During the Lenten season, we began some “spiritual community” groups. The purpose of these groups is to provide a place for people to share, what is happening in their lives and faith journeys. Group members receive one another’s sharing with prayerful silence followed by responses and questions grounded in that silence. Without violating the confidential nature of these conversations, I can say that one group explored their own religious upbringings. They expressed a desire to leave behind what was not life-giving– to move beyond pious platitudes and irrelevant doctrines. This group wondered together how to claim a faith that is free to illuminate the full scope of human experience without censorship.
Which brings me to the beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Now, I’m no poetry expert. All I know about Ginsberg, is the quick biography I read on the poetry foundation web page. But, in coming across his poem, Howl, I was fascinated. Today’s Gathering Words included selections from the “Prelude to Howl”, which is an introduction to the longer poem. The Prelude caught me because it is so religious, or spiritual, or whatever you want to call it, but it ignores all the usual boundaries around such speech. It opens with no less than fifteen repetitions of the word “Holy, exclamation point”. In the lines that follow, Ginsberg declares parts of the human body — including the penis — to be holy. He doesn’t use polite language, but forceful, even crass words.
Ginsberg makes no exceptions to holiness: Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! And In what is perhaps a direct commentary on today’s Isaiah text, he remarks: “The bum’s as holy as the seraphim!” At first glance, it seems like the Isaiah text counters the gritty inclusiveness of Ginsberg’s vision. The seraphim cry: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts In the tradition of the Hebrew Bible, “holy” means means “set apart”, or “separate”. One function of the Jewish law is to keep the holy from coming into contact with the profane. And the imagery of today’s scripture certainly lends credibility to the idea that God is set apart, above it all: the high, lofty throne, the fantastic creatures, the smoke and shaking of the foundations.
Is there anything about this portrayal of God that is helpful to us, as modern people? I’m guessing not many of us believe that God is a man who sits on a throne, wearing a robe. Can I get a show of hands? Anyone? The traditional images of God can be a great barrier for us. But it’s important to consider that this particular view of God was carefully crafted to respond to the political and economic situation of Isaiah’s time. Isaiah’s conception of God’s power mirrors that of the earthly powers with which he was familiar. The text contains all kinds of nuances that don’t register in our English version. The word that is translated as the “hem of God’s robe” has a double meaning; it can refer to uncovered genitals. Conversely, the Seraphim use one set of wings to cover their “feet”, which is a clear euphemism for sexual organs. Isaiah imagined God as a virile King sitting on the throne. The prophet did this not to annoy us, but because he had some things to say about his own King’s, and nation’s use of power and he needed some divine back up.
Judah had grown strong and prosperous under the long reign of Uzziah, but not all shared equally in that wealth. (Ralph W. Klein, http://fontes.lstc.edu/~rklein/Documents/advent.htm#Epiph5) Despite the appearance of success, Isaiah’s God declares that the nation has entirely failed to live up to its potential. Consider these selections from the chapter preceding: Chapter 5, Vs 7:“For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting; God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” And 8: “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!
It is entirely acceptable and necessary for us to find an image of God that makes greater sense for us, in our time. But even so, perhaps Isaiah’s prophecy holds a core insight for us. After all the smoke cleared, the prophet was not called to preach that divine holiness resides in the sky on a throne. “One seraph called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of God’s glory.’” Yes, God is holy. But the whole earth is full of God, full of that holy, divine glory. Every place or time or person carries what the Quakers call a divine spark, that is, the capacity, the potential, to express the holy. Isaiah’s real message to his nation and his leaders was: honor the holiness that resides within you and this whole earth.
Recently, I’ve gotten involved with a group of clergy that is seeking to support the Occupy movement here in Minneapolis, and specifically, Occupy Homes. Occupy Homes has been working with the Cruz family, who have lived in their South Minneapolis home for the past 7 years. The family has paid their mortgage on time during the years they’ve owned the home. One month last year, their lender failed to withdraw the monthly mortgage payment after the family submitted it online. When the family noticed that the money hadn’t been withdrawn, they called the bank to make the payment. Although it wasn’t their fault the payment was late, the bank still demanded 2 months’ payments as punishment for being late. Since they were unable to pay more than the current month’s payment, their home went into foreclosure. Thanks to the support of the Occupy Homes movement, the bank had agreed to negotiate with the Cruz family, and those conversations are in process.
Even so, on this past Friday morning, at 4:45 am, the Sheriff’s deputies entered the home with battering rams and guns drawn, to enforce the eviction notice. The activists brought the front door of the Cruz home to a rally that same day at city hall. It is an ordinary door. Tan metal, with a half-moon window on the top. And it is a holy door. A door to shelter and safety and health. A door which nurtures family. A door that welcomes neighbors and creates community. That door, smashed off its frame, dented out of shape, torn like a piece of cloth, also represents the vulnerability of the holy. It speaks about the fragility of our human capacity to bear witness to our own sacred identity.
When Isaiah saw the vision of God’s holiness, he said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Here, Isaiah is not confessing to using swear words or telling X-rated jokes. He’s saying, “we have not been telling the truth, about who we are, about who our neighbors are, about what’s important in this life.”: He’s saying, “we are a people trapped in fearful, self-deceiving, death-dealing lies.” Sometimes we share this sense of despair. We cannot see our own holiness, or honor the holiness of others. We feel utterly unequipped to call the powers that be to be accountable to the holiness in all creation.
It is then – proclaims our scripture– that we are truly in the position to meet God – however it is God comes to us. God might appear in some lofty vision or in an everyday moment. With a cloud of smoke and noise or through the silence of solitude and the quiet voice of a friend. God could come through the whirlwind of a rally for justice, but also in our daily struggle to care for those closest to us. In any case, something profound and essential happens when we allow our lips and our lives to be touched and cleansed by that burning coal, the divine fire of life. That’s what Jesus is talking about when he says we must be born of water and the Spirit, born from above. Or what Paul means when he urges us to give ourselves not to “a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear”, but to “a spirit of adoption” – adoption into the holy.
Wickepedia has the following to say about the meaning of the English word “holy”. “It dates back to at least the 11th Century with the Old English word “hālig”, an adjective derived from hāl meaning “whole” and used to mean “uninjured, sound, healthy, entire, complete”. The modern word “health” is also derived from the Old English hal.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred Perhaps holiness, in our time, is not at all about being separate or set apart. Maybe to be truly holy in this moment of history means to allow ourselves to stand together with the rest of humanity, and with this good earth, so that as one body, we may become healthy and whole, as God intends.
In his poem, A Morning Offering, John O Donahue expresses the call to life in the spirit, life in the holy, this way: “May I have the courage today/ to live the life that I would love,/ to postpone my dream no longer/ But do at last what I came here for/ And waste my heart on fear no more.” (To Bless the Space Between Us, p. 9) Amen.