The quiet opening - "Things are not only what they are, they give more than they have.”

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The Supple Deer

The quiet opening 
between fence strands 
perhaps eighteen inches.


Antlers to hind hooves,
four feet off the ground, 
the deer poured through it.


No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.


I don’t know how a stag turns 
into a stream, an arc of water.
I have never felt such accurate envy.


Not of the deer—


To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.

- Jane Hirshfield

-o0o-

Last week, just before finishing the address I gave which was connected with our AGM, I received an email from a recent visitor to the church - Kennedy Warne (who read us a Maori greeting in Maori) - which contained a poem by Jane Hirshfield. This poem, 'The Supple Deer' (you can listen to her read this poem during a live reading here), struck me as an image which we can use to help us continue to reflect upon how we might go forward as a local religious community. It also offers us an appropriate theme since, following today's service, we will hear about the national General Assembly Meetings in Wales and, therefore, some of the ideas it has sparked in the two members of the congregation who attended on our behalf, Andrew Bethune and Shirley Fieldhouse.

So let's start with the poem and a few of the themes and ideas it contains.

Hirschfield begins by presenting us, in a very minimal, almost calligraphic, brush-stroke way, the two characters who will play out before us an exquisite, miniature drama. The first is the wire fence, the second, a supple deer - a stag.

The quiet opening 
between fence strands 
perhaps eighteen inches.


Antlers to hind hooves,
four feet off the ground 

These characters meet in the moment we suddenly see the deer pour through the fence leaving not even a scrap of hair as evidence that this had occurred:

the deer poured through it.


No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.


I don’t know how a stag turns 
into a stream, an arc of water.
I have never felt such accurate envy.

If you have ever seen this happen you will know it happens so fast and fluidly that, like Hirshfield, we feel we don't know how a "stag turns into a stream, an arc of water" and, in the moment of heightened wonder and sensitivity that follows she tells us that she has never before had such 'accurate' envy.

Now, on my first few readings of the poem this comment jarred for me because in our culture envy is strongly felt to be something not at all good. So why on earth, at this moment of almost transcendentally clear beauty, does she seem to dirty the image by using use the word 'envy' and why, too, does she modify it with the adjective 'accurate'?

I confess that I had to leave the poem for a day a day or two to feel my way through this but I was sufficiently intrigued and goaded by her that I hunted out a book of her essays and read "Poetry and the Mind of Concentration". At the end of this she notes:

"No matter how carefully we read or how much attention we bring to bear, a good poem can never be completely entered, completely known. If it is the harvest of true concentration, it will know more than can be said in any other way. And because it thinks by music and image, by story, passion and voice, poetry can do what other forms of thinking cannot: approximate the actual flavour of life, in which subjective and objective become one, in which conceptual mind and inexpressible presence of things become one. 
Letting this wideness of being into ourselves, as readers or as writers, while staying close to the words themselves, we begin to find a way of entering both language and being on their own terms." (Jane Hirshfield, "Poetry and the Mind of Concentration", Harper Collins 1997, p. 31-32).

The first thing that jumped out at me - apart from the crucial reminder that no poem can be entered completely - was Hirshfield's mention of the fact that a poem can "approximate the actual flavour of life".

It is to be regretted that in Western Europe and North America much of our art, religion and philosophy - especially as it has developed since the Enlightenment - we have often tried to articulate our hopes and ideals in rather clean and perfect ways and, consequently, we have often failed to serve up to each other the actual flavour of life. In Hirshfield's poem she reintroduces to us a human reality and I'm sure that, despite all our own personal clean high cultural, religious and philosophic ideals, there is no one here today who has not, at sometime in their life, felt the emotion of envy come upon them. It remains a painful truth, but a truth nonetheless, that envy is an actual flavour of life and we should not be surprised that the suppleness we see in the deer might move us to envy. I say we are envious of the deer because at this moment I am writing this address *as if* I were reading through the poem line by line for the first time. Since the poem is entitled "The Supple Deer" nothing, so far, has hinted otherwise.

So, before we consider another point from her essay and because of the important surprise she gives us, let's first continue through to the end of the poem.

The next line was, for me, completely unexpected where she reveals that her accurate envy is "Not of the deer". Oh my, we suddenly realise that she is envious of the fence. This envy is, she concludes, connected with the porous, quality the fence has which would allow the largeness largeness pass through it:


"To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me."

So now we know that Hirshfield wants to be like, not a deer but, to return to the poem's opening line, a "quiet opening" - like a fence. This realisation should now raise the question of why she has called the poem "The Supple Deer". We'll return to that in a second. But, for the moment let's return to a consideration of envy and Hirshfield's essay. Usually we are envious of people who have things which, when we take time really to examine them, we can see that, in themselves, they will not bring us the well-being, happiness and wholeness we seek. So, to pick a personal example, I know that a big house in the Suffolk countryside surrounded by glorious gardens and parkland, though truly lovely, will, of itself, not make me happy. In this sense my envy is wildly 'inaccurate' because it really doesn't, cannot hit the mark I feel it should - namely a fulfilled and abundant life. Another way of putting this is that when envy is inaccurate subjective and objective DO NOT become one and neither does our "conceptual mind and [the] inexpressible presence of things" become one. This kind of envy keeps the house 'out there' and me 'still here' and I am not in any way united with the 'real presence' of that house (I deliberately use this very Catholic phrase). This kind of inaccurate envy is all wrong for it separates and divides; it creates impermeable walls and not fences with open lattices.

But Hirshfield's envy, she tells us, is 'accurate' and by this I take it to mean that for her it *has* focussed upon something that she instantly knows will bring her the wholeness and happiness she and we really desire.

The first thing to say is that Hirshfield has seen that there are some things in life which we think we don't have - though in a second I'm going to modify this statement - that there are some things in life which we think we don't have and which we know, really know, we should. This is a special kind of envy, an accurate envy, because we can only recognise it as something truly needed if we already have within us something of it that allows it to be recognised in the first place. For an easy to grasp illustration of this think of the moment Jesus goes into the synagogue at Caper'na-um when we hear that those present were "astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes" (Mark 1:21-22). Such recognitions are possible only if the truth Jesus was showing those present was already in them in some way - that's why his hearers thought he spoke with authority.

This kind of 'accurate envy' of something we know we need (we know is true) is what helps drive us to transform and transfigure our lives (and, in the words of the Prayer for Peace which we say each week at the end of the service) by which we are led from death to life, from falsehood to truth, led from despair to hope, from fear to trust, led from hate to love and from war to peace.

It seems to me, then, that 'accurate envy' is the desire for the openness already gifted to us but which, until that moment of envy sprang up in us we had not previously been able to see we already had within us. In the moment 'accurate envy' appears distinctions between "subjective and objective" begin to collapse and the inexpressible real presence of that thing and our own concepts of our self begin to become one. In other words 'accurate envy' names the process by which, as Hirshfield says in her essay, the wideness of being is slowly begun to be allowed into ourselves.

So if the fence has the quality of wideness about which Hirshfield feels envy why on earth does she call the poem "The Subtle Deer"? Why doesn't she call it "The Quiet Opening"?

Well, it is true that the poem seems not to be about the deer per se but it is important to see that the poem *is* about the largeness of the deer which pours through us whenever we allow a wideness of being into ourselves. This porous quality, this wideness of being, is only made visible in so far as something that is more-than-ourselves is allowed through us - the supple deer stands for this 'more-than-ourselves'.

Consequently, we may go on to say that Hirshfield's poem gestures towards the sense that, as Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) said, and which I remind you about every now and then, "Things are not only what they are, they give more than they have.”

The poems, works of art, pieces of music, stories and religious practices (such as communion) that continue to impress and inspire us are precisely those which continue to allow through them this gifted 'more-than-themselves'.

But, and this is key to realise, a fence can only gift this 'more-than-itself' in a way appropriate to a fence. Van Gough's "A Wheatfield, with Cypresses" will gift this 'more-than-itself' in it's own way. Mahler's Fifth Symphony will gift it in its own way.

So what are we? and what is the largeness that could pass through our form?

Hirshfield sees that even something as tenuous as a wire fence can gift such largeness to the world - her poem is, itself, as minimally drawn as a wire fence. It seems to me that our own 'form' as a religious community is as minimally and to some, as tenuously and openly drawn as the fence (and Hirshfield's poem) for our covenant together simply reads: 'In the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus, the members of this congregation unite for the worship of God and the service of humankind.' As I've said many times before we need to embrace this again confidently.

When we do this what is the largeness which pours through it? Well, it has been a powerful non-sectarian expression of Christian love and openness - a love, to cite our opening hymn, seeks to bring all people under its banner regardless of the usual impenetrable walls we place between us.

This love will pass through us when, with accurate envy, we passionately desire to live again our life-giving form as a truly open, liberal Christian church:

The quiet opening 
between fence strands 
perhaps eighteen inches.


Antlers to hind hooves,
four feet off the ground, 
the deer poured through it.


No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.


I don’t know how a stag turns 
into a stream, an arc of water.
I have never felt such accurate envy.


Not of the deer—


To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.
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