All theology is a kind of birthdayEach one who is bornComes into the world as a questionFor which old answersAre not sufficient.
Maybe you will do what I did when I read this first stanza of Thomas Merton’s “Untitled Poem.” Like a puzzling koan, it focuses my mind, causing me to read it again and again to glean its meanings before proceeding to the additional pages of the poem. Perhaps you too will stop at the words above, and that’s okay, because they’re much more profound than what I can offer.
Thomas Merton and Mary Oliver and the apostle Paul have joined me of late for morning prayers. I’ve read at least nine of Merton’s books, but this is my first exposure to his poetry. I’ve read occasional Oliver poems, but not a lifetime collection. I’m reading them for a Columbia Seminary Spiritual Formation weekend course on Christian Poetry and the Christian Journey: Illumination and Mysticism in Blake, Hopkins, Merton, Levertov, and Oliver that I will be attending later this month.
And I’m reading Paul because I created morning and evening prayers for the program’s recent Spiritual Immersion course, and the professor discussing New Testament spirituality suggested using liturgical elements from Colossians and Philippians, and that got me started again on Paul.
Though Tom and Mary seem to inhabit the same countryside, bringing Tom, Mary, and Paul into dialogue is only possible, perhaps, in meditation. All can be inscrutable (at least to me), and all can create golden one-liners and inspiring spiritual metaphors. Mary has always seemed free to me, borrowing from nature as much or more than from tradition, but Tom and Paul came to their freedom later in life.
Tom’s freedom makes his later poetry more accessible to me, his spirituality broader and more welcoming. Paul’s freedom makes his spirituality soar beyond the confines of his own traditional religion, and I better realize why the mystical Christ seems so important to him—a mythologized Christ helped him bust free from his religious rigidity.
My own experience is the opposite of Paul’s: I needed to bust free from the religious rigidity of a mythologized Christ sacrificed for sins to reclaim the life and teachings and belovedness of Jesus. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Paul’s words about Christ are also true for me about Jesus. Yet at the same time, I do love Paul’s understandings of our unity with Christ and our spiritual community as Christ’s body, indivisible by condition or culture, sharing burdens and joys with one another, and sharing Christ’s spiritual inheritance as God’s children.
Mary Oliver best captures what I hope from life in these words from her poems “When Death Comes” and “October”:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my lifeI was a bride married to amazement.I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.When it’s over, I don’t want to wonderif I have made of my life something particular, and real.I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,or full of argument.I don’t want to end up simply having visited the world.…Look, I want to love this worldas though it’s the last chance I’m ever going to getto be aliveand know it.
Posts about 9/11 in the U.S. on today’s anniversary:
A post about Chile on today’s 40th anniversary of their 9/11 coup in 1973:
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