As part of my undergrad degree in English Literature, I had to memorize poetry for several classes. That was over two decades ago, but I still can recite a few lines from Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and from the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. If I’m ever deprived of other means of entertainment, I can always snicker out a few lines of “whan that april with his shoures soote / The droghte of march hath perced to the roote…” (Dr. John Skillen, who taught Medieval Lit, always made us feel like we were reading something hilariously inappropriate. I will be forever grateful to him for that.)
For all the while I hurl my hurts at heaven,
Believing I besiege the battlement,
Of God’s invulnerable heart and haven,
I strike at emptiness, at my own bafflement,
I shake my fist in fury at a shadow.
For he is not like us nor are his ways
Like ours. He left that heaven’s haven long ago
And broke our siege. A voice behind me says:
Why do you weep and rage at heaven above?
I have come down to die here in the dirt,
Your wounds have wounded me, for I am Love
And in my heart I hold your deepest hurt.
Oh turn around, return, and face me here
Your slightest prayer will pierce me like a spear.
Exhausted by my own siege engine’s roar,
The clatter and the rattle of my prayer,
I drop, defeated, at his bolted door,
And sink awhile in silence and despair.
Is there another way to come at him,
Who seems so distant in his might and power?
I have no wings to rise like seraphim
So I begin to build the sinners tower,
Returning to that folly back in Babel.
Effort and elevation are my aim,
As though by my own powers I were able
To overwrite the nameless with my name.
But just before the summit and the crown
A voice in darkness calls: ‘let us go down’.
Here in this shadowed valley, dark and bleak,
We lay a bitter siege against the one
Who was our heart’s desire, but now withdraws
Behind his battlements. Our prayers just break
Against what seem like walls of silent stone.
We make an engine of our injuries,
And vault at God a volley of our sorrows:
All the despair and anger that we feel.
The catapult of our catastrophes
Hurls up its heavy load, and flights of arrows
Clatter against his walls, fall back and fail.
How can we make him feel our miseries?
We fling back famine at him, torture, cancer,
Is he almighty then? Has he no answer?
Down into the icy depths you plunge,
The cold dark undertow of your depression,
Even your memories of light made strange,
As you fall further from all comprehension.
You feel as though they’ve thrown you overboard,
Your fellow Christians on the sunlit deck,
A stone-cold Jonah on whom scorn is poured,
A sacrifice to save them from the wreck.
But someone has their hands on your long line,
You sound for them the depths they sail above,
One who takes Jonah as his only sign
Sinks lower still to hold you in his love,
And though you cannot see, or speak, or breathe,
The everlasting arms are underneath.
I start with Dante in a darkened wood
Well past the middle of my mazy way,
My beating heart sustains this flesh and blood,
A sounding drum that will not let me stay
Stuck in the sluggishness of middle age.
For here are April showers and a new day,
As Chaucer joins me in my pilgrimage;
The mottled glory of his company,
With all their tales to tell, gives me new courage.
And now a Bedford tinker comes to me
And sings: Here little, and hereafter bliss,
Death where’s thy sting, where grave thy victory?
So, pilgrim heart, keep beating, fierce and free,
Your last beat brings me where I long to be.
A fledgling hidden in an ancient tree,
Singing unseen and darkling to the stars,
The fount and spring of meaning, just upstream
Of every utterance, unsullied, free,
A prisoner who grips and bends her bars,
The one who begs to differ, dares to dream,
A child astray, still calling to your heart,
A pattern, personal as all the swirls
In fingerprints on hands that hands have held,
Wholeness that knows itself within each part,
A flag whose emblem every breath unfurls,
A chasm bridged, and an old heartache healed,
A new day at the end of all your days,
A mystery you’ll never paraphrase.
Breathe in and in that breathing be created,
Wake from the dust, be conscious, and inhale,
Fresh from the Word and Light of God, delighted,
You find you have become a living soul.
But soon you must breathe out. What’s to be done?
Who will be with you then? And will you dare
To trust the breath of life back to the one
Who breathed it into you? Christ comes to share
Your letting go; you hear him sigh and say
Father into your hands receive my spirit
And find that he has opened up the way
For you as well. He takes your breath to bear it
Deep into heaven with him in his death,
That you might be reborn with every breath.
How might my prayer partake the angels’ age
Theirs is no age at all, but all in one;
My moments pass, as steps in pilgrimage,
But they begin where my dark journey’s done.
They see all things at once: each point in time
For them is radiant with eternity.
Mine are the twists and turns, the long road home,
Theirs is the over-view, and flying free
They brush me with their feathers, with the rumour
Of their flight, and something in me sings
Into their passing light, till my prayer-murmur,
Circled in the slipstream of their wings,
Is lifted up in grace to join with theirs,
Who sing a Sanctus into all our prayers.
Not some strict modicum, exact allowance,
Precise prescription, rigid regimen,
But beauty and gratuitous abundance,
Capacious grace, beyond comparison.
Not something hasty, always snatched alone;
Junkets of junk food, fuelling our dis-ease,
Not little snacklets eaten on the run,
But peace and plenty, taken at our ease.
Not to be worked for, not another task,
But love that’s lavished on us, full and free,
Course after course of hospitality,
And rich wine flowing from an unstopped flask.
He paid the price before we reached the inn,
And all He asks of us is to begin.