The lectionary reading from the Gospel of Mark this week, the story of the mustard seed (and the surrounding parables) is for me one of the most interesting passages in the Gospels. Maybe it’s because I am most excited by language when it is in a poetic mode and less of a claim/ more of an invitation — in this case, an invitation and ex-vitation at the same time, as we shall see. Earlier in Mark, some select listeners ask Jesus about the purpose of the parables, to which he says,
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that:
they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not
so that they may not turn again and be
I went back to Isaiah (because the commentary told me to, it’s not that I know this stuff off-hand), 6:9-10, (____) speaking to Isaiah:
“Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
Harrumph. So many questions. Why do the Prophets and Jesus speak in poetry? Why do prophets and poets speak in ways where only some people understand? Self-preservation, for one (now I am thinking about Russian satire from the Soviet era), maybe to weed out shallow succubus groupies, maybe an indication that deep understanding necessitates a threshold level of intimacy.
Anyway, I was reading about the mustard seed, and since I’ve also been reading Ursula K LeGuin’s collected blog posts No Time to Spare, that text was rolling around, especially the first post where she is answering a questionnaire from her alma mater about how she (an octogenarian at the time) spends her time. I am still thinking about death and grief while reading some other texts for the upcoming grief retreat, and then I started thinking about time and back again to what people mean by the kingdom of God.
Grief. Time. Death. Poetry. Kingdom of God. Mustard seeds.
–There’s something about death/ loss/ knowing we will die that makes us turn to poetry.
–There’s something about a/ the Kingdom of God in a mustard seed, in Proust’s madeleine (lol), in the grain of sand in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which I re-encounter in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn: “In a grain of sand in the hem of Emma Bovary’s winter gown, said Janine, Flaubert saw the whole of the Sahara. For him, every speck of dust weighed as heavy as the Atlas mountains.”
–There’s something about grief that makes us think about the time that remains, and what kind of time that is, when we are really aware that everyone and everything we love will pass away. All I know is it’s not ordinary clock time (chronos) but that other kind of time (kairos), revolutionary time, the time of being reconstituted by love or grief, kingdom of God time.
Is that kind of sharp awareness of life and death a/ the Kingdom of God? The way the searing reality of loss makes possible a sharper focus of everything that is, is, is, is — like light hitting the corrugated metal in the famous Walker Evans photograph, saying this is, this is, this is, with every stripe of light and shadow.
The first death that touched me intimately, that of my teacher and long-time friend/mother figure, Mary, seemed to tear the skin off the world, and if I wanted to remain a part of the world, I could do so only by connecting directly to the pain. That pain had a kind of focus that made me see 95% of other people, on the street, on the bus, as sleepwalkers (which, of course, I had been myself until then — and after a while it required effort to feel again the earlier clarity).
Eventually that kind of grief needs a form. A eulogy. A communion with friends. A way to remember later, though I more often think of her on her birthday (next week) than on December 10th, the day she died.
Plenty to think and talk about for Sunday. I am sharing Ursula K LeGuin’s post because it is, in its own way, searing, and as thought-provoking as one would expect, but also because it has a form — the form of the questionnaire — which, like poetry, has a way of both containing and expanding the griefs she’s describing. Or more like more accurately representing their expansiveness.
Coffee Hour is a lightly facilitated, gently theological online space where you are welcome, no religious commitment assumed or expected. It happens every week at 1-2pm Irish time. The password changes (for this week it is: UrsulaKLeGuin); the video conference link is: https://meet.jit.si/CoffeeHourWithFriends2021