Frank O’Hara has a poem called, “A Step Away From Them,” and in it, he describes wandering through New York City, watching workers, eating a cheeseburger, checking out cheap wristwatches at a kiosk, and his mind turns to several of his friends who have died. He asks himself if, in spite of all the activity he sees around him, the earth could be full if it is empty of his friends. The plenitude of life is brought about through meaningful connection, and a sense of permanent home is attached to the people we share our lives with.
This is so true, right? It really doesn’t matter how much money we make, where we live, or what we accomplish if we don’t have human relationship. Some of the richest, most accomplished people in the world are lonely and sad because they have no one. On the other hand, no hardship, no disappointment, no setback ever truly gets its claws in us as long as we have friends and family.
Some of the more difficult moments in my life have been transferring parishes. I’ve said goodbye to two parishes in Cape Cod, then at Epiphany when I left for six months, and then at Holy Infant. When a priest is transferred, he’s going to another parish where he will do the same things. He’ll say Mass, hear confessions, bury the dead, baptize babies…same stuff. So the only reason the experience of changing parishes is so fraught is because of the people left behind, that’s why if I ever get transferred again I’m forcing you all to come with me. They’ll have to drag me out of here kicking and screaming.
O’Hara ends his poem by writing,
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
What he means is, that which is closest to our hearts, that which makes truly happy, is our connection with other people. For O’Hara it is in the way he meets Reverdy through his poems. For us, it could be reading a good novel, gathering at Church to pray together, volunteering at various things around here and meeting new and old friends, singing in the choir together, our families, our neighbors. The treasure of our hearts is people.
Pierre Reverdy is a French poet who wrote about wandering, of how, as we stand on the razor’s edge of time, we desperately try to avoid being cut to pieces by the relentless ticking of the clock that pushes us through life. A bit of background. In the 1920s, he lived in Paris and hung out with Picasso and Coco Chanel. All during that period he was becoming more serious about the Catholic faith, and formally entered the Church in 1926. He abandoned Paris and moved to Solesmes to live near the monastery there. In one of this poems, years before he moved, he writes that the, “door of the monastery is open.”
Reverdy’s faith always remained, as he said, “a bush full of thorns.” He often found himself at a crossroads, a place he returns to again and again in his poems because it combines the image of Crucifixion with the action of wandering. For Reverdy, it’s a frying-pan-fire type of situation. We can either wander off on our own and become lost, or we can remain right there at the Cross, and suffer. There’s a tension, because the only way to find a home in this world is through the sacrifice of love and the gift of ourselves to others.
Moses has great, poetic moments, too. He tells the people, “Arami oved avi,” which means, “A wandering Aramean was my father.” It’s a phrase that hearkens all the way back to the creation of the Israelites as a people. When Abram is called by God and given a new identity, there was no such thing as Israelites, and for many generations they were without home. Their condition was enslavement in Egypt and later to wander the desert. Moses told the people that this prayer, “Arami oved avi,” was to be on their lips as they brought the fruit offering to God. The fruit offering represents their connectedness to the Promised Land. The fruit came from their farms, their orchards, their homes. Their father Abraham may have been a nomad but it is God, his covenant and his blessings, that has brought them home. It’s a relationship, a promise between Man and God to share their lives with each other.
Our Lord does some wandering, too. He voluntarily allows Satan to tempt him in the desert for forty days. He returns to the place where the Israelites had lived in tents and had to pack up each morning for a day of walking. He does this because, as long as he is encountering and defeating temptation, as long as he is grappling with Satan on Satan’s territory, he will do so a traveler. To give into temptation immediately separates us from God and from each other. Sin destroys relationships, which is why sin is alienating and lonesome. It is this condition that Our Lord removes from us. He makes whole what had been broken.
It is the defeat of sin that grants us citizenship to the Promised Land. It is a return to God, to relationship and covenant with him, it is a personal relationship with Jesus, an intimate sense of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is gathering together as the priestly people to join with our great high priest in his sacrifice.
The words, “Arami oved avi,” continue to be prayed at the Jewish Passover meal, and remember that the Passover meal is the celebration of how the death of a spotless Lamb delivers them from death and bondage, showing how, for a Christian, the idea of wandering is connected with the Cross. Here, at the Cross, is where Our Lord puts an end to our aimlessness. Here is where he transforms our steps into a purposeful pilgrimage, our movement becomes a victory march to the Kingdom of God. Here, at the Cross, is where he takes his place in our hearts by offering himself up for our redemption. It is a human connection, our High Priest mediating for us, suffering with us, loving us, and finally, reconnecting us in a relationship with God the Father.
In Lent, we have an annual reminder to re-purpose our steps. Where are we going? The fruit offering was brought directly to the altar, which is the gate of heaven. The door is open. Beyond it, is home.