A Coffee House Debate with Hsieh Ling-yun, Mountain Poet

by Tom Wolpert on August 14, 2021

A Coffee House Debate with Hsieh Ling-yun, Mountain Poet

After my encounter with the Chinese Poet, Tu Fu, of the 8th century A.D., courtesy of translator extraordinaire David Hinton, I found ancient Chinese poetry rather habit-forming. One of the great things about creating an imaginary coffee house like mine is its flexibility – anyone interested or interesting can be invited in. As it turns out, a mere four hundred years before Tu Fu, there was a poet, named Hsieh Ling-yun, again introduced to us by David Hinton through his translation, The Mountain Poems of Hsieh Ling-yun Translated by David Hinton New Directions Book 2001.

I quote from Mr. Hinton’s introduction:

“It was Hsieh Ling-yun (385-433 C.E.) who first forged a poetic world of this numinous world [he means mountains and rivers not being merely natural, but sacred objects], thus initiating a tradition of “rivers-and-mountains” (shan-shui) poetry that stretches across millennia. Fundamentally different from writing that uses the “natural world” as the stage or materials for human concerns, Hsieh’s rivers-and-mountains poetry might best be described as wilderness poetry, poetry that engages or celebrates wilderness of itself and our integral spiritual relationship to it. It invests realistic descriptions of landscape with the philosophy of Taoism [he means the Way, as referenced in poems below] and Buddhism, thereby shaping landscape into forms of enlightenment.”

Hsieh’s poetry is beautiful and hypnotic – his Taoism and Buddhism are exquisitely expressed through the media of his poetry. His poetry deserves to be presented. Yet it is exactly that Taoism and Buddhism which instigates a response from me, Bible-believing evangelical Christian that I am. But a response to a poet and his poetry has to be something different than a theological debate or literary criticism. Open-ended free-wheeling discussion, yes, that works in a coffee house. But not the pedantry of a literary critic or the rigorous doctrine of a Confessional Statement – that’s not suitable for a coffee house, not even this one, my Post-Apocalyptic Coffee House of Grace.

So I am going to present several of Hsieh’s poems – let the man speak for himself, let his poetry cast its own spell, conjure its own shimmering still-life visions, confess his own sorrows. After that, I’ll ramble on for a while – then I’ll present my own poems. In this world of conflict, friction and indictment, there ought to be some safe place to be a little bit silly, unguarded with our deeper and more private feelings – carefree about our language, no matter how politically incorrect it might be. To respond to a poet, one should answer in poetry. In my coffee house, no poet ever gets canceled.

[Bear with me on the spacing of Hsieh’s lines – as a word processor, WordPress baffles me. Terms used by Hsieh in Hinton’s translation include inner pattern, which means a kind of natural law weaving together being and nonbeing; mechanical mind, which is not a good thing, contrary to divine nature; ch’i, which is life force, universal energy, intended to be harmonized; gatha, which is a Buddhist verse to be recited mentally; kalpa, which is a very long period of time, an age; and dharma, a combination word incorporating both the Buddhist conception of reality and right conduct – see, e.g., Jack Kerouac’s 1958 beatnik-novel The Dharma Bums.]

________

Let’s start with Mr. Hsieh here:

THERE ARE TOWERING PEAKS ON EVERY SIDE OF MY SPIRIT’S TRUE HOME: ATOP STONE-GATE MOUNTAIN’S IMPOSSIBLE CRAGS, WINDING STREAMS AND ROCKY FALLS, THICK FORESTS AND TALL BAMBOO

Reaching my hut built of quiet mystery
I sweep clouds away and settle into repose.

There’s no one left to climb with me beyond

Slippery moss and frail vines to this peak

Where autumn winds bluster and breeze

And spring grasses grow lush and green.

You’re traveling beyond hope of return

Now, no interest in those tender reunions

Where fragrant dust frosts jewelled mats

And crystalline wine lavishes golden cups,

So why stand watch on stormy lakeshores

Or on lookouts among cinnamon branches?

My thoughts wander Star River distances.

A single shadow alone with forgetfulness,

I swim in a lake down beneath cliff-walls

Or gaze up at gibbons haunting treetops,

Listen as evening winds buffet mornings

And watch dawn sunlight flare at sunset.

Slant light igniting cliffs never lasts long,

And echoes vanish easily in forest depths:

Letting go of sorrow returns us to wisdom,

Seeing the inner pattern ends attachment.

O but to set out on the sun’s dragon-chariot

And soar – that’s solace to nurture my spirit,

For these aren’t things people understand:

I need to talk them over with a true sage.

27. (From Dwelling in the Mountains)

Hook and line are never cast

Here, and nets never spread;

No one shoots strung arrows

Or sets out traps and snares.

If you look, the Humanity of wolves and tigers is clear,

But there’s no limit to the passion for killing such things.

I devoted myself to Way long ago, when I was still young,

Awakening to the love all beings naturally feel for life,

And was led by this to see it throughout the realm of things.

By now, never far from my dwelling place in this love,

I nurture the easy joy of soaring gulls and darting fish,

No hint of mechanical mind here among forest and lake.

29.

Plans beginning to form, I set out,

Walking-stick in hand, hiking alone

Through gorges and across streams,

Into mountains and over ridgelines,

Crossing summits without resting,

Tracing creeks back without pause.

Combed by wind and rinsed by rain,

Or stepping into dew among the stars,

I sifted through our shallow thoughts

And left their tight compass behind.

Without shell or stalk for divination,

I picked out the fine and wondrous,

Cut thornwood staffs and blazed trails

In my search for boulders and cliffs.

Here, four mountains circled round,

A pair of streams winding though,

I soon had a library

Facing south ridges

And a teaching hall

Against north slopes,

A hall for meditation

Among sheer peaks

And huts for monks

Along deep streams.

Looking into these towering forests hundreds of years old,

I inhabit the savory fragrance of ten thousand passing ages,

And turning to the fresh springs of all boundless antiquity,

treasure the inexhaustible clarity of their glistening liquid.

Leaving behind the elegant towns that stand outside cities

And the human enterprise bustling inside every village wall,

I delight here in origin’s weave, embrace uncarved simplicity,

Heaven and earth mingling sweet dew in these field of Way.

34.

At South Mountain,

Three parks compassed by ridges

And two fields tight among canals,

Nine springs swell into cascades,

Five valleys to unearthly summits,

A confusion of ragged peaks towering up on all sides,

Their slopes a throng of ascending knolls and shoulders,

And nearby, water floods down into surrounding fields,

Following a tight network of dikes that stretches far-off,

Far-off dikes connecting footpaths,

Nearby streams opening cascades.

Crossing ridges and drifting waves

I go by water and return by foot,

Return wandering and go roaming

winding isles and ringed pinnacles:

How could anything compare to this

joy and beauty so perfectly apparent?

I built my hut up here, facing northern summits,

its porch opening out onto vistas of southern peaks,

Cliffs cragged up and spread away through the door,

an array of mirrored waves billowing at the window.

Taking cinnabar mist and haze for crimson lintels

and emerald clouds for kingfisher-green roofbeams,

I watch shooting stars streak down across the sky

and turn to gaze . . . not yet out herding.

It isn’t just swallows and sparrows that flutter short:

even soaring junglefowl and geese never make it

here, where a side spring surges

and tumbles down past the eastern eaves,

and between mighty opposing cliff-walls,

sounds of slipping rock fill the western eaves.

Tall bamboos stand in thick tangles of such delicate grace

and thickets of majestic trees deep in their lush seclusion:

vines spreading and spreading, climbing and wandering,

blossoms everywhere sweet fragrance and enticing beauty,

sun and moon cast their radiance over all these branches,

wind and dew opening utter clarity across forbidding peaks.

Summers cool and winters warm,

I abide by seasons, taking my ease

among winding stairs and terraces,

rafters and beams mounting apart.

My hut ch’i-sited among all this,

I delight in water and savor rock,

and watching things close at hand

year in and year out, I never tire,

though it hurts to see such beauty following change away.

Lamenting how we only borrow these drifting years of life,

I left the bustling crowds, vanishing into depths of solitude,

mind perennially given over to this rainbow life of clouds.

42.

Living serene for two seasons

each year, summer and winter,

there are monks from far away,

and all those living nearby too.

Dharma drums sounding clarity

and gatha chants crystalline,

blossoms scatter delicate snows,

and incense wanders air away.

We clarify the shadowy language of boundless kalpas

here, talk out meanings bequeathed in dharma images

and cultivate mind to a mere hairsbreadth and beyond,

perfecting these ten thousand inner patterns of life,

the southern Guide Star revealing our true destinies,

the northern Pivot Star return us to lucid clarity.

There’s such contentment in this, and not mine alone.

All of these noble-minded guests share in it with me:

among mountains all clarity and solitude,

they each drift away and lose themselves,

and sounds heard grown altogether rare,

they rejoice, gazing into the inner pattern.

When winter wind scratches and chafes,

we face south and the enduring warmth,

and when summer’s radiance blazes down,

we face north where frost and snow abide.

We pause on ascending terraces as we climb up among cloud-roots

and sit beside cascading streams as we wander beyond wind-caves,

delight to inhabit high atop these mountain walls

this inexhaustible bequest handed down through all antiquity.

FACING THE END

Nothing of Kung Sheng’s life was handed down,

and Li Yeh’s extinction was absolutely complete.

Old Hsi fathomed the inner pattern, Master Huo

the inevitable nature of things – and both paid.

Cypress endures thick and green in cold frost

and mushrooms quickly tatter and fray in wind:

content that death comes always in its season,

I’m happy whether life last long or stops short,

though I still regret my resolve for our people

didn’t end among those mountain cliffs of home.

Giving mind up without that utter awakening:

this is the fear that haunted me all these years,

and now my lone hope turns to some future life

where friend and foe share that mind together.

_____________

Hsieh’s poetry shimmers with its sense-filling, breath-taking, still-life beauty. He climbs to places other people can’t get to, but of necessity he does so alone. He wants to let go of his sorrow, and Hsieh is intentional in attempting to ‘not attempt’ (always a bit of a contradiction in Buddhism, this trying ‘not to try’), so that he can see the inner pattern and end attachment. Uniting himself with nature and ending all human or personal attachments is Hsieh’s goal. The Bible would be contrary (let them rule over the fish, etc.) and the union sought would be with Christ (I am the vine, you are the branches). Naturally, this difficult Tao/Zen Buddhist effort would go better with some instruction – a ‘true sage.’ True sages are hard to come by and we are pleased, on our side of the religious ledger, to have Christ for ours.

One attractive aspect of Buddhism, reflected in Hsieh’s poetry, is his solicitude for wildlife and nature. He needs no instruction to find a connection with all life. He doesn’t even willingly hook fish or spread nets, doesn’t want to string arrows or set traps. Killing animals invokes a passion he deplores. In contrast, the entire sacrificial system of the Law of Moses involves the sacrifice of animals on an altar. That system was ended by Christ and the New Testament; but it ended because it was deemed no longer spiritually effective for mankind; a greater sacrifice, Christ himself, the Lamb, had come to offer himself in atonement and for purification, once and for all.

Hsieh’s idealized nature does not appear to recognize foxes capturing and killing rabbits to feed their young. His sense of the sacred is intentionally independent of moral categories. One implication of that is that mountains, lakes, rivers and trees are more important than people. People on the whole are a nuisance, an irritant, in the cosmic plan of Zen Buddhist enlightenment. People (especially in large numbers) are there for the mountains – if those people have any purpose at all – the lakes and mountains do not exist for the people. This raises a question: why is a beautiful white crane, flying over a lake at dusk, perhaps silhouetted in the moon, more beautiful, or more sacred, than an old man farming his beans? If we are beyond human concerns, finding nature to be a sacred object itself without any human interaction, isn’t finding that beauty, selecting it and highlighting it, being inspired by it, a human concern also? It’s not a crane writing the poetry.

Another question is the religious importance of moral questions – questions of justice and injustice. If our religious idealism points us to things like high mountain walls and ascending terraces, slant light igniting cliffs, does it matter if the old man farming his beans has his land taken away from him? The rainbow life in the clouds is what counts. Justice, vindication and condemnation from an outside source, whether from God, from religious or civil authority, has no place in Hsieh’s religious vision. Perhaps karma takes care of it all. But Tu Fu certainly had tears to shed over the consequences of civil war in China in his own time. “Karma’s gonna get you” never really seems adequate to address such events. Generally, the people saying that in modern times, like John Lennon, rely on police forces, court systems, governments, banks, tax advisors, lawyers, music publishers, copyright laws, to make their lives comfortable (assisted at times by certain intoxicants), while they sing that “karma’s gonna get you.” Justice or injustice in any discernible form is missing from Hsieh’s poetic hermitage. His Tao/Zen Buddhism is like a delicate orchid – extraordinary, but needing to be protected from all manner of rough treatment.

Christianity is founded on rough treatment. The condemnation resulting from Christ’s execution is based on its injustice (and we indeed justly, this man has done nothing wrong) and misunderstanding (forgive them Father, they know not what they do). Hsieh’s delicate and gentle emotions, his precise, crystalline language, his vision of natural serenity conforming to an inner pattern, does not admit of war, capital punishment, or apparently even hamburgers. In contrast, no one in the Bible ever insists that war, capital punishment, or killing and eating meat is inherently or categorically wrong under all circumstances. Specific instances may be wrong, but the attitude of Buddhism in finding such things categorically wrong has strong appeal for many people and perhaps we can acknowledge the value of that type of idealism. Of course, if you take this far enough, you won’t even eat vegetables – they are living organisms also.

In response to Hsieh’s Buddhist solicitude for life wherever it appears, I observe that this world was made by God and given for us and for our benefit, notwithstanding that such a statement may give rise to irresponsible conduct. But we’re not accidents here. God created us to have and use the world and all it contains. The death which Hsieh deplores is a death we experience also. If the fish are hooked and netted and the wolves and tigers are pierced with a hunter’s arrow, well, me too. Physical mortality hooks and nets us likewise; the hunter’s arrow, perhaps in the form of a disease invisible to the naked eye, pierces us also. We share that with the fish and the tigers. Hsieh’s dwelling place in his love for nature leads him to the easy joy of soaring gulls and darting fish, but its a type of easy that may also appear escapist.

Christ announced to the world, “I am the Bread of Life.” Life in any form has great value – no one knows better than Christ Jesus himself. God, acting through his Word, brings forth this life, nurtures it, and brings it to conclusion. The promise of Christ is that the body sown perishable will be raised imperishable – and that creation itself waits in eager expectation, to be liberated from its bondage to decay. Hsieh sees the being, then non-being problem, the change-and-death issue, but the solution requires a twin revelation – that a man could be born again, that we should be born again.

Hsieh craves solitude and a farewell to shallow thoughts. The gentleness, the tranquility of his poetry speaks softly yet eloquently. The fine and the wondrous presents in the natural world Hsieh records, where the mountains are his library, lakes his meditation center, bamboo groves and rivers his teaching hall – and his hut a refuge for wandering monks. Towering forests and deep streams emit the savory fragrance of passing ages and the inexhaustible clarity of boundless antiquity. Bustling human enterprise is a distraction from the Way Hsieh wishes to practice. One might point out to Hsieh that the end of the Bible reveals Jerusalem-from-above, a city coming down out of heaven from God, but it’s unlikely he would be persuaded. Yet, if pure isolation was the highest goal for anyone’s spiritual ascent, why bother to write poetry for anyone else to read? What is it about our uncarved and simple, uncontaminated-by-civilization experience that we wish to share?

The pull of the isolated and unspoiled mendicant or monastic life, presumably encouraging that which is spiritual to grow, has a long history in Christianity also. In part, the Reformation began when Martin Luther left the monastic life and asserted that personal spiritual exercises were not only irrelevant, but harmful. One might without too much injustice compare Hsieh’s Taoist Way to the Law (as in the combined Law of Moses and Law of the Catholic Church with its associated works which were required religious observances); and then remember a few of Luther’s theses for a theological disputation in Heidelberg, near the beginning of the Reformation:

24. . . . Without a theology of the cross, man misuses the best things in the worst way.

25. The one who does much ‘work’ is not the righteous one, but the one who, without ‘work,’ has much faith in Christ.

26. The law says: “Do this!” and it never is done. Grace says: “Believe in this one!”, and forthwith everything is done.

28. The love of God does not find its object, but rather creates it. Human love starts with the object.

So we might respond to Hsieh with delight in his perceptions and verses, but add that the forests, springs, rivers and mountains appear for his mountain-hermit poetry because God created them – in an antiquity that was not actually boundless, but rather bounded at a point of beginning. Perhaps Hsieh might dialogue with God, and hear questions like those directed at Job:

Brace yourself like a man. I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the foundation – and all the angels shouted for joy? Job 38:3-4

If it turned out Hsieh perhaps couldn’t answer God under divine cross-examination, not many of us can. But when a verse like this shows up: “taking cinnabar mist and haze for crimson lintels and emerald clouds for kingfisher-green roofbeams,” we can reasonably decide to take Luther for our theologian, but Hsieh for our poet. And when Hsieh sighs at disappearing beauty and laments, “we only borrow these drifting years of life,” we all (of certain advanced years) can feel that pang. Along similar lines, another poet, Basho, saw cherry blossoms fall wistfully in the garden for his youth (many things of the past are brought to my mind, as I stand in my garden and watch the cherry blossoms fall) and for ours as well.

Hsieh’s poetry breathes a deep contentment with his noble-minded guests, as they contemplate the inexhaustible bequest of nature, handed down through all antiquity. But suddenly facing the end, he rather panics. He wants to be content with death, but he can’t – there is that fear which has haunted him all his years. Suddenly, this practitioner of Tao now finds that his “lone hope turns to some future life,” an emotion heart-rending because it so familiar to us, poignant in its stark recognition of mortality and starkly-immanent farewells. He dreams of that future world where “friend and foe share that mind together.”

A few years ago I was experiencing irregular heartbeats, atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter as we were taking a family vacation in Ocean City, New Jersey. My blood pressure and my cardiac functions were disquieting, to put it mildly. Walking the boardwalk, I stopped at one of the large novelty shops where they sell hundreds of posters and unclassifiable paraphernalia, beach chairs, headshop gear, surf gear, bikinis, boogie boards, suntan lotion, flip-flops and all manner of plastic knick-knacks for the beach and any other piece of junk they can pawn off. The posters were plastered on every square inch of available wall space, mostly oriented around the 1960s and featured musicians I knew well – as I knew the 1960s very well. As I knew vacations in Ocean City well, for 30 years, where my wife and I would drag four small children around in clouds of chaos and sand. Waves of nostalgia, sentimental regret, a kind of Proustian beach-blast Remembrance of Things Past, sadly getting ready to say goodbye to all that swept through me. Mine was no small emotion, composed as it was of mental images of my daughters, lifted by their hands for each wave, my son, throwing crackers at sea gulls nearly his size, my wife, unpacking her cardboard boxes of food to take charge of a new kitchen, turning to me at the end of the evening. Hsieh, we get it.

I could hardly make a stronger case for Christ than Hsieh has made – a case for the Resurrection of the dead, for the City of God coming down from above, for the River of the Water of Life, where there will no longer be any curse because the old order of things has passed away, where we meet old friends and make friends with old foes – to live the life which God always intended us to live, not stalked by death but gifted by life, from the day he created us in his Garden.

My poetry follows:

__________________

Twelve Foundation-Embedded Jewels.

Jasper.

Paths beyond tracing, counseled by none,

granite-soil-earth and star-sky summoned, dominion-decreed,

milky spiral-galaxies attentive, quarks obedient,

my bare trail-whispers enumerated, Mt. Tam-tears bottle-captured,

seafaring child-dream undimmed, laid bare,

to the One who to Moses announced “I am.”

Sapphire.

The Holy One of Israel, Isaiah-declared, enforces His jurisdiction

by Translucent-Enigmatic Writ, celestial Fieri Facias,

assembling for inquiry, for the payment of judgment-debt

sages, hermits and hippies, philosopher-poets, soldiers, servants

all corralled under divine directive

to a revelation-court beyond lawyer-grasp.

Chalcedony.

Ethereal Summons and Command, light-impalpable,

Trumpet-announced, rapture-astounded,

served by angels in eyes-blazing robe-white, wings joy-fluttering

enjoining all to the Holy Wedding, that Festival-Feast,

our Jubilee year under stellar trellis-arch,

presided over by the Son of Man, groom, Savior, Lord.

Emerald:

Soul-marked, we confess freely before men and angels,

delivering a plainwood unvarnished account,

our jacket of sins too garish for words, scars unhidden,

with unsanded compunction, deeds unraveled

and the heart like a pocket turned inside-out

to that self-same Son of God, who loves us as he hears us.

Sardonyx:

For those who will not hear that Summons

to a Tribunal-Throne without end or conclusion,

Serpent-deluded by an ancient deaf-spell trickster,

cinematic image-baffled, tempting choice-deceived,

misled by metastatic-pride, flying a burial-cloth shroud,

depart-from-me will be the unappealable decree.

Ruby:

And so expected-arrived! The cherubim-announced, harpsong-spreading,

creation-thrice-titled announcement

of God’s Glory, Nature and Being:

Holy! Holy in the jutting mountains, holy on the spreading rivers,

holy in the abrupt red canyons, holy in the sparrow-song,

holy in the cream-silver moon and startled shooting star,

holy in the dogwoods and cherry blossoms so vulnerable,

holy in the delicate snows falling on Pennsylvania fir-woods

hiding their nimble-peaceful fawns and does.

Holy!! Holy in the whispering conscience and never-surrendered dream,

holy in the flowering imagination and garage-band fervent hope,

holy in the steelstring inner-artist-poem and glorious justice-truth,

holy in the Valley Forge self-sacrifice, the long-day and longer-night nurse,

holy in the protective embrace of the tender-fingered watchful parent,

holy in the repentance of a man who reaches the end of the road.

Holy!!! Holy in Spirit-cascading power, unassailable-impregnable,

holy in torrentwaterfallingdownrock richflowing grace,

holy in attending-angels, holy in warfare-ending love-inseparable,

holy in clock-quieting eternity-before and eternity-after,

holy in morning-by-morning life-without-end in the Great Shimmering City,

holy in the feast-marriage of the Lamb, holy in the One Light -while he was in the world, the Light of the World, Holy in Peace and Glorious Salvation.

Chrysolite:

And holy in healing, holy in regeneration, holy in fruit-without-curse,

holy in the Chestnut-on-the Delaware honeymoon rooms,

holy in the growing child, the stranger-prophecy in the buffet line,

holy in the first bud of new wide-eyes-life, holy in the best friend,

holy in the schoolgirl secrets, the schoolboy baseball in mid-air,

holy in the interior vine of grace and exploding-power of growth.

Beryl:

Holy in the churches scattered across the land like galaxy-stars

holy in the quiet symphonic dignity of 10,000 communions,

holy in the slow procession of so many faces, bodies, lives,

holy in the simple act of a wafer and cup and many mouths

holy in the pronouncements to remain fresh for one million years

holy in the body, holy in the blood, holy in the remembrance.

Topaz:

Holy also in triple-fierce instruction, application-stern,

that Warrant sent out by angels-grimmer to watchtower vigils,

a pale rider with news of detentions far more sobering,

of an astral plane turned underground shadow-prison camp,

the unicorn colors turned ghastly, not one jot or stroke of the Law passing

and being a ghost or free spirit is no defense at all.

Turquoise:

The Holy City is greatly alive, great in her broad River of Life,

great in her salvation, great in her Glory, great in her fountains,

great in her perfectblood-purification, great in her beckoning-open pearl-gates great in her bejeweled walls, great in her love beyond any height or depth,

great in holiness, great in her light-drenched angels,

great in her enthroned saints, harvested age-by-age,

great in her unveiled majesty and eternal stature,

great in her unceasing praise from those whose lives see no end,

great in her nation-healing leaves,

great in exultant worship and exuberant praise of her God

who stands alone and there is no other.

Jacinth:

whereas the Lake of Fire is deep, deep in separation,

deep in gnawing remorse, deep in barbed regret,

deep in bitter recrimination and acid resentment,

deep in scalding hatreds, deep in loneliness and longing,

deep in anguish of the soul, deep in second-death,

a place of unyielding judgment, a restless place of grief.

Amethyst:

So I call and invite you, subpoena and holy-summon you,

to hear as the living should hear,

to see as the hopeful and humble should see,

to be reconciled to God in Christ,

to turn away from that burning Lake of Fire

where the beast and the false prophet are cast and instead

to find your name astonishingly holy-written, elect-inscribed,

in the Citizens-Book of that great and promised City,

this one too a servant of Jesus,

that one too a living precious stone,

cross-atoned and Lamb-led, creation-renewed and freshly-robed,

where love and resurrection-life wear the same face,

in the City of Jesus, Mercy-Jerusalem from above.

____________

21st-Century Free-Verse Praise for the Holiness of God

As the sun is to the world, so is holiness to the soul. – Thomas Watson.

We are mystified, intrigued and enchanted by the enigmatic holiness of God. We are lured by the holiness of God, our untouchable inner-being is engaged with fingers more ephemeral than dreams, a spell of possession settles over us. We find the holiness of God peering out everywhere yet dancing away, a cat burglar, a distant flute, a shooting star in vision’s corner, a blue-grey twinkle in a stranger’s eye.

We are astonished by the holiness of God, abashed like a man marooned in obscurity, lost in the madding crowd yet receiving impossible, unexpected absolution after some crime wave of the soul. As undiscovered as we are, we are fountains of words, free-flowing word-rushing judge-sentencing-vacated poets, arrayed on fraying red-cushion diner-booths scattering coffee cups laced with milk and spilling the sugar as the all-night waitress laughs while we announce that we belong to Jesus, bursting out of our popcorn gates.

By the ineffable holiness of God we have a Pennsylvania morning soul-kitchen-venued, 70-year skin-thinning hands folded, brown eyes-lifted, prayercloset-still, refrigerator-humming, praise-offering-for-being (yet again!), coffee-aroma, interior waves opening of spirit-reaching, litigator’s helmet-sober, counselor mind-alert, throat-clearing known and beloved names-filled, Ephesians-elected, this day’s pleadings, questions and supplications articulated, reporting-for-duty saluting, Jordan river-refreshing, double-minded doubt-jousting, Romans faith-renewing, spiritual-well asking, Great-Feast receiving, Acts-water moving, Galilee-leading set of gracefinger-shaped prayer-petitions, pleadings accompanied by who-knows-what songbirds beyond sliding glass doors.

We are encouraged by the newswire holiness of God, like a woman giving birth being told by the midwife-nurse the crown of the baby’s head is appearing and just one more push will be all that is needed and she knows in her exuberant joy-desperation she’s thundering down the home stretch, the all-night newsboys are shouting extra! extra! and the cavalry of relief is coming as the baby emerges then she is the cavalry and the Christ who gave himself at Calvary acts with the blood and the water and a baby is born, her baby, their baby, crying most delightedly, wailing most joyfully, and so is dropped out of heaven in a manner utterly miraculous no matter how common it is.

We are strengthened in our coming and going by the holiness of God, like a hitchhiker finding an open convenience store on a midnight-desolate highway with enough money in his Jack Kerouac pockets for a fat roll of fresh bread and a quart of cold chocolate milk, strengthened like young man unloading Statesboro boxcars until his muscles are supple and the angels appear over his head and the grace of God is so visible even the morning shift supervisor can see it, strengthened by the holiness of God by the kind and encouraging words of a new friend even though he is a sinner himself, strengthened by the holiness of God with the hope in dawnlight-reflecting gull-wings beating a straight path across San Francisco hills after a dark night.

We are blessed by the holiness of God, blessed on our suburban portico porches, blessed on our shaded red bench, blessed with our devotional books, blessed in the Chester County July sunlight, blessed by dipping, chirping, high-singing, gossip-chattering birds, blessed by a sea scallops-lunch, blessed by the fresh cut lawn undefiled by weed killer with its cut grass smell, blessed by our neighbors passing with their headbands and handweights, blessed by the family picnic on the Fourth of July and the announcement made of another pregnancy, blessed as all five senses are in operation to glorify God.

The holiness of God is an eternal promise, a last 60’s-call for decaying old hippies and left-over purple-Owsley acidheads, tie-died refugees from the Haight-Ashbury, dust-blasted hitch-hikers who never got out of Lodi, bald bikers gunning hogs for that last big Route 66 Styx-run, a promise that even the most Baba-Ram-Das saffron-chanting rag-wretched, Calley-Cain-branded, My Lai conscience-plagued, fierce-hate self-indicting Manson-following, Bellevue-clinical stainless-steel-toilet deadend-despairing, groping heart-shattered, jagged little sad-eyed pill swallowing, guard-tower and concertina-barbed-wire on double chain-link fences, velvet-underground-crystal-ship, J-death-spooning, Highway-61 runaway sinner may cling to – last call of holiness for us, the flower children.

By the holiness of God we are free-passed and exiting out, discharged from the newly-constructed multi-wing demographically-sited ultra-modern fully-equipped hospital with the most astonishing digital technologies, grinning sheepishly with a nod at the pleasant-professional military-retired crew-cut security guard, our tests are negative hallelujah! and the radiologist who looks 25 years old found nothing-bless-his-soul, no further scheduled appointments with the 180-IQ electro-cardiologist specialist, doctor-done, no appointments for six months, healed and resurrected, resurrected from the looming shadow of the long illness and debilitating powers in a debilitated body leading down to an open grave we all know with a mirror’s name on it, but now a different word – Anastasia, a great word, a holy word, a word to exult in!

We send love-kisses in little mid-day emails and emoji-filled text messages, as we love by the holiness of God, conducting our love affair with that same person who met us when we left the hospital and who is soon going to have jumbo-pink shrimp for dinner, who will be listening like a spy to the recital of the discharge nurse’s instructions and who met us on a certain September day in a certain white dress, walked down a certain Delaware aisle to be given away by a certain oldest veteran brother in a certain independent Church for a certain long-awaited reason that has certain unbreakable pledges associated with it and a certain moving homily from a certain crewcut limping holy man and we knelt at a certain Cross experiencing (at least on my part) a certain complete astonishment that we should be in this certain place doing this certain thing and thanking a certain God and Savior for his certain promises in certainly holy matrimony and for a great deal more beside, that is most undeniably, by the promises of God, certain.

We are loved by the holiness of God, loved beyond the coastline and horizons of sincerity by God, and loved so sincerely by some special others that clever or even inspired poetry will not do to express the seriousness of this love. This love is the very substance of our lives, that substance founded and communicated by one who thought it suitable and no disgrace at all to go to a Cross to express His love, and I need to stop there.

By the holiness of God we meet God, we perceive God, we know who God is, the hidden things now revealed, sunrise over the Grand Canyon, a butterfly emerging from an iron ore furnace, the unspoken “oh!” and the scales fall like lightening so the Son of Man is before us, resplendent, beyond analysis, within-yet-beyond logic or reasoning, within-yet-beyond everything the human mind can puzzle out, simply announcing himself – “I am the Bread of Life,” an announcement to straying sheep too individual to ever characterize, made in places too varied to ever inventory – except to say this was the Damascus-road place, I am the seeing-blind-man, this is my story, sublime or ridiculous, this is my song. “My Lord and my God!” a doubter shouted, his hands no longer needing answers, when he finally got the news, delivered up close and personal by the holiness of God.

By the holiness of God we know who we are, seawater-coughing half-drowned sailors, storm-driven, lost at sea, rock-shipwrecked, tide-washed onto a miserable sun-baked island, pathetically waiting a rescue beyond our powers to effect, while death walks across the beach making a list of names, having our value conferred on us by the possession of a soul we did not make and could not make, a soul so blinking and blind that it has to be introduced slowly to the light, but once awakened, growing as surely as fat-round-cheeked little babies feasting on their mother’s milk.

By the holiness of God we foresee purple mountain majesties turning into tornado-howling, snarling wilderness, crisscrossed with switchback-winding trails leading into unscalable canyons, rusting bridges connecting us to empty-island nowhere, overtaking muttering, wandering hikers circling back to retrace their steps, a straight gate and a narrow way dimly viewed and disregarded in the wildfire-choking smoke, fruited-plain-floodwaters and blazing-inferno mountain-fires nightly events, a national-captivity of unrelenting antagonism in the longhorn-dueling rodeo sawdust, quicksand-swamped with mutual red-and-blue loathing, and the holiness of God fluttering down a map read by faith and by few – and yet – and yet, perhaps too quickly we prophesy disaster – there still is a flag high-waving among the rockets and red-flares, giving its own evidence in a flak-pocked night-sky that the fight is the victory.

We stand with our two feet on the ground by the holiness of God, even if they are no longer planted but sailing, floating across midair, puzzling us by this levitating interlude, pausing-sensing to interior-glide as a falling feather. By the holiness of God the spiritual co-existed with the mundane riffling of a computer deck, the routine infused with another experience, peaceful-yet-startling, mild-but-distinct, not disturbing my computer punch-card academic task, but then like a melody whistling by, like a memory of standing at a city streetcar stop and the young man standing nearby whistling syncopated jazz, a scherzo without introduction or audience except me, our concrete waiting-stop island now a concert hall between the steel trolley-tracks and the streetcar still coming, as the holiness of God captures for our souls an angelic peace and joy, afternoon-awakened, studious-student now momentarily dreamy-inquisitive, sensations odd-yet-majestic, a strange and mysterious spirit-sense of uninvited, soul-touching wafting movement to anchor later into a harbor of faith.

The holiness of God stands sparkling, undisturbed, in perfect summer-day Sequoia-grove repose, flowing-cascading down from the Father of Lights, self-creating radiance, overlooking all, mild in light-silent invincibility. Holiness illuminates, envelops the beloved Lamb seated on the everlasting throne of the Ancient of Days, Glorious, Perfect. Holiness calls us forth into being like stars born and hurled into the light-years of milky, brand-new galaxies, the Star River of the ancient Chinese poets, but not meant to be folded back into nothing, but rather, to live. Holiness makes us the outpouring sparks of El Shaddai, the Creator of supernovas, transcribing us onto a living flag of God’s own holiness – made known in Christ, revealed, disclosed, displayed, paraded to his Friday dark-day-good-day-death, appointed to be Yahweh-raised divine-incarnate to lead us in an unveiled sun-flare parade of His life.

By the holiness of God we embark from the fraying, question-filled temporal into this judicially-decreed paneled-courtroom eternity which neither requires or accepts ex parte explanation, but is simply res ipsa loquitur. By the holiness of God, hornbook Spirit-Law is delivered as an everlasting and settled Opinion by the Supreme Judge, whose invisible bench is wrapped in power and attended by seraphim and cherubim, around whom Archangels Michael and Gabriel stand and all things revolve to find their place. By the holiness of God, the creation has been ordered and enjoined to speak for itself, a witness placed under reality-oath, called every day to the existence-stand. By the holiness of God and his mandamus, all creation’s-very-being jointly and severally sings its living testimony, many judges summoned before the One Judge, to praise the Holy One, our one-and-only-perfect Lord God Almighty.

By the holiness of God we celebrate the unbounded-plenary, angelic-and-human, height-to-depth heaven-and-hell jurisdiction of Jesus Christ, the alpha and omega Son of Man raised from the dead as the firstborn, God’s only begotten, resurrection-vindicated in universe-cracking power, immeasurably beloved of the Father, unlimited-atoning for us in his divinity, irreversibly installed in his humanity as first-immortal, unimpeachable, yet sympathetic Mercy-Judge over us, over me, over ancient Athenians who loved debate, over the angels powerful as they are, over his trembling adversaries, over the entire human race.

The holiness of God makes our flintrock souls fertile-soft to receive the Holy Spirit; a capacity tragic to ignore, like fertile Amish farmland turned to weeds and muck, but exhilarating, glorious to possess and enjoy, a fee simple deed to the rich soil of indefeasible existence, our grounded estate of everlasting being, a springing interest conveyed by Christ Jesus, our Grantor-in-Chief. By the holiness of God our debt-mortgage to sin, our interest-payments to the flesh, the incorrigible nature of our spending habits and escalating balances-due, our bankrupted response to the Angel of Death, arriving to foreclose on us with judgment-writ in hand, is remitted, execution-sale-on-judgment papers marked satisfied, mortgage discharged, jubilee-year soul-quickened victory-shouts on our lips, our rich farmland, flowing with living springs, orchards yielding every month their all-permitted fruit and their leaves of nation’s healing, now ours to have and hold in peaceable possession forever.

The holiness of God is a scarlet cord tied in our crow’s nest-window to save our family, even our wild-wandering brothers and sisters, our lost-on-the-hillside-children, because tribulation-days will come when granite hearts are melting in fear, when elements are blasted in the smelting furnace of internet-down, WiFi-disabled, cell-tower-collapsed with digital bits and bytes seared and scrambled in rolling magnetic solar waves. The holy decrees and steely-eyed judgments of the Lord will be fierce indeed because even, and especially, in the council of holy ones, God is greatly feared. By the holiness of God we stay calm among earthquakes, navigate the roaring waves, call to all who will hear that there is a place of refuge on Zion, the Rapture-Rock, that the ravaging disease will be turned aside if only by the holiness of God you will look, look at the brazen serpent lifted by Moses in the desert – the symbol of Christ, and when you look, you will live.

By the holiness of God, Pennsylvania prisoners who are DoC form-afflicted, bureaucracy-cursed, Z-code application-delayed, grievance-denied, institutional-cold-cash indifferently treated, checker piece-shuffled, misinformation-plagued, phonetime-measured, unit-manager irritated, coal-country security cameras peered at, cellmate-harassed, correctional-officer-accused, are sustained in their waiting and their hoping. By the holiness of God their hourly repentances of concrete floors and sliding double glass doors in outside-contractor-business-and-job-providing state prisons situated close to tired, once-dilapidated but now-somewhat-refurbished Econo-Lodge and Dutch Kitchen-diner Pennsylvania towns, will not prove fruitless, but will be heard by the Lord God, our Savior Jesus, who forgives, who, even in punishment, does not retain wrath forever, but who measures out a necessary grief to effect a promised cure.

By the holiness of God life is extraordinarily poignant, amidst the highway entrance ramps, parking lots, the flip flops of summer, my wife sitting at the computer, blood draws at the spartan tile-echoing lab, cottonwisps of clouds drifting across blue morning County canvas, cellphone conferences, upcoming briefs, baptisms for an infant just becoming a small child to become a young girl, and showered memories like a graceful rain.

By the holiness of God, walking on the Ventnor sands, August sun on bare back, salt on lips, summer salt breeze across the ears, eyes on the beach dotted by lifeguard stands and rescue rowboats stretched to the vanishing point, tasting the Atlantic, last mercurial wave-ripples curling around toes, grey-white sanderlings and pugnacious gulls diving, twin-engine fishing boats small dots on the horizon, skin sandy and sunburn-orange, children melody-screaming to escape ankle-high waves, the bass rhythm of the crashing breakers, the salt and the lotion and the decaying dark-green seaweed in the nostrils -all in accordance with the everlasting gospel, the divine sense and memory-etching plan of the holiness of God.

The holiness of God is the bell to end our weary silence. The holiness of God is a hushed breath, instant before a kiss, a pause before a question. The holiness of God passes under an arbor of betrothal. The holiness of God is the love that waits patiently at the train station. The holiness of God is biting the tongue when you were about to say something that could not be retracted. The holiness of God is in the expression in the eyes that says – okay, this fight can end now, it’s okay, we still love each other – even before a single conciliatory word is spoken. The holiness of God is in answer to the question, haunting us from careening adolescence, who are you? – finally as an adult, ready to say -I am a man who belongs to Christ, I am a man raised from the dead.

The holiness of God is the gentle dawn overtaking a neon-garish, drug-addled time-petrified night. The holiness of God is an invitation by a lakeshore to drop our fishing nets and follow the Savior of the world. The holiness of God calls us as we call others – to journey a path which is no longer pupil-dilated tripping, no longer more excuses for more self-indulgence which bottoms out in the track-yards of death, but clear-eyed and purposeful, onward and upward to a City of Life. The holiness of God is a pearl of great price, given to a man who may once have been a foolish youth staring at grim engines approaching in the night – and then a troubled young man wasting his gifts, but who has late in the day found the One he seeks, revealed in the desert to Moses, revealed to the world in Jesus our Lord.

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