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eucharist

Augustine never says an angel spoke to him. Rather it is a child nearby:

I heard a voice from a neighboring house. It seemed as if some boy or girl, I knew not which, was repeating in a kind of chant the words: “Take and read, take and read.” Immediately with changed countenance (note the physical “converts” first. He is in the midst of violent weeping when he hears the voice). I began to think intently whether there was any kind of game in which children sang those words; but I could not recollect that I had ever heard them. I stemmed the rush of tears, and rose to my feet; for I could not think but that it was a divine command to open the Bible, and read the first passage I lighted upon.

In terms of revelation, this most well-reasoned church father, this prince of rhetoricians, this ghost that haunts the whole of Derrida is left weeping violently under a fig tree and allowing the chanting voice of some gender undetermined child to determine the course for the rest of his life. So…is this Magic 8-Ball thinking? Well, to a certain extent, sure, but there is a precedent for such epiphany. For example, Elijah in the cave when he is literally at the end of his tether and does not find God in the mighty roar but in the whispering breeze. There are also the words: “A child shall lead them.” Augustine, being a good persuader, even comes up with a recent precedent for such conversion by words in a moment of transit. He cites St. Anthony (the desert father) who converts upon happening to enter a church where these words from the gospel are being read: “Go, sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.”

For Augustine, words are the most malleable and porous of substances. As a master of rhetoric, he knows how they can be bent, distorted, used to flatter, to convince, how empty they are, and yet he is a man of words, and it is by the event of the right words at the right time that he converts. It is written: conversion comes from hearing the word of God.

I think this could be changed to “overhearing” the word of God for, to a certain extent, the will of God in any conversion narrative works like the Eucharist: the actual presence of divine intention under the signs of chance–always the signs of chance. I know someone who converted because, while he was changing a car tire a pouring rain, he cursed: “jesus Christ!” And immediately, for no reason at all, felt a sudden sense of Christ’s presence. He said: “I’d been cursing like that for years, and I was not intending to do anything but take his name in vain, but, for no reason I can think of, my curse was a prayer and he answered it in the middle of the highway. I went to church for the first time that Sunday, and I haven’t missed since.”

Augustine longs for conversion, but his longing must take the form of chance, of the ordinary substance of chance under which hides the extraordinary presence of grace. When the moment of conversion comes, Augustine is not a master rhetorician, not a doctor of the church, not the first creative non-fiction writer: rather, he is a desperate screw up under a fig tree begging God not to delay his conversion any longer. He is in the place of terminus, at the threshold and end of his own effort where grace may act: and grace acts with the same substance that Augustine had used to gain favor with emperors, to seduce women, to lie and outsmart opponents: with words, and not with eloquent words, but with a repetitive, jump rope song: “take and read, take and read.” So under the signs of a child’s repetitive phrase, God’s grace comes to give Augustine the peace nothing in the world can give–the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Still Augustine is not merely passive. He must “hear” these words as the words of God and this is an imagination, a necessary leap into the absurd (some child is speaking for God) that most modern people, even religious folks would caution against. They’d say: “perhaps, but be careful>” They’d say: “faith is not a moment of overwrought emotion.” They’d say a lot of intelligent, well reasoned cautionary stuff, at which time, they’d be unconsciously, doing the work of Satan–for it is hard to see God in a world that no longer believes in Eucharistic reality–that reality of God’s actual presence hidden under the signs of the world–and not only the world, but the most inconsequential and dubious signs of the world–that all of existence might be fired in the kiln of God presence, and yet God is looked for in everything but the voice of some random and genderless child. Our ears, unlike a dog’s, are never at attention. God is always passing, but we hear the sounds of our day and nothing more.

Since I was old enough to remember, I was fascinated by the voice of a child that I always seemed to hear above the din of other children playing blocks away. As a kid, I made up stories that this voice was that of a child who had died a long time ago of some long illness that would not allow him/her to play. After the child died, God allowed the voice of the child to be heard on the street. The child was free to play. If you listened really hard to any group of children playing you could hear this voice.

Often I hear the voice of children playing in the distance.
There is always one voice louder, shriller than the rest.
It cuts through my life and makes its dark incision.
It is the thumb of Father Riordan, pressing home the word.

In this poem, children go to Father Riordan because he thumbs the ashes deep into their foreheads, and they like it. It’s a game: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The narrator of the poem, a nun, remembers her childhood. Father Riordan is long dead. She hears this shrill voice of a ghost child as if it were the thumb of sacramental grace–the sign of her own mortality and God’s presence in the world. This is the child she did not have because she has wed her self to Christ. It is her moment for God to speak to her as her lost child–and to remind her she is dust and shall return to dust, but the voice of the child is eternal.

To read Augustine is to be reminded that humility and majesty are not separate occasions. In lowliness, a person weeps and falls down on the body of Christ and is raised above the angels. This conversion narrative is, like all conversion narratives, both a transcendence upwards and downwards: words become the word, and the word comes to live under the signs of words–the mundane, the overheard, the ambush of a single phrase when our hearts are broken, our ears are desperately alive, and we are ready to hear.

Photo by Marco Muñoz.

I often call myself a Catholic poet. I was raised Irish Catholic working class in a mixed neighborhood where almost everybody was Catholic, including the African American families who came from the Bayou. Henry Rountree was Catholic. The Sampsons were Catholic. I didn’t know anything else except for Jewish people who I liked because, like us, they walked to church. A child gets some strange notions–at least I had some strange notions. I thought the best job you could have was as a garbage man because it gave you muscles and you could sing and throw cans around while you followed a truck. As a little kid I would follow the garbage men and sing with them. They tolerated me. Occasionally, they even let me “help” them throw a can or two into the maw of the truck.

There was still a rag man in those days, a grumpy old guy in a horse drawn buggy who would come down the street crying: “Rags! Rags!” His horse would shit all the way down the street, and the garbage men had their own way of saying “Shit” which I emulated. At six o’clock at night the Angelus bells would ring from all the churches of Elizabeth. I would stop whatever I was doing and listen. Sometimes the bells would ring through my belly. Sometimes, the moon was caught in the branches of the silver maple outside our house. The first star rose. In winter, the starlings would make little fart noises and wolf whistles as they perched in the trees and on the telephone wires. Somehow this all seemed tied to God for me, and I would get strange feelings of ecstasy–as if I were at the center of something swirling around and around in the eye of God. I would spin until I was too dizzy to keep standing–fall under the trees under the telephone wires, under the starlings with their fart noises, my eyes on the moon and my belly full of bells.

Years later, when I read William Carlos Willliams’ “The Catholic Bells” I was impressed that this far from Catholic man had it down pat–the essential brokenness of the world which was holy–not the pontificating, perfect, morality of doctrine, but the holiness of the imperfect yet ever swirling consciousness of God in the parrot jealous of the new baby, and the young lame man going to mass, and the bells calling forth the whole life of the city. This was the risen Lord, and every day in this context was the rising from the dead. But it was not victory, anymore than it was defeat. It was something beyond those two whores–something that cheated them both–a life that could not pinned down to the tawdry forms of the conditional. I never laughed at old ladies who kept funeral cards in their pocket books. I never laughed at their statues of the Virgin or thought them close minded or naive, though they were often close minded and naive. They were many other things. They raised me. They gave me gum. They called out my name in the streets at dusk. They had suffered all sorts of losses they seldom mentioned. Their hands were always doing. When I received the Eucharist I thought of them–all who did not count in the so called “important” scheme of things. I never liked priests. I was not raised to worship priests. I respected them, but kept my distance. Priests were like those rare and odd great aunts who came into your life once in a blue moon and, if you were nice, they gave you a piece of hard candy.

My Catholicism did not center around priesthood. My faith centered around a very pagan concept of seasons and liturgical movements around the year. During Lent, the statues were covered in purple. I wanted the priests to mark me deep with the sign of my mortality–the ashes. I liked Father Furlong because he’d press the ashes deep into your skull. He never let you go out of the Ash Wednesday service without looking like you’d been working in the coal mines. I liked the High Masses because I was vain and had a beautiful boy’s soprano and I sounded wonderful when I’d sing: “Sprinkle me, Oh Lord with your sign, wash me and I shall be purer than snow.”

Catholic to me did not mean priests: it meant the old ladies who went to six o’clock mass every morning to pray for their dead. It meant my brain damaged brother Peter who I was taught was not culpable for any sin and was therefore a saint. I was taught that my brother’s broken body, his paralyzed body, his inability to speak, his brain damage was a sign of holiness. I was taught to value what the world believes is worthless. I still believe that–and not out of any sentimental distance from the broken. I have experienced the kind of poverty and failure many Americans never face. I do not like failure or sadness or suffering. I do my best not to contribute to them, but I also do not feel an aversion to these blights because something in my soul, something in the deepest part of my being is awakened to these things as signs, as more than what the world would call social ills or tragedies, or failures. To me the only true failure, and it is an aesthetic failure more than a moral failure, is to be blind to the beauty that lies embedded in the ferocity, and merciless vitality of life itself–the risen Lord in the daily and lowly and broken sprawl of things.

I am a Catholic poet because I embrace this world of the broken as a series of signs. These signs deconstruct what the world calls “happiness” or the good life. These signs are the folly of joy, a far greater aesthetic–one which will always outlast our utopias and conditional forms of perfection. I believe in Eucharistic reality–in the bread that is broken and from which grace is made possible.

This aesthetic of the Eucharist informs most of my poems. It makes me out of step with much contemporary writing. I use the tropes of post modernism, and even surrealism and dada when I feel I need them for spice, but I see them as being dangerously close to the heartlessness of rich Republicans. From the standpoint of my upbringing, a conservative Republican and new lifestyle leftist looks pretty much about the same. Neither gets the old ladies at six o’clock mass. Neither understands the baffling endurance of the poor. Neither understands the lowliness of things that go beyond the conditions of failure and success. The Republicans manipulate these old ladies (and very nicely) to bad ends, and the Blue State opposition disdains them, and to me, the grandmother–the old lady is the chief sign of God on earth, and I think this is true for millions of poor people. And it is exactly this lowliness which is being forgotten, and to forget this is to become a sociopath, a bum, a person not fit to live. It was the women to which Christ addressed his most human message against how we judge, and it was to these women he first appeared upon rising, and who washed his body when he was taken down from the cross. It was to the lowly and forgotten that my Lord appeared. Their mercy and love in a world without much mercy and even less love is what makes me still go to mass long after there is anyone left alive from my family who would chide me for staying home. We have forgotten the broken of this world–not so much as sociological excuses for charity, but as real signs of God–as the miracle of love for the enemy. Our nation will be destroyed because we have turned away from the truly risen and glorified body of Christ: not one of his wounds is removed. In that risen body, each nail hole, and the crown of thorns, and the spear thrust into the side is still evident–because my Lord Jesus is to be touched, is fully human, does not turn away from the broken, and does not buy into the shame and disgust we too often feel for them.

Life is not to be “solved.” It is not a problem or a solution. It invites us to spin under the trees until we cannot stand. It sings with the garbage men. It cries rags in the streets. It can teach a stupid little boy that his brain damaged brother is a saint before the throne of God. It can hope in the foolishness of the Gospel. It does not arrest homeless women who want their children to attend a better school. It does not build walls at its borders to keep out the “illegal” poor. It does not waste its intelligence on a vapid cult of celebrity. The Lord I know is risen from the tomb and is spinning under the starlings. I believe in him. I have no other God.

I was 14 years old when I read this poem. I found it in an anthology called New Poets of 1965, which I kept until it fell apart and no longer have a copy of. I did not know Robert Kelly’s work then. I did not know he was part of the first wave of deep imagists. I felt the twang of common ground in the somewhat Catholic imagery, and in my awakening sense of how Eucharistic reality might fit with my growing awareness of desire, my sexual desire. The poem made my horniness mystical, and my sense of the mystical twain with my passion–in all senses of the word passion.

I think what I like best about it is its ceremony, an almost liturgical feeling that moves as all good lyrical poetry moves on the precipice of the silly, the precious, and the absurd. I wore this poem out and memorized it, along with the Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets in the anthology, Kathleen Frazier’s poem in which she accepts her legs, and Gilford’s poem “The Abnormal is Not Courage.” 38 years later, and I still enjoy this poem, though now it does not come to me as a revelation, but as a memory of a voice I found true.

Poem for Easter

All women are beautiful as they rise
exultant from the ruins they make of us. . .
and this woman
who lies back
informing the sheets
has slain me with all day love
and now keeps vigil at the tomb of my desire
from which also she will make me rise
and come before her into Galilee
Rising I fall
and what does her beauty matter
except it is a darkness, sabbath,
where the church
our bodies
everywhere comes together
to kindle one small light
the unyielding, the flesh,
then Resurrection
The radio messiah
I know that my redeemer liveth
and he shall stand in the last days
up from this earth
beyond blasphemy
beyond misunderstanding.
Oh love, this hour will not let me name
They will say I make a sexual mystery of your passion
whereas we know, flesh rises
to apprehend one other mystery,
as the astonished lover’s eyes come open in his coming
to find that he is not alone.