Our breath prayer in Circle of Hope this week has been “Holy Sprit/Open our hearts.” It reminded me of this poem and reflection from a few years back. I’ve now recorded it and added it to my soundcloud.
I don’t think I can tell people enough that in Celtic iconography the Holy Spirit is often represented as a wild goose. To the Celts of ancient Ireland and Scotland, Ah Geadh-Glas (Wild Goose) was a more apt description of their experience of the Holy Spirit. How caged and docile is your experience with the Holy Spirit, how unlike a dove?
I’m sure if I studied the mourning doves that come to the feeder in my back yard I could find the appropriate mystery and wildness in them too, but geese have just spoken to me more in my life.
I started my early rising prayer life at Eastern University with the Canada Geese on the pond there. I trained the ducks to eat out of my hand, but the geese would have nothing to do with me. Only the nesting mothers would allow me near them and they scared me with their violent hisses. I’ve come back to the morning geese this fall because, again, I live by a pond (though this one calls itself a lake).
The geese are there waiting for me when I rise and then I wait for them to leave the water, which they do every morning in the fall. Watching and waiting for them to go is the most wondrous part of them. It’s the thing about them that makes them best in my opinion to tell the Holy Spirit’s story. The geese talk about leaving for a while and the interval of conversation is not always the same. At first I thought it must be the angle of the sun–they usually leave soon after the sun crests whatever treeline it rises over, but as I paid attention I could tell that it wasn’t nearly so exact.
The fun of it is I can tell when they are leaving but I’m never sure of the moment they will go. They flick their heads and grunt at each other, seemingly consulting one another about the every day revelation that it is time to fly to the best grass nearby. Scientists have studied this phenomenon and measured it. One study reported that this period of consultation lasted anywhere from nine to twenty-two minutes.
The wild goose then is a perfect symbol for the Holy Spirit because they are common enough (At least in Ireland and Scotland and Haddon Township, NJ where I live ), but they are also unpredictable and elusive. They can even bite you. Following the Holy Spirit can feel like an actual wild goose chase, yes, but if we give up trying to catch Her and instead be contented in watching and listening when She happens to be there in the morning (and who knows for how long?), we will love Her and She will shape us. And in many, many mornings She will still be wild but we may just be tamed.
Here’s a poem I wrote for Her.
O Holy Sprit, Ah Geadh-Glas, I am familiar with your leavings, Though uncertain of your path.
I could tire of the finding– Leave your joy here in the grass, But I’ll marvel at your going, Water-walking noisy splash!
And I’ll wonder at your flying. Flocked with kin above me, pass! Make me happy, wild and singing, O Holy Spirit, Ah Geadh-Glas!
On my parents’ property in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, we built a labyrinth with demarcating stones in a clearing by the gravel road that encircles the lake called Hallowood above which the house sits. I use the possessive personal generously to include myself, for I only helped a little. It was definitely a group project, even if my mom and dad were the main contributors of sweat. There is no sweat contribution needed now, but the project is ongoing. The labyrinth needs to be walked. The labyrinth needs to be prayed. The labyrinth needs to be physically tended by grass-treading feet, stone-replacing hands and stick-removing eyes. The labyrinth will be swallowed by the woods if it is not walked, prayed and tended — all of which are simply done by doing.
The added attention the walking requires in early Spring amplified my prayer as I walked it yesterday. The moss had covered a rock or two. Something had displaced or shifted several of the line stones from their guidance. It was most likely the grandchildren of the labyrinth who walked the way with me, trouncing over the lines as if it didn’t matter (It doesn’t, really; it’s the walking that matters). But it seemed that Winter might have been the culprit somehow, or maybe even emerging Spring. I crouched to uncover hidden stones, and nudged as many drifting ones back into place as I could, placing my feet between their glistening faces on the carpet of moss that was sponging up the Spring snow shower in which I walked. I crouched less often to remove the many sticks that had fallen along the path. I only stooped for the most obnoxious trespassers because there were many and my plodding progress was required for this meditation.
There was power in the walking and the making. Maintaining the physical space added a concreteness to my prayer. This is the main feature of walking a labyrinth in the first place, but it was even better to make the way for future me and future loved ones to walk it, especially for the grandchildren of the labyrinth (my children) who mostly miss what I am doing when I take this journey to the center. One day, I pray they know the power that can be met person-to-person using this walking tool along with many others. Until that day, and for that future — and toward it — in me and them, — I’ll walk it every time I’m here.
I wrote a poem from this moment. I took the photo above in anticipation of what might be said in this sonnet.
Turning Before and Behind
for Ernest Hilbert, a Philly/South Jersey boy like me
Walking the labyrinth and tending the stones, Tossing the sticks to the side in a crouch. A bend here, careful mossy step there, Turning corners with my real flesh and bones — Making way for making ways to vouch Safe for Thee my heart. For I’ve none to spare. Wending in, then unwinding out around — Deeper, further; wider, nearer; then and now, Watching step and stone, caring not to miss A moment or a misplaced line I’ve found, And knowing as I do it’s walking how We make the way upon our Way. It’s this: This wending and tending. Winding to find In the turning You’re before and behind.
It’s Good Friday. I wrote us a poem that’s also a prayer. Hope on a death day. Jesus was the first one, but now they are all that for those who are in Christ. One of Circle of Hope’s blogs celebrates death days of those who have gone before — Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body . Today, April 10th, we remember Howard Thurman. Join me in this prayer, you can hear me read it below.
Tumbled Open Good Friday Prayer
Graves tumbled open the day that you died, And darkness fell down where noon used to shine. The temple shook and all were welcome inside. Erased, cracked or broken you made every line, Between death and life, between dark and light; Between in-and-out, between right and might.
You reversed our reversals; gave us much more — So much more than we hoped for. What had you done? How could we see that your death was a door? And how can we follow where your victory’s won? We could die even now, here as we breathe, And then again, out beyond our own breath’s reprieve.
We will see what it’s like to live on forever, We will know what we look like with you in our eyes; We too will tumble and darkness will never Bring sorrow and sadness, loud angry cries, But not without now, not some not-here place, No escape yet from sorrow, no exit but grace.
Dear friends, since the Covid 19 quarantine began, I have spent a lot of time sitting at a little desk I put in my bedroom (now office). My lovely little room has windows which face the lake on which I live. Newton Lake in spring and summer is home to a colony of tree swallows which dart across the water in the morning and evening in dizzying patterns. They make me feel big inside. They “make the water wide” I say in the poem below. Newton Lake is really rather small, and I feel small sometimes too — constricted on the inside; longing for wider spaces, deeper breaths. I find myself wanting more of something specific and external, and everything that is intrinsically me all at the same time. Creating space inside ourselves for such colliding thoughts to hold their own flight patterns is crucial to the spiritual life. I hope this poem helps you feel that even slightly as much as the swallows help me to feel it.
The swallows have returned to Newton Lake To make the water wide from bank to bank And give a show of living for your sake– An iridescent praise, a flight of thanks, A sweeping burst of joy made for your eyes, For narrow squinting eyes. Now ask how do They fly to make all those inches realize Their depth, and the air its true thickness through The circling swim of a dance just above The shimmering below. Making wide, too, Somewhere in you. Some inside dreaming of A flight like these — so close, so quick, so you, So far, so flung, so open with your doors, There’s breath to breathe and sky to fly — there’s more.
I sat down this morning and looked out my bedroom window to the rainy water of Newton Creek and wished with all the melancholy of the gray day to be rid of this virus. “Alas” was the word for the feeling. Almost all sigh with a hint of french pity in it’s roots. The perfect word wanted more than just disappearance, the fantasy wandered to the sea and a beach party it seems. It felt good to imagine the future. In the wake of the reverie about God knows how many tomorrows from now, I had a longing feeling that landed again on “Alas.” However, giving my heart to words made me feel less alone.
Could the spring rain but wash this all away And make a summer feast so full of love It spills its season’s banks right into May! And to pandemic’s fear, a jaunty shove, Or surge of tide to float this out to sea. Can falling rain replace the falling sky? And dancing limbs crowd in again so free — A swirling wash of salty sway and cry Made loud and bright — bass, treble up to thump, Feet, knees and necks, lips , breath and lifted hands, All these abreast in rhythmic wave and bump. I’d give up lots to get down with that band, But May will not be long enough to say, “At last!” So with mournful sigh (with those who mourn) I say, “Alas!”
Heat baking up Through terry cloth towel — Drying me up as the sun dried me down. And red-yellow dancers Amorphously moved Between the backs of my eyelids and eyes. Seal slick hair, Tufting up in the air As I turned back from fish into boy. Sometimes so hot If I lay there too long I’d roll right back into the pool. It must be just right This transforming heat — A boy body needs fine attention. And nothing is new With memories so old — I still need that warm transformation.
The actually physiology of your ears might help you pray in silence. I’m intensifying my contemplative prayer practice during Lent and thinking about how to get above, below or behind the chatter of my churning brain. It has to do with hearing the silence for me. It has to do with tuning in to the sound of quiet, listening to my inhale, listening to my exhale, and letting everything I’ve heard lead me to a state of mind and heart in which I know God is very near. I’m not just trying not to think or speak, I’m trying to listen to things I don’t always hear. I need a daily reminder that I can hear more than I hear and see more than I see. I need to make regular contact with the infinite love that propels my life. The meditation can start with what I’m actually hearing. My experience in contemplative prayer is an occasional sudden woosh of quiet in which the Fullness fills me. Only onomatopoeia serves to describe the sudden sound of silence that precedes my most conscious presence to the Presence. If I remember similar sounds of sudden silence it helps me skip through the initial stage of settling I must pass through every time I sit. Here is a poem to honor those sounds and maybe push my readers through whatever stops them from hearing and seeing more than they yet know they can.
The Sudden Silences
The moment when the starlings start to fly A sudden hush fills ears to empty brims, As trees spill noisy swarms into the sky, Now silenced by their million-feathered wind.
The moment when you surface from the wave– Quick roar and dive replaced by quiet now, This loud emergence from the barrel’s cave, When soundless voice of awe suggests you bow.
The moment when the fading ember tone Of singing bowl’s long resonance goes out, And I am left with silent thoughts alone To snuff, so I can hear the Silence shout.
These moments come to mind and ear, thank God, To aid my aim to trust Thy staff and rod.
Here’s a sonnet trying to capture a moment and make it more than it was, and exactly what it was. It was with a bird, of course. Happy Friday!
The hawk’s flight flew me as we went along Together for a pair of football fields In perfect flapping union. I’m not wrong To say so even though I had to yield To traffic as he whirled away from view And my quick craning neck could Oh! But catch A fading sense of where he must have flew. But let my mind be forever feather etched, May flying be remembered as my own, May that correlation of car and wing Persist among the things my heart has known, And may whizzing wheels forever sing Of more than locomotion on a road — Of soaring joy and glory overflowed.
I came to the event because I care deeply about this issue as a matter of my Christian discipleship. When Jesus said in Matthew 25 that we would see him when we visit people in prison I think it’s pretty straightforward. “The least of these” clearly include everyone in prison. The hopeless situation so many people find themselves in when they, for whatever reason, find themselves involved with the US criminal justice system, is a place that Christians are called to go. I have only been face-to-face with people while they were incarcerated once, but I know many people who have come out of the system and faced innumerable challenges as a result of their incarceration. This event was a golden opportunity to be face-to-face with people who were willing to tell their story and help us to understand the gravity of the problem we face in this country. For an excellent primer on Mass Incarceration and the Christian mandate, watch the video at mcc.org/stories/mass-incarceration-christian-mandate
The event helped the participants learn about and even feel about this injustice by playing a game that MCC developed called “You Got Booked.” It’s an interactive board game, kind of like monopoly, where each player assumes a character who starts the game with various resources. It is true to reality in that the people of color have a disadvantage, both in the rules that apply to them and the resources with which they begin the game.
I played the game as Professor Patrick, a 43 year old black male with a college degree, who started the game with money, a job, no criminal record and a house. By the end of the game I had gone to jail three times which means I lost. The two white characters, as almost always happens in the game according to ChiChi Oguekwe who has facilitated the game many times, made it all the way around the board, one of them getting paid regularly because of his investments in the private prison industry.
When I went to jail after a traffic stop I lost my job and my house. How often does a life fall apart because of incarceration? Pretty often — you can imagine, right? When I got out the first time I had a criminal record, no job and no housing, which made it almost impossible in the game for me to not go back to jail. Restrictive parole regulations, disadvantages in employment opportunity and the color of my character’s skin all made it very difficult to not go back to jail.
It was incredibly frustrating to say the least. The game functions as a parable of the criminal justice system. It does not focus on the crimes that any of the individuals committed, just on how the system works once you’re in it, and the disproportionate likelihood that you will get in it if you are not white. The dominant narrative in our country about this issue mostly focuses on individual responsibility and the rule of law. Mercy is not at play in policy making or many of the perspectives that even Christians hold in evaluating the decisions of those policy makers. As a people called to reconciliation, we who follow Christ must change our perspective and see people as the beloved ones of God they are, no matter what they have done. Wisdom and an enduring desire for public safety lead me to conclude that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people are incarcerated who should not be. Why is punishment paramount in our perspective if we are Christians?
The game is peppered with revealing facts and figures read by the facilitators. ChiChi Oguekwe, MCC East Coast Philadelphia Program Coordinator, and John-Michael Cotignola-Pickens, MCC Criminal Justice Education & Advocacy Coordinator, were our facilitators. The game can be so frustrating that they are trained in not just helping participants play but also process the intense emotions that often come with it.
Playing the game with Marsha Banks of amiracle4sure.com and Eddie McCreary of friendsoverfences.org made it an even more enriching experience. At one point during the game, Marsha suggested that a person who had lost the game by being sent to jail three times remain standing in jail instead of sitting down. She said that it would be a symbol of how many people feel stuck and without hope. The game offered that kind of visceral connection to the difficulties people face. It was an opportunity to feel it, even in our bodies.
Then we got to learn some first-hand stories from people who lived through it. Marsha Banks and Eddie McCreary told their stories of incarceration and reentry into the community. Holding on to hope was a major struggle. Stephen Sands, the Executive Director of Friends Over Fences, joined them in a panel discussion facilitated by Curtis Book of the BIC Peace and Justice Project, and, until very recently, also of MCC.
For both Marsha and Eddie their faith played an important role in their hope conservation as they struggled in prison and when they were released. Marsha gave birth in prison and had to fight to get custody of all of her children, which she did, and she got a masters degree! Eddie was incarcerated for 36 years and experienced several incredible miracles to fuel his faith in Jesus and his hope for his future. One of my favorite things he said had to do with something that happened recently. After losing a job he said “It was God’s math. I put out two resumes and I got four jobs!” The network he was connected to via Friends Over Fences before he was released played an important role in the multiplicative math of the Kingdom community,
Obviously, Marsha’s and Eddie’s experience with God and God’s people helped them, which I think ought to encourage us who follow Jesus to find ways to participate in community with people like Marsha and Eddie. Looking for hope in a hopeless situation is a community project that should not be left to just those afflicted by the injustice of our criminal justice system. This is our issue, too, and these are our people.
If you wish to bring some of your hope to this situation, check out Friends Over Fences. They write letters to people who are incarcerated and have resources for them when they are released; like job leads, furniture and temporary housing (housing is a major impediment to many potential parolees). A Miracle 4 Sure, the organization that Marsha Banks started, provides housing and other resources to people in Dauphin, Lancaster, York, Mifflin, Juniata, Franklin and Lebanon counties in Pennsylvania.
Thanks to Mechanicsburg BIC Church for hosting the event, MCC for sending John-Michael and ChiChi and all of the participants. Curtis Book, Harriet Sider Bicksler and I (Ben White) count it a joy to help instigate this dialogue. Let us know if you would like to bring the “You Got Booked” game to your congregation, youth group, small group or other organization. Email [email protected] or just leave us a comment. You can also join the BIC Peace and Justice Project group on Facebook.