“Of Mere Being” by Wallace Stevens, from The Palm at the End of the Mind
Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
Palm Sunday’s set of Gospel readings began with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem cheered by the crowds who have been gathering for Passover. In John’s version of the story the people not only cast down their cloaks before Jesus. They also cut palm branches and pave the way into Jerusalem with green palms of praise and enthronement. If there is any doubt, the people cry out the meaning of their expectations: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord — The King of Israel!” Their songs of recognition and acclamation come from the Psalms and the Prophets.
Soon enough the messianic cheers of the people turn to accusations and condemnations arising out of disappointment. Jesus is no messiah as he is arrested, condemned, beaten, and hauled off to be crucified. The palms of crowning victory are turned into a crown of thorns pressed down and piercing the brow of Jesus, staining his eyes, his cheeks, his face in his own blood.
This picture of Jesus suffering and crucified is a standard image and trope of Christian art and story. This is carried further into fascinations and fixations on the shattered flesh of Jesus, a kind of pornography of pain presented as True Gospel, as in Mel Gibson’s version of The Passion of Christ— that Jesus slaughtered is the apotheosis of God.
As Stuart said in his sermon, Palm Sunday runs the full gamut from palms and psalms of praise to accusations and betrayals, and the slaughter of the failed and disappointing messiah. Palm Sunday is a raucous slaughter, too, of our own expectations of Jesus and God even now. We come to church to praise God, as each Sunday in the Eucharist we define “Holy, Holy, Holy” in terms of “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!” The triple “Holy” before the throne of God finds “a local habitation” in the one coming here and now…in Jerusalem, in Gainesville, in Grace Church, in you.
The roil of readings and services of the week ahead, “Holy Week”, is the ecclesiastical attempt to tame, to pre-resurrect, and to liturgize the terror the torn and broken palms begin, cast into the furnace of expectation. Holy Week becomes the Moloch within whom we continue our chants, our hopes confessed, just like the people of Jerusalem — “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!”
And he comes, of course, to receive our palms torn oozing the rip of life into mere tossed branches, he comes to rise up to messiah, king, savior. That’s why we come to Palm Sunday and every Sunday — our expectations like those of the people of Jerusalem. Our best and last thoughts of God-with-us, of Jesus Emmanuel, of….how our thoughts and hopes and expectations sputter into the dark, and our own palms lifted up for communion in glory are empty, chapped, cracked with longing.
Wallace Stevens, like so many modern poets in the decline of Western religious faith, found a new way of faith and adoration in the language and relish of imagination, poetry, and art. “Of Mere Being”, in the dark of that “mere”, reminds me how all the imagination of glory and God, of palms waving and palms nailed in slaughters of sacrifice, all tumbles and bumbles down into the dark on our knees. Daily God’s glory fades and disappoints us, and daily we lost our way to God, to Jesus, to one another, to any Bethlehem to begin again.
What Stevens reminds us of in the midst of the frantic and even frolic of incarnation and crucifixion and the “Blessed is he that comes….”, that slaughter of “he” who is also us — even so, there is something else going on. All the roar and thunder of Palm Sunday and the Holy Week ahead is not about us, or our liturgies, the work of the anxious people with all the expectations we bring again forth again and again.
Where do we find not just another religious exercise to try, another liturgy to take part in, another realization to make, but rather a discovery of God beyond all our ability to crown or crucify? Where does God begin in us?
Not in palms torn down and cast before Jesus. Not in palms nailed down to the cross. Not in any faith in messiahs or liturgies or doctrines or disciplines. The old mystics and theologians of the early church talked and taught and prayed in terms of anything positive at all — only in negatives, not this, not that, only in that dark space could God begin to rise….
But Stevens offers another discipline, a different liturgy — go to the end of all thinking and theologies and praying, just stop. Let the last thought go. And what is left?
Stevens evokes an image, “the palm at the end of the mind”, thing torn apart to praise winners, to crown kings, to pave the way of Jesus into Jerusalem to his slaughter — that palm, left behind while all the drama of Gods and Saviors go riding by, and all the crowds, like you and me, raucous and clueless go rushing anxiously to follow.
But there’s that palm. And a gold-feathered bird sings there. The song is not about God or Messiah or about saving you or me or the world. The bird sings, and the feathers shine. God is, mere being. God, like the palm, like the bird singing, all at the end of the mind, your mind and mine — beyond. there God begins, on the edge.
And like the beginning of incarnation, so in that particular beyond, “The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.” God tumbles into flesh, dangled-down and on fire. God arrives like a dazed and dazzled meteor into the midst of life — a splatter of space and eternity and God on the ground, the earth we are to gather up and care for.
Still, “The birds’ fire-fangled feathers dangle down.” In words and sounds, in imagines, we will never come to even the beginning of this wonder of the actual amaze of anything. We’ll never encompass it, “get it”, whatever.
Isn’t it amazing and doesn’t it stay with us and in us beyond all the rigors and righteousness of Holy Week and palms broken and smattered in the mud to praise “the King of Kings”? Beyond it all that is where Jesus is climbing his cross, that we might see how he hangs on the cross, for us and with us as we, too, hang between palms of praise and palms nailed to the crosses we carry, and there is no sound of one hand clapping, no Alleluiah. But see, as in Jesus, how our “fire-fangled feathers dangle down.”