Thursday, June 30, 2016

Passages Written in Early Spring


Creaking wood rubbing against wood
And fallen particles all around
The ancient smiling dragon wound
Bespeak futility neither bad nor good—
Leave questions blowing through the vernal air
Tempting a grasping mind to solve
And stay what must perforce revolve
Around a gash a god could make and bear.
Only draw in blood the mark of death
And fix your seal upon this failing flesh
Till ghostly wind inspire freshened breath
And all my cells and every sense unleash
To toll the knell for what has passed away
And sound a reveille to welcome day.


Jam for breakfast, an open honey pot
Among clattering, clanging calls to celebrate,
A mirth that reason cannot calibrate
Nor readily toss into the compost lot
I insistently affirm.  I have been crucified,
No joke, and so am through with sighs
And worries and worshiping the stuff that dies
And from the fingers of the dead is often pried
Loose.  I’ll get on with laughing, making
Others laugh, and in fairy dancing
Wrap a great old pole, and taking
Nothing, not even time for glancing
Back, commit myself to endless gladness,
For my God’s not happier by my sadness.



Far back in a packed closet
No light shines easily there
Is a box decorated, a simple box
That once held new shoes
And now is stuffed with two
Weeks’ worth of love notes, poems,
Scraps of original art, carefully
Torn pieces of construction paper,
Quotations of writers, sages, saints
Of one sort or another.  She filled
It when our marriage was on its way
To death—a hope chest, given
Me to pore over and riffle through
During a week away.  It is the last
Vestige, this box, of thirty years
Of trials, errors, joys, waiting,
Sins and salvation, of
Warmth and coldness,
Babies and laughter, and great
Nervousness at times.  I
Know it’s there on the shelf
Where I put it last, unable
To let go of all it represents,
Of dreams and promises, vows
Even and even odd moments
When I knew the best of me
And the worst played together
Alloyed under the canopy of
Grace.  I rarely look into it
When I reach for Christmas
Decorations and it falls down
Into a crack, or shift around
Some camping gear when comes
The season for it.  Once or twice
I’ve raised the lid to see
If all’s still there, or whether
Some has decayed, some expired
As the law of entropy wields its will.
I muse sometimes on why it is
I cannot bear the thought
Of trashing mementos of a distant past,
Old pain growing sharper in some
Ways as unstretched muscles
Ache in early morning, wanting
Notice, dissatisfied until used again.
Sometimes it is not love or happiness
Or yet shame or guilt that clings
To us like beggar lice to breeches
In a wintry field—
But unspent tears of what we wished and prayed for
Shoved way down deep into a box
Rarely opened, emptied, shared,
A little casket full of grief
In a dark place away from everyday
Routines, unscheduled for healing.



Catharsis only comes to certain souls
Whose generally uncalculated wounds
Undressed and raw have throbbed and oozed till sounds
A dove-cry piercing stony hearts with holes
A size that sunlight joyfully admit.
O happy fault in human evolution
That wrongs collected see no dissolution
Till great the pain and more the cost of it
Exceeds relentless pressure to repress
What frightened egos do not will to face.
I name all my accumulated stress
And pitch it straight into the lap of grace.
And bows the soul unfettered and unbarred,
Purified and whole though wholly scarred.


If swamps are places teeming with life,
Then forests seem to me the land of death.
For three days I’ve meandered
Around woods here and there,
Impressed by all the dead I see—
Fallen logs, a floor of mealy leaves, rotten
Monuments woodpeckers have perforated
Left dying in the spring, emptied of all bugs.
In search of a place to spend a day in hermithood
A little grove I spied
Identified as Hiskitt Cemetery by a little sign.
Two or three old gravestones leaned about,
Decrepit after centuries of weathering,
Their tiny environs established
More or less by a border of decaying
Wood, itself a fitting fence for funeral plots.
I chose a tree, sturdy and inviting,
Against which leaned a smallish marker
To make a kind of headboard for my day
Thinking to keep company with and for
The nameless dead one sleeping next to me.
Just beyond the circle of twigs and branches
I arranged defining my cell
Two old gravestones bent towards
Each other, possibly the way those marked
Had done in life.  Rain and wind
And no doubt snow and ice as well
Had erased the words off one
Beyond reading.  The other tipped
Backward, though, in such a way
As to create a shelter for the lettering
While contributing its other side to
Mold and moss.  I felt at home
Among these few long rotted corpses
Preceding even the oldest trees in sight.
Cemeteries are precincts of peace
And peace is what I came to get.
The dead no doubt could teach
Me a thing or two of peace, so
I asked them to let me in
On what they’d learned.  Silence.
They seemed to say absolutely nothing,
As the dead are in the habit
Of doing.  So I asked the tree
Supporting me what it
Had to tell me.  The tree said, “Be.”
I’ve passed the day almost
Between “Be” and nothing. 
And finally I think I’ve heard
The Word, perhaps the Peace too
I’d hoped for in early morning.
Be.  Nothing.  Or.  Be.  Silent.
It’s as much me to jot this down
As it is for a tree to scan the sky.
I am who I am, though
Who I am is still a project in the making.
As for nothing, nothing seems
Right.  The great silence of the
Thirty-four-year-old wife who died
In June and her now
Nameless neighbor in the grave
Is a clear message on my way to living—
Nothing is the telos toward which my life is moving
And perfect nothingness will be the proving
True of all my gifts and giving—


On Saturday of the first weekend in May
Many years ago, a gang of college boys
And their dates struck out with noise
Of blaring radios and horns to pay
A visit to a swimming hole.  Their fun
On unrolled blankets in a field
Delighted some, and others’ hearts were healed
When arms enwrapped them in the midday sun.
I was among their number, and for once
Began to feel accepted as a brother,
A rare experience for one reason or another,
Not being favored by my father’s other sons.
Tied to an oak above a deep place in the river
A rope invited swinging out and falling
Into the water.  Splash produced a shiver
Of either thrill or chill, maybe calling
Adolescents to experience a learning:
Letting go is the soul of all discerning.

April, 2015

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Beyond Crazy

Luke 8:26-39

            Last Sunday, having finished two morning services in another parish, I arrived home for lunch, went to my office, looked at my computer screen and saw for the first time the headlines about Orlando.  Probably like most of you, I have spent all week sorting out my reactions and responses to this latest massacre, which, only because of the magnitude of its enormity, grips our attention.  Some time ago we reached the point where the average mass shooting, defined as one in which more than 3 people are killed, is on average a daily occurrence in the United States.  Among all the emotions churning up in me this week has been the exasperation that says, “Here we go again.” 

            We have developed a national ritual.  Indeed we are in the midst of it at the moment.  It is the American ritual for dealing with what you might say is an insoluble problem that shows no signs of going away any time soon.  Just as there are other public rituals that have all the marks of predictability, this corporate reaction to mass shootings is predictable.  The language we use, including such words as “outrage,” “senseless,” “gun violence,” “courageous first responders,” “terror,” “instability,” “lone wolf,” are stock phrases that you can count on figuring into reports and conversations for days. 

It will appear at some point that we might have a chance of actually solving this problem of perennial, devastating violence.  A new cascade of victims’ families and grief-stricken relatives will move us to new resolve.  We will find ourselves hopeful, even amid the cacophony of rage and counter-rage that continues to fuel more hatred and more violence.  Yet, as the prospect of new gun control legislation begins to rise, sales in guns will climb. 

This must strike you as something you already know, familiar as the back of your hand.  I imagine that you must be thinking that I have some sort of solution in mind or else I wouldn’t be talking about it. I suspect that you probably think that either I am a cynic who sees no possibility of change in all this, or, more likely that I am headed towards asserting that with proper public pressure we will be able once and for all to reverse this trend and possibly even to solve this intractable problem.

Let me remind myself and you that this is not a political speech, but a sermon.  My aim is to proclaim some gospel this morning, and that involves telling the truth, not just making ourselves feel better, though one might hope that the two are not mutually exclusive.  The truth begins with the fact that we are awash in what can kindly be called crazy behavior.  That is not to say that all of us have totally lost our minds, but that in the aggregate, the phenomenon that we’re in and I have described is insane.  You have heard it said that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same behavior over and over expecting different results.  Well, so far that nails us, doesn’t it?  That’s not all there is to it, but that is a big slice of what is wrong with this whole picture.  The question is how can we stop it?  Or, to use a phrase of St. Paul, who will deliver us?

How interesting that today’s gospel story is one about craziness.  It is, perhaps of all the stories in any of the gospels, the one that dramatizes the extent and depth of insanity.  The mad man of Gerasa is one of the most frightening figures on the pages of scripture.  He is strong, he is untamable, he is demonic, he is scary.  He roams about the tombs in the local cemetery, and it is a cinch that none of the villagers of Gerasa go there with their flowers and candles very much, knowing they will likely run into him.  The story is difficult enough, yet its challenge to us 21st century people is compounded by the category in which the crazy man is placed, namely demon-possessed.  We don’t deal with demon possession very well in modern vocabulary.  We have other diagnoses: schizophrenia, sociopathology, and so on.  Not only that, but the bizarre story of demons begging to enter a herd of hogs who race down the bank and drown in the Sea of Galilee pretty much asks us to imagine more than we easily can.

What is really difficult for us to see is how this poor character has anything to do with us.  The very problem of modern life in the United States, and maybe the world at large, is that we are in a real sense deeply disturbed and don’t know it.  The very fact that we are the most medicated generation ever to live on the planet is itself a part of the problem.  Of course we are a far cry from raving around cemeteries; but we continue to nurse on delusions.  Huge swaths of our society cannot grasp the fact that no matter who we are, we are infected by racism.  To that extent, we are deluded.  Our systems conspire to keep us under the spell of imagined wellness.  Even when we see its flaws and dark side, we continue to spin with the wheels of capitalism.  Most of us are about as fundamentalistic regarding our Constitution as religious fundamentalists are about the Bible.  We corporately imagine that our constitutional system, with only a minor flaw here and there, is mighty near perfect.  And one of the favorite notions is that every social problem has a legislative solution. 

Into this quandary comes the Healer.  Notice that Jesus meets resistance from the demons.  Delusional thinking and its correlative, crazy behavior, do not vanish quietly.  Like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s novel, voices in us and in our society say, “What have you to do with us, Jesus?  Do not torment us.  Leave us alone.”  We are doing quite well without you, even as we invoke your name and pretend to be following you.  Don’t upset us by dispelling our fantasies. If you ask us our name, we cannot answer because we have no lasting identity.  Our loyalties are divided among family, work, sex, gender, race, ethnicity.  We are legion.  We know no wholeness. 

And that is the root of the problem.  What we have great trouble seeing is that in this awful violence, we are in fact reaping what we have sown.  The poisonous flower of violence blooms on a stalk grounded in our own fragmentation.  Many of us, despite a whole industry of gyms, diets, beauty products, cosmetics, style, body decorations, and so on, really despise our bodies.  Despite all the self-help books and programs, we find ourselves stuck in the same old patterns.  We pay millions on therapy and hear ourselves saying the same old stuff week after week.  And all of this builds up into a great sea of internalized hatred and anger.  We get angry at our own frustration.  And all of that breeds a culture which gives rise to violence.  We’ll never see this unless we look at the whole scene, beyond our individual pieces of it.  It all didn’t start yesterday.  It has been a way of life for centuries.  Strife, dehumanization, unbridled competition, insecurities, jealousy, envy, discord, slave trade, sex trade, power games, oppression.  The list goes on and on.  We cannot get rid of violence by being violent.  We cannot cast out hatred by hating.  And most of all, we cannot heal from a deep sickness of soul unless somehow we are delivered from the very things that make our souls sick.

The demons gone, the mad man of Gerasa is no longer mad.  He is clothed and in his right mind.  He sits at the feet of Jesus, calm, peaceful.  That is what wholeness looks like.  Now the secret, quite well kept, is that the Jesus who heals us is not some distant god, but rather one that already lives right in us.  It makes little difference whether we imagine this Jesus to be external to us or internal (I do some of both). What critically matters is that we come to understand that our egos—that is to say our conscious, willing selves—cannot heal us.  Healing has to come from some deeper place.  In my vocabulary it is “soul healing,” which really means that, like the Gerasene man, we need deliverance from all that legion of crazy voices in us, including the voice that says, “You’re no good.”  Soul healing is being united with our truest, deepest nature.  Once that begins to happen, peace begins to supplant all the internal violence.

How?  It begins with our admitting our own powerlessness.  We move from there to something quite counter-intuitive:  submitting our wills to the Christ within us, acknowledging him to be our soul-maker and soul-mate.  We begin gradually to let go of our fantasy of being in control of others, our partners, our children, our neighbors, our enemies.  The more we do, the more we become supple, accepting what comes to us and not fighting it.  The less we fight, the more we are free to embrace.  We gradually find ourselves loving our own bodies.  Then it is not too hard for us to begin embracing our own mortality.  And one day we might begin to notice that we are living more and more soulfully.   We begin to live more joyfully, rooted in a practice of being grateful.  We look for the good in people rather than fixate on their foibles.  We make mistakes and take them as opportunities to learn.  We lose our cool and learn to observe our imperfections without laying hard trips on ourselves.  We treat ourselves well, take long hot baths and showers, give money away—lots of it, enjoy long walks, savor good food, celebrate our erotic energy, stop kicking ourselves with guilt, learn how to face into the very things that we are ashamed of, and begin owning our imperfections and vulnerabilities.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control:  these are the marks of soulful living, and they are the fruit of the Spirit of Christ taking hold of us, and shaping us into persons wholly one with our deepest nature. 

Easy?  No.  Quick?  Hardly.  But the only way I know of to get out of the tombs and into the clear light of day.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Is There Life After Orlando?

Let me begin with what must be said. 

The slaughter in Orlando was tragic, reprehensible, unspeakably horrible.  It should not have happened.  Nor should any of the mass killings that we now daily endure.[1]  My heart aches with those who are grieving.  The dead, the wounded, the survivors weeping:  all are in my prayers.  We need to ban automatic assault weapons permanently.  We need a tighter system of controlling who has access to guns.

I am not interested in rehashing all the things that by now have been said and repeated at each fresh bloodbath.  I am not interested in arguing the various points relative to gun violence.  But I do have some things to say in response to this latest massacre.

First, did you catch in the carefully worded statement of President Obama a certain note of something like fatigue or exasperation?  He was objective, reassuring, and, no doubt to many, comforting.  There is no way that the President can ignore such enormities, and by now it must be a familiar part of his job, responding to this daily visitation of mass death.  Regardless of what the President feels or thinks, I claim my own fatigue and exasperation.   It has become routine.  “Outrage.”  “Senselessness.”  “Sickening.”  “Terror.”  “Stand together.”  “Courageous first responders.”  One could compile in advance of the next mass murder an accurate thesaurus of the words that will be spoken and heard over and over until, after a few days or weeks, we have put another tragedy behind us. 

What we have developed, indeed what we are in the midst of at the moment, is a ritual.  It is the American ritual for dealing with what you might say is an insoluble problem that shows no signs of going away any time soon.  Just as there are other public rituals that have all the marks of predictability, this corporate reaction to mass shootings is predictable.  First there is the news.  Then there is a period of uncertainty as to the scope of the killing.  Then the media people shape the story by speculating and passing on speculation as fact by using loaded words, like “terror,” for example.  Once the killer(s) have been identified, the search is on to answer the question of “why,” in response to the natural assumption that there must be somewhere a rational explanation for a monumentally irrational act.  Then begins the blaming.  If a minority of some sort is involved, there is scapegoating.  Then there is counter-reaction.  If the tragedy is of such proportions to warrant it, the President will address the situation.  News reports will show for the next 36-48 hours or more the grief, the support, the devastation of the killing.  Depending on the circumstances, funerals will be public events, sometimes even narrated by the press.  Meanwhile, a host of people will exhaust all the known methods of ritual responses expressing grief, anger, and solidarity:  candlelight vigils, prayer services, flowers at the scene of the crime or at other significant places.

Before all this gets thoroughly underway, you can count on the old, tired political arguments to assert themselves in full force.  From the right will come accusations leveled at those in charge who have allowed such a thing to happen through willful negligence.  From the left will come handwringing and measured statements of outrage about the prevalence of violence, the chokehold on Congress that the NRA continues to have, the necessity of some form of political action that will ameliorate if not solve the problem.  Voices of religious leaders will articulate messages of sorrow and resolve.  Politicians will, regardless of their actual records in addressing gun violence, aver that their “hearts go out” to the victims and their families, whom they assure of their “thoughts and prayers” at such a tragedy. 

During all this, there will be a kind of leitmotif of utterly useless debate about whether the event should be politicized, as if it weren’t by its very nature a political act.  “Can’t we just grieve without someone’s hijacking this event to suit their own political purposes?” will be the question that folks here and there will raise. 

The reason I bother to write all this down, as if you don’t already know it by heart, is to make the point that this is indeed a ritual, a rite, that we choose to go through each time it happens.  I am not suggesting that elements of this aren’t useful.  They are.  I am not arguing that there is any practical way to avoid any of this.  If there were, I’d say so, and you would already know about it. 

We are trapped in a cage of our own making.  And I have come to understand that very few of us see it.

“Our own making.”  Whose making?  Who is “we” and what is “our” making?  We cage ourselves by continuing to parse these things in terms already available to explain the situation.  After the Sandy Hook shooting, when it was discovered that the killer had a history of mental illness, a huge discussion opened up about the adequacy of our mental health system.  If there is a possible link to international terrorism, a hue and cry goes up about our policies and practices regarding terrorist threats.  It seems bewildering if no link can be found between the killer, the killing, and some obvious motivation.  The supposition in plain view is that we could and should fix whatever it is that causes these things to occur.  Even the NRA would agree with that, so long as the cause is not the availability of weaponry.  But the brutal fact of the matter is that none of our go-to fixes for the situation, including any legislation that has ever been proposed, will in fact successfully address the problem.

The problem is that for generations, for centuries, we have corporately built an American culture soaked with violence to a depth so profound that it is difficult to see how we can begin to dismantle it.  The presence of weapons to virtually everyone is not the problem, but one of the more visible symptoms of it.  The plain truth is that what we sow we will reap.  Sow violence, discord, hatred, and you will have a bumper crop of the same.  But—and here is what we don’t see very well at all—in a culture in which people in great numbers despise themselves, spurn their bodies, are ashamed and made to feel ashamed of who they are, it should be no surprise that massive violence in various forms results.  That is how repression works.  Starve a part of yourself, and it will become the alligator that bites you in the behind when you are looking the other way. 

Add to that the fact that the vast majority of violence in this country is state sponsored.  Some of the very voices that denounce the heinous violence of Orlando (Donald Trump is a prime example) call for yet more violence to be directed towards the newest conveniently identified enemy:  ISIS.  We have a pretty limited repertoire of how to deal with anything threatening, and violence in some form is a familiar default response.  The State, supported by huge numbers of people, expands its prison systems ostensibly to lessen threats and violence and to promote safety.  In fact those very prisons are themselves factories of crime and scenes of unspeakable violence not just to the body but to the soul. 

But even that does not get to the bottom of things.  For at the deepest level our culture is overwhelmed to an extent it does not even recognize.  I am not talking about stress.  I am talking about a widespread, internalized, well rationalized fascination with death.  It is “fascination” in the sense of being a powerful dynamic, all the more powerful because it is largely unconscious.   We have not come to terms very well with the truth that what looks like death is not necessarily death, and what seems to promise life might in fact rob us of life.  That is the irony that sits in the middle of the human condition.  The difficulty with Orlando—and Charleston, Newtown, Columbine, and all the other mass killings—is that they are so patently about needless death that they mask the real Death that has us in its vice.  And that Death begins with the basic failure in us all to affirm our bodies, and thus to embrace our own mortality.

Now you may think that I am all wet.  You may think that “psychologizing” or “philosophizing” in the face of so stinking a shame as Orlando is well shy of the mark of addressing the obvious elements mixed up in the decimation:  homophobia, accessible assault weapons, and so on.  I agree that those elements in the mix have to be addressed, and I understand that on the whole people grab onto what is most obvious.  But I cannot say too strongly that even those elements are realities that spring from a deeper place.  Until we recognize their origin, they will continue to dog us, haunt us, and kill us in droves.

The deep place happens to be a very familiar one—the human body.  It is actually the human soul, but the soul cannot be known apart from its fleshly container the body.  And it is the body that our society simply does not know how to honor.  Bear in mind that what looks like an omnipresent exaltation of the body (billboards with half-naked people, magazines full of beauty products for men and women, etc.) is not at all what honoring the body is about.  Along with all that, we have a public aversion bordering on hysteria about nudity.  And much of the fitness industry caters to people who pay to improve their bodies but somehow fail to gain a lasting positive self-image.  What is eating away at our soul is not “moral rot” as it is usually understood. It is something worse.  It is a distrust, a massive fear, of bodily pleasure.

How can this be, in a society so given to excess?  Look again.  Even though we do have plenty of excess, track carefully who owns the excess.  If you are seeing clearly, you will note that with few exceptions, it is the rich, the powerful, a small minority of people who manage to live opulent lives but who never have enough.  And even many of those people are thoroughly disconnected from the pleasure principle that really has nothing to do with excess, but rather with balance and proportion.  Look at men, for example, who do not know how to stop working, who take their cell phones with them to the beach, who are constantly enslaved to emails and texts.  Look at women who barely get past the first baby before they are absorbed in childrearing and who frequently tune out completely on any sexual pleasure, with the full support of many religious traditions that approve of that tuning-out.  Check out scores of lifeless, sexless, and sterile marriages.  Pay some attention to eating disorders, both excessive fasting and dieting as well as gorging on food. 

There was great wisdom in the hippie poster that said, “Make love, not war.”  Making love is not about sex only.  It is about living soulfully. It is about celebrating the body.  It is about being in love with life.  It is about giving oneself away.  The things that militate against a happy life are a familiar list of destructive behaviors and attitudes:  acquisitiveness, disrespect, self-centeredness, insatiable appetites for control, projections, discrimination, envy, strife, discord, hatred.  That is just the beginning.   Along comes religion—and it is not just the monotheistic religions—that frequently spins out and then re-enforces a narrative that spirit and body are opposed to each other, spirit always being superior.  Atheists are frequently no better than religious fanatics at affirming the body, and certainly no better on the whole at affirming the soul. 

So while I have grave doubts as to what we can do in the never-ending discussion about gun control, I hold out some hope that we can make a difference in something that is much closer to home.  Change the way you view your body.  Be aware that you can choose to live a soulful life.  Start by paying attention to your inner core.  Rather than building your life on a legalistic foundation of shoulds and oughts and musts and rules for this and that, build your life on a practice of being present to who you are, to what your senses are telling you.  Get in touch with nature, including your own.  Read a good book.  Go on a walk.  Spend some time with a kid.  Look deeply into a dog’s eyes.  Expose your flesh to the sun and breeze.  Buy a piece of good art.  Get off of talking about all the crap your family did to you and start just learning and maybe telling the stories of the nuts who make up your family.  Stop judging everything and everybody because what they do is usually none of your damn business.  Take long hot baths or showers.  Give money away.  Lots of it.  Enjoy a glass of wine with a friend.  Get a massage.  Give a massage.  Look at the parts of your body that you pay least attention to.  Stand naked before a mirror and engage in a ritual of loving yourself.  Say it out loud:  “I love you.”  Make a litany of things you are grateful for and smile when you say them one by one.

You get the picture.  We will never get rid of violence through legislation, as critical as some legislation might be.  We will never get rid of death, because it is built into the fabric of the universe.  We can overcome it, however, by embracing it, thereby owning our own mortality.  (That, by the way, is what the story of Jesus is all about—and its truth does not depend on your believing it.)  And we will find in the process, as counter-intuitive as it may be, that in embracing our old enemy, we will have made a friend.  The best way to defang death of its power is to engage in the  pleasurable practice of being joyful. 

A soulful life is a gentle life.  Until we learn to live gently, enjoying each moment to the fullest, we will very likely settle for periodic rituals in which we express frustration, anger, and grief at the way things are.  We could make the change—but deep change is never without cost and never easy.  So there is, and will be, great resistance.  Yet many have already discovered that the change is well worth the price.  And, should enough people decide to live differently by living more soulfully, there might come a day when swords will become ploughshares, spears pruning hooks, and assault weapons artifacts of a distant past.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, June 13, 2016.