Tuesday, June 27, 2017

PRIDE Evensong at The Church of St. Luke in the Fields in New York

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Aidan Owen,OHC
Luke 7:36-50 - Sunday, June 25, 2016

Br. Aidan Owen 
Do you see this woman? Do you see this woman? This is the question Jesus asks Simon the Pharisee, and it’s also the question Jesus and this text from Luke ask us. Do you see this woman?

Who is this woman we are to see? Luke gives her no name and no description other than that she is a sinner. But she also has no face. When she enters Simon’s house, she kneels down behind Jesus, obscuring herself from the gaze of those at table. She is bent down over Jesus’ feet. And presumably her hair, with which she dries those feet, falls down in her face as she goes about her extravagant work of hospitality. This anonymous woman has no name and no face. But her obscurity goes even further.

Her extraordinary boldness in approaching a man who is dining in someone else’s house, and not only in approaching, but in touching, and not only in touching, but in kissing, weeping, caressing, and anointing—this boldness suggest that this woman is either desperate for healing and wholeness or that she is so far beyond the boundaries of her society that she has nothing to lose by exposing herself to ridicule and derision. Probably both are true. Furthermore, this anonymous woman’s identity and spirituality arise from her body and her physical intimacy with Jesus. It is in her loving, sensual touch that she is healed. We cannot escape the overtones of sexuality here, overtones that only further underscore this woman’s place outside the mainstream. And so, not only is this woman anonymous, but she is also obscene. And her anonymity and obscenity are so inextricably entwined as to be practically speaking the same thing.

The word obscene means, “that which does not belong.” That which is outside the mainstream, that which stands beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, reasonable, tolerable, polite. Obscenity is grounded. It emerges from the body and its functions. It is, to use a fancy Greek word, chthonic, which means, subterranean or lying beneath the surface of the earth. Obscenity carries with it all sorts of lurid and even grotesque associations. Sex, body fluids, pornography, four letter words, excessive indulgence in food and drink, bathroom behaviors, dirty jokes—and the list goes on.

For a long time, and in some places and circumstances today, we queer people were seen as obscene. We were or are unnatural, outside the established regular ordering of creation and society. This obscenity was disturbing to our mainstream peers, and needed to be corrected or quelled.

But obscenity has dimensions to it that we rarely note. Urban Holmes III, the Anglican theologian, has this to say about obscenity:

One commonplace access to the chthonic powers of the earth is obscenity. […] A trivialization of the obscene is the dirty joke, whose humor is built on the incongruous and is the obverse of our fear of the dark mysteries of life associated, particularly, with the orifices of the body. […] [But] is it possible that obscenity taps an energy for mystical union?[1]
Is it possible that obscenity taps an energy for mystical union? What if obscenity lies at the heart of the mystery of union with God in Christ? What if the obscene is the gateway to the life that really is life, the life of Jesus Christ?

If we step beyond Luke’s account of this obscene and anonymous woman, we begin to see the eucharistic overtones to this story. In all the other gospel narratives, Jesus says of this woman that she has anointed him for burial. And in the two earliest gospel accounts—Mark and Matthew—Jesus goes even further by saying that wherever the gospel is proclaimed, this story will be told in memory of her. Do those words ring the proverbial bell?

The anonymous woman is a parallel figure for Jesus the Christ—preparing him at a supper for burial; washing his feet; and anointing him. The name Christ or Messiah literally means “anointed one.” And so we see that the actions of this woman make Jesus into the Christ. Her tears are a kind of second baptism, and her love lays the table for the eucharistic feast. She pours out her life in imitation of Jesus even before he does. She is, in fact, the model of his salvific outpouring.

And so, while this anonymous and obscene woman may lie outside the boundaries of her society and her religion, she stands at the very heart of Jesus’ eucharistic ministry. She is the only person in the entire gospel accounts who makes of her life an offering in the way that Jesus does, the only one who gives her entire self in love for Jesus. We are told to remember her in the same words with which we are told to remember Jesus. And yet, for all her centrality, she remains anonymous and obscene.

Perhaps the call of this woman’s story is not so much to remember her identity specifically, but to begin to see ourselves in her, to begin to pay attention to the parts of ourselves that are obscene and anonymous. And at the community level we might begin to ask ourselves, what have we sacrificed by assimilating to the dominant culture, which is to say, what have we queer people denied in seeking to be included in the white, capitalist, corporate climate of American society?

It was not too long ago that this Pride Parade was a protest march, an assertion that though our community lived on the margins of mainstream society, we would not be ignored. The gay lib movement, as it was then called, and its later manifestations in ACT-UP during the AIDS genocide took as their center-point a radical pride in being queer, a reveling, if you will, in the obscene and anonymous aspects of our identity. We were not members of mainstream American society, and thank God. Some older members of this congregation remember the days when you’d be seated waiting for church to start on Sunday morning and in would walk two men, clad in leather, with their third from the night before.

At a certain point, both inside and outside the church, things began to shift. The keyword of the gay community, as we were then called, became “inclusion.” We wanted to be included in the structures of society: marriage, taxes, benefits, etc. And we wanted to be included in a public way in our churches.

While I don’t want to disparage the spiritual and emotional benefit of being recognized as human by the larger structures in our society and our church, and of the ability legally and sacramentally to marry the person we love, regardless of gender identity, I find “inclusion” to be a rather anemic goal.

Inclusion too often means assimilation. It means that I adopt the character of the white, straight, boring, mainstream, Doris Day society, which is the same society that oppresses, degrades, and exploits people of color, trans and intersex people, poor people, immigrants, and the environment. And it further means that I allow the power brokers of that society to coopt the cultural markers of my community and to capitalize on them. In other words, inclusion and its darker side, assimilation, mean that I become part of the straight white dream, that I fall asleep to the obscene contours of my community identity, and that I allow the capitalist money-makers to profit from my community. In other words, I assimilate to the culture of the empire, and I lose my identity.

This sort of movement is exactly what happened to Christianity in the fourth century when it became the religion of the empire. What had been a marginal, one might even say anonymous and obscene, Way became the privileged and favored religion of the most elite members of the society. At that point, everything changed. The way of self-giving love that Jesus taught, the way of smallness and humility, became the path to greatness, power, and wealth. The way that taught its followers not to stone the sinful, became the arbiter of sin and the leader of inquisition, conquest, and conversion, the upholder of chattel slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans. The small, intimate meal of Jesus’ body, became an elaborate, stylized court ritual. You see, the empire never became Christian. Christianity became imperial.

You can be certain that Christianity would never have become the religion of empire if it didn’t pay dividends to those at the top. And you can be certain that we queer people would not be able to marry today, if the corporate sponsors of our inclusion in society didn’t make a lot of money off the deal. Again, I am not calling marriage equality and greater representation in media, society, and the church bad things. But they are not enough. And they are dangerous, if not seen as very small steps on the way toward healing and wholeness.

Far better than inclusion, is integration. Integration recognizes that there is unity inherent in diversity. Integration does not require the abandonment of identity in order to secure belonging. Rather, it realizes that true belonging is already given, and that the whole is stronger for the diversity and multiplicity of its parts. An integrated church and society would celebrate the obscene rather than trying to strip it of its earthiness in favor of a bland whiteness. We would revel in our dual nature as embodied spirits and spiritual bodies. We would proclaim with joy rather than shame that we are the stuff of the earth.

There is, too, in our denial of the obscene a more personal dimension at work. We all know the burn of shame and fear, the sense that somewhere, deep within us, lies a truth that, were it known publicly, would lead others to push us beyond the boundaries, to abandon us to the outer darkness. We all have some aspect to our lives that we would rather jettison in favor of a more acceptable, beautiful image of who we should be. Our denied hopes, the unmet yearnings of our deep hearts, disappointments at the way life has turned out, shame at our bodies, memories of abuse and neglect, and the list goes on. But to deny the fullness of our experience does not bring healing. It only brings further fragmentation.

These parts of ourselves we would deny, can actually be the gateway to our salvation. If we, like our anonymous and obscene woman, choose to embrace those parts of ourselves we find least acceptable, to pour them out in love at the feet of Jesus, we may just find something astonishing happening. We may look down, in the midst of our lives, and find that it is actually Jesus who is bathing our feet, bathing our entire bodies, with his tears, drying our bruised and aching limbs with his hair, covering our most tender places with his kisses, and showing us that there is no place within us that is beyond the revelatory power of his love. In fact, there is no place within us that is not already Christ.

The 10th century mystic Symeon the New Theologian puts it this way:

If we genuinely love Him,we wake up inside Christ’s body where all our body, all over,every most hidden part of it,is realized in joy as Him,and He makes us, utterly, real, and everything that is hurt, everythingthat seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,maimed, ugly, irreparablydamaged, is in Him transformed and recognized as whole, as lovely,and radiant in His lighthe awakens as the Belovedin every last part of our body.[2]
You see, there is, ultimately no part of us that is truly obscene. There are no boundaries, no margins, no barriers between us and Christ the Beloved. We are already one, and we always have been. And wherever we tell this story of perfect union, we tell it in remembrance of this anonymous woman, in remembrance of Jesus of Nazareth, and, yes, in remembrance of you, in remembrance of me.


[1] Urban Holmes III, What is Anglicanism?, p. 70.[2] http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/blog/2010/10/22/symeon-the-new-theologian-we-awaken-in-christs-body/

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Proper 7 Year A- June 25, 2017

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Josép R. Martínez-Cubero,OHC
Proper 7 Year A- Sunday, June 25, 2017

Br. Josép R. Martínez-Cubero, OHC
The desert monastics tell the story of Abba John who prayed to God to take away his passions so that he could become free of inner turmoil. Abba John reported to his spiritual elder, “I now find myself in total peace.” His spiritual elder said to him, “Really? Well, in that case, go and beg God to stir up warfare within you again, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.”

Today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, calls us to spiritual warfare, to choose between what is our will for God and what is God’s will for us. Jesus invites us to hear the voice of God calling to us to make right choices in the midst of the confusion and the chaos in the world, and the chaos we manage to create in ourselves because of our blind self-interest. And the story we heard from Genesis, presents this blind self-interest so very clearly. There are big choices to be made, important choices. And Abraham, the one chosen by God to make them, says he is listening to God when he clearly can’t distinguish God’s voice from his own. And his wife Sarah’s motive is not to do the will of God, but to see that God does hers!

Abraham says he is listening to God, who tells him to listen to Sarah and “send Hagar out”, meaning out to die in the desert! Sarah’s jealousy and greed drive her to wield her power over Hagar. And one thing I know about God is that God does not entitle us to use our power against the powerless just because we can. God calls us to be strong in the Lord, and not in our own power and desires! And though the story tells us that Abraham is distressed about “sending Hagar out,” well, he does, regardless of her innocence, and regardless of the child. He gives in to a false sense of peace rather than facing the cowardice that stops him from making the choice that is just to both, Sarah and Hagar, let alone Ishmael and Isaac. Worse, he blames his choice on God.

Hagar becomes the one who has lost everything, the refugee, and the mother desperate to save her child. Her story is repeated over and over again with the millions of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people around the world. Let us be clear, children like Ishmael perish on a daily basis, and parents mourn in their helplessness to protect them. And some wonder where is God? And God asks: “Where are you??” Hagar story is also repeated here in the United States through national laws and policies that have created groups of expendable people, many of them children and single parents, whose well-being seems to be of no concern when law and policy makers, representing us, make their decisions. This story may seem old and outdated at first, but it is, really as new as today’s paper.

This is not a story about holiness or listening to the voice of God. This is a story about sin and calling upon God to justify it. If one thing I’ve learned in the past three years here at the monastery is this: listening to God is one thing. Having the spiritual depth to discern the voice of God from all the other voices around me, and, most of all, within me, is another. It takes psychological development, emotional maturity, and a lot of spiritual effort to hear the voice of God! And it is, spiritual warfare!

Jesus’ call in today’s Gospel lesson is non-negotiable, and a challenging journey. “I have not come to bring peace,” Jesus says, “but a sword.” It is a call to fight for justice, and mercy, and compassion. It is a call to do, not what the world expects, but what God expects. It is a call to let go of our delusions, our false self, and to choose, instead, the Spirit of God. It is a call, as our Brother Joseph told us in his beautiful sermon yesterday, to be prophets of the Most High.

“Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered” says Jesus. It was Sarah and Abraham who wanted Hagar sent out. It was not God. God rescued Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham and Sarah’s selfish and sinful hand. I know this, because what I know about God is that God is not in favor of oppression, or violence or bigotry or sexism or homophobia or ecological devastation or disregard for the poor! God’s will is about love, and care, and mercy, and justice, and community, and compassion. That is the will of God! So Jesus calls us to make choices, to take sides, to take a stand for what is right, and to work hard to change what is wrong. And for those who don’t feel ready, I leave you with the words of Dr. Ronald Rolheiser:
“Not even Jesus found ‘the ready.’Jesus called Nathaniel… Nathaniel lacked openness. Nathaniel wasn’t ready.Jesus called Philip… Philip lacked simplicity. Philip wasn’t ready.Jesus called Simon, the Zealot… Simon lacked non-violence. Simon wasn’t ready.Jesus called Andrew…Andrew lacked a sense of risk. Andrew wasn’t ready.Jesus called Thomas…Thomas lacked vision. Thomas wasn’t ready. Jesus called Judas…Judas lacked spiritual maturity. Judas was definitely not ready.Jesus called Matthew…Matthew lacked a sense of social sin. Matthew wasn’t ready.Jesus called Thaddeus…Thaddeus lacked commitment. Thaddeus wasn’t ready.Jesus called James the Lesser…James lacked awareness. James wasn’t ready.Jesus called James and John, the sons of thunder… James and John lacked a sense of servanthood. James and John were not ready.Jesus called Peter, the Rock…Peter lacked courage. Peter was not ready.The point, you see, is that Jesus doesn’t call the ready. Jesus calls the willing.”

So, ready or not, let us take up the cross with willing hearts, and humbly follow after him. ~Que así sea. Amen.


  • John C. Holbert, Telling the Whole Story (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013)
  • Bruce Epperly, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2011)
  • Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity (Crown Publishing Group, 2014)
  • www.coptic.net: From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Trinity Sunday- Year A- June 11

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
Trinity Sunday- Year A  - Sunday June 11,2017

Robert James Magliula 

God’s mystery in the Trinity rests in mutuality: three perfectly handing over, emptying themselves out, and then fully receiving what has been handed over. In the Trinity, God models relationship for us as Christians and monastics. The first reading from Genesis sets the tone for how we encounter God. God is one, yet God creates, sustains, orders, preserves, provides, and loves. God blesses all creation. God engages with all that exists. We’re tempted to analyze and explain the Trinity by our intellect, but mystery can only be encountered by the heart. Trinity is a paradigm of what it means to be human and to relate humanely to others. 

To say that God is Triune is to mean that God is social in nature. It is also to say that those made in God’s image are likewise intrinsically social.Consider the visual depiction of the Trinity in the icon Peter has written at the entrance to the Church. A vast silence surrounds the three figures. They are looking into each other with an unqualified dignity, respect, and loving gaze. The fourth side of the table is open signaling an invitation for us to enter. As members of Christ’s body, we participate in the divine nature and dance of the Trinity. We are not merely invited to watch the dance, but to dance the dance. In our Gospel Jesus tells his followers to re-enact his story in the baptism of new disciples, enfolding them in the life of the Trinitarian God.

Henri Nouwen called the Trinity a “House of Love”. He wrote that in that household “there is no fear, no greed, no anger, no violence, no anxieties, no pain, even no words, only enduring love and deepening trust.” The template for this sacred alchemy is imprinted on our soul. Cynthia Bourgeault ties the dynamic outpouring of Trinity to Jesus’ path of self-emptying. As a wisdom teacher, he was concerned with the transformation of human consciousness. This is the path that he walked, taught, and calls us to follow.

In his book, Putting on the Mind of Christ, Jim Marion suggests that the Kingdom of Heaven is Jesus’ way of describing that state of transformed consciousness. It’s a metaphor and not a place you go to, but a place you come from.  It’s a new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that turns this world into a different place. The hallmark of this awareness is that it sees no separation—not between God and humans, not between humans and other humans. Jesus’ teaching to  “Love your neighbor as yourself” is an admonition to love the other as a continuation of our very own being. It’s seeing that your neighbor is you. There are not two individuals, one seeking to better oneself at the expense of the other, or to extend charity to the other. Each is equally precious and necessary.

True union does not absorb distinctions, but actually intensifies them. The more one gives one’s self in creative union with another, the more one becomes one’s self. This is reflected in the Trinity, perfect giving and perfect receiving. The more one becomes one’s true Self, the more capable one is of not overprotecting the boundaries of one’s false self. You have nothing to protect and that’s the freedom and happiness we see in converted people.

Our Epistle reminds us that Paul was no stranger to the joys and challenges of community life. He had lived with the community in Corinth for a couple of years and corresponded with them by letter on at least five occasions. He ends this painful letter with an appeal to order, mutual agreement, and peace. Like a good mother he demonstrated a protective instinct to ensure the survival of the community that he had birthed. He offers them and us a Christological perspective regarding community life. Believers do not belong to themselves, but to Christ, and relations among believers must reflect the One to whom they belong. He reminds them and us that when we cease to belong to Christ we give ourselves to inappropriate anger, destructive hatred, and perhaps worst of all, for us as monastics, the poison of self-absorption. He also voices his assurance that we do not face this challenge alone, but with the love and grace of God, and the Holy Spirit’s power to create communion.

By observing ourselves, we become aware of what blocks us from entering the divine dance. We especially feel it in our body, when we are tight, constricted, and withholding. When closed we live from a place of scarcity, invariably protecting and defending what little we think we have or are. When we are petty, blaming, angry, playing the victim, we’re tempted to project our problem on someone or something else, rather than dealing with it in ourselves.

Having someone to hate or blame is a relief, because it takes away our inner shame and anxiety and provides a false sense of innocence. As long as the evil is outside of us we can keep our focus on changing someone else. In playing the victim our pain becomes our personal ticket to power because it gives us a false sense of moral superiority and outrage. We don’t have to grow up, let go, forgive, or surrender—we just have to accuse someone else of being worse than we are. We refuse to live in the real world of shadow and paradox.

When open, we move away from any need to protect our own power, we mirror the Trinity where all power is shared, where there is no domination, threat, or coercion. Jesus took this difficult path to know the depths of suffering and sin and yet to forgive reality for being what it is. Only the Spirit can teach us the paradox of growth, conversion, and transformation. Great love, great suffering, and some form of contemplative practice are the usual paths that keep us alert and receptive so we can get our small, false self out of the way, and become an open conduit for the abundant life that God is and that the believer becomes.

Resurrection for us is not an isolated miracle as much as an enduring relationship. Death is not just the death of the physical body, but all the times we hit bottom and must let go of how we thought life should be and surrender. We go through many deaths in our lifetime. These deaths to the small self are tipping points, opportunities to choose conversion. Death is death only for those who close down to growth and new life.

Benedictine spirituality is demanding. It ‘s about caring for the people you live with, and loving the people you don’t, and loving God more than yourself. It depends on listening for the voice of God everywhere in life, especially in one another.  Benedict insisted that we must learn to listen to what God is saying in our simple, sometimes crazy, and always uncertain daily lives. The good zeal, the monastic zeal, commits us to human community, immerses us in Christ, and surrenders us to God, minute by minute, person by person, day after day. Benedict reminds us that sanctity is the stuff of community in Christ and that any other zeal is false.

As we move forward from this Chapter, we need to not be afraid of darkness, of the things that look like they’re going in the wrong direction. So often the difficulty we face is exactly the thing that needed to happen in order for there to be clarity. Jesus’ life and ministry reveals that God uses tragedy, suffering, pain, betrayal, and death itself, not to wound us, but to bring us to God. There are no dead ends. Everything can be transformed and everything can be used. Trust that even when it seems our world is moving backward—away from justice and peace—this friction too can serve, to move us in a brand new direction.  +Amen.



Sunday, June 4, 2017

Day of Pentecost Year A- June 4, 2017

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Day of Pentecost- Year A - Sunday,  June  4, 2017

Br. Roy Parker

The readings have been selected partly for the sake of illustrating a less institutional possibility for the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In the reading from Numbers the story goes that the majority of chosen elders stuck to the plan of following Moses out of the encampment to the Tent of Meeting to take their places round about the Tent. In due course the Spirit of God came to rest upon them, causing them, in chorus, to prophecy ecstatically once and then no more. On the other hand two of those chosen happened to stay behind in the encampment for whatever reason. 

A liturgy I once attended depicted them as illustrating the accusation leveled at those in the Upper Room in the Book of Acts - as being drunk on new wine - and the point made by Numbers is that these two who stayed in the camp were gifted with sustained prophecy, whereas those who obeyed the rules prophesied but once.

This alarmed Joshua, Moses' assistant, who proposed putting an end to such behavior. But to the apparent challenge to his authority Moses makes the more vigorous response:  "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!" Apparently the gift of the Spirit is not limited to those who strictly follow the rules; in fact, it appears to be enhanced by a little transgression, a reminder that sometimes toeing the line gets you exactly nowhere. Bp. James Pike used to refer to the apostolic succession as "the sacred plumbing," and this incident in Numbers would be a sort of renegade piping.

Then there's the reading from John which emphasizes the general availability of the Spirit because Jesus calls out for every thirsty one to come to him and drink. But according to Raymond Brown, the oracle of the John Gospel,  the verse "out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water" requires adjustment. He observes of the present translation that its unChristological interpretation of the source of living waters is due to Eastern Christian influence, affected by the Eastern reverence for Origen who emphasized that the perfect gnostic could become - through spiritual understanding of the Scriptures - a bubbling source of light and knowledge for others. In other words, the better reading of the verse would be "out of his (Christ's) heart shall flow rivers of living water," or "from within him shall flow rivers of living water," which is consistent with the Fourth Gospel's presentation of Jesus as the Wisdom figure par excellence. For example, compare "On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink . . . " with the Proverbs verses "Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. She calls from the highest places in the town . . . Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed " (Prov.1:20-21; 9:3,5) The various passages about Jesus as the true bread, we're reminded, refer primarily to the nourishment offered by the wisdom of his teaching.

The Spirit offers herself as a torrent, but how do we come to Jesus and drink? In the conversation of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, Jesus says, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is who is saying to you 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." So, asking is involved as well as coming and believing.

Asking for the living water of the Spirit has a varied treatment in the Gospels. Jesus tells us in the Synoptic Gospels that for us who know how to give good gifts to our children the Holy Spirit is guaranteed in abundance if we ask our heavenly Father, but of course we must ask. Yet in the Fourth Gospel Jesus says, "I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him."

I suggest that these scenarios of our asking and Jesus' asking can be harmonized under certain conditions such that our asking springs from an unknown part of ourselves as demonstrated by the Oregonians who at the cost of their lives intervened on behalf of the Muslim teens being abused on the train.  There the asking is a kind of casting oneself upon the torrent of living waters which flow from Jesus' inner being, a real abandonment of oneself to divine providence, where the agent is actually Jesus.
This can be put in more electronic terms: When the ordinary image of God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt, a Christian hard-wiring kicks in, activating the circuitry printed on our motherboards, including images of the Crucified like the serpent elevated in the wilderness for healing. There our asking and the asking of Jesus become united.

I'll further suggest that the Spirit Herself leads us in the quest, as illustrated by this Billy Collins poem about angels who, after all, as ministering spirits, are understudies for the Holy Spirit.

Of all the questions you might want to ask 
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time 
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

Do they fly through God's body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes, 
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?

If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole 
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word? 

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive 
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards? 

No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

It is designed to make us think in millions, 
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful 
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians. 

(Questions About Angels, in Sailing Alone Around the Room, New and Collected Poems, Billy Collins, Random House, 2002.)

This is a picture of how our better angels can lead us in the dance, and it calls to mind an episode in James Michener's novel The Source. In a nineteenth-century Russian village a friend of the local Jewish community is hanging out with colleagues in the saloon when he realizes that a pogrom against the Jews is building around him. He slips out a side door and runs to warn them, and discovers to his amazement that they have commenced a communal dance to purify themselves for death. They have commenced a communal dance, and the tall thin bassist leans over to glance at his watch because she has been dancing forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.