Saturday, December 31, 2016

Is that all?

“You got any great plans for New Year’s?” asked a very pleasant clerk in a store yesterday.

“Well, actually, no.” I neglected to say that we were going to a party tonight (not exactly a New Year’s party, but anything on New Year’s Eve must be that de facto. And I didn’t mention that we’d be at a New Year’s Day brunch tomorrow. So I guess I was the bearer of faux news or something.)

“Really?” asked she, a bit stunned.

“To tell the truth, I’m not all that great a fan of New Year’s Day. It has always seemed to me to be artificial. It’s a day like any other. A new year begins for me at my birthday. That’s how I count time, and my birthday is nearly half a year away from January 1.  I'm going to be as happy January 2 as I am today.

“Well, I see your point.”

I realized that I was beginning to sound like a curmudgeon, a profile I don’t intend to adopt. So I softened.

“I think it’s fine to celebrate. We probably need more occasions to celebrate.”

“I hope it snows. Really snows big.”

“Well, that would mean shoveling. I used to like snow. Then I reached the point when I’d shoveled enough of it. Now all I can think about when it snows is California.”

“My brother didn’t come shovel me out the last time it snowed a lot.”
what a really big snow looks like in our neighborhood

I looked out the window where two streets came together and crossed a third. “Look. I think it is going to snow on Kenyon Street. Those clouds! But Park Road will be spared. The sun is shining.”

“Well I’ll be.”

“So looks as if you’ll have a fifty per cent chance of a happy New Year.”

She handed me my receipt. “Would you mind holding the door for that gentleman?” I turned. He was in a wheelchair hunched over.

“I’d be delighted to.” I opened the door. “Hi!” He smiled and spoke, either the victim of a stroke or maybe some degenerative disease.

“Happy New Year.”

I walked on.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

Saturday, December 17, 2016

O the Poetry of Longing

One day at a time, the post below will grow from December 17 through December 24, 2016. These poems are based on the Great O Antiphons, traditionally sung on the Magnificat, the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) each day of the last week in Advent at Evening Prayer, beginning with December 17. The version of the Great O's is that of Howard Galley in The Prayer Book Office (New York:  The Seabury Press, 1980), 131-132.

O Sapientia          (December 17)

O Wisdom, you came forth form the mouth of the Most High, and reach from one end of the earth to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

knaves rule the world
make sport of fools
for their own gain
dull and worried minds

hearts shut to mystery
pine privately for
a return of soul
quenching a thirst
for meaning

heads cast down
bracing against coming winter
could be in prayer
words drop as lifeless
as curling leaves
swept along gutters

o wisdom come
bring some truth
to a disordered world
strangled by much order
of a dark kind

teach us balance
and the insight
of losing balance
and falling in love
with the foolishness
that believes in us
when we forget how

O Adonai           (December 18)

O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, you appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the Law on Sinai:  Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

wandering across brown hills
where grass is scarce
and water a miracle
pastor alone with no one
to talk to among the mostly
silent flock came he
well beyond his own
accustomed desert

sometimes a fire surprises

not the burning but
what is not burnt
arrests the casual
at their tasks
beckons the eyes
examine more closely
what is

ordinary ground
meets ground of being
more than wandering
minds might imagine

obvious questions
et cetera
frame the human mind

you’d think answers
never come on schedule
and you’d be right
yet not exactly right

when arrives the moment
for fire to speak
its riddles spark
clear and present mystery


enough for all eternity
to turn aside
and see for itself
through cloud the majesty
of what the universe
and every conscious
being wants to say
of itself on its
ordinary ground
simply me
no more no less

we cannot voice the
holy words and so
say o adonai
o good lord
stretch out your arm
and make it happen

O Radix Jesse                 (December 19)

O Root of Jesse, you stand as an ensign to the people; before you kings will shut their mouths, and nations bow in worship:  Come and deliver us, and tarry not.

somewhere i have known
an old stump uprooted
taken out of context
left to dry of all hope
good for nothing
with only a past
too commonplace to make
a body notice and yet
somebody did notice

an artist came that way
and pausing in the corner
of the field piled high
with bulldozed roots
visually sorted wood from wood
and chose one old stump
from which he planned
a future bowl

tools and time
patience as well
produced a vessel out of
what had already lived
and died a lifetime
giving shade and seed
oxygen perhaps to the very
owner of the field whose
machines at last sawed
it down thanklessly

turned sanded polished
a caring soul gave it
life again renewed its use
to more than rot
returned to earth

so was the stump called
by jesse’s name
recalled from worthlessness
to royal purpose once

o come again from old
and withered loins
as you once sprang
a son of david son of jesse
give again
life to what nobody
values any more
poor toothless beggars
whores and addicts
dismissed from pretty
places and unwelcome
among the holy crowd
o shoot shot from jesse
make of such dead wood
vessels full of grace

potentates and presidents
pontifexes too
have nothing much to say
but hear the falling axe
laid to the roots
of fruitless trees
and tremble while
old abandoned stumps
migrate from oblivion
assuming the shape of

O Clavis David               (December 20)

O Key of David, and Scepter of the house of Israel, you open and no one can shut, you shut and no one can open:  Come and bring the captives out of the prison house, those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

ancient doors appear
in dreams as objects
best known beneath
reason’s edge
silent messengers
from the world of soul
coyly winking at me
saying nothing
i can grasp and parse

heavy old doors
dividing the safe
from the frightening
sometimes closed
with massive locks
sometimes in the act
of being shut by some
unknown hand belonging
to a specter i know
better than to trust
even in a dream

among interior rooms
stored far away
from daily rounds
spots too tender
ever to be touched
lest pain cascade
thoroughly wrecking
entire constructions
of the sanitized self
from their tomb plea
disturbing the peace

you hold the key
you are the key
you fit the lock
fashioned to keep you
in another tomb
far removed from
this collection
of wailing zombies
patched together
from leftover shame
and threadbare fear

o key long lost to me
come free all
within me captive
barred from light
lead the tattered mob
despised rejected
bring these dishonored
dead to life
raise them like
the corpse of lazarus
who had no help
but god himself

o come o key
and open me

O Oriens                (December 21)

O Dayspring, Brightness of the Light Eternal, and Son of Righteousness:  Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

darkness deepens
i do not run from it
nor wish it too quickly
dispelled but draw
the shades tighter
close my eyes
to all the dancing
images distracting
seducing my fickle
mind and restless soul
i want dark in which
to burrow looking
to spend winter
quite apart from
charms and such

embrace night for
all its worth rejoice
in darkness as it
thickens at the solstice
for dark is what
brings out the splendid
light of light
as surely as a jeweler
knows how best to sell
a diamond is to place
its sparkle next to
her blackest velvet
its facets’ impacts doubled 
by what they’re up against

we walked at twilight
a half year from winter’s
onset, the air thick
with new life blossoming
a purplish light beckoned
in the distance so far
away we could not tell
exactly where and what
was burning bright
enough to talk and walk
towards what turned
out to be the doorway
of a church inviting us
to stop our stroll and sit

nightfall the twin of dawn
ushers in sometimes
a heavy quiet we might
borrow and stow away
for mid-december
lest in its dreary cold
we spring too quickly
to rid ourselves of dark

sitting in darkness
and the shadow of death
is not a choice entirely
but a given condition
make the most of it
and bore further in
until the inner eye
grows accustomed to
the underworld for in
the hour most remote
from promised daybreak
appears a ray weak
and tiny as a newborn
in its crib and tinier
still glowing faintly
then rising  as a
burnished orb lighting
creation and waking
tired beings with warmth

it steals in silently
this dayspring does
sneaking up on both
watchers and agnostics
there is no telling
what will turn up
when light at last
returns exposing
all once neatly
packed down for good

o oriens
o original dayspring
o dawn revealing
all and your self in all
just as you cast
your spell to make us
sleep in sabbath hush
shake us awake
lest we grow too fond
of dark and rest
unconscious of
your rising

O Rex Gentium        (December 22)

O King of the nations, and their Desire, you are the cornerstone who makes us both one:  Come and save the creature whom you fashioned from clay.

so you are a king
what kind of a king
are you who foment
trouble kicking up a fuss
in a land that wants
its kings noble and
appropriately handsome
preferably diplomatic

what have you done
what are you doing
what are you talking
about use language
we can comprehend
if you are a king dammit
save yourself and us
act like one and we
know what a king
acts like if you don’t
know just ask

he comes riding on a colt
the foal of an ass
we are embarrassed
he comes so poorly
clad and seems to
enjoy himself despite
his lack of style
he has no form or
comeliness that we
should desire him

my kingdom is not
of this world if it
were my followers
would be fighting
like good soldiers
to keep me from being
handed over and
handed over is what
my kingship is all
about and has been
from the alpha point

i came to bear witness
to the truth not to
make sense out of
the senselessness
everybody calls reason
only the foolish
are wise enough to
take my folly and
ponder it in their
hearts it is they
the foolhardy that
get me

what is truth
that is truth

there was a garden once
in which i walked
shin deep in snow
on a gray january day
shrubs all wrapped
in ice and in the middle
stood he in marble
white as his context
not a stitch on him
save the cloth to
cover his genitals
silently reigning from
his throne and no
one to cheer him
or obey a naked
yet in my shivering
i felt some warmth
arise deep down
in my legs i think
that now i recognize
i started to submit
there snow falling
on us both and say
o come my heart’s
and rule me
i surrender

i knew not the way
of ordinary kings
they belonging to
a world not mine
and knew even less
about a kingship of
one handed over to
ridicule and general
helplessness and fate
like standing nude
for a whole winter
in freezing temperatures
while nations raged
and chose to go to hell
rather than accept
so strange a rule

still he stands
recognizing whom he
fashioned out of mud
in the beginning
our hearts toss
and turn resisting
even our own cry

o desire desire
my heart’s desire
come enter me
and make us both

O Emmanuel        (December 23)

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Salvation:  Come and save us, O Lord our God.

gone is the old magic
spells and tinkling bells
incantations charms
runes and rings
they all used to work
and somehow invaded as
by a swarm of very smart
bees seeking to make
honey out of nettles
the whole race fell
asleep somnambulant
though continuing to produce
at harder labor and
much lower prices needless
things highly prized
and then woke up one
day to find no one could
fix an old broken pot so
lost was ancient
wisdom and women
who made stuff happen

the gods have fled they said
and left us hapless with no
way to figure out much
of anything so now we have
no choice but to pretend
we know what we forgot

and so it was the days
were accomplished when
a defiant king said
hell no he wouldn’t ask
for a sign he didn’t believe
in superstitious hocus
in an age of spelling out
things neat and tidy in
reasonable packages

enough enough enough
already leaders have no
compass but something
brews besides the witches
a young woman is
conceiving what you powers
and principalities cannot
conceive of she will
bear a man child
what all nations need
and yearn for now that
magic and mystery are
confused and in effect
out of commission

gods as familiar as the
nearest neighbors have ceased
to walk in the cool of evening
withdrawn from their
accustomed temples
leaving trees whispering
vacant promises in the
breeze and worlds no way
of keeping peace

at last the sun came
up and in the promised land
the boy appeared who

understood not just
the ancient formulas and
how to mend broken
limbs and hearts of poor
tired people he knew
the secret and how to
publish it and drew
aside the curtain dividing
truth from empty lies
and finally exposed the
most outrageous key
unlocking the big puzzle
it was so simple
no one could believe it
worked a new commandment
that you love as i love

that was it and non-stop
glorias rang through skies
at midnight and alleluias
too and choked back tears
of gladness poured and
freed convicts and freed
slaves laughed and lame
legs leapt and blind eyes
could not believe what
they saw a peaceable land
where gods and animals
bedded down together
and humans took courage

o courage could you not
as well come again and
dwell among your own
who have forgotten what
was wise and simple
the maundy of no greater
love than what bled from
god with us
at last

o emmanuel
your hour has come


© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

Friday, December 16, 2016

Advent and the End Time

For over four decades I did my best to rescue Advent from total irrelevance. Squeezed by the pressures of the planet-wide bash called Christmas, the message of Advent has been effectively obliterated, co-opted by the glitz, gluttony, and sentimentality that passes for a celebration of Jesus’ birth. I have no axe to grind about Christmas, which I’ve often pointed out is what it is because it is filling a social and psychological need clearly felt by a huge number of people. The cultural Christmas, replete with concerts, plays, and parties; the commercial Christmas that we’ve made essential to a consumerist economy; the family Christmas with some overlap with both culture and commerce and a good deal of pressures of its own to reaffirm kinship and friendship ties: all of these eclipse the religious celebration, which itself is a paltry and vapid substitution of kitsch in lieu of a profound pondering of the best possible Good News, namely that divinity and humanity are not a pair of polar opposites but rather an existential marriage that is explosively transforming.
But in all this, Advent itself is far and away the big loser. For few people know and even fewer believe that Advent is essentially not about Christmas the feast but about preparing for the End Time. To be sure, that is not all that Advent is. Nor is that in itself something quite separate from the heart of Christmas. But about the last thing on anyone’s Christmas wish list is a serious desire for any kind of cosmic or historical showdown.
I suggest that one way of understanding Advent is that it has now been going on for years, decades, centuries. And we have finally reached the point where what has been ignored is coming up to be reckoned with.
Let me be clear about “End Time.” Like lots of things in the trunk of Christian imagery and lore, “End Time” or “Last Days” or “Apocalypse” or “End of the World” has itself been thoroughly distorted, used for purposes of scaring the hell out of people, and establishing a false sense of security on the part of a religious elite who imagine themselves to be immune to the suffering implied by if not promised for the last things and last events. I don’t think “End Time” has to do with any of that at all, despite the fact that you can go to the New Testament and quote long passages “proving” me wrong. What I do believe is true is what a great many traditions have long imagined: that there is a future crisis—a Day of Yahweh or a Day of Judgment—in the making for the human species, and possibly for the entire planet. Indeed the imagery often associated with that crisis has involved a cataclysm that is cosmic, in which planets, stars, everything will pass away. All of that really is just imagery, but the imagery points to the gravity of a situation that can only be painted in extreme terms.
“End Time.” Nobody knows very much about what actually is in store for the planet, despite our best predictors. We can say with some assurance that the human species is quite disposable, as much as the dinosaurs were, whereas the earth that supports and suffers us is quite stable and is likely to continue far beyond anything that we can imagine. We now have a growing number of people on the planet (I think the number is growing) who seem intent on bringing on the End Time, many in the belief that such is the divine will. I remember a man whom I had recently met at the time of the buildup to the Iraq invasion. Many, including me, were arguing that rather than go to war we ought to give time for the UN inspectors looking for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to do their work. His response to me was that he supported war. He was a Bible-believing Christian who thought that war would be the perfect way to usher in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, thus fulfilling the prophecies in the Book of Revelation. That is crazy, but it passes for orthodox Christianity in many circles. It yet might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Any time things get really bad in the external world, stock goes up in Apocalypse. Read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and you’ll see the way his own thinking was colored by a sense of historical showdown, a period when the judgments of the Lord, which are “true and righteous altogether” show up unmistakably in the historical fabric of human affairs. Indeed there are few better examples of social and political anxiety being translated into apocalyptic language than The Battle Hymn of the Republic. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” That is what the cataclysm called the Civil War produced in the mind and words of Julia Ward Howe, and not in hers alone.
The present hour is such a time. I suspect that transcends both the political left and the political right, who simply have different notions of what the present hour portends. But for either camp it is a sea change, because that is exactly what is coming. Indeed it has arrived. Just as surely as the national sense of security was shaken fifteen years ago on September 11, 2001, the national sense of unassailable American democracy is cracking before our eyes. We now have a President-elect who, no matter what you might think of him, brags about his smartness exceeding any need he might have to become better informed than he thinks he already is about national security issues and developments. If that is not a recipe for disaster, even according to his own party who see mounting threats to American security, I don’t know what is. We now have a government not only on the federal level but in many states that is run by people who viscerally hate government, or see it only as a means to advance their own interests, all of which amount to amassing even more wealth and more power for the already wealthy and powerful. If Trump’s cabinet selections are confirmed, most if not every government department will be headed by someone on record as believing in its essential uselessness. You may argue that they are right. I think it is fair to say that no thought whatsoever has been given to what happens when block by major block of the government is dismantled or destroyed and all those who have depended on that for livelihood, not to mention those who have depended on services and support and social organization, suddenly have no place to turn and nothing to do. That might not be Armageddon, but it certainly portends a major crisis for millions.
We can look back at the period from roughly 1800 to 1860 and see that the Civil War was not only inevitable, but was made inevitable by the way the entire national debate was framed. In short, people kept dodging the hard issue through means like “compromise.” Not until some South Carolinians opened fire on a federal fort did war break out. But events had been trending towards war for a long time before that April. Advent had been going on since the first African slave appeared in the New World. The End Time really is the ending of Advent, usually temporary. It is when we get what we have paid for. It is when we reap what we have sown. It is when what goes around comes around. It is when the false face is pulled off the Joker and the reality of evil is exposed. It is when the Emperor, riding naked through town, is finally called out by the only one in the crowd who will speak the obvious truth.
I can imagine, if you have read this far, that you might be wondering what all this has to do with Advent really and truly. What about all that fruitcake stuff that we thought was the real thing stirred up in the weeks preceding Christmas? Go back and read the scriptural and liturgical texts of Advent. For starters, try the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
This, of course, can be read as the “end of the world.” But it can also be read as an eternal reality, ever present as a possibility in human events and our response to them. The “life immortal” is not something that one enters the moment one dies, but a whole New Age that has been inaugurated by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus. We participate in it “now in the time of this mortal life” by living out our baptism, or, if you’re not Christian, by choosing to live according to the Light, which in effect means all those things that make for the Shalom of God, the peace and wholeness of God’s Reign. The “works of darkness” are precisely those things that divide and enslave and demean human beings, that denigrate the weak and vulnerable, that use the structures of the world for greed and personal gain, that generate and spread lies, and that justify injustice. It might be that Jesus will in fact come again with banners flying and trumpets sounding and the whole works, with a divine broom that will sweep the world clean. But it is true that Jesus is already here, in the world, in the community called “Christ’s Body,” and on the altar in the form of Bread and Wine. By all of these means he is already present, really present in “his glorious majesty,” which is ironically the humble garb of a man who steadfastly refuses to arrogate power to himself, no matter how frequently he is despised, rejected, discounted, and insulted.
Be not deceived, however. God is not mocked: not Father, not Son, not Holy Spirit. There will come a day of reckoning, a “doomsday,” people used to call it. Already you can look on the horizon and see the clouds gathering. The harbingers of war, a war no one much wants except of course those who will profit from it, are clearer and clearer with every new tweet. The handwriting is on the wall, and it says what it has said before: “you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” But Advent does not stop with the alarm. “Wakened by the solemn warning,” runs an Advent hymn, “from earth’s bondage, let us rise; Christ our Sun, all sloth dispelling shines upon the morning skies.” The Lamb so long expected has come with pardon. He bids us return to the center. That is what confession is. It is the healing that we and the world deeply need.
Advent, if it happened at any other time of year, would likely not get all mixed up with ornaments and wrappings and pageants and posadas and the like. But I’ll bet it would still be ignored. Who wants judgment, real judgment? I’ll tell you who. Those who pray night and day for some redress of wrongs, some relief from suffering, some hearing of their grievances, some sympathetic intervention on behalf of balancing the scales. Most of the time, the ones in charge of Advent are the very forces that have a vested interest in taking attention away from the issues and substituting trivia and frivolity, or sometimes violence and discord, anything to keep the poor poor and the powerful powerful. But the stinking truth about Truth is that it will always find a way out. It can only be ignored for so long, and then like a little seedling that has lain for many a season under the weight of a log, will eventually find its way to the light.
That is why the last word about Advent is a word of hope. The Omega is who the Alpha is. The end is as promising as the beginning, because it is in the hands of the one who flung the stars into space and called the dry land to appear out of the deep salt sea. Advent may take awhile to run its course, but it always ends not just in a death but in a birth, sometimes the two being indistinguishable. That is worth keeping in mind as not only the days grow shorter and the darkness thickens, but as the world hurtles toward destruction with its drivers laughing all the way.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016