As we wind up the Days of Awe with Yom Kippur, I’ve been thinking about what I consider the illusion of wholeness. One of my spiritual mentors, the Rev. John Mack, said in a sermon in 1998, “It is our weakness that testifies to God’s power, not our efficiency or our strength.”
I remember feeling pretty broken through most of 1998. The relationship that I was in was in a full-blown death spiral, and it seemed to take forever to finally crash and burn itself out. In a phone call with one of my brothers, I heard myself utter what seemed like heresy, especially coming from a mostly relentless optimist named Joy: “I don’t believe in wholeness anymore.”
When that sentence tumbled out of my mouth, I was taken aback. Is someone named Joy even allowed to say such things? Would I need to change my name to Miry Bog? Would I lose my membership in the Optimist’s Club? It sounds crazy, and maybe it was crazy, but I’m not exaggerating (too much).
So John’s words fell on desperately thirsty ears. I wrote him an effusive email of gratitude, which he put in the weekly church newsletter (with my permission). As I was setting up my office this week, I stumbled across an old copy of the newsletter. What follows is an adaptation of what I wrote to John.
What you said was, for me, a daring way to celebrate and honor what I view as the inherent brokenness of being human, of creation in general. Religion is so commonly (ab)used to condemn us for having weakness. And it seems to me that to mete out punishment for or judgment against weakness only encourages the listeners to hide our weakness from the very sources of our redemption: God, friends, strangers, mentors, anyone who would enter our broken hearts and say, “This is good.”
If we are created in the image of God, and I believe we are, then I believe that one of the central features of our incarnation is brokenness. If God were whole, it seems to me that God wouldn’t need creation. I imagine a whole (unbroken) God as something like Jabba the Hut from “Star Wars,” a big fat lazy slimy ugly self-indulgent water-pipe-smoking blob.
My personal creation mythology includes an as yet unwritten story about God acknowledging God’s own brokenness, and creation’s (our) brokenness, and proclaiming, “This is good.” If each of us was whole, what would be the basis of our relationship with God, or with each other? It is precisely along the most jagged edges of our brokenness where lie the greatest opportunities for redemption, transcendence, and growth. Through the friction of rubbing up against God and/or each other, we can be made sharper and keener, or worn down to a delicious smoothness, like beach glass.
Reflecting on Yom Kippur, on confession in general, and on prayer as a posture as opposed to a transaction, where I end up is that confession and atonement aren’t to restore us to some prior state of wholeness—the way we never were. Confession and atonement are postures of vulnerability, where we acknowledge our deep need to be mended, and to mend, but not at the expense of magically erasing all evidence of harm done to us, harm we have done, or harm done on our behalf. Confession and atonement don’t blot out evidence of our wrongdoing or ways we have been wronged, like some sort of spiritual plastic surgery. Confession and atonement make it bearable to live with that evidence, with our particular scars and wounds, or with the knowledge of the scars and wounds we have inflicted.
When I uttered those paradigm-shattering words 12 years ago to my brother, I was so relieved that he didn’t respond with an uncomfortable and annihilating, “Oh, now, you’re just upset.” My brother The Poet, who probably thinks and dreams in sonnets and sestinas, responded simply with this: “Joy, that’s perfect iambic pentameter. What if you took that and expanded on it, staying in that form? Where would you end up?”
Being the dutiful younger sister, I did what my brother suggested. Here’s where I ended up:
A Broken Poem About Wholeness
“Life does not accommodate you, it shatters you…Every seed destroys its container or else there would be no fruition.”
— Florida Scott-Maxwell
“Now I know I have a heart, ‘cause it’s breaking.” — The Tin Man from the movie “The Wizard of Oz”
“I don’t believe in wholeness anymore.”
Those are the words that found their way through me.
The page was blank, is blank no more. The door
is cracked, is pushed away, is no more door
than window now, an open one at that.
Suppose I found another door, suppose
the new one fit. Would that replace the win-
dow there? And where, I wonder, is it writ
that wholeness is a good? Attainable?
Believable? Endurable? A thing
of beauty? True? More likely just a bur-
den best laid down and borne not one day more.
To wholeness I say “Peaches,” better eat-
en than admired. To wholeness I say longing,
I say ache and I say fire. I offered
wholeness endless tears, a salty roiling stream. But
if life can come forth from the womb where once
was none before, then, yes, a body broken
can stay that way in peace. Oh rest, you shards,
you fragments, chips and pieces. Rest and weep
no more in fear. Instead let tears spring from a place
of joy, of mystery and relief. If birth
is holy, sacred, ah, then so its wound
should be. The wound of breaking open,
of spilling forth a tiny life, with breath
and blood and bone. The wound of death that comes
with birth, inseparable from life in much
the way the ocean never leaves the faith-
ful shore. The question then, is how to die
from wholeness into life, a broken path
of breaking things.
© Joy Howard, 1998
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
P.S. Shameless plug: R.L. Burnside’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Everything is Broken,” (heard in the video above) is one of 12 great tunes on the soundtrack of the movie “Big Bad Love,” a remarkable labor of love by my two older brothers and my sister-in-law. The movie is the best marriage of story and music I’ve ever experienced. Better even than “Mary Poppins” or “The Music Man.” The soundtrack is a stunning collection of music that includes performances by bluesmen such as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, plus tunes by Tom Waits, Steve Earle, Tom Verlaine, and the Kronos Quartet. If you buy the CD, you have the added pleasure of getting to read the best liner notes ever written. It’s worth the extra dough, trust me.