Reading Jane Kenyon and finding my religion
I was raised Catholic. Well, actually, I was raised Catholic until I was ten and my father died and my mother remarried but was not allowed to marry in the church because she and my father were in the process of getting a divorce. They didn’t divorce, but that they were separated when my father died was apparently enough for the magnanimous Catholic church to consider my mother unworthy of being married there (it all comes out in the wash anyway as it turned out her new husband had been married once or twice before and had children scattered around–but no one knew that at the time anyway).
So after this, we did not go to church on a regular basis and since we moved I was no longer in Catholic school but in public school, which meant that the only time I learned about growing up Catholic was every Monday morning when the Catholic kids (which was 97% of the kids in the school) went to the church for CCD. (I wonder if the school still does this? It strikes me as a violation. And I felt bad for my non-Catholic friends who were left back at school–although I suppose they got the last laugh because they were not trapped in a dank church basement being lectured about Jesus by someone’s mother).
What this means is that for most of my life I’ve found myself in some sort of religious netherland in a country (world?) where nearly everyone identifies him/herself with one religion or another (or identifies as atheist or agnostic). When asked, I say, “I grew up Catholic.”
What does this have to do with Jane Kenyon? My spiritual quest actually has a lot to do with her–though I did not realize this when I started, late this past summer, reading her Collected Poems.
For my first Holy Communion, my godmother and godfather gave me a Children’s Bible. I loved this bible. Loved the stories. In fact, tortured my family by insisting they listen as I read the stories aloud. Still, the stories, to me, had very little to do with my sense of what God was and more to do with my sense of what makes an interesting tale. What’s not to love about an enormous boat with two of each animals on it (especially when it has a happy ending)?
But this love of the Children’s Bible was pre-not going to church anymore. Afterwards, my sense of God and church was something like dread. Church was okay for Christmas Eve and for weddings and whatever, but that’s about it. I was a teenager living a bleak existance from which there was no escape. God did not exist for me, except to be prayed to in hopes that he would smite the man who tortured me and my family.
I prayed to God that he would let my stepfather die from leukemia. And when he did die. I stopped praying for good.
Why, I wondered, did God give me what I asked for? So that I could live with the guilt of feeling as though my prayers meant someone’s death? Was this what God was about?
But while I felt God was not there for me, I knew that Nature always was. It was the one constant (outside of books) that removed me from corporal self and allowed me to experience life on another plane. Nature was my religion, my spiritual existence. And it still is: No scripture has ever made me feel the same way as I feel when I hear the white-throated sparrow.
And yet I seek meaning. There are things I want to know. And I find them in the words of Jane Kenyon.
I find understanding:
Dusk is eager and comes early. A car
creeps over the hill. Still in the dark I try
to tell if I am numbered with the damned,
who cry, outraged, Lord, when did we see You?
I want to know what will happen after I die:
All afternoon I hear the blunt
shudder of limbs striking the ground.
The tree drops its arms
like someone abandoning a conviction:
–perhaps I have been wrong all this time–.
When it’s over, there is nothing left
but a pale circle on the grass,
dark in the center, like an eye.
I want to feel connected:
The hermit gives up
after thirty years of hiding in the jungle.
The last door to the last room
comes unlatched. Here are the gestures
of my hands. Wear them in your hair.
Mostly, I want comfort:
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come
All this is to say that I get it now. I understand why so many find solace in reading The Bible, in going to church, in finding that they are not alone in their fear, their love, their humble, humble love.
I’m not saying that I’m about to head back to church, rather I’m saying that in loving words and nature as I have, I have not been so far off-base in my quest for spiritual understanding. In reading Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems, I have found a text that is my bible. There I find the comfort, the understanding, the knowledge I need to not feel so alone in the world. This is not to say her poems are “religious,” rather that they speak to me in a language I understand about loneliness, fear, connectedness and, especially, about love.