On Mary, Advent, and me

This past Good Friday, my church held a reflective evening service filled with poetry, music, and meditation. One of the poems read was by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Screenshot 2017-04-16 16.38.05

It made me think back to Christmas, when I was six weeks pregnant, and discovered that being newly pregnant didn’t make me feel any closer to Mary than I usually did (which is to say, not very). I hadn’t necessarily expected to, as hearing Mary’s story read always left me feeling unsatisfied. I wanted more from Mary than the story always gave me; I wanted a Mary who spoke and doubted and maybe even railed against what was being asked of her, not a Mary who instantly acquiesced. I couldn’t relate to this pinnacle of womanhood, and honestly, sometimes that worried me. Knowing there was a clump of cells making their way to a baby inside of me didn’t magically change any of that.

But on Good Friday, I listened to this poem read while our baby girl kicked away inside me, reminding me of her undeniable and yet not-quite-real presence with every little jab and poke and flip. This past Lent was a season of uncertainty and vulnerability for me, as I seemed to receive troubling news every other time I visited my doctor, and I discovered the very real limitations pregnancy placed on my body and my life as a whole. I was so afraid we would lose her when I started bleeding at sixteen weeks (on Ash Wednesday–and my birthday–, which seemed a particularly cruel way to drive home how fleeting life is), and I was grateful every time I felt her kick and tell me she was still there, she was strong, she would be okay–and so would I. I held on to that through the long months that were to come.

And it hit me that Good Friday, and with that poem, how vulnerable this parenting and motherhood thing makes you. I didn’t sign up for our Maundy Thursday overnight vigil, but I had a vigil of my own, as that was also the week that pregnancy insomnia began. I spent a lot of time awake at night, thinking about new life and old life and the softness that was and is my body and the hard world outside. How are the two supposed to mix? Do you ever get used to it, as a mother, that the being you carried inside you and protected as best you could for nine months has to make its way into a world that will never be as kind as it should be? I’m guessing you don’t.

And now it’s Advent again. I still want to hear more from Mary. I still want to fill in the silences in her story with what I think she may have thought and felt and said. But Advent feels different to me this year, as I read and reflected on the Magnificat with my own baby in my arms, with my pregnancy still fresh in my memory. I’ve come to suspect that I was sold a bill of goods all those years, that what has always been told to me as meek obedience on Mary’s part was actually fierceness in disguise–a fierceness that the male gospel writers and the male preachers who first told me her story perhaps didn’t have eyes to see–a fierceness that carried her through her own Holy Week and beyond, and a fierceness born out of the softness and vulnerability that motherhood brings.


on this Good Friday

Gethsemane, by Mary Oliver

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move, maybe
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.


(another favorite Holy Week poem here.)

yes, yes you did

Now, I know that I’m not a typical student. I only remember not doing the reading once during the five years or so it took me to get my BA and MA–and I scrunched down in my seat in shame the whole time I was in that classroom. I hate missing classes, I never turn in anything late, and I’m still traumatized by the recent 8 out of 10 I got on an assignment. Short version? I’m an overachiever that is deathly afraid of failure. (But at least I’m aware of it, right?)

But as a teacher, the number one thing I hate is when students miss a class, don’t notify me beforehand, and then come in to ask me if they’ve missed anything important. Yes. Of course you did. What do you expect, I sit around designing course objectives and syllabi and readings just for fun? This especially irked me in Germany, since we weren’t getting paid for teaching (just gaining “valuable work experience,” insert eye roll here). Next time, I’m going to send them this poem, and hope they get the point. Or learn to ask their fellow students, not me. (Let’s keep expectations low, here.)

Did I Miss Anything?

Tom Wayman

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 percent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring the good news to all people
on earth.

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human experience
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been

but it was one place

And you weren’t here

From Did I Miss Anything? Selected Poems 1973-1993, 1993
Harbour Publishing

Copyright 1993 Tom Wayman.
All rights reserved.

good morning, good morning, good morning

A month or so ago, I met with one of the priests in my local church to discuss confirmation/reception into the Episcopal Church. I felt much better about my presumed heterodoxy after that meeting, and came away with a few book recommendations as well. She also mentioned the following poem to me. It’s lovely and especially fitting for a Monday morning in which I had to drag myself out of bed.

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver

Hello, sun.

I hope with her.

As we move from Good Friday to Easter Sunday this weekend, I thought I’d repost this from 2010.

Christ’s Passion

Sure we’re trained to his suffering, sure
the nine-inch nails, and so forth.
And the cross raised up invoked

the body’s weight so each wound tore,
and from his abdomen a length of gut
dangled down, longing towards earth.

He was a god, after all.
An eternal light swarmed in his rib cage
no less strong than the weaving nebulae that haul

this dirt-speck planet through its course.
Surely his flesh mattered less somehow, less
than yours to you. He hung against steel rods

with his whole being, and though the pain
was very pure, he only cried out once.
All that was writ down. But what if his flesh

felt more than ours, knew each breath
was a gift, and thus saw
beyond each instant into all others.

So a morsel of bread conjured up
the undulating field of wheat from whence it came,
and the farmer’s back muscles

growing specific under this shirt
and the sad, resigned pace of the mule
whose opinion no one sought.

Think of all we don’t see
in an instant. Cage that in one skull.
If Christ saw in each

pair of terrified eyes he met
every creature’s gauzy soul
then he must have looked down from that bare hill

and watched the tapestry teem
till that poor carcass he borrowed
wept tears of real blood before they

unhooked it and oiled it and bound it
round with linen and hid it under a stone,
to rise again or not, I can only hope.

-Mary Karr Viper Rum

(via Mama:Monk)

the image is of the cross at Taizé. Every Friday night, they do a kind of Good Friday service, at the end of which you can gather to pray around the cross, if you wish. I spent a week in Taizé in 2004, and that week, and especially that night, turned out to be a defining moment in my faith. It’s a memory I often think back to when I find it hard going, and I thought it would be an appropriate accompaniment to the poem.

poem of the month: the august edition

This poem reflects one of the main reasons I go to church and I love it for its simplicity.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

St. Teresa of Avila, via Rachel Held Evans

poem of the month – the-already-halfway-through-July-edition

I found this poem on Facebook. Who says social media is just a waste of time? Sometimes, it can lead you down the rabbit hole to wonderful, beautiful things, like this poem. Enjoy.

My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink
of the Bathroom At Sears
By Mohja Kahf
My grandmother puts her feet in the sink
        of the bathroom at Sears
to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,
because she has to pray in the store or miss
the mandatory prayer time for Muslims
She does it with great poise, balancing
herself with one plump matronly arm
against the automated hot-air hand dryer,
after having removed her support knee-highs
and laid them aside, folded in thirds,
and given me her purse and her packages to hold
so she can accomplish this august ritual
and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares


Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown
as they notice what my grandmother is doing,
an affront to American porcelain,
a contamination of American Standards
by something foreign and unhygienic
requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray
They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see
a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom

My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world’s ancient irrigation systems
I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus
over painted bowls imported from China
among the best families of Aleppo
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you’d make wider washbins, anyway
My grandmother knows one culture—the right one,

as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them,
my grandmother might as well have been squatting
in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor,
Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn’t matter which,
when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.
“You can’t do that,” one of the women protests,
turning to me, “Tell her she can’t do that.”
“We wash our feet five times a day,”
my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.
“My feet are cleaner than their sink.
Worried about their sink, are they? I
should worry about my feet!”
My grandmother nudges me, “Go on, tell them.”

Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see
at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers,
all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent
in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum
Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed,
is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse
For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps
that match her purse, I think in case someone
from one of the best families of Aleppo
should run into her—here, in front of the Kenmore display

I smile at the midwestern women
as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them
and shrug at my grandmother as if they
had just apologized through me
No one is fooled, but I

hold the door open for everyone
and we all emerge on the sales floor
and lose ourselves in the great common ground
of housewares on markdown.

Mohja Kahf, “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears” from E-mails from Scheherazad. Copyright © 2003 by Mohja Kahf.