The Compost Heap: Both/And

A Purification by Wendell Berry
At the start of spring I open a trench
in the ground. I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read
again, useless words, fragments,
errors. And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun, growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body, I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.


We were nearing the end of our time together when my spiritual director posed a question, "Are you familiar with a Wendell Berry poem where he digs a compost heap?" 

"Yes," I said, "I am." I thought back to the poem I'd printed and posted in the church's prayer room one spring, laying it next to a print of a painting of blurred greens and browns. 

"Maybe that's an image you could work with, a kind of ritual to provide closure," she suggested. "What, from your time at the church would could you put into that pile?"

We had been discussing my complicated, raw feelings about the pastorate I left suddenly at the beginning of March. It was a complicated leaving shaped by trauma and followed closely by the trauma of Covid-19.  I thought about her question for a few minutes, picturing the brown soil of Berry's trench cut in the ground. 

"I don't know yet," I said, at last. "It's all still so co-mingled together." 

She nodded, offering simple acceptance of my appraisal, but the image of compost has stayed with me.


Maybe this is what we need to know in this time and space, not the clarity and comfort of the either/or, but the difficult acceptance of both/and. The truth that there are no easy answers and that much of our experience is co-mingled - joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, love and hate, hope and despair.

Without this truth, we'll wear ourselves thin in the endless need to part and parcel out every answer and, in declaring one side of any debate a winner, we will create countless unnecessary losers. 

Both/and invites us to dwell in a place of creative tension - irresolution, if you will. It requires effort of a different sort, a willingness to remain open, a commitment to do the work of turning over ideas, emotions and view points. What if our fear and uncertainty might be transformed by the kind of creative alchemy we find in the compost heap? And what if we were to wait together, unified in faith, hope, and love, to see what emerges?

I am writing, of course, about my own recent experiences, but also about the uneasily resolved tensions we find ourselves in as we grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic. The thing we ought to fear is not the tensions of our divergent viewpoints, but our inability to hold them well, our unwillingness to recognize the creative possibilities of our current situations. 


This past Sunday morning, I asked my kids how they felt about using the liturgy from the church where I recently pastored. Despite visiting a few other churches after my resignation, we'd returned to using aspects of this church's liturgy once lockdown began. It was familiar, it was easy, but I was beginning to be certain it was time to move on and I wanted to find out what my kids were feeling.

"What do you think about using this?" I asked. 

The younger boys, age 8, said, echoing each other, "We like it."

Then, one quickly added, with a sly grin, "But we're supposed to hate them now."

His brother chimed in in agreement. 

They were trying to show loyalty to me, for the hurt I experienced. They were reflecting their mixed emotions. They were voicing the creative tensions we all feel, the desire to stay with what's familiar but painful and the need to create distance that will facilitate healing. 

"Well," I said, "you don't need to hate anybody. But Dad and I feel it's time to try something new." 

We joined another local church service online. We didn't know the songs and I cried quietly through the first ten minutes or so. Sensing my sadness, our cat, Blackie, came and sat with his paws on my chest, massaging my heart with his comforting purr. 

I hate the pain we are experiencing, the pain of unresolved endings, the pain of moving into something new, but undesired. It's all so co-mingled right now. But we're holding the tension, believing in the power of creation that makes all things new, the old seeping into the new in unexpectedly beautiful and amazing ways.

What co-mingled thoughts and feelings are you experiencing in this season? How are you holding tension creatively within yourself and with others?

The Landscape of Love: Affection

Behold the one beholding you, and smiling. - Anthony DeMello

Our cat Blackie’s breath routinely reeks of all sorts of ungodly foulness.

He snores, day and night, like a bear in hibernation. 

He leaves small puddles of drool on the bed and couch.

He bosses the dog, bosses the other cat, bosses me.

He does all of these things and more, and yet I love him. Not despite of these things, but for them, in the midst of them.

When I lay awake at night, listening to him sawing logs at the foot of the bed, my affection rises and falls gently, like my own breath, moving in time with each of his foggy inhales and exhales. When I lean in to hug him on a quiet afternoon, he turns his head and yawns, blasting me with a wave of vile stench, and somehow I still feel tenderness, even as I hold my own breath and turn my face aside.

The love I feel for this silly, grand cat is more than a gravitation toward that which pleases or offers a good return. What I feel might be best referred to as affection or fondness, a feeling that occupies one small corner of the wide and wild landscape of love. 


Online dictionaries tell me affection is a feeling of liking or caring, often associated with gentleness or tenderness.  

My favorite definition describes affection as:

“a bent of mind towards a particular object, holding a middle place between disposition, which is natural, and passion, which is excited by the presence of its exciting object. affection is a permanent bent of the mind, formed by the presence of an object, or by some act of another person, and existing without the presence of its object.” 

There's a steadiness to affection; it persists despite arguments and evidence to the contrary. Affection is more than a feeling or reaction, it’s a persistent and consistent orientation.


As a parent, I suppose affection could explain the way I feel about my children’s stinky feet, that strange disgust mingled with pride. Or the way I simultaneously dread and delight in their small rebellions and even, when the heat of the moment has passed, their flaws. For these, along with their beauty and graces, are the things that make them human and, if we are to love well and wide, we must find a love that somehow encompasses all, even while wishing and working toward wholeness.

Affection also might describe the source of the gentle sympathy I sometimes feel toward my own flaws and mistakes and the feeling I’m working to conjure toward my stretch-marked belly, and my slowly but steadily graying hair.

If affection lies between natural disposition and passion, then it is a feeling that can be cultivated, learned and employed; injected into one’s relationship with self and others.


And affection, of course, must be what DeMello had in mind when he referred to our relationship with God: "Behold the one beholding you, and smiling." God's smile, God's affection, has nothing to do with our worthiness and everything to do with God's steadiness toward us, with God's inexplicable predisposition to a love that's deep and wide, encompassing even our own most devastating flaws.

God looks and leans toward our humble humanity and we are all encompassed in God's gaze - behold the one beholding you, with deep affection.