Poetry will never buy me bread or pay my rent. It will never pick up my children from school when I’m sick. It will not offer me a ride to the airport. Poetry will slip from my memory when I am old, phrases long memorized will most likely be buried under medical bills and compression hose and even so it will not forsake me completely. It will live deep in my cells, deep in my breath, deep in my history, and my making. It will buoy me when the water rises, when the dark falls, holding me with unseen hands, the memory of years past; words placed like pillars long forgotten.
On this trip to Kentucky, I’m staying in a small cottage overlooking the pond at the back of Bethany Springs (the Thomas Merton Retreat Center), rather than at the monastery itself. Partly because of something I felt with renewed force when I finished reading Merton’s memoir last year. I am interested in neither a monastic life, nor an ascetic one. I’ll gladly stand with Jovinianus (and against St. Jerome, who identified this as an honest-to-God heresy, back in the year 393) in the declaration that abstinence from food is no better, in the eyes of God, than a thankful receiving of such. And you’ll find me much quicker these days to quote Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” than to agree with St Paul’s Greek-influenced dichotomy between spirit and flesh.
When I wash the dishes or grade the multiple choice quizzes, then, I try to cultivate my understanding of how those tasks fit into(yes!) the redemptive arc of history. Maybe I'm joining in God’s creative nature by creating babies and veggie stir-fry and quilts, by telling stories and painting with watercolors and making up silly songs and dances. Maybe I am making all things new by doing loads of laundry and getting dirty dishes to sparkle again. In each of these tasks, I am — hopefully — participating in God's plan to bring restoration to a broken world.
It’s hard to tell whether this clay was accidentally or intentionally smashed. The pieces have been fitted back together, and the fault lines are visible, but the glue is not. Iridescent stone beads adorn some of the cracks, where a little bit of pot is missing. Some shards were individually painted before they rejoined their places. It looks like people worked together to restore it. It’s no good for holding water now, but it can’t hold dark any more either. Where the water would pour out, light pours in.
This creation of lilies, sparrows, guinea pigs, dogs, surgery patients, and elderly people groans. Every bit of our world suffers the Fall in a truly personal way. So it’s okay to sob on this planet where the innocent suffer right alongside the rest of us — even for hardened surgeons or my brother the Marine, for my grandparents who have lost almost all of their friends, or for anyone who’s waited too long by a hospital bed.