I promised last week an excerpt from my talk this past Sunday for Atlanta’s First Existentialist Congregation, but the Spirit or a spirit has led me to do otherwise. I had completed writing my talk when I noticed I had overlooked a comma, which changed the meaning of my “scripture,” requiring changes to the talk itself.
Let us risk the wildest places,
Lest we go down in comfort, and despair.
This is from Mary Oliver’s poem “Magellan” about his ambitious sail around the world. Initially I left out the comma between comfort and despair, which suggests “comfort” and “despair” are co-equal results of failing to “risk the wildest places.” Instead, I realized she intended despair as a result of comfort. She is warning that succumbing to mere comfort may lead to despair.
As I made the necessary changes in my talk to interpret my new understanding of the line, I laughed to myself that this would make a good lesson in a high school English class about the importance of proper punctuation!
But the morning after my talk the spiritual nature of my error came to me like a slap on the head from a Zen master. Now reading the mystical poet Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet in my morning prayers, I read the Prophet’s response to a mason’s petition to “Speak to us of Houses”:
Would that I could gather your houses into my hand, and like a sower scatter them in forest and meadow... In their fear your forefathers gathered you too near together.
The Prophet ponders what seduces us in our houses, ending with:
Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master?
Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.
As I age, comfort and security become more attractive than ever. At an ingathering of LGBTQ prophets a couple of years ago, I inquired why a particularly courageous prophet was not there. “She and her partner are in a retirement home,” it was explained, “And she said they really liked it because they ‘didn’t have to go outside.’”
This past weekend a friend with mental health and addiction issues was released after eight months in jail. Though I’m familiar with so-called “institutional personalities,” those who repeat offenses to stay in the comfort and stability of incarceration, I had thought he would be overjoyed with his newfound freedom. But it has apparently deepened his anxiety. I witnessed something similar when he escaped a rigid, religious belief environment.
For me, the most memorable line (paraphrased here) from the old British film Thank You All Very Much featuring Sandy Dennis came when her character finally completed her doctoral dissertation: “So much freedom is so damn inhibiting!” Some of us in retirement experience the same sort of confusion, I guess one of the reasons I keep blogging.
In my talk Sunday, I drew a connection between Oliver’s “wildest places” and the “wilderness” as a frequent setting for spiritual enlightenment and pilgrimage in almost all religions.
Warning “your house shall not hold your secret nor shelter your longing,” the Prophet addresses us as “children of space” and seems to anticipate Oliver’s sailing metaphor:
But you, children of space, you restless in rest, you shall not be trapped nor tamed.
Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast. …
For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky, whose door is the morning mist, and whose windows are the songs and the silences of night.
“Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.”
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