Three poems of teshuvah: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

(Also posted at Velveteen Rabbi.)

August Rain, After Haying

Through sere trees and beheaded
grasses the slow rain falls.
Hay fills the barn; only the rake
and one empty wagon are left
in the field. In the ditches
goldenrod bends to the ground.

Even at noon the house is dark.
In my room under the eaves
I hear the steady benevolence
of water washing dust
raised by the haying
from porch and car and garden
chair. We are shorn
and purified, as if tonsured.

The grass resolves to grow again,
receiving the rain to that end,
but my disordered soul thirsts
after something it cannot name.

Those are the words of the poet Jane Kenyon, of blessed memory. August may feel like a long time ago now, but try to remember it. Close your eyes if you have to. Can you recall the scent of hay, the sound of summer rain? I love this poem; I love its imagery, “the steady benevolence / of water washing dust,” the grass “receiving” the rain in order to grow again. The grass knows what it is doing. But the soul…the soul may be another matter.

“My disordered soul thirsts / after something it cannot name.”What do you yearn for? Not water, not coffee, not whatever your bellies are already beginning to crave: what are you really thirsty for? Is there something you cannot name which pulls you forward, which leaves you wondering, for which you cannot help but hope?

Kenyon named her soul as “disordered.” I suspect that each of us has a disordered soul. Our spiritual lives are like kitchen tables which become piled with unopened mail. After a while we don’t even want to face the sliding stack of envelopes: there are probably bills in there, requests for things we don’t want to give. It becomes easier to just look the other way. But not today. Today is the day to sit down at that table, take a deep breath, and take inventory of what’s there. Today we put our souls in order at last.

Kenyon’s poem is set at the end of the summer, on the cusp of the transition to fall. The trees are sere; the barn is full. The harvest has been brought in, and though the grasses intend to grow, they are headed for their fallow time, their sleeping-time. In just a few days, at Sukkot, we will celebrate our harvest: and for those of us who no longer farm, who most likely don’t even make hay, the harvest must be metaphorical. What emotional and spiritual riches can we gather to salt away for the winter which is coming? What might we be able to harvest today, on Yom Kippur, from our time together?

“We are shorn / and purified,” Kenyon writes: the grass is shorn and somehow we come away feeling that our excess too has been trimmed away, that the falling rain has made us pure. What is shorn away from us on this day of atonement? What would it take for us to feel pure?

Here’s another contemporary poem which I think speaks to what we are doing today. This is Mary Oliver’s “The Journey:”

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

“One day you finally knew / what you had to do…” That day is today. We are here in this sanctuary to journey together out of old habits, out of bad patterns, into the new year cleansed and purified. Though our childhood baggage and our recurring issues grab at our ankles, though we hear the plaintive cry of the junk television which would be so easy to flop down and watch and the junk food it would be so easy to flop down and consume, though it might be emotionally simpler to tend to the needs of others (and ignore the needs of our own souls), we will not stop. We have to make teshuvah, to point ourselves in the right direction again.

It is, as Mary Oliver writes, “already late enough.” The path on which we walk may not be smooth or level. But the further we go, the easier it becomes to keep going…and the closer we get to our truest selves, to the part of us which is always already at-one with God.

Oliver describes us striding “deeper and deeper into the world,” determined to save the only life we can: our own. This is a difficult lesson which I often need to relearn: the only life I can save is my own. No matter how convinced I am that if she would just start exercising, she would feel better—or if he would just try therapy, his life would improve—or if they would just stop trying to control things, they’d find themselves happier—I can’t make anyone change. The only life I can save is my own…and the way to save it, says Oliver, is to go deeper and deeper into the world. To resist the temptation of self-absorption, and to plunge into the wide world with my whole heart and my eyes wide open.

Mary Oliver is still with us, still writing poetry. I began with a poem by Jane Kenyon, of blessed memory, who died young, of leukemia. The final poem I want to offer up on this morning’s altar is by a poet who did not die young: Stanley Kunitz, born in 1905, who died at the age of one hundred, and who was still writing poetry up until his death.

The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned campsites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Kunitz begins: “I have walked through many lives, / some of them my own[.]” Each of us in this room has walked through many lives. Think for a moment about the lives you’ve touched: family, friends, loved ones and those relationships which challenge you. Think too about the lives with which you have only intersected: coworkers, strangers, that chance encounter on the street or in the hospital hallway. These are the webs of relationships in which we daily, weekly, monthly, annually live out our intention to make teshuvah.

And some of the lives we’ve walked through, Kunitz reminds us, are our own. The life I knew at fifteen is not the life I knew at thirty. The life I knew before I had a child is not the life I know as a mother. But “some principle of being / abides”—there is something in each of us which remains constant, which makes us who we are.

When we look back on who we have been, Kunitz writes, we see “milestones dwindling / toward the horizon” and “slow fires trailing / from the abandoned campsites.” The heart suffers a feast of losses. This life is not easy. But Kunitz makes the conscious choice to revel in it anyway, to be grateful to be alive even though being alive can hurt. And, perhaps in return for that stance, he receives a voice from heaven which tells him, “Live in the layers, not on the litter.”

Let me be upfront: I don’t know exactly what that means. But here is what I think it means, or at least, what it meant to me this year as we approached Yom Kippur. “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Embrace the different layers of your story, embrace all the different selves you have been and will be. Open your heart to the you of childhood, the you of young adulthood, the you of maturity, the you of old age. Don’t take the path of living “on the litter,” on the trash-heap of the broken aspirations you’ve discarded. Go deeper than that.

At the end of the poem, Kunitz writes, “no doubt the next chapter / in my book of transformations / is already written. / I am not done with my changes.” I can’t think of a better sacred text for Yom Kippur, when our liturgy tells us that the next chapter in our book of transformations is written and sealed on our hearts. None of us is done with our changes.

May our time here together today enable each of us to order our souls and release what needs releasing, to savor the journey we are on singly and together, to delve deep into the layers of who we are and who we have been and who we hope to become, and to trust, and embrace, the changes which are coming.

And we say together: Amen.

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