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Monday, February 20, 2012

Smelling out death

Can you believe it? Ash Wednesday is this very week. Only two days away.

I'll spare you the Winter riff on the seasonal lament, "Where does the time go?"

As I have been preparing myself for the beginning of Lent, wandering through what the church has to say about the Doctrines of Human Nature and Sin and Death and Resurrection, I came across this quote from Rowan Williams in Christian Century:
"Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, says doctrine is needed in order to help Christians know how God acts in creation and in transformation. We must have doctrine in order to know what it is that we are to be attuned to. "But if doctrine doesn't make possible poetry and contemplation, then doctrine is a waste of time," he says. This "is where the poetic and contemplative touch the prophetic, because the prophetic is all about the diagnosis of dead words and false acts. The prophetic task is to smell out death in a situation. (Williams, A Silent Action)
Oh, Rowan, Rowan, Rowan!

There you go again. Setting up false dichotomies. This time, between the poetic and the prophetic and twisting it 'round in order to defend the need for church doctrine.

Okay, so this quote is taken out of context and I admit to not having read A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton.

Maybe he didn't mean exactly what he wrote here.  To be fair, perhaps in context he meant something else entirely.

You know, like the way Rowan once wrote about homosexuality when he was Bishop in Wales and then did something else entirely when he was Archbishop of Canterbury.

Don't even get me started about the treatment of women in the episcopacy in the Church of England.

And, you don't want to go anywhere near the Anglican Covenant.

Quite frankly, I am weary of 'engagements' with Rowan. More often than not, he makes my head hurt when he's not causing my heart to ache, so I'm not going to even go there with him in terms of whether or not "We must have doctrine in order to know what it is that we are to be attuned to," because I think, mostly, doctrine is a waste of time precisely because it doesn't "make possible poetry and contemplation".

Well, doctrine often gives rise to serious theological contemplation, perhaps, but poetry? Well, perhaps John Donne and Gerard Manly Hopkins, but honestly, when was the last time doctrine gave rise to poetry? Not anything I've read that was written in the last 200 years, at least. Not directly.

Because of the flaws genetically inherent in all doctrine, it naturally gives rise to the prophetic.

In many ways, doctrine is dead on arrival, having been thoroughly masticated and regurgitated by hundreds of men for hundreds of centuries before it gets written down and some other, dried up old man dressed in heavy brocade and silk and lace dribbles some wax and impresses his seal of approval on it.

But, I said I didn't want to engage Rowan.

I do want to engage this idea about the poetic and the prophetic, and what Rowan says, "The prophetic task is to smell out death in a situation".

The problem, for me, is that so much of church doctrine is not only dead, it can easily be used as an instrument of death - or, at least a cudgel to beat the life out of the life-blood of the church.

The very idea that we need doctrine "in order to help Christians know how God acts in creation and in transformation" is not only false, in my estimation, it is killing us not-so-softly but silently with words.

But, I said I didn't want to engage Rowan.

In preparation for Ash Wednesday's herald of the Season of Lent, I've come across some poetry which makes the case that we need both the poetry of the prophetic and the sometimes prophetic nature of poetry to help people of faith know how God acts in creation and transformation.

Take this one, for example, by Sarah Rossiter. It's called "Stripped" which is about Death and Resurrection and one of the best images I know for Lent.
This is the season, trees stripped
clean and what was hidden now
is seen, the path that leads into
the woods, the littered leaves,
the crooked walls that once marked
fields where grass grew tall,
remnants of a time long past,
reminding me that nothing lasts.

Will death be like this, do you think,
the day the breath does not return,
will our true nature be revealed when
stripped of memory, heart, bone,
sight, will we, too, open to the sky,
and, like the forest, fill with light?
See what I mean? If this poem doesn't 'smell out the death' in the church's doctrine of Sin and Human Nature, I don't know what else does.

To my mind, no one dances on the line between the prophetic and the poetic like Mary Oliver. No, not dances. She often performs an elegant ballet, with breathtaking pirouettes and daring arabesques across deep theological thoughts and images from Creation.

I think her poem Wild Geese challenges the death in the doctrines of Human Nature and Sin to resurrect itself and take her on, leading us to a new idea of Lent.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
I know. I know. No mention of God. Not even a whisper of Jesus. And yet, those who have ears can hear the Divine calling clearly over the words on the page to radical acts of faith and love.

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I took a few amazing courses in seminary with Womanist Ethicist Katie Geneva Canon.

She said lots of things in those course that I carry with me to this very day. One of them is this:  That the prophetic task of the pastor and the preacher was three-fold:
Name the pain.
Touch where it hurts.
Offer hope.
That, I think, is the challenge of 'smelling out the death' in doctrines which gives rise to the poetic and the prophetic.

I confess that it is the prophetic poetry of Judy Chicago's work "And Then" which offers hope as I sift through the ashes of my life in my Lenten Discipline:
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then will cherish life's creatures
And then all will live in harmony with one another and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.
Oh, that I might hear this sort of prophetic poetry from the pulpits in some churches! Oh, that I might even have the courage to move past dry, dusty, ashen doctrine to proclaim an image of the Realm of God which does not smell of death but is alive with the intoxicating aromas of the presence of a Living God in the midst of the death and decay of life.

No, I'll not be taking any of the church's doctrine into Lent with me this year. I will not be contemplating the dead words of dead men to lead me through the ashes of my human nature and into the fullness of a life of Christ who lives in my soul.

Instead, I'll be packing some bits and scraps of prophetic poetry from some of the women in my life as nourishment and inspiration along the way.

I may even try my hand at writing some of my own poetry. I confess, I really suck at poetry. I'm too embarrassed to reprint any of it here.

It is poetry, however, that, more often than not, leads me to the path toward my own salvation. I don't know how else to better express the power and magnificence of my experience of God. Even then, it falls woefully short. But, it is alive, filled with passionate questions and certain doubts which I think are at the center of an experience of the Living God.

It is not doctrine, put prophetic poetry which helps me "to know how God acts in creation and transformation". I must have prophetic poetry "in order to know what it is that we are to be attuned to".

But, I said I wasn't going to engage Rowan.

Instead, I'll leave you with one of my favorite of my many favorites of Mary Oliver's poetry.

May it guide your steps through Lent as it has mine.

It's called, simply, "The Journey"
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Well, Rowan got this much right: "If doctrine doesn't make possible poetry and contemplation, then doctrine is a waste of time."

In two short days, we shall hear it said, over and over again, "Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return (Genesis 3:19)."

Now, there's a doctrine that is both poetic and prophetic. 

Smelling out the death in a situation is not only poetic and prophetic.

I believe it is the on-going work of being Christian.

Lent prepares us to begin that work, and so, makes us better, more alive Christians for the task of ushering in the Realm of God for Christ's sake.

Not to enshrine our beliefs in doctrine, but to be better able to live our faith with honesty and integrity and the kind of transparency that leads to transformation.

Because, as Mary Oliver says, the world will continue to spin and God's grace and salvation will continue to be available, "whether or not you have ever dared to be happy / whether or not you have ever dared to pray".


whiteycat said...

Elizabeth, thank you for this outstanding post. I often say "I am giving up church for Lent." That is because it is the season when often I am subjected to the poorest theology. Dead doctrines abound. The poetry in your post definitely surpasses dead words that emanate from dead doctrines. You have named my pain, touched where it hurts and offered me hope. Thank you for that!

I hope that during this Lenten season you will post more life giving poetry.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Whiteycat. You are welcome. The only thing worse than what we hear from many pulpits and "Lenten meditations" is the theology in our hymnal. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Talk about singing to our "inner Calvinist"!

Holly said...

Yes, oh yes. How beautiful! How true! I find myself at a point in my life where within the confines of my ecclesiastical location (I cannot deem it "church") I find only death. It is stiff, cold, unresponsive; everything done by the book. Words said, rituals done, but with no conviction that they are TRUE and REAL and more POWERFUL than death. Only when I walk outside into a too-early warm winter and see the buds struggling to know whether to come out or stay put do I see the truth of the coming Lent. Thank God nature still speaks when humans forget how to.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, Holly, I ache for you because that has often been my experience. Indeed, it has shaped my commitment to be different. To make the words real and alive and true. It's so much easier when I've "tampered" with the words and made them more of what I know to be TRUE about Jesus and Lent and the Resurrection.

It's a difficult tension. And yes, nature speaks more profoundly than words.