*fourth and last of two [ ] articles for the anniversary of my ordination
What is life without poetry? It’s prosaic, of course! So I wanted to offer some poetry to those friends of mine who came to the party on September 6.
I offered them first a passage from Tennyson’s magnificent dramatic monologue, “Ulysses,” and then a song from my friend Max Woolaver which I find very moving. Then my friend Angus Stuart surprised (and hey, pleased) me by quoting in the prayer-time at the liturgy a little poem I myself wrote many years ago.
When I was 49, my marriage ended, a time which I now characterize as the moment when I moved from Part A of my life into Part B. (Stay tuned for Part C, ma troisième age.) One day around that time, I was re-reading “Ulysses,” and read Tennyson’s amazing line, “Though much is taken, much abides.” I found myself in tears. Yes, great losses—the marriage, self-image, domesticity; but great gains—chiefly the repossession of my own soul. As the years have passed, and the season of acquisition which begins with our birth shifts into the season of relinquishment which ends with our death, I find that it continues to yield new meanings to me. I did not know at the time that Tennyson had written the poem, in 1833, as a way of responding to a great loss in his life, the death of his friend and prospective brother-in-law, Arthur Henry Hallam. But the sense of salvaging what “abides” came through very strongly to me. (There is an excellent Wikipedia article on the poem: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulysses_(poem).)
So, the poem. Ulysses, hero of the Trojan War and king of Ithaca, has decided in his old age to leave the little kingdom to which he had returned after his ten-year odyssey following the fall of Troy (hence his line about “men who strove with Gods”). He has decided to brave another voyage with his old crew, who are of course as old as he is. Here he speaks to the sailors, his mariners.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
……………………………. you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil.
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men who strove with Gods.
………….. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.
In reading this at the anniversary party, I was not suggesting that this is the end of the line for me just yet! I am simply quoting Tennyson to suggest the spirit in which one can if one chooses live the later years—“something ere the end, some work of noble note may yet be done.”
That’s in fact how I think of my work with Building Bridges Vancouver (buildingbridgesvancouver.wordpress.com) and with the Merton community of scholarship, critical thinking and spiritual practice (merton.ca, merton.org). Some of you may be familiar with the term “the Ulyssean adult.” It refers to someone who continues to learn and to develop relationships throughout the whole of life, who continues “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” I read the passage not long ago, and very appropriately in my view, at the 80th birthday party for my friends Barry and Sharon Cooke, to salute them both as Ulyssean adults.
At the end of my talk, I played the song “Every day,” written and sung by my friend Max Woolaver—Anglican priest in Ontario, singer-songwriter, bandleader, trickster and soul-brother (hello Max, you wonderful and crazy man!) The first time I played it (it’s on his CD “Nazca Hummingbird”), I thought yes! This is the story of my life! Now I read it every morning as part of my morning spiritual practice. I interpreted it to a friend recently in Buddhist terms. In Mahayana Buddhism, when the serious practitioner reaches an experience of nirvana—enlightenment or transcendent integration, he or she makes an amazing discovery: nirvana is in fact samsara—ordinary daily life. But one can only appreciate this having first reached nirvana. Most of us are so enmeshed in a pre-enlightened experience of samsara that we are not aware of the identity.
So, for example, as Max writes:
Every day I bless survival as I tie up my shoe;
And every day I read the Bible, and do the things I do;
And every day I try to run away, and every day I come back home;
And every day brings New Revival—every day.
Samsara: something as mundane as tying up one’s shoe—not an insignificant challenge to me these days as I deal with arthritis in my right leg; or even more mundane—just doing the things I do, whatever they are.
Here’s the whole song.
Every day I thank the Muse for every song I sing; / and every day I pray for Mercy above and through everything; /and every day I crawl for miles ‘cross the Mountains of Denial; / every day I speak in whispers, / every day.
Every day my spirit travels ‘cross open fields and sky; / every day my plan unravels, I’ve never known just why; / and every day the Dream escapes me—and every day the Dream returns; / every day is New Religion, / every day.
[guitar interlude – gorgeous!]
Every day I am hoping, this will be The Day; / and every day I am coping, with what … I could not say; / and every day I leave a drownin’ child a debt I’ll never pay; / and every day I live hereafter, / every day.
Standin’ with Elijah, we need a place to hide / to shield us from the Glory passin’ by; / the Fire and the Thunder was blowin’ us away, / till there arose a whisper in the heart of every day, / in the heart of every day.
Every day I bless survival as I tie up my shoe; / and every day I read the Bible, and do the things I do; / and every day I try to run away, and every day I come back home; / and every day brings New Revival, / every day.
And every day I see an Adam, and every day I see an Eve–I see an Eve! / And every day, well, I believe in every day; / well, every day I believe in every day.
[You can listen to Max himself singing this at maxwoolaver.weebly.com/uploads/1/1/1/1/11114876/12_everyday.m4a]
Among other dimensions, the song is profoundly biblical. The reference to Elijah comes from 1 Kings 19 in the Hebrew Bible. The prophet Elijah, fleeing from the king’s wrath, takes refuge in a cave. He experiences a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, but he does not find God in any of these. Then came what the King James Version translates as “a still, small voice,” or as Max says, “a whisper in the heart of every day.” Those of you who have been in my apartment may have noticed over the mantel the Russian icon of Elijah rising to heaven in the “sweet chariot” which has swung low to pick him up. The reference to “the Glory passin’ by” evokes Exodus 33:18 – 34:8, in which Moses asks to see God’s “glory,” that is, the immediate divine reality. God replies that no-one can see God in an unmediated way and survive, but that Moses can see his backside [ ] and not be annihilated—and people think God doesn’t have a sense of humour! The Adam and Eve story, of course, is right at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 2 and 3. I find it significant, bien sur, that Max repeats the line “I see an Eve!”—you can hear the exclamation mark in his voice when he sings it. Yes, it behooves all Adams truly to see clearly all the Eves in their lives (OK, the other Adams as well).
Then my own little poem.
I am here, in the heart of God;
I walk the path the saints have trod.
As I step forth, Mercy takes my hand,
And leads me to the Promised Land.
It started out during a day of silence at one of the Jubilee residencies more than ten years ago. I was humming the tune “Enneagram,” by Gurdjieff’s musical resource person, Thomas de Hartmann, and the words attached themselves to the tune. Since then it has become a staple of the oral tradition of the Jubilee community; you can also find it on the home page of my website.
And so, with this fourth of two articles [ ], I indeed conclude my reflections on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of my ordination: there was just more there to share than I realized when I started writing. I end with the two prayers which I have long understood to contain all prayer:
Lord, have mercy!
Thanks be to God!