“Earth’s crammed with heaven…”

A few nights ago, my seven year old walked out (about 45 minutes after she was supposed to be asleep) and asked me, “Hey Mom, who’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning?”

I blow lots of things about parenting. I am not an expert. I actually internally winced the other evening when an acquaintance who is expecting her first turned to me and said, “I’ll be asking you for advice!” (My very best pregnancy advice: eat lots of donuts. Because you are MAKING A PERSON, and if that’s not a blank slate for apple fritters, then the universe does not make sense to me.) But here was a softball. When your daughter stays up past her bedtime in order to listen to Jim Weiss’ Treasury of Wisdom, and then rouses herself enough to come ask about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, do not send her back to bed. A little free advice: it’s why you read this blog, right?

Anyway: of course I wanted to know why she was asking.

“Oh,” she replied. “In the beginning of the story about Michelangelo and Raphael, there’s a quote by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She said” (child screws up her face and thinks), “that ‘earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; only he who sees takes off his shoes.’ Is that from a poem? Was she a poet?”

Well, yes, sweetheart, she was. And so of course we had to look her up, and the poem this passage was from, and copy it onto the laundry room door. And then it was back to bed, with Jim Weiss taking her the rest of the way to sleep. (Non-theological plug: if you haven’t already discovered his CDs, please stop reading and go buy a few. Thanks. He’s the most fantastic storyteller, and 100% responsible for this post, as well as the 4-year-old’s current obsession with King Arthur. Plus about 55% of the imaginative play at our house.)

Since then, I’ve been gazing at that passage every day. And thinking: what if I really believed that?

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I mean really: I walk past hundreds of bushes every day. I never take off my shoes. (I live in San Francisco: this is a risky proposition.) But I’ve also been doing some reading in modern physics lately, and if quantum physics is going to make any sense at all to this creature of the humanities, I have to believe that God is acting constantly in every single imperceptible motion of the tiniest particles of existence. Every briefest perception of light, every whisker on my cat’s face is afire with God, let alone bushes and stars. The world around us is more wonderful and fraught than is safe to believe.

To be perfectly honest, at this point in my life I’m unable to move through my days in the constant awareness of this truth. I’m not sure I would make it through the grocery aisles or swim lessons trying to keep the radical awareness of God’s pervasive action in the forefront of my thoughts. It takes a greater saint, I think: my finite, broken self gets tired contemplating it.  But I want to. I think about the material repetition of my days — waking up, making breakfast, cleaning up & making beds, getting everyone dressed and out the door, making lunches and snacks and dinners, getting everyone to bed — and the thought that God is afire, at work, illuminating and sanctifying those moments, electrifies me. What would my daily life, my daily interactions with my kids and husband, look like if I really believed that every earthly, mundane moment was crammed with heaven? I think I would relax. I just might give thanks more. I would certainly be less anxious. Because if every moment is crammed with heaven, there’s more there than I can control — and my efforts honestly aren’t so crucial. I can’t imagine better news.

Thanks a Million

Thanks a Million
Nikki Grimes and Cozbi Cabrera
Greenwillow, 2006

One of my favorite poems is “Messenger,” by Mary Oliver (found in her collection, Thirst). In it, she writes:

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished…
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

Gratitude. I would love to say that it’s the fundamental posture of my life. At this point, let’s just say that it’s my highest aspiration. It’s a habit to be cultivated. And as I’m working on it myself, I’m trying to help my kids along the way too. So I was thrilled – grateful even! – to stumble across Thanks a Million at our local library branch last week.

Thanks a Million is a collection of poems about gratitude. What I love is how Grimes’ poems take seriously the whole range of children’s thanks: there are poems about weekends, ball games with dad, and a new friend in the lunchroom. Those simple moments are treated with as much respect as the thanks given by children who have lost parents, been embarrassed in front of classmates, or are sleeping in a homeless shelter. On setting the book down, the reader walks away with the sense that there is blessing everywhere, if only we know how to look.

And oh, the illustrations. They are vibrant, sensitive, and beautiful. The interplay between images and language is wonderfully done. Both my literate five-year old and her wiggly two-year-old brother were happy to sit and take in the poetry, and they were arrested by the illustrations. As we’re approaching the Thanksgiving holiday, this is a wonderful volume to spend some time with, and to spur us on towards becoming people whose work is gratitude.

Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell

Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell, Denise Levertov

Down through the tomb’s inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,
neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
no one had washed and anointed, is here,
for sequence is not known in Limbo;
the promise, given from cross to cross
at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.
All these He will swiftly lead
to the Paradise road: they are safe.
That done, there must take place that struggle
no human presumes to picture:
living, dying, descending to rescue the just
from shadow, were lesser travails
than this: to break
through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud; to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that is mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home. He must return,
first, in Divine patience, and know
hunger again, and give
to humble friends the joy
of giving Him food–fish and a honeycomb.

excerpted from Selected Poems, Vintage International, 2002

Friday’s Child

Friday’s Child, WH Auden

(In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenburg, April 9th, 1945)

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought–
“Paternal Love with only use
Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent”–
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds he meant
Exactly what He said.

Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.

What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?

It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?

The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alarming or unkind
But utterly banal.

Thought instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.

Now, did He really break the seal
and rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgment Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

excerpted from Selected Poems, Vintage International, 1979

Looking at Stars

Looking at Stars, Jane Kenyon

The God of curved space, the dry
God, is not going to help us, but the son
whose blood spattered
the hem of his mother’s robe.

excerpted from Collected Poems, Graywolf, 2005

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis, Denise Levertov

Maybe he looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
that He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone who has taken a step too far
and wants herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.

Excerpted from Selected Poems, New Directions, 2002

A Poem A Day for Holy Week: East Coker

As I’ve mentioned before, I love Holy Week. It’s quite possibly my favorite week of the whole year. And yet, this year, my Holy Week is burgeoning with obligations and responsibilities and I’m feeling their pull away from quiet, from meditation, from preparation.

So this week, in place of posting a review, I’m going to offer a poem each day of the week. These are poems that I come back to each year at this time, and, read alongside the passion accounts in the Gospels, they invite me to consider the magnitude of this last week in Jesus’ life – for me, for the world, for all of creation, for the Godhead itself. With small children, an upcoming move, and the arrival of family, my husband and I may not get the chance to sit through all of the St Matthew Passion on Friday (which we did before our oldest daughter was born) – but I can sit with these poems, share them with my family around the dinner table, and meditate prayerfully upon them. I invite you to consider them as well.

The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot

East Coker, IV

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we fell
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s, curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food;
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood–
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

excerpted from The Four Quartets, Harvest Books, 1971