This week, I really, really wanted to reflect on Sunday's Gospel without bringing a poem into the mix (as I usually do). Still, I couldn’t stop myself from doing a cursory search of the word “gate” on poetryfoundation.org (in reference to Jesus’ cryptic reminder to his followers, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice” (John 10:1)). My search yielded over 450 results, which is telling about the symbolic and imaginative resonance of gates. After a quick scan of the first dozen or so poems, I rediscovered one I’d read before but forgotten. It’s called, appropriately, “The Gate,” and was written by Marie Howe.
Here it is:
I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother's body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I'd say, What?
And he'd say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I'd say, What?
And he'd say, This, sort of looking around.
Howe frequently weaves Biblical allusions through her poems, so it’s not out of bounds to imagine that she is specifically referencing this week’s Gospel. But even if she did not have the story in mind, the idea of the gate, the world onto which that gate opens, and who does the opening, are central ideas in poem and Gospel alike.
As is typical for the Johannine Jesus, a metaphorical story meant to illustrate the role he plays in his followers’ salvation proves baffling instead. In response to their confusion, he explains, “I am the gate for the sheep.” Though he doesn't say so explicitly (the disciples have to be left to puzzle something out on their own), Jesus is also equally the shepherd and the gatekeeper—part of a little trinity where each role is necessary to the others.
The more I read Howe’s poem, the more brilliantly it sheds light on the meaning of John 10:1-10. Jesus says that the shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. […] They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” In Howe’s poem, it is her deceased brother who shepherds her; his absence becomes the gate through which she enters. His familiar voice calls her with the piquancy of a remembered cheese and mustard sandwich, teaching her about love’s persistence beyond death, and showing her “This”—the world the shepherd, gatekeeper, and gate help the wandering sheep to reach.
Perhaps there's a message here about the nature of the trinity—that it takes forms as specific as we are, and yet at the same time universal and transcendent. Probably each of us could write a poem (or several) if we had the skill, recounting a transformative experience such as Howe’s—in which we felt the gate open for us, heard the shepherd calling us by name, and knew that we were entering the sheepfold for real, not as imposters, thieves, or bandits. We enter and know that even in times of great pain and loneliness we are united by our love for one another, and that God is here too, offering to share a meal with us.