What follows is the text of my talk in the "Ideas Matter" series at Oregon State University, January 18, 2007. There may be a few formatting and spacing errors, as I've copied and pasted this from a Word document.
Moving from the Head to the Heart:
Poetry, Silence, and Prayer
I am honored to be a part of this series and glad to be able to share what I’m going to share today. Marc Borg has been a friend and challenge and model the whole 21 years that I’ve taught at Oregon State, he’s done an enormous amount of good, and I hope that in my comments this afternoon I can suggest a little of the debt and the respect I owe him.
I’m also glad for the license that Courtney has given all of us to do what we want to do, the way we want to do it.
So thank you, Courtney, for inviting me, and thanks to all of you for being here.
My comments come in three parts: a poem and brief lecture, a homily, and several more poems.
(I) Letting Go of the Piano
I’d like to begin by sharing a little poem of mine and then giving a quick mini-lecture about it. Just to set the terms.
One morning I woke up with this image in my mind, this memory, and I felt the kind of attraction, the kind of falling in love, that often leads me to write a poem.
Letting Go of the Piano
Me on the easy end,
four steps above,
barking my shins
as we bumped it down--
on the heavy end,
trying to do it all, as always,
sweat beading, tendons cording
with the effort to wrest that whole
black piano down that narrow,
as I let it go--as I had to--
the weight of it pulling away
like a great ship
casting off for icy waters.
The first point I want to make is simply this: that I didn’t know what the poem meant until after I wrote it, and I still don’t really. The piano could represent my relationship with my father, or with my old, false self, or a certain notion of the university, or of reason, or all kinds of things, and I think it does. I think the poem is somehow about the kind of letting go that we all have to do. But I didn’t know that at the time. All I was thinking about as I was writing the first drafts was the piano itself, the real one, how heavy it was, and of my father, how angry he was, which is the way all literature works, poetry or fiction or drama or personal essay. First comes the image, which gives rise to all kinds of ideas, but which the ideas can never fully exhaust. Even the author can’t tell you exactly. Even in this little poem there’s something that doesn’t translate, that’s just in there, in the details and in the rhythm of the lines. It’s like the difference between eating an apple and analyzing its chemistry, watching a movie and reading a review of it.
“Story,” Flannery O’Connor says, “renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions. The real meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where these things have been exhausted. There always has to be left over that sense of mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.”
And that’s the way faith works, too, I think.
Jean Leclercq, the great Benedictine scholar, describes scripture as “concrete, full of imagery, and consequently poetic in essence.” He calls the liturgy the “great poem,” and he’s right. Scripture is 80% narrative, is story, not sermon, and so is the mass. People get up and sit down, they kneel and get up again, they sing, they sit in silence, they eat and they swallow. The best thing about it is that we don’t have to talk to each other.
In the same way, in the great prayer traditions of Benedictine monasticism, the emphasis is on lectio divina, or divine reading, and what lectio depends on is free association. The question isn’t “did this really happen?” but “what does this mean?”--and “what does this mean right now, in my life”--and the way we discern that is by letting the words work on our emotions, letting them invoke memory and desire. Something similar is going on in the technique of Ignatian contemplation. Instead of analyzing a passage, we enter into it, physically. Instead of using our reason we use our imagination. It’s gospel improv, really, and like lectio, its goal is to move us from the head to the heart, to get us past what C.S. Lewis calls the “dragons of reason” to the real source of faith, which is within us, deep down.
I’m not saying that ideas don’t matter. I’m saying that they matter in a certain way and at a certain stage. They are not the goal of the process, they are not the desired end, and all good theology, at least, knows and proclaims this. Good theology is always professing its intrinsic inadequacy, to paraphrase David Tracy. “Of course we don’t know what we’re talking about,” Augustine says. “If we knew what we were talking about, we wouldn’t be talking about God.”
Or maybe I’m just saying that I’m not a philosopher, that I look at the world in this particular way, and that this way of thinking and feeling has certain advantages, that it can correct certain tendencies in philosophy, as philosophy can correct certain tendencies in me.
It’s a good thing we’re a university. When we are. We make up and supplement each other.
All I want to suggest is this:
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come. Mark 4:26-29
This is Mark, of course--the gospel writer, I mean--in the fourth chapter.
Before the harvest we have to fall asleep. Before the harvest we have to surrender.
We have to let go of the piano.
(II) The Way the Wild Flowers Grow
I’d like to widen out my theme a little now, and I’d like to shift, too, into a different mode, the mode of the homily.
I’d like to preach for a while on the Gospel of Matthew.
A year ago last summer, in late June and early July, I spent 30 days on the coast on a silent retreat. I lived in a hut above Nestucca Bay and tried to do the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the man who in the sixteenth century founded the Jesuits. Following the structure as best I could, I meditated on the scriptures and journaled four or five times a day. I met with a spiritual director every morning, a Jesuit, a wonderful, wonderful man and dear friend who died just a few months later--who was dying as we worked together. I walked a lot, and talked to myself, and tried to discern the will of God for me.
And I thought I was going to go out of my mind. I hadn’t realized how addicted I am to television. I hadn’t realized how addicted I am to people calling me “Professor” and “Deacon.” I hadn’t realized how addicted I am to reason, to thinking, or at least to all the busyness of the monkey mind. A lot of those 30 days were like detox for me, long, barren stretches of time where I just had to turn and face my own emptiness, my own need.
And it was wonderful, too. I had no idea God existed. Not really. I’d sensed it, I’d been living my life as if I believed it, but it wasn’t until the 30 days that I felt God crashing down on me and flooding me and overwhelming me, and not in some generalized, generic way either, but by name. I could feel the whole universe bending towards me, as I know it bends towards you, too.
It doesn’t make sense. But I felt it then and I know it’s true.
Now, let me be clear. I am in no way spiritually advanced. What I experienced on Nestucca Bay is something that any one of you would experience, in your own way, with the same opportunities of time and place. This joy is our birthright. It’s our natural condition, what we are all given.
I also realize what a gift my retreat was. It was a gift from my wife, in fact, for my 50th birthday, an enormously gracious gesture. Most people are too tied down, too constricted by poverty or by wealth, to be able to pray like this and think like this and feel like this.
But that’s exactly my point: that the world is crazy, that we’re all lunatics, and that we have to eliminate the violence and oppression and materialism that make it impossible for us to live as we were meant to live.
Jesus didn’t drive an SUV. Jesus didn’t drive anything. Jesus didn’t talk on a cell phone and Jesus didn’t work on the internet and Jesus didn’t have a microwave. There were always animals looking through his windows, with their big, brown eyes, like planets, and there were always fields and hills outside his door, and he was always walking in them, and this isn’t an incidental thing. It’s not just one thread in the gospels. It’s their foundation. It’s not just a matter of scene or setting. It’s the way of life the scriptures presuppose.
Jesus is our model, at least for Christians. We’re supposed to act like him and do what he does, and what he did he did in a world radically different than ours, radically closer to the earth. Slower. Quieter.
It was a world a little like the one I was living in for 30 days, among the alder, above the bay, detoxing--though I had electricity, thank God, and my coffee pot.
Consider the lilies of the field, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, look at the birds of the air, and he’s always saying that, or something like that, always inviting us to consider the world around us, as he must have. Only a person who has looked at the sky and listened to the wind, who has observed what the animals do, can speak in the way that Jesus speaks and preach in the way he preaches, and here, in the sermon that he gave on a mountain, in a meadow, among the flowers and the birds, he makes the flowers and the birds the center of his message. They are his message.
One way to interpret this is to say with certainty that the gospels are radically and without question environmentalist. We have to love the earth as Jesus does, both because it’s made by God and because without it we can’t eat. Christianity is intrinsically environmentalist, for spiritual and moral reasons, for reasons of beauty and reasons of justice.
But the other way to interpret this is to say with certainty that we, too, are supposed to be wild, and natural, and spontaneous, and free. We’re not just supposed to take care of the birds. We’re supposed to be like them. We’re not just supposed to protect the flowers, we’re supposed to read them, and I mean literally.
It’s funny what we choose to focus on in the Bible and then argue about. Why aren’t there any ballot measures drawn from the Sermon on the Mount? Measure 99: One Life, No Television. Measure 100: Slow Down. Measure 101: Hush. Hush now.
The great Jesuit thinker Anthony DeMello gets to the heart of this when he talks about the addiction that underlies all the others. Our babies are born just happy to be alive, just happy to be here, playing and sitting in the sun. But over the years we convince them in a thousand subtle ways that they have to do something, that they have to be beautiful and popular and smart and successful, or they won’t matter, won’t be loved. We do it everyday: we addict our children to approval. I think about this a lot, about the difference between the babies I baptize at St. Mary’s and the teenagers I see hanging around Fred Meyer or tuning out with their I-Pods in my classes. What’s happened? Look at all the loneliness on all the faces, all the hurt. All our babies are crack babies, and we are, too. We live for what other people think and so we don’t live.
Not the Wilson Warblers. Not the Swainson’s Thrush. They sing whether anyone hears them or not. They hide in the branches. They are who they are, beloved by God, tiny things that are yet infinitely important.
The Franciscan thinker Richard Rohr gets to the heart of this when he talks about the wildness of God. The love of God is always pouring down on us, overflowing, but we’re threatened by that. We’re frightened by such generosity, Rohr says, because, “it takes away all our ability to control or engineer the process. It leaves us powerless, and changes the language from any language of performance or achievement to that of surrender, trust and vulnerability.” Life in this sense isn’t about winning battles but about losing them--about not fighting them at all. It’s about recognizing, as Rohr puts it, that “we cannot control God by any means whatsoever, not even by our good behavior,” that to be in relation with God “has nothing to do with order, certitude, clarity, reason, logic, church authority or merit!” God is the wild one, not us. And so, suddenly, he is in charge, not “our explanations of things.”
That’s the paradox of the Sermon on the Mount, the paradox of the meadow: that we are no better than the birds, no more important than the flowers--no less temporary, or fragile, or dependent. Or beloved.
And from this comes all joy. All freedom.
From this comes lectio divina and gospel improv, reading not just with our heads but with our hearts. The head is a much overestimated organ, Joseph Campbell says, and he’s right. Let’s read like a bird. Let’s just be there, in the scene, in the moment, taking it all in with our senses and our intuition and our feeling, setting aside questions of history and hermeneutics, however important they are. Let’s read scripture as if it’s a fairy tale, as if we’re watching Lord of the Rings, or eating an apple. Biblical scholarship is good for a while, it gets us to a certain point, and for that all praise. But then we have to move on. We have to be post-liberal, we have to be post-conservative, which is to say, we have to be wild. Like the flowers. Like Christ.
Luke Timothy Johnson gets to the heart of this when he talks about the radical availability of Christ. “Nowhere in ancient literature,” Johnson says, “do we find an equally accessible character.” Jesus, he continues, “is so defined by his faithful obedience to God that he is free to be available to whatever presents itself. . . .[he] is never distracted. Nowhere--except for those moments when he retreats for prayer--does Jesus give the slightest sense that there is something more important to do than what he is then doing. “ Yes. Yes. I am to be like him. I am to follow him. And this is who he is, radically available in the moment--wildly available--as spontaneous and free as any bird or flower.
I can’t live in a hut forever, of course. I can’t sit in a meadow everyday, and neither could Jesus. But I can go back to the meadow now and then, to remind myself of who I really am. And then, at home, I can turn off the television. I can fast from the news. I can go to bed earlier so I can get up earlier so that I can pray. I can just keep track of my plain, ordinary, garden-variety sinfulness, and not with any sense of self-loathing but with a sense of joy, because these are things I can name, these are things I can do something about--and underneath them, behind them, is my real self, my real identity. It’s like I clean off my glasses. It’s like I feel my little gears engaging the great gears, coming into alignment with the great pattern. I log on.
The problem isn’t God. It’s me. Isn’t that wonderful?
Again, don’t get me wrong. Even the little things are really hard, and in fact, the year and more that I’ve spent since I came back from the 30 Days has been one of the hardest periods of my life. It’s been tougher than I expected, to tell you the truth. After the ecstasy the laundry. That’s the title of a book I like a lot by the Buddhist thinker Jack Kornfield, and it’s exactly right.
But before the laundry, the ecstasy. That’s what I most want to report.
My spirituality before the 30 Days was based as much on the experience of the absence of God as on the experience of His presence. Everything I preached and taught depended on the sense that God isn’t always visible and that our lives usually feel barren and that everything is beyond even our intuitive experience.
But then I reached out and touched the bark of a tree and felt something like electricity passing through my body, right up from my feet through the top of my head, and it felt like tears, and it felt like grief, and it was as real as anything I’ve ever felt in my life. I fell asleep and dreamed and in the dream I heard my name. In the dream I fell in love, and when I woke, I found the dream was true. I watched the clouds form and the weather come in. I watched the thrush lift up his head and sing. I read the scriptures and saw my own face, as in a mirror.
And this wasn’t a dream finally and it wasn’t an idea. It was real, it was happening in the moment, and when I felt it everything else became secondary, everything else became irrelevant, everything else I had ever cared about and striven for was immediately revealed as the object of a form of idolatry, the object of a form of adultery. Because this is one I love and the one who loves me, this is the morning star and the evening star, the wave and the tree and the whole life of the world, flowing through my body and flowing through yours, and when we know this and feel this, when this knows and feels us, this energy that is yet a person, this vastness that is yet a lover, this sadness that is yet joy, this Spirit, this Christ, we are totally free, entirely who we are, entirely who we are meant to be.
And however hard it is day to day to keep our lives in right alignment with this, however hard it is to keep clarifying ourselves, however hard it is to keep from being distracted and covered up, there’s absolutely no doubt anymore: this is what we must do.
(III) The Rosary Confuses My Dogs
In light of my homily, and in light of the poem and the mini-lecture before it, I hope it’s clear why I want to conclude with a few more of my poems--why for me poetry is the best way to share my experience as a believer.
“Poetry is sane,” as Chesterton puts it, “because it floats easily on an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea and so make it finite.”
Not that the Department of Philosophy is always trying to cross the sea, of course. And not that my poetry is always so easily floating.
I’d like to share three of my poems, the first of them very short. It’s a kind of simple summary, in a way, of what I’ve been trying to say.
The Rosary Confuses My Dogs
When, walking in the woods,
I pull out my long black rosary,
the beads loop down and jingle
a little like the leash when I pull it out
to put the dogs back on.
And the dogs, when they hear it,
come running up,
heads cocked, tongues lolling.
No, I say. It’s OK.
And they bound away again.
Morning. Dusky trees.
Dark eyes liquid.
The second poem is longer and in three parts, based on Dante’s poem The Divine Comedy. It’s my very modest version of that great, great work, which I have the honor of teaching every year. I make specific references in the poem to Dante and to parts of The Comedy, but I don’t think that you have to know or remember anything about him to be able to follow it.
My Trip Through the Afterlife
The first time through
the monsters really scared me,
especially the lizards that kept
changing into people and back again.
But the second time I made them pets.
I slipped a leash around Geryon
and suddenly he shrank.
His scorpion tail became plastic.
They all still followed me around,
horns glinting, but every face
looked like mine in the fifth grade.
The rivers of blood were just
my arteries, my veins.
I was so happy in hell.
It smelled bad and there was
all this wailing, but I never paid
attention to the punishments,
the whirlwinds and the hackings
and the boiling pitch. I knew
it was just a poem, with levels,
and it was the levels I loved.
I laughed in the Malebolge
when I finally saw everything
fitting together, and I think Virgil
smiled a little, too. He looked
just like Dad did the first time
I didn’t pop the clutch.
Climbing the Mountain of Purgatory
was like hiking in the Cascades with Leo--
we talked and talked--except Purgatory
was a lot more structured, and we kept
running into people we knew:
Emily Dickinson, Mr. Crooks. And I kept
getting lighter. At the end of each ledge
an angel would brush my forehead
with its wings and I’d lose a few pounds
until finally I was almost floating.
That’s why we would choose such suffering,
the carrying of the stones or the running
in circles or the wall of flame,
even for hundreds of years: to get in shape. We want to fly.
And I slept so well in Purgatory.
I was tired from climbing,
and the stars were out, and each
of the three nights I was there
a figure came to me in a dream,
an Eagle, a Maiden, a Wheel,
pulling me to the next cornice.
In the morning Virgil and I would talk,
like in therapy, but then I’d look around
and see that the dream was true.
I was a whole ledge higher.
The other thing I liked about Purgatory
is that there wasn’t any preaching.
People were too busy running around
chanting or singing or reciting poetry
to get into arguments or tell you what to do.
They’d stop and explain things if you asked,
but they didn’t need the explanations.
There was art everywhere, hanging
on the side of the mountain:
The Starry Night, the Elgin Marbles.
They’d just point to one of those.
Or they’d look out from the mountain
at the ocean all around, miles of it,
and the stars. They’d say: see?
One of my favorite parts was when
Beatrice stopped bawling me out
and we shot into heaven.
I saw the Earthly Paradise recede,
the meadows and trees, and when
I looked up I understood space
isn’t empty really but like water,
silver, then red, then gold,
band after band. I loved being
weightless. My body shot higher
and higher and I was bathed
in light and Beatrice knew everything
I was thinking. People think heaven
is boring but it’s not. Music pours
from the Empyrean. Mr. Rogers
is there, in his sweater. Lincoln.
Grandma Gottwig dances in a circle
of saints, hair just as blue as ever.
Behind her the Big Bang is happening
again, matter is flying everywhere,
and she laughs and laughs.
I think reason is a wonderful thing and I know that there are people who can come to God only through their reason, through the work of their mind. The work of the mind and the life of the mind are essential for any believer, absolutely essential.
I’m simply trying to add my voice to the voice of Flannery O’Connor, in a letter she wrote once to a young writer and struggling believer. “Remember these are mysteries,” she said. “A God we could understand would be less than ourselves.
The novelist and spiritual writer Frederick Buechner puts it this way:
Moses with his flocks in Midian, Buddha under the Bo trees, Jesus up to his knees in the waters of the Jordan; each of them responds to something for which words like shalom, oneness, God even are only pallid, alphabetic souvenirs. ‘I have seen things,’ Aquinas told a friend, ‘that make all my writing seem like straw.’ Religion as institution, as ethics, as dogma, as social action--all this comes later and in the long run counts for less. Religions start, as Frost said poems do, with a lump in the throat, to put it mildly, or with the bush going up in flames, the rain of flowers, the dove coming down out of the sky.
Yes. This is it. This is the point.
“Why do your words fly so high,” Dante asks Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise? Why can’t I understand what you’re saying?
“They fly so high,” she said, “that you may know
What school you followed, and how far behind
The truth I speak its feeble doctrines go
And see that man’s ways, even at his best,
Are far from God’s as earth is from the heaven
Whose swiftest wheel turns all the rest.”
The last poem I want to share is kind of an example of lectio divina, or divine reading, an effort on my part to share in the creative energy of the gospels. In the 13th chapter, right in the middle of his gospel, Matthew groups a series of parables and metaphors describing the Kingdom of Heaven, and I’m just trying to follow suit, in my own terms, in my own way, as I think we are all called to do.
Again, thank you so much for asking me to speak this afternoon.
Seven More Parables of the Kingdom
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a seed.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a net thrown into the sea.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like the room in your dream
and outside is a lake so blue and cold you know
something big is about to happen. Then you wake up
and have your coffee and don’t think about the dream again.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like writing fast and not leaving
anything out and the same idea that always forms
starts to form again. You know it’s just an idea, you know
you’re just floating on the surface of Reason, but underneath
the sentences you feel something big pushing up from the dark.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like when you’re walking on the docks
and your best friend from high school sees you a hundred yards away
and even after all these years knows it’s you. You have the same walk,
he says. You lean the same way. All this time this man was alive
and you were, too, and you didn’t think about each other for decades,
and now he takes you in his boat to the other side of the lake
and his wife is making jello and the cabin is full of pots and pans
and dog-eared books he has read and reread just like you.
All those cabins in the trees! All those roads winding out to highways
and cities you’ve never been to, with offices and neighborhoods
and parks where kids are throwing footballs.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like the spine, which you also never think of.
Most of the time you don’t even know you have one, until one day
the doctor explains how discs darken as you get further down
what for all the world looks like a lobster tail. Segmented. Curving left.
And though the evidence is blurry and gray, like those fuzzy photographs
of UFO’s that always turn out to be dishes, suddenly you know without a doubt
this one is true. This is what you carry, this slippery fulcrum, this meaty device.
Walking up the little valley. Morning. Heavy dew.
Suddenly a field of spiders, a field of webs,
every thistle strung like a racket.
The Kingdom Heaven is like the ecology of your yard. All these animals
are scurrying around and building nests and entering into all these conflicts
and alliances just like in a Walt Disney movie or a book by E.B. White.
And you never see them usually, maybe a squirrel now and then, a bird,
but you never give them a moment’s thought, never think about them at all,
until one morning you walk out the door to get the paper and nearly step
on a headless mouse, eviscerated, heart and lungs spilling from the breast.
Another gift from the cats, another sign of prowess.
Those shiny viscera on the welcome mat.
Those intricate systems, inside out.
That dark red heart, like a coat of arms.