The Pearl of Great Price Within

Spiritual Sunday

One of today’s lectionary readings has Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a “pearl of great price.” The image shows up in a fine Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) poem, and knowing the allusion adds resonance to the poem.

First, here’s the passage. It’s one of a series of metaphors that Jesus uses to capture the process of spiritual search:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls.  Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. (Matthew 3:45-46)

H.D.’s poem is one of a series in her book The Walls Do Not Fall . H.D. is famous for using images to capture complex emotional states. In this case, she uses shell images to convey how she goes through life with a hard exterior so that she won’t be hurt.  This seems necessary because she sees herself as a “flabby amorphous hermit” who can be devoured by sharks or crushed by the weight of the sea, which may be a reference to her depression (treated by Freud).

However, while she may shut herself off from the world, sometimes with a snap, she has a rich interior life which seems more valuable than anything the world has to offer. That is the spell that is to be found “in every sea-shell.” Therefore, do not be fooled by the hard exterior.

The reference to the pearl reminds us how pearls are created. A grain of send gets inside the vulnerable oyster, which must build up a defense against this denizen from the world out there. In its defense, the oyster, like the introverted poet, creates something of transcendent beauty, a pearl of great price.

Jesus calls upon us to seek out a comparable transcendence.

From The Walls Do Not Fall

By H.D.

There is a spell, for instance,
in every sea-shell:

continuous, the sea-thrust
is powerless against coral,

bone, stone, marble
hewn from within by that craftsman,

the shell-fish:
oyster, clam, mollusc

is master-mason planning
the stone-marvel:

yet that flabby, amorphous hermit
within, like the planet

senses the finite,
it limits its orbit

of being, its house,
temple, fane, shrine:

it unlocks the portals
at stated intervals:

prompted by hunger,
it opens to the tide-flow:

but infinity? no,
of nothing-too-much:

I sense my own limit,
my shell-jaws snap shut

at invasion of the limitless,
ocean-weight; infinite water

can not crack me, egg in egg-shell;
closed in, complete, immortal

full-circle, I know the pull
of the tide, the lull

as well as the moon;
the octopus-darkness

is powerless against
her cold immortality;

so I in my own way know
that the whale

can not digest me:
be firm in your own small, static, limited

orbit and the shark-jaws
of outer circumstance

will spit you forth:
be indigestible, hard, ungiving.

so that, living within,
you beget, self-out-of-self,

selfless,
that pearl-of-great-price.

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