Saturday, April 23, 2011

Kenyon's "Woman, Why Are You Weeping?"


Woman, why are you weeping?

The morning after the Crucifixion,
Mary Magdalene came to see the body
of Christ. She found the stone
rolled away from the empty tomb. Two
figures dressed in white asked her,
“Woman, why are you weeping?”

“Because,” she replied, “they have
taken away my Lord, and I do not know
where they have laid him.”

Returned from long travel, I sit
in the familiar, sun-streaked pew, waiting
for the bread and wine of holy Communion.
The old comfort does not rise in me, only
apathy and bafflement.
                                    India, with her ceaseless
bells and fire, her crows calling stridently
all night; India with her sandalwood
smoke, and graceful gods, many headed and many-
armed, has taken away the one who blessed
and kept me.
                        The thing is done, as surely
as if my luggage has been stolen from the train.

Men and women with faces as calm as lakes at dusk
have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know
where to find him.

What is Brahman? I don’t know Brahman.

I don’t know saccidandanda, the bliss
of the absolute and unknowable.
I only know that I have lost the Lord
in whose image I was made.

 

Whom shall I thank for this pear,

sweet and white? Food is God, Prasadam
God’s mercy. But who is this God?
The one who is not this, not that?

The absurdity of all religious forms
breaks over me, as the absurdity of language

made me feel faint the day I heard friends

giving commands to their neighbor’s dog

in Spanish… At first I laughed,
but then I became frightened.

~

They have taken away my Lord, a person
whose life I held inside me. I saw him
heal and teach and eat among sinners.
I saw him break the Sabbath for a higher
Sabbath. I saw him lose his temper.

I knew his anguish when he called, “I thirst!”
and received vinegar to drink. The Bible
does not say it, but I am sure he turned
his head away. Not long after he cried, “My God,
My God, why have you forsaken me?”

I watched him reveal himself risen
To Magdalene with a single word: ‘Mary!”

           

It was my habit to speak to him. His goodness

perfumed my life. I loved the Lord, he heard

my cry, and he loved me as his own.

 

A man sleeps on the pavement, on a raffia mat

the only thing that has not been stolen from him.

This stranger who loves what cannot be understood

has put out my light with his calm face.    

 

Shall the fire answer my fears and vapors?  

The fire cares nothing for my illness,

nor does Brahma, the creator, nor Shiva who sees

evil with his terrible third eye; Vishnu,

the protector, does not protect me.

 

I’ve brought home the smell of the streets

in the folds of soft, bright cotton garments.

When I iron them the steam brings back

the complex odors that rise from the gutters,

of tuberoses, urine, dust, joss, and death.

  ~

  On a curb in Allahabad the family gathers

under a dusty tree, a few quilts hung

between lightposts and a wattle fence

for privacy. Eleven sit or lie around the fire

while a woman of sixty stirs a huge pot.

Rice cooks in a narrow-necked crock

on the embers. A small dog, with patches of bald,

red skin on his back, lies on the corner

of the piece of canvas that serves as flooring.

 

Looking at them I lose my place.

I don’t know why I was born, or why

I live in the house in New England, or why I am

a visitor with heavy luggage giving lectures

for the State Department. Why am I not

tap-tapping with my fingernail

on the rolled-up window of a white Government car,

a baby in my arms, drugged to look feverish?

 

~

 

Rajiv did not weep. He did not cover

his face with his hands when we rowed past

the dead body of a newborn nudging the grassy

banks at Benares – close by a snake

rearing up, and a cast-off garland of flowers.

 

He explained. When the family are too poor

to cremate their dead, they bring the body

here, and slip it into the waters of the Ganges

and Yamuna rivers.

                        Perhaps the child was dead

at birth; perhaps it had the misfortune

to be born a girl. The mother may have walked

two days with her baby’s body to this place

where Gandhi’s ashes once struck the waves

with a sound like gravel being scuffed

over the edge of a bridge.

 

“What shall we do about this?” I asked

my God, who even then was leaving me. The reply

was scorching wind, lapping of water, pull

of the black oarsmen on the oars . . .

 

~ Jane Kenyon

 

 

My favorite line is Men and women with faces as calm as lakes at duskI’m also very struck by these lines:

This stranger who loves what cannot be understood

has put out my light with his calm face.    


This is an astonishing statement: a stranger's calm face, instead of being a source of joy, becomes a source of suffering for the poet because it somehow obliterated her own religious faith. I’ve heard people who have traveled to India say that what amazed them most was the tranquil joy they saw in people’s faces. Obviously the ancient, all-embracing spirituality is a source of strength to many. Perhaps what disturbed Jane Kenyon was seeing this fulfillment, which had no need for Christianity, and thus perhaps questioned its validity. The Eastern tradition could easily absorb Christ as another Bodhisattva, or an incarnation of Krishna. Christianity, already an always-evolving mix of Hebrew and ancient Greek thought, might adopt some aspects of Indian spirituality, but the container seems too small for absorbing all the fundamental Eastern concepts.


(A quick digression related to the immigrant experience: Kenyon’s poem affected me in a personal way that had nothing to do with Catholicism, but everything to do with the encounter with an overwhelming and different culture on my own value system. While the American mass culture [call it consumerism or Moloch] does not threaten anyone’s atheism, at seventeen it did threaten my worship of the intellect and intellectual achievement. I realized that the real temples were department stores. But soon enough I was in college, in a paradise of books, and quickly regained my former self. Nevertheless, I did experience the power of mass culture to shape values contrary to those I grew up with, and I know how unsettling this can be, especially to a young person. This was long before my understanding of the “other America” – the creative and intellectual “islands in the sea of TV culture,” as Adam Zagajewski put it.)

A more universal problem that Kenyon’s poem presents is of course the problem of suffering. Why are the faces of those men and women “calm as lakes at dusk” if there is so much suffering all around them? How are they able to experience joy rather than the torment of constant crucifixion, so to speak, with so many homeless, the beggars, the hunger and disease?

Jack Gilbert addresses this and more in his “Brief for the Defense”:

A BRIEF FOR THE DEFENSE

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end has magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

            ~ Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven

If a few poems by Jack Gilbert survive a hundred years from now, I predict this will be one of them. I’m even willing to forgive the weak-sounding line “because that’s what God wants.” Substitute for it, “because that’s the way the universe is,” and the problem of “Deus ex machina” disappears. We know that happiness and suffering live side by side. In one house, the ecstasy of new lovers; next door, someone is contemplating suicide. In one car, someone euphoric over getting a dream job; in the car right behind, someone who has just been laid off. Some is getting married while someone else is dying of cancer – that’s simply how it is.

We must admit there will be music despite everything, Gilbert insists. What follows is an assertion that not everyone would agree with:

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.


Outrageous! some may say. Maybe most people are not so exquisitely attuned to the sounds of the world. You have to substitute our own special delight. Besides, we vote on this every day, but not committing suicide, even though we know that many sorrows are in store – so maybe even the morning coffee is reason enough to go on living.

In the middle of the wonderful Joseph Campbell Companion, I have found this (p. 193):

The Bhagavad Gita says:

“Get in there and do your thing.
Don’t worry about the outcome.”

Recognize sorrow as of the essence.
When there is time, there is sorrow.

We can’t rid the world of sorrow,
but we can choose to live in joy.

**

I selected the last poem in this post because of its wonderful last stanza. I think it shows an influence of the Eastern tradition: a peaceful, happy deity, not a suffering one. 


One reply to Kenyon's poem might be that of Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit who believed in the theory of evolution. According to the principle that evolution starts with the simple and progresses to more and more complex, Chardin suggested that from matter emerges mind and finally spirit. So maybe "God" is not yet. The Supreme Consciousness, or Omega Point, is a work in progress. As process theology says, "We are building God." 

I think we need an enormous re-interpretation of Christianity. Some of it is happening, and is influenced by Eastern spirituality, among other things. 

EVENING PRAYER

How can we blame you for what we have made of you,
war, panic rulings, desperate purity?
Who can blame us? Lord knows, we are afraid of time,
terrible, wonderful time, the only thing not yours.
Granted, we heard what we wanted to hear,
were sentenced, therefore, to our own strange systems
whose main belief was that we should believe.

You, of course, are not religious, don't need any rules
that can be disobeyed, have no special people,
and since a god, choosing (this the myths got right),
becomes human, avoided choices
in general, which is why there is Everything,
even imagination, which thinks it imagines
what isn't, an error you leave uncorrected.

The rumor you were dead, you, I think,
suggested, letting us go with only Pray
into what you had made.  By which you meant,
I know, nothing the divine accountants
could tote up on their abaci click click,
but to widen like a pupil in the dark.

To be a lake, on which the overhanging pine,
the late-arriving stars, and all the news of men,
weigh as they will, are peacefully received,
to hear within the silence not quite silence
your prayer to us, Live kindly, live.

~ James Richardson, Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms

**

There is an emerging movement within Christianity that suggests the dominance of the crucifix was a medieval distortion. That image is missing in early Christian iconography, which was centered on Paradise. Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker, the authors of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded the Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, argue that during the first Christian millennium, the crucifix was absent. The emphasis was on the promised paradise on earth. The early church, with its ideal of agape, or loving kindness, was an attempt to create a miniature paradise through its beauty and its agape feasts, promoting respectful and affectionate treatment of all by all, building a community of love.

Suffering will always exist, but with more joy and kindness available to us, maybe it won’t be as prominent. And there has been progress in this direction. Note that the once common description of earthly life as the “Vale of Tears” has pretty much fallen out of use, as has the obsession with sin and punishment. Perhaps one answer to Jane Kenyon’s despair is that Christ consciousness and Buddha consciousness are labels for the same spiritual message of loving kindness. Just as the existence of close to 5,000 other languages does not invalidate the existence of English, the way another religion formulates the ideal of compassion does not invalidate the Christian ideal of agape.

As  Richardson says in “Evening Prayer”: Live kindly. While still far from realizing the ideal, we have made progress. We are watching a great transformation. Woman, weep no more. The tomb is empty, but the essence has not been lost.

Hyacinth:

Jane's poem is so moving. Reminded me of a friend’s poem about when he lost Christmas in Vietnam . . . all our illusions swept away in such sad reality.

Who is the many armed goddess in the painting?

I used two quotes from this poem of Gilbert's in my poems "We must risk delight" and "there is laughter even in the terrible streets of Calcutta"  Amazing lines. I especially like "the faint sound of oars" and in "faces as calm as lakes at dusk" (just when the lake is giving up light).

I was thinking about all the good intentions that the "Christians" had early on. The concept of Agape and later the communal living idea that went awry – and the Transcendentalists to name a few. Man has some good ideas but basically there is this gene or whatever for war, for violence, for being territorial and wanting to force their ideas,  especially of religion, on others.

Beautiful writing and you made great selections. Thank you.

Oriana:

The image is of a Bodhisattva: a totally compassionate being who decided not to enter nirvana but rather to help others. These are the thousand helping arms. But since this image comes from China, it might be the Chinese goddess of mercy, Quan-yin – who also qualifies as a Bodhisattva.

As for the genes, yes. We are obviously an aggressive species. But we have language and reason, including the ability to understand the causes of our behavior, at least in part; we have art and sports and productive work as outlets for the kind of energy that might otherwise go into making war. Well, we just have to keep working at it. We know we can overcome those of our genetic tendencies that are ultimately harmful and cultivate the ones that bring astonishing results, chiefly our capacity for cooperation and, even more difficult, tolerance of differences.

Jane’s poem makes me envious – you know how poets get envious when they see a great poem that somehow they should have written, but didn’t. Specifically, I am envious of the travel experiences that Jane Kenyon had, and of this one in particular. A sad one, but it resulted in a marvelous, thought-provoking poem. It’s perhaps the deepest poem that Kenyon ever wrote.

On the other hand, I am surprised by a kind of provincial turn of mind that the poet shows – how she felt frightened when the neighbors give their dog commands in Spanish, and, in a bigger way, how unsettled she became by her encounter with another religion – as if she hadn’t been exposed to other languages and other religions before. It’s a very important exposure to have had, I think – one that makes you aware that your way of describing reality is not the only possible one, and your religion is not the only one there is.


For me it was the encounter with Greek myths, with so many savior-heroes being the offspring of a god and a mortal virgin, that got me thinking in my teens about how various religions had common roots and must have influenced one another/ Then later in adulthood I could see the metaphorical possibilities, e.g. rolling away a stone and stepping out of a tomb into a garden (any garden is just a degree of Gan Eden). I wanted to forge for myself a mix of Eastern and Western spirituality, and arrived at some fragments, some useful fictions. We need those fictions to help us live, but it is best to bear in mind that the subjective truth that helps us live is not absolute truth – if “absolute truth” is ever attainable. As Nietzsche says, “There is no truth, only perspectives.” 

It’s interesting that she is disturbed not only by the poverty – that part is easy to understand – but by the happiness that she witnesses, a serenity that likely results from Eastern spirituality. Now, that tradition is not about heaven and hell. And I wonder if that perhaps is one reason why people can be happier with that kind of religion.

Christianity has often been described in terms of solace, and Kenyon certainly expresses that. We know that she struggled with depression all her adult life, so her faith apparently could not help her overcome depression. She relied on drugs, and I don’t blame her or anyone for that.  There is no “happy pill,” of course, but “you would think,” as the saying goes, that between her creative work and the recognition it brought her, her strong marriage (at least it seems that way in the poems), living in a beautiful countryside, her love of gardening, and whatever comfort she got from her faith, despair would have not constantly blighted her life. I say this as though I hadn’t been told that with the talent I have, why don’t I just write instead of wasting time on wallowing in depression? And finally, finally, after more years than I care to confess, this message “took.” I needed to do exactly that. Once I understood it, there was no going back. Still, I am not judging Jane – with her it might have been more biological, and/or her husband might have been a dominator, oppressive without meaning to be oppressive.

When I ponder my Catholic experience, there were both happy and unhappy times, but it had little to do with religion – except for those hours spent in cold sweat before a confession, making a mental list of my sins. There was some pleasure in the liturgy, in the singing – but it didn’t bring me happiness the way that being in love later did. And the nuns and priests I knew – they did not look happy. So looked utterly miserable.

One Jungian notion is that Western spirituality is such a meager experience for most people that romantic love has taken its place. The love that we are supposed to feel for God is projected onto the beloved, as well as the worship that would be appropriate only if rendered to the divine. That may be partly correct – though my minor loves, in which I did not idealize the person, what I call friendly love, or affectionate attachment, also made me happy, without the anxiety that’s a part of a great love, at least at first. Note also that people get a lot of happiness from their pets.  

Hyacinth:


The statue of many hands, Quan Yin, made me think of your poem about St Teresa of Avila, where she says we are god's hands. The statue could be a Madonna or any woman, especially mothers who need that many hands to do the work. Never mind a god. 
Oriana:

Yes, Teresa of Avila was trying to say, in a less radical form, in a way that would not lead to her being burned at the stake by the Inquisition, that “we are the Christ.” She said that the only hands God has are our hands, to do good with. It’s perhaps the single most wonderful and important thing she said. It’s disregarded of course, in favor of the drama of her vision of the angel piercing her heart with a lance.  That religious eroticism has deflected people from Teresa’s profound message. Here is perhaps the greatest Catholic woman saint, a doctor of the Church, and her most important statement is scarcely known.

Charles:

Church-going people strike me as happier because by going to church they gain friends, they socialize. A church is like a family. A dogma doesn’t make you happy; people make you happy. People need people.

Oriana:

That’s an excellent observation. Only in America I met some nuns who seemed happy and spoke about the unique advantage of living in a supportive community. The emphasis on church-connected socializing seems much greater in this country. Call it the secularization of churches, but if it makes people happy, why not. Happy people are more likely to be kind.

My longing was always for a private spirituality, but now I suspect that unless you are a mystic and can easily enter a mystical state in which Christ (or another divine figure) is your beloved, that individualism, so to speak, was a mistake. Yes, people make people happy, not dogma. People make people happy if there is affection, and unhappy if there is meanness.

Bliss cannot last – our brains are not wired that way. We have to have variety and contrast.  Dante’s idea of heaven is very static, and thus, to me and many others, utterly boring – so boring that’s it’s a form of hell! Nor would I want to interact with people, no matter how affectionate, all the time. I have to have periods of solitude when I process experience like the classic introvert that I am, a mental ruminant.

The way I see it is this: people make people happy, and variety makes people happy. In Eastern tradition, and in mystical tradition in general, the practitioners are able to have a personal relationship with the divine that apparently makes them happy. For me the closest to that is fantasies about an imaginary lover and how he and I talk, how we dance. But fantasy love never makes me as happy as actual loving interaction, and the memories of actual love. Can love for God ever feel real enough to produce even mild happiness? 

Of course we all envy mystical rapture. But some people go through years and years of devotional practice and never have a mystical experience.  Apparently your brain has to be wired just right, which may be genetic, and the conditions have to be just right (e.g. fasting, high fever, temporal lobe epilepsy, sensory deprivation, sitting in meditation for hours and hours). The conditions have to be abnormal, pathological. I suspect that extreme terror, extreme pain, extreme misery of any sort can also work. The brain will produce whatever visions (dare we say: hallucinations? hallucinations are quite common, though most of them are not especially mystical, e.g. seeing someone recently dead in a crowd, or walking in the street ahead of you) might serve survival.

Lilith:

What strikes me in the Jane Kenyon poem is that although you could call it an Easter poem, it doesn't get to the resurrection.  It stops at the moment of the discovery of the missing corpse -- they have taken away my Lord and I don't know where they laid him -- and stays emotionally stuck at that moment. Mary has misinterpreted the situation, for no one had taken him away.  He got up and walked out of the tomb on his own, as I recall from the theology of my youth.

I was explaining to my Jewish partner that Holy Saturday was the day Jesus was in the tomb all day. He died at 3PM Friday afternoon; somehow they knew the precise time. It was in the Good Friday service that we prayed for the conversion of the Jews. There was another ritual of going down on our knees to kiss the feet of the crucifix.  I explained that his grave was a cave with a stone rolled over the entrance, and he was in there dead all day Saturday. Then he came back to life Sunday morning and walked out of the cave. Stan said, "So then he wasn't really dead," and I had to explain that oh, yes, he was really dead.  That is the basis of Christian faith – he really really was dead and he really really rose and walked again Sunday morning. 

Stan said that really would be something if it did happen, and I said yes, it really would be. Of course, resurrection can be a metaphor for many things, any symbolic waking up from the dead, like feeling alive again after a long depression. But metaphor is heresy when you must believe it really happened, not only to him, but to us one day after we've been dead a long time, and one day our young, healthy bodies will come back to us, and we will walk again as we did in our primes, and that, indeed, would be heaven, as I wrote in a previous post.

P.S. I read that Pope Benedict has rewritten the prayer for the conversion of the Jews.  It no longer mentions their "blindness," but still asks for their conversion.

Oriana:

I am afraid that monotheistic religions can never let go of the idea that there is only one true religion to which everyone should convert. And it’s only now, in the recent decades, that we have the idea that you can actually choose which religion works best for you, without insisting that your choice would be best for everyone else in the world. But this kind of advanced thinking is still an exception. At least it has appeared. And I see people around me increasingly CHOOSING a particular religion (here it's usually Buddhism) rather than staying with the same religion that they were raised in.

It’s only now that at least some people believe that there are many paths to union with the divine. Imagine the suffering and religious wars that would cease if such tolerance became universal. I have a bit of hope that we are very slowly progressing toward this kind of tolerance.

Likewise, today it’s possible to express skepticism about matters such as “Jesus died on a Friday exactly at 3 pm” and not get burned at the stake. For me it’s the ethical teachings that matter, and the validity of non-revenge, for instance, has nothing to do with the so-called “historical Jesus.”

I am of course all for the metaphorical understanding of resurrection.

Too bad the Pope is still stuck on the conversion of the Jews. Of course the name "catholic" means "universal," and that desire for world domination has not been entirely uprooted . . .  "The empire has never ended." 

Mary:

For Holy Week and Easter I read the corresponding parts of the Gospel, listen to and sing Easter hymns. I have long absorbed the religions of India from afar and even practice one, Buddhism. But it was so interesting to read these parts of the Jesus story after being immersed in India for 3 weeks, including the weeklong pilgrimage to Sarnath where the Buddha first taught after his enlightenment. I have an even stronger sense than before of something I've long marveled at, the abundance of the Divine, which is available to all, even the poorest people. No one take on the Divine is enough, and there is a point, quickly reached, where no take on the Divine says or knows enough. Why God allows suffering, I can't say. Only that as I grow older and learn more about the sources of suffering -- I am struck by how very much of it is due to human ignorance, malice, greed, cruelty -- including the suffering of the street people I witnessed in India. If it's humanmade, we have a responsibility to unmake it instead of blaming it on God . . . if that makes any sense.

Oriana:

Thank you for a wonderful comment. Yes, and yes. The most enlightened believers, even in monotheistic traditions, finally agree that “no one take on the Divine says or knows enough.”

And thank you for the marvelous phrase, “the abundance of the Divine” – however we may understand the word. For me it’s mostly a synonym for two things: kindness and beauty.

Humans are one another’s heaven and/or hell, and maybe eventually that too will be acknowledged. The Catholic answer to the problem of man-made evil has been that God does not intervene with free will under any circumstances, not even to prevent Auschwitz or the gulags. It’s not entirely clear what the Catholic doctrine is on God’s interfering with the laws of nature – I suspect the current movement of thought is toward Simone Weil’s position, i.e. God never breaks the laws of nature. Milosz has a wonderful poem I need to find again, how he knows that a statue in church will not lift its hand. Some people then say, what use is the kind of deity that will not interfere in any way? Here the Eastern traditions may have some wisdom, but that is beyond me.

Others ask, if we are made in God’s image, why is there in us so much aggression, greed, lust, pride, and so forth? I prefer not to tangle with that, since I am a “mystical atheist” and see that from the point of view of evolution. Man evolved as a predator, a hunter – maybe that takes care of aggression. About the other deadly sins – I have no idea. They don’t seem adaptive. It may be more in line with “we are the victims of victims,” i.e. abused children tend to become either abusers or perpetual victims. Evil is very complex, while our understanding is partial at best. 

Scott:


Your recent post is as usual thought provoking; the quality of your writing and the people who comment on your blog are a pleasure to read.

I have traveled to Pakistan and was amazed at the utter poverty; only in Haiti did I see worse conditions. India had a profound impact on the Catholic poet James K Baxter. Born and raised in New Zealand, he was educated in Quaker schools, became an Anglican as a young man and later converted to mystical Catholicism.

I am currently reading an  excellent monster of a book( almost 700 pages!) called We, the Drowned. Set in Denmark in the mid 19th century, it follows the  fortunes of a town whose sons go to sea and the women who must manage in the months and years they are gone; 100 pages in and it's truly a great book, it has gotten good reviews worldwide. Thanks again for posting your blog, I hope you will publish your thoughts/views in essay/book form someday.

Oriana:

When I read the title We the Drowned, I instantly thought of Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved. And thought, if Jane Kenyon was so disturbed by what she witnessed in India, what might a concentration camp do to her faith? Some survivors did in fact say, “Hitler made me an atheist.” But I grew up with my grandmother’s first-hand stories of Auschwitz, and know of the desperate communal night prayers in the barracks. The inmates did not cogitate about the problem of evil; their extreme need made them pray with a greater intensity than ever before. This was my first encounter with the relationship between religious faith and emotional need. Logic has nothing to do with it, or any intellectual arguments, including Pascal’s wager. You pray when you are drowning; you pray when affliction makes your ego irrelevant. The old saying that there are no atheists in the trenches has never been reputed.

By the way, I don’t mean to sound judgmental about Jane Kenyon’s being so shaken by her experiences in India – not only the poverty, but the emotional support that people there received from a faith incomprehensible to the poet, yet in terms of providing solace at least as powerful as Christianity, if not more so. I am still astonished that Kenyon apparently thought that Catholicism was the only true religion rather than seeing it as just one path to the divine. But let’s grant it that the more global view of religions is relatively recent. And I know from personal experience how unsettling it can be to come into contact with values contrary to the one’s previous ones.

That was precisely my experience at seventeen, alone in America, an impressionable teenager suddenly thrust into consumerism, relative sexual promiscuity, and the idea that the goal of life was to have fun (so much for the Victorian dictum that we are here to do good rather than feel good, i.e. “have fun”; “sex is fun” was one of the mottos).  I remember various moments of drowning, going under, succumbing to the extremely powerful popular culture; I also vividly remember also my first moment of resistance, of sudden re-commitment to the values I grew up with – in a student cafeteria in Milwaukee, of all places. True, I was very young. But I suspect that even an adult does not find it easy to resist the Moloch of commercialism. It is a severe test that can either make your values crumble, or strengthen them – at a price. My price was loneliness. It took me a while to discover the “other America,” the intellectual-creative subculture where I could find kindred minds.

Thank you, Scott, for your praise of the blog. Getting published  in a conventional way is extremely difficult. It’s the catch-22 of not being famous. But already long ago I decided that, between the two extremes, I would rather have people ask how come I don’t have books out than look at my work and asking, “Why was this ever published?” I’ve decided to I put my limited resources into producing quality rather than marketing.

Marjorie:

I really love the picture of the lamb in your post.

Oriana:

I love it too. Young animals and small children are able to be joyful in a way that seems to become more difficult later. Watch two kittens together: if only we had that capacity! Maybe we grow too heavy, both physically and mentally.


And if we cannot be as playful as lambs and kittens, let us at least be peaceful. Perhaps a belief in a peaceful deity would help.




Lucrezia:


Great post and comments.  And if Jack Gilbert’s "But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants" isn't particularly strong poetically, it's accurate.  The picture of the Bodhissatva is God and WE ARE those Hands, carrying out those wants, tho look:  some are the small hands of children.  Patience . . .

Loved Lilith's observation on Kenyon's dark nite of the soul as well as your sound optimism. 
  
Who is nothing Hear that!
Meaning:
The stars sing
Because it's always all right!
So far you've
Not been near except when
You didn't know. Night's day
Was everywhere. No one is
Ever separated from every other
For then the world would die.

And the world does not die!
O Glory, Glory of the Light!

We live one life. Message ends

~ Kenneth Patchen

Oriana:

I agree that we are the hands that can do good, that can build paradise. We can plant beautiful gardens, and we can create small communities of love. Let’s think small: not a whole country changed into a Utopia, but just a small group of people who are respectful, affectionate, and generous toward one another. If not all the time, then at least most of the time. This becomes easier, I’ve noticed, as people gain maturity. We ripen toward agape.

I think everyone gets to experience his or her own heaven and hell right here in this life. And a lot of purgatory. I’m beginning to think that Purgatory is perhaps the best concept the Catholic church ever concocted – except that it’s right here in this life.

The fantasy of Paradise afterwards has its own beauty. I fall silent when reading these stanzas by Czeslaw Milosz, from “Throughout Our Lands”:

And what if Pascal had not been saved
and if those narrow hands in which we laid a cross
are just he, entire, like a lifeless swallow
in the dust, under the buzz of the poisonous-blue flies?

And if they all, kneeling with poised palms,
millions, billions of them, ended together with their illusion?
I shall never agree. I will give them the crown.
The human mind is splendid; lips powerful,
and the summons so great it must open Paradise.


"The human mind is splendid" -- it's politically incorrect to say it. How sad not to be able to rejoice in being human. For some reason, we are supposed to flagellate ourselves with phrases such as "merely human" or "human mind is so limited." I think it's nearly infinite. By mind I don't mean just "reason," though I object to denigrating reason; I mean reason, intuition, imagination -- the full range of brain function. If a reader wants to call this full range of function by the lovely word "soul," I don't object. Soul need not mean the little ghost that leaves the body and continues on its way, in whatever direction our wish-fulfilling fantasy would take it. Spinoza did not identify the soul with the little ghost, but with the inner life; he thought that the soul was mortal.

I don't know about paradise in the afterlife -- probably there is no afterlife (the very word is the ultimate oxymoron), and we don't "go" anywhere. But if there is some disembodied afterdeath consciousness, why should it be constant ecstasy (impossible anyway; we absolutely require variety)? But we can experience moments of paradise now, in this life -- just by closing our eyes and letting bliss flow through our bodies. Or by looking at the beauty of nature. There are many paths to "transcendence for non-believers," as I call it. First, we need to realize that just existence is transcendent, that it's a miracle we are alive -- never mind the constant lament about the brevity of life. When life is richly lived, whatever you've been given seems enough. 

Also, while it's important to take life seriously -- you are not just one person; you are humanity -- a big dose of humor helps. There is tragedy in life, but in retrospect it often seems that comedy prevails. 

 

8 comments:

  1. I lived in the Indian subcontinent for two and a half years, spoke Nepali everyday, from the day I arrived, closest living language to Sanskrit.

    I was tutored in Buddhism by a student of Goenki-ji, and in Hinduism by various Hindus, including my next door neighbor, a very saintly woman, Sarada.

    I didn't take the trip Jane Kenyon took, from Christianity to ... (all of the above?)

    I took the trip from all of the above, mostly Christian, to staunchly Christian.

    Don't get me wrong. I loved my Nepali friends and neighbors. I love the depth and complexity of Hindu scriptures, perhaps the oldest living scriptures. I love the sounds. I still spontaneously chant, "Hey Ram Hey Ram Hey Ram Ram" every now and then. I love bakhti.

    I lived Hinduism and Buddhism. I lived my neighbor women sleeping outside because they were menstruating. I lived slavery, and untouchability, and women who, first thing when they get up in the morning, washing their husband's feet and consuming some of the water.

    Hinduism is not just about faces as calm as lakes at dusk. Untouchability is the world's oldest living human rights violation. It's vast. It's central to Hinduism. No untouchability, no karma, no Hinduism, at least not as it is understood now.

    Religions really are different. Look at Amartya Sen's stats on missing women in non-Judeo-christian cultures, and Rodney Stark's work on how and why Christianity took over the Roman Empire in three hundred years -- largely, he argued, because "in christ there is no male there is no female there is no slave there is no free man there is no Jew there is no Greek." Those are revolutionary words. They are the antithesis of Hinduism. Had Hindus founded the US, our founding documents could never have said, "All men are created equal." That's contrary to the central truths of Hinduism.

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  2. I agree with everything you say. And yet I will always remember my mother's account of India, after her trip there -- during which she also encountered some of the negative things you mention. She was amazed at the colors, the beautiful saris, the joyfulness. The good and the bad, side by side. We can choose only what we want from the various religions. The nuggets of wisdom, the parables that ring true. Personally I abhor the idea of karma, and of course the untouchability and similar cruel concepts. I love the idea of serenity, though. Later I realized that Christian mysticism contains it too, but for me Catholicism was all about sin and hellfire, for which I was destined. Those were the bad old days, I realize (though there was also a lot of beauty, and of course I was crazy about Latin and fabulous embroidered priestly garments etc). Even though I can't return to Catholicism (I thought I might as part of aging, but I've only traveled farther away), I think there is some wonderful stuff in Christianity, and I hope it won't be lost -- including "Before God there is neither male nor female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free" (that's the version I learned -- the spirit is the same). "Love thy enemy" is the most revolutionary motto ever. "Judge not" -- great radical ideas, and I hope they are never lost.

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  3. I have nothing to add here--except that I love this posting, everything about it. And I have been thinking about it since I first read it.

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  4. The New Testament offers so much wisdom that it's hard to take it all in and live by it. I think that's the difficulty of Christianity. It asks for so much and most of us are unwilling or unable to give it.

    Love your enemy? Judge not?

    Both of those "commandments" are probably harder than all of the 10 commandments in the Old Testament.

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  5. Thank you, Leonard and John.

    Definitely, there is no more radical, revolutionary idea than "Love your enemy." I understand it simply to mean "No revenge" -- in line with the Buddhist: Evil by evil never can be conquered; love alone can conquer it.

    "Judge not" I understand as "Make an effort to understand the causes of X's behavior." But we also have to condemn absolute evil, so in practice this gets complicated.

    We (humanity) definitely need to understand that it's people who are each other's heaven and/or hell (sometimes both, hence my and/or). Does religion hamper us or help us toward a more clear moral understanding? There are plenty of examples on either side, so I just try to be tolerant: for some people, religion is a wonderful thing that helps them be kind to others. I wish we didn't have so many examples of the ghastly use of religion.

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  6. Nice post, thank you. I must add, however, that if you consider Jack Gilbert's line “because that’s what God wants” to be weak in that context, then you are missing the subtle irony it evokes. I urge you to read it again and see if you do not detect a small bit of sarcasm ;)

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  7. I've read it again, and sense not so much sarcasm as a bowing to the order of the things. But then Gilbert's relationship with "god" (I don't know how else to put it -- to an intellectual, god is at best an idea, but a poet must make it a person) is very complex, if one reads all of his poems that in some way evoke "the Lord." Gilbert, in his loneliness, needs someone to talk to, an intellectual equal, though ultimately they just sit together, not being able to think of anything to say, the world being as magnificent and ruthless as it is.

    I can see some sarcasm, though, in the larger context of the traditional concept of God as good and just and merciful, presumably a being who would be bothered by evil, while Gilbert's god seems to say, I want you enjoy yourselves and sing and dance next door to a place where terrible suffering is going on.

    There is also life's irony about giving thanks that at least the end has magnitude. Now that Gilbert is in dementia, he finally looks happy as a lamb, in photos at least. He is finally smiling. Is it a diminishment, or the condition of paradise? Watch for my post on the Will to Bliss.

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  8. Thanking about Gilbert's poem again. It seems to me that, simply, we have to live in denial in order to live at all. In denial or in delusion, hoping for the coming paradise. But it's also somehow HEROIC -- I choose the word carefully -- to notice all the beauty amid the suffering. Not that our enjoyment of the sound of the oar in the dark makes us less kind to others -- I'd argue that it's being fortified with moments of joy that makes it easier for us to be kind.

    And I remember my mother's return from India. She did see the beggars, of course, and was prepared for that sight. What she didn't expect, she said, is the beautiful saris and jewelry, the many festivals, the happiness in people's faces.

    Actually, that reminds me of my Polish childhood, especially in Warsaw, where our apartment was particularly . . . well, substandard. But there was art on the walls and flowers on the table. If there was any way I could console Jane Kenyon -- imagining her still alive -- I'd give her flowers: symbol of earthly beauty and resurrection.

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