Today I’m thinking about the word GIVEN—accepting what is given, being grateful for what is given, recognizing the given as gift. Wendell Berry chose this word as the title of one of his recent collections of poems which focus on attentiveness and care for what is. The line in the serenity prayer about accepting what we cannot change invites us to distinguish between what is given us to accept and what is given us as a challenge to act for change. Poverty, for instance, is not a given; it’s a condition largely created by unjust systems and unbridled self-interest. Health is given, but dependent on choices we continue to make. Family is a given. We get who we get, and they are part of our story, whether we remain in intimate contact or flee for the sake of the lives can’t lead among them. What is given is the frame within which we work out our daily salvation: “Given these circumstances . . . ,” “Given these limits . . .,” “Given the budget constraints, or the political climate, or the fact of a Supreme Court vacancy in the midst of a campaign year,” what then shall we do? “Given” acknowledges assumptions and we work from there. What is given is the gift—or the assignment, as I sometimes think about challenges I would not have chosen. My prayer for this day is to welcome and learn to work with what is given.
The word I’m carrying today is GUIDANCE. I’m interested in how it comes—in how to notice and receive it, how to make a habit of that noticing. People speak of it in various ways: “The Lord told me to . . .” “I sensed . . .” “I felt . . .” “I found myself strongly attracted to . . .” “I suddenly knew . . . .” The language moves rather fluidly between psychology and theology, intuition and inspiration, internal desires and external signals. I think of the Holy Spirit as moving among and within us and of angels or subtle presences some have names for, but who accompany and witness and help us along the way. These are things I have observed about how guidance comes: usually subtly; surprisingly; suddenly; often from unlikely (sometimes unwelcome) sources; sometimes in the form of bodily sensations—fatigue, new energy, a clutch in the stomach, tingling. I think you get more as you learn to pay more consistent attention to what emerges at the margins of consciousness. I wrote a poem some time ago called “Halo Effect” in a book called “The Light at the Edge” which had to do with this experience, so I’ll append it here.
“What does it take for people to change their minds?”
Sometimes there are no trumpets, but only
a slight shift in the light, the angle
of vision, the syntax. Revelation
can hover like a hummingbird, dart
in and out of sight, leave only
a shock of color and the amazement
all that energy awakens.
Conversion doesn’t always require
a fall from a horse or three days
of blindness. Sometimes we see
the light at the edge of the field
when the gaze is fixed on the teacup
or we are chewing our pencils,
Looking for a word.
Epiphany as ordinary as a grey morning
dawns neither sudden nor gradual, but
alights in the present perfect.
What has been here all along arrives,
astonishing, and changes everything.
Rather than relinquishment, I am thinking of Lent as a time of permission—to pause, to eat mindfully, to renew relationship, to let go of “pleasures” that have become dry or burdensome, and seek deeper pleasure in quiet, solitude, prayer, meditation, making music or art or poetry. To enjoy the early hour before the day’s demands impinge. To light a candle and accept its invitation to inwardness. Maybe even imperatives can become permission: “Don’t do that” could be heard as “You don’t have to do that.” Reframing is helping me reclaim the possibilities of this season, and appreciate in a new way the wisdom of the liturgical year.
“To survive spiritually as a member of an organisation, one must possess some special talent which makes one so indispensable that almost any outrageous behavior is pardoned.”
W.H. Auden, The Prolific and the Devourer
It is as important to bypass bureaucracy now and then as it is to skip occasionally so your walk won’t turn into a trudge. The “special talent” Auden refers to here, required to survive the flattening weight of tiers of institutional hierarchy, might simply be a capacity for play, which is to say the ability even to imagine the outrageous behavior that might require pardon. Professionals who remember how to play are a rare breed. I met an enterprising entrepreneur who gives workshops to business people on how to bring laughter back into the workplace. The very fact that she markets spiritual vitality as a skill testifies to the atrophy she proposes to arrest. The play impulse is one of our deepest survival instincts.
Organizational life, even at its most humane, tends to suppress play. Protocols forestall inspired shortcuts. Parliamentary procedure squashes all but the most determined spontaneity. Legal language precludes the pun as an agent of insight, and turns wit-flexing pith to syntactic soup. Ad hoc committees perpetuate themselves, and so hoc becomes nunc et semper.
The sickness most deeply imbedded in the bureaucratic body is intolerance for eccentricity. No virtue in itself, selective eccentricity nevertheless often provides a needed goad to collective self-reflection. CEOs need a good eccentric on board as urgently as King Lear needed a fool. Eccentricity of the kind I am thinking of is almost synonymous with playfulness. It is willingness to tinker with what works–hence to defy the tyranny of the tried and known on the off chance that something else might work better–or be more fun. It is, for that matter, a conviction that what is more fun does work better. It is the mental athleticism required to switch point of view, step outside the frame, or suddenly recognize an unanticipated success in the very moment of failure. It is not always convinced that forward, onward, or upward is the obvious direction in which to move. Or that a straight line is the best way to get there. It is willing to sacrifice efficiency for a little ecstasy or progress for process.
Play is not buffoonery. It is eminently serious. The play energy the truly playful person expends is generated by hard work, thought, and focused interest in the problems at hand. Real play is not distraction, but concentration. The paradox is that such concentration and exertion is as revitalizing as deep rest.
Play is a response to the call of the moment. It works through the muse of sudden inspiration. It is not calculated performance. Divested of ego, it is pure consent to what is suddenly recognized as possibility. So the person who plays is not a slacker, but does his or her own work well, and finds in that work occasion for play as the calligrapher does not neglect the word to be copied in designing the decorative flourish. Play has a quality of what the old theologians would have called “moral beauty” or the philosophers, “intellectual delight.” It comes from the spiritual center, it calls forth creativity in others, and transforms the court or the corridors of power into places of discovery. It is, to return to Auden’s observation, work done so well and with such utter attention that the act of working “heats up” and expands into play–not departing from the task at hand but doing it as though for the first time.
Abraham Lincoln’s legendary playfulness is a case in point. His epigrammatic observations (“I can make more generals, but horses cost money”) stopped people in their tracks and invited them to reframe. He introduced quirky criteria by which to judge people’s ideas (“I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it”). He loved the kind of paradox that spun conventional wisdom in a new direction (“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”), and the kind of simplicity that subverted the often self-serving complexities of institutional protocols (“I never had a policy; I have just tried to do my very best each and every day.”)
Lincoln amused his intimates puzzled his colleagues and outraged his enemies. The “special talent” he possessed—the kind Auden recommends we seek in hiring and promotion—is one worth cultivating in ourselves and our students: the capacity to dislodge what is stuck by the sudden reframing laced with wit and grounded in humility. And willingness to play the fool—a role, Shakespeare taught us, indispensible to the health of the state.
For those who observe Lent, this is a season of self-examination and spiritual exercise that begins with confession. “Against you only have I sinned,” we read in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, “and done what is evil in your sight.” “Confess your sins to one another,” James writes, enumerating the practices that make for spiritual and communal health.
Protestants gave up the ritual of sacramental confession nearly five centuries ago. Instead we confess our sins to God in private prayer or to one another in a corporate confession read aloud on Sundays, not requiring us to name the particularly embarrassing offenses that burden, and eventually blunt, the conscience. Or sometimes we find ourselves in groups whose intention is to provide a safe space for confession. These can be enormously helpful—twelve-step programs, for instance, where people can tell stories of brokenness in a climate of acceptance that for many is the beginning of healing.
I remember thinking about confession in a new way a few years back when I heard a chapel talk by a college faculty member who had been asked to share his spiritual journey. I was expecting a fairly standard conversion narrative, including a chapter about waywardness, repentance, and return. When we came to that part of his story, however, he said, “I’m not going to enumerate the sins of my youth. They’ve been forgiven and they are gone. I’m not going to run the risk of making them sound juicy or lively or even interesting by naming them here.” The wisdom of that restraint has come back to me on other occasions when I have found myself in groups where storytelling took a confessional turn. Public confession, I’ve noticed, offers a variety of temptations. Here are a few of the more obvious ways confession can turn into self-deception, self-exoneration, self-aggrandizement, even self-congratulation:
— I have been bad in ways that are unusually interesting. My kind of bad is more psychologically and spiritually complex than most. It has a kind of bouquet, like fine wine. This can be elaborated with hints of dark humor, lustiness and Byronic mystery.
— When I tell you how bad I am, you’ll see how humble I can be. The more details of my badness I tell, the more you will admire my humility. By the time I’m done here, you’ll be walking out shaking your heads and murmuring, “Wow. She’s so humble. Wish I could be that humble.”
— I have been bad in ways that offer fine grist for the entertainment mill. I have stories of prurience, squalor, betrayal, and clever falsehood that might really inspire a good movie script. You’ll laugh. You’ll think of characters in mafia movies and double-agents and midnight cowboys or (in the female version) of kindly hookers and sexy double-agents.
— When I’m done telling you my story of being bad, you’ll see how good my motives were. You’ll even see that all that badness was really for the sake of something good—a kind of fidelity, even—misguided, perhaps, but kind-hearted.
— When I’m done telling you my story of being bad, you’ll see how it’s really a parable: good can come out of evil. Maybe the evil is even necessary for the good to happen. Maybe what I did was actually a kind of service.
The grain of truth in each of these versions is what makes them so tempting. The thing I want to remember this season as I undertake examination of conscience that will, I hope, open up the places where I am obstructing the flow of divine energy to and through me is that confession is a precarious business, mined with traps for the needy ego, not (as they say in the marriage rite) to be entered into lightly. When the liturgist says “Let us prepare our hearts for confession,” I’d like an extra moment to do that, because a few boulders may need to be moved out of the way.
A colleague of mine used to append this dark reminder from Jeremiah to all his e-mails: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” Some of us laughed about his choice of tag-line. And yet I remember it, some days, with gratitude. Self-deception grows deep with roots that branch and clutch. So here’s one of my prayers for this season: May I see myself more clearly, confess more truly, and accept more gratefully the forgiveness that sets me free.
Because sentences can’t say it all
Because metaphor matters
Because lines linger
Because lyric accommodates epiphany
Because poems teach you to listen more astutely
Because poems unmask euphemisms
Because poems teach negative capability
Because poetry is an antidote to propaganda
Because figures of speech reconfigure thought
Because poems are not about ideas
Because poems heal
Because poems connect the dots differently
Because Lear’s fool was a poet
Because poems move us toward music
Because prophecy leads to poetry
And poetry leads to prayer
A colleague of mind began her “Bible as Literature” class quoting a rabbi who said of reading Torah, “These words are my very life.” The connection between words and life energy, blessing, and well-being crosses traditions; as far as I know every tradition preserves sacred words, sacred texts, and some sense of the sacramentality of words, themselves. Linguist Barry Sanders points out that for the ancient Hebrews, utterance—forming a word from the breath of life—was a form and likeness of divine power.
Watching a child begin to speak is among the most awe-inspiring moments of parenting. Most children are awed, themselves: they say the word “light,” they point to the light, wide-eyed, and then laugh in surprise and delight. Watching a child begin to read is similarly stirring. When I sat down recently to read to my favorite four-year-old, she firmly took the book into her own lap and said, “No. I want to read to you.” And she did—slowly and proudly, having something of her own to offer in an empowering and exhilarating exchange.
I’ve also sat with children who were illiterate, or virtually so. The pain of staring at a word, knowing it means something, not knowing what, the humiliation and the hunger and the shame are heartbreaking. Some fake it as well as they can. Some go sullen. Some ask for help over and over, repeating the words provided then asking again.
I’ve also sat with college students whose literacy, for all their hours in school, is largely limited to reading what’s on the page and making literal sense of it. There is a kind of deep illiteracy that remains undiagnosed because it is masked by an ability to read that stopped with phonics. Just as vibrant health is more than survival, life-giving reading practices involve far more than word recognition and correct inflection.
To read well is to play what’s on the page the way a musician plays written notes, interpreting, nuancing, feeling one’s way into the text with a lively awareness of the many hermeneutic choices being made at every turn. It involves identification, empathy, imagination, a capacity to see and tolerate ambiguities, the authority to infer and interpolate. It’s joyous, inventive work.
And, as Larry Dossey, MD points out, reading bears a direct connection to health of body and spirit. One of my favorite childhood memories is of sitting wrapped in a blanket in my father’s big recliner reading Gone With the Wind for three days straight while I skipped school, recovering from tonsillitis. It was healing. It was life-giving. It gave me access and energy. I would wish an experience like that for every kid, and for every adult—to get lost in words and find a path through them. To know one’s own journey as story. To let words heal, by distracting and redirecting and inviting the mind and heart to the other side of the looking glass.
Midway through “The Bridge,” one of Alicia Ostriker’s series of “mastectomy poems,” the speaker switches from the indicative to the imperative. “You never think it will happen to you,” the poem begins, and continues into a deftly rendered scene in a waiting room where a technician opens a door to deliver what will be the first of a series of blows that will change her body and her life.
Then description turns to urgent direction:
Go put your clothes on in a shabby booth
Whose curtain reaches halfway to the floor.
Try saying fear. Now feel
Your tongue as it cleaves to the roof of your mouth.
I have seen this shift before. I have felt it, in the midst of writing, in the midst of anxiety, in the midst of prayer, when a voice comes from somewhere giving direction, and you know it’s not your voice, and you know you didn’t make it up, and you know you’re being spoken to with authority, clarity, and a kind of wisdom that meets the need of the moment. Once the word that came to me in the midst of wrestling with the day’s demons was “Don’t Control Anything.” (Jolted into a fresh level of awareness, my instant response was “Anything?” And it came again, clear and firm: “Don’t Control Anything.”
The commanding voice that appears in this poem seems a little more like that of a friend who knows the speaker needs to be guided through the emotional fog and kept moving so that fear won’t paralyze her. “Try saying fear.” “Put your clothes on in a shabby booth / whose curtain reaches halfway to the floor.” Just do it, the voice insists. It’s humiliating and cold. It’s impersonal and anticlimactic and you are filled, oddly, with shame like a sheep shorn of its one beauty and protection, but the thing to do is walk the gauntlet of clinical rituals, accept the exposure and the confinement and the isolation and the sterile effacement of shock and grief. That will get you home to where you will be free to lay the facts and their terrible implications out on a tabletop with your tea and pore over them while you weep.
“Feel your tongue as it cleaves to the roof of your mouth,” the voice continues. Notice your body. In group meditation and body work instructors always tell you this: notice what’s going on in your body. Notice where you’re tense, where there are flickers of pain, which parts of you are objecting to the way you’re sitting or are tired, or want to move. “The body never lies,” Alice Miller wrote. And Karen Horney insisted, “The body is the unconscious.” The body will tell you what you need, and will identify for you what is needful, sometimes to the point of preventing you from doing anything else until you locate the deep energies that will serve your needs. When the tongue cleaves, an imposed silence enforces thought, and offers time, perhaps, for a poem to begin. And a poem, if you are Alicia Ostriker or if you are not, may be the thing that equips you for what is to come.
I have been waking early. Very early. When at last, after adjusting the pillow, pitching it overboard, lying on my stomach, my side, my back, trying to remember the lines of a poem, dithering over the to-do list, choosing a sacred word in hope of dropping into centering prayer, and wondering who is riding a motorcycle in this quiet neighborhood at this hour, I get up. My ambivalent efforts to 1) return to sleep or 2) make good use of wakefulness have failed. I make coffee quietly so as not to disturb my slumbering spouse. He also has wakeful nights. This isn’t one of them.
I light a candle. Candlelight soothes me and helps me focus. When the wick catches, a new bit of life happens. “Light of Christ,” I think, remembering the lighting of the Paschal candle at the Easter vigil. The small flame is a revelation: God is light. All light speaks of God, “whose robe is the light.”
A mentor told me one time to step out at night before going to bed and spend two minutes gazing at the moon. He wouldn’t say why. “Just try it,” he said. I do, sometimes. It’s not always two whole minutes; when it’s cold, or the moon is partly clouded over, or the phone rings I may spend only a few moments. I don’t do it every night. But when I do, something happens. Perspective shifts. Some ancient pagan impulse to bow before a natural mystery surges in me like a wave of adrenalin. Beauty I did not make and cannot comprehend brings me back to awe, which seems a proper state of mind for “human merely beings.”
Moonlight is worth staying up for. Candlelight is worth getting up for. As daylight comes “a ribbon at a time,” I am ready to welcome it. I begin the day with a small, familiar prayer from the liturgy: “In your light may we see light.”
Virginia Woolf reminded us that “Love has a thousand faces.” Oliver Sacks has taught me that curiosity is one of those faces. I think of the endearing way Robin Williams (playing Sacks in the movie Awakenings, with Sacks’ blessing and to Sacks’ own delight) gazed, peered, pondered, watched the patients in his care, looking for signs, clues, small individuating details that might guide him into the intimate empathy he seems to have found for one patient after another. He seems never to have thought of them as a category—“patients”—but always one after another, as persons with stories, who suffered in ways as various as their quirks and facial tics.
He seemed to live by the questions that opened windows into others’ lives and kept his own heart and mind open in situations where many might have closed them. Who are you? What is it like to be you? What exactly are you experiencing? Can I find a verb for that? Has anyone given it a name? Maybe it’s medical, maybe it’s psychological, maybe it’s spiritual—but what is it, really?
His empathy seems to have been oddly separable from sympathy—or at least to have little of that pity that so easily dissolves into sentimentality. The objectivity about his own death that enabled him to write with such startling clarity and care about it in his final months came from a long practice of the kind of detachment Buddhists talk about—the emphatic opposite of indifference. The detachment of the fully engaged witness.
He left us that to remember and hope for and practice.