The quiet opening—“To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me”—A meditation on what the coming liberal religion might feel like

Katsushika Hokusai, painted c. 1840-1850
READINGS: Psalm 42:1
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.


From “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration” in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, by Jane Hirshfield (Harper Collins 1997, p. 31-32)

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.

The Supple Deer by Jane Hirshfield

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.

—o0o—

ADDRESS
The quiet opening—“To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me”—A meditation on what the coming liberal religion might feel like

Last Friday lunchtime I had the opportunity to listen, and occasionally contribute to, a very interesting conversation about how this community might make it easier for people to cross its threshold to experience and then perhaps take part themselves in what is going on here, namely the attempt to create — or rather re-story-ate — an appropriate contemporary religious response to our current cultural situation. It is, as those of you who come regularly know, a response that is desirous to continue to value aspects of the particular religious tradition that has gone before us — namely the Judaeo-Christianity and, thanks to the efforts of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, also something of the philosophical traditions of Greece and Rome — but which, at the same time, also recognizes the pressing need for us to do religion in some new kind of way. I hope that, as this conversation continues and expands it will slowly but surely involve you all in one way or another for, in the end, a church community will only successfully move into a new religious way of being if all its members are involved in some fashion. 

My contribution to this ongoing conversation is to place before you week by week various ideas and strategies to consider, reject or, perhaps now and then, even to try. Naturally — in a tradition such as ours that values intellectual, philosophical thought — I place these ideas before you mostly in prose. To be exact, in the two-thousand words or so this weekly provocation to thought we call “the address”. But, don’t forget, I also prepare the whole service with its associated readings (often in the form of poems), prayers, meditations, remembrances of people from our four-hundred-and-fifty year tradition, conversation, hymns, music and silences. Consequently no address ever stands on its own (reader of this blog beware) but is always placed in a setting designed to help you feel in your heart, soul and body something more rounded about that subject which the address is seeking to make you think. You many not realize this — and perhaps do not make this clear often enough — but in preparing the service I am trying, in a no doubt flawed and insufficient way, to address your whole being. I do this fully conscious of Jesus’ summary of the law and the prophets, “You shall love the Lord your God . . .

 . . . [by which I mean not some beardy, white bloke on a throne — a super-supersize human-like ruler — but that mysterious “Something” which always-already gifts the possibility of there being anything at all, what David Bentley Hart calls the “unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things” (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, Yale University Press, 2014, p. 30)]

. . . “You shall love the Lord your God out of the whole of your heart and in the whole of your soul and in the whole of your strength and in the whole of your mind, and your neighbour as yourself (Luke 10:27, cf Matthew 22:37 trans. David Bentley Hart). To speak and respond to this eternal sustaining mystery with only the mind seems to me insufficient — it’s certainly to have a less rich, meaningful and fulfilling life than might be possible. 

Now the reason I draw in my addresses upon poets as much as I do upon the philosophers is because at their best — and when one is helped to attune oneself to their often odd and slant ways of speaking — their poems are able, as the poet Jane Hirshfield put it, to “know more than can be said in any other way” and that they “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.”
  
Now Hirshfield came back into my mind this week because one of her poems, The Subtle Deer, helps my heart, soul body and mind approximate the actual flavour of life I get when I’m exploring the religious possibilities contained in the work of the thinkers I often bring to your attention — particularly (but by no means exclusively) Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger. So in the hope that it may do something likewise for you let me now turn to her poem. And please note that I’m going to go through it as if I (and now you) were reading it for the first time, i.e. you did not already know its final lines.

Hirshfield begins by presenting us, in a very minimal, almost calligraphic, (Chinese or Japanese) brush-stroke way (see the picture at the head of this post), 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 the deer suddenly pours through the wire 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.
   
Now if you have ever seen this occur you will know it happens so fast and fluidly that, like Hirshfield, there is no time rationally to comprehend how such a large and substantial creature like a

    “stag turns into a stream, an arc of water”.

Like Hirshfield, in that moment of heightened wonder and sensitivity which follows the event we, too, may feel 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 think she does it to remind us of a vital human reality, namely, that although we don’t like to admit it, envy always exists and plays a significant role in our life in at least two distinct ways, namely, through inaccurate (false) and accurate (true) envies. An inaccurate envy in this specific case would be to envy the deer’s kind of speed, grace and suppleness. As a fifty-two year old I try (more or less successfully) to keep up my own human kind of (minimal) speed, grace and suppleness through a mix of cycling, walking and Tai Chi, but it would be an inaccurate envy to envy the speed, grace and suppleness of the deer because I am not a deer and never will be a deer. Even though both the deer and I subsist together in the mysterious “Something” I mentioned earlier — “God” if you like — the nature of a deer is very different to the nature of a human being and, as Wittgenstein once noted about lions, I can say with confidence that if a deer could speak, we could not understand him (Philosophical Investigations, Basil Blackwell, 1958, 1986, p.225). The deer is not me; I am not the deer and so to envy it would be pointless and ultimately, perhaps, even destructive in certain ways. 

Now, before I go on I want to remind you that I’m talking about envy of the deer because I am writing this address as if I were reading through the poem line by line for the first time. Hirshfield has deliberately called the poem “The Supple Deer” and structured it so that at this point in our reading there is nothing which has yet explicitly suggested the word envy is to be applied to anything other than the deer.

An “accurate envy” on the other hand would be to become envious  of something which we are seemly not yet like but which we both can — and perhaps should — become more like. In other words it’s an accurate envy because this envy is a kind of insight/energy that is capable of helping to transform us into what we can become. So, if I cannot become like the deer then what can, should I, become like? 

At this point Hirshfield suddenly reveals this in what journalists or film-makers call a delayed drop which follows any introduction which deliberately does not make it immediately obvious what the story is about in order to drive home more forcibly the point to be made or insight to be had. Without warning she tells us her envy is “Not of the deer” and so, my oh my, we suddenly realise it is envy of the wire fence! Hirshfield is envious of its ability

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

To me it’s a beautiful and striking moment of epiphany and we’ll return to its import to us as individuals and as a church in a moment.

But, first of all 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” as I have entitled this address?

Well, although this moment of epiphany suggests that the poem is not about the deer per se it is vitally important to see that the poem is about the largeness and quality of the deer which can pour through us whenever we learn embody ourselves a wideness of being. The porous quality, the wideness of being, is only made visible to us in so far as something that is of considerable substance and which is substantially more-than-ourselves is allowed to pour through us — the supple deer stands for this substantial “more-than-ourselves”.

It’s also important to see that fence despite its minimalist construction is not nothing, and here I can return to where this address began, namely, with the creation of some kind of appropriate contemporary religious response to our current cultural situation. A response that both values aspects the religious tradition that has gone before us — namely the Judaeo-Christian tradition and, thanks to the efforts of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, something of the philosophical traditions of Greece and Rome — but which also recognizes the pressing need to do religion in some new way.

It seems to me that this poem helps us not theologize with our minds about what the new religion needs to be like but to feel it with our whole being so we can half a chance of properly recognizing it as it slowly comes into being through our meeting together in worship and conversation.

To my mind it can only properly come to be whenever and wherever we are able to craft an ultra-minimal religious form (somewhat like a wire fence) out of the thin, taught wires made up (for us) using the tried, tested and tempered materials of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and aspects of the philosophical traditions of Greece and Rome. (Other communities in different cultural contexts will, of course, use different materials appropriate to their own local histories etc.) Thanks to its very thinness and nearly-not-there-ness — being a form without thick dogmas, beliefs, rituals, infallible scriptures and authoritarian hierarchies — it offers (at least potentially) a strong structure that is still radically open enough to be able to let great, extraordinary, new and unexpected things come through us into the clearing of the existent world, things that in the poem are symbolized by the deer.

It is, I am sure, no mere coincidence that Hirshfield speaks of the deer in this poem and in this way because in religions around the world this extraordinary creature has often been understood — especially in mystical and shamanic traditions — to be a kind of divine messenger running freely and swiftly between the deep dark, earthy, mystery that is the being-of-being and the open bright clearing in which we find ourselves, miracle of miracles, as existent creatures.   

To me the most authentic (and effective) religions are precisely those able to let the deer pass through them like a stream or arc of water and so the task of re-story-ation we have before us is to create just such strong, wire-fence like form that is able to allow the mystery of being pass through it into the world whilst still giving ourselves a necessary and strong (enough) shape and structure to help shape and structure our lives in open-hearted religious ways.

Strange though it may be to relate but the epiphany that is expressed in Hirshfield’s poem is what I feel again and again whenever I sit down quietly to read Parmenides, Epicurus, Lucretius, Jesus, Tolstoy, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Bugbee, Henry Nelson Wieman, Paul Wienpahl and of course, a poet like Jane Hirshfield and particularly Wallace Stevens and A. R. Ammons, and this is why I bring their words before you again and again. All I can hope is that Hirschfield’s poem has helped you to feel today something of what I feel too. Maybe when I next talk about one of these philosophers you'll now have an inkling of the feeling, the resonance, they have set off in me.

So, to conclude, the question I place before you today is not just to ask what it is that you need to do as an individual in order to be become yourself a strong but quiet opening — to be that porous, to have such largeness pass through you — but also to ask what it is that we need to be doing together as a community so that this church, as a whole, also becomes itself just such strong but quiet opening which allows the very mystery of life to pass through it into our world?

To put it figuratively, I want to say that the deer has a message to pass on to us from the gods, but before we can hear and then interpret that message we first need to let the deer pass through us into the clearing of our life.

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