Living into Truths

“Christianity . . . is, in other words, a form of life that requires—in order to be truly grasped—the engagement of the imagination, the sense and the intellect.”1

Photo by Ray Fragapane, Unsplash

In one of his most famous letters, Rainer Maria Rilke advises a young poet to “live the questions now,” to not be too quick to assume the answers. Let yourself experience life, Rilke says, and “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.”2 It is a matter of living everything, including the questions. He asks the young man to experience the mysteriousness of the questions, as if they were closed rooms or language in a strange tongue.

As an example of how we stumble onto truth, or rather peer into truths that wait quietly in the corners of our evenings, Rilke’s words illuminate. How often does a way through a thicket of questions appear after a night of dreams or the most obvious of meanings emerge in the gaps between our conscientious struggles with familiar problems? And how surprising and humbling to recognize, belatedly, how much was there in front of us that we did not see? We are built to want answers or at least to keep turning the questions over in our hands like smooth stones.

Rilke could avow this because he had learned, through solitude and transience, to live his own way into the questions. If you’re young, like his poet friend Kappus, questions are tools to help you pry open the chest where the secrets are kept. Kappus wanted to learn how to write poems that would make people gasp, that would open their eyes to what was around them. Rilke wanted precisely that for Kappus: to see his own life as a question directed to the answers that were within him, that no one but he could know.

***

All learning—so I learned after the fact—begins with questions. From a standing start, how high you could jump would be limited only by the spring of your questions. That’s not to say you would try to find the most obscure, complex questions, but rather that you asked the questions of the heart, the ones stated simply, the ones you had to ask.

My history with questions began with an early fascination with how things worked and why people did what they did. Because I loved to write, I found my way into a journalism major, the nearest I could come to learning how to write about what triggered my curiosity. Later, I extended my questions God-ward—where does our freedom and God’s will intersect? Why does God allow evil to exist? How and what can we know of God? Eventually, I took degrees in philosophy of religion.

When I began teaching, I discovered that the questions I asked often determined the answers given. At the time, fresh out of graduate school and trying to learn how to teach to learn, it was a revelation that lead me to epistemology—how we learn and what we can know.

To ask a question is to admit a deficit. It takes a certain humility, a learned virtue that we are not born with. We can practice epistemological humility; in time, it will be the bass line to the melody of the answers we perceive. In time, it may become a blind virtue, one that we don’t need to see with in order to move with confidence.

In the constantly re-forming seascape that is our consciousness, we pay attention, as William James said, to what matters to us. Yet, if we’re not aware of what we don’t know, how can we see the new if it does not break into our consciousness in some way, long enough for our attention to focus on it?

“Our perceptions shape our decisions, for good or ill,” David Harned reminds us, “and how we see is ‘a function of our character, of the history and habits of the self, and ultimately of the stories that we have heard and with which we identify ourselves.’”3

Farther back and higher up, above our questions, lies our imagination, fed on stories and images that shape us as we take them in to live with us. Questioning is an act of the imagination. When we ask, we are springing over the abyss, taking a leap to land on all fours, praying we can rise to walk. That’s one reason for teachers to encourage students to question; it’s also a reason not to scoff at the questions they ask. When we question—in our innocence—we are vulnerable, imagining a different world, a parallel universe perhaps, in which hazy ideas take root and a new way of being can emerge. Imagination previews transformation.

***

When it comes to religion, there are questions that should not be asked—or so we were told as teenagers. Hearing that some things ought not to be questioned turns curious students into moles digging tunnels. A constricted view assumes that all we need to know is what we have to do to get to heaven. It demands that we give up reason and imagination for blinkered obedience: “Here’s the algorithm—just run it.” But there is so much more to a life with God-in-Christ.

David Brown, in God and Mystery in Words, says, “two competing streams have characterized the history of western monotheism: the search for definition and explanation on the one hand and on the other the acceptance of mystery.”4 The tendency from medieval times to the present, favored explanation over mystery and experience. There is no reason why mystery and doctrine have to fight it out; in fact, epistemological humility would suggest they complement each other rather than compete. But we feel safer explaining than exploring.

Mystery calls for imagination while doctrine relies on reason. We can debate and argue and cajole one another over points of doctrine, but the only test that matters in matters of faith is whether faith can stand when the sand on which we stand slips out with the tide.

“There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found,” says Christian Wiman, “and if this is not recognized, the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology, but the beginning of it: trust no theory . . . in which the author’s personal faith is not actively at risk.”5

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi-philosopher who has made awe and wonder the starting-point for authentic religion, declares two types of thinking: conceptual and situational. Conceptual thinking uses reason to extend our knowledge of the world. Science and philosophy are the methods. Situational thinking tries to understand issues “on which we stake our very existence.”6 Religion is often where these questions spring up.

Philosophy’s answers are really new questions in disguise, each answer opening new inquiries. “In religion, on the other hand, the mystery of the answer hovers over all questions.”7 Philosophy requires the detachment of observers, not participants. Problems are held at arms-length and the important ones are rendered as universals. For religion, though, every such problem is personal. “Unless we are involved,” insists Heschel, “the problem is not present.”8

If I have questioned my life’s direction, its meaning wells up in unguarded moments, as present as tears. It’s the oblique angles, the accidental discoveries, which startle us to attention. We see ourselves at a distance and strain to hear what we say, imagining how we might have done better to square the difference between our intentions and our inventions of ourselves. “Creative thinking,” offers Heschel, “is not stimulated by vicarious issues but by personal problems.”9

None of this should cancel out our reasoning, our listening to trusted friends, the solitude of our prayers. These are ways God breaks through our encrusted and stale shells. Even so, the imagination flourishes in asking if there is more than the dull repetitions of our spiritual treadmill. “What imagination offers is . . . to think laterally, to allow combinations that are not themselves necessarily present either in the mind or in nature.”10

I think the imagination is where the Spirit is most free to enliven us. It’s where our attention is captured, where our perceptions sharpen, where the patience to live into the questions is nurtured. It’s where we begin to trust that “Divine folly is wiser than the wisdom of man, and divine weakness stronger than man’s strength.”11

If we can imagine how God has chosen “mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order,” as improbable as that seems, then with a sense of profound relief we can give up trying to strong-arm our way through life and can look around us with renewed hope to see where God is at work in the world. “You are in Christ Jesus by God’s act . . . In him we are consecrated and set free.”12

  1. C. S. Lewis and Friends: Faith and the Power of Imagination. Edited by David Hein and Edward Henderson. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011, p. 2.
  2. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Reginald Snell. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002, p. 21.
  3. Hein and Henderson, p. 4.
  4. Brown, David. God and Mystery in Words: Experience Through Metaphor and Drama. Oxford University, 2008, p. 4.
  5. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 75.
  6. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955, p. 5.
  7. Heschel, p. 4.
  8. Heschel, p. 5.
  9. Heschel, p. 5.
  10. Hein and Henderson, p. 4.
  11. I Corinthians 1:25 NEB.
  12. I Corinthians 1:30 NEB.

A Labor of the Instant

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“Religious writing, poetry that is authentic religious writing, writing that is religious work, is very precisely an attempt to be where the action is, God’s action, where this reality, me, my words, my perception, meet what is fundamental, God. . .”1

What do we say when we talk and write about God? It’s a question that goes deeper and deeper, like those little Russian dolls, one inside the other, until you lift out the last one, the one so small it cannot be opened but only may be held. Much of what we talk about when we talk about God is precisely that—talk about our talking of God, metatalk,talk that sets us at several removes from God and turns God into an object to be scrutinized alongside other objects in the world. Such talk clarifies the boundaries of definitions and aligns the methods of discourse, but it does not translate well out of the seminar and the conference setting.

We must ask ourselves, then, especially those of us who call ourselves Christians, why people—or rather, why we—talk and write about God? One reason, surely, is that we hope others will experience something of God, something that will help them dive deeper, become more supple, find more meaning, discover a saving attunement to Spirit. And this motivation arises on the assumption that we have witnessed in our own lives the outlines of what that something is, through tradition and revelation and personal experience. We can only express with credibility that which we ourselves have seen.

So the “why” of this form of talk inevitably leads to the “what,” a movement from motive to content. But that seems backwards, as if our enthusiasm (from en theos, to be in God) suddenly went searching for the message about God that we could give to others.

The way we were taught about witnessing for our faith always began with the content of doctrine, a system of beliefs that logically cohered and was meant to be persuasive. Only then did you overcome your shyness or your instinctual respect for the privacy of others, and launch the frontal assault for their conversion in the paramilitary style of witnessing that some Protestant traditions employ.

We looked to doctrine to guide us into a relationship with Christ. We thought that to begin with beliefs would eventually lead us to love and to a sense that we were accepted by God. Content would trigger inspiration and lead to motivation to talk and write of God with others.

There are many people whose temperament and outlook on life make this the most natural way to God. “Count the cost,” Jesus said, “before you build.” Are you ready for the changes that come with being in Christ? Do you know what you’re getting into? Acolytes in the early centuries of Christianity spent up to a year studying the beliefs, and observing and learning the practices of the communities of Jesus, before they were formally accepted into the body of Christ through baptism. Given that joining such a community was often a prelude to martyrdom, it was essential that they had counted the cost—and that they would not betray their companions.

“Christian doctrine,” says Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, “exists so that certain obstacles may be taken away to our openness to the action of God.”2 There is a subtle nuance here: doctrines are gates that open to let the flow of responsive spirituality through. They should not be dams to stop the flow until it silts up behind the barrier. Religion does not have to be the death of spirituality.

But for other people the best course is to allow God the lead in this dance. If God is the center of our universe, then God’s gravitational field will draw those willing to him, as we were drawn to him.

“Thou hast made us for thyself,” prayed Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” I memorized that when I was trying to understand prayer and was reading a lot of books about prayer. Notably, I was not praying. My prayers, I believed, fell too easily into the category of “vain repetitions.” They embarrassed me and I was sure they embarrassed God.

As much as possible, I wriggled out of praying in public, convinced that I could only offer up the palest petitions and the most tepid thanksgivings. On the few occasions when I could not refuse, I did not prepare. Instead, I offered up a silent, desperate cry before moving to the lectern. “Say what you want through me,” I prayed. “I’ve got nothing.” Those were the prayers which fell upon receptive ears, and some of the owners of those ears remarked that I had seen into their hearts. “Not me,” I said, “I was just the breath and mouth of it.”

I was a restless heart for whom the study of the philosophy of religion was finally not enough. I will not cut off as dead weight the years I spent in preparation and the years I enjoyed opening students to it. It satisfied a part of me that wanted to witness the grand sweep of thought about God. And I taught ethics so my students and I might be awake and contributing for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. But it was not enough.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,” said Jesus, “will draw all people to myself.” And the Gospel of John continues: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”3 That death has drawn the suffering of this broken world into itself. This man, the very image of God, was and is the Word that spoke creation into being. And where the creative impulse flourishes in humans, through art, music, poetry, fiction, essays, there God-in-Christ makes visible his transformation of suffering into beauty.

For many of us, there is a path to God under the open sun, that winds through standing forests, breathes in poetry and song, and blinks in wonder at works of art. We carry a hunger or a sense of lostness or catch a glimpse of beauty or the sharp edge of justice, and then live our way into a structure that builds on that. In a gallery in a city we find a torso draped in cloth—but it is carved of wood—the flowing miracle of solidity. In another gallery we marvel at the dress that’s spun of glass, the rainbow woven of ten thousand anchored threads. The wonder of forms that reveal grace, these are intimations of God in the presence of a distilled silence heard with reverence.

Rowan Williams reminds us that “We need Christian doctrine because we need some notion of what it is we are trying to be attuned to . . . But if doctrine doesn’t make possible poetry and contemplation, then doctrine is a waste of time; it becomes purely and simply old, safe, and useful.”4

The doctrine of Creation, that there is in all of us a creative impulse reflective of the very image of God, bursts forth in wider and wider circles from the still point of the Spirit at the center. I hear it in the poetry of R. S. Thomas, Mary Oliver, and Rilke. It rings through in the secular psalms of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and Sting. It is there in the delicate balance of forces in the kinetic art of Andy Goldsworthy’s natural sculptures, in the brooding portraits by Georges Rouault, and the sensual delight in Marc Chagall’s angels, cows, and villagers.

“Man is all Imagination,” wrote William Blake, that God-intoxicated poet. “God is Man & exists in us & we in him. The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination, that is, God himself . . . It manifests itself in his Works of Art.”5

God is in the world in many forms and voices; grace gives us the lens to see his glory in the world. In those artists whose works take us through the painful descent into the hells of human suffering, we see the steps of the Christ who harrowed those hells and destroyed the power of death.

Williams says, “. . . God is spoken of, and spoken for, or indeed just spoken, precisely in writing that has no explicitly religious content, because of the character of the writing as a labor of the instant.”6

The Spirit moves as does the wind, springing up in an instant and coursing through us. “And we are put on earth a little space,” says Blake, “That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”7 To that, our most eloquent response, our deepest talk of God, may be our grateful silence.

  1. Williams, Rowan. A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2011, p. 47.
  2. Williams, p. 50.
  3. Jn. 12:32,33 NRSV.
  4. Williams, p. 50.
  5. Quoted in Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton University, 1947, p. 30.
  6. Williams, p. 49.
  7. Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and Experience. New York: Avon Books, 1971, p. 37.

Poetry and Joy at the End of Days

Photo: Park Street on Unsplash

“I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eye,

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour.”1

This was the year I was surprised by joy.

It was also the year in which my perceptions of the world ranged from bewilderment to sorrow, and finally, to disgust. I have never been so dumbfounded by partisan fury, so aghast at the abyss between facts and folly, so disheartened by callousness and cruelty.

But I also had occasion for humility when my prejudice outran the reported experience of others with whom I was at odds. I was given opportunity, not so much to rethink my position, as to allow that others felt as passionately as I did across the ideological divide. Bracketing my own logic, I tried—within my considerable limitations—to enter into ‘fellow-feeling’ with those whose outlook and attitude were almost entirely alien to mine. I say ‘almost’, because I continue to believe that on the spectra of communication available to humans, there are colors which, though invisible to the eye, are nevertheless there. We must evolve to see them.

I’m a user and an observer of religion. If my faith is to have any practical value, it should help me in situations like that. It should—and it does—open my eyes to the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that surround me through the wellsprings of history. I haven’t been able to shake off a life-long interest in world religions. I’ve peered at it through the eyes of sociologists of religion such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Peter Berger. Others, like Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong, opened up their own journeys into (and out of) the religions with a candor that is exhilarating. Augustine and Thomas Merton have been guides and companions for many years as have more recently, Barbara Brown Taylor, Kathleen Norris, and Anne Lamott.

Helen and Mike Pearson, British friends and mentors, nudged me into reading Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Mark Oakley, Chaplain at Cambridge, who led me to Michael Mayne, former Dean of Westminster Abbey, and then to Malcolm Guite, Eamon Duffy, and John V. Taylor. These poet-priests and scholars have tilled the fields of the Lord with a beguiling celebration of the arts in worship and spiritual meditation.

Oakley and Mayne, especially, acknowledged and quoted so many poets whose works I had not read, that I began to read their books with a finger inserted in the notes and bibliography pages.

Earlier in the year, my good friend and mentor, Lyn Bartlett, gifted me a copy of Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life, a chronicle of Dreher’s family crises as diagnosed through an intensive reading of Dante’s Commedia. That book, poignant and inspiring in its own right, got me back into Dante.

Thanks to Penny and Murray Mahon, friends of almost fifty years, the Collected Poems of R. S. Thomas, Welsh priest, and one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, became one of my constant wellsprings. Add to that the poems and writings of Mary Oliver, Ursula LeGuin, Osip Mandelstam, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and especially, Seamus Heaney, and I began to walk this year in the rhythms of the poets.

This was part of my joy, the pouring of poetry into my life and the discovery of how essential it has become for my spiritual well-being.

***

Christians of all stripes are fond of saying that God is love. We report it as a claim that millions have experienced as bone-marrow true over thousands of years. That humans can make such claims and present their dizzying, disparate, and sometimes desperate lives as evidence is reason enough for awe.

We repeat it because it is a standard-issue declaration about God from the religious organizations we belong to. But more truthfully, we revel in it because, while it is there for anyone to discover, on rising to it personally it is like the shock of seeing the Pacific Ocean panoramically from cliffside after living in Iowa all your life.

But I was surprised by joy—and to realize that makes me wonder how I missed it all these years. How could my gaze, directed toward Jesus and the transcendent in life, be off by a fraction of a degree—enough that God’s love could appear as contractual and mine to be dutiful? Such are the surprises in life, in themselves revelatory of the sublime in the mundane.

I’ve always felt closer to Jesus than to God—which is fortunate since God for us is known through Jesus. I see Jesus, as real as breath, in my imagination. I try to place myself within the parables or in the crowd listening to them. This year the pouring of Christ into our form, and the offering up of Christ to God became real to me, because it means that we, too, are lifted up to God. This is joy, which C. S. Lewis described as “the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it.

We know ourselves as we are in others, not just as we are in ourselves. Those who have influenced us have, in a sense, entered into us—we are indebted to them. The authors I mentioned have changed me in ways that are unique to our relationship, as one-sided as it is. With other authors there would be yet other differences. Austin Farrar’s question startles: “But have you reflected that Jesus is Jesus because of Mary and Joseph and the village rabbi . . . Above all because of the disciples to whom he gave himself and the poor people to whose need he ministered? But for these people he would have been another Jesus.”2

That ‘God loves us’ has been for me an hypothesis neither fully accepted nor tested. You can live a long time, apparently, without unwrapping that particular gift. Maybe I was afraid of how it would change me. Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century English mystic, the first woman to write in English, handed me that gift this year and stood there until I opened it. Her Revelations of Love, a book which she worked on for twenty years, is the recounting of a series of visions which she was given within twenty-four hours as she lay close to death.

Julian’s sturdy and direct prose drew me in immediately. There are several excellent translations of her work—she was a contemporary of Chaucer and both need translating for our benefit. It is a book of eighty-six short and compressed chapters which should be lived with over time to be fully appreciated. Nevertheless, an attentive reading yields riches to sustain us on our journeys. Here are two of them.

A major theme in the sixteen ‘shewings’ is the nature and consequences of sin. Julian understands that Adam’s original sin was an accident, not a deliberate act of wrongdoing. It arose from Adam’s desire to please God, misguided though it was. God’s response, according to Julian, was to regard Adam with tenderness and pity. There were consequences, of course, but they were not punishments from God: they were the natural result of actions that contort our nature as God designed it.

The poignancy of the Fall, and the confusion it casts upon us she captures well: “All of us who shall be saved have, during this lifetime, an amazing mixture of good and ill within us. We have within us Jesus, our risen Lord. We have within us the misery of the mischief of Adam’s fall and dying . . . And so we live in these mixed feelings all the days of our life” (Ch. 52).3

While we may be confused and bewildered by sin, even to the point that we lose sight of God, God never loses sight of us. Even when we are in the depths of sin of our own making, God’s love for us never flags.

She has no time for theology that asserts we are naturally rotten to the core. For her, it’s sin that’s unnatural. “We shall truly see that sin is, in truth, viler and more painful than hell . . . for it is against our fair nature. For as truly as sin is unclean, just as truly it is unnatural” (Ch. 63).

Julian believes that all of us are deeply implicated in sin, but to her surprise she reports that “I did not see sin. For I believe it has no substance or manner of being, but is only known by the pain it causes” (Ch. 27).

Though we are constantly confronted with sin, Julian sees the good within us. “I saw and understood that in every soul . . . there is a godly will that never assented to sin, nor ever shall. This will is so good that it can never will any evil. But always and forever it wills good, and does good, in the sight of God.” This is paralleled in Hebrews, channeling Jeremiah: “I will put my laws into their hearts and write them on their minds. I will never call their sins to mind, or their offences.”4

A second major theme is Julian’s vision of the cross, which occupied her all her life. It was the centerpiece of the ‘shewings’ and it begins with joy. Before she visualizes Christ’s physical sufferings on the cross, “suddenly the Trinity filled my heart full of joy. And I understood that this is how it will be in heaven without end for those who come there” (Ch. 4).

Her theology of the crucifixion and atonement was for me a crucial shift of kind—not just degree. Jesus on the cross is not shielding us from a furious God who demands his pound of flesh: he is God in the flesh and he is us. Like Paul, Julian wants to be at the cross with Mary and John (the only disciple courageous enough to stay, she says) to stand in love and solidarity with Jesus. The cross, as Jesus shows her in vision, is a flashpoint of joy because God-in-Christ willed to take it up for us.

This is what swept away my anger and discomfort at the whole forensic view of the cross and atonement. “And I, seeing all this through his grace, saw that the love he has for our soul is so strong that he sought our soul with great longing, and willingly suffered for it—and paid for it in full” (Ch. 20). We cannot compel Jesus to die for us; he goes there willingly, for through it he defeats the powers that be.

What we see through Julian’s eyes is that Christ became one of us so that God could know the evil we suffer from the inside—and change our lives. As Sheila Upjohn comments: “There is no place so dark and painful that God has not been there before us and stays there with us. And the fact of the resurrection means that there is no evil so bad that he cannot turn it into good.”5

There is a kind of joy that catches in the throat; it may well up in the eyes and quiver in the heart. There is glory to be gleaned where the Lord is passing by.

  1. Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Hurrahing in Harvest” in A Hopkins Reader edited with an introduction by John Pick. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Image Books edition, 1966, p. 51.
  2. Quoted in Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press, 1992, p. 237.
  3. All quoted translations are from Upjohn, Sheila. Why Julian Now? A Voyage of Discovery. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ., 1997.
  4. Hebrews 10:17.
  5. Upjohn, p. 93.

Beauty and Truth in a Time of Plague

Photo: J R Korpa, Unsplash

”I recover my tenderness by long looking.” — Theodore Roethke1

Sometimes it feels like we are in our plague years. Not a plague such as millions suffered in the Black Death or the Spanish Flu, or the thousands with Ebola, but a plague of despair and hopelessness. Having said that, I know that for many people this is a time of ascendancy—not plague—when beliefs they fervently hold are coming true and people in power are making that happen. It is a time of vindication.

Still, if we see through the rising and falling of hopes to the generalized need for hope as such, there is a commonality of restlessness and anger that infects us all. We are creatures who have adapted to the uneven surfaces upon which we walk to such an extent that even when we come upon a level plain, we walk as though we were at sea.

We demand our place, we want our words to strike home—the metaphor, taken literally, is violent in its imagery—we confront, we stand with, we never retreat nor give an inch. In short, we are at war with others and the Other.

It should be evident that things we care deeply about are worth defending. In fact, one sign of a society whose members no longer regard it as defensible is the callous reply, “Whatever,” to matters of importance. But we are crippled by a lack of moral imagination for making a defense that itself does not complicate the problem. In Yeat’s phrase, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

***

Poet Seamus Heaney tells a story from 1972 in Belfast: he and a musician friend were on their way to a recording studio when a series of bombs ripped through the city. Within minutes of them arriving at the studio the air was full of sirens as ambulances rushed to the wounded and the dead. Heaney recalls that they looked at one another in unspoken anguish, his friend packed up his guitar and they left. It seemed indulgent to be doing something so enjoyable. What he called Art and Life—or again—Song and Suffering, had seemingly clashed. And what he and his friend, David Hammond, were feeling at that moment was that “song constituted a betrayal of suffering.” 2

Poets and writers, said Kurt Vonnegut, are our early warning system, the canaries in the coal mine—they are the first to be affected by the deadly fumes of a culture in extremis, and their warnings must not be overlooked. Examples abound throughout the ages, but one that still echoes for me on the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock, is Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a howl of feedback with a melody line that staggers, backtracks, and spirals, at once raging and raw and yet somehow wistful in the way the notes hang, looking for a safe place to land. In the midst of a tragic war, in a society tearing apart from the disparities between its promise and its peril, Hendrix’s interpretation was a cross-section of a felled tree, revealing the rot at the core.

From the opposite angle comes the sigh of the oppressed, the longing of the exile for familiar hills, and the mockery of captors who demand a tune from back home for their entertainment.

By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there

we wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth,

saying,

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a foreign land?3

Can suffering be healed by beauty? Does it dishonor the gravity of the situation to try?

***

Online discourse in these times falls along predictable lines. Someone posts a provocative article or viewpoint on, let’s say, an anguished response to the mass shooting(s) of the week. Common sense cries out for a ban on assault weapons: the various attack ships uncloak themselves and swarm into view overhead as their troops beam down. “It can’t be done,” “It’s video games,” “Guns don’t kill people . . .”, “Don’t take away my guns,” “It’s a mental health problem,” “Godless people are to blame,” “It’s the Democrats’/Republicans’ fault.”

Solutions are proposed and derided, facts are claimed and scuttled, sweeping generalizations jolt aside private duels over verb tenses. In time, with the battlefield littered with bodies, the survivors limp away to their rendezvous points. Truth, bound and bloodied, is led away captive. Almost no one notices.

After all that, to claim, as Keats does, that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” almost sounds quaint and anachronistic. And yet, there is something in us that wants, above all, to believe that Beauty and Truth are within reach and can be brought into our lives, even in such toxic and arid times.

***

I return to Seamus Heaney who, as a native of Northern Ireland, grew up within the centuries-old sorrows of its history, and who lived through the sectarian “Troubles” that claimed so many innocent lives. The questions he raises about truth and beauty, about being a poet in a time of war, open a way to understand our times—and may also cast a light upon the path of faith through this world.

“In one sense,” he says, “the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank.” But recalling how he and Hammond clammed up around the sirens, he wonders again, “Why should the joyful affirmation of music and poetry ever constitute an affront to life?”4

I am reminded of the experience of Sting, who had scheduled a concert near his home in Tuscany for the evening of September 11, 2001. When the news of 9/11 stunned the world, he almost cancelled, feeling that such a celebration would border on sacrilege in the aftermath of a tragedy of those proportions. But friends persuaded him to go ahead, assuring him that light and beauty in a dark time would be a kind of prayer for hope. One of his songs, “Fragile,” is forever linked to that time.

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one

Drying in the color of the evening sun

Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away

But something in our minds will always stay

Perhaps this final act was meant

To clinch a lifetime’s argument

That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could

For all those born beneath an angry star

Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall

Like tears from a star

Like tears from a star

On and on the rain will say

How fragile we are

How fragile we are5

Heaney’s essay brings forward the experience and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, an English poet and soldier who wrote from the trenches of World War I, and who was killed shortly before the end of the war. Owen was a leader and a soldier, but he was vehemently against the carnage of a war that took the flower of European civilization. His poems are bitter at times, usually melancholy, always directed at deflating the false glory of dying for one’s country. He sought to awaken conscience. “True poets must be truthful,” he wrote. “All a poet can do today is warn.” Art seeking to change Life.

Heaney also points to Mandelstam, a Russian poet of renown, who would not write propagandistic drivel for Stalin’s regime. Mandelstam saw poetry as rising up within the poet like a flood or growing from within like a crystal. He could no more stop writing than he could stop breathing and still live. He went to his death with the view that the creative impulse is its own reason for existing. “For him,” writes Heaney, “obedience to the poetic impulse was obedience to conscience; lyric action constituted radical witness.”6

So, Owen writes poetry which rebukes beauty in favor of truth; Mandelstam seems to hold Keats’ dictum that beauty is truth, and truth beauty. “He is a burning reminder,” says Heaney, “of the way in which not only the words ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ may be salvaged from the catastrophe of history, but the word ‘beauty’ also: a reminder that humanity is served by the purely poetic fidelity of the poet to all words in their pristine being, in ‘the steadfastness of their speech articulation.’”7 We need both: the hard edge of Truth and the softer light of Beauty. There are moments in our lives when we can only take in one or the other; in time, as it may be, we will be sustained by both.

Poetry gives the attentive reader a moment to take a breath and to give attention, fully and freely, to what is there on the page or in the ear. In a time of war and in a time of social tension, it reminds us that beauty and justice and truth are not at odds.

What is efficient may not always be what is effective. And if poetry, art, and music touch us it is in part because we have entrusted ourselves to their power to lift us and transform us, another kind of faith.

Like calls to like: when we respond to beauty seen and heard, it is a revelation that Beauty is still within us.

  1. Quoted in Mayne, Michael. The Sunrise of Wonder. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, American Edition, 2008, p. 214.
  2. Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. xii.
  3. Ps 137: 1-4
  4. Heaney, xii.
  5. Sumner, Gordon. Fragile. Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management.
  6. Heaney, p. xix.
  7. Heaney, xx.

Faith as Poetry

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Have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and try to cherish the questions themselves . . . Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer. — Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

What if creating our personal faith was like writing a poem? Not doggerel or a sentimental one-size-fits-all Hallmark card, but a creation of content, form, style—all of that welling up through hard-won experience.

What is “faith”? Is it a journey, a process, a procedure with a product at the end, a string of moments that our memories turn into a continuous experience? Should we tend our faith like we would a garden, yanking out the weeds and watering regularly? Is it like playing a piece that we’ve performed hundreds of times, each performance slightly different from the last because we have incrementally changed since last we performed it? Perhaps, as we are often told, it is a gift not received until we open it. Or is it the speaking into sound of our suffering, the dis-ease we feel being apart from God, the telos of our completion?

If it were simple we would not be having this communion. I don’t know all the ways in which faith is veiled to our comprehension, but I can give voice to what I am beginning to grasp about it in the light of poetry.

Like poetry, faith can form from a slight movement within our vision or from a word that drops into our life at an opportune moment. As in poetry, we form an idea and express it in a way that allows for both consistency and fluidity. The writing of it—and the living of it—takes attention, creativity, commitment, sacrifice, and an ability to lift thought to sound. There is something on the page and in the life that can be read and understood; there is something else that arises and moves beyond the meaning of the words, something that could not be entirely predicted from the arrangement of those words. It is a seeing-into, an awareness of the numinous sleeping inside the modestly mundane.

Mary Oliver says in A Poetry Handbook that writing poetry demands “a perfect seriousness. For the would-be writer of poems, this is the first and most essential thing to understand.” Rainer Rilke, in his incomparable Letters to a Young Poet, implores his young friend who is doubtful about his calling, “This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write? . . . And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this solemn question with a strong and simple ’I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity.” Could we ask for a deeper motivation for the building of our faith?

Rilke’s correspondent, a young officer in the army who longs to be a published poet, has asked for Rilke’s critique of his poems. Rilke responds gently: “You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself.”

And we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling, a motion of utter seriousness, and yet not without its playfulness. Where do we begin?

Mary Oliver commends to beginning poets that “to write well it is entirely necessary to read widely and deeply. Good poems are the best teachers.” In flowing that out to faith we have no end of examples. For me, the two that I return to over and over are Abraham contesting with God for the souls in Sodom and Gomorrah, and Jacob desperately wrestling through the night by the river Jabbok. They are heroic figures, all the more appealing in their finitude, striving with all their might with a benignly awesome force that could flick them out of the way in a heartbeat. To read these stories is to wake up; it is to realize with a shiver that while God will not be mocked, He yearns for engagement at close quarters. Our faith is most alive when it is thrown on its back foot; whether reverently challenging God’s judgments as did Abraham or striving to realize our new identity in God as Jacob did, we learn first by seeing and then by doing.

Oliver continues her master class with an invitation to imitate. “Before we can be poets, we must practice; imitation is a very good way of investigating the real thing.” As she says, there is very little downside to this. In imitation we try on the unfamiliar, testing whether the expression we’re holding feels like it could be ours. “Imitation fades as a poet’s own style—that is, the poet’s own determined goals . . . Begins to be embraced.”

Are we the impassioned, but clear thinking Augustine of The Confessions, or the restrained tensile strength of Dorothy Day and Simone Weil? The gentle and comforting hand of Henri Nouwen or the stern ebullience of Martin Luther? The brilliant erudition of John Donne and Karl Rahner or the urgent intensity of Jurgen Moltmann and Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

We must begin in faith to find our “style” of faith. We are beginners and we do not know ourselves enough to know what is truly ours. Rilke, advising the young Herr Kappus, says, ”To love is also good: for love is difficult . . . Therefore young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot know love yet: they have to learn it.”

And we have to learn faith—it’s not self-evident or obvious nor is it a matter of simply trusting the smirking and coiffed televangelist. Whatever else we may learn about faith, we can know by example, by story—eventually by experience—that it is supple and flexible rather than hard and brittle. It not only adapts to changes, it is change; if it were not so there would be no possibility of surviving our pasts.

“What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us?,” asks Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. “This is what it means to love. This is what it should mean to write one more poem. The inner and outer urgency of it, the mysterious and confused agency of it. All love abhors habit, and poetry is a species of love.” The spark that jumps where love and faith touch is enough to renew us in responding to the God who “makes all things new.”

Our experience is all we’ve got, but it’s enough. Our bodies, ourselves, our needs and wants, may coalesce into some kind of coherent narrative over time, but that usually appears in the rear-view mirror. Going forward, and in the present moment, it’s much more difficult to know where we are. Christian Wiman, commenting on the American poet, Hart Crane, muses that “he did to some extent confuse meaningful experience with mere turbulence, as if one weren’t truly in one’s life unless one were being overwhelmed by it.” We needn’t feel ashamed if our experience is quiet, even reticent, rather than crackling with drama. We get the conversions we need, not the ones we envy.

There is a way of relating to faith that is indolently passive. We go about our business, occasionally mildly surprised that nothing has bloomed in the no-mans land between us and God—a change of situation, an uplifting feeling, a new viewpoint on our life’s journey—something that should happen to us. But when we attempt to make something happen it inevitably falls flat. Maybe we read our Bible for fifteen minutes a day, pray for fifteen, start going to church more or even for the first time, disconsolately trudging down the path mapped out by spiritual self-help consultants. These actions can seem like we’re priming the pump or cutting down on the odds that lightning will strike and we’ll have a spiritual experience. This is not the dark night of the soul, it’s more like twilight for spiritual zombies. If that sounds harsh it’s because there is no formula for writing great poetry any more than there is a formula for walking, open and unafraid, in faith.

Great poetry, I am convinced, is the result of being rooted in this world while seeing beyond it. It takes our full attention, both as writers and as readers. It is often difficult, because speaking life through our words is hard, just as folding our words into our waking lives is hard. All this can be said of faith, no doubt.

For poets, and for the rest of us, what really matters in life and in poetry begins with questions. For the poet, as for the traveler in faith, there is an active waiting, not straining, that is as much about hope as it is about faith. As the epigram from Rilke says, “Live the questions now,” and we may “one distant day live right into the answer.”

Photo: Stefan Kunze, Unsplash.com