Broken Syllables

We know little of the creature, till we know it as it stands related to the Creator: single letters, and syllables uncomposed, are no better than nonsense.
(Richard Baxter)

Al-

In the beginning was the Word.

Pha

And we too were words,
the sounds of breath from His lips:

Adam
Let us make
Image
Likeness
Be fruitful
Increase

All sounds consonant with
the cosmic sentence,
no clause displaced.

In the beginning
was Alpha.
The whole DNA code begun
with A,
the chain of being linked
phoneme to phoneme.

And then
the dislocated sound:
the will punctuates the purpose.
Image becomes willful noise.

O

Return to purpose, man.
Return to the endless string of perfect sense.

O
Sing the perfect word, the song.
O me.
You were made to speak, to be
Between the A
Between the grace of Alpha and
Omega.

Little Brother

Will this be your first? they ask.
So what do we say?
That before you was another
who got lost on the way?
Unviable, out of place,
yet loved, oh how loved.
How do we name the agony
of hidden loss, and a treasure
held only by us?

No: not only us. For
before there was you,
or me, or your mother,
there was Life.
And what Life: older than stars,
yet one of us,
made flesh among us.

What a journey this Life made,
across multiverse to wait
nine months like you do now
to come out to this atmosphere,
to beat and to breathe.

What truths this Life knew,
our little lost one now knows:
Eternity’s arms, the comfort of perfect
face-to-face knowing,
the absence of tears.

What tears we have shed.

We will tell you, one day;
one day hold you, and show you
how Love can remain.

Retreat

…yo​u will not find my actual life in these pages so much as my thoughts on the graces Our Lord has given me. I have reached the stage now where I can afford to look back; in the crucible of trials from within and without, my soul has been refined, and I can raise my head like a flower after a storm and see how the words of the Psalm have been fulfilled in my case: “The Lord is my Shepherd and I shall want nothing…”

St Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul

My brother led me to prayer,
a child, afraid in the dark.

My sister taught me, downcast, to say,
Why so downcast, O my soul?

My parents taught me to ask and search
yet not be controlled by the heart’s wild waves.

My teachers fed my questions
and books sustained my mind.

Lewis taught me magic
and Love deep, deep in time.

Robert Frost was early rhythm;
Eliot and Herbert came later on.

Auden taught me the happy eye,
the sober perspective on the folded lie,

Kierkegaard the lily’s glory
and the grace that strikes in anxious thought.

Bunyan and Luther and Thérèse
knew the scruples that strike, and the way –

the Little Way at Jesus’ feet –
so once again I’m led to pray.

My wife has taught me the open heart;
now my home and hearth expand.

O Love that finds me everywhere:
Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

Unownable Things

It’s become a bit of a tradition for me to write gratitude lists on my birthday, yet each year it feels like I am discovering gratitude anew. While I always remember doing it the previous year, it never comes naturally to me. Instead, I find myself thinking that another strategy might be better this year – something productive like counting how many birthday wishes I get on Facebook each hour. Yet each year my need for gratitude keeps emerging; each year I have to remind myself of how much I have to be thankful for.

But this year I have Jonas Petersen (aka Hymns From Nineveh) to thank for reminding me that the best kind of gratitude doesn’t focus on what we have, because possessions are temporary and so often only make us want to acquire more. Instead, I want to do what Jonas does in this glorious, Ecclesiastes-like song of his: to “make a list of unownable things that make me happy”. Which is what, on this wet wintry Melbourne birthday morning, I will now do.

Unownable Things

Not possessions;
I am sooner
possessed than possessing.

Not ownership, for
I am owned by what
I long for.

Instead
the rain, which is ours,
falls now on this just and unjust day.

The trees
line our street with their dancing,
speckle pavement with green dust.

The warmth
of all bodies, the truth
that the sun animates the clouds,

the wandering
conviction that today we live
for each other:

all common graces
on this day of salvation.
All gift that cannot be owned.

Unexpected Faith: Terrence Malick and the “Love that loves us”

American philosopher-turned-filmmaker Terrence Malick does not make crowd-pleasers. He does not even feel any great compulsion to actually make films, although he has made more films in the last decade than he did for the first 30 years of his career. A little like Marilynne Robinson’s novels, Malick’s films emerge from some slow, meditative, beauty-processor that cannot be rushed yet almost always satisfies. Sometimes it produces a few masterpieces in quick succession; sometimes it does nothing for a decade. Yet everything that he produces is touched with transcendence and immanence all at once.

Also like Robinson, Malick’s work is generally transfigured by a deeply Christian sensibility. One journalist, Damon Linker, began his review of Malick’s 2016 film Knight of Cups with the question, “What if Christianity is right after all?” Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life blended scenes of cosmic creation with reflections on “the way of law” and the “way of grace”. Belief and unbelief are everywhere in his work, and sometimes the absence of God is the most tangible sign of His reality.

This is perhaps best expressed in the follow-up to The Tree of Life, 2013’s To the Wonder. Malick’s third-shortest film at just under 2 hours, To the Wonder is a slow, sun-dazzled and often heartbreaking meditation on love, hate, rejection and forgiveness, featuring the often unexceptional Ben Affleck in a role so understated that few others could do it so well, with Affleck using muted facial expression the way Hemingway uses silence. Yet the fact that Affleck is in the film is almost irrelevant; he is a brooding presence that demands no more nor less attention than the wheatfields of Kansas or its many broken residents to whom Javier Bardem’s priest character serves communion and offers grace. Malick famously casts prominent actors in his films then does not use most of if any of their footage. George Clooney had a couple of minutes at the end of The Thin Red Line, while John Travolta’s scene in that film was included but not credited. Rachel Weisz didn’t even make it to the final cut of To the Wonder, and Rachel McAdams has only a small, although significant, portion of the film devoted to her. Yet this all seems fitting. The Christianity Today article on the film commented that Malick’s disregard for the famous actors he casts is part and parcel of his view of humanity in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and in To The Wonder this takes on deep spiritual significance when the stars that are cast in the leading roles are given no more dignity – yet also no less – than the drug addicts and prisoners with whom Bardem mixes. Some of the film’s most tender moments come from its unknown and unnamed cameos. Fittingly, in the lead characters’ first wedding, taking place in a courtroom, (they are later married in a church), the witnesses to the marriage are prisoners, still handcuffed. Similar gravitas is granted to the prisoners who receive communion from Bardem through the slots in the doors of their prison cells later in the film.

To the Wonder is no easy Christian allegory, and many Christian audiences will shy away from it. This is first because Malick’s films are hard for anyone to watch without a strong degree of stamina or stubbornness. To the Wonder‘s hour and fifty-two minutes feels substantially longer because of the film’s often speechless slowness (the screenplay must surely only come in at a few pages, and much of what dialogue Malick includes is inaudible, as though the actual words themselves carry little significance). Also, some Christians would struggle no doubt with the way that faith is presented in the film. Most of the characters are torn between love for God and the love that “pulls [them] down to earth”, and love for God is often punctuated by long silences or a thirst for earthly satisfaction expressed in lust and adultery. Yet the film’s portrayal of sex is subtle, and its few moments of nudity are brief and tame. Although the film’s opening scenes might make it look like it is primarily concerned with the line between lust and love, sexual passion seems ultimately to be just one of the many expressions of how humans thirst for meaning and connection, and the film’s most powerful moment is not in any sexual or romantic exchange between characters but is instead the extended sequence towards the end in which we see a nun wash cutlery and Bardem serve communion on desolate streets in his neighbourhood, while in the background Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” plays and Bardem’s voice recites the prayer of St Patrick: “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me…” Thirst for God is everywhere in this film and trumps every other human thirst.

Though I can understand why, it’s a shame that more people have not seen To the Wonder, especially men and women who share Malick’s faith. There aren’t many more powerful evocations of divine love and grace going around at the moment than Malick’s films, and To the Wonder is one of the tenderest.

Philosophical Crumbs: Haiku for Kierkegaard

A friend of mine recently said that he had tried to read Kierkegaard but hadn’t made it. “I need the children’s book version,” he said. Probably not an unusual experience. While I’m not sure I’m the one to provide the children’s book, I thought I could do the next best thing: to try to put a few key ideas of Kierkegaard’s into haiku. Because what else are school holidays for?

So here are my first few offerings.

Kierkegaard Haiku I-III

In the moment, pause.
Life’s a reality, but
The crowd will deceive.

Anxiety means
Choice: the potential to do
Wrong, or to find God.

You must stand alone
Before His face and be known.

Clutching at Light: For Leonard Cohen

…everything that is illuminated becomes a light…
(Saint Paul)

Too dark, Leonard.
Just after Solstice, the days still short,
the dark surprised me in its early arrival,
and your first song grabbed me
with its midnight-pitch grip,
and Isaac bound by demons,
crying, Here I am, Lord.

These days are dark enough; I
turned from you to Bach,
where even wintry Leipzig
could sing with counterpoint.
I did not want it darker. The darkness always gapes
and I have fought for life to prise
myself out from its grip.

Hineni, hineni.
A cry of what? Of pain?
I cry, I cry, out to the Light
to banish dark again.