I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go." (T. Roethke "The Waking")
I love the villanelle form and I especially love Theodore Roethke's villanelle, "The Waking". The villanelle's economic cadence and the repetition reminds me of a good garage-rock song.
The poet builds his thought with metrical punch and repeats the theme in repetitive counter punch.
Rodney Dangerfield's dramatic self-actualization in "Back to School" was my first introduction to the villanelle when he found redemption inside Dylan Thomas' ode to on-coming death, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."
The Villanelle was considered by Medieval audiences to be a "country song" so my white trash heritage holds well inside my appreciation and Mr. Dangerfield's performance seems aesthetically perfect.
It seems right the philosopher of low self-esteem ("I don't get no respect") should be troubadour to a form that wrestles with itself for insight.
Roethke's pulitzer came from his collection that took its title from his villanelle. Roethke suffered depression and saw the suicide of his uncle the same year his father died of cancer. He was 15. His villanelle speaks to the possibility of enlightenment one may find in existential examination of God's creation. His repetitive song sings to experience and anticipatory awareness. "God bless the ground! I shall walk softly there. And learn by going where I have to go."
I have always felt an inclination towards faith in Roethke's poem. His naturalistic existentialism has mirrored my own seeking.
The last week has been one considering the power of faith and its shadow, doubt. The occasion of the twin bicentennial births of Darwin and Lincoln have made me wind and rewind my own conviction. I've been wresting with rhyme and refrain like a dizzy villanelle. It's interesting that in Darwin and Lincoln you have a Janus composite with a coincidental birthday. It's like God is a hip ironic comic.
In one you have a man who in the midst of tranquility on the Galapagos Islands uncovered an idea that so frightened him and disrupted his childhood theology that he stood silent with it for 15 years and in the other you have a man whose skeptical faith was crystalized by brutality in such a way to reaffirm our proclamation as humans.
Darwin's peaceful observations disrupted his own heart and made him hated by his faith and Lincoln's brutal times articulated a foundation for peaceful brotherhood which in turn secured for him a deeper faith. They are a single-headed twin with fixed stares of curiosity and humility.
I'm a Christian and am a member of the Evangelical Free Church. One of the reasons I like my faith is because of the traditional call to obedience old time "e-free" members would share when they would ask, "How's your walk brother? How's your walk sister?" It is an active denomination that seeks personal Gospel life application.
The church I attend is committed to expository preaching. We pick a book of the bible and we read through it as a congregation uncovering its historical and applicable themes. Last year was spent in the Book of Exodus. The liberation story was fascinating and interesting; the tabernacle's blueprint not so much.
This year we're in the book of Acts. This book is a narrative of the 1st century Christians and their spiritual existence. We spoke recently of the possibility that, for some, Christianity is a phase. This theme spilled into the small group bible study my wife and I attend and we shared stories of friends who have rejected their faith
I'm not surprised by the rejection many people have. I haven't always been a believer and still doubt if I truly am one of "the elect" - the Calvinistic concept of a select group of folks destined for Heaven (but of course I think Calvinists uptight pilgrims inclined more to their head then to their fellows' aching hearts. And for me aching hearts matter more than theological rubrics.)
I'm a Christian because it is compelling for me to believe of God disrupting the pattern of religious authority by dying a criminal's death and as Bob Dylan said, "You're gonna have to serve somebody . . ."
But I have been an inconsistent believer. I've identified in my life as a Roman Catholic, Agnostic, Atheist, Nihilist, Nazarene, Atheist again, Born Again, Atheist again, Unitarian, Buddhist, Atheist again, and finally (for the last six years) a Christian. I at first called myself a follower of Jesus Christ, then a believer and finally a simple Christian.
I resisted the title Christian because I thought it would carry a cultural implication that I only vote Republican and love Nascar. Neither group appeals to me and I didn't want to mislead people. But I've surrendered to the fact that I am a Christian and find peace in that knowledge. The label works for me because it summarizes the essence of my faith in the person of Jesus Christ rather than in the person of Chuck O'Connor.
I have of course been told by an atheist friend that I can't be a Christian because I'm too curious and have been told by a former Christian mentor that I am no longer a Christian because I voted for Barack Obama.
But in my heart I am a Christian.
The reason for my conviction is in my doubt and the balm Christ gives me inside my confusion. One of my favorite passages of scripture is Matthew 6:34-37. I quote from the contemporary translation, "The Message" "Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever things come up when the time comes." It's an answer to my doubt and motivates patience, humility and awareness.
The Indian born Jesuit trained priest and therapist Anthony deMello said that spirituality is not subtle, sentimental or dreamy. He writes in his book Awareness that, "Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don't know it are asleep. They're born asleep, the live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence . . . all is well . . . though everything is a mess, all is well. Strange paradox, to be sure. But, tragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep. They are having a nightmare."
I am often still asleep. I worry about my job, will Jackie and I have children, will they be healthy, will tax cuts stimulate the economy or should we be Keynesian? I doubt, but I trust Christ's caution against worry.
One of the practices that has become a habit is that upon waking I spend some quiet time with my journal and devotional books. After an hour I write down 12 things for which I am grateful. I then email this list to about 60 people as near as my wife and as far away as Australia. I then in turn receive lists from about 6 to 8 people. Anyone who has worked in direct mail would say a 10%+ return rate is pretty good. I start my day with gratitude and leaven my doubt with an appreciation for what I have. My heart aches with the appreciation I find in other's gratitude. Today's list consisted of the following:
1. A healthy breakfast
2. A home I can afford and share with my best friend, my wife
3. Work-out clothes I can put on and wear to the gym today
4. A gym membership I can afford
5. A healthy body that allows exercise
6. An I-pod that holds my music
7. "Genius" software on my I-pod that allows me to be surprised by my own music
8. Simple pleasures
9. The enjoyment of simplicity
10. A holiday with scheduled rest
11. John Hawkinson - one of my oldest friends is in town and we have plans to see each other tonight
12. The wisdom of stillness
Let me know if you would like me to share my gratitude with you. I'll put your email on my routing list. I'd love to wake slowly with you and mingle our stories of doubt,faith and gratitude.
"This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go."