Consider how you were made.
Consider the loving geometry that sketched your bones, the passionate symmetry that sewed flesh to your skeleton, and the cloudy zenith whence your soul descended in shimmering rivulets across pure granite to pour as a single braided stream into the skull’s cup.
Consider the first time you conceived of justice, engendered mercy, brought parity into being, coaxed liberty like a marten from its den to uncoil its limber spine in a sunny clearing, how you understood the inheritance of first principles, the legacy of noble thought, and built a city like a forest in the forest, and erected temples like thunderheads.
Consider, as if it were penicillin or the speed of light, the discovery of another’s hands, his oval field of vision, her muscular back and hips, his nerve-jarred neck and shoulders, her bleeding gums and dry elbows and knees, his baldness and cauterized skin cancers, her lucid and forgiving gaze, his healing touch, her mind like a prairie. Consider the first knowledge of otherness. How it felt.
Consider what you were meant to be in the egg, in your parents’ arms, under a sky full of stars.
Now imagine what I have to say when I learn of your enterprising viciousness, the discipline with which one of you turns another into a robot or a parasite or a maniac or a body strapped to a chair. Imagine what I have to say.
Do the impossible. Restore life to those you have killed, wholeness to those you have maimed, goodness to what you have poisoned, trust to those you have betrayed.
Bless each other with the heart and soul, the hand and eye, the head and foot, the lips, tongue, and teeth, the inner ear and the outer ear, the flesh and spirit, the brain and bowels, the blood and lymph, the heel and toe, the muscle and bone, the waist and hips, the chest and shoulders, the whole body, clothed and naked, young and old, aging and growing up.
I send you this not knowing if you will receive it, or if having received it, you will read it, or if having read it, you will know that it contains my blessing.
“If I Were Paul” by Mark Jarman.
As more informed readers will know, Jarman is a Christian; and as Christian readers will understand, the title “If I Were Paul” is a reference to a certain Saul of Tarsus.
In this poem, Jarman is Paul the Apostle speaking through the voice of a poet. The words are a poetic distillation of what Paul was trying to say in his letters to the churches of Phillipi, Corinth, and Collosae.
The opening five sentences each begin with the command to “consider,” calling us to reflect on the numinous beauty and fragility of our lives. In this, he is the contemplative conscience of Paul. Jarman then makes the abrupt transition to Paul as a figure of authority — “imagine what I have to say” — and channels all of Paul’s mind into condemning, in a striking phrase, the “enterprising viciousness” of those in the early churches. His call to “do the impossible” is the central command of Christian dogma: live and forgive like Jesus Christ.
The final sentence of the poem is absolutely essential to its message. For in the first century, Paul had no guarantee that his letters, which required considerable time and effort to pen, would actually be delivered to those in the various Mediterranean churches to whom he was writing. So Paul sent them not knowing if they were ever to reach their destination. More still, the limits of words, especially written ones, demand that tone is extremely difficult to convey.
Thus Paul was unsure all the more. He felt what fathers and mothers feel in disciplining their children, the uncertainty of knowing whether one’s lofty standards and strict condemnations will actually be received for what they are: a blessing.
The pictures were taken at the Western “Wailing” Wall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The folded papers are prayers traditionally placed into its cracks.
Update — I sent Jarman a message with a link to this post and he was nice enough to write back:
Thank you for this more than generous and sympathetic reading of my poem, “If I were Paul.” If I were to add anything, it would be that my aim was to sound like a contemporary Paul. Though you rightly, I think, hear the tone of the first century Paul, speaking to the early churches, my hope is that I could talk to a contemporary audience in that tone, and also one that might not be exclusively Christian. My best regards to your aunt, a wonderful painter and person.