At noon today (as I write), an Irish friend and I will Zoom (suddenly a verb in our vocabularies that needs no explanation). Pádraig is a poet and theologian and has worked in conflict resolution in the North of Ireland. He’s going to record poems for our Advent Service of Lessons & Carols, which I do hope you’ll join us for online on December 6, at 5 p.m.
(If you want a preview of Pádraig, click HERE for a short episode of his “Poetry Unbound” podcast in which he brings to life a Philip Metres poem that lives at the intersection of his three interests.)
I thought I’d drop the first poem he’ll read into our blog today. It’s one by Ross Gay titled “Thank You,” and it will follow the reading of the creation of humans in Genesis 2. As you probably remember, that story ends with the line, “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”
Here’s the poem:
If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan that says
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden’s dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
Lovely, isn’t it? Ross Gay has written powerfully on the psychic and physical toll racism takes on Black bodies. He has written even more on the power of gratitude. Ross and Pádraig both strike me as people who embody an exuberant joy that can still live in people who’ve given unflinching attention to humanity’s most damaging impulses. Impulses that lead to our deepest divisions and alienations. Some within ourselves. Others between ourselves and others. Nearly all of them, I suppose, are some blend or admixture of the two.
The poem posits a choice in our response to mortality, communicated to our barefoot friend by the earth’s “great, sonorous moan that says/ you are the air of the now and gone, that says/ all you love will turn to dust, and will meet you there…” In contrast, say, to Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” (“…Rage, rage, against the dying of the light…”), Ross Gay tells us not to raise our fists or our small voices against the truth that we are turning to dust. He tells us not to take cover either. He says, don’t hide. Remain a body in the world, toes curled in the cold grass, eyes watching the rise of your wintery breath. He tells us to walk on and to say, “Thank you.” Twice he tells us this. “Thank you.”
As I began these reflections, I was not consciously thinking of Tommy Pacello, a friend and parishioner far too young to have cancer that had taken a heartbreaking turn. I’ve left what’s above pretty much as it was when Olivia called Monday to say they were headed to the hospital again. It is surely easier to speak thankfulness back to the earth’s reminder of life’s shortness when we’re assuming there are years or decades still in front of us. What about when the earth’s sonorous moan says, “It could be any day now, friend”?
A priest gets invited more often than most into the midst of a moment between our lives and our deaths. This hardly makes a priest an expert. We’re only, after all, looking in. But I hope something soaks in of the wisdom we get to stand so close to, if only for a few prayerful instances now and then.
What Tommy told me in all sorts of ways these past months is that Ross is really right. Even in the face of injustice and wrong. Even in the face of death and grief and loss, I saw in Tommy a wide-eyed thankfulness that denied nothing but spent its breath on what’s been given instead of what’s been missed or lost or might have been. From the first time we walked in Overton Park after his diagnosis, he talked about what a gift his life had been. Olivia and the girls, first and most of all. But also good friends, meaningful work, so many experiences of goodness, beauty, and joy. What he wanted more than anything was to be fully awake to the moments he had rather than spend his time regretting the ones we’d all been assuming were still to come.
By 8:00 Monday night we had said prayers for the dying over speakerphone and by 8:30 Tommy was gone from us.
I don’t know if I’ll have the heart or grace or dumb luck to be the person Tommy was when I’m near my end, whenever that may be. And in my bones, I believe grace and mercy await, even if I’m not. But it was a gift to walk a few of the last steps of his road with Tommy. He showed me that some forms of thank you feel as large as the turning earth. And walking in their shadow, I see my small and shaking fist for what it is. And let it drop, at least for now. And say only, thank you. Thank you.