This essay is the third of three talks I recently gave to retreat groups. You’ll find the first and second as posts in the last two weeks.
Last fall the maples were late again in catching fire. By the time they lit, the black walnuts, always the first to go anyway, had dropped their leaves. I’d resigned myself to a brown fall by the time the yellow finally began to rise in the trees across around the Guesthouse. A few years ago, everyone would have said it was because it was too wet, or too cool, or whatever they seem to think the least optimal conditions for color in maples. But this year was not the first year the maples were tardy. In fact, they’ve been getting later and later, duller and duller my whole monastic life. So this year, rather than debating the merits of cool or hot, wet or dry, we all nodded knowingly, nearly resigned.
Of course the maples were shy. Who wouldn’t be after two years of pandemic, the fierce rise of nationalism, the deepening of systemic racism and white supremacy, and—underneath it all, so large we still, decades on, have few words for it—the collapse of the climate around us.
Here is a grief so deep that even those of us who want to be awake, who want to bear witness to the truth, find our throats too parched to cry out and our eyes too heavy to hold open. It is so much easier to go back to sleep.
While all this information was settling in, while I was pushing the despair that threatened to the edges of consciousness, a friend sent me a poem from Edward Harkness. It begins “There’s no word for it so far, the word / for what it means to be in love with you / in our sinking world.” (“Union Creek in Winter”)
All the while the days were getting darker, both literally and figuratively. And I found myself asking, with Rebecca Solnit, “What does it mean to hope as the darkness gathers around us?” I don’t just mean the darkness of all the forces of evil in the world, though, yes, that darkness, too. But the darkness of denial, the darkness of hurtling toward the edge of our existence as a species, the darkness of annihilation and the sweet anesthetic of forgetfulness that even the most awakened of us seem to drink in like mist on a foggy morning.
None of these forces is new, none suddenly or inexplicably upon us. All have a history and a reality that precedes this one. Rather, it is we, or some of us, that are changing. Though I wish I could say I had awoken a long time ago, I am a part of this “we” that is waking now. Though it is truer to say that we are in a state of half-waking, as if drawn out of our dreams, shocked partially alert by the cold gust against our faces. But only partially, still struggling to hold onto the fantastical world of sleep, where all seemed not just fine but lovely. And all while others fight to wake from their nightmares, only to find those monsters haunting their waking lives.
We are living in a time of apocalypse, in the real meaning of the word. A time of unveiling and revelation, when the scrim that concealed reality is lifted, and we have the chance to see the world as it is really is. We have the chance, too, to see ourselves and one another as we really are. The vision is grimmer and more frightening than we had imagined. And there are only so many of us who want or choose to see. So many others who stubbornly close their eyes, as if reality will cease to be something unpleasant or challenging if only they squint hard enough. We are all afflicted, in Dickens’ haunting phrase, with the “leprosy of unreality.” (A Tale of Two Cities, ch. 7) The task, then, is to seek the Real (captial R).
Still, I return to the maples and their lateness, just one signpost of Reality, one more burning bush calling us back to the Truth. And the truth as ecologists tell us and as our own eyes confirm, is that we have to ask when, not if the last maple will drop its fiery leaf on this land that we love so much. What word is there for what it means to be in love with this shatteringly beautiful life as the world sinks around us?
The word is joy.
We often use joy as a synonym for happiness. But lightness of spirit, giddiness, being carefree—these are all too anemic to be called joy. Joy is something deeper, stronger, more profound. It is a gift of the Spirit, equal parts acceptance, hope, and love.
Christian Wiman points out that joy must contain sorrow. In fact, he calls sorrow “the seams of ore that burn darkly and beautifully in the midst of joy, and […] make joy the complete experience that it is.” (My Bright Abyss, p. 19) Joy is not a denial of reality, but an embracing of it, a drinking of reality to the dregs.
Joy understands the limitations of our knowledge and trusts that God is working out God’s purpose in the world and in our own hearts, whatever the outward appearance. Joy is a thing of the Cross as much as of the Resurrection.
I’m always surprised at quickly we move from the sadness and somberness of Good Friday into the celebration of Easter. That certainly doesn’t seem to have been the disciples’ experience, if we read the scriptures closely. They were afraid. They were perplexed. They were confused and astonished. So lost are they, that they often don’t recognize Jesus when he appears to them. Instead, their hearts burn strangely within them. We can only celebrate Easter morning because we know the end of the story, or we think we do.
More and more, though, the world seems like that first Easter morning. We have seen the crucifixion of our hopes and loves. We have even laid some of them to rest. And now we’ve come to visit them and found an empty cave and a pile of clothes. We know that something has happened, something immense, something shattering. But what?
I call to mind a section of Christine Lore Webber’s poem “Mother Wisdom Speaks”:
Some of you I will hollow out.
I will make you a cave.
I will carve you so deep the stars will shine in your darkness.
You will be a bowl.
You will be the cup in the rock collecting rain.
I will do this because the world needs the hollowness of you.
I will do this for the space that you will be.
I will do this because you must be large.
People will find their way through you.
Sometimes joy looks like being hollowed out like a cave. Sometimes joy looks like allowing the darkness to make its home in us, so that the lines between the light and the dark soften, and we come to know more clearly the unity of all things, to bear that unity in our bodies.
A few years ago, shortly after I was ordained a priest, I was sitting with a directee in my office at the Monastery. I don’t remember what he was saying, but I do remember the quiet presence that arose in me as I listened. We sat there, us three—my directee, me, and this presence that was other than us and yet not. I knew then that I loved this man in front of me, and that my love for him was not really my love at all. It was God’s love for him, moving through me. And also that God’s love for him was, at the same time, God’s love for me. I had, for that moment, without meaning to, become hollow and, through my hollowness become whole.
As with beauty, joy requires attention. Joy can only emerge from an acceptance of reality as it presents itself to us, for only then can we begin to see the wholeness of life rather than its fragmented parts. Only then can we begin to see as God sees. In that seeing, hope emerges.
Writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, reminds us that hope is always dark. And that that darkness is not only the darkness of the grave, but also of the womb. (Hope in the Dark, p. 5) For as one assumption or love or understanding dies, another emerges, crying and blind though it may be, into the light.
In the face of the AIDS genocide, as the American government colluded in the death of hundreds of thousands of queer people, poor people, and people of color, the queer community around the world loved one another into a unity we didn’t know before. This is not to say “thank God for AIDS,” but rather, thank God for the inexplicable threads that hold us to life even in the face of certain and inescapable death. Or perhaps hold us because of that death.
At the end of Angels in America, when Prior finally gets his audience with the befuddled angels trying to keep the universe together, he asks, not to be released from the struggle and the pain, but for more life. I do not know a truer prayer, nor a truer assertion of hope and joy.
When faced with the death of those great and fiery sentinels, the maples, I only want more. More fire, more beauty, more love, more life. That is the answer to Harkness’ observation that “there’s no word for […] what it means to be in love with you / in our sinking world.” Love is its own answer, as is hope, as is joy. Our joy arises not from optimism about the future nor from complacency about the present, but from the sure and certain knowledge that God continually brings forth new life from the grave. God’s answer is always more life.
Some of you will know that I am a gardener. If you didn’t know it, you know it now. Gardening is an act of tremendous hope. It is also the greatest act of resistance I know, the surest way to keep hope alive in the darkness of winter and of this moment in our collective history. More so than other plants, which usually come to the garden visibly alive, tulips shame me in my pessimism and draw me into childlike imagination. They look so dead, papery skin flaking off, not even good to roast and eat like a parsnip. You put them into their earthen bed, sprinkle a little desiccated bone and some rotted manure on top of them, and cover them over to pass the winter in what you know will be frozen ground. How could anything survive such conditions?
And then, when your heart hungers most for color and signs of new life, when the frozen months have passed, but you’re still mired in the mud of late March, really more winter than spring, the tiniest green fingers begin to push their way up. It is truly astounding. If you can keep the deer away from them, they just grow and grow and grow, all green, even in the flower, looking like waxy cabbages, until one morning, when you have almost despaired at getting any color out them, you make your rounds in the garden and there’s an edge of deepest purple or red or white lining the green flowers. And you know that, yes, this year, too, the tulips will paint the garden like some magical world. And you wonder how you could ever have despaired of their coming back, or of anything really. Faced with such beauty and such abundance, who could despair of anything at all?
No, the tulips haven’t changed the fact that the world, guided by enlightened humankind, is still careening toward the destruction of so much that we hold we dear. They haven’t assured their own survival, nor the maples, either. They haven’t ended white supremacy or the degradation of women and queer people. They haven’t fed the hungry or clothed the naked or freed the prisoners, at least none but the gardener. For they do feed our hunger for beauty and hope. And they clothe our naked souls with wonder. And they free us from the prison of small-minded despair that discounts the grace that flows in prodigal waves all the time. To quote Rebecca Solnit again: “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” (Hope in the Dark, p. 24) In fact, joy may be the one thing necessary. Because joy asserts that, whatever the outward signs, God is good, and that is everything.