The birthday essay – a prelude to a poem

Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the best theologians in the English-speaking world, is responsible for one of the books to which I periodically return. A Ray of Darkness (Cowley/Rowman & Littlefield, 1996) is his collection of sermons and addresses earlier published in the UK as Open to Judgment. It dates back to his days as an academic and subsequently as Bishop of Monmouth in Wales. Williams writes and preaches with a lucidity that is not quite visible in his more academic writing (which indeed I have had a chance to read) but with a nuance and depth that I find lacking in some circles of Christendom. His thoughts on topics ranging from sexuality (a condensed and readable version of his famous essay “The Body’s Grace”) to vocation are in some places very much of its time, but there is much that still resonates with a context and time different from where they were first delivered.

I have had occasion to quote from his work before on Facebook statuses and notes, and my favorite quote from Ray of Darkness is from his All Saints sermon on the Abbe Huvelin. May I perhaps begin with that quote:

“That is sanctity: the wholeness of giving the gift of all your self, while not waiting till that self is fine and moral and healthy and balanced enough to expose. And if there is healing or growth toward integration, perhaps it can only come in the giving.” (p. 184, emphasis his)

It is a lesson that I have not perhaps taken to heart in the past few years. To suggest that I risk when everything is fine and dandy is maybe the way I have been proceeding. It may account for a lot of things that have happened, and looking forward I suppose this is perhaps why I wrote this, many years ago:

The risk of giving one’s self, incomplete as it is, flawed as it is, or dare I say sinful, is a risk all of us might have to take. If it means, to take one of the shallowest examples I can think of at the moment, having to speak to someone whom you are shy about speaking with, then so be it. If it means having to entrust yourself to a calling whose uncertainty outweighs anything you are sure about, let it be so. On a weightier point, if it means having to go in the place of a man with a family, it can be done.

And a risk just as great is to accept the gift of another’s self. We open ourselves, our fragility, to others like us. We will have to live with whatever happens when the risk is taken.” (an unpublished essay, Easter 2009)

Of course, I had to exaggerate at some point. I would definitely not say that risking something—and here, I clearly had in mind the risks we make in committing ourselves or attempting to commit ourselves—was in itself sinful. It is dangerous, yes. It is the same kind of danger that perhaps awaits the neophyte who attempts to ride the waves. But the point remains. I choose to commit. I receive the commitment of the other. It is a risk. And I am fragile enough to know that I am, or will be, often doing this knowing that there will be consequences and often devastating ones.

I often fail to see this, or if I do, I become fearful of the consequences. Thus it was that today, as I wrap up year thirty, I find the words I wrote one fine spring morning in Cambridge even more meaningful. I continue to find healing every time I take a risk. That is what I sense is the theme of my last thirty years. Sometimes, because I am afraid, I find that the disease becomes worse.

The occasion for this confessional tone has to do with what I am about to post. This is one of three poems that I wrote as a result of a memorable recent trip to Vigan. The first of these poems, which I am sending the honoree next week, is a poem about remembering someone on the way, but I will put it on record that we will remain friends. The second will be posted next week because I have to advise the person to whom it is dedicated about it too. It is about her family’s ancestral home in Vigan, now a bed and breakfast I would really like to visit again.

The third poem, which I am posting today, is based on a biblical event which is the feast of title of Vigan’s Cathedral Church. Those who know me well enough know that I am also named Paolo, for St Paul the Apostle. For those who need background, the incident is Paul’s conversion, found in the Acts of the Apostles. I am imagining Paul saying this years after the fact. And this is my way of renewing the commitment to take a risk, even if it is a risk made by a man not yet whole.

Plaza Salcedo, in front of the Cathedral of Vigan, taken from a gate of the Arzobispado

  1. Conversatio (1)

I once could see—now I was made blind

maybe because the vision

overwhelmed what I imagined a rabble-rouser could be.

Maybe because that vision was not

what I imagined a Messiah to be. Or more than that.

Or maybe because I turned away from that vision

because it merely overwhelmed me.

So it was that I turned to another path.

It was on that day I turned that I learned

the wisdom of the wise

was not worth my very desire.

It was on that day I turned that I found myself

seeing all that is and the vision right at the heart of it.

It was then that I saw that there was more to life

than seeking fame or fortune

but rather to be poured out like sand

just as the vision was, and much more.

It was then that nothing meant more

than to see that vision, like that man whose stoning I watched

and whose murderers’ cloaks I guarded,

at the heart of all that is.

But most of all, it was then that I began to see

when I saw that vision

not only in glory or in triumph

but in the pain of the people

who fought and fought about who was better or worse among them.

I saw that vision in the broken body

and the broken bread.

Maybe that is why I had to have my vision fractured.

The broken path is the path I must take

not a big deal

not a one-shot

but a lifetime working on turning around

on living with thorns in fleshes

and with broken souls–

most of all myself and myself first of all.

And only then when time comes will

all be made whole.

And with that, I begin year 31. Am looking forward to it!

19 May 2011

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One thought on “The birthday essay – a prelude to a poem

  1. Pingback: “…the helpless, the lonely, and the unloved…” | Thinking and Doing

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