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Thanks for Noticing
The Interpretation of Desire
Vern Barnet

A. Interfaith Council's Interview
link

B. Readers Interview Vern
below, under construction last revised 2017 Jan 1

C. Sonnet Introductions
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Please send your corrections and questions to vern@cres.org



 
Part 1. Personal Questions
Part 2. How to Read the Book Why read it?
Part 3. Yearning in Flesh and Spirit
Part 4. The Book's Structure and the Sonnet Form
Part 5. Debt to Shakespeare and Whitman
Part 6. Sample Sonnets, Erotic and Otherwise 
Part 7. Medieval-Postmodern Theology 
Part 8. Catullus 16
"I hope my book becomes a path for the reader to follow, through 154 sonnets, 154 steps that will take the reader deeper into oneself and into the reader's relationships, especially the most intimate ones, and into an encounter with ultimate Mystery, perhaps to guide the reader into understanding others in a fresh way, and to love one's friends and companions, to love God and the world more deeply and keenly."

Part 1. Personal Questions

1.1. Why did you allow this book to be published? Are you concerned about your reputation? Presidential wannabes and religious leaders are citing the Bible's death penalty for gays.

     Yes, I was anxious, even doubtful, about the book, especially with the explicit sonnets. Should I use a pseudonym? Should I arrange for posthumous publication? I like to think I am prudent, and I weighed the possible damage to me against the possible benefit for others, and decided to find out what would happen. 
     My purpose is not to make money, as those of you who know me are keenly aware (poetry doesn't sell), but to further the idea that sexuality and spirituality are intimately related, and that the poetic form can chart the journey by which this truth can be discovered afresh. 
     From my acquaintance with the world's religions, I want to contribute a response to the desacralization of our culture, which has secularized everything, including sexuality. Some expressions of sexuality, such as same-sex eroticism, are even condemned as "objectively disordered" by some religious authorities, and this is all the more reason that the blessing of sexuality should be instead celebrated.
     The book places sexuality in the context of the three great crises of our time: the environment, personhood, and the society.
     Most of my friends of many faiths know me well enough that my reputation for interfaith work is secure.
     Finally, these sonnets and the context in which I place them are of high artistic quality. I am proud of the craftsmanship and not ashamed if it shows that I've done a little reading. I deliberately selected 154 sonnets because I want to be compared with the best, William Shakespeare.

1.2. So you want the book to be regarded as (a) high art or (b) medicine for our sick society or (c) a theological statement?

     At least these three things. It is not a systematic theology, but what I call a MedievalPostmodern theological perspective underlies the entire book, perhaps most explicitly in the Credo sonnets. 

1.3. Where did the title of the book come from? 

     A friend of mine asked to sleep with me one night as a way of overcoming his heterosexism, his fear of being close with other men. This was not a sexual request, just spending the night with a friend. Men used to sleep with men without any thought of sexual behavior, but since the Civil War, the fear of being close to other men has infected the American society.
     At one point, he bravely put his arm on my chest. He was used to sleeping with his girl friend. He exclaimed, "You don’t have boobs!" I responded, "Thanks for Noticing!" We laughed.
     Real friendship, real love, arises in noticing, beholding the other person. And that is not easy since we are filled with our own desires and agendas, and it is hard to set them aside to see the other person as he or she is. The book arises out of my struggle my many failures and some success — to see other people as they are, to notice them, without trying to shape them to fit my own needs.

1.4. How autobiographical are these sonnets?

     This is art, not autobiography; poetry, not profile; myth, not memoir; more gizmo than gesta. Should the reader care if a sonnet faithfully recounts an actual experience or if it is a wet dream? One reader did complain that a particular sonnet failed to indicate that a condom was used. I doubt that such literal reading of the book will be very beneficial. I hope most readers will value whatever insights the sonnets offer over sleuthing them for any external facts of my life.

1.5. How has the publication of the book changed you?

     In a way I feel more vulnerable because there are so many different attitudes people can take toward the book or parts of the book and therefore toward me. On the other hand, I feel that I have accomplished something important, made a gift to those who can receive it; and that is satisfying.
     It has changed my daily life since the last few years it has been an obsessive project whenever I could find a few minutes to work on it, and now I am released from that to new forms of obsession.
     After publication, I made some discoveries about myself. For example, at the suggestion of a friend, I went through the book to list the number of writers in the Anglican tradition I had cited, at least two dozen, from Thomas Cranmer to T S Eliot to John Shelby Spong. This deepened my realization that I am at home in the Episcopal Church.
     I also discovered over 40 citations from Christian mystics, which confirms me as a Christian who loves and reveres other faiths.
     Although I was ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister and retain that status, I enjoy being an Episcopalian layman. For those who wonder at the mix, consider Thomas Jefferson, an Episcopalian who called himself a Unitarian, and consider T S Eliot who became an Anglican in 1927, though he was born of a distinguished Unitarian family — Charles W. Eliot (transformational Harvard president ), Samuel Atkins Eliot II (president of the American Unitarian Association, Frederick May Eliot (also president of the AUA), and William Greenleaf Eliot (founded Washington University in St Louis, MO).
     The citations of a large number of Muslim mystics, which I know less well, and the writers from many other traditions, shows to me how indebtedness I am to religious insights throughout history and across the planet.

1.6. You are a clergyman. How does this book fit into your ministry? 

     At my ordination 45 years ago, one of the speakers said “Vern is above all a lover.” I have not lived up to that characterization very well, but I have worked at it, and this book is a kind of record of my struggles and promise to love the world. 

 
 

Part 2. Why Buy the Book?
How Best to Read it?

2.1. Why should anyone buy your book?

     If you understand everything about love, don't buy this book. But if you are interested in the many moods of relationships, and in diverse sexual experiences, you may be disgusted or thrilled by what you find here.
     If you know everything about world religions, don't buy this book. But if you want to see a MedievalPostmodern approach to understanding the essence of faith, you may be outraged or cheered by what I've written.
     If you are unwilling to entertain a traditional art form, the sonnet, don't buy this book. But if you are open to its beauty, you may find what I've done to be pretentious or genuine.
     If you think our culture deals with sexuality and spirituality in a wholesome way, don't buy my book. But if you are open to my study and experience, you may find blasphemy or enlightenment.
     If you want a quick read, you may find a few sonnets that hold up well extracted from the book's full body. But the individual poems gain significance as part of the movement through the Mass, as Shakespeare's individual sonnets are best understood as they participate with the others in revealing the complexity of his relationships.
     In short, buy this book if you want to appreciate your own experiences more deeply, and to understand the character of our culture and how it can be healed.

2.2. Suppose a person just wants a taste of the book before deciding to read it. What do you suggest?

     The book is complex. I might suggest a sampling of the sonnets for variety — 
     001, p51, Al-Fatiha
     002, p52, Don’t Ask
     124, p174, Destiny (explicitly sexual of one sort)
     084, p134, Postmodern Faith (discussed #7 below)
     088, p138, Love Locket (discussed here in Spirit magazine)
     154, p204, Closing Instruction.
Then the Foreword, p9, and by then I think a person would have enough of a sense of the book to decide whether to read further.

2.3. Should one read the notes before or after reading the sonnets? The book is longer than it looks. How should it be approached?

    I have no wisdom about this. Some, like Mark Belletini, advise reading the sonnets before reading the glosses. Others like to read the glosses first to prepare themselves for the sonnets. Some like to skip around the book. Others say it is best to begin by reading the Foreword and the Introduction.
     Perhaps it is like meeting a person you've been told you will encounter at a party. Do you want to google that person ahead of time, or do you want the raw experience first and then fill in the background in order to understand your new friend more fully?
     I intend the book to be an organic whole. Do you make love first with the eyes or is it the voice? Do you kiss first the brow or the mouth or go straight to the genitals? However you enter the book, I hope that you will at last find it a body whole.

2.4 Using literary terms, how would you classify the book?

The Library of Congress classifies the book as Postmodernist literature (page 2). I suppose my book, or at least some of the sonnets, could also be characterized "neo-baroque." The neo-baroque often employs intertextuality, and my book places the sonnets within the larger cycle of the structure of the Mass and also circulates themes of some of the poems through the glosses through cross-referencing. It emphasizes the reader's active role, hesitates to define reality, plays with polycentrism and polydimensionality, and leaves many situations described with instability. For me this is a most respectful style of writing about the miracle and mystery of love.
     Others have noticed neo-baroque characteristics such as a frequent relish for what is non-linear, self-reference, multivalence, an "exuberant opulance," fantastical conceits, and of course sensuality. I hope that the classical restraint of the fixed sionnet form nonetheless bursts open (Sonnet 15. for example) with energy and motion to demand a continuing reinterpretation and reassessment. The momentary contrasts, the paradoxical, the recursive qualities of the individual sonnets embedded in the larger text show ways of  transcending struggles and transforming the vile and hideous into divine affirmations.

===========================
     I'm intrigued with what little I know of the Spanish baroque poet Francisco Gomez de Quevedo y Villegas, 1580-1645, who wrote with erudition and bawdy sensibility. I see some similarities with Shakespeare (1564-1616), and of course with the baroque writer Cervantes (1547-16160, not to mention the earlier French monk, Francois Rabelais (1483-1553).
     Some might apply the term "neo-baroque style" to recent writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges,  Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Manuel Puig. 
     (See 7.8 below for additional examples of the baroque style in other art forms.)
     I suppose one might argue that the sonnet itself is baroque because its form is actually irregular (the original meaning of "baroque") since the sonnet is divided not into equal parts, but between 8 lines and 6 lines, and the sestet itself (in Shakespearean form) is divided into 4 and 2. So the thing is structurally off balance and the effect of the English sonnet seems perhaps to depend on that irregularity. Because the sonnet, with its usual division  between octave and sestet, presents contrasting perspectives, its content is also often baroque-like and post-modern in ambiguity and multivalence. Shakespeare is the master at this.
 

2.5. Have Fundamentalist Christians seen your book yet?

     I have not yet been threatened with being burned at the stake.


 

Part 3. 
Yearning in Flesh and Spirit

3.1 What are the sonnets about? 

     They cover many kinds of sexual activities, many degrees of friendship, youthful infatuation with its despair and exultation and folly, more mature and enduring love, the nature of religious mystery, skepticism, and commitment, and how art clarifies, deceives, and reveals us.

3.2. The subtitle your book is “the interpretation of desire.” What is your interpretation? 

    The subtitle comes from one of the books by the great Muslim mystic, Ibn Arabi, who noticed a beautiful woman, Nizam, as he was making the Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Mecca. His desire led him to spiritual insights, and prefigured Dante's love of Beatrice in the Divine Comedy.
    A Muslim hadith has God speaking: “I was a hidden treasure and I yearned to be known. Then I created creatures in order to be known by them.” As God yearned to be known, we also yearn to know and be known. That can happen when we abandon all other intentions and simply notice what is going on, to genuinely behold the person we love.
     Desire, certainly sexual yearning, can lead us to mischief or enlightenment. When we use the energy of desire to know rather than to use, we can be brought into that sacred union which is so empty we can be filled beyond ourselves with the divine. Such noticing is my interpretation of desire.

3.3. What gave you the idea of connecting — even identifying — the sacred realm with sex? 

     First, the only way I’ve been able to understand my own sexual experiences is as manifestations of the sacred.
     Second, the mystics of so many faiths, East and West, ancient, medieval, and modern, talk about experiencing God or the transcendent in sexual terms. From medieval Christianity, for example, St Teresa of Avila’s autobiography speaks of an angel (a Christian image for Cupid) repeatedly thrusting into her inmost being, described in orgasmic terms, represented by  Bernini's famous sculpture in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.

     Or consider the explicit eroticism of the Hindu temples at Khajuraho — row after row of the most explicit sexual variations as expressions of the divine energy!

     Muslim mystics like Rumi, drunk on love, find in the human experience ways of enjoying divine favor. Examples in each of these and other traditions are many. For example, as I discovered after the book was published, I cite over 40 mystics from the Christian tradition alone.
    Most of the 154 sonnets are about the desires of friends and lovers, and gender is not specific. Several sonnets suggest male-female eroticism; about twenty sonnets, depending on how you read them, hint or explicitly express male-male sexuality. In all cases I use religious language with profound respect.
     I'm really grateful that, regardless of the specific characters in the sonnets, so many people of all sorts focus on the holiness of love the sonnets explore. 
     For Spirit, the magazine of the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri, I wrote an article, "Yearning in Flesh and Spirit," which presents three examples of the unity of spirit and flesh in sculpture, dance, and poetry.
     In the Introduction to my book, ? 8, to illustrate how secularized even our religious practices have become, I complain that "Even the magisterial and comprehensive Book of Common Prayer, which includes prayers for occasions related to agriculture, justice, traveling, and such, contains no prayer for lovers to offer together as they begin or conclude love-making." However, I do want to credit at least The Booke of the Common Prayer (1549) of Edward VI which contains this magnificent passage in the wedding ceremony, valorizing the flesh: "With thys ring I thee wed: thys gold and siluer I thee geue: with my body I thee wurship . . . ."

3.4. Why do you draw upon world religions so much? 

     Interfaith work has been major part of my career, and so I naturally think in terms of many faiths. Many people would be shocked to find so much eroticism in world religions, but it is there, and there gloriously. Why wouldn’t it be there? Religion is about what is truly important, what is sacred, and sexuality is truly important, often fascinating, to us.

 
 

Part 4. The Book's Structure 
and the Sonnet Form

4.1. Why do you use an old-fashioned form of poetry, the sonnet, when you are seem to challenge traditional morality? 

     First, sexual desire can be overwhelming, and to turn that to art requires a strong container, like the sonnet. Second, form and content create each other, as a glass holds water, and the soul requires a body. I like to think of my book as wine of experience poured into the holy grail of the sonnet, offered as a gift to others who thirst.

4.2. What is a sonnet?

     I answer this question in considerable detail in the second part of the Introduction to my book. Here let me say the sonnet is a European poetic form, perhaps inspired by the Muslims, that for 500 years has been used to explore the many emotions that arise when you ae in love.
     The sonnet is usually a 14-line poem generally in iambic pentameter, that is five groups of two syllables with the accent falling on the second syllable. The Shakespearean sonnet has a scheme of riming the ends of each lines abab cdcd efef gg. 
     Even these few details suggests that the rhythm and the sound of the words are as important to the reader's experience as the meaning of the words themselves. The word "sonnet," "sonic," and "sound" arise from the same linguistic root. Sonnets are meant to be heard. While the Mass is a liturgical form, it is also a type of musical composition including choir and, sometimes, soloists. One of several reasons for arranging the sonnets by parts of the typical musical Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus et Benedictus, and Agnus Dei), with the addition of Introit, Confiteor, and Dismissal, was to suggest the book is itself a musical form. And that is why the Frontispiece is a setting to one of the sonnets, sung beautifully by Dr Joseph DeSota about a minute and 19 seconds into this YouTube video:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIDj58SU9nc
     No matter how obvious this is, I should also say that the sonnet is not the way we talk. It is a verbal contraption, to use Auden's phrase, and most require several readings aloud for their effect to be felt.

4.3. How dare you use the Mass as a structure for erotic purposes? 

     I make no apology. The Mass is a drama of the cosmos and of human life. I love the Mass. I attend church every Sunday and sometimes midweek. The Mass with its many moods presents and recapitulates the human story, and it seemed a natural way to organize my collection of sonnets. The Introduction to the book explains this in some detail, but here I'll note that the Sanctus is the most erotic chapter in the book because sex is holy, beyond our knowing; it is when we surrender, empty ourselves, in order to unite with the Beloved.

4.4. Did you consider other ways of structuring the book before selecting the Mass?

     Yes. After I selected the 154 sonnets, I tried to put them in a continuous narrative, but many didn't fit; and besides, a narrative might have suggested some sort of spiritual progression, like the Divine Comedy or Joseph Campbell's three-part "hero's journey," but I do not want to claim advancement. Other options were grouping the sonnets like books in the Bible with certain parallels — Genesis, Exodus, Job, Psalms, Gospels, Letters, Revelation — but that was too tenuous. I tied the Hindu four Vedas as a structure, and considered a kind of Buddhist sutra. But in the end, I think liturgically, and the Mass seemed the most organic and natural way to group the collection.

4.5. The book has several appendices. Why?

     Some readers might be interested in Shakespeare's 1609 Sonnets, so I've included a page about that book. Some readers want to know about me, so I've included a bio page. Because the book can be read many different ways, to make that point, I've collected comments from a variety of local and national folks who saw the book in preparation.
     Perhaps the least expected appendix deals with the three crises of our time. Since this is a primary concern of my interfaith ministry, I wanted to sketch that worry and place the book in its context.

4.6. You call the book a “prosimetrum”? What is that?

     “Prosimetrum” comes from two words, prose, the ordinary way we speak and write, and metrum, as in metrics, measure; poetry, like music, uses measures, often called feet, as feet have been used to measure. So a prosimetrum is a book of poetry and prose. 
     In antiquity we can cite books like those of the Hebrew prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, and De consolatione philosophiae by the Christian Boethius as prosimetra. In our own time, following his more famous 1950s novel Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel, Pale Fire, is actually a prosimetrum purporting to explicate its 999-line poem. Some argue that T S Eliot's notes to "The Waste Land" are an integral part of the work, and thus a prosimetrum.
     Famous medieval prosimetra include One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights), Aucassin et Nicolette, and La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel. The imprint of my book is La Vita Nuova, from Dante's prosimetrum by that name (The New Life), including 25 sonnets and other poems, with comments about the circumstances of the poems and even their structures. While both my book and Dante's are structurally prosimetra, their themes are also similar: earthly love revealing the divine. 
     However, my collection of sonnets is an unintended prosimetrum. It was when I realized that most readers would be unfamiliar with terms and allusions from the religions of the world that I fell to preparing notes and glosses which, if they were not printed in small, would often overtake the page, that I discovered I had a prosimetrum rather than a mere collection of sonnets, that they were connected, and I could best show that connection by arranging them according to the movements of the Mass, and that a fenestration of introductory material and appendices would let light shine into the edifice.

Part 5. Debt to 
Shakespeare and Whitman

5.1. How do your sonnets and Shakespeare’s compare? 

     Both his and mine are largely about love for a beautiful young man and the delights and agonies of the relationship, and coming to understand oneself better. 
     Technically, I use mostly, but not exclusively, the English — the Shakespearean — sonnet form, rather than the Italian — the Petrarchan — form, explained in the Introduction with a brief history of the sonnet, some details about its structure, and its traditional theme of love.
     I think Shakespeare's view of reality [see 7.7] was Postmodern, similar to my own, which embraces multiple viewpoints, which is why he was able to write complex characters in his plays and to present the often subtle, multi-layered, and even contradictory emotions in the sonnets that present his struggle with his relationships. 

5.2. If you could ask Shakespeare any question, what would it be? 

     Can you teach me how to convey so many complex and contradictory emotions in a single sonnet? I marvel at, for example, how you appear both as generously forgiving your beloved young man while at the same time accusing yourself, and in today's language, revealing a co-dependency along with other perspectives on the relationship simultaneously. 
     Of course I would like to know whether Thomas Thorpe had Shakespeare's permission to print the Sonnets, and whether Shakespeare suppressed the publication. And of course, who was the fair youth — Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton? Was it William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke — and did Shakespeare write the first seventeen sonnets to him on commission from William Cecil, Lord Burghley?
    But I'd forgo historical knowledge to have the training Shakespeare could give me in writing sonnets.

5.3. Some have compared your sonnets to Walt Whitman’s verse; why?

     While some credit Walt with practically inventing free verse, the antithesis of strict poetic forms lke the sonnet, Walt was, for his time, remarkably open about sexuality. Leaves of Grass was banned, he lost his job. I expect my book to outrage certain folks when they learn about it
     Another parallel between Whitman's work and mine: they both are offered to American society to help it understand itself and celebrate the holiness of the body and the importance of the political realm. 

5.4. Other than the religious sources you cite in the epigraphs and glosses, what other influences would you credit? 
     I tremendously admire the "metaphysical poets" of the 17th Century, just following Shakespeare (himself sometimes called proto-metaphysical) such as John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, and Richard Crashaw, Thomas Traherne, and others. Some say, with reason, that they wrote before thinking and feeling became separate human functions; their unity of experience is compelling to me. 
     In my Introduction, I also mention William Blake, whose mythologies protested against the Enlightenment damage to religion by its focus on the general and the rational rather than direct experience, and the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose use of words was wild but somehow controlled as he found the divine in nature, and, following Duns Scotus, thought that the unique individual, perceiving others, is imprinted with its divine source toward which it is led to return.
     Music and art are also key influences. My approach to the sonnet form is affected by Beethoven insofar as Beethoven mastered the forms of classicism and transcended them while his own indebtedness, even in innovation, was always clear.

Part 6. 
 Discussing Sample Sonnets

 6.1. Would you discuss how sonnets compress meaning? How they are like full bandwidth?

     In the book's Introduction I explicate devices of sound in Sonnet 14 Ad Astra. I won't repeat that here, but let me use the first two lines to make the point that a sonnet is a verbal contraption, not the way we ordinarily speak. The language is compressed and the plain sense may not be apparent until one reads through the entire sonnet. The sonnet begins

     In my frail frame immortal love doth dwell,
     And in these lines with borrowed breath you live.

The frail frame is not my rickety house but my body, subject ultimately to death, as the sonnet's third line confirms. The first line claims that in the mortal flesh that I am there lives something immortal, something that will not die, and that is love. (The sonnet later makes that love very particular.)
     In the second line, the sonnet refers to itself, and imagines unknown readers speaking the lines of the sonnet; it is their breath, borrowed from them, in which the beloved of the sonnet now lives. Whenever the sonnet is voiced, the beloved, who also is mortal, lives beyond death in memory through the medium of the verse.
     I think that this becomes obvious as the whole poem is contemplated, and the music of the lines (Frail Frame, Doth Dwell, Lines . . . Live, Borrowed Breath — just to cite the overt alliteration) support the gadgetry which aspires to deathlessness paradoxically in its physicality. But this may not at all be obvious when the lines are first encountered. And then when the sonnet is read again, the "frame" also becomes the artifice of the sonnet itself, or even perhaps the uncertainty of social situation of the sonnet writer. Two or more meanings may be found as the sonnet is absorbed.
 

6.2. Would you discuss the surface meaning of a sonnet, apart from technique?

     I'll try with Sonnet 24 Passage. This sonnet is G-rated, and perhaps more mature in its conception of love than others presenting the thrill and agony of infatuation. The epigraph is from Anne Morrow Lindbergh comparing relationships to islands in a sea of flux. The sonnet picks up her metaphor of the sea.

     I’ve come to this island where I don’t care
     if you love me, though now I see your love 
     runs clear through me. What was my total fare
    to this place? Well, I surrendered, above
     all else, my rank tattered ticket to where 
     my clinging kept me from seeing who you
     are, a pit I could not climb out of, snare,
     delusions, dreams that never will come true.

     We reach each other through the deep, through arm 
     and inlet, mouth, sound, sump, cove, bay and bight.
     The rush and churn, the quiet sea brew’s barm,
     the flood and drain are love’s career and rite.
          O, something deeper than the inflect sea
          tips, braces, sips, and bodies you and me.

     The Octave (first eight lines) presents the speaker as reaching an island free of the obsession that the beloved must be a companion in the same place. Only by abandoning our compulsive need for others, by giving up our own agendas and the desire to make the other person as we want him or her to be, only then can we be free enough to really see the other person. The speaker gives up a "rank tattered ticket" of impossible dreams instead to realize that by not worrying if the speaker is loved, the speaker can see that the beloved's love permeates the speaker's being, through and through. Technically — let me say this — the Octave employs hysteron proteron, that is, the present situation is stated ("now i see") before the earlier ("I surrendered") activity, reverse chronology.
     The Sestet (last six lines) moves from the boundaries and isolation implied by the island metaphor to revise and reframe that thought to celebrate the connections, the physical sharing of reaching each other through the myriad movements of the changing sea, the many moods within relationships. 
     Let me be a bit technical again: a turn ("volta") of perspective, a shift in thought or rhetoric, often occurs between the Octave and the Sestet. In some sonnets it may be so marked as to justify it being called the fulcrum of the poem.
     The concluding Couplet places the relationship beyond the majesty of the mutable sea, into a cosmic, even mystical eternal process, suggesting perhaps a species of incarnational postmodern theology.
     The gloss amplifies several themes of the sonnet. For example, a theme in the Sestet is similar to what Tom Robbins writes: “it’s a privilege to love someone . . . ; and while it’s paradisiacal if she or he loves you back, it’s unfair to demand or expect reciprocity. We should consider ourselves lucky, honored, blessed that we possess the capacity to feel tenderness of such magnitude and be grateful even when that love is not returned.”
     I hope some of the sounds of the sonnet will remind you of the ocean, and what is beyond. I mention this because any explanation of the sonnet is not the sonnet, and the sonnet's "meaning" cannot be exhausted by explanation.
 

6.3. Some of your sonnets are like cartoons or myths meaning no disrespect but they seem set in an imaginary universe.

     Perhaps like Sonnet 68 Meridian? 

  The King of Days will dance before my throne.
     We both are regal but of different realms.
     The heart I rule, and he commands the bone,
     this ship of being ordered from two helms.
     His stately dance turns frantic and I spin
     to see him grappling with the wheel of time.
     It starts and stops, a compass to begin
     again go tacking to and fro to prime.

     Exhausted, he leaves me thus spent and flees.
     (In hiding kings must sometimes secret go.)
     When he returns, with health or with disease,
     his dance may honor me or overthrow.
          Is he at fault? No, him I love complete:
          so fascinating are his fitful feet.

     The epigraph helps set the theme of two impulses, from the body and from the soul, as the Meridian, with its opposite, divides the world in twain. The gloss details some of the allusions and nautical terminology. But the poem, structured as three distinct quatrains (sets of four lines) with a volta between the Octave and the Sestet, is set on an impossible ocean vessel with two competing command centers, ruled by two kings from different countries.
     This sonnet, like Sonnet 13 Cowboy Krishna Plays His Flute, exists in its own world, and yet it may be isomorphic to some of our ineffable experiences. What does the concluding couplet say? That the speaker doesn't blame the universe for the contradictory impulses he experiences because it is all so interesting? Doesn't the "fault . . . fascinating . . . fitful feet" of the dance mean something more? But who in this universe can say what that is? Is this a statement of theodicy — how can a loving God allow suffering?

6.4. Some of your sonnets are, shall we say, X-rated. 

     And I am not going to read any of those aloud at a general public gathering.

6.5. Why? Are you ashamed of them?

  Not at all, but I want to respect the expectations of the audience. I am not Allen Ginsberg who was known for his language in advance. 

6.6. Well, can you say anything about these "adult" sonnets?

  Sure. Out of 154 sonnets, there are perhaps two dozen  I'd not read for an unprepared audience. Most of them appear in the Sanctus chapter and the rest are scattered elsewhere. Sonnets that could possibly or definitely be considered as dealing with erotic material are marked in the Contents and Index with bold equal signs around their page numbers.
     Few of the book's sonnets are humorous. One that is G-rated, I suppose, Sonnet 19 Anatomy, a favorite of an biologist acquaintance, speculates about two centipedes embracing. As one of the epigraphs I had great fun including a couple lines from the Bloodhound Gang's 1999 song, "The Bad Touch": "You and me baby ain't nothin' but mammals; so let's do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel." Yet the sonnet ends with a theological flourish.
     One of my favorite X-rated sonnets, Sonnet 123 Sacred Site 2: Chaitya Hall, appears at first ponderous or esoteric with references to religious and architectural terms, but the very last word turns the sonnet, I hope, into a healthy bawdy joke.
     Sonnet 124 Destiny is quite serious, and perhaps more immediately accessible to first-time readers than some of the others. An epigraph is from the Secret Gospel of Mark in which Jesus spends the night with a young man who begs to be with him; Jesus teaches him "the mystery of God's domain."
     The sonnet's speaker addresses a young man and proposes in vulgar terms a list of erotic actions and promises spiritual rewards from them. The sonnet concludes:

  My offer you accept. Now nude you stand.
     You say this holiness is what Christ planned.

I hope the shock of the couplet against the earlier coarse language reveals the sacred in the fleshiest of ways.

 Part 7. 
Medieval-Postmodern Theology 
7.1. Would you say that your Sonnet 84 "Postmodern Faith: What is Truth?" is a key to your religious perspective? 

7.2. Granting that, the glosses for this particular sonnet do not support the way most people think about religion. 

7.3. But the sonnet's couplet seems to recognize the modern assessment of religion as being, to use your phrase, a "pious tale."

7.4. Do you believe the creeds of the Church? What about Scripture? 

7.5. You mention Mystery and Reality, but you don't say God. 

7.5a. Shakespeare's Sonnet 105 proposes an ancient Greek trinity — the beautiful, the good, and the true. How does this pagan trinity fit with your Christian faith? 

7.6. [THEODICY] 
If God is all of reality, and reality includes evil, doesn't that make God less than "all-good"?  Aren't you denying one of the central claims of Christianity? 

7.7. Let's come back to another troublesome word, "worship." 

7.8. Earlier (4.1) you said your view of reality was like Shakespeare's. What did you mean? 
 

7.1. Would you say that your Sonnet 84 "Postmodern Faith: What is Truth?" is a key to your religious perspective?

This sonnet, along with others in the Credo section of the book, may more obviously express my faith than the others, but of course sonnets are not systematic theology. And my perspective is always evolving because I become a different person with every passing moment.

7.2. Granting that, the glosses for this particular sonnet do not support the way most people think about religion.

You’re right. Since the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th-18th Centuries, religion (as I think of it normatively) has been seduced and corrupted by the success of scientific facticity. Religion has become propositions to be proved or denied, rather than a way of seeing the world. Here I am speaking descriptively, historically. 

If you were to ask most Greeks of the ancient world for evidence of the existence of the gods, they would be puzzled by the question and perhaps point to the temples and shrines of the gods as proof. 

Or take ancient Egypt. In a single short text, these people, who were so smart they constructed the pyramids, might refer to the sky as a cow or a goddess bent over without any sense of illogic because the sky is nurturing. Walt Whitman answers the question, “What is grass?” by saying it is the flag of his disposition, the handkerchief of the Lord, a uniform hieroglyphic, the beautiful uncut hair of graves. Is he not seeing the world in a richer, more spiritual way than can be captured by mere facticity?

For example, among some Jews, Christians, and Muslims, dispute about the divinity of Jesus is a fruitless argument if it is conducted as a factual inquiry. It is like saying that only one — Star Wars or Star Trek — can be the truth; or that only one, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Melville’s Moby Dick or Shakespeare’s King Lear, reveals sacred reality. I may have a preference; that preference may change several times as I age, or even according to my mood. I certainly have no right to tell you which to prefer; your background and interests may not be mine; I would violate your integrity to insist that you must elevate what I find best.

Why is it that we have no difficulty with talking animals in Aesop's fables or The Wizard of Oz, and no problems with Superman who can fly with merely a cape, or Alice in Wonderland when the caterpillar smokes a hookah? I’ll tell you why — it’s because religionists, wanting to be as respectable and important as scientists, started interpreting their stories as facts. The Reformers mounted this miserable mistake by their cry Sola scriptura! which eventually led to the literalism and Fundamentalist authoritarianism of today.

In brief, instead of sensing the sacred directly, recent categories of thought desacralize religion. 

One could say that modernism is digital, Medieval-Postmodernism is analog. What is this? --
 

The Medieval-Postmodern answer might be "a beautiful sunset over water." The Modern answer might be "This image shows the sun as the position from which the photo is taken moves away from direct view of the sun due to the rotation of the earth about its axis," or even simply "an image of 299 by 168 pixels," which replaces content with measurement. OK, I caricature, I'm exaggerating to make this point: the Enlightenment turned us away from particular qualities toward measurable quantities, from values to facts, from the genuine to a general system by which truth-claims presumably can be adjudicated, from the beauty and multi-valent meaning of the sunset to the digital domains of the color light-wave frequencies, the pixels in the picture, the radius of the sun, and such. The modern world has pixelized the world. Analyzed, isolated, measured facts easily become separated from meaning; the Enlightenment bifurcated meaning and fact. Values like beauty and morality are not facts but they are meaningful.

How do you determine the "truth function" of the following? How do you digitize it? Is the rime either true or false? or both or neither? If it has no meaning, why is it cherished?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
The assumption that truth is univalent, that there are many wrong answers but only one correct response, is inadequate when, as always, there are many frames of reference or language games in play. For example, what can you say about this image? --

If you know your Shakespare scenes, you mighty say, "This is the page Cesario in Twelfth Night." But you might also say "This is Viola pretending to be a boy." Or you might say this is the actor Merritt Janson. Or this was Merritt Janson in the role of Viola. Or a colorfully dressed character. Or an image on a computer monitor. Or a cropped photograph of professional quality. 

I am always stumped when I am asked who I am. The answer keeps changing. Different requests in various circumstances elicit different answers. The Enlightenment has created the test mentality many of us learned in school, about one right anwer because it presupposes a single character for reality, instead of the multiple realities and ways of framing situations recognized by PostModernism and the play of levels of reality in the Neo-Baroque.
 

7.3. But the sonnet's couplet seems to recognize the modern assessment of religion as being, to use your phrase, a "pious tale."

     Ah, but quote the entire couplet:

     I know the Gospel is a pious tale,
     but who cares facts when worship cannot fail?

The final line denies the value of the modern assessment, the category of facticity, by pointing to the experience of worship when in awe, one apprehends the sacred through the pious tale, the myth, the sacred story.

Perhaps here it is useful to repeat a couple citations from the gloss—

From Wallace Stevens: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction, and that you believe it willingly.” 

From W H Auden: “It is as meaningless to ask whether one believes or disbelieves in Aphrodite or Ares as to ask whether one believes in a character in a novel; one can only say that one finds them true or untrue to life. To believe in Aphrodite and Ares merely means that one believes that the poetic myths about them do justice to the forces of sex and aggression as human beings experience them in nature and in their own lives.” 

Viewed from ordinary awareness, myth is a model of sacred reality.  Within mythic awareness, myth is reality, which includes ordinary awareness while transcending it and isomorphic with it, just as a three-dimensional cube includes a two-dimensional square and is prodigiously isomorphic with it while transcending it.

To Auden’s remark, I added, “Indeed, the client following a therapist’s suggestion to ‘place your deceased father in this chair and tell him how you feel’ may be in practice little different from the person of faith who prays. Religion is more about what is meaningful than what is factual. The deceased father is not in the chair, but what is important is the transformation that occurs in such an imaginary conversation. Religion is a commitment to openness, more confidence than a commitment to certainty, and not a commitment to a set of facts, which themselves are actually inherently contextual. No “fact” stands alone: facts are embedded in language and culture and all kinds of assumptions and contexts and disintegrate when these are removed.

What I mean is that we do not need to translate old creeds or ritual actions into scientifically and historically valid expressions. On the contrary, we need to be open to the immediate experience, clear and potent, to directly apprehend genuine and paradigmatic reality, usually hidden from us by our literalism. Here I apply the phrase from Coleridge, which makes art and my view of normative religion possible: “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

The very word which so many people identify with religion, belief, has been turned to rot by the Enlightenment. The original meaning of belief, certainly as late as the King James (1611) translation of the Bible, was trust, what you rely on, commitment, engagement, what you love and prize — not some abstract theological proposition. It did not mean assent to abstruse philosophical formulations in obscure, ancient categories of thought.

The word belief [belove] is related to the Latin word libido, desire, and the German liebe, beloved. In English belief originally meant trust. It’s more “I love my spouse” than “My spouse exists.”

Still, I affirm the integrity of folks who “believe,”  however they understand “belief,” so long as it produces a loving spirit within them. In my own church, I know folks approach the altar with very different world views; and yet, in our own limited ways, we acknowledge a Mystery so ultimate that while we may respectfully discuss our experiences, arguing about the Mystery seems blasphemous. Some believe as a fact in the bodily resurrection of Christ. Others believe in the story as revealing a quality of existence wherein apparent defeat is followed by renewal. Or as I put it in my Sonnet 82 “Easter Morning”—

      Through time a wonder, God or not, has stood
       when even evil will ordain the good.

Recognizing our different backgrounds and modes of illumination, and appreciating and valuing individual paths to the Mystery, creates human community with depth. This is why heresy is better than schism.
 

7.4. Well, do you believe the creeds of the Church? What about Scripture?

I grant that the Nicene Creed, for example, grew out of disputes using ancient modes of thought that are now nearly impossible for us to access. But when I say the creed, I believe it — I trust it, as a glorious attempt to find words for, to point to, a Mystery, the Mystery of Reality in which I am embedded. I cannot understand Reality because I cannot get outside of it, but the words are isomorphic to my experience of Reality; they map onto the majesty of creation and the horrors of human cruelty.

Human cruelty in the name of God is frequently found in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. Nonetheless, I “pray” horrendous things like Psalm 137:8-9 — “O daughter of Babylon, . . . happy shall he be who seizes your babies and smashes them against a rock!” 

Such murderous cruelty is unthinkable — which is why it needs to be thought, to be “prayed,” as a reminder of the wickedness in our heritage and, alas, still in hearts today. In “praying” this psalm, I am reminding myself of the gore and not simply the glory in my heritage as a human. It keeps me awake to the sin and folly in the news, and those smaller temptations of hate that rise within me, so that I may resolve anew on a better way.
 

7.5. You mention Mystery and Reality, but you don't say God.

The mystics in many faiths understood God simply as all of Reality which they perceived whole, although there is no proper way to put it in any human language. I have no problem with atheists who genuinely have considered and understand religion. (Alas, the so-called “New Atheists,” brilliant in their fields, do not know what religion is — Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens). Considering our culture’s dominant images of God as a Supreme Being, I must call myself an atheist, a non-theistic Buddhist, close to the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart for whom Nothing was a proper designation for God; recall his famous prayer: “I pray God to rid me of God.” My religious name, after all, is Vern the Void. Instead of a Supreme Being or a categorical Creator Diety, what makes sense to me is an ongoing Process in which each movement, each event, every particle, is related and mutually creating what comes next.

Still, in some contexts, I find the word God useful to point to Reality. And my life works better for me if I trust Reality, without denying the disasters of nature and the wickedness of humankind, and my own stupidity and sin.

The Sanskrit word sat has several related meanings such as Truth and Reality, and in some contexts refers to Brahman, one term for God, one way of understanding God. One of the names of God in Islam is Al-Haqq, the Truth, a way of talking about what is really Real. A related idea occurs in Buddhism — Dharmakaya, the Truth-Body or Reality of the Buddha, which, manifested as Nirmanakaya, is the universe itself. If you look carefully at the Biblical name for God revealed to Moses, Yahweh, the word seems to mean something like “I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be,” which can be understood as a reference to the Supreme Identity, Reality. The writer of the Gospel of John identifies Jesus with the Logos, the order or meaning of the cosmos, another grand way of pointing to ultimate Reality. The great 20th Century theologian Paul Tillich was accused of being an atheist because he did not believe in a Supreme Being apart from existence; rather God for him was the Ground of Being. And the contemporary Buddhist leader, Thich Nhat Hanh, speaks of the Interbeing, a beautiful way of pointing to the Buddhist principle, pratityasamutpada, that all things mutually arise — no Creator God separate from the universe is needed. 

So I may use the word God interchangeably with the Void, Reality, and the Infinite (I’m especially indebted to the 15th Century mystic and Catholic cardinal Nicholas of Cusa for making this term so meaningful to me, as is his embrace of both in omnibus omnia and omnium nihil, the all in all things, the nothing of all things). I use “God” with respect and affection for the traditions I’ve named and many others.

Actually, I discuss the word God in section 5 of the Introduction to my book. There I mention Suhrawardi's valoration of Imagination — in sense we create God; that is, we create Reality; and I bring the power of imagination to bear on the theme of my book when I say “Desire is another word for Imagination” (p19).
 

7.5a. Shakespeare's Sonnet 105 proposes an ancient Greek trinity the beautiful, the good, and the true. How does this pagan trinity fit with your Christian faith?

There are many trinities, and Shakespeare’s terms in that sonnet — fair, kind, and true — are predicates of his beloved youth. Please study the triad, or trinity of nature, selfhood, and community outlined in the Appendix to my book under “The Three Crises of Our Time.”

I cannot, nor can anyone, explain the Christian Trinity because it is a Mystery; for Christians it points beyond itself to the nature of Reality. I especially like the idea of perichoresis (from Greek, rotation; also, from Latin, circumincession or circuminsession, to make room for, or to contain, or to step around) — a dynamic reciprocity of the three divine “persons” which can be understood as a dance, a process in which each enters and completes the others. 

All I can do here is vaguely point to how I am currently accessing the Trinity through the merest pinhole in the film that covers and obscures Reality; for Reality, God, is beyond human categories, even when we can work with the divine energies; our brains do not permit us to picture a photon as both wave and particle at the same time, yet the equations of quantum mechanics work though we cannot picture how. My pinhole peek is heretical, as is my atheism, but nonetheless I worship God, and here I acknowledge that the familiar language is patriarchal and we should move beyond it. 

God the Father (I would prefer “God the Parent”) is the awesome Process by which the universe and all within it appears, from what Christians call Creation and what Buddhists call the Very No-Beginning, to the present and the ongoing future. This Process often seems violent, in earthquake, flood, drought, tornado, famine, and the incomprehensible suffering of animals killing for food — “nature red in tooth and claw.” And in the wickedness of human beings. It is right to be both stunned by the beauty we behold and to fear the Power which sometimes manifests in horror and destruction. Most religious liberals reject ascribing the violence found in places in the Hebrew scriptures to God, but it seems realistic to me. Most Christians say God is wholly good, but if God is all of Reality, then, while God is beyond human categories of good and evil, surely God manifests in ways that seem to us hideous. We’d be stupid not to fear approaching an erupting volcano. 

This view is found not only in non-Christian texts, such as in the Bhagavad Gita, but even in Hebrew Scripture. 

First, from the Gita:

[Slowly Krishna led Arjuna through all the fibers of his spirit. He showed him the deepest movements of his being. It's the most secret knowledge. He showed him the whole of truth. He taught him how the world unfolds.]
       Arjuna: I feel my illusions vanish, one by one. 
       Now if I am capable of contemplating it,
       show me your universal form.
       I see you. In one point I see the entire world. 
       All the warriors hurl themselves into your mouth 
       and you grind them between your teeth. . . . . 
       Through your body I see the stars. 
       I see life and death. I see silence. 
       Tell me who you are. I am shaken to the depths. 
       I am afraid.

       Krishna: I am all that you think, all that you say. 
       Everything hangs on me like pearls on a thread.
       I am the earth’s scents, and the fire’s heat.
       I am appearance and disappearance.
       I am the trickster’s hoax.
       I am the radiance of all that shines,
       I am time grown old.
       All beings fall into the night 
       and all beings are brought back into daylight. 
       I have already defeated all these warriors. 
       But he who thinks he can kill
       and he who thinks he can be killed are both mistaken. 
       No weapon can pierce the life that informs you; 
       no fire can burn it, no water can drench it,
       no wind can make it dry. 
       Have no fear, and rise up, because I love you.

       Arjuna: My illusion is dissolved, my error destroyed. 
       By your grace now, I am firm. 
       My doubts are dispersed.
       I will act according to your word. 
             --translation from Peter Brook's Mahabharata

Now from Isaiah 45:7, in several English translations:

      I form light and I make darkness,
       I bring bliss and calamity:
       I the Eternal, the true God,
       I do it all.  —Moffatt

       I form light and I make darkness,
       I make weal and I create woe,
       I am the LORD, who do all these things. —RSV

       I form the light and I make darkness, 
       I bring prosperity and create disaster;
       I, the LORD, do all these things. —NIV

       I form the light and I make darkness, 
       I make peace and create evil;
       I, the LORD, do all these things. —KJV (AV)

Other Biblical passages also indicate God is a source of evil. such as Jeremiah 18:11, Joel 2:25, etc.

This perspective is found in my sonnets. See, for example, Sonnet 85 “Theodicy 9/11” or Sonnet 86 “Interbeing.” 

God the Son (again, I would prefer “God the Child”) is inseparable (homoousian, consubstantialis, “of the same substance”) from the Father, but as I focus in a human way on those aspects of Reality that are constructive and healing, those that draw us toward knowledge, love, service, sacrifice, and renewal, I see the Son who in the Christian myth is Jesus the Christ, whom I seek to follow. I particularly cherish the line in the Nicene Creed which proclaims that Christ is “eternally begotten of the Father,” a way of pointing to the ongoing process of the redemptive power which is “of one Being with the Father.” See, for example, Sonnet 80 “The Cosmic Christ” or Sonnet 82 “Easter Morning.”

For me as a Christian, the story of Jesus the Christ is the story of Reality expressing, admitting, its finitude, its fallibility, in life and death and resurrection, that amazing affirmation of the goodness of God. Jesus, in his utter humanity, is also the absolute and complete manifestation of the divine, that which is implicit in the carbon atom (for example) with both its perfection and its inadequacy to banish suffering and make a world of justice and peace; nonetheless, Jesus showing us our parts in perfecting our time and place, giving us joy in duty to the world.

Ancient Greek rational modes and Reformation and Enlightenment categories of thought cannot penetrate the mystery of the Incarnation, just as the Creed itself seems absurdity followed by absurdity, and subject to the liberal criticism that focus on the nature(s) of Jesus and his historical circumstances detract us from His teachings. 

But entering into the claims of the Christian mystery of the Incarnation, that Jesus the Christ is both God and human, infinite and confined, unchanging and mutable, omnipotent and vulnerable, glory in the humble, we encounter the same limit of language the Hindus encounter with "Atman is Brahman" or both "Tat tvam asi" and "Neti, Neti," and the Buddhists with "Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form" and "samsara is nirvana." William Blake (1757-1827) invites us to a similar contemplation:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Eternity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. 
   --"Auguries of Innocence" 
Richard Crashaw (1613–1649) writes specifically of the Incarnation:
Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
Heaven in eath, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav'n to earth.
--"In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God"
God the Holy Spirit likewise is inseparable from Reality, but in attending to the capacity we have to communicate, to know one another, to be transformed as we cannot transform ourselves, I say it is the working of the Holy Spirit, present within us as Breath (spirit is part of the word inspiration, which has a double meaning: physically it means breathing in, inhalation, and also means arousal by exalted thought or feeling). See, for example, Sonnet 50 “Seville: Burning” for the Spirit is often associated also with fire, as at Pentecost, or Sonnet 45 “Husam.”

This Trinitarian God is completely natural — Reality — though beyond understanding. Reality is “one, namely many,” as Kitaro Nishida has written. What we perceive and how we perceive it gives rise to various faiths. Is a zebra a white animal with black stripes, a black animal with white stripes, or an invisible animal with white and black stripes? Because we are finite, very finite, we have cause to be modest in our constructions of Reality, and certainly to be open to the experience of others. Yet Imagination can be a beautiful veil given by the Holy Spirit.

This is a sketch of my present working approach of the Trinitarian God, which I worship not in these abstract thoughts as much as by the thoughts of my heart (to employ the kind of language found in the Book of Common Prayer, entering into the story of Jesus the Christ. I may answer differently tomorrow.

This story, and the Reality in which it is embedded and to which it points, is vivid for me in the Mass. Jesus, both divine and human, is experienced both in his death and resurrection. The dead of winter is followed by springtime budding. The horrors of our Civil War lead to the emancipation of the slaves. The vicious pogroms against the Jews led to many fleeing to our country and enriching it with their genius. We never know the ultimate outcome of wickedness, even as we must condemn it. Confessing our sin, the arrogance of our presumed knowledge, in the rite by which we accept both the suffering and the exaltation of the Jesus story gives us the possibility of apprehending the Glory of God and serving others in the possibilities open to us without destructive attachment. Yielding our self-importance to be one with the flow of the universe while accepting our own particular responsibilities and rejoicing in our special competences and gifts, we become disciples and heirs of the Eternal community (traditional language: “kingdom”).

Drawing on my work with world religions, I find in the Mass a recapitulation of the essential discoveries of all faiths. (Primal religions find the sacred in nature, Asian faiths in inner experience, Monotheistic traditions in the history of covenanted community.) The bread and wine fuse and transcend nature, personhood, and community. Look! The bread and wine of the Eucharist are gifts from nature (God the Father, Parent, Creator). In them we find Christ (the Son, the Child), God incarnate as a person, our exemplar. And through the partaking of communion we become the Body of Christ, the Church, the beloved community (enabled by the commun--ication of the Holy Spirit; think Pentecost; recall 2 Cor 13:14, “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit”).

7.6. If God is all of reality, and reality includes evil, doesn't that make God less than "all-good"?  Aren't you denying one of the central claims of Christianity?

Please recall what I said about “God the Father” above.

Archibald MacLeish summaries the problem of theodicy in his play, J.B, retelling the story of Job: “If God is God, He is not good,/ if God is good, he is not God.” And surely Milton fails in “Paradise Lost,” wittily acknowledged by A E Housman in A Shropshire Lad: “malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man.” In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky famously struggles with the argument that whatever end God may hope to achieve by permitting suffering, it cannot be “worth the tears of that one tortured child.” Perhaps the best short analysis of the many ways Christians have tried to justify “God's ways to man,” to explain the presence of evil in a world created and overseen by an all-powerful and completely good God is Al Truesdale’s If God Is God Then Why? in which this Nazarene theologian examines every major solution and finds them failures; but while there is no solution for the problem of evil, there is a response: the Cross and the Resurrection.

My approach depends upon (1) using the term “God” to mean all of reality, (2) upon an evolutionary perspective which sees human life in the context of the processes resulting from the Big Bang, such as the capacity of the carbon atom to combine with many other elements, and (3) an analysis of how we use language, and (4) an assessment that most of us most of the time choose to be alive.

Reality is both good and seemingly unjustifiably evil, with unmerited suffering. In this sense, the usual Christian claim that God is wholly good does not satisfy me. However, the mystics’ claim that God is unblemished good can be affirmed in another sense. If God is not separate from the universe but actually its Unfolding Process, then we may ask what expectations can we have of a carbon atom to be good or evil. Ordinarily we do not apply categories like “good” and “evil” to carbon atoms, for example. But the Processes of Reality include the various ways in which atoms and energies have produced our world of good and evil. Shall we blame the carbon atoms? Good and evil are human categories of thought, not physical or chemical properties like valence, mass, and atomic number. And we may disagree about whether a particular something is good or bad.

But if we are asked to choose between existence or not, we would usually prefer being, amor fati. We chose being, even though we are aware of the enormous suffering carbon atoms implicitly cause. So in the sense that we accept the conditions of finitude, which includes suffering and evil, we affirm life, we affirm existence, we appreciate the amazing contingency that there is something rather than nothing, that the universe exists, that Reality includes us, that we have the gift of awareness. In this sense of affirmation of Reality, we can, like the mystics, say God is wholly good. Usually our consciousness is so divided and scattered that we cannot make such an affirmation, but there are occasions when, without denying the reality of evil, we see the whole "package" and, in our gratitude and understanding of  the limitations of the carbon atom (to return to that example), we affirm that Reality, that God, is good. While I disagree with much of Augustine, I think that in his own distorted way, with some inkling of the Big Picture, he properly begins The Confessions with the urge, the desire, to praise God as ultimate Good in an isomorphic sense. 

For me as a Christian, the story of Jesus the Christ is the story of Reality expressing, admitting, its finitude, its fallibility, in the life and death and resurrection, that amazing affirmation of the goodness of God. Jesus, in his utter humanity, is also the absolute and complete manifestation of the divine, that which is implicit in the carbon atom with both its amazing perfection and its inadequacy to banish suffering and make a world of justice and peace; nonetheless, Jesus showing us our parts in perfecting our time and place, giving us joy in duty to the world.

One need not be a mystic to catch a glimpse of this vision even in the most practical, pedestrian of thoughtful decisions. For example, those of us in Tornado Alley affirm being here even though we know disaster could happen soon. Driving is itself a risk; and while I no longer drive, drivers are a risk to me as I walk in the city. Still I walk. We all are subject to accidents and illness and crushing disappointments; yet most of the time we see, or at least hope for, the presence and power of meaning.

It is hard to see beyond our selfish agendas and our particular circumstances, beyond secular fragmentation, into the world as it is, sacred, where everything is connected, where any one thing involves everything else. Even God’s glory is implicit in the carbon atom. 

7.7. Let's come back to another troublesome word, "worship." 

Myth, the sacred  story, reveals how the world unfolds. Worship is the enactment of the myth; or the myth is the explanation of the ritual. The Hajj for Muslims, the Seder meal for Jews, Durga Puja for Hindus are examples. For liturgical Christians, the Mass enacts the sacrifice and resurrection of incarnate God. For Christians who practice open communion, the Mass with its universal sharing is a model to redeem the world. 

As I note under Sonnet 78 “Advent,” Orthodox scholar Alexander Schmemann sees the historical development which led to the evisceration of the meaning of the ritual: 

At the end of the Twelfth Century a Latin theologian, Berengarius of Tours, was condemned for his teaching on the Eucharist. He maintained that because the presence of Christ in the Eucharist elements is ‘mystical’ or ‘symbolic,’ it is not real. The Lateran Council . . . condemned him and . . . simply reversed the formula. It proclaimed that since Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is real, it is not ‘mystical.’ . . . Western theology thus declared that . . . [the] ‘mystical’ or ‘symbolic’ is not real, whereas . . . [the] ‘real’ is not symbolic. This was . . . the collapse of the fundamental Christian mysterion, the antinomical ‘holding together’ of the reality of the symbol and of the symbolism of reality, . . . a collapse of . . . Christian . . . ontological sacramentality. 
We have such a weak understanding of ritual, a form of sacred play, which takes us out of ordinary time into the very breath of reality! —  Folks who dress up as comic book or movie characters — think of those who dressed up, brought props, mouthed the lines, and even stood in front of the theater screen at The Rocky Horror Picture Show — nonetheless reject many of our culture’s religious enactments as superstitious. Why do folks buy and wear a numbered sports jersey if not, by identifying with the athlete, to gain, at least unconsciously, some of the athlete’s power? Why, then, do folks scoff at receiving the body and blood of Christ, identifying with Him and becoming a member of his divine Body? 
 


7.8. Earlier (4.1) you said your view of reality was like Shakespeare's. What did you mean?

For me, recognizing that the structures of the world are largely human creations, that we live in illusion much of the time, that ultimately the universe has no purpose beyond itself, is a perspective Shakespeare beautifully and powerfully articulates. For example, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5—

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player 
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage 
And then is heard no more: it is a tale 
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 
Signifying nothing. 
And again, As You Like It, 2.7
All the world's a stage, 
And all the men and women merely players; 
They have their exits and their entrances; 
And one man in his time plays many parts, 
His acts being seven ages. . . .
One more example, The Tempest, 4.1
Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 
As I foretold you, were all spirits and 
Are melted into air, into thin air: 
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve 
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on, and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep. 
Perhaps the Buddhist Diamond Sutra presents a similar theme—
Taraka timiram dipo
Maya-avasyaya budbudam
Supinam vidyud abhram ca
Evam drastavyam samskrtam.

As stars, a fault of vision, as a lamp,
A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,
A dream, a lightning flash, or cloud,
So should one view what is conditioned.

—Edward Conze
So you should view this fleeting world —
a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
—Unknown translator
From Plato’s discussion in the Theaetetus about dreams and madness to Alice in Wonderland to the French Postmodernists and the recent Spanish  “Neo-Baroque” writers, not to mention contemporary psychology, uncertainty seems better to characterize what it means to be human than the Enlightenment-Modernist project of discrete categories into which experiences must be placed.

Though Shakespeare was a Renaissance writer, nurtured in both the classical tradition and the Christian theology of his time, and though the Diamond Sutra is ancient, these views seem Postmodern. Shakespeare is compassionate about the human condition, and clear-eyed about our insignificance in the universal drama. Of course the writer of Ecclesiastes (1:2, 14) was also clear-eyed when she or he wrote—

    Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
    I have seen everything that is done under the sun, 
    and behold, all is vanity and a striving after mist.

My faith is Medieval insofar as I do not find Enlightenment categories of thought -- that concern with overarching, testable models, with facticity -- useful to my spiritual life. My faith is Postmodern insofar as I realize my own model is finite and incomplete, ultimately vain. Thus I relish other folks’ ways of understanding Reality and cherish Jean-Francois Lyotard’s way of defining Postmodernism as “incredulity toward meta-narratives,” although I would rephrase this as “delight in multiple meta-narratives,” and suggest he examine the implied Enlightenment notion of “belief.” Perhaps Postmodernism, as I would like to use the term, was anticipated by the ancient Jain teaching of anekantavada, the doctrine of multiple viewpoints, and the Hua Yen Buddhist use of the image of Indra’s net, suspended over Indra’s Palace, a metaphor for the universe. At each node of the net, or vertex is a multifaceted jewel placed so that it reflects the palace and every other jewel. This image of multiple viewpoints betokens the interconnectedness of all things. While William Blake is often called a Romantic poet, these famous 1802 lines exhibit is embrace of multiple perspectives:
     'Tis fourfold in my supreme delight,
     And threefold in soft Beullah's night,
     And twofold always. May God us keep
     From single vision and Newton's sleep!

Perhaps my “Medieval-Postmodernism” might be described simply as “Neo-Baroque,” congruent with the rich complexion of reality suggested by Shakespeare and his contemporary, Cervantes, and the English “metaphysical poets” like John Donne. Baroque art like Bernini’s statue of David and the Cornaro chapel with his St Teresa in Ecstasy, Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew, Valesquez’s Las Meninas, Hals’s The Women Regents of the Old Men’s Home at Haarlem, and Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son are for me theological testaments, as is the music of Bach and Handel, even though I think of myself as a classisist in terms of musical ideals. Bach, in counterpoint, like Shakespeare's sonnets, often does two, or three, or four, or more things at once, moving in different directions simultaneously, engaging both head and heart in divine humanity. I don’t think “baroque” is often used in non-European art, but, with different labels, elements of the style appears in many cultures. What could be more baroque than Indra’s net or The Arabian Nights or a late Shang Dynasty ritual bronze gu?

Psychologically, think of the tricks of perspective (optical illusions and such), our human urge to create or discover meaning in pattern, and beauty in nature and art whose Source is Imagination and whose end is healing environmental, personal and social fragmentation and distress. 

What may be a “Neo-Baroque” theme of transformation happily is found in Henry Nelson Wieman’s description of God: What transforms us as we cannot transform ourselves, provided we give ourselves entirely over to that Power, the Power of Creative Interchange, another term for which I think is Imagination. 

Thus my sonnet’s “Medieval-Postmodern” or “Neo-Baroque” Christian faith, my commitment, is an enjoyment in the company of others of the Mystery of Reality that some call God, a path of wonder, gratitude, and service.

Others have other ways of understanding faith — how could they not? — they are different people; their experience is not mine; so I revere their faith so long as it leads to healthy, meaningful lives of insight and compassion.

Part 8. 
Catullus 16

8.1. You begin the book's Foreword with an epigraph from the Latin poet Catullus (84 – 54 BCE, which you translate as "It suits the dutiful poet to be chaste himself; his verses don't need to be that way at all." And at the end of the Foreword you include the full text in Latin. You note that it is has been called the most obscene poem ever written. Will you translate it in full?

     OK, here is the poem and a Wikipedia translation follows:

Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo,
Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi, 
qui me ex versiculis meis putastis, 
quod sunt molliculi, parum pudicum.
Nam castum esse decet pium poetam 
ipsum, versiculos nihil necessest; 
qui tum denique habent salem ac leporem,
si sunt molliculi ac parum pudici 
et quod pruriat incitare possunt, 
non dico pueris, sed his pilosis 
qui duros nequeunt movere lumbos. 
Vos, quod milia multa basiorum
egistis, male me marem putatis? 
Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo. 

I will sodomize you and face-fuck you,
bottom Aurelius and catamite Furius,
you who think, because my poems
are sensitive, that I have no shame.
For it's proper for a devoted poet to be moral
himself, [but] in no way is it necessary for his poems.
In point of fact, these have wit and charm,
if they are sensitive and a little shameless,
and can arouse an itch,
and I don't mean in boys, but in those hairy old men
who can't get it up.
Because you've read my countless kisses,
you think less of me as a man?
I will sodomize you and face-fuck you.

8.2. You also note that the poem is 14 lines, but you don't compare it to the 14-line sonnet form.

It would really be a stretch to compare the Catullus poem to a sonnet. There are 12 syllables per line instead of 10, for example, not to mention the absence of a sonnet rime scheme. The shifts in meanings do not follow the logic of a sonnet. It is an accident that the poem falls into 14 lines.

8.3. Why then did you quote it?

To remind readers that my book, which contains four-letter words, is fully within the Western literary tradition in dealing with sexuality in graphic language. And, following Catullus, to put some distance between the poet and the poems.

It is also to remind readers that Shakespeare's sonnets employ rough language, although this often is difficult for contemporary readers to see. For example, read his sonnet 129. The opening quatrain is
     The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
     Is lust in action; and till action, lust
     Is perjur’d, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
     Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust; . . .

The "expense of spirit," in Elizabethan talk, refers to semen and vital energy, with "sprit" a slang term for erect penis. The word "waste" is a pun on "waist" and "shame" puns on the Latin for the word pudendum, which refers to female genitalia. At once these lines brilliantly expose and express both Shakespeare's passion for, and revulsion of. the mysterious dark lady. The word "bloody" need not be further explained in the age of Donald Trump.

Another example. In Sonnet 4, one of the 17 "procreation" sonnets, at the beginning of their relationship when Shakespeare is trying to get his friend to marry and sire a son, Shakespeare upbraids his young friend for masturbating:

     Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
  Upon thyself thy beauty's legacy?
     Nature's bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
     And being frank she lends to those are free.
     Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
     The bounteous largess given thee to give?
  Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
     So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
     For having traffic with thyself alone,
     Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
     Then how, when nature calls thee to be gone,
     What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
          Thy unused beauty must be tomb'd with thee,
          Which, used, lives th' executor to be.

For any readers shocked by my discussion of sexuality in my own sonnets, I want them to know I am working within a tradition spanning thousands of years, and within the sonnet tradition of hundreds of years. 
 


 
You can find this interview 
on the Interfaith Council's website at 
http://www.kcinterfaith.org/thanks-for-noticing-the-interpretation-of-desire/
also printed in the Council's 2016 Fall newsletter, pages 7-8
Geneva Blackmer Interviews Vern

Geneva Blackmer, intern for the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, interviews the Rev. Dr. Vern Barnet, who founded the Council in 1989, about his new book, Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire.

As many Kansas City natives are aware, you have an extensive resume as a Professor of Religion, teaching a variety of classes at Ottawa University, St. Paul’s School of Theology, and the “Interfaith Academies” partnered by Harvard’s Pluralism Project — to name a few. So the first, and most obvious, question seems to be: Why did you decide to write the book of sonnets before the well anticipated book on world religions, that many people were expecting? And did you have any reservations about this decision or how it may potentially effect your reputation?
 

Yes, many people have known me for more than thirty years as an advocate for celebrating religions, especially in the lives of folks in our own community. And when, after 947 columns in The Kansas City Star and monthly articles in Many Paths, many friends asked me to compile the best of these pieces as part of a book on world religions. I feel urgency about the three crises of our time — in the environment, in personhood, and in the social fabric — and the parallel wisdom from the Primal, Asian, and Monotheistic traditions to heal these diseases.

But, frankly, I’ve not found an effective way to communicate the shattering urgency of the big picture about world religions. We are still at the “let’s be nice to one another” stage, not ready to address the convulsions of our desacralized culture that are so large most of us cannot fit them into our fields of vision. We recognize “these” and “those” problems and dangers, but cannot see how they are all connected and amplified by the pervasive loss of the sense of the sacred.

So, because I don’t know how many days or years are left for me to make a contribution, I decided to tackle the unruly confusion about love throughout today’s world, in a very personal way, with my book of sonnets aimed, through a multi-faith landscape, to show how sexuality and spirituality are intimately related, and how the poetic form can propel the journey by which this truth can be discovered afresh.

This, of course, opens me to challenge, and I did consider publishing the book anonymously. I do not want to offend those with different views. I do not want to lose precious friendships. I hope that, just as Shakespeare wrote that he was “shamed by that which I bring forth” in his Sonnets, so the spiritual exploration he has bequeathed to us helps me to hope that my sonnets have authentic spiritual, medicinal, and artistic value as well. 

Anyone who opens a copy of  Thanks for Noticing will quickly draw their attention to the extensive footnotes seen throughout the book. What makes these footnotes so important in regards to each individual sonnet, and the complete work? Were there certain religious traditions or sacred texts utilized more than others?

From A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian, I draw upon religions of the world. I cannot expect most readers to recognize allusions to themes from faiths with which they are not familiar. The footnotes and glosses are critically important to convey the message of the book, which is, like Dante’s La Vita Nuova, an integration of poetry and prose. While each of the 154 sonnets in a sense may stand on its own, the sonnets are arranged by the movements of the Christian Mass, and so a larger picture emerges from the book as a whole, with its introductory material and appendices, as well as the notes.

I am an Episcopalian. After the book was published, I discovered that unconsciously I included over a hundred references to writers in this tradition, and many more from the larger Christian faith. The subtitle of the book, The Interpretation of Desire, comes from the towering Muslim mystic, Ibn Arabi, and Islamic thought pervades the book. My doctoral dissertation was on Sunya, the Void, Emptiness, a key Buddhist teaching, and that  also has significantly shaped my sonnets. 

These and many other religious citations are indexed as a kind of “Concordance” on a developing website which can be found at VernBarnet.com.

Sonnets are obviously a unique and old-fashioned poetic form, and you have mentioned many times the bridge between your work and that of Shakespeare’s. In true Shakespearean form, your sonnets take the reader on an exquisite journey of passion, love, and sexuality. Do you feel that your sonnets help the reader truly embrace sexuality in the sacred world, rather than isolating it in secular world? Or perhaps help to reduce the stigma around sexuality in certain religious interpretations, that deem it as “evil” or “impure”? Was this a factor in why you chose this particular medium to express your thoughts?

Absolutely! Most folks don’t know that Shakespeare, an icon of Western culture, as we see from all the commemorations during this year marking the 400th anniversary of his death, wrote most of the Sonnets to a young man with whom he was profoundly in love. Those, and the sonnets to a “dark lady” tell of rapture and anguish, enchantment and despair, disgust, deceit, and forgiveness, death and art. They mature into an astonishing spiritual testimony.

My sonnets are similarly addressed. Shakespeare did not have the benefit of studying what the world’s religious traditions have said about the flesh, and even today most readers do not know how affirming religions have been of the multiple ways in which love is expressed, and of how love can open to the experience of the divine. I wanted, in sometimes the earthiest way possible, to celebrate such explorations in my own sonnets, to show that the flesh is sacred, that love is divine, that sexuality and spirituality are, or can be, identical. As Rumi wrote, “The way you make love is the way God will be with you.” 

One strand of Christianity, from Augustine’s Manichaean background,  does separate matter and spirit, and considers one evil, impure, and the other good. The perversion of Augustine’s influence has often overwhelmed a more wholesome understanding of holiness. Through Western colonial culture, this Christian influence on some forms of Islam and Hinduism, for example, has been a disaster. I hope my book, accessing the religions of the world, will illumine the holy from the various traditions in a fresh and beautiful way.

Where can people get the book?

The Kansas City Library has copies and it can be purchased at several local bookshops or on line. Also I’m giving talks about it around town (see my website), and folks can get copies there.

I want to add that I am forever indebted to the folks serving on the Interfaith Council, past and present, from whom I have learned so much and for whom I have such affection. The book, with its footnotes and all, is, in part, a tribute to them.