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Interview: Priest & Poet Pamela Cranston talks about God, poetry, and matters religious, by Peter Menkin

by Peter Menkin  
6/25/2011 / Church Life

Poet and Priest, Pamela Cranston. Photo by G. Paul Bishop Jr. in Berkeley, CA. Comment: Other poems in Coming To Treeline are more spiritual than the poem about Noonmark. You might do well to re-read: "The Blue Boat" or "Storm Over Gothics Mountain." Honors Thesis: Eremeticism in the Anglican Tradition: A Historical Survey of the Past Twenty-Five Years. M. Div. with Distinction, CDSP, CA. Church Army Training, USA. Former Anglican Franciscan Nun, USA.

This is an interview with California poet Pamela Cranston, who has also written a mystery novel. She writes in an email: "Both books: The Madonna Murders andComing to Treeline are still in print the easiest way to get them is via Amazon or Borders on-line. The book distributor is Bookmasters Inc in Ashland, Ohio."

Hopefully, the reader will agree that Pamela Cranston is an engaging and interesting woman, who as a poet has grown so much in these past yearsso one well-known Western United States poet told me. Her sense of the Almighty, tastes in Biblical writing as literature and her thoughts on religious ideal, and some of her views of the 21st Century Church are touched on in this interview given by her over the phone June, 2011 from San Francisco's East Bay to the writer's home north of San Francisco. We spoke for an hour, when the Chaplain for the Episcopal Church USA had to leave to attend to someone.

1) The poet, it seems, can have a vision of heaven. In the work, "Rosebush in Early Summer," published in The Pacific Church News, you write:
If heaven exists, I do not think
it is a place of fluffy clouds
and, God forbid, mawkish hymns.
Maybe it's more like a glowing garden,
ravished by roses more fire than flower,
Will you be kind enough to elaborate some on your current and even past vision of heaven? This especially in light of prayers in The Book of Common Prayer that end with offering, "everlasting light"

I think I should be clear, it is certainly not a place of fluffy clouds. It's not a place. At most, it might be a dimension. But no one knows. The only thing one can say safely is that heaven is where God is.

When I am counseling them [hospice patients], I don't tell them what I think. My job is to elicit their own responses to questions like: "What will happen to me after I die?" "Do you believe in heaven?" The Book of Common Prayer reading does not evoke anything in me, not at all. It doesn't speak to me. The poem [Rosebush in Early Summer] does not speak literally, it is just a metaphor. I do not have a literal picture of heaven. Heaven is where God is.

2) Among your poems, one I like most is a statement, really a journey that elicits a sense of nature and place. It is a poem grounded, and you as poet are with feet on the ground in what this writer thinks of as a landscape work. The writer Thomas Merton admired his father, a landscape painter in Europe, and I believe caught the faith of knowing something about the land, especially landscapes, in his descriptions. The ones I like most are found in his autobiography, "A Seven Story Mountain." In your quest poem, "Searching for Nova Albion" that the Anglican Theological Review published, please tell us something about what you like about this poem, and how for you the ecology and natural sense of the world as expressed in description and place has meaning in people's lives.

The poem, a quote:
I drove past burger joints and bookstores,
theaters and boutiques,
past remnant groves
of redwood trees rapt in contemplation,
past oyster beds bubbling by Tomales Bay,
past depressed dairies sailing on the open moor,
ghost ships splintered by the muscling mist,
to the furthest curb of Marin County.
It is a quest poem. I went on a quest to find Drake's Bay and try to see it, because Drake's Bay is the place that the first Anglican service in North America (Mass, also known as Eucharist) was celebrated. So I wanted to go there and experience it. I did a little research into it and explored about the nature of Drake's Chaplain, and tried to imagine what it must have been for him to travel half way around the world from England to visit this uncharted territory. How they saw untouched natureall those tons of otters, flocks of birds by the millions. And try to think of that newness, that untouched wilderness unlike what we have now.

The challenge for me was the courage to speak up about the loss of all thisto have the courage to protest the loss of these great species and the natural world as we know it by the destruction of civilization. It starts out as a quest poem and ends up as a protest poem.

3) What is it about your life that led you to become a Franciscan at one time? Will you speak to us about that part of your life, and something of what attracted you and changed you so that you became a Franciscan? It seems you've a taste for the religious, to whit this excerpt from your poem "Carriers of Strange Fire" published in The Pacific Church News.

Bright stubby flames leapt like orange mice,
quickly nibbled the black cake
of macadam road
and nearly engulfed the three young men
but unlike Nadab and Abihu,
Priests of Aaron, Carriers of Strange Fire,
they were not consumed.
And I thought, who doesn't long
to steal the sacred flame? To carry Grace
like a silk purse in one's back pocket?
I was not raised particularly religious or as a Christian. As a child everyone went to church, and as kids we went to the local Congregational Church, which I rejected when I was 12 or 13. When I was in college I had a big conversion experience, through an Episcopal Priest who had the gift of healing. I was baptized as an adult at the age of 20, and it totally changed my life.

So I dropped out of college and went through some ministry training and ran a national poverty program through the Episcopal Church. It was a volunteer program for the Episcopal Church [like Vista]. During those years in Manhattan, I began to read a lot. So I was reading the mystics, I was reading Merton, Charles De Foucauld, and had a passion for working with the poor, and a life of prayer. I also had connections with the Catholic Worker Movement on the lower east side. I was also working with some Anglican Franciscan Brothers. It was through them I learned they had a first order of Sisters that wanted to start a house in America. So I went to England in January 1974, and became the first 1st order American Franciscan Nun then I came back to California and helped start the first house in San Francisco.

What attracted me was to live a life among the poor and to live a life of total prayer.
4) This from a review by the poetry editor of Blueline, Stephanie Coyne-DeGhett:

"Coming to Treeline: Adirondack Poems begins with exertion. Pamela Cranston plunges us into the Adirondack geography of experience, memory and spiritual connection by first hiking us to the peaks that define it both regionally and spiritually. Three poems in, we have bush-whacked Haystack, climbed Marcy and clambered down Dix. We find ourselves poem-hikers watching moonrise over Noonmark"
Stephanie Coyne-DeGhett, Poetry Editor, Blueline

Blueline Journal, Vol. XXVI, Spring 2006, pg. 151-152.

Are poets moongazers? Sometimes I think so, for they are unusual in their practices. And by moongazer, I mean you look to see the spiritual in our world here on earth, or things that are real like the moon. I have heard the Kingdom of God is here on earth as it is in Heaven. That there is no separation between the two is my understanding. For how can one on earth as a poet be both part of this earth and find the spiritual in the landscape and the land itself, the place where one is.
My first answer to the first question again, Heaven is where God is. That means that in the Buddhist perspective there is no separation, there is no natural or supernatural. So the trick is how you find God in the natural. Theodore Roethke, talking about miracles, once said, something to the effect: Miracles don't happen so much through the supernatural, "but by taking down the barriers". So that is we have to learn, both in Christianity and Buddhismthe Christians mystics all say thisthat we have to open our eyes, to clean our hearts. So you learn to have a double vision. In other words, to be able to see into the (as Gerard Manley Hopkins said) "inscape" of things. The mystics talk about it. Julian of Norwich talks about it: how everything is clothed in the Goodness of GodShe uses a very homely metaphor: "Just as the body is clothed in clothes and the flesh is clothed in skin, and the bones are clothed in flesh, so are we clothed with the goodness of God."
So the challenge is, how to live it. How do we live it?

5) In a paper you gave called "Poetry and Priesthood", you quoted Dr. L. William Countryman from his book The Poetic Imagination:

If Anglicanism survives, it will be by the grace of God communicated through the spirituality of the poets. (Emphasis in boldface words by the poet.) "The poets [Dr. Countryman speaking] summon us to the reality of God's presence, to the surprise of grace. In so doing, they are telling us to abandon idolatry, to abandon fundamentalism, to allow no sacred thing, however venerable, to stand on the level of God's own self, given to us in grace."[i]

For me as a poet, I find this statement tremendously exciting. As an Anglican priest, I find it rather unsettling, however inevitable (given the continuing institutional decline of the Church of England and the Episcopal Church) this spiritual transformation may be.
Why such a dark vision? Will you speak to us of Christian hope, and tell us where we may find examples of it in your own poetic vision?
"Poetry and Priesthood" was given at a symposium about an exceptional book, The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition,[ii] by the Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman, New Testament Professor at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA"

Dr. Countryman was talking about the idolatry of the Church, how the different factions of the Church, the conservative, liberal, evangelical, catholic, broad church, pro-gay, anti-gay factions all these factions are fighting with each other. As long as we cling to a hard-edged dogmatic perspective of each of these views, we tend to be idolatrous. These views are tearing the Church apart. What he's saying is we must give up this idolatry to be true to God alone. So he says that, if Anglicanism is to survive in all of this conflict, it is because of the spirituality of the poets, which does not cling to idolatry, but to God him or herself.
So you say: "Why the dark vision?" That's why the dark vision. Then you ask, "What does it say about Christian hope?"

Back in 1967 and 1968 Thomas Merton gave a retreat to a group of nuns, prioresses and abbesses, which was put into a book called the Springs of Contemplation. The question he asked those nuns back in 1968 was this: "What would you do if organized religious life were to disappear?" So today, as we contend with these battles in the Anglican Communion, I ask a similar question: "What would you do if the churches, as we know them, were to disappear?"

Merton had a couple of great lines in response to this. He said: "Stand on your own two feet." And, "Give courage to the creative and imaginative members who need a compassionate community." So, the question is, I'm hopeful because God is not going to disappear; the Church as we know it may disappear, but God won't.
The challenge now is: How do we open up to the new way God that is leading the Church? How do we find that? I agree with Bill Countryman and Thomas Merton. It is only the creative ones in our midst who can find the way.
6) In a San Francisco Bay Area community newspaper it was said of you, "The Oakland author is an Episcopal priest, ordained in 1990 after attending Berkeley's Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a stint in England [and San Francisco] as a nun." What do you find in the Eucharistic prayers that reach you most, and hold in your estimation the most poetic language?

At the moment, I find I'm moving beyond the language to the actions of the Eucharistic prayer itself. The heart of the actions is four-fold: Take, Bless, Break, Give. To take, as in taking the bread; To bless, as in blessing the bread; To break the bread and to give it. In some ways, that's really the heart of the Eucharist for me. One could do the whole Eucharist in silence, without words, with those actions.
That said, I've had a special affinity with Prayer C, which we jokingly call the Star Wars Canon. It has some T.S. Eliot in it, and was composed by my former teacher Howard Galley. (He was one of the editors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.) I also enjoy some of the other services, not just Eucharistic liturgies, in the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.

7) Of Bible stories and parts of the Bible, will you talk to the readers a little about where and what has caught your imagination, and which translation of the Bible attracts you most? For me, the Psalms are a favorite because they speak of our battle and struggles, and speak of our human emotions in relation to the Almighty one. I read them in light of Christ, so I believe. As well, the poetry of Isaiah, and even the tragic and telling poetic story of Job resonates with me. But of course, for writing, this writer hears that nothing is done better than the story of Noah. Your thoughts on the sections that currently attract you.
In terms of translations, at one point I studied the New English Bible a great deal. But actually found over time I like the NRSVjust because it feels comfortable and familiar. I also enjoy the footnotes in the Jerusalem Bible (but not the French to English scripture translation.)
In terms of parts of the scripture that speak to me now, I love the Psalms because of poetry. There are very powerful psalms like Psalm 63 or 62. "For God alone my soul in silence waits." (Psalm 62) Or the first line of Psalm 63, "Oh God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you" from theBook of Common Prayer, which was done by Charles Gilbert who was part of our Diocese here [California Diocese in San Francisco's Bay Area], many years ago. And I knew him.

Psalms are not the only thing, I think. I really like the healing miracles in Luke, just because they're so archetypical. And some of the big stories in the Old Testament like Jacob wrestling with the Angel, and Moses and the burning bush.

When you are dealing with these big stories like Moses and the burning bush, or Jacob, or Paul's conversion, or the story of Jesus walking on the water, all of these are archetypical. All of these may or may not have been real events, that's not important. The important thing is getting under the metaphor. What I call, getting under the skin of the Gospel to dig out the meaning for today's experience.

I think in terms of the poetry and rhythm the Psalter is beautiful, as is the Song of Songs. The poetic language is quite beautiful.

7) What will you tell the young people interested in poetry? Speak to us a little with advice for the young poet.

First is to read a lot of poetry. And to really read it, deeply. All sorts of poetry, from Shakespeare up to Billie Collins. And read what attracts you.

Study it. Don't be afraid, when you try to write, to imitate it. That's how we learn. Slowly you will learn to hear your own voice.
My first published poem was written when I was 19 where I was floored by T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. So I decided in my freshman year in college to rewrite the poem line by line, meter by meter, rhyme by rhyme with my own words. Which I did. It took me three months. It was called the Love Song of J.C. Bilbo Hempstein. About hippies. It was published, and I learned a lot of by doing that. So gradually, in terms of writing, the challenge is to listen to your own voice. And to appreciate it, and then be willing to change and grow.

In the event I've left something out, please make a remark or comment here of your liking or need. Thank you so much for your time, and I am again happy to make your acquaintance.
No thank you. But thank you for asking me to be interviewed.
[ii] Poetry and Priesthood by The Rev. Pamela Cranston, was presented at a symposium with
Dr. Claire Fisher and The Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman, in discussion of his book, The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition at
Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California, February 8, 2001.



(Luke 1: 5-23, 57-79)

It was not to Elizabeth (you realize)

that the angel came,

treading down the stair of muslin air

thick with resined incense,

but to Zechariah, her husband

the rural priest and pragmatist,

doing his yearly turn of duty

by the altar in Herod's Temple.

His body froze, as Gabriel knew it would,

when the vocabulary of Grace poured

like liquid fire from his lips.

(Angels always carry warning signs

for these events.)

What he didn't expect

was a heart gathered against Good News

like a clenched fist.

Zechariah's doubt turned his tongue

to stone was forced to gestate

in its womb of silence

nine months long, waiting

like the Rock of Meribah

to be smitten, cracked open

by his grief and the strict staff

of the living Word.

Only Gabriel knew how that tongue,

once purified, would give birth

to pure praise, poetry

unstuttered ringing prophecy

giving to his son, at last,

the true name

he never found

for himself.

Zechariah's Annunciation, The Anglican Theological Review, Vol. 86, No. 2, Spring 2004.


Neither Moses nor the people of Israel

expected anything strange that day,

as they watched his sun-scorched hand

push aside the folds of white and blue indigo,

as he stepped from the Tent of Meeting

onto the hot sand (brown as singed roses)

and walked through the Pillar of Cloud.

Suddenly, his face gushed rivers of light,

like another burning bush so strong

people had to shield their eyes

from heaven's dazzle. This is what happens

when two people (or many) deeply meet

the windows of their eyes open

and the flood-gates of their souls release.

In the Tent of Meeting, God bathes

the marrow of our being

with golden fire,

peeling back the shroud

of our uncertainties.

God's utter kindness

mends the fault lines in our souls.

And you, dear friend, who always rise

to meet with gentle courtesy,

bear in you a matching light,

normally hid by the cloak of discretion.

But doesn't recognition always come

like a tiny spear of lightening?

(Cranston, "The Tent of Meeting", new stanza)

With love, a holy joy and awe,

I stand at the door of my tent

and repress the urge

to kneel.

And so, silently, I remove

the sandals in my heart.

Carriers Of Strange Fire

One day, driving to Olema, past torsos

of trees sloughing their skins like snakes,

I passed a controlled burn. In the ravine,

thick white smoke banked

above the red Manzanita,

shouldering its way like an earth-bound cloud

bent on some stubborn purpose.

Suddenly, three bold firemen came

pushing through the white screen.

They strode across the charred-black field,

each carrying a steel canister

on his back. Like magicians,

they waved their fiery wands

back and forth, torching the dry scrub.

Bright stubby flames leapt like orange mice,

quickly nibbled the black cake

of macadam road

and nearly engulfed the three young men

but unlike Nadab and Abihu,

Priests of Aaron, Carriers of Strange Fire,

they were not consumed.

And I thought, who doesn't long

to steal the sacred flame? To carry Grace

like a silk purse in one's back pocket?

Stargazers say the best way to see a star

is to deflect one's gaze to the side of it.

The Godgaze of the heart

never glimpses God direct.

To see, we must glance away.

God comes

when we aren't looking.

Just as the three young men danced gaily

in the fiery furnace, we too must learn

to risk everything.

Dare to dance blindly

into the fire. Once inside,

you will discover how the dark strange fire

carries you.


(For R.S. Thomas: 1913-2000)

We drove down the long green spine
of the Lleyn Peninsula,

past hard-bitten towns

with soft names, smooth

as melon in the mouth, names

like Mynytho and Rhiw

and unpronounceable Pwllheli.

Your whitewashed cottage, clabbered

as curds and whey, perched like a snowy owl

on the lip of Porth Neigwl Bay

above a spare shingle of beach

where the tide continually

cracked its knuckles,

gargling pebbles all day.

Fishermen call this tiny Welsh cove

'Hell's Mouth' an ironic place

for a poet-priest unable to utter a bad word.

Legend says a lost village lies beneath this bay.

When the wind and waves are right,

you can hear the muffled bells

throbbing in the sunken spire.

I suspect you came to soak

in the aged stillness here,

to hear the silence ripened by the rise

of ancient prayer, to catch

the hidden chimes ringing in the wind,

licking the cold metal of your heart

into song.

Pamela Lee Cranston

("By Porth Neigwl Bay, new stanza)

Maybe you hoped to hear them

toll the changes,

even as your own soul finally

learned how to undress itself

and put on the, for once,

sweet cloak

of Absence.

By Porth Neigwl Bay, The Anglican Theological Review, Vol. 89, #2, Spring, 2007


A large glossy rosebush,

studded with amber roses,

posed coyly for me one day

on a white-washed fence.

From my first glimpse, their satin hands

unfolded my startled heart.

You could almost believe God

was a baker shaping sugared rosettes

for a wedding cake, was a farmer

growing a crop of ruffled plums.

It seemed as if the clumsy sun

had dribbled drops of golden syrup,

as if a flock of orange doves

had fluttered down, as if Brahms

had composed each bloom

as a separate song

which only children can hear.

If heaven exists, I do not think

it is a place of fluffy clouds

and, God forbid, mawkish hymns.

Maybe it's more like a glowing garden,

ravished by roses more fire than flower,

where angels do all the pruning,

where slugs eat only weeds

and where Christ, Himself, works

as head Gardener this time,

fully recognized.

Rosebush in Early Summer, The Pacific Church News, Vol. 143, No. 3, Summer 2005.


I give you the end of a golden string,

Only wind it into a ball,

It will lead you to Heaven's gate

Built into Jerusalem's wall.

William Blake

It takes some people a lifetime

to find the golden string,

to hold the slender thread of light

in your open hand, gently

as a baby bird, feeling

the pulse of life deftly

pulling you forward.

Some people, of course, have never heard

of the golden string, or if heard,

have not believed it

and shut their ears

to the nonsense of the unknown.

Some have longed and hoped for it

but have so clogged the halls

of their heart, they never see clear

to find it.

No one can give you the golden string.

You must search it out yourself.

You must learn to let go, to free fall

into that circle of solitude

called waiting.

Even your mastery and your prayer

will burden you.


snaps the thread instantly.

Cranston (new stanza)

When you die, if you want

you can catch the end

of the golden string

when it passes by, over and over,

and you will discover

it is the Golden River

you've been walking on

all along.


by Pamela Cranston

Today I went westering,
like Sir Francis Drake,

along the Boulevard

that bore his name.

I drove past burger joints and bookstores,

theaters and boutiques,

past remnant groves

of redwood trees rapt in contemplation,

past oyster beds bubbling by Tomales Bay,

past depressed dairies sailing on the open moor,

ghost ships splintered by the muscling mist,

to the furthest curb of Marin County.

Drake's Beach lay fourteen miles out:

shafts of sunlight washed

the white curdled cliffs

leaving its yellow softness there.

I rinsed my eyes

and tried to see how Drake

would have seen this sandstone land.

And did his feet in ancient times

walk upon this pleasant strand?

Surely he saw the greedy gulls

their feet like pink rubber spatulas;

saw ribbons of kelp lying in clumps

of tangled brown mops;

the lonesome pelican bobbing on the waves

a tiny submarine, periscope up;

the Chinese calligraphy

of sandpiper tracks;

and the walls of green glass rising

in the sea's silent elevator,

brimming towards thunder.

Except, there were more of them.

Pamela Cranston

("Searching For Nova Albion", new stanza)

Let me be clear.

I am not like Francis Drake,

that merry rogue explorer

his spirits addicted to high adventure.

I am like the earnest chaplain, Mr. Fletcher,

more tentative and bookish,

seasick below deck,

nervously thumbing his Prayerbook,

praying for dry land,

as one would for rain.

I tend to seek safe passage,

wherever I go.

But who can stand to see

the stripping of Albion's beauty?

Who is willing to be the last

to hear a curlew sing?

Searching For Nova Albion, The Anglican Theological Review, Vol. 83, No. 4, pgs. 821-2, Fall, 2001.

Poems reprinted by permission of the poet, Pamela Cranston (Copyright Pamela Cranston, 2011)

This article originally appeared in The Church of England Newspaper, London.

Peter Menkin, an aspiring poet, lives in Mill Valley, CA USA where he writes poetry. He is an Oblate of Immaculate Heart Hermitage, Big Sur, CA and that means he is a Camaldoli Benedictine. He is 64 years of age as of 2010.

Copyright Peter Menkin

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