Last month, I experienced the acclaimed American poet, Anne Waldman, perform a series of her poems, along with her band, at the Corrala de Santiago, in Granada, Spain. She is an electrifying presence, a flaming advocate for the vitality of poetry to keep open possibility in this time when the Powers are trying to shut resistance down, put a lid on opportunity, and turn the clock backward. Yes, we need to heed her poetry but also her prose—what she says poetry can do in our world. She’s a contemporary and necessarily disputatious voice, challenging the Powers and working keeping us awake.

This morning, I came across (again) a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. A poet from a previous age who, against various and sometimes not so subtle Victorian tyrannies, challenged the notion of a settled reality. In his poem, “The Grandeur of God,” Hopkins—gay when gay was much more dangerous than being gay is now (present Administration not withstanding)—pries us open with this grand, lyrical vision of Nature’s aliveness to Divine freedom, mystery, and the fluid nature of things.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

    And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

For an interpretation and reading by the Stanley Kunitz, tenth Poet Laureate of the United States, whom The Atlantic called “the venerable doyen of American poetry,” click below.

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AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman
photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Most of us, most of our lives, spend our time and energy at the surface of things. A spirituality that’s worth anything at all is a spirituality of the depths—that is, it’s soulful, aware that there’s much more to us all than meets the eye. It’s a way of life necessarily conscious of the inner journey, a journey we must all take if we’re going to become our full and vibrant selves. That path to fullness, wholeheartedness, as Brene Brown is apt to call it, runs through the stuff most of us would rather avoid—the pains, mistakes, fears, peccadillos, and confusions that we have no interest in keeping in our consciousness; therefore, we often hide them away behind lock and key.

William Butler Yeats said, “Why should we honor those that die upon the field of battle—one may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of one’s self.”

I’ve just finished a draft of a long, narrative and prose poem that explores all this, thirty poems in all. Here’s a taste of it, the first and twenty-fourth poems. The whole thing is called, “What’s Hid Beneath the Bones of this Great Tree.” It’s the mythic and lyrical tale of a journey from the sterile plain of a dull and unconscious life into the depths of discovery, death, and new birth—a soulful transformation taking place imaginatively in the wondrous root system of a great tree.

The First of Thirty Poems:

Somewhere deep inside the Earth, something familiar lives. 

I feel it in my bones. 

The bitter spirit of the age has shut the heavens tight. And now the old sky gods are dead or fled the temple ruined by their blind and self-protective tyranny, their rejection of those parts of us they were determined not to see. On this thin crust, where Earth and heaven meet, we toil and brood and serve the old because we do not know the new that breathes deep beneath the darkened sun.

I felt something sigh just now—a gasp that rises from the Earth beneath my feet, as if some sad and hidden thing tried desperately to let itself be known. A wisp of memory darts through my brain, then flees and leaves a mere hint of what it tried to say.  I taste the color blue; midnight in its hue and bitter in my mouth. Suddenly I’m cold, and sad, a sorrow deep and unexplainable. This sadness is a heavy weight; it pulls me down, my cheek pressed to the ground in grief I neither want nor understand. 

The stars have fallen from the sky. The old gods dead or gone. 

But something living’s hidden deep among the bones of this Great Tree.

. . . . . . . . . .

The Twenty-Fourth of Thirty Poems

There is an alchemy at work deep in the Earth. As God once hid in one of humble birth, so too the thing of greatest worth conceals itself inside the basest stone. Gold is made when what we think we are, or hope to be, or proffer to the world so carefully, falls before the door of pain so bitter to our minds we thought we’d locked it up for good and thrown away the key. 

One who’s waking from the trance induced by life upon the plain above, must face the truth that what we hate, hide, or wish to disavow is the stuff we must reclaim. Down in the dark is where we start our opus magnum—the rescue of our souls, our transformation into gold, a gesture toward the healing of the Earth.

Posted
AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman

A brief Easter meditation drawn from 1 Corinthians 15.50-58, John 20.1, and An Easter Acclamation: Cosmic and Evolutionary. My sermon on Sunday, April 21, 2019, preached at Davis Community Church. Find the audio of the sermon here.

Last summer, my wife, Patty, and walked past the Notre-Dame Cathedral. The line looked excruciatingly long. And so, we passed by and crossed the Pont des Coeurs bridge and explored the Left Bank and the Latin Quarter instead.

This last Monday, I watched, along with hundreds of thousands of Parisians and millions around the world, as Notre Dame, astonishingly, collapsed in flames. Though I’d never been inside it, the grand cathedral was nevertheless inside of me. Notre Dame is the spiritual heart not only of Paris, but in many ways, the consciousness of the Western world—religious and non-religious.

Since the fourth century, a place of worship has occupied the site—the current structure, since the mid-twelfth century. Notre-Dame is an architectural masterpiece, a symbol of artistic genius and ardent spiritual devotion. It’s stood as the cultural and spiritual center of Western life for 850 years—withstanding plague, war, environmental disaster, revolutionary iconoclasm, and even Hitler’s destructive hatred for any glory that wasn’t German.

One journalist wrote as she watched Notre Dame burn: “To those of us who live in Paris, Notre-Dame is a familiar landscape, as solid as a mountain. Durable as time. How could it burn so fast?

Ann Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, watched the flames from her office window, and confessed to what so many felt: “absolutely powerless”.

The historian, Jean-Francois Colosimo said the scene evoked images of the end of the world. The fire, he said, seemed to communicate “the extreme fragility of our situation.”

To feel horror at Notre-Dame’s collapse is human, and yet it’s also an experience of privilege. Today, over two hundred people were killed in terrorist attacks on churches Sri Lanka and high-end hotels catering to Westerners. I do feel myself chastened that I’m more affected by the collapse of a building than by the deaths of hundreds. I’m not proud of that. Such attacks are too commonplace today. I for one am almost numb to them. The collapse of Notre-Dame, caused likely by a technological malfunction or oversight rather than by act of human hatred and violence, strikes deeply, I think, because it is a sign of the times.

There are things, dear to us all, once as solid as a mountain, that are collapsing.

There are experiences coming at us that make us feel powerless.

There are images swirling in our heads that make us feel terribly vulnerable.

Alongside the story of our times, comes another story of collapse, powerlessness, and vulnerability—

—the story of Jesus, the strong and courageous healer of the sick and dying, who in the end becomes so terribly fragile and vulnerable…

—Jesus, revolutionary and reformer in whom the ordinary people placed their hope for a better world, who in the end becomes apparently powerless against the Empire…

—Jesus, God’s advocate of the poor, excluded, and forgotten, who in the end is crucified, dead, and buried…

It feels as if Saint Paul in today’s reading was either wrong or terribly naive—“Death does have the victory; death does sting.”

It must have felt that way to the followers of Jesus on that first Easter long ago.

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb that first Easter morning feeling like it was the end of the world—that her dreams for a better life were always just that, dreams; that shame would tell her always that she was a fool for having dared to believe she was more than what others made her out to be; that people she loved would only die, or leave, or betray her in the end; that she was powerless and vulnerable against the forces of the tyranny, greed, and violence of a male-dominated, power-hungry world.

These were the stories that stalked her soul—and for good reason. Collapse, powerlessness, and vulnerability—loss, death, betrayal, and abuse—these were things she knew all too well.

But there was another story rising around her in the darkness of that first Easter morning—one she could not yet see or trust. It was a new story rising out of of the darkness, out of the collapse, powerlessness, and vulnerability—rising up against her doubts and fears, shame and despair.

What was rising around and within her—though she could not yet see or trust it—was the counter-narrative, the alternative story around which the entire cosmos turns—the truth that it is out of collapse, out of powerlessness, out of vulnerability that new life comes. Always. This fact is as true for human life as it is for the giant sequoia that rises from the tiny seed propagated only by fire. It’s as true for your life and mine as it is for a planet born from a dying star.

This is the story of Easter—

—that life comes from death; that the future rises from our failures; that wholeness comes from our brokenness; that vulnerability and fear, shame and doubt are not weakness. No, this is the strong stuff, the humus, from which new life always comes…

—Jesus rises in the dark of night. A planet is born from a dying star. A sequoia rises from the scorched forest floor where a single cone, broken open by extreme heat, drops a seed into the humus of the earth, and there countless dead things conspire to give birth to life…

—Out of vulnerability. Out of powerlessness. Out of collapse—life rises always. Inevitably. Irrepressibly. Irresistibly. Life always rises…

On a recent trip to the border—there, to practice solidarity with those fleeing violence, poverty, and despair in the hope of a new and better life—a Central American spoke the best and simplest definition of Easter I think I’ve ever heard. It’s a common saying south of the border. And for good reason. It’s spoken against cartels, gangs, the environmental disaster of climate change on poor farmers, and against repressive governments on both sides of the border. And we in the north would do well to learn it—if we wish not merely to survive the age, but to thrive.

She spoke of the key to human resilience, the ground from which unstoppable courage, even revolution can rise.

With the quiet determination of a soul that knows what Easter knows, this young woman of irrepressible courage said: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.”

We are all seeds and in us is a force of life that cannot, indeed, will not be conquered—ever.

So, don’t run from the struggle of life.

When you fall—and you will—get back up.

When you’re afraid and falter, keep going.

You are seeds, all of you.

We are seeds, all of us—together. You notice that she didn’t say, “They tried to bury me.” She said, “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.” We rise together, in relationship, in community…never alone…but together—filled with the irrepressible power of love that alway seeks life, each of us an audacious seed that can’t help but press up from the earth—buried, yes, but in Christ, indomitable, revolutionary, and free!n

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AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman
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