One of my favorite writers is Roger Housden, author of the "Ten Poems..." series, the novel Chasing Rumi , the memoir Saved By Beauty and the editor of Love Poems to God . I have carried his books on poetry in my backpack all over the world, using them in workshops and liturgical services for years. Last winter, almost exactly a year ago, I was walking through Golden Gate Park , when I came upon a tall and elegant man with penetrating blue eyes, a regal presence and a British accent coming down the staircase from the De Young Museum. I suddenly knew it was Roger. He graciously agreed to meet with me and we talked about Dante for hours over tea. Since then, we have become good friends and now are planning to co-lead pilgrimages in France and Italy. Roger will be coming up to Bishop's Ranch to lead a weekend writing workshop entitled "Writing the Inner Life" on March 8-10 , and if you are need of some inspiration to find your writing voice, I can hardly imagine a more lovely place to find it, and a more inspiring and warmhearted guide to lead you. You can find our more about the program and register at https://thebishopsranch.wufoo.com/forms/m7p4w1/
This is one of the poems in his collection Risking Everything:101 Poems of Love and Revelation, a book which I have given away to more people than I can count for graduations, birthdays, moments of transition. It might well be my favorite book ever. My Lenten practice this year will be to memorize one poem a week from this marvelous collection. I am starting with this poem by Rumi because it perfectly captures the essence of Lent.
Prayer is an Egg:
On Resurrection Day God will say, “What did you do with
the strength and energy
your food gave you on earth? How did you use your eyes?
What did you make with
your five senses while they were dimming and playing out?
I gave you hands and feet
as tools for preparing the ground for planting. Did you,
in the health I gave,
do the plowing?” You will not be able to stand when you
hear those questions. You
will bend double, and finally acknowledge the glory. God
will say, “Lift
your head and answer the questions.” Your head will rise
a little, then slump
again. “Look at me! Tell what you’ve done.” You try,
but you fall back flat
as a snake. “I want every detail. Say!” Eventually you
will be able to get to
a sitting position. “Be plain and clear. I have given you
such gifts. What did
you do with them?” You turn to the right looking to the
prophets for help, as
though to say, I am stuck in the mud of my life, Help me
out of this!
Theywill answer, those kings, “The time for helping is past.
The plow stands there in
the field. You should have used it.” Then you turn to
the left, where your family
is, and they will say, “Don’t look at us! This conversation
is between you and your
Creator.” Then you pray the prayer that is the essence
of every ritual: God,
I have no hope. I am torn to shreds. You are my first and
last and only refuge.
Don’t do daily prayers like a bird pecking, moving its head
Up and down. Prayer is an egg.
Hatch out the total helpless inside.
[ Tr. Coleman Barks]
Today is Ash Wednesday, and the day before Valentine’s Day. I feel a bit like the Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl with black smudges on my face. from the noon day service, but I don’t mind. I learned this week that most of the fairytales Andersen wrote were his own attempt to deal with depression. Hans Christian had a propensity for falling in love with people who could never return his affection. He wrote The Nightengale after his bout of infatuation with the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind , and The Little Mermaid was written after he confessed his attraction for another man. Edvard Collin expressed not only rejection, but also repulsion at Andersen’s amorous leanings. But rather than be eaten alive by his broken heart or drown in shame, Hans Christian did the sort of profound thing art therapists everywhere encourage their clients to do: he turned his pain towards creating something of meaning and beauty. “Out of the depths, I cry to you” could have been his motto. He imagined himself as the little mermaid, and his version ( so different than the Disney cartoon) is a beautifully tragic stories of unattainable longing, where the desire for human romance, though thwarted, ultimately leads to union with the transcendent .
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent- that liturgical season that is so often confused with self flagellation, mortification of the flesh and holier-than-thou feats of supposed piety. I so appreciated our liturgy here at Bishop’s Ranch, which emphasized the opposite: humility and surrender and acceptance. To paraphrase the words of Isaiah, the fast God yearns for isn’t a sacrifice of oxen ( or coffee, or wine or sugar) but to loosen the bonds of oppression and let captives go free. And that set me thinking, because I am becoming more and more aware all of the time at the insidious ways that I and those I love are captive- to fear, worry, regret, shame. How oppressed almost everyone I know is by the tyranny of the voices inside us that say “Not enough! Be more! Do More! Hurry, Go, Achieve!”. Thomas Mertonsaid, “Lent is not about punishment. It is about healing.” And one of the biggest things we need to heal , individually and culturally, is the constant breathless sense of striving and acquisition as well as the feeling that we can do it (whatever “it” may be) on our own. If Lent is about abstaining, perhaps we could start by abstaining from defensiveness or contempt or judgment or workaholism . In the notes for today’s service, we were reminded that we were created to be fully human- a reality as Sam Portaro wrote, “forgotten and obscured by our headstrong striving for more and our headlong descent into so much less” .
Which reminds me of course, of how much pain the Little Mermaid endured in the original story when she tried to be something she was not. She was meant to swim in the depths, but she longed for human feet. She gave up her voice in order to have human legs, and yet every step was like walking on knife blades. I wonder how much of our own pain comes from the misguided notion of trying to be what we are not. As I reflect on my own life, my answer is: quite a bit.
The litany for the service of Ash Wednesday ends with Psalm 51, with the words “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
That is good news the day before Valentine’s Day. If you are one of the many people out there who is looking forward to tomorrow with dread and sorrow and loneliness, I offer up to you two men who are not found in the Lectionary, but should be: Beethoven and Hans Christian Anderson. Both of them opened up their wounded, bleeding spirits to pour forth their grief onto paper, and their broken and contrite hearts continue to feed millions. I doubt Beethoven ever had a romantic dinner with red roses and candlelight and tender words of undying affection. Apparently, neither did Hans Christian. If Valentines’ Day conjurs up loneliness or loss for you, I suggest that you might want to put on Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata or a late quartet and sit in front of the fire to read the original versions of Hans Christian Andersen’s brokenhearted fairytales. And then, even though it is Lent, I invite you to open up a bottle of champagne or box of chocolates to toast the journey of being human in all its frailty, messiness, pain and glory. You won’t be alone. You’ll be right there with Beethoven and Hans Christian Andersen, two members of the communion of saints who found out and lived the truth of the logion of the Gospel of Thomas: Bring forth what is in you, and it will save you. Thomas might have added, “and maybe help heal the world, too”.
I have been using the work of David Whyte almost every week in teaching my Heroine's Quest class. For me, he understands better than any other living poet the journey to authenticity, the search to listen to the heart and the costly and necessary grace of embracing a life where your soul leads. This is from his volume "House of Belonging", but you can also find it in River Flow, a marvelous anthology of his work.
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
~ David Whyte ~