“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

26 March 2013: On the Priesthood


It’s not that it’s unusual
for the saints to visit my dreams.
It’s just that they usually come
with so much inelegant baggage.

Francis once shuffled up to the screen door
caked in red clay dust,
trailed by a dozen woodland creatures
who raided my cupboards
for bread, nuts, and honey
while he wearily brushed himself off
on the shag rug.

Teresa came from Avila
to overhaul the order of my bookshelves,
tidy my desk,
and express her serious concern
over my straying devotions. 
She hovered during vigils,
commenting discreetly on my general level of distraction.
I was relieved when she left,
even as the warm aura of mothering
retreated with her.

But last night Therese of Lisieux
settled down beside me
on the cement curb
in cutoff shorts,
and handed me a purple popsicle.
She stretched her pale, thin legs
out into the street
to feel the summer sun,
and set to silent study
of the sparkling mica flecks in the pavement.

After some time,
she reached into her pocket
and pulled out a crust of bread.
“I’m still practicing, you know.
They have to let me do it some day.”

And she blessed the bread, broke it,
and embraced me with her eyes
as she offered it to me.

24 March 2013: British Museum (1998)

Meeting Guanyin

The first time I saw those eyes
in the shadows of your cupped palms,
they weren’t eyes at all.
They were wounds, half healed at the edges,
still open wide in the middle,
speechless and disbelieving.

So you can understand
why I couldn’t accept that posture
of flirtatious ease,
robes rippled like healing water.

You know that this present moment
we are asked to meet with equanimity,
with that serene contemplation
that turns your face
into a still lake under hovering fog
in early morning--
this moment, like every moment,
is stretched to bursting seams
with desperate pleas you can’t possibly answer. 

In the summer,
my children’s sun-touched, sandaled feet
stomp joyfully on ground
once drenched with the blood
of another mother’s child.

So why be coy?
We carry these bodies like stone and steel,
but we are all exposure--
even you,
in the shadowy depths of your resting hands
(which have no time to rest),
in the hardly veiled welcome
of your parted thighs.

And from inside your carved enclosure,
this is what you say:
what else is there to do
with open flesh, 
except to bless and wipe away the carnage,
stand on the edge of exposed nerve, 
and go on answering,
go on creating the wounded world.

23 February 2013: Hudson Valley

So this is what it comes down to in the end: earth and sand skimmed, trimmed,         
filleted from rocky bone, leaving only solid unshakeable bottom, what doesn’t in the
end give in to the relentless hammer, whoosh, and haul-away of tides but stands there
saying ‘Here I am here I stay,’...no going back to how things were once, but to go on
ending and ending here (from “Rock Bottom,” Eamon Greenan)

It is written that Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion commissioned with nothing less than easing the suffering of all beings, had what can only be described as a cosmic nervous breakdown. The bodhisattva was a man at the time, a simple human-shaped vessel, and took on his task in earnest for some time. That is, until the sheer volume of living pain resounding in his conscience caused his head to explode, and he was forced to call upon Amitabha Buddha for some relief of his own. Questionable relief it was: Buddha took pity on him and granted him not a much needed reprieve, but eleven heads to divide the effort. Presumably renewed in this ghastly form, he received those countless voices calling out his name, and reached out to grant aid where he could. So great was his exertion that his arms likewise exploded into a thousand pieces, and again he was forced to call upon Amitabha to have compassion on him. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” 

Thence comes the beautiful, coquettish female Guanyin with a thousand arms, whom we usually see dancing in joyful surrender. She is far too lovely to carry eleven heads, so instead she bears an eye in the palm of each hand, to see suffering in all corners of the world—brokenness rising up in exotic beauty and grace, and beauty and grace masking bottomless wells of misery. 

This reflection was mired in impossibility from the start, and it has taken me weeks to process what seems like even a partial response. It began when I read this: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2013/01/22/mallick_why_newtown_victim_noah_pozner_had_an_open_coffin.html 

For a full week afterward I could see in my mind’s eye nothing but Caravaggio’s bizarre homage to the “doubting” Thomas—Mallick’s words that dumbstruck finger mindlessly probing the wound in Jesus’ side. But behind the author’s hazy fascination with the morbid stands a mother's resolute offering of the sacrifice of her son’s flesh into the political morass of gun control. It is the mystic’s impulse: to stare into the abyss, to look decisively into this open wound and demand that others do the same. It is the same rock bottom that kicked up dust under Isaac’s feet in that predawn climb in his father's resigned shadow—spared in the end, but truly sacrificed already in that first step onto the mountain's face. 

We tend to talk about suffering as monolithic, a single cloak of darkness to be cast off. But the experience of embodiment teaches us again and again that pain is in fact quite specific and grounded. Children in China were taught that if they called out to Guanyin in their suffering, she would be there to respond, appearing in any shape appropriate to the circumstances. Not an abstract deliverance, but a specific one, tailor-made for that moment and that particular hurt. 

I doubt there is much comfort, in the presence of a child’s mangled body, in the proposition that nothing is ever really lost. The resurrection faith teaches us that what is true and loved persists, and the way of enlightenment tells us that it is not so much that loss happens to us as it is that we suffer because our very obsession with the impermanent makes pain ever-present.

Yet there is no doubt that the experience of loss is our greatest spiritual teacher; each broken thread shows us a bit more about what we truly love, and what is at stake in each moment. And then there is this entirely other realm of loss, where the impossibly perfect bodies of children are left broken on playgrounds, streets, in schools, in their own homes. It is not so much an occasion for mourning as it is a great, gaping wound in the fabric of existence. It is simply not possible to speak to such a wound in our usual mode, with our petulant demands that it be healed now so that we can go on as we were. There is nothing to be done in fact, as Mamie Till (and this) and Veronique Pozner well knew, except to gaze straight into it and know that it is the pure exposure of all of our mundane failures, resounding with all that we do and all that we leave undone.

I suspect that it is at the site of such a wound that we come closest to the possibility of Christian discipleship. Jesus’ disciples were at times understandably obsessed with death, feeling the spiraling urgency of Jesus’ challenge to a bloodthirsty political order. They would ask him to stop, slow down, or at least reassure them of coming glory. There is something about staring straight into the face of the end that grants sanctity to what would otherwise be bereft of meaning. But Jesus’ response is that the only truth to be known about death rests in the womb of embodiment, the precious vulnerability with which we enter a treacherous world: 

“The disciples said to Jesus, ‘Tell us how our end will be.’ 

Jesus said, ‘Have you discovered, then, the beginning, that you look for the end?
For where the beginning is, there will the end be. Blessed is he who will take his
place in the beginning; he will know the end and will not experience death....
Blessed is he who came into being before he came into being. If you become my
disciples and listen to my words, these stones will minister to you.” (Gospel of Thomas)

Veronique placed a stone in Noah’s hand, I can only presume to accompany his released spirit with something relatively sure and unchanging. She saw, as every mother would, his beginning in his end, the angel spirit captured for too brief a time in the clear vessel of childhood.

For the rest of us, in a world that manufactures child sacrifice every day, where else can we think we stand except at rock bottom, called to heed the ministry of stones and of broken bodies? While the living world goes about its frantic business, the inert creation cries out that there is nothing more holy than this ephemeral flesh, no higher calling than to fiercely defend its blessed moment of flourishing.