“I saw paradise in the dust of the streets.”
Denise Levertov, “City Psalm”
If learning to read the Word from below is challenging and liberating to our faith in God, learning how to read the world from below is challenging and liberating to our faith in humanity.
Our students are invariably interested in hearing more about ways to see beauty in the world while looking at the grinding, disfiguring poverty and violence that is a daily reality for so many. There is no easy path to this way of seeing. We almost always must lose our sight before we find it. Acquiring such vision has a paradoxical quality that is deeply felt but hard to parse. On the one hand, new sight almost always seems to “just happen” – arriving as a moment of unbidden insight. It is pure gift. We call it revelation.
On the other hand, new sight also almost always comes to us through pain and what at times feels like an endless journey. The disorientation associated with this process can be terrifying, but in the end it makes room for a new way of seeing.
The poem “City Psalm” by Denise Levertov describes a way of seeing the world that is infused with gospel insight – one that truly celebrates good news in hard places:
The killings continue, each second
pain and misfortune extend themselves
in the genetic chain, injustice is done knowingly, and the air
bears the dust of decayed hopes,
yet breathing those fumes, walking the thronged
pavements among crippled lives, jackhammers
raging, a parking lot painfully agleam
in the May sun, I have seen
not behind but within, within the
dull grief, blown grit, hideous
concrete facades, another grief, a gleam
as of dew, an abode of mercy,
have heard not behind but within noise
a humming that drifted into a quiet smile.
Nothing was changed, all was revealed otherwise;
not that horror was not, not that killings did not continue,
but that as if transparent all disclosed
an otherness that was blessed, that was bliss.
I saw Paradise in the dust of the street.
There is nothing romantic or sentimental about seeing like this. It requires raw and relentless honesty about ourselves and the world – not the kind of honesty that is veiled in self-hatred or displaced anger, but the kind of honesty that is born from a deep desire for what is true.
The promise of the Gospel is that God does not stand behind the world in some remote or veiled way. We don’t have to look past this world and her afflictions to find hope. We do not have to convert the world before we console it. God is here now, active and present – or as Paul says with breathtaking freedom, “Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3:11)