Wednesday, April 18, 2018

psalm 2018

Sometimes it is helpful, as I'm sure the psalmist would agree, to imagine one's divine interlocutor as one's middle school frenemy. You are at a slumber party at your mutual friend's house, and ugh why did she show up? What was going to be a calm evening of Hayley Mills movies, giggling in tree houses at 3am, and eating hedonist atheistic confections like cookie dough brownies and Karo-syrup-slathered kettle corn which is our 7th grade crack turns into all-night status jockeying and a grit-tooth-awful game of truth or dare.

Truth or dare plays upon our deepest fears—we inherently sense the relational danger in self-revelation, in confessing inner truths—especially in middle school. This game reinforces all of our qualms about truth-telling. The strongest among us are those unafraid to take the escalating dares. The strongest among us never have to reveal what is inside of them, in fact they prove their strength by never having to. The weak and afraid reveal what's inside of them.

When your middle school frenemy shows up at the slumber party, no effing way are you opting for the "truth." You'll take the dare, no matter what. Backing down is not an option. Not here, in your friend's basement at 4am. Here is not the time for that. In the witching hours of the night, wired on crack kettle corn and unspeakably vast amounts of chocolate—which have somehow been absorbed by your youthful metabolism—you are going to prove you are invincible, no matter what the dare.

God is like this.

God lobs all sorts of dares at you. You're just minding your own business, trying to learn Arabic, trying to write your papers and read your books and live a life of mild-to-little discomfort, in which you can operate in a mediocre, basic charity with ease.

And then God shows up to the party after supper (who invited them, you groan inside). And you're in for a rough night. Because God, like the best of frenemies, complicates things. I just want a simple day, full of simple challenges, little, tiny, simple mysteries. Please no thick, dense interactions in hallways, no desires twisting my heart into gymnast-figures. Please no people being hurt I have to advocate for, no anger at the ignorance of privilege spouting off next to me in class, no self-examination of my own failure. Why test me? Just let me operate in my white-washed version of holiness, please and thank you. Can't I just stay me-shaped? I'm not sure I'm into this whole being remade-in-the-image-of-Christ thing, anyway.

But you don't get to opt out of truth or dare. Once the frenemy has introduced the game, there's no exiting with grace. You either take the dare or fail.

I steel myself against the psalter stand, and I respond with my own dare, which isn't in a psalm, but it might as well be:

No wonder you're not very popular.
Your behavior, friend, is hardly politic.
Mothers don't like you in their houses, for you always seem to bring a storm. Chaos follows you like choirs of angels.
So bring your worst (you have, you will).
I'll be here. Today, tonight, tomorrow.
I won't go to sleep before you, I'll braid hair better, and I'll be dead in the water before I let you win this game of Scattergories—

Love on, I will requite thee.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

love IV

Blood be not bitter,
tongue be not proud,
heart cease self-pitying,
suspend ego's orbiting
to love for one second
the other who enters
what has always been theirs.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

its time for you to

Of the many treasures which this small apartment overlooking the lakes has given me, a chief favorite is living within ringing distance of the basilica bells. My watches all stopped at 8:24am one morning before my 9:30 class. And I haven't bothered to buy new ones. Because I don’t want new watches—I want the old ones to work again. Replacing something is not repairing it, and only a fool or a salesperson would tell you the difference doesn't matter.

The bells from the basilica keep time for me, and I have begun to set my day to the chimes they sing.

One bell informs me I'm late for class if I don't leave right then. 9:15 means its time to leave the apartment. If I walk out into the front-yard of the quad, screened by trees, and find I am alone, I am probably either early or late (usually late).

One Friday, I walked across South Quad at 8:20am, and there was no one there. It was just myself and the sunrise and one blonde boy long-boarding past O'Shag. I was wearing my blue dress, which makes me feel like I'm on a way to a wedding reception.

I spent a week without a watch or a phone in Rome, and I found my ears well-trained to find the time by parsing out the ringing of church bells.

When lost, I listened for the bells—bells indicate a time and a way.

Bells are an old species of technology. They belong at celebrations, at rituals, they belong, most fundamentally, in community. Bells are a relic from a past which reminds us that time is something humans do together. Time bends and warps inside your head, it twists and turns back on itself in weird ways in your heart, on your own, in the wild, time doesn't matter. Seasons matter. Days and nights matter, but the persnickety business of ringing off every quarter hour only matters if there's something waiting for you at the end of the last chime.

The clarion of bells interrupts me in the middle of my day. It is a clear, sunny day, and the sky is so blue it is shining. There is a shade of blue which is just simply iridescence. That's the color the sky is today. Matted onto this shining backdrop are feathery banks of clouds, gently gouached-on by an impressionist painter's distracted yet delicate fingertips. The sky, the clouds, the bells interrupt routine with a reminder that every step is a step on the way to wedding feast.

Friday, April 13, 2018

"there was a bad moment with bridges"

Here we are, testing the spirits
and the waters,
dipping our toes in,
adjusting the faucet—
is it too warm for you?

Your skin is softer than mine.
I noticed something weathered
in the wrinkles by my eyes tonight.
Sometimes womanhood feels like that:
the surprise of blood you’ve forgotten
and the shock of grey appearing
silver, glinting memento mori 
(if you’re feeling melodramatic)
(I am)
in the permanent brown.

I don't wear gloves when I wash dishes.
But I should.
Still, my hands are soft.

I don't trust whatever muse moves
between your heart and mine.
The spirit is a broken trampoline,
which will buckle with one bounce.

What is plastic and adamantine,
malleable and incorruptible,
sturdy in its surrendering?

That's not a riddle,
but a prayer.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Trinity

we shall sit and speak around
one table, share one food, one earth.
—Rowan Williams, "Rublev"

Trinity appears in flashes.
You must be careful
not to grasp it by the tailcoats
but to receive
each ephemeral epiphany
incarnate in its oddity
as guests of honor.

You must welcome
strangers, contingent
angels, stumbling
accidentally to your neatly-
laid dinner table.
They will mess it up.
Audacious re-arrangers
make bold to rejigger
the life you have configured.

Re-set the plates,
pour them water yet again,
straighten out the silverware
and ask them how their day's been.

Each accident's necessity—
God cannot be substituted,
but embraced
where three intimate angels
gather in one name.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

songs of ascent and assent

"Abba, my father, will you not tell me a word by which I might save myself?"

Book 1

In my favorite ark-like chapel, there is a book whose pages are printed with illuminated psalms. If you drop in, unannounced, you fill find it lying open in the crepuscular quiet. This is a silent communal prayer, as you read the psalm the person before you did. We pray together, although at separate times.

Under the curved bow of the wooden beams (we are in the hold of the ark, with the animals and straw), I pray words given to me by others. Psalm 90 leaps off the page, golden with familiarity. It hums and leaps like a banjo melody in the height of midsummer, my toes tapping with the memory of sun-soaked morning car rides an exultant summer ice cream sunsets. Psalm 32 sings quietly the reconciliatory praise of the forgiven heart. Who flipped the pages open to Psalm 32 today? I wonder as my lips mimic the shape of theirs.

Psalm 18

Some days deplete you of your stores of energy, and you decide, definitively you have time for 0.0 person’s nonsense. Not today. No sir. There are days that demand take-no-prisoners kind of walking, a stormy confidence accompanied by firm, choleric strides in high heeled boots.

As I walk, stiff with angry frustration, toward the warm womb-like lounge, I see through the window the back of Eric’s head. As he interrupts his phone call to exchange gentle greetings and ensure I have obtained the sought-after Chrysostom sermon, a smile softens the stiffness. My heart mirrors his own warmth, which radiates throughout the room. With a face still flushed from caffeine and hot blood, I leave the lounge with a softer step and a lighter heart.

Psalm 91

I think the bank closes at 6pm and it is 5:39. Will I make it in time? I am wasting time, I think, as I feel the panic and pressure of deadlines, applications, and as-yet unwritten papers and un-filed taxes weigh down on me. The fucking light turns red, and it’s a long one. I reach for my phone. I call Denise.

I am at a red light on the way to a bank which putatively closes now in 10 minutes, she is waiting for her fiancé in the lobby of a gym. We update each other on the vital signs of our hearts which beat in tandem, even though separated by so much earth. We are both caught in the crucible of decisions—when will this end? I ask—Never, says Denise. We are always in the crosshairs of desires, of our striving to make something beautiful of the poor clay we’re given.

I dodge many cars backing out of parking spots, and the final barrier of construction in front of the bank, and arrive at 5:58, only to discover its closing time is 5pm. After all that, I yell at the universe and into the cellphone. You’ll make it to the bank tomorrow, says Denise.

The last three calls in my call log are my sister, my mother, and Denise. Is this what Benedict means by stability?

Psalm 133

In front of me, at the grammatically correct express checkout line—“twelve items or fewer”—the cashier helps the elderly man pack the grocery bags lightly enough that he will be able to carry them easily.

Her face is a sun of kindness, radiant with genuine, patient concern for this wizened old man. She repacks the milk in a separate bag, double-bagging the flimsy plastic. She double, triple checks that he can carry them. Her attentiveness is a blessing. I think that it was upon witnessing such love the scribes first wrote—the only appropriate response—barakah.

Psalm 42

Like a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul thirsts for something other than Burger Bars and faux-Korean night. But here we are. Our friendship, from the beginning, has always consisted of doing violence to our stomachs in the name of fun—Limca and cake, kati rolls from Unnayan Cabin, Dove Chocolates and Dining Hall deserts.

The living water is the new facets of our souls which constantly, shockingly surface in the roaring currents, which shine fresh light on the unsubstitutable mystery of the friend. In walking along the journey together so consistently, I forget that there is so much we don’t know still. As the world turns around us at a breakneck pace, there is a small calm here at this table, as we break pretzel buns together. A promise made, drunkenly, with the untried enthusiasm of youth at senior-year tailgates, still remains true: your people are my people. Your God: mine, too.

Psalm 150

Unsure of where to direct my steps next, I step into the chapel, re-route into a friend, open up my heart upon the sidewalk to an ear willing to ask questions in response. My open hands receive a word, and the faithful psalmist provides. You are the psalmist. And you and you and you.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

an ornithological moment

This is where the pileated woodpecker gets its name—the "pileus" or cap of the freed slave. 


I didn't come to theology grad school to untangle the mysteries of my childhood breakfast table, but the professor’s brief aside illuminates the Saturday ritual of standing at the kitchen sink, filling a plastic tumbler from an old Carolina Mudcats baseball game with tap water for myself as my dad whips up pancakes and sausage on the stove top.

Outside the window above the sink, where my gaze fixes as the faucet runs, hangs a suet feeder my father fills faithfully to lure the woodpeckers who live in the woods behind our house into close viewing range. He teaches me, as does my grandmother’s Audubon guide to birds, to identify the nuthatch and the chickadee, and to distinguish between the downy and hairy woodpeckers. He models for me the patience of waiting for the birds to arrive and the askesis of dropping whatever else you are doing at a moment’s notice when the rare, reclusive pileated woodpecker makes a cameo.

Bird-watching is lauded for the practice of patience it demands. But I think what I learned from nature is not so much the practice of attentiveness, but rather the call of the immediate.

If you keep your nose stuck in school books, under the pressure of a deadline, you will miss the woodpecker. Statistically, certainly, a pileated woodpecker will return. You could, probably, keep reading and still get to see one eventually, later. But that is not certain.

I wonder if my father knew what he was teaching me, when he called me from piano practice, computer game-playing, reading, or chores to behold the prized birds that appeared at his suet feeder. Did he realize he was teaching me to heed when beauty interrupts me?

Nothing reveals the arbitrariness of a deadline than an epiphany of nature. The interruption of the natural into our constructed world offers an invitation to the immediate moment. Perhaps this is a gentle version of “the experience of the world as utterly resistant to the self,” which Rowan Williams cites as the condition of the possibility of honest poetry, honest encounter with the universe.

The pileated woodpecker, like the spirit, blows where she wills. He will arrive when he pleases, and disappear when he desires, and will not abide by human structures. He offers the opportunity for an encounter, and you can decide whether or not to heed when your mother or father shouts, excitedly: “Renée, come!” and pound up the stairs, down the hall, tip-toe quietly into the kitchen and stare out your window at a creature who offers wonder. David Kelsey says that it is not an essential aspect of animals’ nature to offer blessing to humans. Perhaps not. But it seems essential to ours to find blessing in them.