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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/

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/

Authenticity, God, and Identity Crisis

People of spiritual commitment often, if not most of the time, come to the point in their life when their faith needs to be cast aside.  This is the time when emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually the maturity has been reached to realize that even spirituality can be used to cover up the essence of life, even the “God” that we purport to worship.  This does not mean that this “God” will necessarily be forsaken but that one’s projections about “God” will be seen for what they are and cast aside, leaving one with the possibility of discovering “God” in a meaningful fashion.

This identity crisis, usually in mid life, is when the fantasy world that we have created and wrapped around ourselves is crumbling, providing for us an opportunity to enter into a more authentic dimension of life.  Even the “God” we have been worshipping might be seen as a self-serving fantasy and will have to be given up for a more honest, humbling relationship with a God who is the very Ground of our Being, our Source, and not a mere prop to adorn the hollow life that we have been living.

Anthropologist Clifford Geerst once said, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”  It is challenging to contemplate that the whole of our life, including our faith, is suspended in these “webs” and that to achieve any authenticity we will have to wrestle with them and discover as did poet Adrienne Rich that, “We can’t begin to discover who we are until we recognize the assumptions in which we are drenched.”  It is only when some, or most of these “assumptions” begin to crumble that we can begin to understand the wisdom of the crooner Leonard Cohen, “There’s a crack in everything; that is how the light gets in.”

 

Immediate vs. Deferred Gratification

An image comes to my mind of a frustrated toddler, sitting at the table, wanting more cheerios from his momma.  She does not respond immediately, and he angrily pounds the table with his spoon, screaming, “Now, now, now!” This came to mind this morning in a Politico.com story about Trump’s problems with frustrations in the White House.  On an issue of releasing aid to a foreign country, he insisted that the aid be released immediately though his aides tried to convince him of the need of protocol even in a matter like that.  A White House official noted, “The president doesn’t like to be constrained by past practices and protocols.”

Well, who does?  The limitations of being human and participating in the daily grind of life takes its toll on us all.  Our neurological hard-wiring includes a demand for immediate gratification, a wiring that is usually superseded by a later developmental acceptance of deferred gratification.  This impulse control is very rewarding as the delight of seeing and experiencing the “world as my oyster” is intoxicating but destructive in the long run for the individual and the collective.  It makes me think of another example Trump’s ceding to untoward impulses when he took the liberty to enter the dressing room of teen girls after a beauty pageant, using his power to “sample their wares.”

https://www.politico.com/story/2018/08/13/trump-world-knowledge-diplomatic-774801

Feminism, Consciousness, and Memory

I recently discovered a feminist philosophy professor from LeMoyne College, Karmen MacKendrick, who has written about one of my favorite subjects—difference and sameness.  The following is a selection in a review by Richard A. Lee, Jr. of one of her books:

The issue in Fragmentation and Memory is the question of the relation between unity or wholeness and difference or fragmentation. The argument could be put quite generally and abstractly: wherever there is a drive for unity or wholeness, there fragmentation will always and necessarily be found. More specifically, MacKendrick argues that it is fragmentation that is, in fact, primary and that the obsession one finds with unity and wholeness is, in fact, derivative of this primary fragmentation. The key to this is memory. In a sense, memory as always fragmented remembers this primary fragmentation.

“My dull brain is racked by things forgotten,” said Macbeth.  Shakespeare knew that our memory was a house of cards, teetering on the bedrock of the unconsciousness.  He knew that individuals like Macbeth…and I’m sure himself…were “weak links” who felt the seepage from that forbidden territory.  And groups of individuals, even countries, can also experience this seepage also, as is the case currently with my country, the United States.  We are demonstrating what can happen when a mouth piece for a country’s hidden ugliness appears on the scene, giving voice and action to its reptilian brain.  For always, there is, “Only a tissue thin curtain in the brain (that) shuts out the coiled recumbent landlord.”  (E. L. Mayo)

In the very early stages of our development, what will become a mature psyche begins to take shape in the depths of chaos, termed above as “primary fragmentation.”  Mackendrick asserts that this memory, which our ego wants us to take as so sacrosanct, is actually “derivative” of this chaotic, fragmented stage of development.  But Shakespeare realized, with the Macbeth character, that the “derivative roots” of memory are still there and influence tortured souls, as well as gifted souls who can sublimate the anguish of their “racked brain” into works of art, literature, and religion; this is naming but a few disciplines that can facilitate this redemptive sublimation.

The unconscious is always present.  It is present in a subterranean “structure” that is always already underway when we born, providing a fabric of assumptions, premises, and even biases which provide a safe cocoon in which we can find our footing in the tribal culture into which we are born.  The challenge comes in maturing enough to accept at some point the presence of these “subterranean” influences, a realization that strikes terror in most hearts who prefer living on the surface of life.  To accept these influences is to encounter the feeling of being out of control as we embrace our mortality and fragility, devoid of the safety the cocoon provided in our youth.  This is the existential predicament that comes with being a human being and emerging from the cocoon which would otherwise stifle our interior life.  This is what Jesus had in mind when he posed the question, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”

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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/