Hungry Ghost by Mark Doty from Deep Lane
Even if I understood what the teachers said,
that my desire was a thirst
for something beyond forms,
I believed I would be incomplete
if I did not know longing;
I would miss nothing,
wanted to be marked by the passage,
wanted to be inscribed.
And then I was given the key
to a wanting that won’t stop as long as I live.
Where was my gracious consent to attachment then?
I was taught to say, Please, Sir,
may I have have? Taught by craving, by the roar
in the blood rising without volition,
no place to stand that did not lean
forward, no still point. I harrowed sleep
and memory, descended into
the purely physical howl of the world,
learned my size in relation to appetite,
from which I could no more step back
than I could change the eyes
through which I read this page.
When I’m gone, will I stop wanting?
Perhaps this is also a form of immortality:
submission to a craving without boundary.
To be ravenous, and lack a mouth.
On this fifth Sunday in Lent Cynthia opened up the Gospel reading from John 12 of the reckless love of Mary for Jesus as an incarnate extravagance similar to that of what Stuart called The Prodigal Father in last Sunday’s Gospel reading of Luke 15 and the more familiar prodigal son. Cynthia and Stuart both opened to us their own uncertainties and pain in the days and dark nights we have all shared in the loss of a long friend and communion companion at Grace, Ron Walker. Both Stuart and Cynthia authorized in their own confessions all our own dismay in the mystery of Ron’s death.
I know no modern American poet so nakedly confessional and yet exquisitely accurate and particular in the experience of longing, love, and loss as Mark Doty. Doty walks a tightrope in nearly all of his poems with the devouring roar of ecstasy and loss on the one side, and the fragile language of communion, ever broken but to share, on the other. And every poem walks out into the dancing dark anew, not just for Doty as the poet, but also for any reader, not just once, but again and again as I return to a poem of his, to “Hungry Ghosts”.
“Hungry Ghosts” evokes the Chinese notion of the ghosts of those of unending desire, depicted in various ways as having huge stomachs but narrow necks, too small to let any sustenance through to fill the growling ache of enormous appetite. Or as in Doty’s poem, endless hunger but no mouth, no way of entry to taste and relish, no communion of life. Who would choose such a life of ravenous desire? This is the sort of condemnation of the wicked that are ever ravenous in the Hades of the Greeks or the Hell of Dante and the Christian imagination.
And yet, and yet….the Prodigal Father, the sensuously extravagant Mary. And the Gospels and Jesus seem to approve. What have we missed?
It’s what we always try to push aside, long to miss, give it a go. Death pervades the parable of the Prodigal Son/Father and death haunts the Johannine story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with costly nard and extravagant love. What the father of the two sons says of his younger when he returns is, “he was dead and is alive again”, and repeats this to his older son, “he was dead and has come to life.” Whatever we may want to make of the younger son’s recklessness and judge his stupidity and selfishness and poor use of an inheritance he did nothing to deserve in the first place — all those things we think are important — the father, the Prodigal Father, ignores entirely. What matters is, “he was dead and is alive again.” Death is context of the Prodigal Father’s reckless love.
Just so in the story from John, we get a very different story than the parallel to the harlot anointing the feet of Jesus in the house of the Pharisee in the other Gospels. Judas complains that such a costly anointing of the feet of Jesus could surely have been better used to feed the poor. Only in John does Jesus refer this gift of extravagant love into the shadow of his dying and death. Jesus names this reckless gift in the context of his death, just as the father of the prodigal son names his reckless joy in the context of his son’s death and then alive again.
Death is the common thread through the reckless gifts of the Prodigal Father and the Mary of abundant extravagance of perfume and naked in hair. Death is the edge of reckless love and reckless life. Death is the flint that the Spirit strikes fire from in our souls to flame up in reckless abandon of ourselves into utter joy in another.
Instead we pull back from the valley of the shadow of death. We temper our lives, and reckless wonderings, our desires and longings — for surely they are all too much for small critters like you or like me. We forget that Jesus said, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Doty recalls the moment in the play Oliver from Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and Oliver’s orphan desire for “more”, which leads to a grand romp of a song in the musical chasing Oliver up and down rats’ nests and haunted chimneys and more. How we are all taught to say at most, “Please, Sir, may I have more?” And how much does that sound like our prayers at our most rambunctious, our most open desiring? Is that what Jesus sounded like in his prayers to his Father, “Please, Sir, may I have….”? Is that the prayer Jesus taught us?
Death is the breaking point — the Gospels for fourth and fifth Lent both make that clear, that the recklessness of the Prodigal Father and the recklessness of the extravagant Mary of Bethany is rooted in an awareness of Death, and a recklessness of longing and loving beyond death.
In today’s Epistle reading from Philippians 3 we hear something of the same from Paul, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Christ, Jesus, this Christian life comes alive in us from the shadows of the ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday to the striking awake of the first fire of Easter morning, breaking open the dark even before the Sun has risen upon us.
Desire and longing are all further names for the loves that make us alive. The God of the Bible is a God of endless longing, endless desire, endless loving to be alive with us, to share life abundant with us and all about.
The Bible is a book of longing and desire. The longing and desire is mostly of God for creation, for the world, for creatures and critters, for the oddest of people, and for us. A small bit of the Bible gives expression to our longing and desire for God — but it’s there and we are even asked to come join in the dance, the choirs before the Lord, the way up to Jerusalem, the supper of the Lamb.
Mark Doty’s poem is a gift into our communions, our Lenten waitings, our longing forever for the delicious of God, or is it one another?, on our tongues, a relish we can’t begin to fathom. Desire and longing give this to us, awaken us to this in our lives and in each other. As Doty says,
I would miss nothing,
wanted to be marked by the passage,
wanted to be inscribed.
And so God would miss nothing, and calls us to miss nothing, calls us to be marked by the passage of every day we skip or howl or meander through, to want to be inscribed with the day, this day, its longing and its amaze of desire. How our hearts and minds, our imaginations and our souls are all ripped open into naked presence to this day — and this day in all its dying.
Death is all around, and we would most often like to escape. But we can’t, so let’s not pretend we could. Choose to “miss nothing”, “to be marked by the passage”, “to be inscribed”, not in some distant Book of Life, but in your flesh and every feeling, remembering the longing and the loss and the dying.
Reckless love is a surprise in the face of death, the threatened ending of any love or company or kindness. It’s a gamble on the immortality, the rollicking roll of such love, such longing, such desire.
Our God is one who has endlessly been with us, “a craving without boundary.” Is that the life you want to risk living? Is there any other life?