Sunday, April 29, 2012

We exist: A response to Stephen Crane

A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

~Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

Stephen Crane was twenty-eight when he died, and he wrote this poem just barely a year earlier. He wrote this poem after experiencing numerous life traumas, including shipwreck, scandal, and tuberculosis. That’s not to say he wrote this because of those experiences (I don’t believe poetry can be subjected to causal analysis), but context can be illuminating.
When I first read this poem, many years ago, I thought it was interesting, funny, and ironic in the way a political cartoon is all of those things.  I pictured a scrawny prophet railing at an impersonal and very large universal force that responds with amused and slightly cruel indifference. I didn’t know about Crane’s bio at the time, but the image that came to mind is consistent with such a hard life.

What Crane’s “man said” and how Crane’s universe replied is also consistent with a view of the world which puts man somehow outside of – or a passive object of – the universe, as opposed to part of or co-existent with it.  I would propose a different conversation.
Last Sunday morning it was just beginning to rain, that soft drizzle that feels like a cool sauna, or like Scotland in Springtime. I had some planting to do, nonetheless. (“You’re not made of sugar,” said my heartier self to my fear of melting in the rain.) Sam had brought carrot seedlings home from kindergarten in a plastic baggie, and they were growing at a scary rate in their cramped mock-greenhouse environment. They needed to get into the ground. There also was a packet of sunflower seeds that I had been wanting to plant, so I figured while I was getting dirty, I might as well do both.
So, out to the garage I trudged to gather trowel in one hand, carrying seeds and seedlings in the other. Down to the garden, then down on my knees, where I dug in soft, cold dirt. I pulled weeds, I made holes, I scattered seeds, I spread dirt back over seeds. My fingers were numb and my feet had that buzzy feeling of falling asleep as the blood was cut off from kneeling.
I was content. It was so quiet, it seemed I could hear the worms moving under the ground. The only steady and evident sounds were the dull thud of heavy stones being dropped into wheelbarrow by my father-in-law somewhere across the yard, my scraping at loose dirt, and the distant highway. The weedy earthy aroma was intoxicating.  For a brief moment, I felt completely alive and as if that moment was all the world and all time.

In that moment, I felt my soul exclaim, “I exist.” But quietly. No exclamation point. More like a prayer. I felt my place within and beside the universe, and I required no response. In fact, a response of obligation (or lack thereof) from the universe would not have been welcome in that moment.

You see, I and the rest of the universe… we are among the created, together.  If anyone has an obligation to respond, it is me.


The Oxford Book of Short Poems, Chosen and Edited by P.J. Kavanagh and James Michie (Oxford University Press, 1987)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

On Cat Naps and the Poverty of More

Peace maketh plenty;
Plenty maketh pride;
Pride maketh plea;
Plea maketh povert;
Povert maketh peace.

~ Anonymous (circa 15th century)

As I write, two tortoise shell cats curl on the bed by my knees. They have no sense of want. They sleep, they eat, they have occasional cat frenzies at midnight. Life is simple for them. Some days I wish to be one of their kind.

The cyclical and seasonal nature of life is always with us. Cats seem to grasp this intuitively. The words of this anonymous Brit testify to it, and I have to agree.  However, while peace can provide a place for plenty, I confess that I do not always take advantage of it. In fact, I tend to rapid cycle on to pride, which leads to a feeling that I deserve more (the “plea” part), which drives me into a deeper more grinding poverty of the soul. 

I stop to consider now the number of times I have felt that I have earned all that I have. On the surface, I certainly have earned it. I have studied hard and worked hard and made the necessary sacrifices to attain a certain measure of achievement and comfort for myself and my family. But all that I have earned has been made possible by the efforts of those who have gone before, and by the collaborative efforts of those working in concert with me, and first and foremost by the grace and gifts of a giving God.

That is what I believe in my core.  Yet how easily I forget and move to pride and then plea.  As soon as I am in a position of “Give me more” I am poor. It is as simple as that.

But I get to the last line from Anonymous and stumble.  The idea that poverty in itself provides the conditions for peace to me seems highly na├»ve, uninformed, and even patronizing.  Maybe in those old days before running water and central heating and democratic capitalism, sure, I could see how one might need to get philosophical about such things.  But do you seriously expect me to buy into the notion that not being able to feed your family will give you inner peace?

Sudden slap on the back of my head – that was my better, smarter self saying, “You know better.” This poem is not talking of material poverty, not really, not just that.

So how is it that “povert maketh peace?”  I’m still working on that. I admit peace can be elusive as I worry about paying the bills or making deadlines or ensuring a perfect life for my perfect child.  I think maybe the poverty that leads to peace is the sort that has poured itself out and is no longer striving. It is a spiritual state of having nothing left to lose. It is the emptiness that says, “I am poor in spirit and deserve nothing” rather than “I have earned it by rights, give me more.”

It may be the secret of being content in plenty or in want that the Apostle Paul wrote of to the Philippians.  If I could write a letter back to Paul, I’d ask him to tell me more about that secret.  

Or maybe I’ll just have a chat with my cats.

The Oxford Book of Short Poems, Chosen and Edited by P.J. Kavanagh and James Michie (Oxford University Press, 1987)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Some Time Still

Once again my thanks goes out to C.S. Lewis scholar and teacher, Andrew Lazo, for his musings on the poetry of Emily Dickinson. For more insights from Andrew, visit his website here:

Image of Andrew
by Lancia E. Smith

Some Time Still
Emily Dickinson says:

The soul selects her own society, 
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I’ve known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

Let’s spend a few moments thinking about just those first seventeen words (and by the way, “obtrude” means to thrust forwards, to force oneself upon others unasked): The soul selects her own society, / Then shuts the door; / On her divine majority / Obtrude no more.

Though it may prove the height of hypocrisy for a man like me to say it, I suggest that we need to pull the plug, and on a much more regular basis. I know I do. Smartphone, iPad, two screens at work, two screens at home, laptop, radio, car radio, TV monitors everywhere—each grocery store and restaurant and airport terminal or almost anywhere I go. Input. Noise. Language and image and sound.

It’d be easy to dismissively wave it all off and long for the olden days, to lament the news (or the rumor mill passing for it these days), to sigh for a quieter time.

I suggest, in spite of all this, a very mild form of asceticism. Seek silence. On a regular basis. Or, if we cannot bring ourselves to that, at least let us notice the small pockets of silence offered to us, even in this busy world. Turn off the TV or the radio in the morning. Most of us can do very little indeed about Syria or the upcoming elections. Everyone I know feels whirled round by how much remains yet to do at the end of a too-long day.

Maybe we need, as Emily says, to shut the door, to allow nothing to obtrude. I don’t really know what she means about “divine majority” of the soul, but to me I always assume it means those minutes when I quiet myself and acknowledge God here with me. And then nothing else matters.

So let’s greedily seize silence, craft quietness, carve out a few moments to hear nothing more than our own good selves breathing. Just for tomorrow, don’t sing in the shower, don’t go for the on switch, or at least without thinking. And perhaps let us practice a mindfulness of this little moment, just for ten seconds to push back and draw breath and close up the shop of our eyes and their eagerness, and softly, for a beat or two, dwell on our own “divine majority.”

God may slip in like the wind or like water. He might fill up the silence we craft when we try for this moment to shut up the eyes of our heads, that we might for a minute pry open the ears of our hearts. Michael Card once remarked that the silence of prayer is God straining to hear us; perhaps we can strain toward Him too with nothing on our lips, nothing in our ears. To me this means that I “select my own society,” that I choose the company of only the Maker and myself. And shut the door on all else.

In The Way of the Heart, his wonderful little book about the Desert Fathers, Fr. Henri Nouwen reminds us that “silence is the mystery of the future world. It keeps us pilgrims and prevents us from becoming entangled in the cares of this age. It guards the fire of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.  It allows us to speak a word that participates in the creative and recreative power of God’s own Word.”

He’s right, at least in my own poor experience. Abba Arsenius redemptively, wryly challenges  us: “I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having remained silent.” Ironically enough, instead of practicing this great wisdom of the sealed lips and the sanctified inner fire, I have blabbed these quotes to dozens of acquaintances over the years. But this day is not yet done, and there remains unto us some time still to unplug, to acknowledge, to invite God Himself to speak into a silence we may yet today even help to create. C. S. Lewis steers us well here, away from “the coinage of [our] own unquiet thoughts.” Lewis implores the Spirit, who groans too deeply for words: “From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee, / O thou fair silence fall, and set me free.”

It’s Easter. Certainly sing out, and greet people with the greatest of news, that Christ is risen indeed. But maybe this week we might find in a moment the grace to push back, to unplug, to “shut the door.” We mindfully might yet seize onto some unassigned minute and listen as deeply as this jarring world will allow, to the silence. To the wind. To Emily’s “divine majority,” here in this room, alone with the one Word that this whole world hangs on.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Poetry Redeemed: JRR Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”

It is my pleasure to welcome poet, teacher, and friend Dr. Holly Ordway back to All Nine to once again share her insights and musings, this time on the poetry of JRR Tolkien. Holly is an apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. Follow Dr. Ordway's reflections on the practice of living a holy life at her website at or on twitter @HollyOrdway.

Dr. Ordway up a tree on Addison's Walk, Oxford, UK, August 2011 
(image by Kevin Belmonte)
Poetry Redeemed: JRR Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”

The closing stanza of JRR Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia:

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land 'twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God's picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

(the whole poem can be read here:

Sometimes I write poetry when I suppose I ought to be doing other things: grading papers, answering email, doing laundry, making dinner.

As I write this, it is almost Easter; we are beginning Holy Week. The long penitential season of Lent is hurrying toward the celebration of the Resurrection. Easter marks what has happened and what is to come: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

When he does, when all creation is made new and the Body of Christ is resurrected into eternal life, will there be a place for poetry?
JRR Tolkien’s long poem “Mythopoeia” answers that question with a profound Yes.

Tolkien wrote this poem to his friend CS Lewis, when Lewis was wrestling with the claims of Christianity. At that point, Lewis believed in God, but he was having difficulty with grasping the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross. He did not yet see that in Christ, both Reason and Imagination are fulfilled; that, as Lewis himself would later write, in the Incarnation and Resurrection “myth became fact.”

Tolkien was wise enough to know that fairy tales, myths, and indeed poetry can speak truth in ways that reasoned argument alone cannot. And so he wrote this poem to his friend, urging him to apprehend the truth that the Imagination opened up to him.

While Tolkien’s words were intended first for the reader of imaginative literature, I think these words are of great value to the makers of story and poetry as well.
In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.

These words remind me that truth and beauty have an ultimate Source. Even now, this side of Paradise, as a poet I can try to mirror “the likeness of the True.” While this may at first seem limiting, in truth it is not: since that Source of truth and beauty is the Source also of all creation, I have in Christ an inexhaustible wellspring for poetry. And a good thing too, since my own imaginative resources would run dry immediately if I could only look to myself for inspiration.

Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.

When I write, sometimes the poem comes together, but other times it remains a jumble of lines and fragments, the meaning slipping between my fingers and escaping. Tolkien hints that perhaps the poems I try and fail to write are not for nothing after all.

We are temporal beings, and so each moment’s beauty slips into the past almost before we realize it; but God is eternal. Could it be that all good things, all beauty, all moments of joy are never lost? I think so. Whatever I make that has any value (however flawed) will be redeemed. All those broken lines and half-grasped images: perhaps I will be able, one day, to make them into the poems they ought to be.

Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

Best of all in this poem, I love Tolkien’s calm confidence that we who make poetry do so because we are, in our turn, made in the image of a Maker, the divine Artist whose canvas (or blank page) is the cosmos. If we are made so, we will not cease to make simply because we have been redeemed. And that being so, the poets will be honored in heaven, with “flames upon their head” recalling the flame of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; and each one of us will choose our words and frame our lines, rejoicing.

Perhaps when I set my busy-ness aside and waste time on a poem, I’m doing exactly what I ought to be doing.