Talking About Divinity

Lonnie Holley, “Supported by the Power,” wire, wood, found electronics, and refuse.

A few weeks ago we had a visitor, Harry Trask, a graduate student in the Divinity School at Yale University.

One of the kids asked what divinity school is. I sketched it out. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to divinity school in order to become an ordained minister. But Harry was primarily focused on Linguistics of the Old Testament and is studying biblical Hebrew and Greek.

“What is divinity?” someone asked.

“You mean, what is the definition of divinity?” I responded.


We looked it up and found the dictionary definition, which was pale, untextured, and lacked anything remotely like the miraculous presence of god. I work from an assumption that my students have ideas and thoughts of their own which will not be found in books, so we went looking elsewhere.

“What is divinity in your mind or experience? What would you say your idea of divinity is, from what you have lived?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t really know because I’m not religious,” came a reply.

“I’m not talking about divinity from a religious point of view necessarily. I mean, what have you seen or felt that is charged with something like god, or holiness, or the sacred?”

In my mind I heard echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.”

     The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
     It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
     It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
     Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
     Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
     And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
     And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
     Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
     And for all this, nature is never spent;
     There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
     And though the last lights off the black West went
     Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
     Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
     World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

I was trying to give them the idea that they can mine their own deep down lives. They can see, all of us can, the ways in which the world flames and shines and explodes with glorious light. They are a secular group, by and large, but they are learning to seek and sense, like all humans, glowing radiances.

When Lonnie Holley came to Middlebury, we saw a human being showing his inner light. He also showed us a piece of brick he picked up at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Lonnie had carved a face into it, as though he was trying to repeople the shattered world. We passed it around and all of us touched it. He called himself the Golden Black Panther. He turned wire into a mother’s face. We watched him for an hour turning fragments of fabric into a colorful ring for three-year-old child, who watched him in a state of rapture. When he spoke of children, he said in the old way, “chirren,” and it was as though he loved every child he had ever seen. He seemed to have no outer shell, as if his chest cavity was split open and he’d chosen to live with his insides on the outside. He told how he grew up close to the earth, his whole life, spent wading in creeks and ditches, in the muck digging up the earth with a fork, looking for the worms, and finding the bright bits that got left behind. His radiance came from a belief, which he manifested in every utterance, that the world’s detritus is actually a kind of gold from which we might fashion versions of our godly selves. He took his pain and suffering and created an entire environment of artistic expression which says there is nothing which can not be used. Use the refuse of your life and make a golden throne of it.

Speaking of his fellow artists, Lonnie said:  “It was some of the best art that had ever come from simpleness. What I mean by simpleness is that it is something so sincere and so pure that it would almost fit into the category of that. In the Bible, it say: I’ll be coming back after that church without spot or blemish. And it may be one of the little churches that’s in the midst of you all. So these was the kinds of minds—I characterize “mind” like those small churches that will be picked up and that will be exposed in the midst of religion, in the midst of divinity, in the midst of the divine order on earth. (571)

This idea of there being a little church inside us is one we try to cultivate at NBS. Where is your inner sanctuary, the thing that must be preserved and from which you guide your life? How do we build such places? When Paul listened to Lonnie he was thinking about how music is made, what truths it tells, the value of listening to someone else’s song. Paul wrote about what Lonnie’s music made him think.

Earlier in the year, the school read Siddhartha. Lonnie’s response made me think of him. Siddhartha had learned after decades of being a Samana that the key to life was to see and be a part of everything, not to be separate. Lonnie’s music, art, and speech came from his enormous inventory of experiences, all of them entirely focused on how and what he would create.

To create the church inside of oneself, according to Paul’s idea, is to fill the self with every thing, in the same way Lonnie uses everything his hands can touch. No object is superior to another. There is no competition, no dispute, no wrong. We have our experiences and we say to each of them, “yes.” As Paul wrote on his poster at the March for Our Lives, “”To Be Aware, Not Right.”

Isa also wrote some of her reflections about seeing Lonnie.

I also cried while watching the video of him, in class. It was real crying, the type where your chest heaves without you, instead of just your eyes watering a little…After the show, I was completely silent, and it freaked my mom out. I wouldn’t talk because I knew I’d say the wrong words, and it seemed like such a waste of time to say the wrong words…. I cried after the show, when I watched Lonnie pack his things into his little black bag, because I knew he was going to die, and what good would there be in the world once he dies?

I suppose we might say the divine is the tender thing inside us that others would never want to die. The part that makes us so perfectly human that when we see it in other people, or when they reveal it to us through authentic disclosure or soul-stirring art, we are moved to tears and love. The presence of the divine can leave us loving a stranger.

We asked while reading Night: Why do I breathe? Why do I live? What are the right questions? Ben asked why he should try to live well.  “Because I am given life. I get to exist. So I must use my time to expand as far as I can.” We ask: what is love?  Isa answers: “When I realize I am thankful for another person’s existence.” We asked Harry Trask about his definition of divinity. He said it is something like when you find yourself at home in the world. He pointed us to Henry David Thoreau: “I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful.” We ask again and again: What does it mean to “stay human,” as Winston in 1984 says we must: We answer that staying human must mean, among many things, the chance to dream about the golden country, leave secret love notes, have time to listen to birds, and hope that someone else in the world feels like you do.

Lonnie said to me that we are in a “threat-full space of time.” He was referring to the precariousness of our current condition, the fact that large portions of folks seem to no longer be able to understand or talk to one another. At the end of Lonnie’s performance at Middlebury College, his friend and companion, Matt, played a song Lonnie had just recently recorded. Get to the other side, it said. To the other side of the road. To the other side of the river. To the other side of pain, or the other side of our better selves. Why are all these children being gunned down in our schools, he asks at the end of the song, and then the song fades into a layer of plaintive cries—why, why, why?

Our students are asking the same questions as well. In response to the Parkland, Florida shooting they decided they would walk out with all the other million students in America. But up here on the mountain, we are too far away to march with the others. So we went into the field, still covered in deep snow, and we mediated. We put our prayers and voices into the wind, made of ourselves a Buddhist prayer flag, like in Vivian’s project.

I want to teach them about what a legislature is. And how bills are proposed and become laws. I want to teach them about what a “lobby” is and the history of civil obedience. I want to teach them about Thoreau, the Lorraine Motel, meditation, and theology.  I have been thinking lately that there is not enough time to do all the teaching that needs to be done. There is too much happening. So what can we do in school? We can learn to sit at a table and listen, try to understand another person’s sorrow or grief. We can look at ourselves, as Sam did on Friday, and think about what we did wrong, feel it truly, let the tears roll down, and then commit to doing better.



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