fragments of an attempted writing.

words, antiquities, water, looking back.

It's National Poetry Day in the UK.  For such, I repost an old post from an old blog, with a couple of poems in it, a post that was mentioned in the comments here recently.  Here it is:

on Marah, the salt of the earth.


And the just man trailed God's shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
"It's not too late, you can still look back
at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed."
A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound…
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

- Anna Akhmatova

- from this excellent post by Margaret, which offers her conversion story, of sorts.

The Turning of Lot's Wife
As the sun rose upon the earth and Lot entered Zoar, the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from the Lord out of heaven. He annihilated those cities and the entire Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the ground. Lot's wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt.
- Genesis 19:23-26

First of all, she had a name, and she had a history. She was Marah, and long before the breath of death's angel turned her to bitter dust, she had slipped from her mother's womb with remarkable ease, had moved in due time from infancy to womanhood with a manner of grace that came to be the sole blessing of her aging parents. She was beloved.

And like most daughters who are beloved by a mother and a father, Marah moved about her city with unflinching compassion, tending to the dispossessed as if they were her own. And they became her own. In a city given to all species of excess, there wer
e a great many in agony - abandoned men, abandoned women, abandoned children. Upon these she poured out her substance and her care.

Her first taste of despair was at the directive of the messengers, who announced without apparent sentiment what was to come, and what was to be done. With surprising banality, they stood and spoke. One coughed dryly into his fist and would not meet her eyes. And one took a sip from the cup she offered before he handed it back and the two disappeared into the night.

Unlike her husband - coward and sycophant - the woman remained faithful unto death. For even as the man fled the horrors of a city's conflagration, outrunning Marah and both girls as they all rushed into the desert, the woman stopped. She looked ahead briefly to the flat expanse, seeing her tall daughters, whose strong legs and churning arms were taking them safely to the hills; she saw, farther ahead, the old man whom she had served and comforted for twenty years. In the impossible interval where she stood, Marah saw that she could not turn her back on even one doomed child of the city, but must turn her back instead upon the saved.

- Scott Cairns, from Recovered Body.

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. - Matthew 5:13

Reading the Akhmatova on Margaret's site reminded me of the Cairns poem, and while I have read both poems before I don't know that I have ever considered them in light of the red words Ye are the salt of the earth. What of these poems? What of this notion that Marah was the holy one, looking back upon the damned, a feminine image of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, Lot having the night before offered those daughters to men looking for a different kind of action?

One of the things I love about these poems is the intuition they give that the image of salvation in the Scriptures so often eludes us, and is replete with nuances. When a modern adopts a christocentric hermeneutic, our prior fixed hermeneutic points are often revealed as impoverished, even childish approaches to the text. Rote narrative didacticism is sometimes used in the NT reading of the OT, but often enough this is not the case. In the fathers you can find a host of different approaches to reading the scriptures.

When I first began to attend Holy Trinity Orthodox Church (OCA) in St. Paul, not my first Orthodox church by any means, but the first where I found very good Orthodox preaching, I was simply astounded by what I heard, and, as I have related before, I felt a bit cheated that I had never heard this sort of biblical interpretation before, having devoted a fair amount of time in my life to the study of the Bible. I have done my best to reconstruct a sermon Fr. Jonathan gave many years ago, a sermon given on theophany a number of years ago, not long after the death of Fr. Jonathan's daughter, and I offer it again here as an example of what I mean:

Father Jonathan asked us to consider Jesus' baptism. Consider who Jesus is. We know that He is fully God. We know that He is rightly called prophet, priest, and king. We know that He not only represents, but in a certain sense is the true and holy Israel of God. It should not be lost on us that God's people are now called "the Body of Christ." This Man who is God walks up to the River Jordan. And what happens? What should we expect to happen? Well, a man who is versed in the Old Testament and who also knows Who this Jesus is might have a very reasonable expectation. In the Old Testament when the people of God, the Israel of God, come up to the waters while running from pharaoh, the waters part. In the OT when the prophet of God comes up to the river Jordan, the waters part. In the OT when the ark of the covenant, which was God present to His people, came to the river Jordan, the waters part. This man well versed in the OT, when seeing Jesus come to the waters should have every expectation that they too will part. Jesus is the fullness of the presence of God, He is the fulfillment of all prophecy, He is the true Israel of God, all people of God are in Him. But the waters do not part. Instead, God enters into the chaos and death of the water, and He is covered. With Christ, all bets are off, the rules of the game have changed. God is now not seeking a people for whom to part waters. He is seeking a community of the drowned.

When you enter through baptism and chrismation the Orthodox faith, and are therefore baptized into Christ, do not think that God is in the business of going about separating waters for you. No, this is not the path you have chosen. You have chosen to hold fast to the One for whom the waters do not part. You die with Him, in Him, through Him, as Him, for Him. Orthodox Christianity is the exact opposite of "health and wealth" spiritual economics, which infects not just Pentecostalism, but much of American Christianity. God will heal whom He will, God will allow the deaths of those whom He will, but in a real and certain sense, friends of God, as those who are the dead in Christ, you have given up any right to claim that God must part waters for you. As Bonhoeffer said, "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." A dead man can claim nothing as his own.

The mystery takes us further. That day not only does Jesus come up to the water and the waters stay still to swallow Him up, but it is this very day that for the first time God reveals Himself in His fullness: Father, Son, Holy Spirit to humankind. The threefold nature of the Godhead is revealed to us at the moment in which God reveals Himself as the God for Whom the waters do not part. In the feast of Theophany we learn that God reveals Himself formally and most clearly in the very midst of human suffering. Indeed, we may even speak with St. Cyril of this mystery of the suffering of the impassible God.

Throughout Christian history so many faithful have been led to seek some sort of magic help potion from God or his agents, or at the very least thought that God would give them a statistical advantage, as if they were a bit more likely to have things go well if God were in their corner. Both are lies. Of course we pray that God bless us, and we have faith that he will. But we may seek blessing in a different spirit when the waters have already passed over our heads. Most Holy Theotokos, joy of all who sorrow, pray for us.

I had never heard anything like this before.

In another homily Fr. Jonathan was dealing with the Gospel reading concerning the healing of the lame man by Jesus at the Pool of Siloam in John chapter 5. Fr. Jonathan spoke of recent archeological evidence which suggested that the Pool of Siloam is the very place where there was an ancient water shaft - perhaps the water shaft used by David and his men when they took Jerusalem from the Jebusites. The Jebusites had mocked David saying that their defenses were such that even the lame and blind could defend the city against him, and when David entered the city through the water shaft he killed the lame and the blind. In those very waters (perhaps) Jesus, Himself in John 5 having just entered Jerusalem, heals a lame man. Again, with Christ, all bets are off, the rules of the game have changed. Fr. Jonathan does not espouse a Marcionism here, he simply asserts that when the veil comes off we see things very differently. Whether or not the archaeology supports the precise connection is somewhat irrelevant - we see that when Jesus and David come into Jerusalem there are salvations of different sorts brought about by way of water, and quite different signs of the Kingdom vis-à-vis the lame and the blind. With David, the lame and blind are the first to be killed, with Christ, the lame and the blind are the first to be saved.
In another homily of Fr. Jonathan's, sent to me on cassette (these cassettes are among my most prized possessions) by Benjamin, Fr. Jonathan, preaching on the widow of Nain (Luke 7), compares the widow of Nain to the Church in the world, seen by those outside her as in desperate, pathetic shape because of a (in the case of the Church, presumed to be) dead son. If we are honest, we spend much of our lives walking through this life as if in a dirge, with nothing long-lasting to claim for ourselves, with little hope, with a legacy of fear and trepidation. “Do not weep.” The Church is robust in its demand of a hope in the midst of spiritual and material realism - hope when despair seems the most sensible position. Our construct "Christianity" is diminished when it plays spiritual games and seeks to present the widow to the world as something she is not - the warrior or the businessman or the philosopher, etc. Actual little Christedness is hope wearing the form of sorrow. What an audacity in such a context - “Do not weep.”

In another homily which some of us have heard Fr. Jonathan give time and again over the years, on the Publican and the Pharisee, Fr. Jonathan defends the Pharisee in his sermon. It is done in the manner in which a priest might defend someone who has given their confession before the icon of Christ - the priest standing before God and pleading to God that God remember the limitedness of our lives, that we often must go with what we've got, that we have tried with the resources available to us, and as the sermon progresses the magic of it, more than any other sermon I have heard on the topic, is that the hearer is made so fully aware that he is the Pharisee (many sermons on this topic assert as much, but I have never encountered another sermon on this topic which induces an intuition of as much, and as I have talked to a number of others about this sermon, I am convinced my experience with it is not unique). When I think of that sermon I am reminded that the Marco's of this world will walk away from God justified, while I am busy scraping for another angle by which to posture myself.

It is with these sermons in mind that I consider these poems on Marah. In Christ, I do not think it is always so simple as a turning away from God which results in what seems a rather petty wrath. Could her image not be what is suggested here by Akhmatova and Cairns? The image of a woman whose concern and love becomes a sign of a small mercy - one small spot on the plain where her salt preserves the soil from the mechanisms of violence and the self-destruction that almost always reigns in human affairs? Could she not be a feminine counterpoint to the wandering patriarchs that wandered with and sometimes against God? One who looks back, who faithfully and lovingly keeps her heart centered in her place even when that place is brutal? Could it be that the salt of the earth are those who sometimes turn in love even toward that which is not supposed to be loved, at least according to our various rote theological and moral constructs? Is Marah an icon which stands against petty triumphalisms and easy appeals to wrath and justice? Could it be that Marah's pillar of salt, when read as hidden with Christ in God, is no less an image of salvation than Jacob limping out of Peniel?

I'm not sure. But I know I have heard these sorts of thoughts before. There is an Orthodox posture with regard to Scripture which can often be loosely talmudicish, so to speak. Instead of formal Tannaic and Amoraic positions we have this tension with the texts that paradoxically knows what to do with them because of Christ, and in a sense doesn't know what to do with them because of Christ - the image of Christ crucified, died, and risen is such a complete image, is such an end of all hermeneutic structures save itself, that meaning is often left grasping and rambling. What seems clear is that the rules of the game have changed, and in Christ the thing you used to think was your damnation is the very thing that saves you. By Marah's prayers, perhaps.

* -- icon, Lot Forefather, written by Lasha Kintsurashvili. This icon depicts Righteous Lot watering the tree which he planted, which according to church tradition, was the tree the Cross was made from. There is a Georgian Monastery in Jerusalem dedicated to the Holy Cross on the site of this ancient tree.


  1. Thanks for re-posting this, Owen... I'm glad you saved it.

    "In the impossible interval where she stood, Marah saw that she could not turn her back on even one doomed child of the city, but must turn her back instead upon the saved."

    I've thought a lot about that line since I first read it way back when.

    1. Indeed, one of my favorite posts too. Axios of republishing.

  2. Thanks so much for putting this out there again. That post has also stuck with me ever since you wrote it. I remember at the time finding some passages from Irenaeus on Marah that are in harmony with all of this and hope you don't mind my adding them here:

    From Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 33, Part 9:

    Wherefore the Church does in every place, because of that love which she cherishes towards God, send forward, throughout all time, a multitude of martyrs to the Father; while all others not only have nothing of this kind to point to among themselves, but even maintain that such witness-bearing is not at all necessary, ... For the Church alone sustains with purity the reproach of those who suffer persecution for righteousness' sake, and endure all sorts of punishments, and are put to death because of the love which they bear to God, and their confession of His Son; often weakened indeed, yet immediately increasing her members, and becoming whole again, after the same manner as her type, Lot's wife, who became a pillar of salt. Thus, too, [she passes through an experience] similar to that of the ancient prophets, as the Lord declares, "For so persecuted they the prophets who were before you;" inasmuch as she does indeed, in a new fashion, suffer persecution from those who do not receive the word of God, while the self-same spirit rests upon her [as upon these ancient prophets].

    And from a little bit earlier in Book 4, Chapter 31:

    1. When recounting certain matters of this kind respecting them of old time, the presbyter [before mentioned] was in the habit of instructing us, and saying: "With respect to those misdeeds for which the Scriptures themselves blame the patriarchs and prophets, we ought not to inveigh against them, nor become like Ham, who ridiculed the shame of his father, and so fell under a curse; but we should [rather] give thanks to God in their behalf, inasmuch as their sins have been forgiven them through the advent of our Lord; for He said that they gave thanks [for us], and gloried in our salvation. With respect to those actions, again, on which the Scriptures pass no censure, but which are simply set down [as having occurred], we ought not to become the accusers [of those who committed them], for we are not more exact than God, nor can we be superior to our Master; but we should search for a type [in them]. For not one of those things which have been set down in Scripture without being condemned is without significance." An example is found in the case of Lot, who led forth his daughters from Sodom, and these then conceived by their own father; and who left behind him within the confines [of the land] his wife, [who remains] a pillar of salt unto this day.


    3. And while these things were taking place, his wife remained in [the territory of] Sodore, no longer corruptible flesh, but a pillar of salt which endures for ever; and by those natural processes which appertain to the human race, indicating that the Church also, which is the salt of the earth, has been left behind within the confines of the earth, and subject to human sufferings; and while entire members are often taken away from it, the pillar of salt still endures, thus typifying the foundation of the faith which makes strong, and sends forward, children to their Father.

  3. I read this earlier, but I admit I am feeling so older brother of the prodigal son-ish, I'm gonna go nuts. (You said feel free to write, I am trying to politely thread hijack...

    I need to get some sleep, like right now, so I can ride down to Plains, Ga (Home of Jimmy Carter, 3 or 4 hrs from here to visit a friend I made recently. He's all busted up and could really use everybody's prayers.

    So it occurred to me, listening to folks drone on and on in defense of the current economic order in another blogs comments, wtf am I playing by the rules for?

    Hezekiah Garrett (who is toying with creating some kind of account so I don't have to keep typing my name)

    1. I mean I know why. I see their faces every day. That's not confusing, most of the time. I mean, can we all agree not to at the very least argue in favor of outright greed?

      (I'm opposed to pretty much all your economic systems since double entry book keeping, and I regard talk of rights as subterfuge to steal chickens while I am distracted, so don't anyone here think I'm with you guys, but how do you not recognise mammon when he's right there?)

    2. Thank you, whoever prayed. I slept supernaturally well. :-) Please please pray for my friend mentioned above. He's in a bad way I fear.

  4. This reminds me of a poem by Deborah Paredez:

    When the forsaken city starts to burn,
    after the men and children have fled,
    stand still, silent as prey, and slowly turn

    back. Behold the curse. Stay and mourn
    the collapsing doorways, the unbroken bread
    in the forsaken city starting to burn.

    Don’t flinch. Don’t join in.
    Resist the righteous scurry and instead
    stand still, silent as prey. Slowly turn

    your thoughts away from escape: the iron
    gates unlatched, the responsibilities shed.
    When the forsaken city starts to burn,

    surrender to your calling, show concern
    for those who remain. Come to a dead
    standstill. Silent as prey, slowly turn

    into something essential. Learn
    the names of the fallen. Refuse to run ahead
    when the forsaken city starts to burn.
    Stand still and silent. Pray. Return.

    1. Damn. That is something. Thank you.

  5. sometimes you make me smile. i sincerely mean it when i say thank you.

  6. According to Tradition, the waters of the Jordan reversed their course, as they still do until today on Theophany (Psalm 77:16).


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