Stone Arch Bridge “You’re not going any farther than this,” the man said. There was a warning tone in his voice and a charge in his eyes, which gleamed blue-gray in the last light of day, like the sky that was fading to dusk. We had walked from the street above us down a wooden staircase to this spot on the Mississippi River beneath the Stone Arch Bridge, looking for a place to take photographs. There was not much of a place there. The first space we had come to was taken by a family fishing; the next spot occupied by teenagers sitting on a concrete ledge of the superstructure of the bridge, and this third and final spot, by the man with blue-gray eyes and two companions. He was about twenty years old; his companions were both three decades older. Plopped into lawn chairs, with fishing lines stuck in the water, they glanced over at us and said nothing. Three mallard ducks walked about near their outstretched feet.  And just past this scene, there was a last bit of gravelly beach, and not much of it, just a few feet littered with broken glass. But I wanted the pictures.

I paused, considering. The man’s words sounded threatening, but what could he mean? He didn’t own the place. “What do you mean by that?” I asked him. His eyes widened. “I mean, you can’t go up there,” he said, pointing at the shadowy, wooded hill, thick with scrub brush and trees that rose sharply at the edge of our little gravel breach. “You can’t get through those woods, and it’s full of ticks.” The ticks didn’t concern me, but what he said about the impassibility of the woods at that angle was true. I pointed to the last few feet of shoreline, with its curves of broken bottles angling up in the gravel. “But we can get there.” It wasn’t much, but we could fit on it.

“Yeah, you can get there,” he said.  The two men in the lawn chairs looked at the river in silence. Then, as we started to pick our way through the gravel, across the slope of beach that took us just behind their chairs, one of them started to talk in a self-consciously loud voice and then he laughed, and the other laughed back in a way that felt like they were erecting a verbal shield around their psychic space, since we had invaded their physical one.

It was ludicrous: the two of us on the little broken glassed edge of land, the toes of our shoes already in the river, setting up my tripod which went one leg down into the river at first because of the angle there, before Geoff found a flat rock and we moved it to the edge of the water and balanced it as best we could on the slope. It was ludicrous: we were in the space the men had staked out for the evening, although we had crept to the farthest edge of it; as far as you could go before falling into the water. When the men had claimed this space earlier in the evening, they had not imagined anyone would go past it, farther than them. It was claimed, it was theirs, simply through logistics. Well, this wouldn’t take long, I thought.

We set up. We made quick adjustments to the tripod, while the  men talked to each other in voices that had the patina of lives lived hard, on the edge.  The ducks went into the water and came back, parading as a trio around the men in their chairs, an odd domestic touch, as if the ducks were pets and the men were sitting in loungers in their living room. I had never seen wild ducks come this close to people. And who expected a living room here at the farthest edge of the riverbank?

The light in the sky was also at its farthest edge, no longer day, but not yet night. It seemed to pause for a moment, faded to gray over the river. In a few moments, the lights on the bridge would come on. I took a few test shots and made some adjustments. I was conscious of my camera bag, that my camera and lenses were not inexpensive, although my tripod was cheap, and that the two older men looked a little surly. I was fumbling with the equipment, standing in broken glass with the sky growing dark. This was not necessarily a safe place to be, I thought. When the lights of the bridge came on and I started to focus the lens, Geoff said under his breath, “Hurry up.” So he was feeling it, too, this sense that  the two older men were not only unhappy that we were there, but that perhaps they were scrutinizing what I had in the bag.

“Look!” the young man shouted, pointing beyond us. We turned and looked into the darkness along the shadowy, timbered shoreline; I could see nothing. “It’s a crane! That would make a great picture!” The men turned in their lawn chairs. “Yes, it would. You really should get that picture,” they said. The problem was, I couldn’t see the crane. Neither could Geoff. “And even if I could,” I explained, “The lens I’m using is a wide angle so that I can get the whole bridge into the picture, and a crane probably wouldn’t show up on it. I mean, it would look very small.” “It’s a great shot for a photographer,” the young man said, “with the moon behind it.” “A great shot,” the men in the lawn chairs agreed. They were invested in this now; they were with us on this. I agreed that it would be a great shot if I could only see it. I felt bad that I couldn’t see what they were seeing, what they fervently wished for me to capture.

It was when we took the tripod down and turned to go that Geoff suddenly saw the crane. It took me a moment and then I saw it, too, perched in a tree at the edge of the river with the moon rising behind it. It was much closer to us than I had expected when the young man first pointed; I had missed it by looking too far downriver. It was, in fact, companionably close to our little group. I would have called it a heron, not a crane, but as I had learned earlier that summer, no one can seem to agree on the names of these creatures. The bird was hunched over and seemed to be gazing down at the water musingly; I thought of a philosopher contemplating the river of life, but the bird was probably just thinking about fish. There we were: the bird and the older men and the young man and the bridge and the lights and the river and us. It all seemed to merge for a moment; this was our place on the river together; we were, for a moment, one piece, companions on the far edge of shoreline. The heron was too much in shadow to get a photo without getting the tripod out again and repositioning it upward at a precarious angle, and no one pressed it now, the men just seemed happy that we could see it.

I took what I consider one of my best photos that night, a shot of the Stone Arch Bridge, but the better one is the one I have in my memory, the men in the lawn chairs with the ducks walking around their feet, the excited young man pointing into the dark and over us all, the heron and the moon. I wouldn’t have thought to ask the men if I could take a picture of them, but when I looked at my photos later they were there at the edge of the frame, what the wide angle lens had included without my noticing. If you look at the right edge of the photograph about two-thirds from the top, you’ll see them in the shadows, one young man, and the belly and outstretched legs of one of the two men in their lawn chairs. Although I had intended to frame only the bridge in the photograph, I wouldn’t think of cropping them out.


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A song by Peter Mayer, Blue Boat Home, depicts the earth as a boat sailing the universe, and we, “kindred pilgrim souls,” lean over the edge of our boat “in wonder, casting questions into the deep.”* The moment that the song queued up on my car’s old but good CD player on a recent morning, I spotted a great bird flying overhead. An egret or a heron. I was driving down the highway. The sky was overcast but a disc of sun faintly appeared through the shifting clouds so that the heron passed across the sun in silvery silhouette. It was a moment that somehow caught my moving car and the moving heron and the slip of the sun in an instance of common trajectory, like grace. The sight of the bird flying across the sun and the gentle lyrics of Blue Boat Home were too much for me: I began to weep. A seminary friend had died suddenly the week before. He was not a close friend, but I had sat with him in classes for four years and he was too young and he was in the midst of exploring his path, of “casting questions into the deep.” We do a lot of that at seminary, casting questions, leaning over the edge in wonder; we are kindred pilgrim souls in that way. I suspect that many of us lean over the edge in wonder and also with a set of harrowing questions. In my concentration of study I look at a lot of justice issues, which means peering into injustices and our kindred inhumanity. Recently, while studying the Armenian genocide, I cast many urgent questions into the deep.  I wondered about the whole venture of we human beings in our blue boat home. Who are we? Who — really — are we?

I was born upon the fathoms/never harbor or port have I known. My friend went through a lot of changes in his short life, pursued different paths, explored the fathoms. He seemed to be coming into his own. He and I had a couple of  disagreements, one fairly recently in a class discussion, and strangely on the morning he died, before I knew that he had, I was thinking of that discussion. I was still arguing with him about it, turning it over in my mind. In class we’d been discussing a contemporary, seemingly intractable conflict in the world and he’d said: “I can’t do anything about that. All I can do is love the people on both sides of it.” While I agreed that we should do this, I felt that it wasn’t enough. I still don’t feel that it’s enough, but I love his answer, too, and I think I have come to understand something about why he answered it the way he did; I have learned a lot about him in the many tributes posted by friends upon his death. He had served in the military, no stranger to conflict. If I ask myself why I answered the way I did, I am not sure I know. Drifting here with my ship’s companions.

At the moment that I learned of his unexpected death I couldn’t have been in a better place for news that comes with shock and sadness: I was in the seminary chapel with fellow students, professors,  and staff. We have learned together, prayed together, argued together; we have cast many, many questions into the deep. We are a diverse group and not monolithic in our various faith traditions; we are not mono anything. What we are is a beloved community. We are drawn together by common goals of ministering, serving, healing, loving, bearing witness, practicing justice, creating art, and not least the art of a life. I could see that coming together for my friend. And too soon he is gone. Hail the great winds urging me on.

And so this question of his passing I cast into the deep with all my other questions. I saw the heron glide across a silvery sun. The heron was a heavenly body in that moment, sure as a star knowing its course. I am less sure than the heron, but as I watched it turn toward the sun I felt the something that calls us into being. My heart, I would say, was lifted off the highway for a moment with that kindred soul. Making our way by the light of the heavens. I am glad we crossed paths for a brief time.

–For Rich

* The lyrics, cited with quotation marks or in italics are from the song Blue Boat Home, by Peter Mayer.





DSC_3067 compressedThe sun was striking the hoarfrost on the trees yesterday morning, and even though we’ve had a surplus of such winter wonderland vistas this winter, I took 15 minutes on my way to somewhere else to stop at a local park with my camera. The morning was fresh. It was pristine. The birds were singing their springtime songs in spite of the frost. It could have been the first morning of the world. I thought about Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetic assertion: There lives the dearest freshness deep down things. Even though generations have trod. And trod. And trod. Yes, morning still recovers itself with a sense of freshness that seems like hope. I felt pure and uplifted by the frosted trees in the sunlight, a feeling I wanted to keep.

Soon enough I was back on the road with traffic and with history, or the compressed version of it on the radio. The place where things get muddied. So which is true — the pure essence of things I felt in the park? Or the muddied mess of things in the daily news? Or both? And religion — what a crazy quest to try to join these things — history and transcendence, and to hold them in tension. There are some spiritual practitioners that would opt out of history altogether. That temptation is strong. I felt purer in the park than I felt anywhere else. Couldn’t I just stay there? But for me, the whole point of religion is that transcendence isn’t just out there. It’s here on this ground, and it is in history. And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil, Hopkins wrote, and he still went on to title his poem, “God’s Grandeur.”

I am studying the Hebrew prophets this semester, and as Abraham Joshua Heschel noted in his book, The Prophets:

A student of philosophy who turns from the discourses of the great metaphysicians to the orations of the prophets may feel as if he were going from the realm of the sublime to an area of trivialities. Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums….It is not the sort of poetry that takes its origin, to use Wordsworth’s phrase, ‘from emotion recollected in tranquility.’ Far from reflecting a state of inner harmony or poise, its style is charged with agitation, anguish, and a spirit of nonacceptance. The prophet’s concern is not with nature but with history, and history is devoid of poise.

“Yet,” Heschel went on to say, “There are interludes when one perceives an eternity of love hovering over moments of anguish.” The prophets attested to both.

In Taoism, which I am also studying this semester, Chuang Tzu, living in China during the Warring States period (480-221 BCE), rejected statecraft altogether in his philosophy. And watching the statecraft around me these days, in a nation that could easily be called the Warring States, I understand the rationale, the longing for equanimity and the cultivation of it. History is devoid of that poise. But the point of incarnation, for me, is that it occurs in history, out of timelessness. This is where we are, born in a particular time and place. Jesus went out to the wilderness to pray, but he came back. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that we are responsible to the circumstances of history.

I hold these things in tension: wilderness, widows, orphans. Anguish. Hope. The freshness of a pristine morning, with its high and lifting hope. And the smeared with trade world, which also, although it may not be as easy to feel, awakens with hope this morning.


Father Mychal Judge: Ladder to a Bridge

September 11, 2011

There are few individuals who can climb ladders and create bridges to those who are threatening violence and to quietly speak the words we can’t say to ourselves in the heat of the moment, or in the long years of fanning the anger leading up to it: “You don’t need to do this.”

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I hear voice(s) on the prairie: Michele Bachmann, an American gothic narrative

August 8, 2011

And if the reference to her experience as a federal tax lawyer is intended to demonstrate insight gained with experience, an article in The New Yorker indicates that according to former colleagues, in her four years at the office, with Bachmann taking two of the “generous” maternity leaves granted by her employer, the I.R.S., during those four years, her actual time logged at work was closer to two years and amounted to mostly “lightweight” work. The article also cites another one of those what-worked-for-Michele-should-work-for-all-of-us stories, dating to when she was in school; her shop teacher “had a board hung up in the shop class with holes bored in it, and he would use that on the backside if somebody got out of line. Anybody remember those days? That’s when I grew up. And it worked really well.” The board worked for Michele; therefore, we should all be spanked.

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Heaven Knows, This is a Heartland

July 22, 2011

A Christian is, quite honestly, the last thing I’d want to be considered when I hear the versions put forth by candidates whom God has allegedly called to run for the highest office in the nation. And here in this heartland, there is supposed to be some special values added stamp, as if merely being born here and living here gives one a primeval virtue blessed by God. But virtue isn’t regional, and the heartland, while dear to me, oozes with its own primordial tangle in its virtue talk. A lot of it seems to me to be mere blood lust, not virtue; a swift and sharp judgment for those who have not imprinted the model of family or relationships that the talkers have carefully defined in, oh, say, 14 point bulletins.

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The Legacy of Grandpa John, or the Buddha in a Rocking Chair

April 19, 2011

If there is some universal standard or karmic principle that calls out what is good, I’d have to say that letting giggling kids sit behind your rocking chair and mess with your hair when all you wanted was peace and quiet is one of the highest definitions of it. For all I know Grandpa John was having an internal dialogue that went like this: “For the love of God, why am I being tormented by grandchildren that I didn’t even spawn when all I wanted was peace and quiet?” But outwardly he remained as composed as the Buddha, if the Buddha ever sat in a rocker.

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Patrick the Pit Bull–Sometimes it Takes a Dog’s Spirit

April 8, 2011

Those caring for Patrick have said that in spite of all that he has suffered, he is gentle and trusting. Sometimes it takes a dog’s spirit.

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Patrick the Pit Bull: The Story in His Eyes

March 27, 2011

Never try to tell me that animals don’t have a spirit, for I will not believe you. It is there in his eyes, an awareness, a world-weariness, a sadness, but also a growing steadiness, a flicker, a spark. How he survived in the condition he did is beyond understanding, like so many other things in his story. But he did survive. Your days of suffering are over, Patrick, although it will take time to heal. Welcome to life. I wish that the same could be said for all who suffer.

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The Wild, Strange Heart of El Salvador

March 18, 2011

The mountains were cool, and in a couple of hours we’d be back in the heat and traffic of San Salvador, the humidity and the smoke and the coiled barbed wire and the craziness; the voices of the guards drifting through the window at dawn. But even before the sound of their voices, when the curtain that blew all night in the breeze finally came to rest in the first faint light, I heard, earlier and wilder than any other voices, the calls of birds, or some kind of animal–I never found out what they were. The calls seemed distant, as if they came from a mile or more away, but also loud, amplified. They were not chirpy calls. They were like peals. Maybe they were laughter. I heard them in the silence before the city awoke, and wondered at the wild, strange heart of El Salvador.

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