"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

05 January 2006

Living in Tension

for Pamela

On LuCindy's recommendation, I ordered Mary Oliver's collection of poems called House of Light. I read the whole thing twice yesterday after it came. A number of the poems play about my mind today, and I will be thinking many of her lines for many days. "I think I will always be lonely / in this world," she writes in "Lilies," meditating on what it means to live unselfconsciously in the world as the lilies do; can we live in such a way, let the self go as the lilies and the hummingbirds do, just live?

But the lines that especially struck me yesterday open "The Kookaburras": "In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator. / In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting / to come out of its cloud and lift its wings."

A dear friend (and former student) dropped by yesterday to chat for awhile before returning to her ministry of teaching in a foreign country. She shared with me a lovely piece she had written, and I was struck by the tension in it between knowing that at some level what we have here is enough, and yet longing for a "something more" that we only glimpse and never really grasp.

I thought at the time of C. S. Lewis's autobiography Surprised by Joy. In it he describes the stab of joy that he would, on rare occasions, experience, and how his whole life was spent in trying to find that experience again -- until he came to know Jesus Christ and to understand that those glimpses are meant to draw us towards the "something more" that we can't have now but awaits us when we enter into eternity and leave all this time-bound necessity behind.

My friend's piece mentioned her "coward heart," but I saw in it also "a god of flowers just waiting / . . . to lift its wings." Acceptance of the "enough" that we have -- not demanding and expecting to have eternity now and finding ourselves content in the world we've been given -- is part of what it means to walk uprightly with Him. But we sell ourselves -- and our God -- short when we say this is the all and the end of it. We must always be content? we are in sin if we are restless, if we seek for more or other than what we have? No, I reject that, because we don't have enough; we don't have everything that properly belongs to beings created to live with God in eternity.

I am thinking this through as I write, and I hope I am not suggesting some odd heresy, but I am seeing more and more the longer I live the paradoxes of faith. Here is one: "be content" but "seek Me." How, if we are seeking, can we be content? We must live in that tension in this fallen world, not resolve it. That, it seems to me, is what our greatest artists keep trying to tell us. That is a predominant theme in Oliver's poems in this particular collection.

In "The Ponds" she describes the beauty of lilies in the light and from a distance, but then on close inspection the imperfections of each one. The poem ends: "I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing -- / that the light is everything -- that it is more than the sum / of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do."

So do not fear your "coward heart," my dear. We all have one. Rather, do not deny or try to escape the tensions you know, but accept them as part of the lives we have all been given and give voice to them, lifting your wings above the clouds through the gifts given you, and reminding the rest of us of the beauty we desire and can find in one place only.


Cindy said...

"Kookaburras" is one of my "identifying" poems. It "names" me, perhaps L'Engle might say. It does not surprise me that it catches at you, too. :)

G.K. Chesterton says that Christianity is a belief of paradoxes, and I think he hit the nail on the head. Is it possible to be not just content but so full of joy and wonder and amazement that one is nearly enraptured, and to still feel an ache deeper than one's own hidden most center-self for something one cannot quite see clearly enough to identify? To live in both utter satiation and complete longing at once?


One intriguing thing to me is that the greater the sense of fulfillment/joy grows, the greater grows the sense of longing, too.

We are not what we think we are. We have no clue.

Cindy said...

Oops! Didn't mean to rhyme, there. Got carried away. :0

alaiyo said...

Yes, yes, yes.

I would say more, but since I wasted a day doing a syllabus for a class somebody decided to cancel, I am now even further behind than usual! :)

Blessings on you, my friend, and thanks for saying this so well. (And I don't mind rhymes at all, you know . . . !)



GrumpyTeacher1 said...

Yeah, me too.

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