One year ago from now, Donna Schaper, senior minister of the historic Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, asked me to write a series of Advent prayers for Sunday service. Since 1890, Judson has developed an effervecent legacy around its bold work in justice and the arts, attracting a progressive, theologically diverse audiance. It demanded a sensitivity to the people’s concerns that cold, heavy, violent winter. It demanded moving beyond the often abstract, painful dogmatism of Christian theologies and seeing Christian symbols anew. I remember I asked Donna for any advice: she said “Find unique ways to name God, go towards Spirit, beware Jesus....” This became the first prayer:
Advent Prayer: Sunday, the 29th of November
O Glittering Silence, as the sun abandons us, leaving
shorter days of grey, as violence, thought or wreaked, hangs
in the painful air, we enter near-snowy darkness,
cleave for holiday radiators, expecting something greater
to be born to us―from within the Womb of Earth.
O, let us go inward, let us be ready to face each other,
ready to receive and shape the Edge-of-Sun Hope, breaking-
into scant Bethlehems, both within us and in the streets,
across the heavy city.
TOBY AND I
For me, the edges between poem and prayer always seemed permeable. Similar to the psalms of David, I expected an experiance of image, rhythm and spirituality. However, I did not expect that the music I aspired to as poet would bring me beside the piano of Toby Twining, composer and musician who served as interim music director at the time. Toby is a cutting-edge composer who works with microtonal music and creates profound spiritual and emotional spaces. There is a for the delicate, hard-wrought and unexpected in the range of Toby that is inexhaustible. Toby and I struck off a close artistic collaboration leading to him creating musicopoetic soundscapes for the launch party of my debut book Excavating the Sky.
It was not long before Toby introduced me to his friend, the painter Alfonse Borysewicz who has created visionary work with explicitly Christian symbols, leaving him marganalized between secular art scene and traditional churches. Alfonse was taken by my poetry as well and began sketches for his painting “Holiday Radiators.” Alfonse's painting pushed me in my writing to move beyond linearity. Alfonse is a man of few words, but his visual imagination sticks with you. There is a hard-wrought sense of tension, a meeting of the New and Old in the present of the visual plane. His image “Holiday Radiators” later inspired Toby to name the entire song cycle as “Holy Radiators.” As Jenny Selig wrote, “ Between Alfonse and David Lynch, I'll never look at radiators as common items again.”
THE GUEST COLLABORATORS
Toby’s setting the prayers to music was the greatest gift I could ever receive as poet. This is a kind of artistic gift that would not be possible without John Bellemer, the tenor the New York Times described as “clarion-toned." Together, they took each work to their musical end. Each prayer finally found the refined beauty of voice. It reminded me of the troubadours of Europe or the griots of West Africa, the original poets: always accompanied with instrument, always musical.
Finally, Toby introduced Darla Stanly as guest artist. She infused other new poems I performed with such mime-like, unexpected mastery of movement. Her movement was refined and there was times when I felt completely connected to her, Toby and I, pulling each other in different rhythmic directions. Through her contribution, we completed the human embodied experiance: painting, poetry, instrumentation, voice, and dance.
With the second poem-prayer, things took on a different form, but the symbolism of pregnancy and pain stayed central. At the time, I was taking an exciting ecofemism class from Dr. Chung at Union Theological Seminary. I was vivified by the words of Irene Diamond and Gloria Orenstein, In Reweaving the World: “ many women began to understand how the larger culture’s devaluation of natural processes was a product of masculine consciousness...masculine consciousness denigrated and manipulated everything defined as “other” whether nature, women, or Third World Culture.” The cult of Mary mother of Jesus became starting point. Not only so, but at the time, I was also studying the black liberation theology of James Cone, opening me up to the social dimension of liberation and the black church tradition of a God who “makes a way out of no way.”
Advent Prayer: Sunday, the 6th of December
For James Cone
O Way-Out-of-No-Way, our bodies are heavy;
the weight of violence is again upon us.
Whether we are lulled by the saccharine of holidays
with its flash-bulb triumph,
or left to touch the suffering of loneliness,
we cannot bear our own humanity--
Help us to know You are closer to the clockworks
of pregnancy--the ripening pain of it-- than the
expedient trigger of steel, the quick-click of the algorithm;
Help us to know and carry whatever
is Young and Living within us, the black earth mixing-into
moon-color slush: the green-scent of the New.
BREAKTHROUGH: THE FINAL POEM-PRAYER
The final poem of the cycle was “Though the City Heaves with Exhaustion.” It was the most difficult to write, but also the most simple, beautiful, and new. It began to claim worship experiance as the ground for divinity and incarnation.
Advent Prayer: Sunday, the 20th of December
Though the city heaves from exhaustion,
crushed by glass-tower visions of perfection,
we return to this time and this space
with a small sense of our own: Praise.
Whether we’ve had to pull ourselves
from our own beds, or touched them
too little, we walk Your Earth with dignity: Praise.
Praise, praise the raising-up of all that is
our wholeness in You.
Because the third Sunday went without a poem; one year later, I wrote another poem-prayer that would now complete the four week cycle. The form and spirituality is striking as I attempted to envision the incarnation itself given such difficult, seemingly unholy times. Inspired by Rev Sekou, I saw Nazareth as the “ghetto” and took the phrase “what good cometh from Nazareth” as starting point. I needed something that would be explicit, a making straight the crooked path. And thanks to words and the imagination: co-creation: I employed the trope of the kenning (an Old-English poetic device) “criminal-christs.” What was a December of tension, pain and paralysis became the pent-up energy for a final disclosure of the incarnation: a song of survival.
Fear-torn, our bodies, homes, streets, pulled apart - the quiet-cry
turning-song-of-survival, fractured but dreaming: Hosanna,
the good that cometh from Nazareth - Hosanna: unwed mother - Hosanna:
the blackness - Hosanna: the good that cometh from Bronx, Baltimore, from gay club, from white trash, from this space, from my body: the edge-of-steel-tower hope, trembling but undressing: the original
life-thrust in us, the rage in the stare at oppression. Hosanna.
Hosanna: Pulse night club, transfigured - Hosanna:
Eric Garner’s breath - Hosanna: in the prisons - Hosanna: the criminal-christs -
Hosanna: the crack whore - Hosanna: the immigrant claiming home: Hosanna. Hosanna: Standing Rock - Hosanna: the poor trash-strewn streets - Hosanna: the place of violence. Hosanna - the water breaking - something is breaking - Hosanna. The eyes meeting and teeth showing: holy radiators of eyes: Hosanna.