Aerial view of table and hands and a lot of food and drinks.
#66: Thomas Lynch 2006
The Feast of Faith, January 31, 2023
In Rewrite Radio Episode #66, Thomas Lynch discusses faith, poetry, and their transformative powers. He asks us to see others as pilgrims on various roads of belief—all searching after a common table.
Major works discussed:
- “Voices” by Constantine P. Cavafy
- "On Repentance" by Michel de Montaigne
- Memoirs of Heinrich Heine
- “Remorse for Intemperate Speech” by W.B. Yeats
- "Everness,” trans. Richard Wilbur, by Jorge Luis Borges
Madeline Witvliet: [00:00:05] Today on Rewrite Radio, Thomas Lynch discusses faith, poetry, and their transformative powers. He asks us to see others as pilgrims on various roads of belief—all searching after a common table.
My name is Madeline Witvliet. I’m a Hudson-Townsend student fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, and a Writing major at Calvin University.
Thomas Lynch is a poet, essayist, and undertaker from Milford, Michigan. His books of poetry include Skating with Heather Grace, The Sin-Eater, and Bone Rosary. Lynch’s essay collection titled The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade has won the American Book Award and the Heartland Prize for non-fiction. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award and has been translated into seven languages.
Lynch’s work has inspired two documentaries, including the award-winning PBS film The Undertaking. He is an adjunct professor in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
And now, from the 2006 Festival of Faith & Writing, Thomas Lynch.
Thomas Lynch: It's nice to be back at Calvin. Thank you for the invitation to be here. Although the setting, I should confess, being in the chapel, those of us who sit through an awful lot of homiletics, you know, often involving a corpse down front, sometimes we stray into that, I guess you'd call it pulpit envy. The two or three times I've actually had to speak from a pulpit—it is very alarming to me. It's not at all comfortable. I wouldn't do it every week. So I'm grateful for the opportunity and humbled by the venue.
You know, after such an introduction, it gives me a case of what my wife calls fat-headedness, where you begin to think that you really have, you know, where you should have something to say about these things. I was at what the Victorians used to call the duties of my toilette a couple months ago when my son Sean came running upstairs to say that Time Magazine was on the phone and needed to talk to me immediately. You know, I wanted him to know that that's the kind of go-to guy he has for a dad. That when, you know, the Pope dies, the glossy mags want to talk to me, you know.
So I gathered about me the bath carpet, my wife calls it, and made my way to the phone, clearing my voice to sound as professorial as possible, and said, Hello, this is Thomas Lynch and how can I be of help today? She said, is that Thomas Lynch of Milford, Michigan? I said, the very one. You have me now. How can I be of assistance today? My son's eyes were growing larger and larger. She says this is Time Magazine calling. I'm thinking to myself, it's about damn time. I mean, I had written for Newsweek and the Times of London, and the Irish Times. Yes, I said, And how can I be of assistance today? She said, this week only we can save you 52% off the cover charge. And do you know, I was particularly pleased not to have the old speaker phone on because I simply said I couldn't possibly do it for that little amount of money and hung up the phone. And my son is yet to be disabused of his sense of my grandeur.
It put me in a mind of a thing my father used to say about why we are given two ears and one mouth. And I'm hoping that if I run out of gas—as I plan to in about half an hour—that you will make up the difference, at least a few bits and pieces of it with some questions. And maybe I'll have a go at the answers, and if I don't have an answer, I can maybe send you off to the library or to—we have the living library around us this weekend; it's nice to have. So maybe I can send you there, or I'll make something up. But one way or another—and as I warned the group earlier today, if you don't have any questions, I do have the two-hour poetry reading, waiting for just this type of audience to spring it on.
I was pleased to be invited back to Calvin, not least because the indenture always includes the invite to sup and socialize with other writers and readers, and—I'm in favor of fests and feasts, supping and the society of bookish sorts. There's something about the common table and the shared repast that serves as a proper forum for the spoken word.
[00:05:16] Maybe that's why every religion has built into their sacred theaters and solemn rituals a Last Supper, a Passover meal. A common table or communion, giving to its priests and pastors, rabbis and imams, the secret words and sacred texts by which the ordinary loaf or bowl becomes holy, holy, holy. This transformation of the everyday feed into the hallowed feast is something that interests me. It is the stuff of worship and language; it spurs devotion. A way by which the Creator traffics with Creation, and we mortals get a glimpse of godliness. For those of us who write, in the beginning, it really was the word. and at the end, we hope it will be good words too. Poetry, the English master Auden said, is what we do to break bread with the dead.
I was lucky to have two grandmothers who lived into their nineties. The long years of their widowhood saw me through my youth and early adult years. My father used to bring them over for Sunday dinners and get them a little liquored up and set them arguing about politics or sex or religion. He regarded it as a kind of education for himself and for his children to be in earshot of these articulate and contentious women. They were opposites.
My mother's mother was a Catholic and a schoolteacher and a Democrat, each of which endeavors she did in the idolatrous style of the Irish. Ahead of her times in all ways, she was fond of reminding us more or less on the hour. Her father had immigrated from County Kilkenny, worked the mines and mills in the upper peninsula. And his daughter, Marvel Grace, came downstate to attend college at Ann Arbor, civilize her husband, and correct the morals and sentence structure of her large extended family until the day she died. She was precise, steadfast, self-certain, and irrepressible.
My father's mother was a Methodist. A Dutch reform type, a member of the DAR, a homemaker and gardener who kept her own council. A steady woman, and an Eisenhower Republican; she voted for him well into the 1980s. The only scandalous thing she'd ever done was fall in love with an Irish Catholic—no small adventure in the 1920s, when the denominations did not mix so well as they do today. Think Shi’a and Sunni, think Belfast in the marching season. Think Limbaugh and Franken. As was the style in the early 20th century, she converted to Catholicism in order to marry my grandfather, Eddie Lynch.
She would often tell us the story of her coming to be a member of the “one true church,” as she called it, with a proper dose of irreverence. “The priest splashed a little water on me, Tom, and said, ‘Geraldine, you were born a Methodist and raised a Methodist. Thanks be to God, now you're Catholic.’” Some months after the conversion and the eventual nuptial, she was out in the backyard barbecuing tenderloin steaks on the first Friday in Lent, when one of my grandfather's brother knights leapt over the back fence to upbraid her for the smell of beef rising over a Catholic household in the holy season. My grandmother blushed, listened to the man, grabbed the garden hose, splashed the grill with it, and proclaimed: “You were born cows, raised cows. Thanks be to God, now you're fish.”
In this way my grandmother, God bless her, was asserting authority. The authority of every good cook, every good writer, every author, to name and proclaim, to pronounce, to transfigure, to translate whatever reality they choose. “We are all the same but different, Tom,” she’d tell me; “all God's children, everyone.”
[00:10:00] A woman of great faith, she maintained all her life some reasonable doubts about the proclamations of priests and presidents and potentates. She was a wonderful cook and set an ample table. “Poetry,” the English master said, “is how we break bread with the dead.” And though they've been dead for years, every time I read this poem, I think I’m breaking bread with them again. “The Grandmothers.”
“A hundred sixty years of lucid memory sit / under a plump umbrella on the patio— / two widows nursing whiskey sours argue politics: /
my grandmothers. When they turned 80 we began / to mark their changes as we might a child’s / in terms of sight, mobility, and appetite, /
teeth and toilet habits, clarity of speech / a thousand calibers of round flight / by which my children make their distance now from me. /
Sometimes I think of them as parts of me… / I think their ageless quarrels come to roost / like odd birds with an awkward plumage in my blood. /
The one says tend your own twigs, peep and preen. / The other wings beyond the kindly orbit here /and sings, and sings.”
This is how I hear their voices now. Years since they've died, they speak to me with their old authority. The one is saying, “articulate, enunciate, don't swallow your words.” The other is saying, “Clean your plate. Waste not want, not eat more fruit.”
Ideal and beloved voices of those dead or of those who are lost to us like the dead. Sometimes they speak to us in our dreams, sometimes in thought the mind hears them, and with their sound for a moment return other sounds from the first poetry of our life, like distant music that dies off in the night. So wrote the great Alexandrian poet Cavafy in his poem “Voices.”
And this is how I hear them now, the first poetry of my life. Not in the voice of God speaking to me out of a whirlwind or of the sky or a burning bush, but in the voice of my parents and people, my elders and ancients and imagined ones. Ideal and beloved voices of those dead or lost to us like the dead, speaking to me as if in dreams like distant music that dies off in the night.
My mother is teaching me to say my prayers. “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God's love commits me here, ever this day be at my side, to light, to guard, to rule and guide.” This prayer said at bedside, a grim little plea for protection against darkness and death, was among the first poems of my life. Long before I ever understood its deeper meanings, I heard the memorable, the memorizable, rhymes between dear and here, side and guide—and the thumping, heart-beating, iambic code of the last line: to light, to guard, to rule, to guide.
Its acoustic pleasures were immediate. Before it made sense to me, it made sound. It rang true in my ear. There were others. “God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for this food.” That is how they prayed before meals at Jimmy Schriock's house. I love the off rhyming between good and food. Or when I spent the night at Mark Henderson's, I was taught: “Now I lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
It was a Lutheran version of my “Angel of God,” involving the same grim contingencies, the same scarring for life, the same hopes, the slightly different sounds that were metrical cousins to the secular poetics the world seemed full of just then somehow. “Twinkle, twinkle. Little star. How I wonder what you are. Up above the world so high. Like a diamond in the sky.” Or “A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S—” or “Tyger Tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night; / What immortal hand or eye, / could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
[00:14:55] The whole world seemed a rush of words and sounds from which we should divine life's meanings and purposes: prayers, poems raised, and religious speech rhymed and metered and laden with mysteries. “Confíteor Deo omnipoténti, beátæ Maríæ semper Vírgini, beáto Michaéli Archángelo, beáto Joanni Baptístæ.” I was raised in a church in which God spoke Latin—and just for Kyries, a little Greek—so I was sent in the summer of my seventh year on Tuesday afternoons at four o'clock to Father Kenny, who taught me how to say the Latin things that altar boys must say in response to the things the priest says at Mass. The foreign syllables in my mouth were delicious: “Et cum spiritu tuo,” “Kyrie Eleison,” “Christe Eleison.”
My romance with words was just beginning. “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” The cadence and rhythm and alliterative beauty of that phrase made its deeper meanings meaningless to me. Its rich acoustics were enough for me; I would confess to anything that sounded that good.
I confessed that one of my heroes is Michel Montaigne, the father of all Essayists. He was born in 1533 and, like me, was raised on Latin by a father who wanted him to know Virgil and Catullus and the rest. It was Montaigne who wrote in his essay on repentance that every man bears the whole of man's estate—thereby asserting, as my grandmother had, that we are all, however different, essentially the same. That we are each of us one of a kind and one of a kind. “If you want to understand humanity,” he reasoned, “examine a human, examine yourself.” His essays are a record of those contemplations. His essays are measures, tests, trials, attempts, a setting forth on an adventure in language—not in certainty, but in search of what rings true about humans.
His times were marked by insurgency and civil wars. French Huguenots and French Catholics shed buckets of each other's blood through the 16th and 17th centuries—as later most all of Europe did. Indeed, like Israelis and Iraqis and the Sudanese, the Irish have been at it ever since—where in the north of that green island, the relevant questions are still about what tribe or sect, what club or clan. Whereas here we mark differences in black and white, there they mark them by what's in a name: Mabel or Mave, Kevin or Kenneth. One crowd digs with a wrong foot. Another is said to have squinty eyes. I have a friend from Belfast who, whenever he's asked, always answers Atheist. But are you a Protestant or Catholic Atheist? is what they always want to know.
How do we otherize our fellow humans? How is it we make monsters of them all? How do we mistake them for something other than our kind? In what ways has our ethnicity poisoned the well of our humanity? These are questions that might have vexed Montaigne. Is it not a wonder that every religion—Papists and Calvinists, Shi’a and Sunni, Muslims and Methodists—we all seek communion, atonement, the common table, the home place, and the saving feast, but we are all so wretched at the table manners. We all want to find our ways home, but we are all unwilling to ask for directions—certain that ours is the only way, mistrustful of anyone with a different path.
Must there only be one way, one truth, one light? Might God always be on all of our sides, or none? If there is only one God, as Muslims and Christians and Jews believe, then isn't the one we believe in the one and the same? If there is no God, then aren't we only off by one? And if there are many, aren't there plenty to go around? Does faith require certainty—or might articles of faith include some room for wonder? For doubt and contemplation, to be of two minds at once? Is faith a known thing or a leap into the unknown we are never sure of but always welcome in?
[00:20:09] Some of you may never have heard the word: the old Scott's verb to “swither” means to be of two minds. To doubt, to wonder, to waiver, to be changeable. Sometimes even to change, to metamorphose—the way steaks are turned into fish, bread and wine into body and blood, Methodists into Catholic, true believers into fellow pilgrims less certain of the way and more willing to ask help with directions. They are swithered that way. Swithering is the title of a new book of poems by the Scots poet Robin Robertson. I stole that word from him. It's what poets do. We borrow, we steal, we rent to own; we go looking for a word, for a voice, for something that rings true. How do we find it?
Here is what the poet Heine wrote years ago in his memoir, Preoccupations: How, then, do you find it? In practice, you hear it coming from somebody else. You hear something in another writer's sounds that flows in through your ear and enters the echo chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system in such a way that your reaction will be, “I wish I'd written that in just that particular way. I wish I'd said it just so.”
When I heard this, when I read this years ago, it sounded to me like license to steal—poetic license, if you will—the freedom to rummage around life and the library in search of voices that sounded like my own. Writers, it turns out, are little more than readers who go karaoke. We hum along. We listen to the language for what rings true. We sing until we begin to make sounds that sound like ourselves alone, and even voices that didn't sound like us, but still made us wish: “I wish we'd said that, just so.”
“Swithering” is just such a word. It rings true to me. It makes me think that doubt and wonder are not opposites of faith, but elements of it. That to be changeable, to be of two minds, to metaphor, to metamorphose, makes all sorts of transformations possible. Swithering gives me that kind of comfort.
I was named for a dead priest and a famous doubter. We all have heard that story from the gospel of John in chapter 20, verses 24 to 29, where Thomas the Apostle is reprimanded by Christ, who invites him to put a finger in the wounds, at which your man says, famously, “My Lord. My God.” Or was it, “My Lord? My God?” Was it maybe a question after all? A wonder? Was his doubt a part of his faith? Does it make his salvation all the more precious? Or Peter, when he looked at his feet upon the water, lost faith and began to sink—that's when he was saved. Can we assume their lives were transformed?
My father's uncle almost died of the flu in 1918. In thanksgiving for his survival, he became a priest: Father Thomas Patrick Lynch. And because his health was always fragile, he left Jackson, Michigan, just back the road, to go to seminary in the high, dry climates of Colorado.
I have a photograph of him on the day in 1934 when he and all of his Irish Catholic family and neighbors are gathered in the front of St. John's Church in Jackson for the celebration of his first Solemn High Mass. The only child in the photo is my father, aged 10. He is wearing shorts and knee socks, suspenders, and a tie—all the fashions of the day. My Methodist grandmother, now a Catholic, is sitting beside him as mothers do, and beside her is my grandfather, the new priest's brother. It is a bright June day in the middle of the Great Depression, between World Wars, and it's a tribal thing. Because all of these people, all of them dead now, are the sons and daughters of Irish immigrants who left their home country because of starvation and civil war and poverty and strife.
[00:25:14] The new priest is going to leave his home in Jackson after this picture is taken. He is going to go out to Taos, New Mexico, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, to serve in a parish of Apaches and Hispanics and a few Anglos in the high dry air because his health is frail. He'll travel on horseback for the next two years around parishes made famous by Willa Cather and later Georgia O’Keeffe, and then he will get pneumonia and die in the summer of ‘36, still in his youth. He'll be processed down the mountains to Santa Fe for a funeral at St. Francis Cathedral and sent home in a coffin by train to Jackson.
On the day that my grandfather goes to the Desnoyer Funeral Home there, he will take his 12-year-old son, my father—take him along for the ride. And while the undertaker and my grandfather are talking particulars, the boy that will 12 years later become my father goes into the basement of the funeral home where he sees two men lifting the dead priest now dressed in liturgical vestments into the casket that has been chosen. My father decides there and then that he'll be a funeral director.
I've always wondered how he came to that. Why didn't he decide to become a priest? Was it because the priest was dead? Or was it because it was the very same year he'd met Rosemary O'Hara, 12 years herself, and knew just enough to know he could not live without her? Either way, my sisters and brothers and my late mother are all pleased that the 12-year-old decided on the other vocation. It changed our lives.
It was a swithering, a watershed moment. And, named for that priest, I've always wondered: was his death just a thing that happened, or the hand of God? I've always been wondrous, and full of questions, riddled with doubts. I've had my doubts. I have my faith. I got it from the dead priest and my mother and father. I was named for a doubter who wanted to dip his hands into the blood of Christ and for a priest who died in the Blood of Christ Mountains.
In this way, it is like the life of faith. First, we borrow from the faith of others until we're ready to take the leap on our own. The faith of others emboldens each of us to ask our own questions, go forth on our own pilgrimages to search. We are all fellow pilgrims, all trading recipes, all of us with the same hunger to hear again the first poetry of our lives—to find our way home to a common table.
If poetry is how we break bread with the dead, faith is what transforms that bread into something holy, holy, holy. Something shared: the feast, the communion. Faith and poetry are shape-changers, transformative gifts from God. So poets living and dead, my parents and grandparents, dear Holy Ghost, heroes and friends and perfect strangers, whose voices all blend together now—they keep telling me to search for common ground, understand, tolerate, celebrate our differences, but raise a voice in favor of humanity. To examine my conscience, as Montaigne says we must. To contemplate, to repent, repair, renew, reconnect, and recreate a world in which we are at one with God and with our neighbors. A world at odds with the daily papers and the evening news, with CNN and Fox Channel. A world where we might all just stand around like regular guys and gals at a barbecue.
[00:29:42] I've always liked to write sonnets. Poets are crazy for them because they're short and simple, only 14 lines. It was in a sonnet called “Everness” that Richard Wilbur wrote: “One thing does not exist: Oblivion. / God saves the metal and he saves the dross. / And his prophetic memory guards from loss / The moons to come, and those of evenings gone. Everything is.” He was talking here about the ever-present—the gift of time. And he was translating this poem from another poet [Jorge Luis Borges], who wrote it in another language and in another time, and Wilbur borrowed it from him, and I borrow it again.
Richard Wilbur was an infantryman in World War II and witnessed, as every young soldier will, the horrors, and he wrote about them. He's 85 now. And like all of us, he's running out of time and is ever-present—a gift. I had dinner with him years ago, and he told me something that made perfect sense for a Festival of Faith & Writing. And he said: “I think all poets are sending religious messages because poetry is, in such great part, the comparison of one thing to another. And to insist, as all poets do, that all things are related to each other, comparable to each other, is to go towards making an assertion about the unity of all things. Everything is.”
It sounds like something my grandmother was saying—that we are all the same, but different. Or Montaigne, that in each of us is the whole of man's estate. Or Heine when he speaks about poetic license, or Yeats, or Emily Dickinson, or your favorite poets. It sounds to me like the voice of God or gods.
I'd like to write them each a sonnet. Fourteen lines. What is it, that thing that Billy Collins says? “All you need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now”? It's easy. The literary equivalent of the painting of a Spanish Armada or the fall of Rome on a miniature. It seeks to say—as all poems do, and every prayer—a lot for a little.
Of course, the older we get, the more we pray, and the less we count. Which accounts, I suppose, for this 15-line poem written at the turn of the last century, when all of us were younger and more certain than we are today, entitled “Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets.” This would be the time to think up those questions.
“It came to him that he could nearly count / How many late Aprils he had left to him / In increments of ten or, say, eleven / Thus: sixty-three, seventy-four, eighty-five. / He couldn't see himself at ninety-six— / Humanity’s advances notwithstanding / In health care, self-help, or new-age regimens— / What with his habits and family history, / The end he thought is nearer than you think. /
The future, thus confined to its contingencies, / The present moment opens like a gift: / The greening month, the blooming week, the blue morning, / The hour’s routine, the minute’s passing glance— / All seem like godsends now. And what to make of this? / At the end the word that comes to us is Thanks.”
Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives. [00:34:46]