offering themselves to us as tools and clay.

Most importantly, ordinary time is where we find that abundance resides in every degree of apparent scarcity. In the absence of events overflowing with grace and celebration, we find ourselves still and always in the presence of God, the calmer air we breathe still tinged with the electricity of the Spirit, and Jesus’ footsteps still marking the earth in front of us, calling us to walk and to fulfill. 

23 January 2013: Boston (bitter cold morning vigil)

Letter to my Daughter

There are some true things
you can only speak
into the wind
and hope no one hears
until you are long gone.
Because it would cost too much
to own them,
and even more not to
say them at all.

There are other true things
that can't be said
until you are close enough
to breathe them on his forehead,
still moist with unction
or streaked with ash.
They can rest there,
not held,
but safe and known,
until their time comes.

The truest true things
aren't really true until you scoop
their sweet roundness
into that tilting blue bowl
you threw last summer,
and feast across the table
with separate spoons.

We won't even talk about deceptions,
not even the ones that taste as soft
as the truth
or are feathery enough to ride
the current of air,
almost as if they were never spoken.

They are covetous.
And, believe me,
you don't want to be
an owned woman.

22 January 2013: Boston (under a dusting of snow)

There is a dog I sometimes take for a walk
and turn loose in a

when I can’t give her that freedom
 I feel in debt.

I hope God thinks like that and
is keeping track of all
the bliss He

~Rabia of Basra (d. 801)

I am a heretic on the virtue of patience, particularly when it is confused, as it so often is, with endless self-sacrifice. This confusion has been handed down in the Christian tradition by the routine translation of the Greek hypomone as the passive concept of patience, which silently bears all manner of injury and inadequacy. But the Greek compound speaks much more to energetic persistence and steady work, inward in nature and always under (hypo) the canopy of God’s will though it may be. “In hope we were saved. But hope is not hope if its object is seen; why does one hope for what one sees? And hoping for what we cannot see means awaiting it with hypomone."

Kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery in her childhood, Rabia was not deluded by the romance of long-suffering. The fire of sustained passion and resistance she lit still burned 500 years later on the beloved Rumi’s pen. Urgency, when carried with clarity of thought and action, is what separates the living from the dead, and the work of liberation from the mire of complacency: “A chief evidence of the grace of God--which always comes to us in, with and through each other--is this power to struggle and to experience indignation. We should not make light of our power to rage against the dying of the light. It is the root of the power of love.” It is telling that all this talk of patience in the gospels and letters plays out in the midst of the most urgent narrative--the careening train headed for Calvary and the second coming, the faithful and the fearful hanging on to the boxcars for dear life. 

Dear life. Because really what is impatience, if not God reclaiming that divine territory within us that we have been slowly, imperceptibly ceding to trivialities and the hazy “dream of separateness”?

Lately I have been insatiable. It is, by its nature, a comprehensive experience. I can’t possibly read enough, listen enough, write enough, touch enough, love enough, talk enough, move enough, breathe enough. Sleep is a quaint preoccupation or a spiraling dust cloud. The searing light of this energy has been casting long, cold shadows over necessary but uninspired tasks. There is something about waking to power that rouses this ravenous spirit in us, at once incoherent and single-minded. 

The deal struck in this experiment of divine embodiment is that God needs space in us to rest, but more so to hunger. This is the primordial formula: we are six parts toil of creation, one part sabbath. This is the root of our blessed intemperance, tempered just enough by balm and the soft breeze of patience to renew its fire. Our work, whatever its materials may be--words, chords, calculations, revolution, love--is right to call us from slumber.

19 January 2013: Chicago II

It has been many years since I have written a love poem, and when I did write them, I did so anxiously and quite badly. Likely I abandoned the form to salvage the craft. But lately the daily exercises of devotion have begun to speak to me in this language, in the interplay of universal and particular. Love poems are always composite portraits of our encounters and cravings, cross-sections of layered experience. Even so, their power is that they unapologetically fixate on a moment in time, as if the whole of creation hangs itself on that delicate hook, that sacred, singular exposure of soul to soul. Because, truth be told, it does. 

“Then, when she felt wasted by love,
Broken by her passion’s intensity,
Despondent, haunted by Hari’s
Response to her quarreling,
Her friend spoke to her.”
~Gitagovinda of Jayadeva

It must be vanity
that rises up in me and begs for you
to say something beautiful,
something hungry,
with contours my fingers can trace
in solitude,
with a soft, liquid body
shaped like my thirst.

Why else would I need you
to tell me what I very well know--
that my open soul,
its shy flesh bared under your gaze,
deserves nothing less than wordless awe?
There have been enough words
put to that.
Each time my heart is wrung out
by virile hands,
clenched in cruelty or desire,
a verse drips out,
just one.
Not much to build a life on.

(I am lately infatuated with my one grey hair. I saw it today, while I waited for you. It finds its way to brush my temple and whispers the story of our winter years. I am writing these words for you in a one room cabin, by the wood stove, in the lengthening afternoon light. The heart still fractured but no longer a yawning wound. Somewhere it became an anemone on the sea floor, settled in the deep, weightless, its storied body caressed by current and the familiarities of long love.)

It must be vanity
that wants you to tell me
how loveless certainty is burning--
all of it destined for ash, and soon--
when I am making it so,
when my every conscious breath
fans the flames.

18 January 2013: Chicago I

Sergio Gomez, "Spirit Rises"

I encountered this piece at the National Museum of Mexican Art in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago after a morning spent reading John O’Donohue’s last work To Bless the Space Between Us. His opening words: “There is a quiet light that shines in every heart. It draws no attention to itself, though it is always secretly there. It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility, and our hearts to love life. Without this subtle quickening our days would be empty and wearisome, and no horizon would ever awaken our longing.”

I have always been captivated by the dual nature of visual art--how so often it can speak in one voice up close and such a different one from afar. My photograph is an anemic medium, and does nothing to convey the improbable luminosity of Gomez’s rendering. At a foot away, it is no more than rubbed dust and random splatter. From ten paces back, it hovers off of the wall, ready to dissolve into ether. And it glows--just flat white paint against charcoal, and it glows. In its presence I heard words from Mary Luti’s recent reflection on Epiphany: “...our world only appears solid, still, dark, and cold, but is in fact ardent, vivid, and porous...we live in a world that is leaking light.”

This time of year, we entertain new beginnings at the most unlikely time, as we dwell in the earth’s long sleep. It is worth remembering this is the light we nurture with spiritual discipline, the one that glows for others because and in spite of the stuff it is made of--starshine and clay.