“…Contentment’s numbing trap”

by Elouise

Today a reader asked about James DePreist’s poem, “I’ve been weakened by the walls I’ve built.” She’s interested in the “relationship between resisting ‘contentment’s numbing trap’ and the ‘peace that passes understanding.'” Here are a few thought about this.

First, DePreist’s poem, in case you missed it.

I’ve been weakened by the walls I’ve built,
of strength-drenched testing,
protected into an unprepared defense
of self.
Failing in my futile fortress to see
contentment’s numbing trap
must battle the questions now breeching
my barricades.

James DePreist, This Precipice Garden, p. 6. Published byUniversity of Portland Press, 1986

The reader’s question refers to Philippians 4:7 (NIV): “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Paul has just described his struggle to ‘strain toward what is ahead,’ to ‘press on toward the goal.’ He wants to ‘win the prize’ that lies ahead. He doesn’t settle for the way things are, and thinks the Philippians shouldn’t settle for this, either. This struggle is the context for peace that transcends (passes) all understanding.

Contentment can be good or not so good. In his poem, DePreist is referring to the not-so-good kind. The kind that blinds us to reality, that keeps us stunted and unprepared to struggle with unexpected or unwelcome questions.

So here in Philippians we have Paul. It seems he’s a particularly fine example of what DePreist says about himself. That is, Paul has built his own seemingly impenetrable walls. He even names them: his pedigree, educational attainment, good and zealous practices on behalf of his beliefs.

Yet his walls left him weak, not strong. We know this from Paul’s accounts of how he met his first moment of truth. It happened when he was vehemently certain about himself and his mission. Yet in spite of all the great resumé items on Paul’s list, he wasn’t prepared to answer hard questions from God and others.  Questions that ‘breeched’ his barricades.

Paul changed his heart and mind when he finally faced unexamined assumptions about himself and others. They were the building blocks for his safe fortress. He wasn’t about to admit he might be wrong, or that he might not have complete knowledge or information.

In his early years Paul was content with his life and with the work he believed he was doing on God’s behalf. He didn’t feel numb at all. He felt alive, engaged and ready to go. When God rudely interrupted him, he was racing ahead yet again, blinded by his own self-certainty, fueled by contempt and hatred for others.

James DePreist isn’t Paul. But like Paul, he finds himself in an unsettled place. Asking questions that threaten his tidy worldview. Yet he finds life and promise in this new, uncharted world. Also a kind of peace with himself and with the fact that this is a lifetime effort.

Here’s a visual way of looking at DePreist’s poem.


This is the precipice garden in the Morris Arboretum Fernery. Despite appearances, the upper-level ferns aren’t floating in mid-air, detached from their roots.  When I click on the photo to enlarge it, I detect faint traces of slender brown stems that keep the ferns grounded.  Not within a safe fortress, but peacefully hanging out there in mid-air.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 23 February 2015
Photo credit: DAFraser, October 2010
Precipice Garden in the Morris Arboretum Fernery, Philadelphia PA