I Want to Run in God’s Country

A hotel bathroom mirror struggles to squeeze in both of us – primping, priming, prepping. The struggle ensues to strike the balance between post-modern cool and age appropriateness (whatever the hell that means). Final touches, a stupid-slow elevator, and an underground tram ride find us deep in the heart of Washington State’s coolest city. Her oceanside tongue beckons us deeper down her salty throat.

In a quirky irony, a street preacher screeches through a megaphone, “REPENT AND BE SAVED FROM THE COMING WRATH.” Frankly, he seems mad enough for all of us. He shouts himself hoarse, pointing us to some tiny, angry “god” – while we wait to hear from a different God – In the name of love.

We are perched high above a stage that renders everything on it no bigger than our thumbs. From this height, everything seems atomic. Only the stadium is large. There is a palpable expectancy in the aether. Other grey hairs like me mix with kids much younger than our own – a testament to artistic legacy.

The stage is dark except for a few peripheral lights. What seems like hours for an event we’ve waited a lifetime to experience dispels in smoke as a tiny figure makes an appearance. He walks slowly, deliberately and sits at his drum kit. The crowd numbering in the gazillions boils over the brim in collective excitement. A kick drum and snare shots with military precision thunder in the dark. It is one of the most recognizable riffs of a generation. Sunday, Bloody Sunday. I weep in gratitude…

This day is ours, it is our Sunday, blessed Sunday.

May 14, 2017.

The wife of my youth.

Twenty-nine years married.

Seattle.

U2. 

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With Rae Kenny, my fellow lover for 29 years and fellow U2 fan

It is a small handful of events or experiences that earn the well-used primer: “I remember where I was when…” I remember where I was when the Berlin Wall became a gate, the Soviet Union became just a bad dream, when the U.S. dumped “shock and awe” on Iraq. When twin towers of glass and steel crumpled like paper on 9/11.

And I remember the first time I heard the mythic cries of Bono. Raw and pleading. He preached heaven and justice to the world’s hell and woe.

I would never be the same.

Every person can point to at least one thing, one person, book, place, experience that has so deeply touched them they’d not be the same person were it not for that thing. To describe, we use words like impactful, influential, unforgettable, foundational, formative. We say, “I am the person I am today, because of….” Our hearts brim at every remembrance. Conversations always veer in that direction. We return to it again and again rebooting it in our emotional hard-drives.

As a musician and writer, my influences bleed, albeit imperceptibly, onto every page or song I write. Words get strained through my inspirations: Gerard Manley Hopkins, John O’Donohue, Mary Oliver, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris – even as I sing in the shadows of Bruce Cockburn, The Chieftains, Dan Fogelberg, Stan Rogers, Paul Simon, and – you guessed it – U2.

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Centurylink Field, Seattle – The Joshua Tree Tour, 2017

Their musical impact is undeniable. Masters of melody, nuance, and the prophetic power of poetic art done well, I am pried open, exposed. Their un-theology is more impassioned activism than easy-to-swallow hallmark messages wrapped in bumper-sticker Christianity. I am the hungry canvas, they my nourishing paint.

Precious few cultural icons are so readily accessible as U2. But they represent much more than memorable music. Their message is not for the faint of heart. It yearns for the alternate reality of what is possible in a red letter arena; the dangerous stage of self-sacrificial love. They are wick to a candle burning brightly in praise of peace and justice, one that cannot blow out. They are cornerstone of a movement that pictures a world better than the one into which we were born.

This is not just the message of a generation played on guitars. This is a message for all time; ever new, always fresh, never-ending – Good News as it was always intended. My throat, tightened from tears, hoarse from singing anthems to peace, will only find rest when I find what I’m looking for. With my life partner beside me, the girl whose heart-strings are also touched by these same forces, I am closer than ever before.

Until then, I want to run in the name of love, in God’s country, where the streets have no name.

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“One” meme courtesy of my wife.

Maidin Paidir – Domhnaigh

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Morning Prayer – Sunday

 

With tear-drenched voices,

lungs outstretched to sing,

our guts emboldened, well-fed

on flesh, broken –

and tongues to taste blood from a cup,

let our tiny reverie resound

in the vast echo of your heart,

beating like yours.

 

“Trip to Bountiful” – part 4

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Hay, Monmouthshire – the view I’ve been waiting for

I have, for the first time, truly experienced the devastating wonder that is Wales. It is as though God made Britain first and then, everything else from spare parts (not that I can speak from context, or experience, or knowledge of any kind really). From the broad-shouldered Brecon Beacons, to the literary orgasm that is Hay-on-Wye, the city of bookshops.

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A bookshop. A café. In Hay-on-Wye. What’s not to love?

From the Cistercian monastery ruins at Tintern Abbey to equally haunting and beautiful Llanthony Priory. From the seaside riches of Harlech and Llanbedr to the rough ‘n tumble Dolgellau.
From a fifteenth century teahouse in Ty Hwnt I’r Bont near Llanwrst to Snowdonia National Park in Beddgelert, Wales is a place of countless treasures. 

I’ve been here before, but not this close to the bone. I’ve learned what it means not just to drive a car but navigate it like a big ship through a tiny canal. I’ve heard horror stories of those possessing significantly superior driving skills to myself pissing themselves from stress on the very Welsh “highways” I’ve just driven. Now, to be fair, I changed before writing this and how would you know anyway?

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Beudy Bach, our perfect stay in Llanbedr, near Harlech

In addition, to drive a car in a place so utterly complex is to forego any certainty of directions, ETAs, the logical movement of traffic, expectation of driver largesse, and frequency of toilets. Throughout the UK, the puritan American spirit must learn to contend with the lack of excretory euphemisms.

 

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Llanthony Priory

 

A tiny thumbnail of a country it boasts as long a history as anywhere in Europe. Today, we said goodbye to Wales, and find ourselves in another enchanting part of Britain – Ambleside, in the Lake District. We stop here to catch our breath, drink a ton of coffee and write.

In the days that follow, our travels will take us east and north to Dunbar and Edinburgh. The deep connection I have to Scotland will require a host of other blog posts. Hence, for now, with Wales in our rearview mirror, I think poetry is the only song that will work. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for joining us on this ride.

Down in the throat of Wales

In the throat of Wales,

where light is sparse, then it is best.

This land of green trousers with grey hat,

hair coiffed in bluebells, tulips,

and yellow daffodils.

She is held in frames of arbour, where bristle-faced hills

are bred for poetry – Coleridge, Thomas, Wordsworth.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

we pass the standing stones, God’s elder brothers,

and their eyes follow us.

Rain falls like sweat from the coal miner’s brow

while praying hands of hedgerow herald peace on every side.

A bleating sheep choir beckons eyes up to the watching hills.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

down, down the Brecon Beacons beckon, swallowed down

where the green things live – down in the throat of Wales.

At the Blue Boar Pub, regulars and weekend

intellectuals hold out town secrets.

Practiced tongues wag in dark corners, breathing out suds

and gossip and recycled stories with fresh laughter.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

at Hay-on-Wye – these streets are full of pages,

ten thousand dog-eared voices

tucked away on shelves and tables,

under arms and coat pockets.

American streetlights bow to clock towers, cheery pubs,

and weary stones. Long-drawn lines of primogeniture sing

the songs everyone still knows. And, the many-throated

happy-hour jubilee of a thousand years gone by

still steeps in the glow of candles,

wine-bright eyes, and cell phones.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

the hills stand guard, where stone and memory bleed

the colours of the ancestors,

drawing their long and bloody shadows over Beddgelert.

The River Colwyn, host to muddy boots and hooves and paws –

I pause to imprint her banks of sleep.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

Harlech’s stiff-shouldered castle juts out a jarring face

into Cardigan Bay, catching salt kisses

blown from the cold, grey sea.

Oh, where to wander in this wild and brooding land,

where friend is stranger – stranger, friend –

and all that ever wrung true hangs tightly

to the soft skeleton of a land made

from the stoutest stone, the strongest sheep, the swollen stories

of hearts that glow brighter than the smiles of children?

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

I place my ear next to her breast

to hear the consonantal tongue

make love to songs as old and wise as she –

where still, of all sad souls,

the blind man is poorest.

 

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

The changing face of prayer

As I deepen, glacially but surely, in the Way of Jesus I am finding freedom in the manner, frequency, and creativity of spiritual intercourse. There are a number of factors in these discoveries. I am getting older – a fact, apparently, applicable to all. The passing chronos lends a certain gravitas to the focus of kairos. And, the slow-cook crockpot of my formation adds fewer ingredients every year to an already complicated soup. Sometimes it’s not more, or even better, ingredients that are required for the quintessential meal. Sometimes it’s the right ones at the right time that leave the palette happy and wanting more.

As I’ve written numerous places, the past few years have been richly experimental in regions of contemplative prayer. Learning to love silence. Seeking out solitude. Making friends with simplicity. Studying the nuanced coup d’etat of lectio divina. Prayer walking. Being enriched through congregational liturgy. Journalling the works.

All these and more continue to contribute to whatever Rob, slightly enhanced, may be forthcoming off the stove.

But something is changing. With the increasing 20/20 available through the grace of kairos and the experience of chronos, I’m latching more and more onto the fluidity and ubiquity of unceasing prayer, specifically as it has come to be associated with who I am more than an action to which I commit. If in fact it is true that God is omnipresent, theologically, and an unceasingly constant spiritually, then it should come as no surprise that prayer can and perhaps should be, everything.

There is a state of being available to all persons everywhere that is readily found in that which most thrills the soul. For some, the ticking clock, counting the passing hours immersed in good literature. For others, it is the choir of smells united in one explosive song on a nature walk. For still others, it may be culling from the raw ingredients of the earth, something rich and flavorful with which to delight the tastebuds of friends and family.

For me, it was music and writing.

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Me, roughly a millenia ago

 

As a teen, and a budding musician, I would often sit for hours on the front step of our house simply playing my guitar. The notes, some of them good, others lined up for the shower, collided together to produce more than just music. They created space; a kind of generous openness to whatever the universe was at the time. A particular kind of peaceful “zen” or as Thomas Merton might call it, “contemplative awareness” resulted, leaving me just where I needed to be. This was true even as I spent countless agonizing hours learning impossibly difficult melodies (I certainly thought so at the time!).

In recent months, as more conventional understandings of contemplative prayer have waned a bit, I’ve had a certain yearning to resurrect this practice. And resurrection has been the result. To plant myself on a lawn chair a few feet from my rose bushes (such as they are) and play music inspired by the same, in tune with the wind, has once again ushered in a holy Presence. It has centered me like nothing else lately. 

Rob-singing on Okanagan Lake
Taken on Okanagan Lake, Kelowna, B.C., 1999

 It has also brought a much cherished simplicity and deepening unification of all I am into pulsating notes, maybe not always in tune, but always tuning. Music, once again, has become for me the changing face of prayer, changing me.

ALTARWORK dot calm

These are those delightful, though humbling serendipities that add such a glow of grace to life. Please check out this wonderful initiative of which I am honored to be a part…

ALTARWORK is delighted to present a sample of Rob’s poetry – eight poems in all. Rob has a unique voice and style – eclectic, uniquely profound – and is unafraid to stray beyond convention with regards to his subject matter, point of view, and wordplay. Rob is a highly enjoyable read.”

— Jason Ramsey, ALTARWORK Founder/Editor

A Celt in a kilt and the beautiful mundane

This was originally posted as a guest post on a favorite website of mine, Abbey of the Arts (thank you Christine Valters-Paintner!). What a delight to be given opportunity to share one’s life among kindred spirits in the grand dance that is our eternal redemption.

Please, please, please, if you haven’t already done so, be sure to visit Christine and the rest of us Monk-Artists at the Abbey. Come visit/like the Facebook page as well. You’ll be so glad you did. I promise.

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A Celt in a Kilt and the Beautiful Mundane

I-You-Holy Ground
By Robert Alan Rife

I am the dusty ground, low and dry
thirsty for the imprint of holy feet.
Despoil with radiant prints, this virgin ground.

You are the rain, falling deftly
upon my brown soil. Now is left
your footprint on this ground.

I am the ashen leaves, curling and broken
awaiting but a whisper. For only then
can I fall on solid ground.

You are the soundless wind, howling, still.
You creep up behind me and
exhale me to the ground.

I am the snow, disembodied worlds of cold
and chance encounters with hand, or tongue,
eye-lash or palm needing ground.

You are the frozen air in which I am held
aloft, drawn slowly down
to meet with others on the frozen ground.

I am the waning autumn death
soon to give way to the long silence-when one Voice
becomes the loudest ground.

You are the Voice that speaks
heard best in dying, power given for
rising from this shivering ground.

I am the distant hours, the midnight passing-
the refusing minutes, trapped in hours,
running from the years of ancient ground.

You are the many, and the one, and all time
and nothing and everything from nothing
where time has no ground.

I am the weeping, the squalid groaning,
the unrequited miseries of misery’s company
laying crippled and diffused in the ground.

You are the end of tears and years, the question
and the answer, the sutured nerve of joy, not suggested
but present, here, on this Holy Ground.

________________________________________

For me, the term ‘monk’ used to mean ‘one safely cloistered away from the cares of normal life in dimly lit, echoing stone hallways where hooded men sing hauntingly beautiful music and basically float just a bit off the ground. A single, piercing glance from their crystalline eyes means healing, they have superpowers, can read your thoughts, never need to eat, and speak once a year whether they need to or not.

Since leaving behind my roots in evangelicalism for headier waters elsewhere I’ve since discovered that monks often have the sauciest senses of humor, the bawdiest stories and, not surprisingly, the deepest delight in the world around them. My kinda fellas. They’re as non-dualistic as they come; a life to which I aspire. Apophatic meditation one moment. Bodily noises the next. Welcome to my world.

I am a dreamer; a philosopher-poet capable of romanticizing even the most mundane banalities. To a guy like me, cutting the grass has the potential to be a portal into the nether regions of the universe, awash in liminality, where mythic faeries ride unicorns on their way to Celtic slumber parties. But, I’ve been known to overstate a little.

Clearly, I’m a favorite among type-A corporate headhunters (tongue super-glued to cheek). Rather, stereotypical songwriters, tree-huggers, poets, unfocused A.D.D. artsy-fartsies, and contemplatives love to love me. They’re my peeps. My homies. They know my psychic address.

These overly romanticized sensibilities haven’t always promised smooth sailing for me. In fact, more often than not they’ve brought more than their fair share of woe and disillusionment. The world has precious little patience for those like me, preferring instead the multi-tasking, power-doers with ambitions larger than the moon upon which they hang their coats (but generally not their egos). It’s a challenge in our super-charged, winner-take-all culture to prove real value in lighting candles and pursuing silence when time is money and money is god and god keeps shrinking or running away.

My earliest recollections of spiritual awareness contained the following simple elements: surprised by joy moments, generally unasked for and seldom expected; a sudden awareness that the world was not really as it seemed – that from God’s perspective all was well. Specifically, I was drawn to all things ancient, mystical and Celtic. As a bagpiper/Irish whistle player who has toured extensively it makes sense that, for me, the world is seen through green colored glasses, smells just a little peaty, telephone poles were meant for tossing, and “ladies” is misspelled on the restroom door (insert look of shock and consternation here).

Although a mystic from a very early age, despite a decided lack of language to articulate such things, my fate was forever sealed when, for the first time I heard the Great Highland Bagpipe. I was seven years old. I was gobsmacked. Mere weeks later, in the basement of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, I started learning to play the pipes. I have played ever since.

Something else happened however. It christened a liminal journey of my inner mystic and forever sealed my fate as a lover of all things Celtic, monastic and artistic. It also began an almost unassuagable thirst for the monastic realities of thin-place living. Puddles become holy water. All time, whether singing, snoring or snacking, can be wrapped up in a ball of quivering holiness. It is the essence of Celtic spirituality. It is my essence (especially if we had haggis the night before).

Now, a gazillion years and as many prayers later, to be an artist, a mystic and a monastic-wannabe is for me to see myself less as a dreamer and more as a waking dream. Life is to find the holy in the banal; the glorious mundane. The perfect, daily moments of nothing-special that, simply by virtue of noticing them, become possibilities of inherent wonder. The greatest gift I’ve received in the past few years, something particularly attributable to the Celts, is that of awakening to these shimmering possibilities in the blasé and dull. How brightly they shine under the light of the God of order and magnificent delights.

To thine own self…

Spiritualk-Maturity

My DNA, such as it is, swims in the veins of two amazing young men – my sons, Calum – 23 and Graeme – 18. Each morning, looking back from the bathroom mirror is a reminder that a percentage of my younger self dwells in their lives. To some degree, when they see their own reflections, they are seeing me. As they experience fear, pain, remorse or joy, they do so in ways similar to my own. Their responses, either good or bad, to the involuntary stimuli thrown out from a quivering universe will be reminiscent of my own. Whatever I’ve been able to cobble together as my present ‘self’, God and I struggling together, is what they too must face. It will be their challenge as they overcome in themselves my numerous knotted patterns of being that, sometimes, can strangle or eviscerate. But it is also their gift, implanted in their psyches to help guide them in those mirky moments that will require whatever small intuition was gifted me.

Watching my younger son graduate from high school last Thursday night (6/5/14) was pause enough to sing the praise of both these men. I cannot claim to be half the man I need to be for them. Indeed, I cannot always claim I’ve been a man at all to them. What I can say with a clear conscience and not inconsiderable pride is how much I wish I were more like them. That more of them might be seen in me. My life, my energy, the very blood in my veins, belongs to them.

Their calling now is to find their calling; to find their truest selves; to be their most passionate selves for a very needy world that awaits them, and needs who they are (thanks Mr. Buechner). Precious few would I trust to write what they should most hear. Today, I entrust this sacred task into the hands of the late John O’Donohue…

For the Unknown Self

So much of what delights and troubles you

Happens on a surface

You take for ground.

Your mind thinks your life alone,

Your eyes consider air your nearest neighbor,

Yet it seems that a little below your heart

There houses in you an unknown self

Who prefers the patterns of the dark

And is not persuaded by the eye’s affection

Or caught by the flash of thought.

 

It is a self that enjoys contemplative patience

With all your unfolding expression,

Is never drawn to break into light

Though you entangle yourself in unworthiness

And misjudge what you do and who you are.

 

It presides within like an evening freedom

That will often see you enchanted by twilight

Without ever recognizing the falling night,

It resembles the under-earth of your visible life:

All you do and say and think is fostered

Deep in its opaque and prevenient clay.

 

It dwells in a strange, yet rhythmic ease

That is not ruffled by disappointment;

It presides in a deeper current of time

Free from the force of cause and sequence

That otherwise shapes your life.

 

Were it to break forth into day,

Its dark light might quench your mind,

For it knows how your primeval heart

Sisters every cell of your life

To all your known mind would avoid,

 

Thus it knows to dwell in you gently,

Offering you only discrete glimpses

Of how you construct your life.

 

At times, it will lead you strangely,

Magnetized by some resonance

That ambushes your vigilance.

 

It works most resolutely at night

As the poet who draws your dreams,

Creating for you many secret doors,

Decorated with pictures of your hunger;

 

It has the dignity of the angelic

That knows you to your roots,

Always awaiting your deeper befriending

To take you beyond the threshold of want,

Where all your diverse strainings

Can come to wholesome ease.

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Picture found here

You stood, heavy, on my chest

You stood, heavy, on my chest.

You asked me to breathe more deeply,

but I couldn’t breathe at all.

You were too heavy.

Your feet felt hot with purity

and singed my skin with perfect love.

You stood, heavy, on my chest.

My eyes grew heavy, my breathing labored and shallow.

You asked me to breathe more deeply.

I grew afraid, having become accustomed to

the trusted rhythms of easy breaths, drawn quickly.

My head swam, my thoughts ran, my chest ached.

You stood, heavy, on my chest.

Through winsome gaze and trenchant eyes

you asked me to breathe more deeply.

Feeling myself near the end,

my heart beat angrily, demanding more.

I gasped in, and there rushed in a fullness of

breath more sudden, more round, more living than ever.

You stood, heavy, on my chest.

You asked me to sing what you were singing.

Breath renewed, thoughts ablaze in the fire of life

I joined your song. But your voice was too perfect.

I thought I knew the words for you had sung it before –

many times. Still, my joy, still shy

waited for something more.

You stood, heavy, on my chest.

Then, you bent your head low, listening to my heartbeat.

It matched your own. To my fading words. They had

your accent. For my faltering voice.

Finally, words came and, as effortlessly as my last memories of breathing,

I gasped out the song.

I had been full of breath, longing to appear.

I had known the words all along, the melody’s true bearing

found tracks in the blood-worn pathways of

lungs newfound, air fresh-breathed, songs bright-lipped.

I sat, singing, upon your breast.

freedom

Picture found here

Give me (I)s to see

Originally published to the CenterQuest blog, this is a prayer-poem that amplifies our need for one another in the spiritual formation enterprise. We are becoming each other in the interest of the Kingdom of God.

Give me (I)s to see.

El-roi, the God who sees,

I am in need of other (I)s.

Knit I to I, eye to eye.

Just for today,

spike the highway of my destruction.

Stop my solo soul, O bent on

cruising past waving friends;

crashing into walls false made

to keep out the good things

I fear will destroy me;

careening into immovable things

meant to slow me down, moving me

to find salvation, restoration, fuel.

Give me (I)s to see.

El-roi, the God who sees,

I am in need of other (I)s.

Adjust my compass enough that

True North no longer looks like me alone,

but is a crowded mirror of cheering fans

convinced that I’ll go nowhere

if only moving in a single direction –

away from everyone else.

If drift I must, then I drift by trust

and let my newly plumbed back

be offered as the saddle for

another’s weary feet.

Give me (I)s to see.

El-roi, the God who sees,

I am in need of other (I)s.

God of the lonely and liminal,

the comfortable and cast-out,

the malleable and malevolent,

the somber and superimposed,

drive out the wedges driven between us

and re-align the bentness of this

favorable company, no stranger to the strange,

but magnet to the unattractable.

My completion is not me,

it is them. It is us.

Give me (I)s to see.

El-roi, the God who sees,

I am in need of other (I)s.

ferret out the worms of destruction

happily dining on my best offering.

If the result is nourishment for others,

let my spiritual entrails be ground up,

minced and mashed, chopped and chewed,

until those most needful find me.

Let them grow fat on my pain,

nourished in my darkness.

Send out your scout to scout me out

of unfinished relinquishments and

help to bear the brunt of

your foot on my heart.

Give me (I)s to see.

El-roi, the God who sees,

I am in need of other (I)s.

Step with boots of Gethsemane-dirt

on this barely-beating muscle

so inclined to be still when

faster and ferocious beats the heart of God.

Find me, O God of Embrace.

Find me and, give me back, so that,

to see myself is to see you looking back

through emblematic eyes belonging to others.

Let my newest breath come when I

breathe deep the fragrance of those

for whom you died.

El-roi, the God who sees,

Give me your (I)s to see.

eye

 

________ One – a prayer

Ineffable One,

there is a haze of wanton disregard fogging the window to my soul;

a fog of discontent that swirls around my deepest knowing;

an arrogant knowing where, in it’s place, I need unknowing.

Holy One,

relieve me of foolish trust in my ability to live in perfection.

Let loose the hounds of irreducible chaos if by their baying

I learn to shut out the noise of my voice for the Voice.

Glorious One,

teach me that, to look directly into the sun, is death.

But, to gaze into your face through grace filtered and raw,

is to see you as you truly are – horrifying in beauty.

Little One,

it once was said that the One who flung stars into space

fits securely in the tiny confines of the human heart.

Similarly, make me tiny, so that your reach through me is great.

Unseen One,

I have convinced myself that you make yourself invisible.

Remind me that I see you every time someone cries in pain

or, at the risk of their own wellness, becomes pain for another.

Elusive One,

forgive me for when I boast of my growing knowledge of God,

only to discover that it’s all been a ruse, a play on words,

your playful, cryptic way of introducing me to myself.

Unending One,

shake me loose from the need to place parameters, provisos,

gates on that which only ever bursts them asunder.

Help me to stop trying to find your endings and look for beginnings.

Loving One,

I am at a loss to understand, let alone experience,

such self-forgetful yearning for the good of another

that you would watch yourself disappear into the abyss,

only to return as the One.