In the opening of her book, TRAVELING MERCIES, Anne Lamott uses a metaphor that truly speaks to my experience. “My coming to faith did not start with a leap,” she writes, “but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way I moved across the swamp…each bringing me closer to the verdant pad of faith on which I somehow stay afloat today.”
I recalled these words as I began this writing, reflecting in gratitude upon those pads I have been drawn to over the years, some consciously sought after, others serendipitously encountered – recognizing, of course, it’s all grace. Whether among the weekly Wednesday night Soup and Psalms faithful or observing the occasional Friday afternoon Westminster Choir rehearsal, squeezed around noisy dining room tables or standing alone in the garden at first light, within circles of knitters and prayers, bluestockings and oenophiles, All grace, indeed.
School has always been a pad of great appeal and significance, most recently this summer. “I’m teaching a course with your name all over it,” a former grad school professor teased. Interrupting my job search for a few hours each week to explore the connections between spirituality and poetry was a no-brainer. One of the assignments: read poetry for an hour a day and pay attention to what happens. Twist my arm.
Who hasn’t heard the amusing advice on how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. As with any practice – ritual, intentional, aspirational – hope for transformation abides. Marathon trainers, meditators, musicians anticipate some progress, some perfection resulting from their daily discipline. I would suppose my fellow students of the poem expected no less. Nor would I imagine any of us were disappointed. Poetry – reading it, writing it, sharing it – creates clarity, deepens inquiry, cultivates wisdom and compassion, patience and faith. As with most spiritual practice, the willingness to be open is all that’s required.
I have often included poems in my daily meditation and prayer, more so this year with gifts of daily readings and a literary guide to prayer through the seasons of the liturgical year. Without question, the experience is intensified. Today, from Rilke:
Full round apple, peach, pear, blackberry.
Each speaks life and death into the mouth. Look
at the face of a child eating them.
The tastes come from afar and slowly grow nameless on the tongue.
Where there were words, discoveries flow, released from within
. . .so that, in the tasting, sweetness may burst forth
and be known in all its meanings of sun and earth and here.
from Sonnets to Orpheus
These words take me in two directions. First, to the Hebrew scriptures, recalling how those preparing to enter Canaan are called to continued faithfulness, to living intentionally as God’s people. This day I have set before you life and death. . .Now choose life. (Deut. 30:19) Yes, my heart beats. Breath enters and leaves my body. But this passage suggests there is life (dare I say LIFE) that is more than biology. A life of energy and enthusiasm and spirit. It is that abundant life Jesus brings to the party (John 10:10), not simply wrapping ourselves in the shelter, the exclusivity of regulations and principles, but going beyond into the adventure that embraces hope and trust, mercy and compassion and joy. Choose – practice – this life.
Rilke also sends me to another poem. In From Blossoms, Li-Young Lee writes:
From blossoms comes this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands, from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what you love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade, not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing, from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
Farm stand peaches dot the Jersey landscape in these August days and, with Lee’s images, invite me to deeper reflection. Each moment matters. Whether of delight or sorrow, certainty or confusion. To be held in our hands, to sink our teeth into, savor and swallow. And while it may not always appear to be true, spiritual practice done over and over bears fruit. If I think diligently about respect and forgiveness, and about bestowing them on those I know and those I do not know, I will become kinder and more compassionate. I return to the question put forth in another classroom decades ago by theologian Jack Shea: if you prayed the Prayer of St. Francis every day for a year, what would your life look like? Weaving words of respect, consolation, mystery, awe, helplessness, longing and beauty into the fabric of my life can prompt joy, allow me to face my fears, remind me of my limitations as well as my blessings – each strengthening the connection to that which is larger than myself. The practice continues.
. . .With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.
Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.
Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your VISA card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Mumble along, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.
from PRAY FOR PEACE by Ellen Bass