Psalm 34: Praying with Angels

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

June 29, 2020

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, on this special feast, we pray with Psalm 34.  

David sings. Sheep listens.

This psalm has the most delightful introduction:

Of David, when he feigned madness before the King, who drove him out and he went away.

The Psalm refers to a time when young David was fleeing from Saul who was jealous of David’s impending takeover as king. David seeks harbor with King Achish, but later realizes that was a mistake. Fearing the King, David pretends for be insane in order to be dismissed as harmless.


Serious as the situation is, picturing it makes me smile. Have you ever wanted to get away from someone who had hijacked you into a one-sided conversation? You might pretend you had an appointment, or medical necessity, or anything just to get away.


Liberation of Saint Peter from Prison by Pieter de Hooch

Peter, in our first reading, doesn’t need pretense to escape the wrathful imprisonment of King Herod. All he needs is the angel which God has sent him.

Thus, Psalm 34 is a most appropriate choice for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. It is the first psalm in which an angel is mentioned and here, as in Acts, she is a rescuer.

The angel of the LORD encamps
around those who fear the LORD, and delivers them.

Taste and see how good the LORD is;
blessed the one who takes refuge in God.


I’ll be honest, I neglect my angels. I believe in them. I trust them. But basically I forget about them unless I’m scared out of my mind about something. In those situations, I call out loudly to them to make sure their “encampment” around me is still intact!

I think it would be a lot better to get to know our angels, and let them get to know us. Inviting them to accompany us in prayer might be a good way to start. And, of course, remember that prayer so many of our parents taught us. We never grow too “mature” to whisper it at night. Maybe even Peter said something like it in that dark prison long ago.

Angel of God, my guardian dear,
to whom God’s love commits me here,
Ever this night be at my side
to light, to guard, to rule, to guide.
Amen


St. Peter And The Angel
 - Denise Levertov

Delivered out of raw continual pain,
smell of darkness, groans of those others
to whom he was chained--

unchained, and led
past the sleepers,
door after door silently opening--
out!
     And along a long street's
majestic emptiness under the moon:

one hand on the angel's shoulder, one
feeling the air before him,
eyes open but fixed...

And not till he saw the angel had left him,
alone and free to resume
the ecstatic, dangerous, wearisome roads of
what he had still to do,
not till then did he recognize
this was no dream. More frightening
than arrest, than being chained to his warders:
he could hear his own footsteps suddenly.
Had the angel's feet
made any sound? He could not recall.
No one had missed him, no one was in pursuit.
He himself must be
the key, now, to the next door,
the next terrors of freedom and joy. 

Music:  Gloria in Excelcis Deo – J.S. Bach
(I thought one of the angels’ greatest hits, first recorded over the hills of Bethlehem, might be appropriate today)

Take My Hand

Friday of the Seventh Week of Easter

May 29, 2020

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festus
Window in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne – Paul Pleads His Case (Festus in yellow)

Today, in Mercy, Paul’s case goes before Festus and King Herod Agrippa. Just in case you are confused, like I was, about just who this particular Herod is, this family tree from Wikipedia helped:

chart

This King Agrippa was Marcus Julius Agrippa II (A.D. 27-100), son of Agrippa I (Acts 12:1-25) and great-grandson of Herod the Great (Mt 2:1-23). 

I offer these facts for no real spiritual reason, but they remind me that these biblical characters were real people, like us, engaging (or not) a real life of faith. (Also, I thought it was fun to see how uncreative they were in naming their babies 🙂


In our Gospel, Jesus once again prepares Peter for his tremendous responsibility in the building of that faith. Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love Me?”. By the third interrogation, Peter’s answer sounds a little intense:

“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Hearing this response, Jesus lays the full burden of Peter’s life upon his shoulders. Not only must Peter “feed” the faith of Jesus’s followers, he must do so by giving over all control to God:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,
you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;
but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you
and lead you where you do not want to go.”

hand

Like Peter,
we too are given the gift and responsibility
of living a faithful life.
Like Peter, we all learn through the years,
that life comes to us in unexpected ways.
In reality, life often chooses us
rather than the other way around.

As we pray with these passages, we might want to look back over our lives for those points where life challenged or unbalanced us. What unexpected blessings came from those surprises/shocks? When God’s plan contradicted our own, how were we eventually blessed with courage, hope and insight?

We are the person we are today because of how we responded to God’s mysterious plan for our lives. Did we reach out our hand and let God lead us? Do we still need to do some letting go in order to enjoy that kind of freedom?

Music:  Precious Lord, Take My Hand – written by Thomas A. Dorsey, sung here by the Great Mahalia Jackson

When my way groweth drear

Precious Lord, linger near-ear

When my li-ight is almost gone

Hear my cry, hear my call

Hold my ha-and lest I fa-all

Take my hand, precious Lor-ord

Lead me on

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me sta-and

I am tired, I’m weak, I am worn

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the li-ight

Take my ha-and, precious Lor-ord

Lead me home

When my work is all done

And my race here is are you-un

Let me see-ee by the light

Thou hast shown

That fair city so bright

Where the lantern is the li-ight

Take my ha-and, precious Lor-ord

Lead me on

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me sta-and

I am tired, I’m weak, I am worn

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the li-ight

Take my ha-and, precious Lor-ord

Lead me home

Lean on the Cornerstone

Fifth Sunday of Easter

May 10, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, our readings give us the powerful description of a growing Church built on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ.

Acts shows us how that young Church organizes itself on the pattern of Christ, its Foundation.

Our reading from Peter draws on Isaiah’s dynamic metaphor:

cornerstone

Jesus, too, describes a mansion, a sturdy dwelling place with God. It is not some ephemeral dream. That “mansion” is Christ himself who, by his death and Resurrection,  brings us home to our Original Love.


Such images help us to imagine the unimaginable, that God:

  • made us in the Divine Likeness
  • sent the Beloved to redeem us 
  • remains with us forever in the Holy Spirit
  • opens the doors of eternal life to us

This unimaginable grace is a trustworthy promise which we can rest on securely, as a magnificent building rests on its cornerstone.


When the exigencies of time and circumstance assail us, we need to go lean against that Rock. It will not move, even when everything else swirls around us.

Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You have faith in God; have faith also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…
…I will come back again and take you to myself,
so that where I am you also may be.


motherhouse early
19th century photo of Mercy Motherhouse from Lower Merion Historical Society

The beautiful buildings on our Motherhouse grounds are constructed of sixteen inch thick stones, chiseled by a 19th century stonemason. On a clear, late afternoon, one western wall heats up like a vertical oven, capturing all the final sunbeams of the day.  I like to lean against that wall, especially in winter, praying to the God Whose power it has absorbed. I ask that I too may absorb that power; that those for whom I pray may be wrapped in it.

Maybe today, you might find a stone like that to help you pray. Even hold a small one in your hand.

Such images can yield unexpected grace.

Music: Cornerstone – Hillsong ( Lyrics below)

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly trust is Jesus’ name

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly trust is Jesus’ name
Christ alone, Cornerstone

Weak made strong in the Savior’s love
Through the storm
He is Lord
Lord of all

When darkness seems to hide His face
I rest on His unchanging grace
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the veil
My anchor holds within the veil
Christ alone, Cornerstone

Weak made strong in the Savior’s love
Through the storm
He is Lord
Lord of all
He is Lord
Lord of all, Christ alone
Christ alone, Cornerstone

Weak made strong in the Savior’s love
Through the storm
He is Lord
Lord of all
Christ alone, Cornerstone

Weak made strong in the Savior’s love
Through the storm
He is Lord
Lord of all

When he shall come with trumpet sound
Oh, may I then in Him be found
Dressed in His righteousness alone
Faultless, stand before the throne
Cornerstone

Oh, yeah, in the Savior’s love
He is Lord
Lord of all

Christ alone, Cornerstone
Weak made strong in the Savior’s love
Through the storm
He is Lord
Lord of all

You Are Mine

Monday of the Fourth Week of Easter

May 4, 2020

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800px-Domenico_Fetti_-_Peter's_vision_of_a_sheet_with_animals_-_Kunsthistorisches_Museum_Wien
Peter’s Vision of the Sheet – By Domenico Fetti – Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Bilddatenbank., Public Domain

Today, in Mercy, we have the long story and explanation by Peter of who can be welcomed into the Community. The earliest Christians were all Jews. Their beginning Christian rituals had deep roots in Jewish tradition. Their entire expectation of a Messiah was wrapped in the garment of the Old Testament. So it was hard for them to comprehend that Gentiles might also be saved by the Blood of Christ.

We might be tempted to consider these Jewish Christians very provincial, parochial, or even prejudiced. But maybe we should just look in the mirror!

It seems to be an enduring human inclination and, rather than – like Peter – to seek a road to inclusion, we claim privilege for ourselves and exclude others on all kinds of bases:

  • She’s a woman, so she can’t…. whatever…
  • He’s gay, so he can’t …
  • She’s divorced, so she can’t…
  • He’s pro-life, or pro-choice, so he can’t…
  • She’s a Muslim, an atheist, and (irony of ironies) a Jew, so she can’t…

Maybe in your own life, you have felt the pain of some of these suggested or blatant exclusions.


Jn10_4 Mine

Jesus, in our Gospel, has a whole different approach to whom he loves. All creatures belong to him and will be brought to the Father in love.

I am the good shepherd,
and I know mine and mine know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;
and I will lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice,
and there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Let us pray today to know and love our God ever more intensely. Let us ask to experience God’s infinite love and knowledge of us so that our unquenchable joy, humble gratitude, and limitless charity grow more evident.

Let us pray these gifts for all our sisters and brothers, no matter by what gate they come to the sheep fold.

Music: You are Mine – David Haas

Peter

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_012
Peter Denies Christ – Rembrandt

 

Simon Peter – John Poch


There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
Yes, four which I do not understand.
The way of an eagle in the air,
The way of a serpent on a rock,
The way of a ship in the heart of the sea,
And the way of a man with a maid

–Prov. 30:18, 19

                              I
Contagious as a yawn, denial poured
over me like a soft fall fog, a girl
on a carnation strewn parade float, waving
at everyone and no one, boring and bored
There actually was a robed commotion parading.
I turned and turned away and turned. A swirl

of wind pulled back my hood, a fire of coal
brightened my face, and those around me whispered:
You’re one of them, aren’t you? You smell like fish.
And wine, someone else joked. That’s brutal. That’s cold,
I said, and then they knew me by my speech.
They let me stay and we told jokes like fisher-
men and houseboys. We gossiped till the cock crowed,
his head a small volcano raised to mock stone.

                              II
Who could believe a woman’s word, perfumed
in death? I did. I ran and was outrun
before I reached the empty tomb. I stepped
inside an empty shining shell of a room,
sans pearl. I walked back home alone and wept
again. At dinner. His face shone like the sun.

I went out into the night. I was a sailor
and my father’s nets were calling. It was high tide,
I brought the others. Nothing, the emptiness
of business, the hypnotic waves of failure.
But a voice from shore, a familiar fire, and the nets
were full. I wouldn’t be outswum, denied
this time. The coal-fire before me, the netted fish
behind. I’m carried where I will not wish.

Music:  Peter’s Song – Jacob Moon

To Whom Should We Go?

Memorial of Saint Athanasius, bishop and doctor of the Church

May 2, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, Peter is a headliner in both our readings.

Peter

I really love Peter. Can’t we relate to him on so many levels as he stumbles and shines through his growing relationship with Jesus? 

Some of my best prayers with Peter have been:

  • when he tries to walk on water to meet Jesus in the sea

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Mk.14:28


  • when he gets slammed for trying to stop Jesus from talking about his death

Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. “Far be it from You, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to You!” But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!” Mt. 13:41


  • when his name is changed to Rock and he’s foretold his future

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. Mt. 16:18


  • when he cowers in denial outside Jesus’s trial

Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept. Mk. 14:72


  • when he recognizes the Resurrected Jesus on the shore and swims to him

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. Jn.21:7


In today’s first reading, we see Peter in his full authority as the Vicar of Christ.

Jn6_68 shall we go

In our Gospel, we see Peter’s unequivocal confession of faith, voiced for the Church, voiced for all of us:

Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe
and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

Let’s take whatever piece of Peter is in us today and lay it at the feet of Jesus in our own confession of faith.

(In a second post, I will share a wonderful poem about Peter written by John Poch. I think you’ll like it.)

Music:  Lord, to Whom Shall We Go? – Michael Joncas (Lyrics below)

 

Lord, to whom shall we go?
You alone, you alone have the words of everlasting life.
Lord, to whom shall we go?
You alone, you alone have the words of everlasting life.

The law of the Lord is perfect
refreshing the soul.
How trustworthy the Lord’s decree,
making the simple wise.

Lord, to whom shall we go?
Lord, to whom shall we go?
Lord, to whom shall we go?
You alone, you alone have the words of everlasting life.

The precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart.
How clear is the Lord’s command,
enlightening the eye.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever.

How true the Lord’s ordinances,
all of them just.
They are more precious than gold,
than purest of Gold.
Sweeter than honey,
honey from the comb.

 

Peter’s Kiss

Feast of Saint Mark, evangelist

April 25, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, we celebrate Saint Mark the Evangelist.

Pordenone: M‡rk evangelista
Mark the Evangelist by Il Pordenone (c. 1484-1539)

Who exactly that person was hides in the mists of early Church history. Several possible “Marks” are mentioned at various points in the New Testament. Whether they are the same or different persons and which, if any, is the author of Mark’s Gospel are questions scripture detectives have chased for centuries.


What the readings offer us today is a young man whom Peter loved and who absorbed the Good News under Peter’s own tutelage.

In today’s passage from Acts, Peter writes to Christians scattered throughout Asia Minor at the time of the persecutions. His teaching is clearly that of the universal leader of the Church helping the scattered flock to hold on to the faith.

Your opponent the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion
looking for someone to devour.
Resist him, steadfast in faith,
knowing that your brothers and sisters throughout the world
undergo the same sufferings.

It isn’t hard to read these ancient words and imagine Pope Francis speaking them to all of us across the empty reaches of St. Peter’s Square. The suffering of the pandemic tests our faith and resolve. It too is a crucible which can either deepen or fracture our relationship with God.

Peter’s assurance can strengthen us:
The God of all grace
who called you to his eternal glory through Christ Jesus
will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you
after you have suffered a little.
To him be dominion forever.  Amen.

Mark, who sat at the feet of Peter’s strong and loving leadership, himself went on to become a devoted leader of Christ’s flock. How Mark must have cherished Peter’s brave and tender words to the young suffering Church and harkened back to them so often over the course of his life:

The chosen one (early Christian code for “the whole Church”)
sends you greeting, as does Mark, my son.

Greet one another with a loving kiss.
Peace to all of you who are in Christ.

1Peter5_14 kiss

That gracious “kiss” from Peter carried the the love and power of every Christian, just as we carry it today in our constant prayer for and encouragement of one another.

Music: He Will Make You Strong – hymn based on 1 Peter

Faith Has No Blueprint

Friday of the Second Week of Easter

April 24, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, we meet Gamaliel, the revered rabbinical teacher and early mentor of St. Paul.

Rembrandt_-_Old_Rabbi_-_WGA19186
The Old Rabbi by Rembrandt

With his patient wisdom, Gamaliel famously intervened  to save Peter and John from the Sanhedrin’s wrath.

“Fellow children of Israel,
be careful what you are about to do to these men….
…I tell you,
have nothing to do with these men, and let them go.
For if this endeavor is of human origin,
it will destroy itself.
But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them;
you may even find yourselves fighting against God.”

Biblical scholars have interpreted Gamaliel’s intervention in various and even contradictory ways. Some see in him a hesitancy which will believe only that which is proven and successful. Others suggest that Gamaliel was already a believer who maintained his Sanhedrin position in order to assist the early Christians. In the Catholic canon, Gamaliel is venerated as a saint whose feastday is August 30.

Thinking about Gamaliel may lead us to the question, “What do I need in order to believe?” 

  • Do I, like the Sanhedrin, need to see proven success?
  • Do I, like some of the crowd fed in today’s Gospel, need miracles?
  • Do I, like the rich young man, need answers to all of my questions?
  • Do I, like Thomas, need to see and touch the Resurrected Christ?

In other words, am I looking for a faith that is a fail-proof blueprint, or is my faith a living journey with Christ, as was Peter’s and John’s?

John4_4 bread word

The Apostles’ faith and trust were so complete that they saw even persecution as evidence of God’s plan and power:

So the Apostles left the presence of the Sanhedrin,
rejoicing that they had been found worthy
to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.
And all day long, both at the temple and in their homes,
they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Christ, Jesus.

When we are completely given to God in faith, all our life experiences bring us closer to God. All circumstances reveal God to the deeply believing heart.

May we grow every day in that kind of faith.

Music: Increase Our Faith – David Haas

Lord, increase our faith.
With all our heart, may we always follow you.
Teach us to pray always.

So I say to you,
Ask you shall receive.
Seek and you will find.
Knock,  it shall be opened to you.

Whoever asks,
they will receive.
Whoever seeks shall find.
Whoever knocks, the door will be opened.

If you with all your sins know how to give
how much more will God give
to those who cry from their hearts.

The Challenge to Believe

Thursday of the Second Week of Easter

April 23, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, our readings demonstrate how hard it is for some people to believe – because deepening belief usually requires a soul-change.

disputebeforesanhedrin1700
Fra Angelico, Dispute before Sanhedrin, Cappella Niccolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican

In our first reading, the high priest and Sanhedrin just don’t get it. No matter how severe the oppression, Peter and the Apostles are not going to stop sharing the Good News. Even miracles and inexplicable prison escapes do not convince them that maybe the Apostles have some special blessing to offer them.

Why won’t the Sanhedrin listen? Why are they in such denial about what they are witnessing?

The Sanhedrin were members of a privileged class. They had things set up nicely to their material benefit. Jesus was a bombshell turning their comfortable world upside down. So they resorted to any tool possible to eradicate him: denial, oppression, persecution, even murder.

But the Good News of Jesus Christ is ineradicable.

Jn3_believe

In our Gospel, John minces no words about the fate of unbelievers:

The Father loves the Son
and has given everything over to him.

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life,
but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life,
but the wrath of God remains upon him.

When I look at our world, I see a lot of that “wrath”, don’t you? I see situations of pain, injustice, greed, and irreverence for Creation that could not exist in a truly believing world.

Seeing these things, I examine my own life for the places where faith has not converted me, for the kinds of resistant behaviors that prevented the Sanhedrin from receiving the greatest gift possible – a fully faithful and compassionate heart.


Here’s a little extra thought from Shakespeare whose birth we celebrate today. The quote from Henry V seems appropriate for the topic.

Henry V

Music: A Faithful Heart – Libera
(I imagine that this lovely song is usually interpreted as a marriage canticle, but I think it perfectly describes the sacred covenant between God and the faithful believer.)

Who Are You?

Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, Apostle
February 22, 2020

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Today, in Mercy, our reading is about God naming us.

Rembrandt_The_Apostle_Peter
The Apostle Peter – Rembrandt

We celebrate wonderful Saint Peter – so fully human, so fully holy, so fully in love with God! Today, as we pray with Peter’s naming, may we deepen in understanding our own naming by God.


I wrote about Peter like this on another of his feasts:

When Jesus asks Peter what he believes, Peter says,
“YOU ARE THE CHRIST, THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD.”
An ordinary man responding with a clear and extraordinary faith.

Caesarea

 

One June morning, about forty years ago, I sat in a sun-filled field in the Golan Heights of Israel at a spot called Caesarea Philippi. Thirty other pilgrims composed the group as we heard today’s Gospel being read. Listening, I watched the rising sun grow brilliant on the majestic rock face in the near distance.

I thought how Peter might have watched his day’s sun playing against the same powerful cliffs as Jesus spoke his name:

Jesus said to him,
You are Peter (which means “Rock”),

and upon this Rock
I will build my Church.


dome
A few years later, I stood at the center of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Looking up, I saw these words emblazoned around the awesome rotunda dome:

 

 


Tu es Petrus,
et super hanc petram
aedificabo ecclesiam.


On that lazy afternoon two-thousand years ago, Peter could never have imagined what God already saw for him. Yet, Peter responded – with his whole life. This is what makes a Saint.


Jesus calls us to be saints too. He lovingly speaks our name into a sacred future we cannot even imagine. But if, like Peter, we trust and believe, God does the rest.

Below the music is a powerful poem by John Poch. It captures the transformation of Peter’s humanness into God’s hope for him.



There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
Yes, four which I do not understand.
The way of an eagle in the air,
The way of a serpent on a rock,
The way of a ship in the heart of the sea,
And the way of a man with a maid
 –Prov. 30:18, 19

I
Contagious as a yawn, denial poured
over me like a soft fall fog, a girl
on a carnation strewn parade float, waving
at everyone and no one, boring and bored.
There actually was a robed commotion parading.
I turned and turned away and turned. A swirl
of wind pulled back my hood, a fire of coal
brightened my face, and those around me whispered:
You’re one of them, aren’t you? You smell like fish.
And wine, someone else joked. That’s brutal. That’s cold,
I said, and then they knew me by my speech.
They let me stay and we told jokes like fisher-
men and houseboys. We gossiped till the cock crowed,
his head a small volcano raised to mock stone.

II
Who could believe a woman’s word, perfumed
in death? I did. I ran and was outrun
before I reached the empty tomb. I stepped
inside an empty shining shell of a room,
sans pearl. I walked back home alone and wept
again. At dinner. His face shone like the sun.
I went out into the night. I was a sailor
and my father’s nets were calling. It was high tide,
I brought the others. Nothing, the emptiness
of business, the hypnotic waves of failure.
But a voice from shore, a familiar fire, and the nets
were full. I wouldn’t be outswum, denied
this time. The coal-fire before me, the netted fish
behind. I’m carried where I will not wish.