Under the cross I knew your providence

Six years, my God, almost to the day
since you pulled me from the world and to yourself.
Two and a half since that hot afternoon
I first drove my pastoral sedan—
firstborn-brother, first of many, wincing
at my every sudden stop and wobbly turn—
one hundred fifty miles from our birth-town
to the Tabor that seemed to me paradise!,
though not at first. But I could not confess then
to you and those who came to see me off
how, after the good-byes and introductions
and desultory day gave way to lonely night,
I sat again in silence at the helm
of my own car (thanked God that I had brought it)
and drove, until I got my bearings back.

That moonless night I knew not where I was going,
nor hardly where I was, in the dim squint
of headlights and the litany of names
that were then strangers, now old friends:
Marquam, Monitor, Silverton Road, and all the rest.
And in the silent downpour which obscured
even more my sight, the windshield-wipers
were no help at all—but in the end
I found my way back to a little store
where I bought hot chocolate and detergent,
and went home by the Way of the Cross.
How many times, those first months, I returned
to the driver’s seat!—to drive, or to sit
at the crossroads of my will and of thine.
No wonder, then, as I stood folding sheets
in the cold and utter solitude
of a little monastic linen-room
and saw the palm-trees of my Babylon
shudder beyond the window in the wind,
I gazed a long time down the winding hill-road—
so unlike another I once knew—
and my heart stirred for a car of my own
to drive me an infinity of miles
back to the damp green homeland of my heart!

“Do you know what time is?” scoffed my brother
in a way that couldn’t help but make me laugh.
Maybe six years sometimes feels like sixty
because everyone else thinks a decade
is what I think a year is—or a month,
a moment.
Have I been here a month now?
It might as easily be years or days
since I descended for the first time
the mountain where I knew you, O my God:
Engelberg’s daughter, and equally
Mount Tabor and Calvary to me!
White shirt and black suit stuck to me with sweat
that first day I arrived. I did not care.
It was what a seminarian wore,
and so I wore, with pride—til a brother
told me I needn’t wear it all the time.
When, January, monastery-bound,
I came to San Jose, I wore a sweatshirt,
not a sweaty suit and tie. And so it goes.
The life of grace is light that clarifies,
the flame of love a fire that refines.

How many brothers have I gained, O Lord,
and lost since then?—How many loves like sparks
flashed bright before my eyes and disappeared?
(Or burned too close, did they?—so that I blinked
and they were gone.) How many, many times
have I flung, not to the heart of the Host,
my heart, but down to another garden:
to bury my beating in the safer-
seeming soil of a familiar land.
Every “yes” came with a “but” or an “if,”
although I knew it not—I thought I gave
myself unreservedly, all at once,
when under the cross I knew your providence,
or if not then, when before your glory
I begged to love as freely as you love:
a prayer which you’ve been granting ever since.
It is no exile now nor accident
that you transplant me from my shallow soil
I loved as if it were th’ Elysian fields
to the vineyard you chose for me alone!
No wonder—it must hurt as tender roots,
plucked from one place, begin to root again.

I know myself only by reflection.
In one I recognize me as I was:
new convert, overzealous, touched by Love,
but still too full of self to love in truth.
Only six years—what miracle of grace!
Six years yet, and how far I have to go.
Once in impetuous youth, I denied
I was the same at twelve as I had been
at two: same-named, but a different person.
So I claimed.
Now I will have a new name,
“put on the new man,” yet I am the same:
the son beloved, the broken heart reclaimed,
the little one embraced and lifted high
from valley to mountain and open sky,
who loved you in the night when he was lost,
who searched for you in every heart he knew,
and found you more and more—now to find you
in spirit and in truth have you brought me
to be crucified, and to die and rise.

Colloquy on a Hawk

A hawk has—I am told—six feet of wings.
From tip to tip they span the length of me,
this emperor of the air, surveying from his tower
(made by men of steel and iron)
glittering temples, ziggurats of commerce,
busy insignificance!
A lone figure among saplings,
solitary tree on a bare hilltop—
blacktop, black dog, four men walking—
A rooster. A monastery.
What is it to see and not to know?
Your wings with wind’s-rush rustle
like silk, no effort, only ease,
circling on currents you know not whither:
and neither do you know their Maker,
do you, brother of the skies?
Let me tell you. I know him
like I know “I”—darkly, in a mirror.
As I know I, so I know Him: in you, in all of this,
O brother in this holy family
called Being—or better yet, called Good!

Math for Theology Majors

An equation:
“x” is a gift.
(Substitute, for x, a
heartbeat, a hug at the doorway,
a measure of silence after a song.)

Now the value of is y,
that is, the love of the giver.

And if by we mean
a chill wind, or a sudden steady rain
which dampens my dutiful prayers,
a moment repeated
out of distracted disinterest,
a sentence we can find no sense in,
a cup of coffee, sweeter than honey but lacking all joy—

Or if we mean (and surely this will break the thing)
that frantic lacking which howls at the heart of us,
that indiscriminate fierce appetite
we have no name for, but which grabs
at this, and three of that!, and which grasps,
seizes hold, just for the sake of holding!
just to be full for a pitiful moment,
then to droop, defeated, back to the dust
and the ooze of us
in that hungry hollow
which Nothing can ever fill—

If by we mean all that?
(What then?)

—But is a constant, little one.
And x is anything, any thing
at all.

(—Even the hollow in me?)

Even the wound, the sin.

A paradox: every second is fleeting.

(But dad, where do they go?)

No-where. Every second is sealed,
like a time capsule,
with the seal of eternity:
every “yes” a yes forever,
and every “no”.

2 hours can be a retreat—even 2 minutes.
In a pinch, 2 seconds will do.
Let be one second, or less than a second:
a moment, a breath.

Now the value of is y,
that is, the love of the giver.
Andis anything, any thing
at all. Thus

x is every thing, and y infinity,
and this second—and every second—
sealed with eternity
ascends to God.

A conclusion: let x be love.
Let y be love.
Let me be love.

Be Love in me.

A Fault, A Furrow

Omnis vallis exaltabitur, et omnis mons et collis humiliabitur, et erunt prava in directa, et aspera in vias planas: et revelabitur gloria Domini, et videbit omnis caro pariter quod os Domini locutum est.” (Isaiah 40:4)

A fault is a lacking, a failing,
a … “me falta, yo me falta,
un yo no sé qué.”

A furrow runs pathside while the
path, over rock and over root,
leaps up to the heights.

What does it mean: to stand on solid ground?
Feet flying, left, then right—an avalanche
of man through the leaves.

In the beginning, we were unveiled
and unashamed. (Now leaves untreed
hide your work from sight.)

And the chaos of leaf-falling, wind-
lashing rain conceals the clash in me!—
“being” and … “not yet.”

Fault lines, lines of lacking, where I meet you,
like the lines of war where earth meets earth,
deep down this wooded ground.

Why the mountains? why the valleys?
Why the faults? and why the violent crash?
Does it please you, Jesus?—

All the earth with saint-impatience striving
till every valley be exalted
and You come at last!—

Kenosis

Imagine, if you will,
two candles. Both are burning
at the feet of a beautiful lady,
mantled in white, robed in robins’-blue—
not unlike these little flames,
blue at the base, and white, for the pure Virgin,
trimmed all in gold for the King.

Now look: these kenotic lights,
burning up to heaven in self sacrifice:
one shines steadily, a ready lamp
pointing straight a way to one
who leads us always to her Son.
It is like a star in the vastness of the night,
pinprick-light of unabashèd constancy.

The other sputters, twists and turns
in the grip of some imperceptible wind,
whipped here, then there—affected, it seems,
by every warp and weft
of everyday circumstance—
streaming for a moment in nigh cardinalatial splendor,
then reduced to an ember, a speck.

Yet never does it quite go out.
(It may be that a hand cups the wavering flame,
a breath inspires it to burn a little longer.)
Is this latter light the more to be pitied
for the special attention paid to its inconstancy?—
or the more to be praised for its wild beauty?
Is it the weaker light?—or merely takes itself lightly?

Now try and see with the eyes of the Lady,
a mother’s eyes gazing down on two sons
crowned in gold—a queen’s eyes
looking with approval on two gifts,
equal in dignity, burned up in her sight:
their sweet fragrance and the light they cast
rising to Heaven, commingling, to a greatness!—

Pronouncing, with the whole and holy Trinity,
‎את-האור כי-טוב — “It is good.”

The State of a Soul in Sin

A house looks fine from the other side of the street.
Maybe a little paint peeling round the window panes.
On the sunlit side of curtains drawn
you cannot see the squalor:
rooms in disarray, doors left ajar
by robbers come and gone,
black mold advancing up the baseboards,
dim, damp air heavy with remorse.

Nobody looks at the skirt of a cassock.
Elderly wax-stains, and worse, kiss holy ground.
The towel for the priest’s ablutions
is used for a week, then discarded
into the purgatory of a spin cycle on high.

Peace is a precious and a passing thing,
like cleanness, or a well-ordered home,
and she is stalked by one who hates,
who slips in by an unlocked door
to rage, rampage, overturn the furniture—
more than just a violent and unwanted rearrangement,
a reminder:
one is never quite secure.

But the worst is not the robbery.
The worst is the aftermath, days or hours
spent keeping up appearances: every door and window
shut tight against the sun,
the air inside dull, languid,
lifeless: spark stolen,
leaving nothing now but a slow
and irreversible
decay.

Sometimes I pray for Him to be gentle with me.
More often I say: crash into me and break me!
In your mercy wound me!—burn me up in love!
After all, what housekeeper is gentle with ceiling rot?
What sacristan with stubborn stains?
Water alone is not enough to cleanse the sins in me!—
No, not water only, but water, and fire, and blood!—

Yet He is gentle.
The robber darkens every doorstep,
prowls under every window,
waiting for the least opening
to rape and ravage and devour—
But the shepherd, ah! He calls,
stands at the door and knocks
as long as it takes (He knows I am ashamed)
until at last I timidly let Him in.
And He sets about at once
opening the curtains, letting in the light,
setting the furniture right,
and chopping vegetables, I imagine, for stew:
a hearty meal to share, with a hearty hug
and a tender look of love.

Monday of Holy Week

Time, seasoned with love, melts away
the circling days
in one standing now:

“Anima Christi,” I write in a notebook
on a secret page near the heart,
“sanctifica me,” I pray—without knowing
in the least what I have asked.

We hold burning candles. A white-robed friar prays.
Flickering light from the living flames
and headlights passing by.

One night, you are dying.
We gather at the teen center to pray.
I say, “it’s the sorrowful mysteries on Tuesdays.”
—”Well, it’s the glorious today.”

Another time, a hill.
It must have been 3 a.m.
We were all cold faces and dizzy with laughing.
There were castles on the mountains and the sky
was mostly stars.

Another time: a chair.
Empty, except for me.
It was a holy hour even though I was alone.
And when I ran out of praying I said
“you are my father, now.”

Living moments, eternal thrumming
throbbing moments!
Did we know the love coursing through them
when we lived them the first time?

Now I know. Like I know this carpet.
I lie too close to make out the pattern
but I can see the knots in it and smell it
and know that I am lying where you stood
and where my brothers have walked and lain,
‘hurled down from a horror of height
to the heart of the Host’—as someone said,
someone who knew you, as I do:
father to me, and brother, beloved,
my first, fast, last friend.


This is day 41 of LABIA MUNDA, a series of forty poems during the forty days of Lent. 

Passion Sunday

“How am I to know that you are with me?”
You will know me like you know day from night.
“When it’s cloudy, I do not feel the sun’s warmth—”
Yet still you see all things by its light.


This is day 40 of LABIA MUNDA, a series of forty poems during the forty days of Lent. 

St. Joseph

It is a miracle to be a man and stand
with one foot on earth, another in heaven,
as you do, when you join your hands
and pronounce the words that rend the veil.

A soul is not a small thing.
It is more real than the universe
and you hold it in your hands.

When the finite meets the infinite we expect
the world to burst, like a balloon filled too full.

What we get instead is a morsel of bread
lifted high above that stone
where Love bled and died.


This is day 39 of LABIA MUNDA, a series of forty poems during the forty days of Lent. 

St. Cyril of Jerusalem

Every day is a polyphony, a song for many voices,
and though I do not always sing my part
I cannot help but notice
grace notes in the score: a little
ornamentation, a bléssed
anticipation
of something yet to come

as when a brother asks at midnight
me to take him to Portland at noon:
a trill—a rest—I say: ‘yes.’
Grace comes pouring in.

“In vain is your earlier rising.”
Very well—so I sleep in.
And “what is the point of your praying?”
he asked me once over lunch—
a lunch, it must be said, that came premade,
unasked-for (at least by me),
sheer brute white bread being, apples
utterly immutable in their crisp cold haeccitas.

I pass the question on over another lunch
which, it must be said, breaks the Friday fast—
though this fact goes unremembered, like so many of its kind
(“uncomfortable truths” maybe, or
“inconvenient laws”)—and once asked
like a rock thrown in a pool
it dredges up an answer from the depths,
familiar because it rose to my lips too:

First that we pray because he loves us
to pray, like the bridegroom loves his bride
to play—the violin, perhaps, and so she plays
haunting sonatas, repeating certain phrases
he loves, and so she loves to return to,

Second that we pray, not to get or to gain
(whatever we may think)—but to become,
to enter into the dialogue or the symphony of love
and to be overcome! like the ocean overcomes
a sandcastle moat in the sand.

And by our endless asking
and our craving and pursuit
and our impatience and intemperance—
we do not notice—grace bears fruit
in us, shapes us, makes us new.

It is a channel, even if it is narrow,
even if it is dry and drowned in leaves.
Its name is “open.”
Its name is “yes.”

And so we pray:
the Angelus at 2:00, morning prayer at noon,
the Office of Readings in a sunlit sanctuary
where in a distant corner wizened women kneel before you
chanting softly in a very foreign tongue,

tiny prayers, beautiful blackbird-heartbeat phrases,
grace notes in traffic or in elevators
or whenever my eyes meet yours
in some unfamiliar face,

long prayers, hopeful prayers,
talking to you where others can listen,
you who speak when I forget my part
(she who responds with a “yes” or a “Jesus”
whispered with a mothering love),

simple prayers, Spirit prayers:
clarity, courage, comfort,
Lord show her she is beautiful
and beloved in your heart!—

silent prayers. Prayers like the ringing of the silence
after the bells. Silence speaking, saying
“friend, carry me to them.” And so I go
unto the altar of you who give joy to my youth.

How can one day or one song or one lifetime
or one still and silent moment
be so filled to overflowing?

A paradox—like chance is a paradox—
overflows when it is called providence.


This is day 38 of LABIA MUNDA, a series of forty poems during the forty days of Lent.