Here is a poem for the Feast of the Annunciation. Those of you who know me will know that I work a lot with poetry and visual art around the Annunciation. The beauty of poetry is that, rather than analysing the mysterious moment of annunciation with a logical, systematising approach, it can walk in sideways to just one small question. And one of the questions that has washed around the Annunciation since #MeToo is whether Mary had a choice. There are several poems that deal with this–Noel Rowe’s Magnificat is one, another is Edwin Muir’s The Angel and the Girl are Met. But today, for the Feast of the Annunciation, I am reading Denise Levertov.
I love this grand, bold statement that Mary was not fearful, not coerced, not a slender little pushover of a woman, not a mere ‘vessel’, but a strong, courageous woman whose power to make decisions and set the tone changed the world.
‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos Hymn, Greece, VIc
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
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
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,
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
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,
She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly.
from A Door in the Hive [New Directions, 1989]
I recently did that Facebook thing where you post the cover of ten albums that had a huge influence on you. Joni Mitchell’s Blue is one of those albums for me. The title song, along with several others, stand alone as memorable tracks. But to my ear, Blue is an album much more than it’s a song – the songs are so bonded together that they are more like movements of a symphony than individual songs. Blue was a life-changer for me: it changed the way I wrote, the way I played, and in some ways was the doorway to thinking about the whole of life in a different key. Joni is right – songs are like tattoos. They get under your skin and become part of you, and once they are there they are almost impossible to erase.
It’s the feast of St Thomas today–July 3rd being the date Jerome chose to celebrate him.
Doubting Thomas is the uncomplimentary title that Thomas has often been tagged with, and his story is often told as a rebuke to those who doubt, or perhaps more kindly, an encouragement to have more faith. But it would be more accurate, I think, to call him Honest Thomas. He was a man of integrity; he was the disciple that asked the awkward questions everyone else was thinking but didn’t say out loud. “We do not know where you are going, Lord, how can we know the way?” asked Thomas, at the Last Supper. And by the same token he didn’t pretend to believe things that he didn’t really; he didn’t say the words everyone else was saying just to feel part of the crowd. It’s hard to own up to being the odd one out among a group of friends, and it was brave of him, when he found he was the only one not to be convinced of the resurrection, not to go off and be by himself. For a whole week he went on meeting up with the other disciples. Their faith, their joy, their stories of visions of the resurrected Christ, must have made him feel uncomfortable and left out. But he still hung around. Eventually, Jesus came and met him in person. His integrity paid off; when faith came to him as a gift, it was his own and not someone else’s.
Doubt is not the same as unbelief. Unbelief is a determined refusal to believe, whereas doubt is an honest owning up to not being convinced, and finding that the people and the ideas we encounter in this life can knock holes in our faith. To admit to doubt is to stay alive; there is nothing more wooden than a so-called “faith” that is really a repetition of ideas through obedience, coercion, or the desire to fit in, rather than conviction.
Dostoyevsky described the difference well, when he wrote: “I do not believe as a child does; my Hosanna has passed through the crucible of doubt.”
“Dubious questioning”, wrote Coleridge, “is a much better evidence than that senseless deadness which most take for believing. People that know nothing…have no doubts. Never be afraid to doubt, if only you have the disposition to believe, and doubt in order that you may end in believing the truth.”
Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks says that “In Judaism, to be without questions is not a sign of faith, but of a lack of depth.” Sacks encourages people not only to ask questions about the meaning of the faith, but to question God. We ask questions, he says, “not because we doubt, but because we believe.”
If you are looking for certainty, then I guess you want to eliminate doubt. But faith is not certainty: it’s the pursuit of truth that must inevitably include episodes of doubt. And those episodes are, in the end, what open us up to fresh revelation. So Thomas’s doubt is not a rebuke, I think, but an encouragement to us to recognize that faith is the uncomfortable space between asking the awkward questions, and waiting on the answers.
(Originally posted in 2009)
Pilgrimage is not just for the benefit of the pilgrim: it’s for the world:
“Anthony the Great, sometimes called ‘the father of monks’, set the example here. He went to live in complete solitude in the desert in about AD 285 and attracted plenty of followers. After twenty years in the desert, he left his hermitage to act as spiritual father to a group of coenobites. Five years later he again retreated into solitude, where he remained until he died at the grand old age of 105 – except for two occasions when he visited Alexandria, once to encourage Christians who were under persecution there, and again in 338 when Athanasius called on Anthony to help him stand up against the heretical teachings of Arius – thereby making it clear by his actions that pilgrimage is not just for the pilgrim, but for the wider world, the ‘other’.”
Pilgrimage is about more than just going on a long walk – in fact, you can be a pilgrim without going anywhere, or walk a thousand miles on a pilgrim route and never be more than a hiker:
“For me there was, perhaps, a touch of irony in falling accidentally into pilgrimage only just at a point in my life when circumstances began to limit my freedom to travel. As a result, it seemed to me that even as I was learning the rules, I was rewriting them. But I have come to the realization that pilgrims have always rewritten the rules. The impulse to travel and the urge to find transformation have collided in different ways, so that a great patchwork of interpretations has given shape to the idea of pilgrimage both as a journey to illuminate life and as a journey through life itself. Abraham, Jonah, Helena and Brendan needed to make actual, physical journeys to find the key to life, the Desert Fathers and monastics chose the wilderness, while Luther called people simply to stay exactly where they were. St Paul spent his life travelling, but preached that the true journey was in another dimension. But of all the examples available to us to follow, and of all the writers who have left a record of their own pilgrimage, none of them suggests that we should simply follow their instructions; each one has also left us a mandate to break with convention and reinvent pilgrimage just as they did.
Whether inspiration comes from the reckless adventures of the peregrini, Helena’s concern for historical connection to the place, the lateral, imaginative vision of a poet, or the solitary pursuit of a hermit, the common thread is that every kind of pilgrimage pushes us into uncharted territory, either mentally or physically, and the end result is a transformation of a kind we couldn’t have anticipated. In the end, whether by accident or on purpose, it’s not where you go but who you become that makes you a pilgrim.”
“We are in a war between dullness and astonishment.”
The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, moral absolutes, MTV, drugs, racism, sexuality, or school prayer. The critical issue today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore; He changes them into “nice people.”
Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart (p. 120).
Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich are taking a break together, fishing on Lake Geneva. They are having a lovely time, smoking their pipes, chatting idly.
It’s hot, and soon they get thirsty. So Karl Barth gets up, steps out of the boat, and walks across the water to the shore, gets some beers and returns.
It’s quite hot so the beer doesn’t last long. Barth tells Tillich: “your turn, Paul”. Tillich gets up, steps outside the boat, walks across the water, and fetches some beer.
It is getting really hot now, and the beer is finished once again. Bultmann is beginning to sweat particularly profusely… and finally Barth asks him too: “Come on, Rudolf, your turn now.” With a slight tremor in his knees, Bultmann gets up, steps out of the boat, and sinks like a stone. Fortunately he is a good swimmer; he drags himself back into the boat and sulks at the far end.
Tillich turns to Barth and says: “Do you think we should have told him where the stepping stones are?”
Barth looks at him in astonishment and replies: “What stones?”
I wrote this a really long time ago, on September 7th, 2005. Today I found it in my diary, and thought that I could equally have written it today. So here it is:
A friend sent me this prayer. I love the line in the middle – “I have not yet done that for which I was made.” The tenor of our society seems to be that the best days of your life are pretty much over once you hit 30, and thereafter everything will be a little duller, a little less exciting, a little less important. I like the idea that even when the bones creak a little, you’re still only in preparation for your task in life. I have been contemplating lately what direction I might go in a few years’ time, in order to focus what I’m doing right now. It feels good to me to think bigger, to be a learner not an expert, to be on an adventure and not settled down in boring comfort for the second half of life.
O Lord my God
teach my heart
where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you.
O Lord you are my God
and you are my Lord
and I have never seen you.
You have made me and remade me,
and you have bestowed on me all the good things I possess
and still I do not know you.
I have not yet done that for which I was made.
Teach me to seek you
for I cannot seek you unless you teach me
or find you unless you show yourself to me.
Let me seek you in my desire,
let me desire you in my seeking.
Let me find you by loving you,
let me love you when I find you.
Theologically speaking I’m one of the awkward squad,
always asking questions
or questioning answers;
it’s uncomfortable for all concerned,
I wish it wasn’t so;
wish I could tuck myself up in tradition,
snuggle down in certainty,
learn to trust,
but I don’t know how –
don’t even know what the God-word means to me now.
I do know love when I meet it though.
Oh yes, I recognise Love.