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I have long been a dedicated reader of Wendell Berry, both his poetry and his essays, and often turn to his work whenever I feel a struggle in my soul for a moment of peace and wilderness.
His poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” especially, has always held tremendous power for me:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water …
Poetry in general holds a great deal of the stuff of God for me, reminding me to be mindful, present, and appreciative as I move through a world filled with the Creator’s wonder and mystery.
The Bible itself—like many sacred texts from around the world—is packed with poetry, from the psalms to the Song of Solomon. I suspect that this is not simply because of poetry’s popularity at the time of the sacred texts’ inception nor because this was the only art form available to its authors. Rather, I suspect that the use of poetry points to the fact that there are some things, some ideas and inspirations, that simply cannot be accurately conveyed through purely literal and linear forms of storytelling. Knowing this, it makes perfect sense to me that so many authors have turned to poetry to help them better capture in words the rapturous sensations and experiences of God’s presence in the world.
Another poem that continuously arrests and inspires me is Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”:
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
Returning to this poem, I’m struck with the sensation of some gossamer thread of my own soul finally catching somewhere. I’m struck with a moment of peace in the midst of my constant web-weaving and thread-throwing. I’m struck by the strange power of God to speak to me afresh through the work of poets long-dead, unknown, or faraway.
I’m struck with a newfound appreciation for not only the mysterious, wonderful works of God, but for the gift of poetry that so faithfully reminds me that these catching-places are wonders deserving of constant pause, recognition, and gratitude.
Where are your catching-places? Do you find that poetry helps bring you back to these spots and moments, or is it something else—some other art, exercise, or discipline—that grabs your attention and reminds you of the beautiful wilderness of God?
For the past ten years, Old St. Paul’s has been growing and changing and building under the guidance, passion, and hard work of its clergy, staff, and congregation—and all of that sweat and love is definitely on display in Old St. Paul’s fall programs. What are we excited about for this autumn at Old St. Paul’s? Here’s just a taste:
—The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley
“I’m most excited about working with our talented choir again. I’m so privileged to be working with them!”
—John Smedstad, Choir Director
“I am looking forward to the Sunday School Pumpkins and Potluck event.”
—Rebecca Giordano Dreisbach, Sunday School Minister
“Autumn has always been a special time for me because it’s always meant the beginning of a new school year and a fresh start on my responsibilities as a teacher. The excitement of new people, new spaces and a new program to implement made me feel engaged and vibrant; of course, the cooler weather and the loveliness of Baltimore in the fall helped, too. Now that I am on my second career as the Parish Assistant, I feel the same sense of being an integral part of an important organization with my ‘let’s get back to work and fun’ excitement. There are so many new things happening at our church, so many new people and so many fun events, I am energized. As the pumpkins and goblins morph into turkeys and football and then into ornaments and holly, Old St. Paul’s becomes the foundation of the holidays of fun, thanksgiving and joy, and I feel valued and enthusiastic because I am a part of something great!”
—Lynn Calverese, Parish Assistant
“You want to be careful about superlatives, but I foresee our church having the best fall we have had in my eleven years here as rector. Why? Our education programs are really taking off. Our Sunday School and Youth programs are growing and our forums series is spectacular. We have a growing number of fellowship opportunities this fall so that people can build stronger relationships in the congregation. In addition, we have begun exploring two new outreach ministries that could come to fruition in the coming months. Finally, our music program is really hitting its stride. I am looking forward to so much this fall.”
—The Reverend Mark Stanley
“I am so excited to see our wonderful choir return and see the list of all the interesting forum topics that will engage, inspire, and challenge us in the coming year. Additionally this year, I am extra excited to start a new program at OSP for families of babies and toddlers. Every month we will open up the church for the wonderful little kids of OSP and their parents to play and connect. It’s going to be a great year!”
—Kate Brantley, OSP Community Builder for Families with Infants and Toddlers
And as for me? Besides pumpkin carving (love it!) and all the terrific dinners, breakfasts, and get-togethers with my friends at Old St. Paul’s, I couldn’t be more excited about the start of the fall Forum series. The Forum has long been one of my favorite programs at Old St. Paul’s. Getting to learn from such a variety of people with my friends and fellow congregants, getting to get outside the normal worship rituals and rediscover the many ways that learning and asking questions can enlighten and lead us into worship—it’s definitely something to look forward to.
What programs, opportunities, and changes are you most excited about for this fall, whether at Old St. Paul’s or just in your own personal spiritual life?
We have confusion in Christianity about the concept of the immortality of the soul and it is leading us in some unhelpful directions. A commonly accepted viewpoint is that humans are made of two components: a material mortal body and an immaterial immortal soul. So when we die, this eternal soul continues on either to heaven or is condemned to hell. That sounds Christian, right?
Actually, the immortality of the soul is not a biblical concept at all. Some Christians seem to have adopted it from Plato and Greek philosophy. What the New Testament claims is not the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body.
Here is the difference. The biblical view is that, when we die, we actually die. All of us dies – body and soul. Human beings were created mortal, not immortal. Only God is immortal. What is proclaimed is that by the love and power of this God, we can be raised up to eternal life. We don’t already have an eternal essence within us. When Saint Paul says that we can “put on immortality” (I Cor. 15:53), he is saying that this is something God does for us. The Episcopal burial service says it well, addressing God saying: “You only are immortal, creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth and to earth shall we return” (BCP, p.499).
Perhaps it is fear of death (and maybe also a little arrogance?) that would have us think that we humans were created with a naturally eternal part of us. Popular culture has this immortal soul thing (sort of like a ghost) flying out of the human body at death to have an independent existence. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I think anything that does happen will be because God makes it happen.
So here is Good News: By the power of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can share in a resurrected life in heaven. This is done by the sheer grace of God and is not inherent within us. We are made to die, but Christ can make us alive again. To view an afterlife in heaven as a gift, rather than as our inherent destiny, makes a huge difference. So let us Christians stop talking about the “immortal soul” and instead proclaim the power of the Resurrection.
–The Reverend Mark Stanley
Recently, a friend said to me, “I like coming to church, and being part of the community, but I can’t say I’ve ever really encountered the presence of God. And I’m not even sure what that would look like.”
Growing up in the church, my Sunday School teacher told me that, “God is love. And where there is love, there is God. So whenever you see love, you see God.” Whatever it is that binds us together, that invisible dust that draws us closer, that is the presence of God.
I’ve grown up in the Episcopal Church learning that the Bible is a collection of stories about relationships that are special, broken, reconciled, and transformed. For me, being a Christian is all about the state of my relationships, with God, with other people, with myself, and with the whole of creation.
People were drawn to Jesus because they sensed in him the undeniable presence of love, and therefore of God. Jesus embodied the unconditional love of God, and he lived that out in the ways he treated people, embracing those who had been broken and rejected. But people became jealous that Jesus was treating the lowly as if they mattered as much as the mighty, so they killed him.
The amazing thing that happened after Jesus’s death was that people said they still felt his presence. They told stories about how Jesus was alive to them–loving them more than ever before.
God’s unconditional love was incarnated in the living, breathing person of Jesus. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s loved was powerfully unleashed into the world. God’s love is in us now, working to draw us closer, and empowering us to share that love in all our relationships.
God is love. And whenever you see love, or feel it, you are encountering the presence of God.
–The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley