Tender December

From the tawny light
from the rainy nights
from the imagination finding
itself and more than itself
alone and more than alone
at the bottom of the well where the moon lives,   
can you pull me

into December? a lowland
of space, perception of space
towering of shadows of clouds blown upon
clouds over
                  new ground, new made
under heavy December footsteps? the only
way to live?

The flawed moon
acts on the truth, and makes   
an autumn of tentative
silences.
You lived, but somewhere else,
your presence touched others, ring upon ring,
and changed. Did you think   
I would not change?

                              The black moon
turns away, its work done. A tenderness,
unspoken autumn.   
We are faithful
only to the imagination. What the
imagination
             seizes
as beauty must be truth
. What holds you
to what you see of me is
that grasp alone.

~Denise Levertov “Everything that Acts is Actual”

Within these days of early winter
is disappearance of our familiar world,
of all that grows and thrives,
of new life and freshness,
of hope slipping away
in a scurry for survival.

Then there comes this moment of softness amid the bleak,
a gift of grace and beauty,
a glance of sunlight on a snowy hillside,
a covering of low misty puffs in the valley,
a moon lit landscape,
a startling sunrise, clouds upon clouds
and then I know the actual world is seized with Your Truth
because You have grasped hold of it
and won’t let go.

Turning Darkness into Light: Infinite Weight and Lightness

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing…
We can ask for courage, however,
and trust that God has not led us into this new land
only to abandon us there.”
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,

almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

____________________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

______________________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,
                                Spirit,
                                          suspended,
                                                            waiting.

______________________________

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                               and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
~Denise Levertov “The Annunciation”

Like most people living in 2020,
I want things to be the way I want them:
my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.

And then the unexpected happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. There is infinite weight within infinite emptiness.

Only then, as an emptied vessel, can I be filled.

In my forty years of clinical work, I’ve never before seen such an epidemic of hopelessness. Debts seem too great, reserves too limited, foundations too shaky, plans dashed, the future too uncertain.

In the annunciation of the angel approaching a young woman out of the blue, Mary’s response to this overwhelming event is a model for us all when we are hit by the unexpected.

She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people, even in the midst of trouble. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so-carefully-planned-out life to give life to God within her.

Her resilience reverberates through the ages and to each one of us in our own multi-faceted and overwhelming troubles:
may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise – all embodied within me.

Let it be.

Even if it pierces my soul as with a sword so that I leak out to empty;
you are there to plug the bleeding hole, filling me with your infinite light.

Everything inside me cries for order
Everything inside me wants to hide
Is this shadow an angel or a warrior?
If God is pleased with me, why am I so terrified?
Someone tell me I am only dreaming
Somehow help me see with Heaven’s eyes
And before my head agrees,
My heart is on its knees
Holy is He. Blessed am I.

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

All this time we’ve waited for the promise
All this time You’ve waited for my arms
Did You wrap yourself inside the unexpected
So we might know that Love would go that far?

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

I am not brave
I’ll never be
The only thing my heart can offer is a vacancy
I’m just a girl
Nothing more
But I am willing, I am Yours
Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

Francesca Battistelli

This Flood of Stillness

I know this happiness
is provisional:

the looming presences –
great suffering, great fear –

withdraw only
into peripheral vision:

but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:

this need to dance,
this need to kneel:

this mystery:
~Denise Levertov “Of Being” from The Stream and the Sapphire

Try as I might to hold fear and suffering
to the periphery of my vision,
it is difficult to keep them there;
like a morning fog clutching at the ground,
bad news creeps out and covers everything,
distorting truth and color and light,
yet so seductive by softening the rough edges
until reality hits.

Maybe I can turn away
Maybe it won’t reach me
Maybe it is all mirage, someone’s imagining.

Still, I can no longer be mere audience to the events of the day,
too weak in the knees to do anything.
The trouble that lies beyond this hill
touches us all.

I kneel in silent witness:
to wait, to listen, to pray for a flood of stillness
to cover us.

All is inescapable mystery,
yet to be clarified.



Upheld from Falling

I had grasped God’s garment in the void 
but my hand slipped on the rich silk of it. 

The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember 
must have upheld my leaden weight from falling, even so, 

for though I claw at empty air and feel nothing, no embrace, 
I have not plummetted.
~Denise Levertov “Suspended”

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? 
~Robert Browning from “Andrea Del Sarto”

As richly dressed as the world is this time of year,
beauty abounds everywhere I look,
it slips through my fingers when I try to capture it and hold on,
I cannot save myself by my own grasp.

Yet I’m not allowed to plummet
despite my flailing panic
as the bottom drops out beneath my feet

The air around me is not empty~
it is full of His breath
and where God breathes,
He suspends the fallen.

Anything Rather Than Void

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention…
            And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed one, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.
~Denise Levertov from “Primary Wonder” from Sands of the Well

Here is the mystery, the secret,
one might almost say the cunning,
of the deep love of God:
that it is bound to draw upon itself
the hatred and pain and shame
and anger and bitterness and rejection of the world,
but to draw all those things on to itself
is precisely the means chosen from all eternity
by the generous, loving God,
by which to rid his world of the evils
which have resulted from
human abuse of God-given freedom.
~N.T. Wright from The Crown and The Fire

Inundated by the constantly bad news of the world, I must cling to the mystery of His magnetism for my own weaknesses and flaws, my bitterness. He willingly pulls evil onto Himself, out of us. Hatred and pain and shame and anger disappear into the vortex of His love and beauty, the mucky corners of my heart vacuumed spotless.

We are let in on a secret: He is not sullied by absorbing the dirty messes of our lives. He is sustaining us; we are anything rather than void.

Created in His image, sustained and loved, thus reflecting Him,
we are washed forever clean.

We Are No Longer Alone: Confronted by a Marvelous Truth

Marvelous Truth,
confront us at every turn
in every guise…

Thrust close your smile
that we know you, terrible joy.
~Denise Levertov from “Matins”

A child is born,
crowned in blood, and we lighten up.
Sure, we see it every day, and yet
this day, tradition says, is unlike any,
which is true. It has never happened,
and never will again, over and over
the will to be reborn, to gasp and cry
forgiveness, that is, like birth, difficult,
scared, insurgent, brave with the stranger,
the winter child, that blossoms through the wound.
~Bruce Bond from “Advent”

In sleep his infant mouth works in and out.
He is so new, his silk skin has not yet
been roughed by plane and wooden beam
nor, so far, has he had to deal with human doubt.

 He is in a dream of nipple found,
of blue-white milk, of curving skin
and, pulsing in his ear, the inner throb
of a warm heart’s repeated sound.

His only memories float from fluid space.
So new he has not pounded nails, hung a door,
broken bread, felt rebuff, bent to the lash,
wept for the sad heart of the human race.
~Luci Shaw “Kenosis”

To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
~G.K. Chesterton from “The House of Christmas” (1915)

To think that the original Breath stirring the dust of man led to this?

This mystery of God becoming man, growing within woman, fed from her breast, wounded and bleeding to save her who delivered him, emptied himself completely to then deliver all of us as newborns, sliding slippery into our new life.

And we gasp for breath, our nostrils no longer breathing dust, but filled by the fragrance of forgiveness and grace.

We blossom through his wounds, bursting into bloom.

That Witnessing Presence

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.

~Denise Levertov “Witness”

Even on the days when the mountain is hidden behind a veil of clouds, I have every confidence it is there.  In the off-chance that it might be visible if we took the time to drive up the highway to the foot of it, we did just that last night, risking seeing nothing but pea soup clouds at the higher elevation. Mount Baker remained behind its impenetrable veil, unseen.

A bit lower, at the foot of Mount Shuksan, initially massive clouds obscured it completely – invisible to us except the knowledge that we knew it was there as we had been in that exact spot before and witnessed it first hand. Yet due to powerful winds that blow in the Cascades, over the course of a few minutes Shuksan was exposed before our eyes in all its glory, first in shadowy profile and then crystal clear reality: it was there, movingly unmoved, a revelation of constancy.

No, it had not vanished overnight, gone to another county, blown up or melted down.  My vision isn’t always penetrating enough to see it through cloud cover, but it is still there. 

I know this and have faith it is true even when, within a few minutes, the clouds blew back over the mountain’s face and veiled it completely again.

Some days I simply don’t bother to look for the mountains, so preoccupied I walk right past their obvious grandeur and presence. Then they reach out to me and call me back.  There are times when I turn a corner on the farm and glance up, and there Baker is, a silent and overwhelming witness to beauty and steadfastness.  I literally gasp at not noticing before, at not remembering how I’m blessed by it being there even at the times I can’t be bothered.

The mountains confirm my lack of witness and still stay put to hold me fast yet another day.  And so I keep coming back to gaze, sometimes just at clouds, yearning to lift the veil, and lift my own veil, just one more time.

Our Wings Ruffled

Birds afloat in air’s current,
sacred breath?  No, not breath of God,
it seems, but God
the air enveloping the whole
globe of being.
It’s we who breathe, in, out, in, in the sacred,
leaves astir, our wings
rising, ruffled — but only the saints
take flight.  We cower
in cliff-crevice or edge out gingerly
on branches close to the nest.  The wind
marks the passage of holy ones riding
that ocean of air.  Slowly their wake
reaches us, rocks us.
But storms or still, 
numb or poised in attention,
we inhale, exhale, inhale,
encompassed, encompassed.
~Denise Levertov “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being

God reminds us when we are at our most anxious and needy:
He cares for the birds and feeds them, lifts their wings in the wind and their feathered down keeps them warm. He gives them air to ride upon and air to breathe.

If them, then He cherishes us as well.

We too breathe in, breathe out, ruffled and fluffed, surrounded by the air we need and the air that lifts us. Lacking down, it is His breath keeping us warm.

Encompassed.

Clearing the Fog

 

 

 

Tired and hungry, late in the day, impelled
to leave the house and search for what
might lift me back to what I had fallen away from,
I stood by the shore waiting.
I had walked in the silent woods:
the trees withdrew into their secrets.
Dusk was smoothing breadths of silk
over the lake, watery amethyst fading to gray.
Ducks were clustered in sleeping companies
afloat on their element as I was not
on mine.

I turned homeward, unsatisfied.
But after a few steps, I paused, impelled again
to linger, to look North before nightfall-the expanse
of calm, of calming water, last wafts
of rose in the few high clouds.

And was rewarded:
the heron, unseen for weeks, came flying
widewinged toward me, settled
just offshore on his post,
took up his vigil.
                               If you ask
why this cleared a fog from my spirit,
I have no answer.
~Denise Levertov “A Reward” from Evening Train.

 

 

 

~Lustravit lampade terras~
(He has illumined the world with a lamp)
The weather and my mood have little connection.
I have my foggy and my fine days within me;
my prosperity or misfortune has little to do with the matter.
– Blaise Pascal from “Miscellaneous Writings”

And so you have a life that you are living only now,
now and now and now,
gone before you can speak of it,
and you must be thankful for living day by day,
moment by moment …
a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present…

~Wendell Berry from Hannah Coulter

Worry and sorrow and angst are more contagious than the flu.
I mask up and wash my hands of it throughout the day.
There should be a vaccination against unnamed fears.

I want to say to my patients and to myself:
Stop now, this moment in time.
Stop and stop and stop.

Stop needing to be numb to all discomfort.
Stop resenting the gift of each breath.
Just stop.
Instead, simply be.

I want to say:
this moment, foggy or fine, is yours alone,
this moment of weeping and sharing
and breath and pulse and light.

Shout for joy in it.
Celebrate it.

Be thankful for tears that can flow over grateful lips
just as rain can clear the fog.
Stop holding them back.

Just be–
be blessed in both the fine and the foggy days–
in the now and now and now.




Clumsy Clusters of Grace

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I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.

I need more.

I break off a fragment
to send you.

Please take
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.

Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.

Only so, by division,
will hope increase,

like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source–
clumsy and earth-covered–
of grace.
~Denise Levertov “For the New Year, 1981”

 

 

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One autumn years ago,  my sister-in-law brought several paper bags full of iris roots resting solemnly in earth-covered clumps: dirt–dry misshaped feet and fingers crippled with potential. Her garden had become overcrowded and for her iris to continue to thrive, she needed to divide and share the roots.

We were late getting them into the ground but their clustered grace rose up forgiving us our clumsiness. They took hold and transformed our little courtyard into a Van Gogh landscape.

These iris will continue to gladden our hearts until we too must divide them to pass on their gift of beauty to another garden. This act– “by division, will hope increase”–feels radical yet that is exactly what God did in sending His Son to become earth-covered.

A part of God was broken off to put down roots, grow, thrive and be divided, over and over and over again to increase the beauty and grace for those of us limited to this soil.

Each spring our garden blooms so all can see and know: hope lives here —
even in the last few hours of an old and tired year
passing haltingly, hesitantly
into something brand new.

 

 

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