Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Wildest Places

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?

Then adds:

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.”

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog:
Scroll down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite.


  1. Chris, I’m glad you shifted what you were going to write about this week because the “lust of comfort” resonated with me. Since John and I retired to North Carolina, it has taken us the last 1-1/2 years to create our retirement home as a comforting oasis away the craziness of the modern world…and from the rat race of our employment years. Now that we’ve achieved our goal of a comfortable living situation, I’m surprised that I’m sometimes feeling restless and aimless. And I also find myself resentful if something comes up on our schedule that means I’m going to have to give up some of my free time. Is the “lust of comfort” becoming my master? I’m resolved to be better about this. Though it is concerning to me that 2-1/2 years into retirement, I’m still struggling to find a balance between having freedom to do something or nothing, and yet still striving for a purpose-driven and useful life. Thanks for your ability to transmit and interpret the wisdom of Mary Oliver and Kahlil Gibran to us in this week’s blog post. Barry

    1. Barry,I'm so glad it resonated with you and apparently others. You and I risked the wildest places in our activism, and it's hard to come down from that high. I miss those wildest places! All my best to you and John! Chris

  2. Thanks Chris and Barry too. I found that the poem by Kalil is easily available online. Sermon at my church this past Sunday was about "Our Spaces" and I keyed of off Chris' quote "children of space". As chair of our social justice committee I will make good use of the poem __On Houses. We on the committee live mostly in retirement centers; so you see why I needed this boost of courage. Feeling much love, Tom

    1. Thanks, Tom, and my apologies for publishing your comment a couple days after you submitted it! I am so glad you were able to use these thoughts!