Tinder Mercies – Poetry


photo by Peter John Maridable via Unsplash

‘But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder and the whole world sparks and flames.’

—Annie Dillard, ‘On foot in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley’

‘I have found the dominant of my range and state—

Love, O my God, to call thee Love and Love’

—Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Let Me Be to Thee’

It is hearth glow now,

fire for the long eve

flaring occasionally with the spark.

It still has light to give.

It may yet spawn raging blazes

But it pops in hidden crevices of wood

it bides the time

it endures

is not consumed or exhausted.

It wants only tending

this tinder

this tender

this tent and testament.

O what monstrous act was this of yours

to set me loose with a container of fire?

Alex Joyner

Praying with Fire: A Review of Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon


photo by Aaron Thomas via Unsplash

“Dear God: Can you forgive someone for an act they cannot repent of?” (26)  So goes Maggie’s prayer journal in the aftermath of an affair in Jamie Quatro’s new novel, Fire Sermon.  Maggie has committed to move on.  Has cut off communication with the poet she spent one night with in Chicago.  In one light, she sees the ways the relationship has led her away from God, her husband, her children.  But she’s captivated by what it has meant and isn’t ready to let go of it.

That’s the interesting thing about sin: Major disrupting force in the universe.  The thing God says ‘no’ to.  The chasm that separates us from God and the wholeness God intends.  The power which estranges us from our essential self and enslaves us.  And yet what an illuminating light it shines!  “I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you,” Richard Rohr says in his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

41k+KOofr-L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Of course, some will say that Maggie is luxuriating in it.  She soon leaves off talking to God and begins to write to James, the lost lover, in entries she never sends to him.  She converses with a voice that sounds like a therapist (but who actually may be God) who tries to help her put the experience in a larger frame but she resists any effort to diminish the memory of the affair.

She narrates the difficult relationship with Thomas, her husband of twenty-five years and father of her two beautiful children.  “Thomas is, in fact, a good husband,” she says. (20)  But her ambivalence shows through in describing his awkward and demanding sexual approaches to her, both before and during their marriage.  He has only a grudging interest in her faith, despite the fact that her life with God is the fire that burns through everything.  He will sit in the pew with her on occasion.  He will nurture her and the children.  But she will still long for theology and poetry and someone with whom to share it.

Whether you, dear reader, will see this longing as holy discontent or ludicrous self-justification is an open question.  I suspect readers will be divided.  My own appreciation for the yearnings of mystics and the revelatory power of misguided desires made me a fan from the first page.  Julian of Norwich is etched into Maggie’s plight (and quoted).  The English priest and poet John Donne haunts Maggie’s confessions: “Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun/A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?”


Jamie Quatro

Maggie takes a scandalous interest in her own pleasures and pains.  She is raw and honest, naked on the page.  The book’s narration fragments in time without ever losing sight of the struggle of her soul.  We bounce between prayers and poems, memories and text messages—the scattered evidence of this signal season in Maggie’s life.

It ends with Maggie’s ultimate revelation of the affair to Thomas, something she had never hidden very well from him anyway it seems.  The narrative rattles off the possible futures for the couple, but not before Maggie rouses herself to a summation—a “fire sermon” that she calls “a litany, a confession, a proposal.” (184)

She does it on a dare from the inner therapist voice to articulate her thoughts, to preach them to herself.  “It would sound like blasphemy,” Maggie protests.

I would say possibly heretical things about the nature of erotic desire.  I might not believe the things I say.  I would say them anyhow.  To see what I say, in order to know what I think, in order to observe.  Maybe even detach.

So say them.

I’m afraid I’ll leave a giant ink stain on the history of Christendom if I do.

How do you know unless you try? (183)

So she says them.  And you might roll your eyes.  You might call her a heretic.  But you may hear a strange and wonderful affirmation of the marriage covenant and the virtue of acknowledging and renouncing the ways our hearts are “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it!” You may find “intimations of immortality…reminders of the glory whence we came.” (190-1)

If it’s the affirmation you hear, you read the book that I did—a glowing furnace of a novel.  The testimony of an ecstatic soul.  The cry of the blissful, tortured pilgrim this side of eternity.  An appeal to God to “let me burn.” (191)

The Dream-bent Farmer: Poetry


photo by Jeff Qian via Unsplash

‘What is this world but a seed of desire

some dream-bent farmer sowed in a field

waiting for

the end of winter, waiting to be getting on

with business of timothy and clover?’

—Abigail Carroll, ‘Spring Forward’

God is a dream-bent farmer sowing the seed of desire.  Time leaves us this task.  It is time’s gift to separate the initial moment from the consummation.  Without time there is no desire, only undifferentiated light.  Desire provides the space for shadow, heartbreak, longing, and treachery.  But its the elation I feel — the wonder of finding a place at all where I can be safely revealed, received.

I desire much and muchly.

Squinting Through This Latent, Bleak Obscurity with Scott Cairns


photo by Christopher Campbell via Unsplash

“Just now, we squint to see the Image through

this latent, bleak obscurity.  One day, we’ll see the Image—

as Himself—gleaming from each face.

Just now, I puzzle through a range

of incoherencies; but on that day,

the scattered fragments will cohere.”

If you don’t recognize 1 Corinthians 13 in this translation, perhaps that good.  Our hearing of that passage in the context of many a moony marriage ceremony has ruined our ears.  Eros has something to do with God, but Paul was after so much more.

51m8Rds-bhL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The poet Scott Cairns gets that.  He has spent a career exploring the mystical dimensions of love in its human and divine expressions, sometimes in the hideaway Orthodox monasteries that lure adventurous pilgrims and usually in the company of dusty Greek texts.  When he translates the ancients, as he does in the collection Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life[Paraclete Press, 2007], he is dipping his hand into a deep current of faith and prayer.  The result is verse, poetry at its best, that takes texts from Christian history that many consider impenetrable and renders them luminous.

Take this body- and life-affirming fragment from Irenaeus:

“The tender flesh itself

will be found one day

—quite surprisingly—

to be capable of receiving,

and yes, full

capable of embracing

the searing energies of God.

Go figure.  Fear not.” (5)

Or a meditation on ‘His Image Recovered’ by Athanasius:

“Here, belovéd numbskulls, is a little picture: You gather,

one presumes, what must be done when a portrait on a panel

becomes obscured—maybe even lost—to external stain.

The artist does not discard the panel, though the subject must return

to sit for it again, whereupon the likeness is etched once more upon

the same material.  As He tells us in the Gospel, I came

to seek and to save that which was lost—our faces, say.” (15)

But don’t expect all roads to lead to clarity or enlightenment.  Cairns invites us to pause with words as well.  One word he leaves untranslated when it arises—nous.  He explains in the introduction that “it is the center of the human person, where mind and matter meet most profoundly, and where the human person is mystically united to others and to God.” (xiii-xiv)


Scott Cairns

The nous is the place from which Cairns has been seeking to live and he finds good companions in this volume.  You would expect the passionate, hot-blooded saints like Gregory of Nyssa, Catherine of Siena, Richard Rolle of Hampole, Julian of Norwich, and Thérèse of Lisieux.  But Cairns mines the works of the more cool-headed and detached as well — Basil the Great, Meister Eckhart, and Gertrude of Helfta.  Besides learning some great names, the reader is likely to be seduced into seeking out more from the wealth of Christian tradition.

Love’s Immensity has been sitting with my morning reading for a couple of years now.  I’m returning it to the shelf, but I expect it to be back.  Beauty never really fades from memory.  Nor does true love as Paul would have it:

“In all of this, both now and ever,

faith and hope and love abide, these

sacred three, but the greatest of these (you surely

must have guessed) is love.” (4)

Inside Something: A Poem for a Rainy Day


photo by Craig Whitehead via Unsplash

The tea cozy cover of a sunk-in rain.

The vast,



shielded by dark clouds.

The low

rumble of thunder.

The wisdom of the rain speaking gently



“You are inside something.

You are not without love or borders.

All your anxious


are contained within this sphere.

Settle yourself.

Learn the lesson of the land and air.

Be here with.”

Alex Joyner

Sunset in Archer County – A Poem


photo by Ray Hennessy via Unsplash

If coyotes howl at sunset

why do we sit in silence?

Staring at our screens

or dumbfounded by our electrified darlings

we let the miracle pass


day after night after day.

That a nuclear furnace on which all life depends

some millions of miles beyond us

is passing once more out of sight

plunging us into dark from which we could

never recover

and we chose diversion

instead of braying into the dying light?

How unevolved.

The creatures are more wise than I.


I want to strip down naked

and join the coyote clan.

I want to skulk beneath a barbed wire fence

leaving tufts of hair to mark the passing.

I want to move lightly over loose rock

and spiky ground

to gather on a height,

there to loose the cry

that would squelch the yearning

lodged in my chest.

Joined in song—this desperate song—

by others of my breed

To note this orange moment

this golden moment

this vermillion moment

this inky moment

this night of the full moon’s rise

Because it may not come again

And where would I rather be on my or the earth’s

last day

than basking in that light

with all my wildness hanging out?

–Alex Joyner

Spelunking: The Journey of Prayer


photo by Felix Russell-Saw via Unsplash

In here

is a cavern

vast and brilliant

Where old songs echo off ancient walls

and fresh water drips down to do its

long work of creation.

In here

the illusion of sterility can confound you

as if no life stirs,

no light illumines,

no generative communion draws

souls to one.

But in here

vistas open regularly

wild creatures rut and roar

the cave becomes a canvas

for a righteous riot of possibility.

‘In here’

eludes our best technology.

There is no cell reception in the depths.

And so we sit in silence

waiting for the Other’s face to compose

and hunger gloriously in the gathering glow of Her.

–Alex Joyner

Beloved Numbskulls – Athanasius on Saving Face


Icon of the Flight into Egypt – via Wikimedia Commons

‘Here, belovéd numbskulls, is a little picture: You gather,

one presumes, what must be done when a portrait on a panel

becomes obscured—maybe even lost—to external stain.

The artist does not discard the panel, though the subject must return

to sit for it again, whereupon the likeness is etched once more upon

the same material.  As He tells us in the Gospel, I came

to seek and to save that which was lost—our faces, say.

St. Athanasius, ‘His Image Recovered,’ translated by Scott Cairns

To Know the Country Whole – A Definition in Poem

IMG_7103I want to know the country whole.

The country:

the country with its upturned plains and teeming back bays

the country carved, sliced, and served in red and blue

the country broken

the country of my birth and of exile’s long longings

the country promised and made new along with heaven

I want to know the country whole.


all of it


in stereovision




I want to know the country whole.

To know:

to see

to experience

to probe

to taste

to receive

to anticipate

to desire

to love


“Beauty was all the answer they had”–When Theologians Soar

IMG_5989Sometimes, and all too rarely, a theologian can soar in writing.  I have been working my way, very slowly, through Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology: Volume I, The Doctrine of God, and savoring passages like this one:

This is what we mean by compatibilism in theology. The One Light that enlightens all creatures is truly here, truly shining in the night, truly hovering over the chaos, over the manger and its little, hidden King; truly illumining the search for truth in all sciences, living up all struggles for compassion and mercy, shining down each dark corridor, in prisons and workhouses and death camps, pouring gracious Light on every death, every restless search for rest. God is there; before us, [God] is there.

41G1+De1i8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_What faith sees in this Christian compatibilism is the Relatio: the tie between creature and Creator that just is the dependence of all things on God.  Augustine says this best: “I spoke to all the things that are about me, all that can be admitted by the door of the senses, and I said, ‘Since you are not my God, tell me about him.  Tell me something of my God.’ Clear and loud they answered, ‘God is he who made us.’ I asked these questions simply by gazing at these things, and their beauty was all the answer they have.”

God is communicated, as Life, as Power, to creatures, and that Communication is spiritual Light. The faithful see this world bathed in light–our opened eyes take in an illuminated world–and in that earthly light, we see Light. The Uncreated Light veils itself within our creaturely light, and by faith, we believers affirm its lovely Presence.  (428)

This is the stuff and root of poetry.  This is what happens of a morning when I look at the frost on the field out my window.  This is why, when I’m tempted to despair, I realize I am yet a captive to the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ, lost in wonder, love, and praise.  Thanks, Katherine.