I am at Peace with My Becoming

Advent is the season of angelic visitations, miraculous births and joyful expectation. It is the season to mark not what is but what will be. The valleys have been raised up and every mountain brought low—the way is being made for the New. We are mindful and attentive, watching the signs. A baby will be born, a star will die and its brilliant light will ignite the night sky. Soon shepherds will encounter luminous messengers who burst with angel song, “Glory to God in the highest, shalom to women and men who find favor with God!”

All this, but not yet. Still we wait. Advent is a song building to a glorious crescendo. It stokes our expectations. We anticipate Christ’s coming, eager that in meeting again the Divine, we may be changed. The road is open, and there is now real potential:  illumination, enlightenment, change, union. 

Rami Shapiro is a Jewish Rabbi and a Zen poet (he studying Zen Buddhism with Leonard Cohen). His poem “There is a Hunger”(from Accidental Grace, Paraclete Press, 2015, pp 32-33), illustrates this sense of expectancy:

There is a hunger in me that no thing can fill;

a gnawing emptiness that calls forth dreams

dark and unfathomable.

My Soul is whispering; Deep calling Deep,

and I know not how to respond.

The Beloved is near—as near as my breath,

as close as my breathing—

The World Soul of

which my soul is but a sliver of light.

Let me run to it in love,

Embracing the One who is me,

That I may embrace others who are One.

Enwrapped in your Being,

I am at peace with my becoming.

Engulfed in your flame

I am cleared and unclouded.

I am a window for the Light,

a lens by which You see Yourself;

a slight of Mind

that lets me know me as You

and lets me know You as me.

How wonderous this One

Who is the face of all things.

Of course, Shapiro’s spirituality, as a  Zen Buddhist Rabbi, is not particularly Christocentric. He didn’t pen these words in anticipation of some Christmas miracle. Certain lines hint at a pantheist union with all nature—the World Soul. However, if we believe as Christians that in Christ we glimpse the face of God, then our Christmas waiting opens up the potential of seeing Christ a new, in ourselves, in others, in the groaning creation.  We will become a window for others to sense Christ’s presence. How wonderous this One/ who is the face of all things!

The way is open for God’s shalom. Peace is the promise. Swords will be plowshares, spears will be pruning hooks. Predation will cease. All will be safe and secure. 

All this, but not yet. Still we wait. I am at peace with my becoming.

See the World Anew: a book review

I have been saved more than once by a good poem. N0t  because of its arresting metaphors or clever syntax. I enjoy imagery and love the music of words well used. The poems which have saved me are the ones that invited me to a whole new way of seeing the world. Our own senses give us a myopic view of reality. (Good) poetry transforms our perception.

the-paraclete-poetry-anthologyParaclete Press has introduced me to some great poems in the past several years. The Paraclete Poetry Anthology: Selected and New Poems brings together a selections from the poets Paraclete  has published from 2005-2016. John Sweeney (Paraclete Press’s former Editor-in-Chief and Publisher) writes the forward and Mark Burrows (editor) writes an introduction which describes the power poetry has to educate our souls.

Book-ending this collection are, to my mind, the highest profile poets which Paraclete Press has published: Scott Cairns and Rainer Marie Rilke. There are five poems from Cairn’s Slow Pilgrim: Collected Poems (2015) and six of his new poems. Cairns is an Orthodox Christian and which imforms his theological and aesthetic sensibilities. Rilke’s selection comes from Prayers of a Young Poet—the collection of sixty-eight poems—translated by  Burrows. Rilke wrote in the voice of an Orthodox monk, though his poetry is not characterized by the same confidence Cairns has. His poems ache and search for encounter with the living Thou.  Burrows  provides fresh translation of several other Rilke poems.

Between these two greats are other notable poets. There is the late Phyllis Tickle, the godmother of progressive evangelicalism. Her Hungry Spring & Ordinary Songs  (2015) is another great emergence to those of us more familiar with here theological works. There are poems here from Paul Mariani, poems by Anna Kamienska (whose poem “On a Thresh Hold of a Poem” provides the introduction to this anthology), Fr. John-Julian, Said, Bonnie Thurston, Greg Miller, William Woolfit, Rami Shapiro, Thomas Lynch, and Paul Quenon. This is a solid collection. About half the poets are new to me. Those I knew, like Cairns, Rilke, and to a lesser extent, John-Julian, Said, and Rami I’ve read and re-read.

This are not just a collection of poems. Theses are religious poems (mostly Christian). They turn transcendence and muse about divinity. Many of these poems pray, some describe and exegete. Others of these moan, sing and contemplate. On the whole a solid and varied collection. Each poem tells truth slant and opens up new vantage points for experiencing God and the world.  I give this anthology five stars and recommend this collection for anyone needing more poetry in their life (which is everyone).

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Poems from a Zen Rabbi: a book review

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is no ordinary poet. A student of Zen Buddhism and Hasidim, he was challenged to become a ‘Zen rabbi’ in 1973. He got ordained as a Reformed rabbi (1981) and served a congregation for twenty years. Today, he writes, leads retreats, and co-directs One River Wisdom School. Much of the poetry in Accidental Grace: Poetry, Prayers and Psalms was birthed for liturgical use in the congregation of Beth Or (in Miami)but is accessible to people across religious traditions.

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Accidental Grace: Poetry Prayers and Psalms by Rami M. Shapiro

As I thumbed through this book, my first question was “What the heck is a Zen rabbi?” This is a curious blending of religious traditions, to say the least! Shapiro writes:

At first I thought a Zen rabbi was a rabbi who wrapped a tallit/prayer shawl around the Buddha: making Buddhism kosher by finding ways to read Buddhism into Jewish text and tradition. I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t quite right. As it turns out, a Zen Rabbi is a rabbi who isn’t all that concerned with being a rabbi or a Jew. A Zen rabbi is a rabbi who, if she met Buddha on the road, wouldn’t kill him, but would take him out for bagels and lox. A Zen rabbi is a rabbi who thinks that God is reality manifesting as everything, the way an ocean manifests waves.  (p. x,  from the introduction).

Shapiro blends traditions, sounding Jewish one moment, the next like an Eastern mystic.   His source material remains the Hebrew scriptures and extant writings (‘everything has a hook in traditional Jewish texts,’ xi); yet he deconstructs much of this, sending it through his ‘Zen shredder.’ He rages against text and tradition but speaks reverently of the ineffable God who cannot be named.

Shapiro’s poems (proper) are bordered by his treatment of two types of texts from the Ketuvim(the writings in the Jewish Tanakh). He begins with the Psalms, offering poetic paraphrases and meditation on twenty psalms. The word “God” doesn’t always appear in these Psalms and there is no version of the tetragrammaton (YHWH). Shapiro  most often refers to God  as “You,” with occasional titles like, “Holy One of Being” and “Ground of all ground”(Ps. 90,  p.14). References to “Israel” and “Zion” are excised from most of his rephrasings. The exception, is Psalm 137, which describes the Jewish experience of their exile in Babylon. Here Shapiro says with the Psalmist, “I sat down by the rivers of Babylon. . .”and “If, I forget you, O Jerusalem. . .”(22). But he modifies the psalm’s baby-killing conclusion to read, “Please, God, silence the vengefulness within me/that justifies battering the babies of my enemies/on the rocks of their city until their bodies dissolve in pools of blood and fat”(23). He pays homage to the psalms, but also critiques, and rewrites them to reflect his own understanding of the God described in the text.

In the final section of this book, Shapiro presents a parabolic and dramatic retelling of the book of Job. His first act describes the wager between God and Satan and the havoc this wreaks on Job. The second act presents Job’s argument with his three friends about the cause of his suffering. Act three appears in two scenes: scene one has God appear in a sandstorm; scene two describe an aftermath conversation between Job, Satan and God. Shapiro touches on the ambiguities and absurdities in the Job narrative, offering a humorous, if irreverent conclusion.

The poems in the middle of the book vary. Some reflect on particular scriptures or liturgical settings. Some talk about spirituality: Sabbath, Torah, the Holocaust, pain, death, joy. Some poems are prayers to God, while others describe the divine in significant and mundane moments of life. There are poems which rage, and poems that praise.

When a Christian publishing house (Paraclete Press) puts out a book of poetry from a ‘Zen Rabbi,’  it is worth taking notice. It is not every day these traditions converge amicably without something of their particularity being sacrificed. I am a convinced Christian and no relativiser of the world’s religious traditions, but I can appreciate insights from other traditions. I found myself appreciative of Shapiro’s playfulness with Scripture and his imaging of the God “beyond imaging.” Many of his poems on the spiritual life are quite moving. I loved his description of the Spirit, and how we don’t just “breathe,” but “are breathed” (Attending, 36).  At some points, his spirituality was too vague for my tastes, but overall, I appreciated this collection. I give this four stars.

Note: I recieved this book from Paraclete press in exchange for my honest review.