“. . . it is enough to frighten me into paying more attention. . .” (Billy Collins)

“. . . these small leaves, these sentinel thorns, whose employment it is to guard the rose. . .”

“. . . these small leaves, these sentinel thorns, whose employment it is to guard the rose. . .”

Holy Week and Easter Day are over for this year. I attended almost as many Holy Week services as I used to do as a matter of course. I played the organ at a church on Maundy Thursday. I attended “my” church (St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal) for the Saturday Easter Vigil, and I played for the two small services in the chapel there on Easter morning.

Nothing but the music matters to me—the impossible words of the creeds, the sermons about Jesus rising from the dead, the acclamations, “The Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!”—in the services for which I play. It’s all about the music.

The 1500-or-so-year-old Easter Vigil liturgy used to affect me both emotionally and intellectually. But for the past few years it hasn’t because I’ve come to the same conclusion Roz Kaveney describes in an opinion piece in The Guardian:

The idea that texts written in a specific time and social context in human, often poetic, language with clear artistic intent can be the inerrant declaration of the mind of an eternal god depends on a leap of faith so vast that many of us cannot make it.

Until recently the Vigil liturgy remained for me one of the “thin places” described by Marcus Borg.

A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold (the “ahaah of The Divine”)….all around us and in us (Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2004).

Last year at Easter time I wrote about “thin places.” In the Easter Vigil Service this year the times I had the sense of a “thin” place were during the choir’s singing a Palestrina motet. And when James Diaz played the “Finale” from Louis Vierne’s First Organ Symphony after the service.

Having arrived at age 70, I have better things to worry about than religion and the final disposal of my immortal soul. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. . .” is no longer a thin place for me. My guess is that on Good Friday this year Kentucky Christians felt they had been buried in a death like the Wildcats’, and on Easter Monday many North Carolina Christians felt they had been united in a resurrection like the Blue Devils’—felt it at a deeper and more significant level than they felt Christ’s death and resurrection, whatever they said on Easter morning.

That is not a judgment, simply an observation.

I can’t any longer live in the tension of believing religion is a “thin place” and at the same time knowing Palestrina’s counterpoint (my own private March Madness), not the words that ride on it, is touching my heart. It’s not because I’m so good, or so smart, or so wise, but because I have so little time left to become rigorously honest with myself.

I’m still, nearly 50 years later, one of Spiro Agnew’s “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” Except that I’m no intellectual. Smart, somewhat educated, minimally talented, but not an intellectual. Just part of the effete corps.

Not being any more intellectual than I am is probably fortunate for me. If I had any more ability to figure things out, I’d be in BIG trouble. I can’t figure “it” out, so the best I can do is try to be consistent and direct in what I think and do.

In one corner of my mind is certain knowledge that the moment I die, I will be dead. So dead that I won’t even know I’m dead or that I used to be alive. That corner of my mind tells me there’s no point worrying about how I live the 8.4 years the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control says I have left. If the end result—the end—is the same, what does it matter how I live?

Here’s the crazy thing (seems crazy to me). I used to think I would leave behind a legacy of music or poetry or the Great American Novel. Just the same as everyone reading this believes deep down they will be the next member of the club of billionaires.

Both my thinking and everyone else’s—is wacko. It ain’t gonna happen.

So what is going to happen? I don’t have a clue. But I have a growing sense that, besides continuing to thrive in the love of my family and friends, the only way to make sense of this screeching-to-a-halt life is to throw myself into work I didn’t even know was possible a year ago.

Tutoring athletes at SMU’s center for the Academic Development of Student Athletes and teaching an ESL preparation class at the Aberg Center for Literacy give me a sense of purpose different, almost certainly greater, than I have ever had. Is that a touch of the drama queen? Yes, but these two activities are in a way redeeming the work I’ve been doing since 1985. I’ve been practice teaching to prepare myself to do something for reasons far greater than for my own satisfaction.

Perhaps I have finally found the real “thin places.”

For most of my adult life I have struggled with the words of St. Paul the Apostle that, “. . . the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19, NRSV). I don’t have to mix that up with sin and Jesus and churchy stuff. I think anyone who has any consciousness of self would have to admit that’s true. It is what it is.

So I want to learn, to have the peace of knowing, that the good I would, I do. And the evil I would not, I don’t. That’s all.

“The First Night,” by Billy Collins (b. 1941)

“The worst thing about death must be
the first night.” —Juan Ramón Jiménez

Before I opened you, Jiménez,
it never occurred to me that day and night
would continue to circle each other in the ring of death,

but now you have me wondering
if there will also be a sun and a moon
and will the dead gather to watch them rise and set

then repair, each soul alone,
to some ghastly equivalent of a bed.
Or will the first night be the only night,

a darkness for which we have no other name?
How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death,
How impossible to write it down.

This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.

The word that was in the beginning
and the word that was made flesh—
those and all the other words will cease.

Even now, reading you on this trellised porch,
how can I describe a sun that will shine after death?
But it is enough to frighten me

into paying more attention to the world’s day-moon,
to sunlight bright on water
or fragmented in a grove of trees,

and to look more closely here at these small leaves,
these sentinel thorns,
whose employment it is to guard the rose.

Billy Collins was born in New York City on March 22, 1941. He is the author of several books of poetry, including Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Random House, 2013), Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems (Random House, 2012); Ballistics: Poems (2008); and many more.
Collins’s poetry has appeared in anthologies, textbooks, and a variety of periodicals, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, American Scholar, Harper’s, Paris Review, and The New Yorker.
Collins served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, and as the New York State Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. His other honors and awards include the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry, as well as fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and Lehman College, City University of New York. He lives in Somers, New York.

“. . .Or will the first night be the only night, a darkness for which we have no other name. . .” (Photo by Harold Knight, Port Orford, OR, 2012)

“. . .Or will the first night be the only night, a darkness for which we have no other name. . .” (Photo by Harold Knight, Port Orford, OR, 2012)

“. . . Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

A very thin place.

A very thin place.

Seeing the natural world and understanding how it fits together (either as the random result of the Big Bang or as the handiwork of a god) and having the experience of “otherness” or “oneness,” or of the “numinous,” or of “eternity,” or some such mystical comprehension is not my style. My mystical experiences are infrequent, and they are often (like so those of so many other people) dependent on nature or the cosmos or some such grandiosity. I write about them fairly often—sometimes even in public—and when I do, they are usually tied in with some experience of nature. Most often they are connected somehow to my being at the edge of the ocean.

(The hyperlinks to other of my writings more or less on the subject are not for my reader, but for me to have them all together. That may be annoying to anyone trying to read this, but I have to do it.)

The natural world and I have a “come here/stay away” relationship. I have had some remarkable experiences in nature.

The truth is, I have to admit, that my obsession with talking about “mystical” or “religious” or “spiritual” experiences is something of a smokescreen for my inability to believe in God. One might ask how I can write all of this stuff more-or-less about God (at least the numinous or inexplicable) and say I don’t believe in God.

Two daily “meditations” arrive in my e-mail. I subscribed to them, hoping they would help me focus my thinking for the day. One is hardly ever helpful. The other occasionally presents an idea that arrests my attention.

One of those came today.

There is in me something mysterious that nothing is able to grasp, something that no thought or feeling can help me know. It appears only when I am not caught in the web of my thoughts and emotions. It is the unknown, which cannot be grasped with what I know. (Jeanne Matignon de Salzman, 1889 – 1990)

Madame de Salzman, I found in Wikipedia (don’t tell my students), was a musician, a dancer, and a disciple of G. I. Gurdjieff. All I know of him is that he was an “influential spiritual teacher.” Forty years ago when I was in graduate school trying to find my way in the world and rejecting almost everything anyone said, an older man with whom I had just had a “fling” gave me a copy of Gurdjieff’s most famous book, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and I promptly gave to a library book sale. I have come across mention of Gurdjieff many times since then but have never bothered to investigate his work.

Can this be a thin place?

Can this be a thin place?

Many times throughout my life someone—a plethora of someones—has presented me with a book, with an idea, with a “retreat,” with a spiritual course of some sort to help me on my—my what? my spiritual quest? Is that what I’m writing about? The most helpful notion I’ve received was years ago when Sue Mansfield, rest in peace, from the church I still consider my “home church,” Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, said, “You don’t have to believe; you just have to believe that we believe.”

If my Holy Week cold is less obtrusive tonight than it is right now, I will attend the Maundy Thursday Service at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal) Church, of which I am a member. For about two years I have not been to a service except those for which I have substituted at the organ. I’m not 100% certain why I will attend tonight, except that some inner voice is telling me I need to. It’s a lovely service with foot-washing and stripping of the altar in preparation for Good Friday. I like the name—Maundy Thursday. It’s one of those churchy mysteries—Maundy is probably from the Latin mandatum, “commandment” from the injunction Jesus gave at his “last supper,” the new commandment that they love one another.

I’ve never been able to bring together in my mind those words and the experience I had on the beach near Port Orford, Oregon, a few years back.

As I walked in the edge of the ocean, the ocean began to extend itself out to the horizon. I know, I know, you will say that it already did. That’s what oceans do. But the ocean unfolded itself, rolled itself back as I watched. The undulation of the surf was exactly the necessary disruption of the view. The motion was not, as surf had always seemed before, an unending series of discreet waves crashing offshore a few yards and the foamy edges washing up around my ankles. The ocean was all one. . .

Something about the ocean that day, something about the box work formations of Wind Cave in South Dakota, something about the service for Maundy Thursday at St. Michael (at any church that “performs” that liturgy with a certain “style”) is a “thin place” for me.

A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold (the “ahaah of The Divine”)….all around us and in us (Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2004). I didn’t discover Borg’s language on my own. My friend Lee suggested I read Borg.

I’m not certain, but I think what I struggle with is the thin places. Daily.

The thinnest place for me

The thinnest place for me

There is in me something mysterious that nothing is able to grasp.

I don’t know about God. I don’t accept the theological/religious language I will hear tonight and on Sunday. But I know the space between me and that something mysterious will be very, very thin—as it has been on the beach in Oregon and deep under ground in South Dakota. And the space is thinnest when I love. Someone. Anyone, I think.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider,” by Walt Whitman
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.