Category Archives: Poetry

Sacred Days and Desecrated Days

There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

– from “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry

black-friday-smyrna-vinings.jpgThis year during Thanksgiving there were a number of stores having sales on Thursday already. This prompted a friend of mine to ask, “Is nothing sacred?” This is an oft-heard complaint about the way that different aspects of our culture have continued to creep into what many consider to be sacred times. Whether its American football played on Sundays or other activities planned for Wednesday evenings (traditionally reserved for many churches to have mid-week services) or children’s and school’s sports games planned for all of the above, many people ask the same question as my friend, “Is nothing sacred?”

Holy Days or Holidays
During this time of the holidays, at the height of the religious calendar of the consumer religion, it seems appropriate to reflect on the meaning of sacred days and spaces. The word “holiday” is a shortening of “holy day”. This truncating of the word seems symbolic of the loss of this sacred time as the word’s meaning is obscured by its decreased stature. In Australia, Canada and the UK the word “holiday” is used to mean vacation, as in “I went on holiday to Hawaii.” Now holiday just means a day off from work.

We have holidays that are purely secular. While they may be important and worthwhile, they have no roots in religious observances and can thus not be considered “holy days”. These include many of the so-called “Hallmark Holidays” such as Grandparent’s Day, Sweetest Day, Boss’s Day, and Secretary’s Day. Mother’s Day, while not a religious holiday, has its roots in the anti-war movement. Labor Day was initiated by labor groups and unions to celebrate and remember workers, but Grover Cleveland chose the current date in order to distance the day from the more radical International Workers’ Day. Now it’s seen as a day for cook outs to celebrate the end of summer and the last day that it’s fashionable for women to wear white.

There is Veteran’s Day, which was originally Armistice Day. Initially this holiday celebrated the cessation of hostilities in World War I, a solemn occasion to remember the true cost of war. Now it has become a celebration to rally the country around ever expanding militarism. It originally commemorated the ending of war, but is now used to justify our ongoing and unending involvement in conflicts around the world.

thanksgiving-cartoon.gif

The Real Earth Day
Finally we have Thanksgiving. This holiday has its roots in traditional harvest celebrations of indigenous people and Europeans. The mythological beginnings of the United States’ tradition with pilgrims and native people sitting down to share a meal almost certainly never happened, though apparently the “Wampanoag Native Americans helped the Pilgrims by providing seeds and teaching them to fish” when they were starving (Wikipedia). The myth of Thanksgiving is that European settlers and Native peoples got along just fine.

The roots of the tradition of giving thanks at the end of harvest is not unique to any particular religion or people. On the contrary it seems to be universal across cultures and religions through history. What is divergent is not stores being open on Thanksgiving, but that the vestiges of the harvest celebration with seasonal foods is barely recognized or acknowledged. It is telling that Thanksgiving is known primarily for the overconsumption of food and consumer goods. Granted many people spend quality time with their family and take time to express what they are thankful for. Remarkably absent from the majority of thanks is any reference to the harvest, seasonal food or land that sustains our lives every day.

The point of all this is that 1) holidays no longer signify only days with traditionally religious significance and 2) holidays tend to shift from their original meanings toward something else.

Is “Nothing” Sacred?
Thanksgiving cartoon.jpgThe question is, “What is the something else towards which our holy days and holidays have shifted?” I would suggest that it is not that we have shifted away from religion toward secularism, but that we have moved from one religious system to another. There is not an absence of religious significance. Instead what we have are competing systems of religious significance and meaning.

William Cavanaugh argues in Being Consumed that consumerism is not actually an attachment to things. On the surface it appears that the consumer religion is about accumulation and materialism, but on a deeper level it is more about a detachment from things as we are constantly in pursuit of the new and the next thing. In this sense “nothing” is sacred as all objects are emptied of their meaning. In the consumer religion it is the absence of meaning in objects, places and times that is sacred. The meaning is supplied by the act of shopping, buying, desiring and repeating the ritual. Which begs the question, “Is this religious violence?”

So, it is a mistake to ask about the sanctity of holidays when stores open on Thanksgiving. The growth economy demands its offerings and sacrifices as well. Therefore to paraphrase Wendell Berry, “There are no unsacred days; Only sacred days and desecrated days.”

Images from smyrnavinings.com, joyoftech.com, and http://lindaraxa.blogspot.com

The Peace of Wild Things

This is a well known poem of Wendell Berry’s. I have wanted to avoid some of his more well known works, but they are still so full of meaning and poignance for me that I cannot ignore them. This one is short. So, I will quote the whole thing.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

This poem in particular gives me a lot of comfort. As an activist, environmentalist, follower of Jesus, father, husband and someone who cares about the world we live in, it can be easy find myself where the poem begins, in despair. It seems that those who want to make the world a better place often begin by trying to overwhelm us with fear and guilt about the state of the world. I have certainly felt that in order to make change I needed to shock people out of complacency with pictures, statistics, stories and a narrative about how the world is so completely messed up. So, we begin our task of repairing the world by creating as much discomfort, anxiety, guilt and fear possible.

This strategy has the benefit of working, at least for a while. People become fearful and guilty about what the world has become and their role in it. Then they reach despair, the beginning of this poem, but people can only stay there so long before turning suicidal or mentally ill. Many people choose then to opt-out of any resistance and try to get the most they can out of the status quo. They recycle and do little things that reflect their deeper values, but they have despaired of greater change and left behind any radical dreams of a better world. That grieves me. Have we not learned that people motivated by fear or guilt tend not to do the things that make the world better?

Perhaps Berry feels the weight of despair from this disaster narrative that haunts our global society. Regardless of where his despair comes from initially, he places his fears in their proper place, future generations. This is what should motivate us, not guilt and fear, but a rootedness in this place called earth, and our own particular places that causes us to contemplate the future of this place and these people. This is the place to which the rest of the poem brings us.

Berry has often been contrasted with another poet, Mary Oliver; he, the poet of farm and field and she, the poet of wilderness. Yet Berry often lingers on the edges of fields, more than he rides the tractor. He also often contrasts forest and field, wilderness and cultivated land. They are deeply intertwined in his work. This is because, as he demonstrates in this poem, there is an an underlying “grace of the world” his sense of what farming is and what it means. In another poem, “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer”, Berry says

I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing and reaped as I knew by luck and heaven’s favor in spite of the best advice.

Berry’s way of living with the land, rather than off it or from it, is centered in the world of living things “who do not tax their lives with forethought”. The natural world is not planning out how to survive, or how to win the battle against encroaching civilization. There is no conspiracy of beavers and bears plotting how to protect their homes. I believe it was David Quinn who said that the point at which human beings departed from other creatures was our ability to tell the future from the past, to look at a set of tracks and say that someone or something came from this direction and went that way. Perhaps the point at which we began to “tell time” in the modern sense is when we domesticated ourselves, no longer living among wild things without forethought.

The “presence of still water” obviously calls to mind the 23rd Psalm, but it is almost as if the poet wants us to look again at this well known phrase in a new context. In the context of the Psalm it evokes the comfort of God in difficult times, but we don’t think much about the actual still water. It is incredible to me that even our faith tradition can get in the way of our seeing and reading the Bible. In this poem the still water evokes the fact that it has not been disturbed. Think about how long you have to sit and watch a pond or lake reach that glassy equilibrium. In the poem the peace of that water just sits there waiting, just like the stars, obscured by the sun’s light.

Finally, there is a freedom in this kind of wild peace that is exponentially more than the negative freedoms we have come to associate with that word. Plants grow and bear fruit, animals mate and die, rivers flow, the rains come and it all happens beyond all our machinations and our control. We have used science to understand a lot about the world, but it continues to be beyond our control. I still believe that our attempts to control it are the definition of hubris and a lack of true understanding. It is as if we have equated freedom with control, where we are the ones in charge. Yet real freedom lies in the world beyond our control, that continues without us and continues to support us in spite of our best efforts to manipulate, exploit and destroy. It is not freedom for the heron or wood drake to try and become like us and live in air conditioned houses. Their freedom is their ability to be what they were meant to be, to exist as they were created to exist, apart from our care or exploitation, but beside us in the grand dance of ecology.

To return to the despair in the beginning, this kind of freedom and peace puts the activist, the radical, the follower of Jesus, those who want to make the world better in a completely different frame of mind for their work. Using fear and guilt to make change is another way of manipulation, exploitation and control. How would we work toward change if our thoughts and actions grew out of the peace of wild things and the freedom of the world beyond our control?

The Presence of Absence

This poem is too short to quote from and make any sense. So, I will quote the whole thing. “The Want of Peace” from Openings (1968) by Wendell Berry

All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman’s silence
receiving the river’s grace,
the gardener’s musing on rows.

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.

The first and second stanzas stand in contrast to each other. The first represents the desire to live in peace with the world around us (and consequently each other), while the second reveals the truth about ourselves and the world we have created. This poem touches on some of the same themes discussed in the poem “The Dream” previously, the world as it should be contrasted with the world as it is, including ourselves.

I would like to focus on the other theme of this poem, peace. You may have heard that peace is not just the absence of conflict. This is still not a definition, but continues to allow the concept to be defined in the negative. “Not the absence of conflict”, I count three negatives in that short phrase. If it’s not the absence of something negative then it must involve the presence of something positive. I think Berry hints here, even in the negative, that presence itself is part of what is missing.

We have precious little practice or time in our culture for presence. There are too many advertisements, meetings, jobs, things to do and things to buy for us to be wholly present at any of them. Indeed, North American culture’s favorite past time substitutes the absence of activity, choosing instead to passively watch various screens, for any sort of real presence. (Insert thought here about transubstantiation, consubstantiation and the “real presence” of the Eucharist.) “Going to the movies” or “watching TV” sound like activities, but in reality they are extended periods of inactivity and absence.

In contrast, real peace can be found in things that seem like inactivity, but are pregnant with presence and mindfulness, like the “fisherman’s silence” or “the gardener’s musing on rows”. John Zerzan talks about the way that language often (or always according to him) mediates our experience and keeps from an authentic encounter with the world. The presence in silence and musing is an unmediated experience in which we can find profound peace. So, peace can be found in silence. I could do a whole post on this topic, meditation and the Christian practice of centering prayer. Silence is where we are forced to encounter ourselves as we are, without the image mediated to us by advertising, popular culture and the media.

The poem concludes with the thought that we are led into this lack of peace by “burning men”. Indeed our leaders seem unanimous in their quest to build and sell violence in many forms, weapons and wars on everything from crime to drugs, not to mention nations and finally the never ending nebulous war on terrorism. The weapons of war have brought us everything from ammonium nitrate and agrochemicals to nuclear power. Yet, we expect something other than violence from these technologies.

When we finally acknowledge the absence of peace, the gaping hole left in the wake of these weapons, both physical and mental, we find ourselves in darkness. Yet, perhaps Berry is pointing us in this direction, the darkness is precisely where we find the “dumb life of roots”. The life cultivating the hidden mysteries of the soil is looked down on in a society that creates this absence of peace in order to fuel its unquenchable desire for growth. This is our refuge, or at least I know it is mine. With all my “education”, it is the life spent cultivating life above and below ground that allows presence into my life.

The Dream

I have dreams when I am sleeping that I cannot understand and are not publishable for a family audience. I also have dreams for my life and the world, visions of the way things should be. In the poem “The Dream” from Openings (1968) by Wendell Berry the poet imagines the convergence of both kinds of dreams. There is the dream of the world as it was before all of our meddling. Then he tries to imagine the world as it should be, rebuilt anew with what we know now. Finally, he realizes the impossibility of his dream, because of the way that the world, including himself, is in reality.

Berry begins with a dream that removes “our flocks and herds, our droves of machines” from the landscape to imagine the world as it existed without all of our tinkering, as it did for millions of years when we were hunter-gatherers, not apart from our existence, only our domination.

Like the afterimage of a light that only by not
looking can be seen, I glimpse the country as it was.

It seems that this leap of the imagination, this dream, is a difficult one. As I look around me, even in rural Bolivia, where a Guarani village recently got electricity for the first time a matter of months ago, it is hard to imagine the landscape without the trappings of civilization and settled agriculture, the power lines, food wrappers, plastic bottles, buildings, cars, railroad tracks and street lights. Our imaginations are dominated by the world as it is, making near impossible the ability to imagine the world without what we see around us, the things that our lives and lifestyles depend on every day. The poet suggests that only by closing our eyes can we begin to imagine this other world.

This world exists in our mind, in the realm of dreams. This is not a memory that we have from experience, but one we must reconstruct with our imagination, even if we use the details and facts that sciences like anthropology and archaeology can tell us. There are those that choose to paint an idyllic scene of the perfect harmony and leisure of hunter-gatherer societies, while others paint the other historical (and racist) picture of an existence that is “nasty, brutish and short”. Somewhere between these two we must imagine that world of pre-history (which is to say, pre-agriculture) in more realistic detail. From this imaginative leap backwards, the poem then leaps forward to a future that might have been or perhaps could still be.

The poet then begins “putting back what I took away”.

to build all that we have built, but destroy nothing

This is the summation of the dream for which Berry yearns. This is the fulcrum of the poem on which the worlds of what was and what is hang in the balance. The question that haunts me is what it means “to build all that we have”? What do we have that can remain and “destroy nothing”? Is this dream of the world as it is except without the destruction even possible? As if waking up from this dream of the way the world was and then building it anew, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, his “hands weakening” and feeling “on all sides blindness” that permeates that fuzzy state between sleeping and waking, Berry is struck by the reality that always waits for us with the sunrise.

I see that my mind is not good enough.
I see that I am eager to own the earth and to own men.
I find in my mouth the bitter taste of money,
a gaping syllable I can neither swallow nor spit out.

The crushing insight of the reality of the world and our own culpability come rushing in to the dream world where we can see both the distant past and future. The things that we despise about the way the world is must be things that we are willing to recognize in ourselves. More and more I agree with Jared Diamond and others that the way forward involves moving beyond the blame that we love to pass on to corporations, governments, religion and other institutions and recognize that it is only our consent to this state of affairs that continues to make it possible. I am the one that desires domination of the earth, animals and my fellow humans. I am the one that “can neither swallow nor spit out” the money system at the root of our modern arrangement. and “of all kinds of evil”. We are the ones that fail to imagine a new world into being.

Where are the sleeps that escape such dreams?

Berry begins the poem by saying, “I dream an inescapable dream.” This reminds me of dreams I have had that I did not want to wake from, like the one where I could fly. There are dreams from our sleeping hours that grip us with some elusive feeling and/or glimpse of meaning to which we cling. There is a leap of our imagination that happens when we are not awake that occasionally perceives something imperceptible in our waking life. Yet our waking life is also full of dreams. For many these are simply consumer daydreams about a big house, nice car or other accessories of the consumer lifestyle (which may also include relationships with particular or imagined friends or lovers). For Berry and many others this is a dream of greener grass, not in suburban lawns, but in the vast prairies of the Midwest that have disappeared.

Berry plays with this dual meaning of the word dream. Indeed, as we have seen, these dreams are also related and intertwined as ways of seeing things that are not empirically available to our senses. If these dreams of the way the world was and is are “inescapable”, then how do we dream the dreams of the way the world should be? The building of this world that could or should be, the poet suggests, must involve the “pain of foreknowledge”. This is where these dreams converge. While the poem travels in a linear fashion from the dream of what was to what could be and then finally returning to the world as it is, there is a cyclical pattern embedded in this movement. Indeed, the dream of what was begins by an act of forgetting the reality of the world as it is, making an imaginative leap. In other words it begins in the same place that it ends.

Perhaps the poem leaves us, finally, with the idea that our dreams of other worlds, both that was and that should be, must be in ongoing conversation with the reality of the world as it is and particularly our place in that world as co-conspirators against nature in order to have any hope of these dreams becoming reality.

The Ego and the Eco

The Humanure Handbook has a short-ish chapter entitled “Deep Shit” that touches on the convergence of humanure and spirituality. The author begins with a story about an invitation to speak at a convent. He was surprised that more than just composting the nuns were interested in humanure. “Somehow, I couldn’t imagine standing in a room full of holy nuns, speaking about turds” (69). Their response is worth quoting at length.

“We are the Sisters of Humility,” they responded. “The words humble and humus come from the same semantic root, which means ‘earth.’ We also think these words are related to the word ‘human.’ Therefore, as part of our vow of humility, we work with the earth. We make compost, as you’ve seen. And now we want to learn to make compost from our toilet material…” This was deep shit. Profound… Some people go to church on Sunday, others make compost. Still others do both (69-70).

The connection between ourselves and the earth is profound. I feel like I’m repeating myself and perhaps not getting anywhere, because I come back to this theme over and over. The truth is that this connection of human to humus is so utterly profound and largely lacking in our modern consciousness that we must come back to it again and again. Jenkins puts it like this,

In essence, the soil, air, sun and water combine within our mother’s womb to mold another living creature. Nine months later, another human being is born.That person is a separate entity, with an awareness of an individual self, an ego. That person is also totally a part of, and completely dependent upon, the surrounding natural world, the eco (70).

As we are enculturated to modern society our awareness of this connection diminishes. Our own ego is deeply tied up in our relationship with the earth. It is an act of great hubris to declare ourselves no longer bound by the limitations of nature and therefore apart from it. Likewise, it is an act of great humility to recognize our place in the ecosystem.

When the ego and the eco are balanced, the person lives in harmony with the planet. Such a balance can be considered to be the true meaning of spirituality, because the individual is a conscious part of, attuned to, and in harmony with a greater level of actual Being. When too much emphasis is placed on the self, the ego, an imbalance occurs and problems result, especially when that imbalance is collectively demonstrated by entire cultures. To suggest that these problems are only environmental and therefore not of great concern, is incorrect. Environmental problems (damage to the eco) ultimately affect all living things, as all living things derive their existence, livelihood and well-being from the planet. We cannot damage a thread in the web of life without the risk of fraying the entire tapestry. (74)

There is a tradition within Christianity of understanding creation as intimately related to our understanding of God and consequently our relationship to God and the world. I think because some conservative Christians are often reactionary against anything that smacks of New Age, earth worship, or even environmentalism, they have jettisoned this part of the tradition. Nevertheless it is right there in Scripture. Many of the Psalms use language about creation to describe God, God’s presence and character. Paul declares, “Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities…have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Ro 1:20). Perhaps a post tackling the nature of this triangle between God, humanity and creation is stirring. Jenkins goes on to explore further the implications on religion in particular.

When the ego gets blown out of proportion, we get thrown off balance in a variety of ways. Our educational institutions teach us to idolize the intellect, often at the expense of our moral, ethical, and spiritual development. Our economic institutions urge us to be consumers, and those who have gained the most material wealth are glorified. Our religious institutions often amount to little more than systems of human-worship where divinity is personified in human form and only human constructs (e.g., books and buildings) are considered sacred. (74)

On this last point, I probably agree with Jenkins about the nature of sacred texts, objects and places too much for my more religious friends and not enough for my more secular, scientific, skeptical friends. For me it is helpful to recognize that sacred rituals, texts and objects have come to exclude other things from the sacred. It becomes a zero sum game of the holy. If an object or text is sacred that necessarily excludes other objects from this realm. This way of thinking about the sacred and profane makes it possible to objectify nature and abuse it as we have done. Wendell Berry puts it this way in his poem “How to Be a Poet”, “There are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Jenkins continues,

Today, new perspectives are emerging regarding the nature of human existence. The Earth itself is becoming recognized as a living entity, a level of Being immensely greater than the human level. The galaxy and universe are seen as even higher levels of Being, with multiverses (multiple universes) theorized as existing at a higher level yet. All of these levels of Being are imbued with the energy of life, as well as with a form of consciousness which we cannot even begin to comprehend. As we humans expand our knowledge of ourselves and recognize our true place in the vast scheme of things, our egos must defer to reality. We must admit our absolute dependence on the ecosystem we call Earth, and try to balance our egotistical feelings of elf-importance with our need to live in harmony with the greater world around us (72).

John Horgan in his book The End of Science explores some of the theories that Jenkins points to about the earth as a living organism and the idea that there are multiple universes. While ideas about multiverses (and superstrings and other dimensions) have at least a beginning in science, they are in fact really just speculations which, as Horgan points out, cannot and may never be able to be tested using the scientific method. Horgan is a little skeptical of the Gaia hypothesis put forward by some scientists that conceives of the earth as a living organism.

While I understand that some of these scientists veer into some mystical language that is more religious than scientific, I think it is clear from what we do know that the earth is more like an organism than it is a machine. The planetary ecosystem is certainly more than the sum of its parts in the same way that my body is more than just an amalgamation of bones, parts and systems. Again, while some people might be uncomfortable with some of the language about “levels of Being”, the point is to include our expanding knowledge of the universe (or perhaps multiverse, which is in no way a proven reality) in our theology and recognize that we are included as part of and dependent on these systems. When we recognize the humus in our humanity, we will find true humility.