A.R. Ammons’ poem “Still” reminds us that nothing in the world is lowly, and that everything is in “surfeit of glory.” And finally he concludes that even the most seemingly lowly things, from beggars to ticks, are “magnificent with being.” The poem celebrates a oneness shared between all things in the universe. After all, the word universe literally means “to turn into one,” and as Whitman suggests, we are all made of star-stuff. And who hasn’t looked about and discovered himself in even the most insignificant of the world’s ten thousand things? Last summer, for some reason I can’t quite apprehend, I found my kindness extending to even the meanest of insects. A lacewing lighting on the moon of my fingernail caused me to be still for an hour, watching.
Before Francis of Assisi was St. Francis, he was a playboy. The story goes that he indulged in all the pleasures of the flesh and was well liked by his peers and the young women of Assisi. He sang secular songs of love and romance, which his mother taught him. And for his father’s sake, he attempted to win glory in battle and so was fearless in the pursuit of that acclaim. Then something happened to him. During his conversion, Francis asked himself of what was he most afraid. The answer was lepers. Francis in a moment of spiritual insight forced himself to touch the thing he feared most, the rotting flesh of a leper, and kiss the fetid wounds. Like this he began to be a Christian, that is, like Christ, who knew where we are flesh we might be light and love is the antidote to fear.
Emerson claims that charity is living fairly. In “Self-Reliance,” he regrets the money given to charities, which he might have withheld, since the dollar isn’t offered in the name of love but for expiation. Our goodness, he says elsewhere, ought to have some edge or else it isn’t goodness. Montaigne agrees, when he says that repentance must hurt to be repentance. When Thoreau writes “Civil Disobedience,” he makes clear that it is a matter of conscience to put our money where our mouths are, but also that we must be willing to suffer the consequences of our convictions.
Poetry, at its best, brings us to similar conclusions. I am skeptical of a poetry which doesn’t draw us closer to reality, and by that I mean, a poetry which doesn’t reveal some truth. Whether the poet or the reader of poetry walks toward that truth is another matter. The difference between the saint and the poet, or the saint in every man, woman and child, and the poet in every man, woman and child, is the difference of motion, action, faith. Faith, in this sense, doesn’t mean belief without proof. Faith means doing. Faith is a motion toward the good, the difficult, the true. The saint, like Francis, ultimately climbs the mountain and receives the wounds. The poet asks the question, Of what are you most afraid? Ammons asks, What is the lowly? Whitman asks, What is the grass? The questions here are several, but each leads to a similar answer.
The other day, I saw a beggar, cardboard sign and all, standing on the exit ramp. I avoided his eyes. SKG and I were in the car heading to eat some lunch. The next day, as I crossed the parking lot of the grocery store, I saw a poor family panhandling there. Their sign read: Please, I have two children, money or food. It seemed there was only one thing to do. So I included a few essentials in my basket for the family. In some ways, this was absolutely unremarkable. I didn’t feel responsible for them, but felt merely as if I was answering a question posed by someone who asked. However, at the checkout, a young woman complained about the family to the girl at the register who called the manager who said he was on it. And this is the important part of the story. Suddenly, I felt ashamed for having bought the food. That shame was followed by anger because I wondered why no one shoos away the Girl Scouts troop accosting shoppers entering the grocery store, and why the Salvation Army bell-ringers are welcome to ring their bells.
Ely, in McCarthy’s novel The Road, when asked by the father about God, says, “There is no god and we are his prophets.” Monks knew that every guest ought to be treated like Christ, and so visitors to an abbey would have their feet washed by the abbot. And the two disciples on the road to Emmaus find themselves breaking bread once again with their lord, now resurrected, because of their hospitality. Hope, St. Paul believes, is the necessary link between faith and charity, and where we lack one we lack all.
It is one thing to celebrate the universe and everything in it as one thing, and then, as Whitman says, there is no death. But it is quite another to put that understanding into action and therefore live–truly live. Our goodness has to cost us because it is in the aftermath that we see what is: the oneness of things. I’m sorry for the young woman who complained about the poor family. That feeling of love, which is always a question to be answered, felt so foreign to her and so threatening, she mistook it for the false responsibility to the suburban fear of the lowly. And that shame I felt was not shame exactly. It was the reopening of a wound which I thought had healed over and which I thought had become calloused. This is how the flesh gives way to the spirit. Slowly. In a moment it comes, and then it goes. But the residue of its coming offers another opportunity like an obligation, like a gift.