By Christina Hutchins
I begin in sorrow, horror, and fear today. I have just stood up roughly from reading news on the computer, almost knocking down my chair in the intensity of a disgust and despair planted unexpectedly deep within me by the passage of the tax bill championed by Donald Trump. I am afraid for my country, afraid for myself, and for vulnerable humans and ecosystems of every kind. The bill contains legislation hardly related to taxes: lifting the ban on presidential politics by churches, extending rights to fetuses. Then there’s the budget, taking 150 billion from poverty programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that feeds hungry humans. I am dismayed. There is the retweeting of anti-Islamic, fringe group, hate videos by the President of the United States. This is the social fabric in the process of being torn, and the associated feelings are what the spiritual and moral guide, Simone Weil, called “affliction.” So many of us are feeling true affliction, on our own and others’ behalves.
“Affliction,” writes Simone Weil, “forces us to feel with all our souls the absence of finality.” Under affliction is a longing, a longing for completion, a longing for the pain to end.
Sometimes we carry our longings buried under disgust or sorrow so deeply borne we do not even know that what we may feel is a kind of yearning. Sometimes longing cloaks itself in a despair that, in attempting to anesthetize pain, can numb entirely our capacity to feel. The poet Theodore Roethke, who suffered from Bipolar Disorder and was prone to seemingly intractable depressions, writes of that despair in his poem, “The Longing.”
“In a bleak time, when a week of rain is a year,
The slag-heaps fume at the edge of the raw cities:
The gulls wheel over their singular garbage;
The great trees no longer shimmer;
Not even the soot dances.
And the spirit fails to move forward,
But shrinks into a half-life, less than itself,
Falls back, a slug, a loose worm
Ready for any crevice,
An eyeless starer.”
What is the longing beneath the despair in the poem? It is held in the intimacy of images that betray a deep desire for a clear morning at the edge of the raw city, for trees that shimmer and soot that dances, for a spirit that dares to move forward enfleshed, expanding, singing forth and shouting its becoming.
I think our present affliction, our rightful despair, bears a profound, embodied longing, an ultimately holy longing, an intense desire, the desire to know what prophets have called the glory of God, the desire to see and know the beauty and meaning of creative power fully expressed in and through creation. The yearning, as Isaiah says, is that “the glory of God shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” During Advent we rediscover our longing and claim that anticipation and yearning are in themselves full religious experiences.
Longings can call to us from the unmade future, turning us toward further becoming, into expression with our voices and lives. John the Baptizer, whose presence in Mark’s gospel precedes the appearance of the adult Jesus, calls his hearers to repent as a way of preparing for Jesus’ ministry. “Repent, for the realm of God is at hand” To repent is to turn to that longing which inhabits us under despair and anger, fear and sorrow, to turn into the motion of the divine, and to turn toward the deepest yearnings of our lives.
I live in California where autumn comes late, and last week I walked through North Berkeley, a peaceful walk, extraordinary, along streets lined with liquidambar, with yellow maples and Chinese pistache, all the leaves turning to their deepest longings, all the leaves turning to their colors of gold and deep red, pink, to orange, to crimson, to fire, repenting, turning into the season of their lives’ deepest expression.
Horace Donegan was the Episcopal Bishop of New York from 1950 to 1972. He worked to expand the role of women in the church, was an early Civil Rights activist, and in particular he was greatly troubled by and worked for the poor of New York City. In 1967 he announced that funds set aside for the completion of the giant and elaborate Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan would instead be given to assist housing and human development programs in Harlem. Donegan repented, turned into a new season, turned from dismay and despair and into a different and more profound longing in himself and in our world, the yearning for the expression of the glory of God in real human lives. He said, about that decision, “this unfinished cathedral, towering as it does over this great and suffering metropolis, shall be the prophetic symbol that our society is still as rough-hewn, ragged, broken and incomplete as the building itself.”
Simone Weil asserted, “All feeling can give rise to love.” I don’t know if I can believe that, but I want to try it on during this Advent. The bare branches of the maples and the bare bones of existence lie in and around us, sharp, jagged, piercing our lives. Slag-heaps still fume at the edge of the raw cities, and the Cathedral’s unfinished peaks jab the sky. In American politics and communal life, the rough brokenness of life’s incompleteness cannot now be ignored. Yet under our despair may lurk very great longings. As we turn from despair toward our own deep longings for humane completions, as we kindle ever keener yearnings to know God’s glory poured out, to know flesh shall embody divine motion together, as we turn, rounding corners into new decisions for and toward our collective future, perhaps in the turning itself, flesh shall shout out the wild and lovely colors of a new season, and the beauty of God shall be revealed.
Christina Hutchins’ poetry books are Tender the Maker (Swenson Award, Utah State UP, 2015), The Stranger Dissolves (Sixteen Rivers, 2011), and Radiantly We Inhabit the Air (Becker Prize, 2011). She has won The Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, National Poetry Review’s Finch Prize, various fellowships, and spent summer 2017 as the Dartmouth Poet in Residence at the Frost Place. Visit her website at www.christinahutchins.