More thoughts on the tender warrior...

Two of my favorite poems about the complicated nature of becoming a "tender warrior" are "The Russian" by Robert Bly and "Sometimes A Man Stands Up During Supper" by Rainer Maria Rilke. Both have been teaching me truths for a long time - and both keep changing and maturing as I grow older. Bly writes:

"The Russians had few doctors on the front line.
My father's job was this: after the battle
Was over, he'd walk among the men hit,
Sit down and ask: 'Would you like to die on your
Own in a few hours, or should I finish it?'
Most said, 'Don't leave me.' The two would have
A cigarette. He'd take out his small notebook -
We had no dogtags, you know - and write the man's
Name down, his wife's, his children, his address, and
He wanted to say. When the cigarette was done,
The soldier would turn his head to the side. My
Finished off four hundred men that way during the
He never went crazy. They were his people.

He came to Toronto. My father in the summers
Would stand on the lawn with a hose, watering
The grass that way. It took a long time. He'd talk
To the moon, to the wind. 'I can hear you growing' -
He'd say to the grass. 'We come and go.
We're not different from each other. We are all
Part of something. We have a home.' When I was
I said, 'Dad, do you know they've invented sprinklers
Now?' He went on watering the grass.
'This is my life. Just shut up if you don't understand

This is apparently based on a true story from various Russian doctors who lived through WWII. When I first heard it I thought it was speaking to me - we, men, have to do horrible things for the common good sometimes that others don't understand - and I suspect that there is some of that in this poem. But now, as I move closer to 60, it also says to me: shut up, man, there is so much you don't understand - and if you try to grasp it you'll probably just miss the incomprehensible pain of an other's life - so just shut up and... honor it. Treasure it. Hold it close without trying to understand or analyze it.

Paul Simon sang about this in "You Can Call Me Al" - all about that middle aged man whose life is changing and he doesn't understand it: Mister beer belly, beer belly, get those mutts away from me... I don't find this stuff amusing anymore!

I once asked my poet/artist wife, "What does this poem mean? What were you trying to say?" and after a few uncomfortable moments of silence she said with a look of bewildered but gentle disgust, "If you have to ask..." and walked away. I was furious. God damn it, I wanted to understand... But if you have to ask rather than feel. it.. right? So much of ministry is just being present - and shutting up. There aren't words to describe our wounds. Nor are there ways of talking about grace. But they are still real. Rilke puts it like this:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

When I first read that standing shell-shocked in a Cleveland bookstore on a miserably frigid night, I heard something affirming my journey through divorce. I had to trust - and pray - that my children WOULD eventually find the blessings in my absence. (Eventually they did. but it was still a gamble and agonizing.) Nothing was for certain. All that was clear was that I had to get up.. and leave.

But now, while I still believe all this was true, Rilke's words speak to me of trusting God's grace - which is rarely seen and almost never understood - and responding to it. For without our response, we don't show our children how to live authentically. Boldly. With both head and heart - we don't show them how to trust beyond the evidence and they will have to invent for themselves ways of discovering what we might have made flesh if we had claimed the courage to stand up during supper. They will still have their own trials - and we can't rescue them - but they won't "say blessings on him as if he were dead."

Makes me think of how Bono put it as he cared for his father during the old man's death to cancer... my wife used to sing this in our old band - about her father - and it still rings true.


SGF said…
Great post and great for me to ponder. It is amazing to read your thoughts as you share them so raw and organic!
RJ said…
Thanks, my friend... that means a lot.

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