Forgive the Living and the Dead

51x++PCqTkL._SX331_BO1 204 203 200_Nicholas Samaras' beautiful poem on forgiveness I read on Sunday is published in his first book, Hands of the Saddlemaker, Yale Series of Younger Poets. It explores the difficulty and necessity of forgiveness. 


"Forgive the living and the dead."
                                                      Saint Kosmas Aitolos

This is the weight of the unresolved dead.

Deep hours. A wooded house
with one yellow pane of light. 
Words on a page.
Wind in the foothills.
Years I have carried you like a tombstone in my heart.

Tonight, with this book before me
in simple lamplight,
I find the small surprise of perspective,
feel how one found passage may show
the thin, bright plume beneath a closed door.
I know you are alive somewhere --
dreaming I hand you a plate of oranges,
each day waking to forget my name,
dressing and arranging your hair
to meet someone younger than I.

Before a stoked spine of fire
with this volume on my lap,
I sit up in the hushed parlor,
remembering the closed history of us,
my old habit of thinking you buried to me.

Now with this quote from a quiet saint,
I care to be winter, choose
to unclasp like leaves.
Hatred has kept me
tied to you, kept me your servant.
Anger is a hard strength that isn't good enough anymore.
So, to this paragraph, I speak your name.

I tell you it is alright.
I let the past be finally adequate.
I forgive the living and the dead.
Whichever you are is your own choice.
Mine is to move from this.

Samaras, Nicholas. "Forgive the Living and the Dead" Hands of the Saddlemaker. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992. 49-50.The slim volume of poetry is available online from various sources and is filled with short poems of spiritual depth and reflection. A new volume of poems, American Psalm, World Psalm is a volume of 150 poems, one for each of the biblical Psalms. 


Michael and Archangels


On Angels

All was taken away from you: white dresses,
wings, even existence.
Yet I believe in you,mesengers.

There, where the world is turned inside out,
a heavy fabric embroidered with stars and beasts,
you stroll, inspecting the trustworthy seems.

Short is your stay here:
now and then at a matinal hour, if the sky is clear,
in a melody repeated by a bird,
or in the smell of apples at close of day
when the light makes the orchards magic.

They say somebody has invented you
but to me this does not sound convincing
for the humans invented themselves as well.

The voice -- no doubt it is a valid proof,
as it can belong only to radiant creatures,
weightless and winged (after all, why not?),
girdled with the lightning.

I have heard that voice many a time when asleep
and, what is strange, I understood more or less
an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:

day draws near
another one
do what you can.

Czeslaw Milosz

in Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, ed. Roger Housden; Harmony Books: NY, 2003.

One of my favorite images of St. Michael and one of my favorite poetic images of angels. Can you imagine turning a rich tapestry over, examining the back and inspecting all the intricate, interconnecting threads that hold it together? An old fashioned telephone switchboard with all the plugs crisscrossing and connecting? Today's modern image might be a circuit board, or a silicone wafer with countless, unseen connections which enable the miracle of computing and telecommunications.

Angels remind us that there is more to the world than what we see. They teach us humility and prayerfulness. And when we try to act rightly, mercifully, they console us that this can be a struggle. That's when I find it helpful to look at this sculpture of St. Michael: to remember that good triumphs.

St. Michael's Cathedral Coventy, England.

No False Pretenses

Today's Lectionary Readings



      by Percy Bysshe Shelley

    I met a traveler from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    I remember this poem well from the first time I encountered it in high school. Sonnets were not my favorites, and most of them not too easy to understand, but here was a plain and simple message.

    Jesus warns us against self-aggrandizement and lording it over others. Instead he champions a young child, reminds us that the greatest among us serve, while the least make the most of themselves.

    Let us get down off our pedestals to worship the Lord this day.

Bare Ruined Choirs Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang


Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see'st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west;

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,

Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

William Shakespeare
I'll never forget the Rector's Conference at St. Mary's Seminary during which our rector, musing on the relative emptiness of the seminary in the 90's compared to its peak-filled capacity of the 50's and 60's quoted this sonnet, especially the verse:
    bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
When I came upon this picture of cassocks hanging on the line to dry, I thought of that rector's conference and Shakespeare's sonnet. I suppose the rector looked at so many empty pews in chapel and thought back to younger days when no seat could be spared.
Though the rector was thinking primarily about the death or passing of an age in the church, this sonnet surely gives us pause to consider our own mortality. And more than the verse about singing birds, its last two verses have sustained me and given me much to pray about at funerals and during times of other losses:
    this thou perceiv'st which makes thy love more strong
    to love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

Thanks Fr. Leavitt, thanks William Shakespeare.

Poems for Parents, Teachers, Educators

Baby During mass last Tuesday at which our teachers began their school year with a retreat, I preached about hope and the teaching profession, indeed the hope of every parish which nurtures a school and its children. I used excerpts from two poems and in response to requests for the citations, I repeat them here:

Tomorrow's Child by Rubin Alves is a complex and beautiful poem. The last stanza reminds us that operating a school is not a business, but a vocation, and those who teach in them, administer them or send children to the best schools, do so at a high cost. As one educator has said, we need to focus not only on "test taking" but "meaning making" for our students.

...Let us plant dates

even though those who plant them will never eat them.

We must live by the love of what we will never see.

This is the secret discipline…

It is a struggled commitment to the future of our grandchildren.

Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints

the courage to die for the future they envisaged.

They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.

Dreamy Goat by the Persian mystic poet Rumi, reminds us that even as we improve the academic and spiritual standards of our school, we must be sure to protect the "dreamy goats" in our midst.

You've seen a herd of goats
going down to the water.

The lame and dreamy goat
brings up the rear.

There are worried faces about that one,
but now they're laughing,

because look, as they return,
that goat is leading!

There are many different kinds of knowing.
The lame goat's kind is a branch
that traces back to the roots of presence.

Learn from the lame goat,
and lead the herd home.

A Lively Church...


A lively church has parking problems;

                A dead church doesn’t.

A lively church has lots of “noisy” children and young people;

                A dead church is fairly quiet.

A lively church often changes the way things are done;

                A dead church doesn’t.

A lively church sees challenges and opportunities;

                A dead church plays it safe and never takes risks.

A lively church is filled with committed givers;

                A dead church is filled with tippers.

A lively church dares to dream great dreams for God’s kingdom;

                A dead church has nightmares.

from The Story File, by Steve May, editor; Hendrickson Publishers, 2000.