The Firebird XV

Birds in Flight 001


Somehow or other the red star had reappeared, burning a hole through the curtain of rain and darkness.  Bigger, brighter, and closer it grew until I no longer had any doubt as to what it was.  I recognized it as the Firebird returning.

I bit my lip as tears began to run down my cheeks, mingling with the flowing raindrops.  “There must be another way!” I cried, craning my neck to look at the small gray bird.  But the small gray bird had disappeared.  In his place I saw three different birds occupying the spot of ground where the three ladies had so recently stood:  the first, a raven; the second, a rose-red dove; and the third, a little brown sparrow.

“Use your cloak,” said the raven, and off she flew.

“Use your lamp,” said the dove, and she too fluttered away.

Use your apples – and use them wisely,” chirped the sparrow as the wind bore her out over the ocean.

I looked up just in time to see the Firebird stooping down upon me.  I fell back a step, expecting to be snatched up in its powerful claws, as its hot breath swept over me.  But it passed me by like a whirlwind of flame and flew circling out over the valley of the Watchers.  I spun around to face it.  Bending into a steep dive, it bore down upon me again.  Nearer and nearer it came.  I cowered, stumbled backward, and then I was falling, over the edge of the cliff, down through the swirling mists, straight into the terrible darkness of the crashing sea below.

* * * * * * * * * *


Pilgrim 2 001

“Active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science.  But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it – at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you … “

                         — Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov


* * * * * * * * * *


We seem to have reached a place where “love” and “hate” can be defined largely in terms of political alignments.  A “loving” or “compassionate” person is one who votes for the right candidates or supports the correct social measures.  Those who don’t follow suit are instantly labeled “haters.”

Real love isn’t that simple.  To see this, we have only to remind ourselves that love is available in several varieties, some of which come easily to the average person while others don’t.[i]  Take sexual desire or romantic love (Greek eros).  This kind of love requires relatively little effort on the part of the lover:  you just “fall into” it.  Something similar can be said with respect to familial affection or loyalty (storge), a love as natural to the human condition and as needful for survival as the desire for food or drink.  Then there’s friendship (philia), the heart-felt bond that develops between close companions who happen to have compatible temperaments and share common values, interests, desires, goals, and aspirations.  It’s a wonderful thing, but there’s nothing particularly challenging about it.

All of these loves are important to the Pilgrim, for all are essential to his basic humanity.  But there is yet another kind of love which is unique to his calling, and even for him it is not attainable apart from pain and struggle.  The kosmos regards it as a crazy, counter-intuitive, nonsensical sort of love.  In contrast to the other three varieties, it might almost be described as unnatural.  The New Testament calls it agape.

The difference between agape and the other loves is revealed most clearly in Christ’s command to “love (Gr. agapate) your enemies.”  Enemy-love is pure agapeagape shorn of outward trappings and purified of foreign admixtures.  The human heart does not gravitate in this direction of its own accord.  On the contrary, this kind of love requires work.  It goes against the grain.  It entails choice, action, discipline, and self-denial.  It might, in fact, be characterized as a type of repentance.  Unlike the social and political “love” which centers in slogans, expresses itself in fund-raisers, and attaches itself primarily to nameless, faceless, impersonal abstractions – like “the needy,” “the hungry,” or “the disenfranchised” – agape focuses on real flesh-and-blood individuals.  People you and I actually know.  And that’s uncomfortable.

In his landmark novel The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky introduces readers to a medical doctor who is intimately familiar with the struggle of agape.  In a moment of painful honesty, this physician reveals his inner hypocrisy to Father Zossima, the Russian monk.  “In my dreams,” he says, “I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity … and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience … In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men:  one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose.  I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me …”

If you can relate to this confession, you will understand what the challenge of agape is all about.  It’s a matter of abandoning mere platitudes about “universal brotherhood” and somehow getting past the feelings of aversion and disgust that divide you from your domineering husband, your opinionated brother-in-law, your micro-managing boss, your nagging aunt, the nerd in the next cubicle, or the obnoxious next-door neighbor.  This is where the rubber really meets the road.  Because if you can’t love them, there isn’t much point in talking about “service to humanity.”

How can this possibly happen?  In Dostoevsky’s narrative, it’s Father Zossima who provides the answer:  only by means of a miracle.  In the final analysis, it’s the petty barriers between people that constitute the greatest difficulty, and getting over those barriers requires an infusion of supra-natural love – a love that comes from above.

This agape love can’t be turned on with the flick of a switch or trumped up by sheer grit and determination.  It has to grow and flow of its own accord as the Pilgrim stays connected to his Power Source.  It’s like the seed that sprouts in the night without the gardener’s knowledge.  The key is to plant it in good ground and then stand back and let it grow.

And it will – not by you or your own efforts, but because of the One who made you a Pilgrim in the first place.  “Faithful is He who calls you, and He will do it.”


[i] See C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves.

The Firebird XIV

On the cliff 001


Once more I looked out over the sea to the horizon.  The black speck was no longer visible, though the red star had increased in magnitude and brilliance.  At my feet gray mists curled in the darkness and the surf boiled and churned over the hidden reefs.  Suddenly the wind shifted round to the northeast, bringing with it great black clouds that blotted out the star and the ruddy glow of the approaching sunrise.  It began to rain.

“Ah!” I exclaimed with a shiver, “how cold it has become!”  But when I turned to address the three ladies they were nowhere to be seen.

I pulled the cloak closer around my shoulders and covered my head with the hood.  Then I picked up the lamp and the basket of apples.  Gazing at them, I suddenly recalled that these very items had been among the gifts I had seen in the sack through my window.  To be sure, they represented only a small portion of the bag’s contents, and yet I was no longer separated from them by the glass.  On the contrary, I held them in my own hands!  And who could tell what benefits they might bring me?

“Surely this is a sign,” I thought.  “Surely he is telling me that I must not stop.  He is asking me to keep on following him!”

The rain was coming down hard, driving before a chill wind that went howling past my ear before plunging headlong down the sheer glassy cliff.

“But where do I go from here?” I cried out in the face of the storm.  “How can I follow when nothing lies before me but a dark abyss?  What must I do?”

In answer, the familiar voice at my ear spoke once again.  It was very soft and still now in the midst of the wind and rain.  It said, “Throw yourself into the sea.”

I turned my head.  There on my shoulder sat the small gray bird with eyes of burning blue.

“Throw myself into the sea?” I shouted in disbelief.

At this moment there was neither fire nor warming glow in my wounded heart.  As in my dream, it was as if everything had gone cold and empty inside me.  The storm grew violent and the rain froze into cruel sleet and hail.  The darkness was thick and palpable.

“Yes,” said the still, small voice.  “Throw yourself into the sea.”

“What can you possibly mean?” I protested.  “How can I do such a thing?”

“You must trust me,” he replied.

“Trust you!” I wailed.  “And cast myself down into that darkness?  That would be suicide!  I can’t even see my hand in front of my face!  A leap like that is not trust!  It’s plain stupidity!”

“It is no leap at all,” he gently countered.  “It’s simply the next step.  You asked me what to do and I have told you.  I told you before that your only concern is to take one step and then another.  One step at a time.  Nothing more.  And step by step I have brought you to this place – this ridge, this cliff, this boiling ocean, this dark storm, this particular moment, unique among all others.  This, for you, is the kairos.  Where will you go now if you refuse to follow my instructions?  This is the next step, I tell you.  That is all.  Throw yourself into the sea.”

I could not believe what I was hearing.  I did not want to believe it.  I spun around, intending to turn back.  But when I saw the twinkling of the lights in the valley below and realized that all those hundreds and thousands of Watchers had their eyes fixed upon me, I hesitated.  It was a good thing I did.

I could see now very clearly that there was no way back.  The level crest of the mountain on which I stood was no more than six feet wide, and the drop on the side of the valley was even steeper and sharper than that which fell into the sea.  The way was closed and my guides had departed.  I stood motionless and horrified on the ridge as if at the top of a wall between two worlds.

I turned and spoke to the bird on my shoulder.

“Please,” I said, “all I want to do is go back home!  Back to my room, my window, my candle, and all the other familiar things that I know so well.  Christmas morning is coming as it has come so many times before, and I am afraid of missing it.  Please take me home!”

The bird blinked his blue eyes.  The tiny red flames were flickering in their depths.

“Christmas morning comes indeed,” he said.  “It comes as it has never come before. And you will certainly miss it if you do not do as I say.  Throw yourself into the sea.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Salt River Roarer

Mike Fink Trump 001

“I’m a Salt River roarer!  I’m a ring-tailed squealer!  I’m a reg’lar screamer from the ol’ Massassip’!  WHOOP!  I’m the very infant that refused his milk before its eyes were open, and called out for a bottle of old Rye!  I love the women an’ I’m chockful o’ fight!  I’m half wild horse and half cock-eyed alligator and the rest o’ me is crooked snags an’ red-hot snappin’ turtle.  I can hit like fourth-proof lightnin’ an’ every lick I make in the woods lets in an acre o’ sunshine.  I can out-run, out-jump, out-shoot, out-brag, out-drink, an’ out-fight, rough-an’-tumble, no holts barred, ary man on both sides the river from Pittsburgh to New Orleans an’ back agin to St. Louiee.  Come on you flatters, you bargers, you milk-white mechanics, an’ see how tough I am to chaw!  I ain’t had a fight for two days an’ I’m spilein’ for exercise.  Cock-a-doodle-do!”   

— From Mike Fink, King of Mississippi Keelboatmen, by Walter Blair and Franklin J. Meine, pp. 105-106.  Copy 1933 by Henry Holt & Company, Inc.  New York.

The Firebird XIII

Three Ladies 001


Far out to sea a small black speck was moving against the glow on the horizon. “The eight-legged horse!” I said to myself, and my heart leapt at the idea. Above the speck, three quarters of the way to the zenith, a bright red star appeared, bright enough to be visible in the lightening sky.


                                        He comes! He comes!

                                        Christmas morning is soon to arise!


Voices were chanting again. I turned at the sound. There beside me on the narrow ridge stood three ladies, tall and gracious, each one exceedingly fair, each one different from the other two. I wheeled around to cast an enquiring glance at my guide; but even as I looked upon her she vanished away, her bright form dissolving into a million dancing radiant specks which in the next instant were scattered by the wind. I was left alone in the presence of the three.

“Who are you?” I asked timidly. Though I sensed somehow that they meant me nothing but good, still I felt cold with dread as well as with the east sea wind.

Without answering my question, the first one stepped close to me. “Take this cloak,” she said. She was dark as the night sky, with raven-black hair caught back in a silver circlet, but her eyes shone bright as two stars. It was in her eyes that I perceived how very old she was – older than the mountains, older than the dark sea. And yet she was breathtakingly beautiful. She was wrapped in a shroud of dark blue, like the blue of deepest heaven. The cloak she held out to me was of the same color.

“You are but a child,” she said to me. “This cloak will protect and keep you. It will cover folly and a multitude of sins. Without it you will be a helpless, naked infant. Wear it well.”

With that she cast the cloak around my shoulders and fastened it at the throat with a silver brooch. Then she withdrew a step.

“Take this lamp,” said the second, who now advanced. Her hair was dusky red, her eyes burning amber. A simple band of red gold circled her brow. Her robe was of the sunset’s subtlest hues. In her hand she held a simple oil lamp of red clay. At the end of its gently curving spout burned a small yellow flame.

“You are but a child,” she said, holding the lamp out to me (and somehow I knew that she herself could never be young or old). “This lamp will light your way and banish your darkness. Without it you will be a blind baby. Take it and use it well.” She put the lamp into my hand and touched my fingers as they closed around its ear-shaped handle. Then she stepped back.

Now the third approached. She was young, fresh, and fair as the first spring rain. Her hair was of bright gold, circled with a garland of living flowers. Her eyes were blue and shining. She wore a simple kirtle of fine white linen and her feet were bare. In her hand she held a basket of golden apples.

“Take these apples,” she meekly said, bowing and proffering the basket. “You are but a child, and these apples will serve to keep you so; for should you ever outgrow childhood, you would also outgrow him whose coming we await.” Then, with a curtsey, she too withdrew.

I looked out to sea. The black speck had all but disappeared. Something hot surged up within me.

“You say that he is coming,” I said, “and yet I have been pursuing him all this night, and still he eludes me. Perhaps he comes for you but not for me.”

Except for the whistling of the wind all was very quiet on the steep blue ridge. Then suddenly the maiden with the flowers in her hair began to laugh – a bright, merry, musical laugh.

“Have you indeed been pursuing him?” she asked with a cheery glint in her eye. “Was it not he who persuaded you to come out when you were unwilling?”

“What she says is true,” said a familiar voice at my ear.

* * * * * * * *


Pilgrim 2 001

        “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you …”   

               — Matthew 5:43, 44


* * * * * * * * * *

There are lots of reasons for loving enemies.  Among other things, enemies have a great deal to teach us.  Most of all about ourselves.

“Why do they hate us so much?”  This question seemed to be on everybody’s lips in the days immediately following 9/11.  The query itself was something of a phenomenon.  After all, how often are we treated to the spectacle of a newscaster or commentator without a ready-made analysis or explanation?  On this occasion none of them seemed capable of comprehending the horrors they had witnessed.  How much less their clueless viewers and readers!

The conundrum hasn’t gone away.  It comes back to haunt us regularly.   “Americans are wonderful folks,” we stammer incredulously.  “The greatest nation on earth!  Americans would never think of doing something so horrendous to other people [except, perhaps, for Americans like William Tecumseh Sherman, George Custer, John Chivington, Lee Harvey Oswald, George Wallace, Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, Ted Kaczynski, David Koresh – and the list goes on].  Why do they want to kill us?”

“They,” of course, have their reasons.  And if we could begin to wrap our brains around those reasons – if we could do the hard work required to crack the question “Why do they hate us so much?” – our eyes might be opened to see ourselves as we have never done before.  In which case we’d be forced to concede how much we owe these deadly and implacable foes who seem so determined to encompass our destruction and damnation.

As it happens, “they” are a people fiercely committed to an uncompromising standard of righteousness, morality, holiness, piety, and rigorous self-discipline.  Five times a day they prostrate themselves toward the east and pray.  They fast regularly, give alms, make long, hard pilgrimages, and punish what they regard as sin with intense severity.  To Allah they say, “You alone we worship; You alone we ask for help.  Guide us in the right path; the path of those whom You blessed; not of those who have deserved wrath, nor of the strayers” (Holy Qur’an, Surah 1:5-7).  There is nothing ambiguous about their attitude toward those who reject their worldview:  “O you Disbelievers!  I do not worship what you worship.  Nor do you worship what I worship.  Nor will I ever worship what you worship.  Nor will you ever worship what I worship.  To you is your religion and to me is my religion!” (Surah 109:1-6)

In short, theirs is a faith borne out of and adapted to the unrelenting harshness of the Arabian desert:  a religion of sun and wind and searing heat and burning rock and miles and miles of waterless waste.  In its quest to survive, thrive, and dominate, it does not – it cannot – allow for weakness, voluptuousness, waywardness, or double-mindedness of any kind.  It seeks an inward purity as clear and stainless as the sirocco-swept sands and the star-studded sky.

Is it any wonder, then, that “they” regard our way of life as an object of revulsion and disgust?  Our self-indulgent luxuries are a stench in their nostrils.  The license and licentiousness we call “freedom” are an offense to them on every level.  Our scoffing disregard for virtue and uprightness is a thing they cannot comprehend.  It is impossible for them to understand, much less tolerate, a civilization that winks at adultery, celebrates sensuality, applauds debauchery, feeds on trivialities, and worships the likes of  Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus.

This, then, is a least part of the reason why “they hate us so much.”  And, as is often the case with enemies – even on the personal, individual level – we owe them a great deal for their unbiased and instructive observations concerning our character flaws as a people.  There is no telling how we might benefit were we to take some of these lessons to heart.

For this we can love them, not only as enemies, but also as wise teachers and friends.





The Firebird XII

The Guide and the Tunnel 001


Again we made our way through the crowd of busy watchers; and as we went, I noticed that, while thoroughly occupied with their individual tasks, these shining people kept their eyes fixed upon the highest ridge of the sheer blue wall of the valley.  It was in this direction that my guide led me.  Upon reaching the foot of the azure cliff, she stretched out her hand and touched its icy surface with her fingertips, gently, tenderly, almost as if she were touching a living thing.  And at her touch it was as if the wall became a living thing indeed.  Its color changed from blue to shades of red and rose and pink; its hard, rocky face grew soft and supple and then began to melt away, leaving a passageway into the mountainside.  She took my hand and drew me inside.

I expected to find myself in darkness once we stepped beneath the arch, but the tunnel was more than adequately illumined by the shimmering form of my guide and the glow of the rock itself.  In this light I could see that the rock continued to melt away before us precisely at the rate at which we continued moving forward.  At every step it withdrew another yard further into the cliffside.  The dead-end of the passage was never more than three feet ahead, and if ever we stopped for a moment, it too would stand still and wait for us to proceed.  The words of the small gray bird came back to me then:  “Take one step and then another;” for at any given moment we had only enough space to do just that and no more.

On and on we went in just this fashion until I became aware that we were climbing slowly upward through the heart of the mountain – not because I could see it, but because my steps became more labored.  Up and up we climbed, higher and higher for a very long time, until at last the passageway broke out into the light.

We emerged into the outer air and stood upon the narrow crest of the mountain.  A strong and steady wind blew cold from the east, whipping my hair about my face.  I put my back to it and looked out over the valley of blue glass whence we had come.  It was filled will the bright but silent shapes of the watchers.  From such a height they appeared to me no more than a great gathering of motionless fireflies.  They were like thousands and thousands of winking and twinkling candles filling up the blue basin below.  But I knew that their eyes were upon me.

“Look to the east,” said a familiar voice at my ear.  I turned to face the stinging wind.  What I saw nearly took my breath away.

At my very feet the ridge fell away sheer into a fathomless darkness of mist.  At the sight my disturbing dream came flooding up into consciousness.  But then I raised my eyes and saw below me the great dark sea stretching away to the horizon.  I could hear its breakers crashing on rocks that lay shrouded in the fog.  The luminescence of the mountains was not strong enough to penetrate the mists nor to reach very far out to sea; but along the horizon, at the very edge of all that could be seen or known, I saw a faint red glow rising.  And then I heard several voices chanting:

“He comes!”

* * * * * * * *

Enemy Alien

Poet's Corner 001

Enemy Alien


Behold the Enemy Alien –

Strange sojourner from another land,

Banished from the garden of his birth,

Bound by a chain to this fallen earth.


Commissioned or condemned

Or by appointment he walks among us here,

Whether God or self or devil be to blame,

Sustained, repulsed, and rebel to the hateful game.


A captive clown and bringer of wry smiles

To knowing lips and stylish minds he stands,

Opposed and opposite to each and all,

To the very brick and mortar in the crumbling wall.


Outside the gates he lifts his idiot cry,

Outside, with desert lips, and shakes his staff

At all who dwell within; his budding rod

Shall bear for them the bitter fruit of God.


Behold the Unknown Stranger –

Analog man in a digital world,

With neither numbers nor electrons in his veins,

But blood and poet’s words and harper’s strains.


The stench of death he seems to one and all,

Preferring, as he does, these streams of life.

He clings to goodness and to timeless truth

And grows from wise to fool and sage to youth.


Outside the gate, beyond the rain-dark wall,

Where little flowers bloom in innocency,

He flees the stinking city of the damned

With Noah, Moses, Lot, and Abraham.     





Books 001

Diversion.   If man were happy,  the less he were diverted the happier he would be, like the saints of God.  Yes: but is a man not happy who can find delight in diversion?

“No: because it comes from somewhere else, from outside; so he is dependent, and always liable to be disturbed by a thousand and one accidents, which inevitably cause distress.”      

— Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 132 (170)