On Sunday

Vinegar and Oil

Jane Hirshfield

Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,
right solitude oils it.

How fragile we are, between the few good moments.

Coming and going unfinished,
puzzled by fate,

like the half-carved relief
of a fallen donkey, above a church door in Finland.


This poem appears in The Best Spiritual Writing - 2010, a book I almost didn't buy. I was put off by the title, fearing a tract-like compilation of preach and praise. A quick flip, however, revealed essays and poems by respected, down-to-earth, writers: Billy Collins, Diane Ackerman, Philip Levine, Floyd Skloot, and more.

Religious vs. spiritual, it's become a distinction many of us feel obligated to make. I am not religious, I say, quick to distance myself from the judgement and arrogance organized religion has wrought.  And yet, all these years I have still not scripted an explanation for the deep stirring within. In the book's foreword, Pico Iyer offers a thoughtful response that speaks to, and for, me:

"If someone asks me about my "spiritual life," I am likely to fall silent — even, perhaps, to go into hiding, because of my sense that whatever is deepest in us is that which can rarely be spoken. It's too enormous or invisible for words. In love, in crisis, in moments of transport we lose words as we pass out of ourselves into a larger presence or identity that has no need of the quibbles or the qualifications that words give body to; and yet sometimes I think that most of what I do is "spiritual" in that it has to do with trying to do justice to what our clearer moments have taught us; attending to the spirit that friends and circumstances bring me; being aware, always, that there is another world (some would say beyond, some would say within) the world we see and talk about."