“Lost” by David Wagoner

Here’s a great poem – another that illustrates how the great poets are mystics pointing us beyond language, beyond our senses to a quieter knowing.  This comes from Collected Poems 1956-1976 © Indiana University Press.


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.


On waiting and wasting…

There is a long tradition of meditation in Christianity. One of the tributaries of this stream was renewed in the 20th Century by the practice and teachings of a Benedictine monk named John Main.

Picking up where he left off, a fellow Benedictine, Laurence Freeman, advocates for an embrace of the contemplative life through retreats, books and a monthly column called Tablet which I subscribe to read.

Here is May’s reflection on waiting which I found particularly resonant:

May 2013

One of the worst things about prison, he told me, was the time-wasting. We were standing in a huge barren hall, or maybe it was a baseball court, where we had just meditated with a large group of his fellow-prisoners.

After the profound, shared, sweet silence of the meditation we had a lively discussion about what the inner life on the inside was like and how it could be cultivated. This had graced me with the strange feeling I have often had before in prisons, of being very close to the Kingdom, which Jesus says is always “very close to you” wherever and however you find yourself serving your life-term.

The ugliness and dirtiness of the space we were standing in reminded me of some men’s religious houses I have stayed in which reveal more than anything else how a community can lost hope in the spiritual life and in themselves. It would be hard to keep faith in God or yourself in such an aesthetic inferno. But the prisoners on the whole did not complain about the lack of beauty, maybe because they had discovered that complaining about things you can’t change doesn’t make anything better. Maybe because it didn’t seem the main problem they were facing. They all agreed, however, that the great enemy of prayer in prison is the relentless noise, the continuous sounds of metal gates clanging, loud voices echoing down stone corridors, of the rasping noise of anger or hollow laughter.

It is bad enough to know that many years of your life will be wasted in incarceration. It becomes surreal when you realise that you have become a different and better person than the one who was condemned and excluded from society. Worse still is to fill that wasted time with routines that rob you of what minimal meaning or creativity you might be able to cultivate. Meditation, the prisoner I was talking to told me, had helped him to transform this horrible experience of lost time, as in the hours spent standing in line to be counted. Like monks anywhere he had discovered you could pray anywhere and continuously, even in the worst of conditions, by releasing the prayer already within you. As he stood for his number to be called he let go of his thoughts and his resentment and sadness. Often standing in line, but standing too in his heart, he would fall into the sheer joy of the presence.

Compare this with life in another ‘total institution’ of modern life, a hospital. Doctors and nurses complain increasingly about the stress of their professional lives. Substance abuse, depression, breakdown and suicide are growing factors in the medical profession everywhere. As in prisons, medical stress is a product of bad time-management. It breeds the impression of being overwhelmed, powerless to perform properly; persecuted by colleagues or the people you are supposed to be serving.

A hospital where I was speaking recently runs four meditation groups. When it ran a workshop on interpersonal skills for doctors, they were amazed to be told how badly others perceived them to be behaving – interrupting the patients before they had finished describing their problems, avoiding eye contact, harsh with nursing staff and colleagues, cold-hearted in relaying bad news. They were amazed to be told that if they visited a patient and stood sideways to them at a distance, avoiding personal contact, the patient would either remember the visit negatively or erase it from his memory altogether. If the doctor had sat on the edge of the bed for a few moments, present and attentive, the patient would later be convinced she had stayed for a good twenty minutes.

How much time and resources are wasted trying to achieve what a simple spiritual practice makes obvious? In prisons the ethos of punishment and degradation is blatantly counter-productive. In hospitals the depersonalization of medicine makes no one feel better even if it prolongs life, which it often doesn’t. In schools, government policies impose education as a means of training children as an economic resource for reducing the national debt.

One way or another, we are all processed through institutions today. Wastage of time and resources increase with the diminishing of the human factor. And once the humanity of relationships and the quality of personal attention begins to slide it is hard to reverse the trend. The Nazis perversely mastered this process of self-dehumanization that leads, inevitably, to extinction.

Waste will waste us all in time. Finding how to handle time under stressful conditions, how to manage restraint so as to be fully present, is probably one of the greatest spiritual needs of our time. Regardless of any belief system or management theory the simple human art of being present, the lost art of prayer, patiently calls us home to ourselves.

Laurence Freeman OSB

Laurence Freeman is a Benedictine and the Director of The World Community for Christian Mediation. His readings are available online: http://www.wccm.org



It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out––no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

William Stafford, from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems © Graywolf Press, 1998.

An excerpt from “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver

…When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

From New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press).

Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?!

During the year I spent studying with Drs. Gary Gray and David Tiberio at The Gray Institute, I had the pleasure of meeting Gary’s son Brad, who shared this powerful story (credited to biblical historian Ray Vanderlaan) that has remained with me.

Below is my (hopefully not too bastardized) recollection of it:

One night a Rabbi was out walking, hoping the fresh air would help him clarify something he had been reading in the Torah earlier in the day. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, the Rabbi soon lost himself in prayer.

Suddenly, the rabbi was startled out of his prayerful reflection by someone shouting “Who you and what are you doing here?!”

Rather than stay on the path that would lead him back home, the Rabbi quickly realized he wandered into a Roman encampment.

The Roman centurion who called out before repeated his questions, “Who are you and what are you doing here?!”

Instead of responding directly, the Rabbi asked the guard, “What do you get paid for asking me these questions?”

Confused at first by the Rabbi’s response, the guard eventually replied tartly, “Three Denari a week!”

“Well, I will pay you double that if you’ll stand outside my house and ask me those questions every morning.”

Finding Balance

“As our dance partner, life insists that we put ourselves in motion, that we learn to live with instability, chaos, change, and surprise. We can continue to stand immobilized on the shoreline, trying to protect ourselves from life’s insistent storms, or we can begin moving. We can watch our plans be washed away, or we can discover something new.”

Margaret Wheatley. Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005.

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Jack Gilbert, REFUSING HEAVEN (Knopf, 2005).

With special thanks to Lillian Needham, SSJ who introduced me to this poem, to Jack Gilbert’s writing in general and whose life is a model of risking delight.

Horses at Midnight Without a Moon

(In observance of Put a Poet in Your Pocket Day, my son chose the following Jack Gilbert to have with him as he walked around today.)

Our heart wanders lost in the dark woods.
Our dream wrestles in the castle of doubt.
But there’s music in us. Hope is pushed down
but the angel flies up again taking us with her.
The summer mornings begin inch by inch
while we sleep, and walk with us later
as long-legged beauty through
the dirty streets. It is no surprise
that danger and suffering surround us.
What astonishes is the singing.
We know the horses are there in the dark
meadow because we can smell them,
can hear them breathing.
Our spirit persists like a man struggling
through the frozen valley
who suddenly smells flowers
and realizes the snow is melting
out of sight on top of the mountain,
knows that spring has begun.

From Collected Poems by Jack Gilbert. Copyright © 2012 by Jack Gilbert.

Morning in a New Land

In trees still dripping night some nameless birds
Woke, shook out their arrowy wings, and sang,
Slowly, like finches sifting through a dream.
The pink sun fell, like glass, into the fields.
Two chestnuts, and a dapple gray,
Their shoulders wet with light, their dark hair streaming,
Climbed the hill. The last mist fell away.

And under the trees, beyond time’s brittle drift,
I stood like Adam in his lonely garden
On that first morning, shaken out of sleep,
Rubbing his eyes, listening, parting the leaves,
Like tissue on some vast, incredible gift.

Mary Oliver, NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 251.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott, from Sea Grapes, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1976.