Reading poetry is one of the ways some of us nourish our faith, a way we set or reset our inner compass and stay focused on the big picture, on the spiritual journey. I know that is true for me. In this monthly column, ‘Setting the Inner Compass,’ I share some of the poems I find nourishing to the soul. I write this column in the middle of the season of Lent, a season of reflection and preparation. Indeed, in the church year, it is a season where we are invited to “reset our inner compass”.
In his book Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner writes this about Lent, “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness, where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves. “
What does it mean to be ourselves? I hear that question in two ways. The first is broad, what does it mean to be human? Psalm 8 has always resonated with me when I ponder who we are as human beings. In that poem, the psalmist reminds us that we are a little lower than the angels, but we are not God. Implied is a warning against two extremes. The first is a warning against false pride, hubris, arrogance, thinking too much of ourselves and forgetting our human limitation. The seconds is a warning against thinking too little of ourselves, self-deprecation, and unhealthy humility. We are immensely capable, but we are also broken and limited.
The second way I hear Buechner’s Lenten question is specific and personal, “Who am I?” What does it mean to be the person I am, and becoming? Answering and pondering that question is part of our life and faith journey. This Lent I am reflecting on that question by beginning each morning with a time of reflection, meditation and writing about a place in my life for which I am grateful. I share these reflections on Facebook and will print them at some point if you are interested.
The three poems connect to the season of Lent and Buechner’s invitation. I’ve used Denise Levertov’s poems before. Her journey is remarkable. Levertov was born in England to a Welsh mother and a Russian Hasidic father who converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest. She moved to the United States in 1948 and taught at Brandeis, MIT, Tufts, Stanford, and the University of Washington. It was during her time at Stanford, (1982–1993) when, at the age of sixty, Levertov converted to Christianity. Her poem, “Flickering Mind” is an affirmation, confession and prayer for focus. The second poem, “The Chorus of My Dead Friends,” I wrote while grieving the death of a friend. It is a reflection on mortality and an invitation to embrace each day as holy gift. “Dawn Revisited” by Rita Dove is a wake-up call to live fully this life, to get busy and see what’s waiting on the road ahead, who we are being called to become.
“Flickering Mind” by Denise Levertov
Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
into sacred places:
a quick glance, and away—and back,
I have long since uttered your name
I elude your presence.
to think about you, and my mind
like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
the river’s purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
everywhere it can turn. Not you,
it is I who am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow,
you the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?
“The Chorus of My Dead Friends” by Dave Brown
The chorus of my dead friends
sings to me every day. It started small,
my mom, then Sue and Rollin who were
way too young when they added their voices
to the mystical chorus. As time unfolded
the chorus grew like a train picking up speed
on a downhill track as more and more of my beloved
left this world, said goodbye as I stood by
powerless, with tears in my eyes.
They are gone but their voices remain
making music in my heart. That mystical chorus,
so far away and so very, very, present.
Many, many more voices now,
their song echo in my memory,
perfect harmony, the chorus
growing week after week.
I hear their song and know that one day I
will be part of the chorus.
That time is not yet, but it will be,
so, I try every day to pay attention to the music
life makes here and now,
knowing it will not always be so.
Music here and mystical music somewhere else,
in some other dimension where mystery,
presence, and memory join together. Listen!
there is Rollin’s booming bass and Walter, Pat,
Chad with perfect harmony, Kim, John, Greg,
Mark, Bill with his blues, and now dear Kristy.
I hear your song each one of you.
I don’t know when, but I know,
more than ever before,
that I will someday join the chorus.
So, I listen to the chorus of my dead friends, smile,
and embrace each moment as
mystery and wonder.
January 27, 2021
“Dawn Revisited” by Rita Dove
Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don’t look back,
the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits–
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You’ll never know
who’s down there, frying those eggs,
if you don’t get up and see.
“Flickering Mind” by Denise Levertov, from A DOOR IN THE HIVE, copyright ©1989 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
“The Chorus of My Dead Friends” © Dave Brown has been published on the Echoes of Panhala poetry Facebook Page and in the collection, Limbo or Liminal published by the Puget Sound Poetry Collective.
“Dawn Revisited” is reprinted from On the Bus with Rosa Parks: Poems. (c) 1999 by Rita Dove. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, creator/host of Blues Vespers, one of the PNW Interfaith Amigos and former pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA. He serves on the PCUSA Education Roundtable. (firstname.lastname@example.org).