In lieu of the assigned prose

I take up the inkpot and the quill pen
for a moment only, in postponement of when
I’ll give them rein at last, to write
the words they merely guarantee tonight.

What beauty in that coming hour
shall spring up in the coming world,
when the seeds impatience hurled
before it to tomorrow flower!

The dawn’s charioteer impatiently flies on
to outflank the earth’s curve and mount the horizon
and see what today he despaired to lay eyes on.


The old iambic melancholy

We do not know how to write as we ought, but the Spirit himself writes for us (ghost-writes, really) with memoirs too poignant for words.


For release from sin; and for the ones we, if untethered, would have comforted—we pray to the Lord.


Day risen, you wake again and venture out, tying laces, unlocking your bike, thinking of work. Something’s there on the ground this morning, a thin deposit crackling under your shoes, white, flaky. What is it? A kind of bread.

Grainy sediment of pleasure on your toil, or consolation in the way the branches are catching the light just now. Five minutes of self-forgetfulness. Receive what is given, and be fed. Let it melt like a wafer on the tongue, as soon as you find it: it won’t keep.


If you’re scheduled for an execution, you don’t need to watch your cholesterol intake. So why the fear, still, of a stupid question, and why the resentment of a classmate looking smarter than me? I have been given five, six years to do what I hoped I loved. In that time let us see if I can contrive to feast.

Is it required of me that when I consider an objection or dig for an essay’s dubious meaning I must scowl? Is it advised, at any rate, that I hold my brow knit and keep the mouth’s corners level, and would it be a scandal, or would it get around to hiring committees one way or another, if I were to laugh and raise eyebrows expressively, and if my eyes were to glint with study’s serious play? Shall I, or shall I not, let the work I chose enchant me?


Even while the Bible is called Holy, and is framed as scaffolding for the virtues, it is also true that footholds can be found in it for every mistake and sin. If it were only as sharp as your average two-edged sword, it would still be better not to take it up without knowing how to use it. But the hearts of many will be revealed.


Chesterton’s magic we would not smear, but there is a magic that is the gospel’s enemy. Not always marked, this, by newts and cackles; it may be white-clad. And it need not make use of Latinate chants or more guttural languages; the humble ploughboy may invoke it in his mother tongue, in his mother’s church.

What is the difference between the one pronouncing an incantatory rhyme to pull down fire on her enemies, or inscribing chalk circles on triangles to call up a mangled spirit, and on the other hand one who prays to God for victory or consolation? There may be no difference. If there is, I suppose it is that the one who prays, and doesn’t only make a show of praying, but prays, in spirit and in truth—that one submits.

To hope in magic is to make even God only another kind of flesh, forgetting that there is or could be anything but flesh. And what else, indeed, is there? What could spirit possibly be? Well, that’s the mystery. Whatever it is, it seems to be something so different from the rest that even death isn’t evidence against it, even abandonment and despair aren’t evidence against it, since Christ did not die like those martyrs who laughed as they burned—who nonetheless have their place, too, in pointing the way.


Though I had pleaded to meet the Christ
before dismissal,
you sent word in the apostles’ epistles
that words sent secondhand sufficed.


Jesus, you were coming in order to open up holes, tearing the temple curtain, unburying the dead, piercing hands and hearts. But everything now is rushing out through the rents, the sky sucked away into a dark star, the oceans draining through a hidden vent. Are you going to make me a home in the void?


The old iambic melancholy tires, after a while. Have I written more than one thing in the last five years? Punch things up—see if you can. Inspect new candidates for themes: forget bleak self-inspection a while, and frame refrains on rainforests and hulking machines. Scribble out a placid sample paragraph—then scatter the syllables into a volatile meter: welcoming dactyls, you’ll find new materials swelling your lexicon. By any apparatus necessary pull those lines up from their slouch.

Out of this silence yet

To settle into a new city:

Finish a podcast episode begun in the last place you lived. Take some longish showers. Find a good shirt at the thrift store—the locals like your style, or used to like it. If all else fails, move away from that place, and find your memories of it immediately tender and piercing.

I lay up my Madison years to mellow and age. A draught of them will lighten the heart in heavier days.


Possibly whole libraries of alluring letters are waste, distraction, baubles that should not exist in the same world as morality. Remember that everyone must build upon the foundation, and what is built of straw and the lighter sorts of wood will not escape the conflagration. So maybe there is a wisdom for me, too, in what the apostle says: “In whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” But I decided to rearrange conditions, struck out for the study of philosophy, and impertinently enough invited God to come.

Or did I forget to ask, until now? God, will you come?


I’ll pray five minutes, or sit and think of praying. Nothing will be said to me, and maybe it will be a mistake to wish it otherwise. Just to leave a little air unbroken, then, for now. To leave a blank page in the manuscript, where the quiet one may read from me what he knows how to find. 

Where I have come, great clerks have purposed
To greet me with premeditated welcomes;
Where I have seen them shiver and look pale,
Make periods in the midst of sentences,
Throttle their practised accent in their fears
And in conclusion dumbly have broke off,
Not paying me a welcome. Trust me, sweet,
Out of this silence yet I pick’d a welcome.

Self-effacer, how to hail you? Can I even make my “you” refer to you? By your name I supplicate, maybe, some bent idol of the mind’s welding. But let your playfulness overcome your jealousy, and for your own mirth answer mercifully the prayer you intercept.

Our sport shall be to take what they mistake.


After they scraped away a half-mile of ash and cracked ice in the excavation, they uncovered him there in the shell of an old apartment: one who had endured in hope.


(Gen. 32:29)

“Please, tell me your name.”


Is it that he wouldn’t tell you, Israel? Grappling with you at the ford when you were left alone, holding you—but only to wrench bones from their joints, unsteadying your walk forever—then, when you clung to him and clawed at him until dawn, and somehow by your desperation overcame his strength, did he keep back the prize?

Or was the name given in the wound he left you, was your limp the prayer he taught? Was that ache a burning of the unconsuming fire in your limbs, and what it meant for you to be renamed by him?


As for you, slowcomer: we are trying to keep our eyes clear; we are rubbing condensation from the windows, scraping off frost; changing postures to feel for a wait that’s more than vacated time, where trust meets death, and parts with it again.

The blind man at Beth-zatha, the one who waited thirty-eight years—he was not told a name, either. For him, the healing was name enough.


I have my worries and my happinesses—this can always be said. But it is not always worth saying, least of all now that the kingdom has changed hands, and the term papers, the bank accounts, the career prospects of this world have become those of our God and of his Christ. Now let those who rejoice live as if they were not rejoicing; those who mourn, as if they were not in mourning. Those who boast and those who weep, as if they were only unworthy servants, and all things were theirs.


A chocolate-colored puppy nosed up to my bike while I waited at a traffic light. It was as if the franchise manager of sweetness and light, seeing how busy I was, sent out to me a roller-skating waitress balancing a platter of rest.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. If I give them time, if I go slow and remain deliberate and predictable in my movements, they may even catch up to me. 


The hair in my nose froze together and my chin numbed to the air’s sharpness. Kip the dog clip-clopped over shoveled sidewalks in his little red booties, shod against the cold and salt. Houses nodded to us as we passed, shaking snow from their laden roofs. Perched on a million capillary branches to the west, tender, pink, the sky exhaled its daily breath.

We turned onto the last, familiar block, warm breath pluming off us. It might have been an owl I found abruptly in the air ahead, launched noiseless from a tree across the street—an owl or a hawk (both alike, for me), a sweep of angular white past telephone wires and deep-furrowed trunks into the next copse, only visible in flight.


Wording expedition

Today I whirled around like a dog chasing her tail, trying to understand what value was. Is this philosophy: to lose your shoe in the sidewalk crack that millions are stepping over every day?


Among this tribe that has now built self-seeking happiness into almost the highest tier of morality, think less about what makes you happy and more about what you admire. Some have found themselves happy on the way to a fine end, but you are not going to become admirable by accident.


Most of the time the wide world’s multitudinous ideas manifest to me as lupine eyes, aglint in forest spaces beyond the campfire’s reach. My knees shake as I ready for another encounter, always another.

Or, ideas are guests you have to entertain no matter how rude they are or what time they call.

If anyone but a confrere were to look into my eyes without blinking, what would they see but how tired I am of trying to love them?


So many meaning-paths followed to dead ends, so many listed rhymes and synonyms discarded as spare parts, syllables rummaged through but never fastened to the page. The poem left behind in the end is partly an expression chosen over all others, partly a monument to the expedition that found it.


There is an idea abroad: yes, you have your values and your definitions and watchwords; but other cultures and subcultures have their own. And once you see this—good luck avoiding it, by the way, on this contracting globe—you can’t insist on imposing your own categories on everyone.

The speaker makes a show of stepping back out of subjectivity into the objective, but if you keep your eyes on his ankles you see this is an illusion. (It always is; or at least, that expectation is a good starting point.) The movement really being made relies on a culturally determined principle of live-and-let-live, professes a creed that all should act in accordance with their own values. Now in fact that value is very powerful and is likely to make a good deal of room for itself in the speaker’s belief structure. He cannot be blamed for voicing it, even if we would prefer that he not adopt an absolutist air to state contingencies. In the systems of others, however, it may be that while tolerance is valued it is not the ultimate value. Maybe we value love more, or a flinty justice, or the maximizing of global paper clip production—it is hard to set limits on rational preferences, so long as they remain coherent. In that case there is no reason not to answer: it is certainly true that other people do not care much for paper clips. But I wish, all the same, that they would create more paper clips.


They are safe Christians only in appearance and not in reality who look for the label “Christian” to run to, and commit their souls in the hands of any fake or fumbler bearing it, in order to be on the right side as quickly as possible and to say to the Lord when he returns: Look, see, here is your deposit!


We are given scripture that we may tend our hearts with it. Here is a parable of mercy: convict and compel me, Lord. Now a vengeful psalm: Lord, convict and compel. This history, this doctrine, this poem, let them be reading me. A hero of the faith—then I approach her meekly to receive the gifts of fear and trembling. (I am not like that. I could be like that.)

So Kierkegaard told me to listen, and one Sunday morning in the spring I obeyed. I entered the text with a seriousness borrowed almost from childhood religion, and it left me in a grateful heap.

“Ah, what a faking social club the rest of the congregation must have seemed, then? How did their casual chit-chat about football games and weather, in the moments after the final Amen, sound to you in such a state?” I can understand the grounds of the question, I am sorry to say; but no. It was on this Sunday that I saw most clearly in the figures around me the saints’ tender or severe profiles.


I am desperate for love and at the same time prone to coldness. But when I thanked you for each one my eyes fell on, when I thanked before those eyes winced or sharpened, then I was not afraid of them and I did not seize them in my mind. Something obscuring fell from those shapes; something else came into focus.


The reverend popular scientist: “We humans think we’re pretty hot stuff, but did you know that there are more microorganisms living in your intestinal tract than there are human beings that have been born in history? Did you know that if the Milky Way had the dimensions of America, our solar system would be the size of someone’s lost penny?”

Wow, that really changes my perspective on things, as one who had valued humanity and its home exclusively as fodder for counting, and for possessing what I so naively assumed was a high volume.


I hope before too long someone will ask me, “Why go into philosophy and not something useful?” Many things could be replied in many tones, but the answer I have been workshopping keeps a friendly composure and employs words like these: “Huh, that’s a really interesting question. Thanks for suggesting it. In fact, I think your challenge deserves to be thought about hard for a long time, and we should try to make sure we understand just what you mean by it and what would count as a good answer, admitting nothing shoddy into our premises or inferences. But then, if we really were conscientious about all this”—here let slip the smile of one magnanimous in victory—“I suppose it might begin to look like we were doing philosophy.”


Most people, I concede, manage to feel ill at ease and marginalized in some groups—in the midst of ivy leaguers, or Hells Angels, or evangelicals, or the Green party. But I showed my cosmopolitan bona fides by becoming troubled no matter which sympathies I was asked to adopt. I have learned the secret of being discontented at all times.


You have only to look to see that in regard to circumstance, beauty, health, talent, cheery constitution, friendship, the rule for us is cruel inequality. In this one respect are all set together, and only here are all favored: that all bear equally the burden of the command.


Once I almost thought that God was calling to me to sacrifices and to dry labor for the sake of others, but at the last possible moment the lovely phrase human flourishing occurred to me, and the glory of God is a human being fully alive, and, scales bursting from my eyes, I repented of my error like a guilty child.


Jesus: drained by even quiet departures from the allowed middle-class luxuries, by even brief abstentions from the age’s sanctioned vices, I am not asking now to be set apart by a life of full-bore freedom. If it were given, perhaps I could not understand. But let me strain for one more marginal second of patience before admitting bitterness, shift my eyes once more before I nod to envy.


A flutter, chirp, trill drifts to her; streaks flash of plumage trim or bizarre. There in a dense, scrubby paragraph—isn’t that a postpositive adjective nestling beside its plainer noun? Here a barbarism or a Latinate corruption flinging itself with a flurry of consonants from more sedate derivations; or, further on, a rare imitative expression mimicking the song it heard from the world?

She stares, rapt, then leafs feverishly through her reference guide to unfold the labeled evolutionary charts, the maps of migration patterns; tries out for herself those sonorous and foreign calls. Such are the worder’s delights, who with no thought of possessing hails whichever airy visitors will come.

After reading Kierkegaard

Who is his mother and who are his brothers, this one with whom the whole world claims kinship? They are the ones who do the will of the Father. But say a wise scribe comes and speaks with him, and, while giving no signs of great obedience, shows by earnest speech that at any rate he understands what was asked of him, that he has heard and can repeat the command that has gone out, that one should love the one Lord with every muscle and nerve, and give oneself to the neighbor. Even he, who for all we are told does not love and does not give himself in this way, even he is told: not far from the kingdom of God.

Who then is far from the kingdom of God? The one who thinks a burnt offering suffices, or a tithe of one’s mint, dill, and cumin; membership in a relatively compassionate political party; the staunch repetition of uninhabited beliefs. There is no more extreme distance from the kingdom than to be an alien to it and think you are a native: to smile while tending pigs in the far country, and bless God for the happy lot of living in the Father’s house.

But how many artifacts of piety are invented to assure me that I am safe at home in grace, that the call of the cross not only does not dismay me but actually draws my lips into a benign smile—it must be so, since after all I am a Christian. And I know that I am a Christian because from earliest childhood my religious education has consisted of exercises in declaring this to be the case: At about the same time that the existence of God was proposed to my toddling intellect, I was also taught that I was a true believer in it. Possibly I never knew the spelling of the word “Christian” until I memorized the song that told me I was a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N. I learned about joy, faith, love, and the peace that passes understanding by avowing, in conjunction with hand motions, that I had all these things down in the depths of my heart, and consequently was so happy. In a sense, all these concepts were defined for me by reference to my own form of life; and inasmuch as this is how it happened, the suggestion that I do not in fact possess such virtues, that Jesus might ask more from me than I now have, must be as absurd as the theorem that triangles have four angles.

I believe an analysis of children’s worship music will conclude that it is designed to produce not Christians so much as people who believe that they are Christians. And this is understandable since the latter, besides forming a more reliable voting bloc, is also much easier. To teach Christianity would mean teaching longing, repentance, confession, dissatisfaction, sacrifice—a whole bestiary of religious acts and speech-acts; but a self-identified political allegiance needs only a banner with a name on it or a distinguishable trumpet cadence for coordinating troop movements. Therefore what might be a word of discipline, calling, and so freedom is frequently heard instead as the Spirit’s cooing over our religious identity, as an invitation to tribe, friend groups, a rich cultural inheritance, architectural styles and Christmas pageants. Ah, but all these things are good and beautiful—yes: if they are directed to their ends. Childhood is beautiful, very beautiful, just until the child demands to remain in it forever. Christian children’s songs and coloring books are charming, unless we mistake them for Christianity. Many will say to him on that day: “Lord, Lord: didn’t we love sacred choral music, also stained glass? Didn’t we both attend youth group and, when the day finally came, dutifully escort our children to youth group? In your name we brought egg dishes to a hundred potlucks and calmly yet firmly objected to the spinelessness of ‘Happy Holidays’ greetings?” But he is not so cruel as to guard our indifference by illusions of alliance. Depart.

On the other hand, how many say “Oh, I’ll be no dupe of tired old institutional religion, that crude sociological phenomenon,” and thereby escape sustained self-examination, since no other authority is requiring it of them? About the same number, perhaps, as those for whom the institution itself numbs the conscience. So if you say that your religion is love and all humanity are your brothers and sisters, I ask, and really do want to know (or, weak as I am, at least wish to want to know) how it is you remain vigilant in practicing the faith. Only, make sure that after all the talk of love, which is a most pleasurable and lyrical aspect of it, you are in fact remembering to love in some half-costly way. (“Well, I ceased to associate myself with the family members and acquaintances who were most irritating to me and who expressed themselves in a way insensitive to my ideals. Isn’t that something?” It is some evidence, at least, that love to you was a bold word for your own army’s banners. It is some evidence that it meant you and the ones who liked you were good and others were bad.)

If I ever wake up in the night in possession of a brilliant thought for a screenplay, I will know that the only way to secure that idea is to lock it in a notebook until daylight: if we are earnest in wanting to do something, we will usually write it down, or we will set up recurring reminders on our calendars—that is, we will externalize it. A written word, a cattle prod, and institutional religion are all externalities and bear no meaning in themselves; but when they make contact with the eye, the flesh, and the heart they are meaningful enough. Because of this I hope I will go on holding down my sanctuary pew with neighbors’ help, and when the time comes I will take up the gray hymnal, at least until I pray by heart the prayers within. I will again trek up the aisle toward the broken loaf. At some moment in all of this I may think to remember more than verbally: I am a sinner awaiting mercy.

“Ugh, why return again to such a surly theme? Isn’t there supposed to be some glimmer of good news in all of this?” But would it be good news to hear instead that in this life of cooled love and weak effort I had in fact hit the nail on the head, reproduced the Trinitarian pattern? Is it encouragement, when a five-year-old exhibits her crayon drawing, to tell her, “That’s very good, my dear; indeed, you are already at the height of the discipline”? Compared with the soporifics of self-assured hymnody, even Satan’s accusation carries true comfort. Better, though, to hear from the Lord’s mouth: How slow of heart you are—“Ah, then you mean there is a faster way!” Lukewarm—“thank God there might be greater heat.” Poor, blind. “Then, what magnificent visions of wealth could open to me yet, what beauty and life in them.”

Lord, still you have not given virtue: blessed are you, and your judgements just. But hear the prayer of your servant, and do not deal with me so severely as to let me believe that I have it, or that I am anything but the lost son.

A prayer we can imagine one praying

The names of the muses were gone when I returned for them, though I had sternly exhorted them to stay, I would be right back. I tried to sidestep discouragement. I have learned that to forget something is the penultimate step that must be taken before it is learned.

You are seeking, I may someday tell my students, to build a city in a swamp—since there is no other available real estate available. Build it up with cheerful labor; watch it sink squelching down again, swallowed by gray clay. Add another wall and a tower, and see them shift, slide, topple, crack. Erect a great temple whose spires will in a week be visible only as steel spikes for the deer to dodge. Such things must come: build again. When you have built the third city, or the fourth: that too will sink; but in sinking lay the last foundation for the city that is coming.


A tiger-striped homing sky. Little yellow pools of windowlight glistening in a wet evening’s street. The wistful tapping of grainy snow at the bay windows. Still the season of harvest continues, and may never end. There is no winter in gratitude’s agronomy.


I confess I still am not inured to having a sky. Who can walk steadily near so great an abyss, whether it is under or over you?


A wispy nest of cloud fell apart. The ovular, pockmarked moon rolled slowly out of it like a dinosaur egg, and came to rest. I watched as I waited for my bus to come, but it did not hatch. Tomorrow I will look again.


I went out to see what the sky was doing. But looking up I saw the surface of another planet come suddenly near, so that I could almost make out bathers on the peach-colored sand of a Venusian beach, set perpendicular to the land I was on, with a deliciously fine surf on the waves crashing in from the bottom of that globe.

In the night there was a little silver canoe of pointed prow and stern, bobbing in the mists over unspeakable depths.


The billows of cloud creaked steadily along the blue like the innumerable siege towers of a host, advancing. I watched the sky for further metaphors.

“That one looks like overpowering sadness!”

“See the one above the one shaped like a ship? It makes me think of a quiet and unearned hope.”


Jesus, I cannot simply be like you, since I am also the one who needs you. But let me be, still, a bruised reed that leaves the others standing; a smoldering wick sputtering so gently that it does not disturb the rest of the altar.


Learning the voices to trust: a new quiz feature

Somehow or other you will have to start by finding some people who are talking and writing. If you have access to a computer this may have happened already. If not, the best strategy will depend on where you live, and you will likely know it better than I. You might try walking alongside the tumbleweeds through the rocky desert, keeping the red-striped butte on your left, until you come to a saloon. (Go in.) Or venture outside your vault through the post-apocalyptic municipal remains, and ask the roving company of raccoon trappers if there is a political wonk or a theologian in their ranks.

When you have found some sources, but do not yet know how much faith to bestow on them: it is then that I hope I may be of use to you. After a period of observing this authority, fill in the blanks below as instructed. Three points is a good score.

The source corrected a mistake s/he made in the recent past (1 point)     ____
S/he admitted s/he did not know something (1 point)                               ____
S/he identified someone on the opposing side s/he respects (1 point)     ____
S/he conceded that an opponent made a compelling point (1 point)        ____
S/he granted the dizzying contingency of human knowledge (1 point)   ____


It was in Kierkegaard all along. I should have known that.

“But,” you perhaps say, “there are so many obscure passages in the Bible, whole books that are practically riddles.” To that I would answer: Before I have anything to do with this objection, it must be made by someone whose life manifests that he has scrupulously complied with all the passages that are easy to understand; is this the case with you?

Could it be true, as he also says, that God is not mocked, and faith is given only to those whose lives stand in need of it?


I will thank you for the grass in all its March hues, and for the vault of sky, and a garlicky burger, and any other item I enter in the inventory. And if I remember more and more of your benefits will I come near to living a thankful life, as an n-sided polygon approaches the circle?


“You only like it because you know Mozart composed it / David Foster Wallace wrote it / Wes Anderson directed it.”

Ah, but if I cannot even learn to love a thing when all the pressures of the age are goading me on toward it, and nothing opposes, then I am lost indeed. The problem is not that I am now paying close attention and looking with great charity, but that I neglected to do this the other times.


I should not think first of originality. All my ornithology handbooks say as with one voice: that bird roosts where truth has made a nest. But truth will build with the little twigs and straws of attention given to it, and so I must look with my own eyes (the only ones I am legally entitled to use); and I have not attended if I say only: a hundred meters to the northwest there is one who describes this landscape in the following way.


Some are saying in aggressive tones, “What you are so enthralled with as perception, love, self-sacrifice, or religious fervor, is in fact the mere interplay of chemical processes.” I guess they mean: the thing you believe you care about—the spiritual experience—is in fact a thing you do not care about: the physical reaction.

But if you push me too hard down this path, if you back me into a corner, I may turn, crazed glint in eye, and suddenly begin to care about physical reactions.


I waited to open the e-mail until I had composed my spirit to peace, and had surrendered myself to the Father’s will, praying for trust regardless of the outcome. But even all that did not prevent it from containing a rejection from my favored graduate program.


God, this is all a gift. Give not less pain, less sorrow, less doubt, but more of all of them—only let it be of the best quality. We wish not to be unclothed, but to be further clothed.

(is a prayer we can imagine one praying)


Good Friday

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it abides alone.

So we say, “Isn’t it nice to know that symbolically—or wait, even better, maybe metaphysically, so long as it is in some invisible way—we have ‘died’ with him in our baptisms?” 

Let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.

“Yes, and in a manner of speaking we do carry our crosses, too, don’t we? I suspect, for instance, that my old high school friends stopped hanging out with me mostly because I had gotten more serious about my Christianity. On top of that, I gave up coffee for Lent.”

But more often we say in our prayers, “Thank you, Jesus, for dying that awful death so that we wouldn’t have to. Most of us, at least. I guess the terms of the deal were slightly different for the thief on the next cross over, or for St. Peter. But on the whole (it would be ungrateful to find fault regarding individual lapses of this providence, when on the whole it has been such a profound gift and comfort to our feeble race) thank you for living a hard life with a hard end so that we could pursue the life-giving, the beautiful, the micro-brewed, just as the founding fathers gave their lives—would have, anyway, if they had met with less military success, but then you can hardly blame them for that!—to secure the same blessed freedom.”


Could it really be that I deserve this death of his? Not yet. But may it be true in some far-off day, that I deserve to be put to death for righteousness and not for petty theft; that I deserved a death of virtue, accepted for others’ sake, the murmur of a psalm my only complaint—since now this would be for me phoniness, mere good fortune, the daydreamed glory of a schoolboy.

It is permitted to hope for this. He came, says one of the old saints, not that we might not suffer, but that our sufferings might be like his.


Easter Sunday

He is not here.

If you are looking for something that is dead, or that was never alive, you can normally find it near the place you saw it last; but that is no property of the living, which tends instead to burrow, scamper, or take wing. A big stone, for instance, is probably not more than a roll or two away; any linen cloths you have left lying around are likely still there. With a living thing, on the other hand, the wind blows where it wishes. Turn your back on it for a weekend, and—even if no one else has come by in the mean time to remove it—when you come back you might find that the lid of the container you put it in has been shaken off. You might next encounter it almost anywhere: in the gardener who walks in clumsily on a desperate moment, in the stranger on another town’s road. And then, too, just when you reach out to embrace it, or just when you had broken bread and Scripture had finally started to make sense and your heart was burning within you, it might be gone again.

Gloss on the Song of Songs

for my brother’s wedding

I was sitting close enough to hear
the one newlywed whisper in the other’s ear,
       My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms
       in the vineyards of En-gedi—
but I saw one of her solemn brown eyes winking,
and understood she was really thinking,
“The sweet remembrance of the resurrection
lifts my spirit.”

Every cloistered mystic knew,
much as we all like henna blossoms, delicate complexions,
silver necklaces, the night-fallen dew,
or aromatic cedar,
these are like a chapter’s first, illuminated letter:
figures put there to entice and woo
the passing reader
through two plainer senses to a third
and better:
the allegory of the incarnate Word.

The bride:
       Sustain me with raisins,
       refresh me with apples;
       for I am faint with love.
Which is to say, the Church pines for her resting place
with God, but lives now on the first fruits of his grace.
The groom:
       As a lily among brambles,
       so is my love among the maidens.
Or, put another way: though beset by sin,
the soul that hopes in Christ is fair to him.
The friends of bride and groom:
       We will exult and rejoice in you;
       we will extol your love more than wine.
That is, desire for union with the Lord excites us
more than any earthly appetite does.

Amen, and let the lines be blurred till we forget
if it is human or divine love that we see
in you, or which is testifying to which, or
whether you are the metaphor
or the sober truth. For if you are not yet
gazelles on the high mountains, a pomegranate tree,
princess with prince, or souls in radiant ascent,
you are becoming these, if God intends.
And we are becoming the company of friends
who love to overhear and wonder what you meant.