That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection
By Gerard Manley Hopkins

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

Originally posted at Commonweal Magazine –

Descending Theology: The Crucifixion

by Mary Karr

To be crucified is first to lie down 
on a shaved tree, and then to have oafs stretch you out 
on a crossbar as if for flight, then thick spikes
      fix you into place.

Once the cross pops up and the pole stob 
sinks vertically in an earth hole perhaps 
at an awkward list, what then can you blame for hurt
      but your own self’s burden?

You’re not the figurehead on a ship. You’re not 
flying anywhere, and no one’s coming to hug you. 
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
      trinity of nails holding you into place.

Thus hung, your ribcage struggles up 
to breathe until you suffocate, give up the ghost. 
If God permits this, one wonders how 
      this twirling earth

manages to navigate the gravities and star tugs. 
Or if some less than loving watcher 
watches us scuttle across the boneyard greens
      under which worms

seethe and the front jaws of beetles 
eventually clasp toward the flesh of every beloved. 
The man on the cross under massed thunderheads feels
      his soul leak away,

then surge. Some windy authority lures him higher 
till an unseen tear in the sky’s membrane is rent, 
and he’s streaming light, snatched back, drawn close,
      so all loneliness ends.

Rowan Williams, “Advent Calendar”


He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Words Are Stuff: Poet Scott Cairns

I don’t want to just complain about my upbringing, because I learned a lot – I learned the love of God from those people – but there was a suspicion about the physical body and stuff, the earth, a sense that the body is expendable and the earth is expendable and what matters is what you think about it or what you believe.

Which is just another way of saying that what you do and how you perform and how you engage others may be less important.

I think, as an artist, certainly as a poet, you learn that words are stuff – are things – and that it’s not like you have an idea and then you use words to express the idea.

It’s that you actually love words and you pore over words, and you put strings of words together and they lead you to ideas. It’s like the act of making leads you into what to make of it in terms of idea, and so a kind of primary attention to stuff – the stuff of language.

I suppose if I were a painter, it would be stuff of pigment; if I were a sculptor, it would be stuff of wood or metal or clay. Artists fall in love with the stuff, and that becomes a way of knowing, rather than ways of saying what you know.

I find in the liturgy of the Orthodox Church it’s very bodily present – one brings himself or herself fully to the space. The air is filled with incense; the iconography is everywhere; our bodies kneel, prostrate. We kiss things. We kiss each other.

There’s a very tactile, visual, scent-centered sensuous engagement with worship, and then it becomes worship, and not just talk of worship or ideas about worship.

You find yourself worshipping, and that teaches you who it is you’re worshipping in a way that talking about it never could. The practice of poetry prepared me for the practice, I think, of Orthodox worship.

The life of worship itself, the life of prayer itself, the life of making poems – these are endless. You can kind of get a glimpse of that or a taste of that endlessness once you realize that it’s stuff that you can endlessly work over. It’s stuff that endlessly works over you. We become shaped by the liturgy.

From an interview in “Faith & Leadership

It Was the Summer of ’69 (*1)

Begin here:

Christ is contingency, I tell her as we cross the railroad tracks and walk down the dusty main street of this little town that is not the town where I was raised, but both reassuringly and disconcertingly reminiscent of it: the ramshackle resiliency of the buildings around the square; Spanish rivering right next to rocklike English, the two fusing for a moment into a single dialect then splitting again; cowboys with creek-bed faces stepping determinedly out of the convenience store with sky in their eyes and twelve-packs in their arms. I have spent the past four weeks in solitude, working on these little prose fragments that seem to be the only thing I can sustain, trying day and night to “figure out” just what it is I believe, a mission made more urgent by the fact that I have recently been diagnosed with an incurable but unpredictable cancer…

– Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. (Specifically Sorrow’s Flower). Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, New York. 2013. p. 16.

Then trace the river of language back:

While the Constabulary covered the mob
Firing into the Falls, I was suffering
Only the bullying sun of Madrid.
Each afternoon, in the casserole heat
Of the flat, as I sweated my way through
The life of Joyce, stinks from the fishmarket
Rose like a reek off a flax-dam.
At night on the balcony, gules of wine,
A sense of children in their dark corners,
Old women in black shawls near open windows,
The air a canyon rivering in Spanish.
We talked our way home over the starlit plains
Where patent leather of the Guardia Civil
Gleamed like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters.

‘Go back’ one said, ‘try to touch the people’… 

– from “4. Summer 1969”

– Heaney, Seamus. Poems: 1965-1975. (Specifically from North). Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, New York. 1987. p. 224-225.

If a person has read Wiman’s “Ambition & Survival: On Becoming a Poet” and doesn’t immediately go read Seamus Heaney, then she didn’t pay attention to Wiman’s (almost) imperatives. 

On another note, the allusion bears some digging. The “her” in Wiman’s essay (Sorrow’s Flower) is a woman Wiman had known in his youth. As the essay progresses we realize that he has taken some sort of retreat in middle-age as he has both come to faith in Christ, and as the essay says, been diagnosed with cancer. The woman on the other hand has recently gone through a divorce that essentially wrecked her faith. Brief recollections of their conversation carry the narrative of the essay. Wiman quite self-consciously realizes how abstruse (ridiculous, he says) his statement “Christ is contingency” sounds in the midst of her suffering – especially against the backdrop of his monthlong sabbatical he has taken to “figure out” what he believes. Who among us can take a month off of work to scribble a few paragraphs about something as cloudy as belief? And while people suffer. Hmph.

Wiman gets that sentiment though. And I think the allusion is intended here, not just as a flourish for description, but to embellish the irony of his errand. Like Wiman, Heaney’s narrator is on a retreat, but instead of spiritual matters, this voice has held up in a Spanish flat to study Joyce (who but a poet can afford such luxuries) while a revolution oppresses the natives from whom he’s renting. Someone tells him to go back and touch the people, but instead he retreats to the Prado and ends with a meditation on Goya. Wiman knows this; he hopes the reader does too.

I read a review of Wiman’s book wherein the reviewer criticizes Wiman for writing a memoir “full of God but quite empty of people.” I’d take the genre to task, but the criticism is misguided (*2) and for these purposes the Heaney allusion is informative: Go back and touch the people, the critic said; but the poet instead searches the flesh-rending brutality of history then moves to the nightmares of Time and Chaos. What does a poet do when confronted with such horrors? What does a carpenter do? Or a farmer? They fall back into the rhythms of their trade and craft examining what meaning their labors have provided in the past. So Wiman fills the book with fine meditations on poetry (there are 33 cited in the acknowledgements), writing “with fists and elbows, flourishing”, in Heaney’s words, “the stained cape of his heart as history charges." 

That’s pretty damn touching.

*1 – How much money would one like to wager on the fact that Bryan Adams was also alluding to Heaney’s poem?

*2 – The criticism is misguided because Wiman writes: "It is not meditative communion with God that I crave. What one wants during extreme crisis is not connection with God, but connection with people; not supernatural love, but human love. No, that is not quite right. What one craves is supernatural love, but one finds it only within human love.” – from Wiman’s essay “A Million Little Oblivions” p. 164.

Mary Magdalene Mistakes the Gardener

Genesis 3John 20

Listen, I’m no mad woman. I’ve been among you,
Reclined at your tables, you’ve broken my bread
you dolts. It’s true:
I entered the garden’s east gate and
ducked the bedolach boughs twisting in sinuous bark-lynch;
those timbers ice-broken over winter.
The footpath tangled in briars,
and there I caught my foot and
fell and tore my palms in the thorns that
received me.
I labored to lift me from the weeds
impish and clawing, gnawing
like teeth when the
gardener lifted me to these broken trees.
Then I regained my feet and clutched my bleeding hands
in the open limb wounds, blackening
with sap
invigorated by Spring.
The scent and tack
of bdellium gum flexing,
sealing my abrasions
sediment settling in finger-crease.
All I touched bears my dirtprint still.
See, there’s handprints on my knees
when I leaned to rest. There must
be handprints on his robes when
I groped at him to stay.
See, even now by the lamps of our dinner,
here in the coated creases of my hands
is the earth from which we draw this bread.
Here are the thorns and thistles.
Red and infected are the prints that bear them.
In the sweat of my face you can see
how I hid the tears of my weeping
and the streak where he wiped them away. 

Station #12 – Christ’s Body is Removed from the Cross

Meal the footbones
hammer-crack the
cuneiforms wedge
the tarsals peel
the formless foot
flesh back over
the nailheads
he dont walk
he dead.
Tug the legs til his
hands rip he fall
weighs the same as
each dead man

This was done for a Lenten art project at our church where members contributed poetry and visuals to depict the stations of the cross. 

Drawing: Ink and wash on paper (Will Weiland). Poem: Linocut print.

The sacramental imagination, which affirms the goodness of creation, animates an iconic imagination that affirms the presence of the invisible in the visible—that ‘lifts up’ the messiness of bodies to be more than biological machines.

James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (via cwmyers)

I think this way of seeing the world – creation as sacrament – has value for the individual, but also for a culture. Consider the sacrament of confession, wherein the confessor considers the common things of breath and words to be sacred acts that declare the need for a just and merciful judge. The breath and words are a confession of guilt; a visible recognition of invisible complicity.

According to Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker in “14-18: Understanding the Great War”, in the near century since WWI, France has seen a cycle of infinite mourning; “the weight of the dead on the living”. The commemorations the nation of France [and other nations] have made for the war, have “partially repressed one of combat’s main consequences – the pain of bereavement.” Further, “specialists detect traces of ‘survivor’s syndrome’ among grandchildren of Holocaust victims. Perhaps [then] it is in the third generation that we should look for the existing scars of the great massacre of 1914-1918.”

I take these statements as a suggestion that where France [and all participants] needed to confess culturally its part in the atrocities of the War, it found instead marble monuments of heroism. Confession is not to take lightly the soldiers’ sacrifices – perhaps we should commemorate those – but it is robbing individuals and a people of that confession of guilt which eases a bereavement whose echoes are found in grandchildren who never saw the violence committed by their grandparents. This could have deep implications for America now at the tail end of two decade long wars. 

Veteran suicides average one every eighty minutes, an unprecedented eighteen a day or six thousand a year. They are 20 percent of all U.S. suicides, though veterans of all wars are only about 7 percent of the U.S. population. Between 2005 and 2007, the national suicide rate among veterans under age thirty rose 26 percent. In Texas, – home of the largest military base in the world and the third-highest veteran population – rates rose 40 percent between 2006 and 2009…Veterans are disproportionately homeless, unemployed, poor, divorced, and imprisoned… (Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War, xii). 

What must be the implications – familial, educational, economic, psychological – of that rate over the next three generations? 

“We organize emotionally intense memories into a story in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where self-control, planning, reasoning, and decision making occur. The mind creates a pattern from memory fragments stored in various places. Emotions are essential to moral conscience, but until people can construct enough of a coherent narrative to grasp what they did, they cannot evaluate it” (Soul Repair). Confession as a habit seems to be the first stage in building a coherent narrative.

If the American church has any foresight at all, then the sacrament of confession needs to be emphasized. And if the American culture at large is to execute the campaign promises of both presidential candidates to help veterans returning from war, then it needs to begin in the sacrament of confession so veterans and our communities can imagine the rhythms of life in peacetime. Then we can deal with the monument making.

Modern spiritual consciousness is predicated upon the fact that God is gone, and spiritual experience, for many of us, amounts mostly to an essential, deeply felt and necessary but ultimately inchoate and transitory feeling of oneness or unity with existence. It is mystical and valuable, but distant. Christ, though, is a thorn in the brain. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how ungodly that clarity often turns out to be.

Thomas is known for his incredulity and doubt, but I think it was less doubt and more what Paul called the “working out of your salvation with fear and trembling.” There must be trepidation when God expresses in a personal event that He is concerned for one singular person, even in the midst of a great crowd (the humiliation of grace and favor). Imagine Thomas’s fingers trembling in the spear wound. Look at Peter’s discomfort (turning his head) at witnessing the scene, perhaps because of his own fear and trembling.

The painting in process is by Jack Baumgartner, a farmer-craftsman-artist in rural Kansas, who I think captures the mystery of that simultaneous fear and comfort that attends faith. I like the fact that this work is in process, much like faith always is, but I look forward to the painting’s completion as I anticipate the completion of the good work begun in me. Until then, my fingers tremble in the wounds.