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Emily Dickinson and John Donne Speak to Us

Emily Dickinson knew the human heart, as do any poet who is worth their poetic salt.  Therefore, she knew about meaning and understood that it was obtained only in the inner most depths of the heart which she captured with the following poem:

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
Dickinson knew that meaning comes from “heavenly hurt” and that it leaves, “no scar” to the casual observer, those who look only on the surface of things; but those who can withstand the pain will find, “internal difference—where the meanings are.”  This “internal difference” allows an ephemeral “certain slant of light” to daunt the citadel of the heart and bring into question certainties which had, to that point, been biases and premises unsullied by the “certain slant of light” of conscious awareness.  It is in the resulting disarray, confusion, doubt, and fear that “meaning” can surface in our heart and allow “words fitly spoken” to flow from our inner most being.

To borrow from another line of Dickinson poetry,  she called this intrusion into our consciousness of this, “slant of light,” a “splinter in the brain.”  This “splintering” is a violation, a penetration, not unrelated to what the famous poet John Donne had in mind when he noted that God would not be able to penetrate the stubborn rational fortress of his egoic self, “except thou ravish me,” which would come only after the answering of his prayer, “Batter my heart, three personed God.”

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John Masefield, Stanley Kunitz, and “Continuity of Being”

John Masefield, the British poet laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, is now running a close second to Shakespeare as my favorite sonneteer. He was a bookish lad, an addiction which his aunt, his guardian when his parents died in his childhood, sought to break by sending him to sea at age 13. But he there found lots of time to read and to write without the interference of the unappreciated aunt and also developed a lifetime passion for the maritime life. “Sea-Farer” is one of his best known poems and the sea, and water themes, are common in his work.

His adventures at sea, including the foreign lands he visited, gave him a global approach to life and made him an observer of the human situation which is a gift many poets have. In the following sonnet, he started with a line about the ephemeral nature of identity itself, noting a wish to “get within this changing I, this ever-altering thing which yet persists…” Masefield’s natural curiosity and educational accomplishments helped him see life as every bit turbulent and capricious as the sea, always changing yet persisting nevertheless.
Modern life in the late 19th century (he was born in 1878) was teeming with scientific discoveries and theories, including the work of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. To those exposed to higher education, life was not a static phenomenon but a dynamic process and even one’s own identity was an evolutionary process. But later in the sonnet he did recognize a “ghost in the machine” which some of us like to describe as “god” (i.e. “God”) which appeared often to be effecting some direction to the caprices of our day to day life. Even “in the brain’s most enfolded twisted shell,” he saw, “The King, the supreme self, the Master Cell” providing some mysterious teleology to our often-mischievous path. This notion brings to mind one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”
If I could get within this changing I,
This ever altering thing which yet persists,
Keeping the features it is reckoned by,
While each component atom breaks or twists,
If, wandering past strange groups of shifting forms,
Cells at their hidden marvels hard at work,
Pale from much toil, or red from sudden storms,
I might attain to where the Rulers lurk.
If, pressing past the guards in those grey gates,
The brain’s most folded intertwisted shell,
I might attain to that which alters fates,
The King, the supreme self, the Master Cell,
Then, on Man’s earthly peak, I might behold
The unearthly self beyond, unguessed, untold.

Here I want to append an excerpt from another poem, by a United States poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz, entitled, “The Layers” in which he too recognized some mysterious “center” in the depth of one’s being from which one, “struggles not to stray” even in the infinite vicissitudes of life.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

Here is a list of my blogs. I invite you to check out the other two sometime.
https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/
https://literarylew.wordpress.com/
https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

“Good” and “Bad” Shame

Theodore Roethke with his poem, “Dolour” capture so poignantly the prison that shame can create for us.  He captures the daily grind of routine, devoid of spontaneity and spirit, which Emerson had reference to when he bemoaned that, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.”  For desperation is what ensues in spiritual deprivation, which always leads to addictions such as drugs, alcohol, ideology, (including religious ideology), and consumerism:

I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces. 

Healthy shame is necessary as it can nudge us into the tribe we are born into, teaching us to “make nice” in the interest of group coherence.  We then respect rules of decorum, civility, respect for each other, and even agreed upon ruses that have an important function in making the tribe cohere.  But toxic shame often steps in and these necessary “rules” are forced upon children, sometimes with subtle and often not so subtle brutality so that the whole tribe is force-marched toward some unknown end, driven only by the force of habit etched deeply in the old brain.

Toxic shame breeds a tribe/nation of automatons who are readily manipulated by the power structure which controls the reins of the economy and government. And in the modern world, particularly in present day America, we find ourselves enthralled by a demagogue who in less than two weeks could further squash dissent and allow him to continue his assault on traditional American values, including those that we like to describe as “Judeo-Christian.”  People who are shamed into submission lack the capacity for critical thought; critical thinking would evoke in their heart the experience that Rick Perry suffered in 2011 during a debate, an excruciating spasm of self-awareness, when he realized he had made an ass of himself and had to utter the famous word, “Oops.”  It is very hard to admit “oops” when you are shame-bound as you just cannot admit having made a mistake.  (Now how Rick Perry did it, I don’t have an explanation.  But it did speak well of him!)  We make asses of ourselves, much more often than we are willing to admit, and when it happens it is redemptive if we can say…perhaps, merely…”oops.”  Oh, if Trump could just learn this simple word!

Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

The Perilous Safety of “Hunkerin’ Down”

There is a pale.  And there are those who spend their life beyond the pale, some so far beyond the pale that they merit the term “deviant.”  And then there are those who live very close to the pale, hovering just short of this boundary or just beyond it and do the work that offers art in its full gamut to the human race.  This pale is what defines reality and “reality” must have some definition if there is to be any civilization at all.  But there are times when the “energy” that has constellated at and just beyond the pale appears threatening to those who hover near the center of “reality” and then there is a tendency to “hunker down” and fiercely resist the precious offering of those “pale dwellers”—opportunities for change.  But the “hunker downers”, if they find a chieftain around whom they can rally, often will become adamant about maintaining the status quo and the social body will suffer, especially those who do not have the comfort of the “in crowd.”  Often those in the “out crowd” are easily manipulated and intimidated and can be convinced by their chieftain that it is in their own best interest to oppose the changes that would be good for the entirety of the social body, including themselves.

Change is scary.  As Shakespeare put it, “We cling to these ills we have rather than fly to others we know not of.”  The Bard knew that often we will prefer to maintain our misery rather than dare to take the risk that would be entailed in taking actions that might alleviate our suffering.  A psychiatrist I worked with in a psych hospital one time quipped in a staffing about a patient that we both worked with, “She clings to her mental illness with the same tenacity that most of us cling to our mental health.”  “Hunkering down” gives one, or the whole of a group, the illusion of safety.  As W. H. Auden noted, “We have made for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Erich Neumann Opines On Our Collective Unconsciousness

Erich Neumann was a psychologist, philosopher, and student of Carl Jung who in 1954 wrote, “The Origins and History of Consciousness.”  Neumann’s work also had an anthropological dimension, seeing the evolution of human consciousness was beyond the grasp of our conscious mind and would be understood only by utilizing mythology.

Neumann knew that the real “workings” of human civilization were beneath the surface and presented themselves occasionally as eruptions of chthonic energy known as, “archetypes.”  These patterns of instinctual energy, to the astute observer, are an essential dimension of human history and can offer something to one’s tribe, be it a, “prophetic word” or…more often than not…an example of gross mental instability.  These intrusions from beyond the pale of the cultural canon threaten what Neumann called, “the old order” even though the resulting “new order” could facilitate a revitalization of the canon. But the “old order” never goes quietly and bearers of this chthonic energy are “kept in their place” by the tribes’ repertoire of exclusionary devices; for example, shame, humiliation or even crucifixion.  If, however, this chthonic energy somehow penetrates the barriers and finds even a tentative footing, the “old order” will resort to “hunkering down” and reaffirm passionately the traditional values of the canon, often with reference to the prevailing religion.  This is when the leadership, i.e. “the tribal elders” need to use their authority in a mature fashion and facilitate the integration of the new and the old, allowing a healthy venture toward further maturity.  But often maturity is so often lacking in the tribal leadership and the machinery of government will be used to squash what it perceives as an existential threat.

Here are a trio of excerpts from Neumann’s book as he addresses concerns he had for the world in the mid-twentieth century, concerns which are very much related to this historical moment.

Excerpt 1:  Not only power, money, lust, but religion, art, and politics as exclusive determinants in the form of parties, nations, sects, movements, and “isms” of every description take possession of the masses and destroy the individual.  (NOTE:  For an individual to be a meaningful entity, it must have enough independence to not be merely a slave to the dictates of the group.)

Excerpt 2: The picture we have drawn of our age is not intended as an indictment, much less as a glorification of the “good old days”; for the upheaval which, taken by and large, is necessary.  The collapse of the old civilization, and its reconstruction on a lower level to begin with, will justify themselves because the new basis will have been immensely broadened.  The civilization that is about to be born will be a human civilization in a higher sense than has any been before higher civilization, as it will overcome important social, national, and racial limitations. These are not fantastic pipe dreams, but hard facts, and their birth pangs will bring infinite suffering upon infinite numbers of men.  Spiritually, politically, and economically our world is an indivisible whole.  By this standard, the Napoleonic wars were minor coups d’etat, and the world view of that age, in which anything outside Europe had hardly begun to appear, is almost inconceivable to us in its narrowness.

Excerpt 3: The collapse of our archetypal canon in our culture which has produced such an extraordinary activation of the collective unconscious—or is perhaps its symptom, manifesting itself in mass movements that have a profound effect upon our personal destinies—is, however, only a passing phenomenon.  Already, at a time when the internecine wars of the old canon are still being waged, we can discern, in simple individuals, where the synthetic possibilities of the future lie, and almost how it will look.  The turning of the mind from the conscious to the unconscious, the responsible rapprochement of human consciousness with the powers of the collective psyche, that is the task of the future.  No outward tinkerings with the world and no social ameliorations can give the quietus to the daemon, to the gods and devils of the human soul, or prevent them from tearing down again and again what consciousness has built.  Unless they are assigned their place in consciousness and culture they will never leave mankind in peace.

We are now witnessing the collapse of our culture’s archetypal canon as its “givens” are being challenged.  These “givens” are the medley of preconceptions and premises that we take for granted that are so subtle they are not apparent to the naked eye.  The absence of “apparent-cy” is necessary for this unconscious dimension to continue unthreatened by an “observing ego” which could be a reality check that would allow these subterranean influences to be moderated.  But keeping these influences unquestioned, and therefore unassailable, is the primary objective of the status quo which deems questioning as threatening to its very being.  However, without a reality check on the “very being” of a tribe, its heart will be nothing but a darkened prison, “where we bask, agreed upon what we will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the light of the agreed upon lie.”  What we will take for light will actually be darkness, “having eyes to see but seeing not.”  And though it might be very comfy for those within the safe confines of Auden’s “agreed upon lie,” those who live beyond its pale will suffer.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Grace vs. “Creedal Religion”

A POEM BY MAURA EICHNER

A bird in the hand
is not to be desired.
In writing, nothing
is too much trouble.
Culture is nourished, not
by fact, but by myth.
Continually think of those
who were truly great
who in their lives fought
for life, who wore
at their hearts, the fire’s
center. Feel the meanings
the words hide. Make routine
a stimulus. Remember
it can cease. Forge
hosannahs from doubt.
Hammer on doors with the heart.
All occasions invite God’s
mercies and all times
are his seasons.

Someone in my past noted so casually, “Our name is just a sound we learned to respond to.”  But that is an intrinsic feature of language, words are just sounds that we learn to associate with subjective experiences we are having.  “God” is one of these words, part of the verbal soup into which we are born and in which we swim and which eventually accrues meaning.  So often this word “God” is associated with a harsh, punitive notion who offers love only after slavish devotion and penitence, and rarely with one who offers unconditional love and grace.  The guilt and shame that is so intrinsic to the nature of human existence is so profound that it is hard to accept the simple grace of God when it is so much easier to accept the bondage of a guilt-ridden slavish devotion to creedal religion.

 

Knowledge is Capricious

Daniel Boorstin, a noted American historian declared in his book, “The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself,” that, “More appealing than knowledge itself is the feeling of knowing.” Boorstin in this quote had gleaned from his study of history that the comfort of “the feeling of knowing” often, if not most of the time, would triumph over knowledge itself.  Throughout history we have records of cultures in which “the feeling of knowing” proved to lead to their demise while letting that “feeling” give way to some critical thinking could have allowed them to continue, though with a moderated view of reality.

It is comforting to feel that one knows, permitting one to “know” that one knows.  It is so comforting that human nature has hard-wired us to prefer “knowing that we know” in the interest of preserving our tribe.  But when the world grows so small…as we are now experiencing…then “knowing what we know” begins to compete with other tribes who “know that they know” with equal conviction. Then violent conflict ensues unless leadership is available which will direct us to tolerate the notion that diametrically opposing ideas of reality can co-exist. There is no need to attempt to obliterate “them” just because we see “them” as, “not knowing correctly.”

The core issue is the comfort of “feeling that we know” not understanding the wisdom of poet W. H. Auden who told us that, “feeling knows no discretion but its own.”  Auden knew that our view of the world is not a rational matter, but one whose origin lies beneath the surface in the murky realm of feelings, closely akin to the unconscious.  But to recognize this truth is to take away the certainty that we can have in believing our beliefs and discounting anything or anyone that threatens them.  Another word for this realm of feelings is the heart, that center of our being which is unlocked only when we are willing to forego the tyranny of rational thinking and permit the grace of a non-tyrannical rationality which is quickened with the intuitive wisdom of the heart.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Rebecca Chopps On Our Country’s Malady of the Soul

Barack Obama has answered the bell and has come out swinging, addressing the Republican morass of recent decades that has created our country’s present debacle, and yes, taking not-so-veiled jabs at the figure-head and spokesman for this roiling cauldron of chthonic energy.  I stumbled across a book just last week by Rebecca S. Chopps entitled, “The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, and God,” which is relevant to this cauldron as she explores how language, including religious language, can be used to give expression to hidden dimensions of the heart, individually and socio-culturally. But for this “revelation” to occur, there must be a voice/voices from beyond the pale of the status quo who see into the heart of the poisonous mindset which is always oriented primarily to maintain the prevailing power structure.  Chopps writes as a feminist but also as a Christian…apparently…though if she calls herself a Christian she is certainly beyond the pale of the Christian power structure that would “legitimate” her wearing that label.

Here I will share a couple of paragraphs from Chopps’ book:

Proclamation, in feminist discourses of emancipatory transformation, resists and transforms the social symbolic order.  Proclamation is a form of resistance to the practices and principles of modernity that control, dominate, and oppress.  But proclamation resists by way of transformation, seeking to provide new discourses by a variety of strategies, methods, and ways, and to transform the ruling principles and order into ones that allow, encourage, and enable transformative relations of multiplicity, difference, solidarity, anticipation, embodiment, and transformation.  Transformation occurs by creating new images of human flourishing, new values of otherness, and multiplicity, new theoretical practices of solidarity and anticipation.

This is reminiscent of one of the most powerful of Paul Tillich’s sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundations” in which he argued that the purpose of the church is to, “rattle the cage” (my term) of the status quo.  But the status quo does not want to be “rattled” and will arm itself to the teeth in an effort to deny any affront to its comfy zone of satisfaction, where “they bask, agreed upon what they will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the light” of the unquestioned assumptions which give them privilege and power.  This is also obviously so with the power structure of religious culture though often those most ensconced in that power structure are basking even more in the comfort of a falsetto humility which does not permit any consideration or discussion of their motivations.

I conclude with another paragraph from Chopps:

Through discourses of emancipatory transformation, proclamation enables those marginalized voices who so often have not been heard, to speak: to speak of the beauty, hope, pain, and sorrow they have known on the margins.  Proclamation also speaks within the ambiguities of the order, the ambiguities, for instance, of the bourgeois who, though promised freedom in his autonomy, discovers few genuine possibilities for the community, relationships, and love he so desires.  Unable to find any “authentic meaning” the bourgeois attempts to fill in the empty spaces of his or her soul through the attainment of material goods that great momentary satisfaction with increasingly diminished returns.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/