Mass Grave

[In June, I started working part time at a Funeral Home. One of my tasks was to arrange all the cremated remains that have been left behind over time. It was baffling. Over 500 since the 1950s. I wrote this poem shortly after a long shift working in the Home.]

I’m standing in a mass grave.

Not one dug in the dubious cloak of night by the shovel of a tyrant.

A grave that is tucked away in the fluorescent catacombs of a funeral home.

I have been appointed to order these lonely parcels into chronological and alphabetical order—due diligence to finally put them into the ground en masse.

Shelf after shelf of neatly packaged cremated human remains—boxes just wide enough to grasp with one hand, but too heavy to carry for long.

I pick up one that feels empty and quickly realize that the box contains the remains of a baby.

There are many babies.

Weathered masking tape holds serial numbers that verify an identity, some with instructions—

Nephew will pick up. Brother in Germany. Hold for six months. Will pick up on April 11. Call family.

Most have names: Maude, Clive, Edna, Dorothy, Daisy, Stan, Bertha.

Some do not have names—Unidentified male, Vancouver. Unidentified Male, Burnaby. Unidentified Male, New Westminster.

This cubical congregation spans many decades—1955, 1958, 1972, 1978, 1986, 1998, 2004.

A weathered box from the 1970s leaks gritty ash from a corner,

It piles like an hour glass on an empty pine coffin I am using as a workstation.

Ash like any ash, dust like any dust;

And yet, attach a name and a big bang of images, ideas and personality expand outward like a tiny universe.https://39b423c66ac7a65eda56522bd404a654.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

I tape the box shut and put it in its new niche.

Silver fish swim among the disintegrating brown paper and masking taped cardboard coffins.

I scratch my arm and dead skin cells slough off, a slow cremation.

I breath in the trace dust of 500 lives lived and cough them out again.

I want to take them all home and adopt them as my own ancestors and friends.

Build them cathedrals and mausoleums.

Make biopics about their lives, extraordinary and ordinary alike.

Write biographies that will scandalize, or end up in free bins in the foyers of public libraries.

But my arms give out,

A fuse mysteriously blows,

I leave the boxes where they lay for another night alone together.

Easter Desert

The soft patter of cool drops,

Christen forehead, neck and hands.

The earthy incense of the desert’s thirsty breath

As He opens his sandy mouth to drink.

Processions of Palo Verde and Mesquite still clad in their golden Easter vestments

Shout Alleluia! from the valley’s hillsides

And throw their spent petals into the Pentecostal winds.

Even the cacti are clad in their Sunday best.

Like my own spiny succulent heart—

Prickly and defensive most of the time

With seasons of extravagant

Openness and beauty.

April 29, 2019

A Dying Grebe

At the bottom of a steep flight

Of stairs that lead into the ocean,

Between a sandy cliff and the lapping tide,

I caught a red eye among the logs and silent stones.

Silent until the tide teaches them to speak.

I walked to the end of a small jetty and

Looked back at the amphitheater of the eroding cliffs.

The eye belonged to a small bird we call Grebe

In drab plumage. He struggled out of the rising edge of the sea

He knows so well.

He stopped below a beached and weathered

Log and sat silently, awkwardly and alone

On the cobbled, clacking shore.

That incessant

syncopated

chatter

Between sea and stone.

Two of my kind walked past

Without even noticing

That he was there.

I moved closer,

An arm’s length away.

I looked into that fierce red eye

And watched as his back

Rose and fell

In short resigned breaths.

I noticed broken flesh below his wing

Though I was too timid to touch

Him, worried that my

Touch would only make things worse.

I sit and watch water that is

Endlessly rising and receding,

Chattering with rocks that do not care

If they live or die

Because they will always be

Alive in the tiny flecks of body

That make up plankton

And shell fish

And seals

And herring

And clams

And eagles

And grebes’ red eyes.

This grebe, on the edge

Of the ocean he knows so well,

An ocean that incessantly

Speaks with the rocks

Beneath his wounded wings,

Stares at the coming fog of that dark ocean

Death he may not fully grasp.

And I, I sit stone still at the edge of the world and just listen.

Redemption

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Redemption comes in tiny ripples, not crashing waves.

Redemption arrives quietly like swallows—one or two appear overnight and stay on for a time.

Redemption comes in an instant like the sparkle of grains of sand that catch the sun just right.

Redemption works on a person like the tides.

What begins as the sharp edges of broken glass-hearts, yield their violence to the slow washing over of the ever breathing sea.

Redemption comes like clouds of pollen from sturdy pines that somehow find the nakedness of fertile cones.

And, once acknowledged in the heart, redemption, ever present, becomes a ripened seed that plunges into the fecund darkness of earth with an unwavering hope that she too will become a towering tree.

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Two Walks

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On Sunday I took two walks. One before church and one after. The first took me through the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver’s urban core. I set up the vestments and chalices for the morning Mass. Then, I left the church and headed west along the boundary between Gastown and Chinatown. Gentrification has created a kind of checker board of social housing interspersed with hip up and coming vintage stores, pizza by the slice and dive bars. Buildings tower over head. The streets are still sparse in the early cool of Sunday morning. A man lies sleeping in a doorway. A woman j-walks slowly eyes fixed to the ground. Crows and pigeons forage and peck at the street.

As I round a corner, turning north and then east, the streets are even more sparse. Trinket and tourist shops are still closed. There are a few early risers with cameras. The uneven pavement rests, waiting for the city to wake. I try to make unthreatening eye contact. I try to pray for each person. I forget. My mind wanders and then I start up again.

I return to the church and attend Mass. It is solemn and beautiful. The familiar words, chants and choreography nourish me. I relish in the tiny morsel of bread and sour wine that dissolves into my mouth, dissolving me with it.

The second through a second growth douglas fir forest in North Vancouver. Its tall trees and clean air have become something of a sacred grove for me as I work through a dark period in my life. A period in my life that is rich with the productive pain of spiritual growth.  After coffee and a few greetings I drive to the Northshore and take a familiar trail down toward Lynn Creek. The trees tower over me. The sun peeks through in speckles and flecks from high above. The forest is still cool and still even though it is after noon. I ask the trees and salal to pray for me like they are saints. I pass couples and tourists, dog walkers and families. I try to make unthreatening eye contact. I try to pray for each person. I forget. My mind wanders and then I start up again. Crows and robins forage and peck at the ground. I approach the gurgle of Lynn Creek. I sit on a flat rock caressed on all sides by water. My mind drifts off into the soft sound and continuously flowing water. My two walks were really just one long walk.

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Why we Need the Cursing Psalms

DSC_0925.jpgToday in my morning prayers I read Psalms 58. If you are not familiar, Psalms 58 is one of the more vicious “Cursing” Psalms, wherein the poet-author begs God for vengeance on his enemies. Some exceptionally gruesome lines read:

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;

tear out the fangs of these lions, O Lord!

Let them vanish like water that runs away;

Let them wither like grass that is trodden underfoot.

Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,

like a woman’s miscarriage that never sees the sun.

This visceral desire for vengeance reminded me of the other infamous Psalm 137, which reads:

O daughter of Bablylon, destroyer,

blessed whoever repays you

the payment you paid us!

Blessed whoever grasps and shatters

your children on the rock!

Listening to mild mannered monks chant these lines is an interesting experience, but there is of course a theology behind it. The Psalms express and give voice to the entire range of human emotion, good and bad, and to chant the Psalms is to enter into those emotions on behalf of those who might be feeling them.

When I heard that a man known for past political activism killed two men on a train in Portland for confronting him over his harassment of two women, I felt angry. When I heard that Islamists had ambushed and killed over 20 Christians as they travelled to a monastery in Egypt, I was furious. When I heard about Manchester, Paris, Orlando, Charleston, the list goes on, I wanted justice. The cowardly acts of terrorists by these white supremacists and Islamist Extremists are cut from the same cloth.

In Psalm 137, the Psalmist is reeling from the recent leveling of Jerusalem by Babylonian forces. The carnage left the Jews feeling completely abandoned by God. And at times like this, with more and more senseless violence we can feel the same.

As a human being, my initial reaction is a desire for vengeance, justice and annihilation. But as someone who believes in the reality of the Christian story, I am also committed to reading the Psalms through the lens of Christ, who asks me to dash my vice, sin and hatred on the rock of his paschal mystery. The Psalms name the justifiable reaction, but Christ calls us to purify them, and to move toward a place of forgiveness, love and nonviolence.

Sacred Groves

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Prelude

Imagine the most common of trees, the Christmas (or Solstice) tree, decorated with globes, lights and a star on top. Allow that tree to grow in your mind so that it fills the sky.

The bright star at the very top of the tree merges with the North Star, Polaris.

Now imagine that the gold and silver globes become the sun, the phases of the moon, and the other planets moving through the sky, appearing to pivot around the North Star.

Imagine that the twinkling lights are billions and billions of stars.

The Christmas tree is a microcosm of the macrocosm.

The Norse pagans placed the ash tree at the center of their cosmology.

Its sprawling roots descended into the underworld; its trunk and branches passed through the mortal realm, ascending to heavenly.

The Maya imaged the cosmos as a great Ceiba tree, which also descended to the underworld and ascended through thirteen levels of heaven, each level with its own god.

The sun and moon made their way along the Ceiba’s trunk, and the spirits of the dead moved along its rough bark.

The naturalist and pantheist John Muir used to climb to the top of large pine trees during rain storms. About trees and the universe he mused:

We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and [humans]; but it never occurred to me until th[at] stormy day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much.

The Tree of Life

In the beginning, the tree of life emerged as a tiny seedling.

Soon, it branched out into everything we call living: microbes, fungi, plants, trees, animals.

The seeds of humans germinated in the trees.

Our mammalian and primate ancestors made their homes in their bows.

Eventually, our curiosity compelled us down from the safety of their branches and out onto the savanna.

Yet, the trees never left us;

They continued to provision us with gifts on our long walks.

They gave food, fodder, shelter, tools, medicine and stories.

They appeared in our dreams.

It was here, in a forest, that Zoroaster in Persia saw the Saena Tree in a vision emerging from the primeval sea, a tree from whose seeds all other plants would grow.

It was here that Yahweh, Semitic sky god, came to earth and planted a garden of trees, pleasing to the eye and good for food.

It was here that Inanna, Babylonian goddess of beauty and love, nourished the Huluppu tree on the banks of the Euphrates River.

It was here that Kaang, creator god of the Batswana Bushmen, created the first mighty tree and led the first animals and people out from the underworld through its roots and branches.

It was here that the sacred tree gave light to the Iroquois’s island in the sky—before the sun was made, before Sky Woman fell through a hole in the island in the sky, and before the earth was formed on the back of a great turtle.

It was here that the Mayan Tree of Life lifted the sky out from the primordial sea, surrounded by four more trees that hold the sky in place and mark the cardinal directions.

First Visions

It was here, in a forest, that the first whispers of the divine spoke to human consciousness.

It was here that Jacob wrestled with angels and beheld visions.

It was here that Hindu seekers learned the wisdom of gurus.

It was here, seated beneath the Bodhi tree, that Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha.

It was here that Moses fasted, prayed, and received God’s Law.

It was here that Muhammad sought refuge in mountain caves and spoke the words of the holy Koran.

It was here that Guru Nanak experienced the Oneness of God.

It was here that Nephi of the Book of Mormon communed with angels and beheld the glorious fruit of the Tree of Life.

First Temples

It was here, in a forest, that we built our first temples and worshipped God without priesthoods.

It was here that Asherah, Canaanite goddess of all living things, was worshipped.

It was here, as Sycamore fig, that Isis of Egypt was lavished praise.

It was here, in grove of sacred oak, that the Druids passed on their knowledge, and sacrificed human flesh to the gods.

It was also here, in the forest, that, after civilization blossomed, we looked for inspiration—

Temples of stone with their pillars, columns, and cathedral arches were all made to resemble the trunks of trees, carrying the eye upward to God.

And yet, it would seem that these temples of stone confined God to one place, one people, one faith.

Fall

It was here that we fell from grace.

It was here that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of a misunderstood tree.

It was here that civilization bloomed.

It was here that we logged, burned, mined, clear-cut, developed.

It was here that the old stories were forgotten and new ones were written;

Stories in which creation was no longer sacred, enchanted, animate, subjective.

Return

In an age of climate chaos and heart breaking extinction, it is here, to the forest, that we must return.

Not only as skiers, hikers, campers, birders, hunters, and foresters, but as devotees.

Because it is here that we see the universe in microcosm, where we get our bearings.

It is here that creation awes.

It is here that we experience the divine.

It is here that we can bring our questions.

It is here that we can dwell in mystical solitude.

It is here that we are now—The global forest.

Call

To return to the forest, we must become familiar with it.

I invite you to go to a mountain grove or a city park and take off your shoes.

When you are comfortable and alone, close your eyes.

Begin by focusing on feeling—as a tree might—the sun, the wind, the earth beneath your toes and on your skin.

If you wish, stretch your arms up and out like branches seeking the light.

Imagine drinking in the caramel rays of the sun as nourishment.

Focus on your breath by letting the air pass through your nostrils and fill the arboreal-patterned branches in your lungs.

Feel your lungs slowly fill with oxygen.

Feel them slowly empty as your body expels carbon dioxide.

Focus on the entire process of breathing and how each moment changes.

In and out.

As you breathe in, imagine that the oxygen, conceived in the leaves of trees, is gently birthed from the leaf’s stomata, wafting through space, and entering your lungs.

As you breathe out, imagine that the CO2, re-born in your lungs, is gently wafting through the air and entering the receptive stomata of the leaves.

In and out.

The air becomes us, becomes them.

It is a sacrament; we take it upon us, into us, and they upon themselves.

As we breathe in, the trees breathe out.

As the trees breathe out, we breathe in.

We are their lungs and they are ours.

In and out.

This is not a supernatural idea; it is an ecological reality.

May we dwell in this reality!

The mystic monk and (one time monastery forester) Thomas Merton said:

We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.

What we are is not all that different from trees.

And so I offer you this prayer for your walks and sits among the trees.

Forest, Trees. May we sustain you as you sustain us.

Imminence

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I remember the first time I realized that God not only created the world, but was immanent to it as well.

It was like staring at one of those paintings where an image of a tree or something is hiding, and it suddenly coming into view.

I was searching for God my whole life, but had been staring her in the face all along.

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