The Poetry of God

Dirty_gray_city_by_NastyaSunWhoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet. – St. Pophyrios of Kavsokalyvia

St. Porphyrios made this statement in the context of love and suffering:

That’s what it is! You must suffer. You must love and suffer–suffer for the one you love. Love makes effort for the loved one. She runs all through the night; she stays awake; she stains her feet with blood in order to meet her beloved. She makes sacrifices and disregards all impediments, threats, and difficulties for the sake of the loved one. Love towards Christ is something even higher, infinitely higher.

This is a rich image of the poet – or what can drive us both to poetry as well as theology. In the history of the Church, a number of the greatest theologians have also been poets. St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John of Damascus, St. Isaac of Syria, St. Ephrem of Edessa – the list goes on and on – all joined theology to poetic endeavor. When we include the fact that the bulk of Orthodox theology is to be found in the hymns of the Church, we have to admit that the heart of the poet and the heart of the theologian are much the same thing. This is true in the manner described by St. Porphyrios – the image of the suffering poet. But it is also true of the manner in which the poet seeks to give expression:

…nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

(from e.e. cummings, “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond”)

“I love you,” would state the simple facts. “…rendering death and forever with each breathing…,” wins the smile.

The lover speaking to the beloved is seeking words for what cannot be spoken. The very inexpressible quality of thought and emotion demands words in the irony that is poetic expression.

Theology easily transcends the boundaries of romance – rightly expressed, theology always speaks the unspeakable.

I have railed from time to time about various “literal” and “flat” approaches to the world as well as to Scripture. “Literal” is obviously not the correct or sufficient word. When I complain about this – it is a complaint that tends to see the world in a one-to-one correspondence in the realm of reason. Prose (“just the facts, Ma’m”) is insufficient to the human experience or to the reality in which we live. The English language (to mention only the largest human language) is estimated to have around 250,000 words (though some counts go as high as a million) when far fewer would suffice for simple prose. How many times have you ever thought to yourself that the weather felt “salubrious?”

I have repeatedly pressed this point because I think that mystery is not only an aspect of the divine, but part of the nature of all reality. Everything is far more than it appears.

With the heart of a poet St. Gregory of Nyssa asserts, “Only wonder understands anything.” The role of wonder is (among other things) to slow us down, make us quiet, and help us pay attention. The “flat-landers” sail prosaically through life and miss most of what is true, drawing only the most obvious conclusions, even when what is obvious is incorrect. It is the things that are “out of place” that are easily ignored (they’re so bothersome!), while they are most often the clues that reveal the mystery.

The reduction of the world and its “history,” are the tools of those who lack the imagination and patience to find the truth. Those who prosaically analyze history and the present as the simple march of freedom (for slaves, for blacks, for women, for gays, for whoever is next-in-line) miss most of human history, its complexities and the mystery that still awaits discovery. The same reductionist model being applied to the present serves the forces of our own misery and the suicide of our culture. Any society that manages to believe the story that giving birth and nurturing children is less than the most challenging, fulfilling and noble activity of human beings does not deserve to survive. It is the society of the anti-Christ.

The suffering of marriage, of children, of the day-to-day tedium of existence is the poetry of the world. It rhymes with the heart-beat of every creature on the planet. Death and life and death and life are the rich contours where salvation is wrought. The entertainment culture and its demand for infinite freedom is not the home of creativity. It is anti-creative: consumers consuming consumers.

Evil is never creative. It is destructive and occasionally diverse in its activities. But creativity requires energy and commitment. Evil’s own entropy always reduces it to banality and boredom. It prefers prose: poetry is too much work. The cold record-keeping of the 20th century’s murderous regimes echo with the rhymes of bureaucracy. The efficiencies of 1984 and Brave New World have the poet’s loathing of control and predictability.

Aldous Huxley was not a believer. But he had the heart of a poet. In his novel, Brave New World, the Savage is confronted with the cold efficiency of a comfortable regime. People need no longer suffer. He confronts the triumph of utility with a poet’s rage:

But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.

It is not unlike St. Porphyrios: “You must suffer. You must love and suffer–suffer for the one you love. Love makes effort for the loved one. She runs all through the night; she stays awake; she stains her feet with blood in order to meet her beloved.”

Just so.

 

40 comments:

  1. I read this while trying to wrestle with the ambiguities of the Hebrew text of Job 13:13-16, ambiguities that are lost in translation (esp. the Septuagint and the Vulgate). It very much struck a chord – the only mode of theology worthy of Job’s suffering is one that is rich and subtle enough to break open the banalities of prose that would otherwise reduce Job’s desire for both God and his own integrity to something terribly superficial. When the sages of the Mishnah wrestled with the book, they were puzzled as to whether Job served God out of “fear” or out of “love” (Sotah 5:5). The only true answer is “both” – Job revered God with a love that would not let either of them off the hook.

  2. “Any society that manages to believe the story that giving birth and nurturing children is less than the most challenging, fulfilling and noble activity of human beings does not deserve to survive.”

    You just had to post this AFTER Mother’s Day, didn’t you Father? 🙂

    (But in all seriousness, thank you for this very timely post – I was just caught up in some discussions with a particular strain of fundamentalist Orthodoxy that had seriously shaken my faith simply by existing and somehow both being of the Church and embodying everything I had fled when I first became an atheist!)

  3. I think it’s ironic that just today I happened to pick up a book about Deitrich Bonhoeffer (sp?) and discovered that he was also a poet. Too bad he wasn’t Orthodox. Thanks so much for your thoughts. Father!

  4. Satan is not Milton’s heroic rebel angel. Satan is the accuser of the brethren, a bureaucrat. Satan is the Lord of Paperwork, the god of checkboxes. Satan is Satan because his poetry has lost its beauty and become tax law. God’s Order is too radical for him and he loathes it.

  5. Thank you again Father. (There is a temptation to try to be poetic even in a comment, but I give up. I had to say thanks, though.)

  6. Lazarus,
    It’s rare that anything written about the adversary makes me smile. But you did. “His poetry has lost its beauty and become tax law.” That is both true and gave me my morning’s first smile!

  7. Byron,

    If you’re still listening, I just read the Lord Sacks speech and really appreciated it. Thanks for the link.

  8. Fr. Stephen,

    I resonate with your appreciation of poetry – very much so. But I also recognize that not everyone has the gift. I believe some people pop out of the womb with not a whimsical thought in their whole body. Would it be a stretch to assume that this is a case in point for how we need each other?

  9. Drewster, I am glad you enjoyed the speech.

    Lazarus, I echo Father’s comment; wonderful observation!

    I used to think that good theology should rhyme but then I realized that, in many cases, good theology is too deep for simply rhyme. I now realize–and it shocks me that I did not realize this before–that good poetry is not bound by rhyme! God bless all!

  10. “I believe some people pop out of the womb with not a whimsical thought in their whole body. Would it be a stretch to assume that this is a case in point for how we need each other?”

    That would be me, and your on to something here Mr. “drewster2000” By the way, when is the new model coming out, the all new “drewster3000”?

    Thank you Dino, Fr. Stephen, and everyone else for grappling with me on the difficult issues. Truly, you good folks keep me pointed in the right direction and I am your unworthy opponent.

  11. Christopher,

    Human beings don’t “model up”, to take your question too seriously. (grin)

    By the way, I appreciate your voice on this blog. You lay it out there without filters – the good, the bad and the ugly. While this could be too much if we all did it, it’s refreshing at this level. It also gives the rest of us a chance to pick some things apart and learn while we’re doing it – and it doesn’t seem to be harming you either.

    So thank you for your role here.

  12. Prose, most of it, only leads to more thoughts and contentions. Only poetry can bring us to silence.

  13. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this beautiful article. I too fall in the category of people ” with not a whimsical thought in their whole body”….

    Seeing just the title, I thought you would be saying something about trees….. 🙂

    I read somewhere that “trees are God’s poetry”. I have not been able to look at a tree the same way since…. And I really loved the way you talked about the role of the tree in the Salvation history at the retreat in San Francisco.

    (BTW, I hear that recording is now available on AFR, for those who would like to hear that wonderful talk).

  14. “For you shall go out with joy,
    And be led out with peace;
    The mountains and the hills
    Shall break forth into singing before you,
    And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

    Isaiah 55:12

  15. And I really loved the way you talked about the role of the tree in the Salvation history at the retreat in San Francisco.

    (BTW, I hear that recording is now available on AFR, for those who would like to hear that wonderful talk).

    Agata, do you, or anyone else, have a link? I could not locate the talk.

  16. Saint Porphyrios’ poetry alludes to the mystical, sublime poetry of the Song of Songs:

    By night on my bed I sought Him whom my soul loveth:
    I sought Him, but I found Him not.
    I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets,
    and in the broad ways I will seek Him whom my soul loveth:
    I sought Him, but I found him not.
    The watchmen that go about the city found me:
    to whom I said, Saw ye Him whom my soul loveth?
    It was but a little that I passed from them,
    but I found Him whom my soul loveth:
    I held Him, and would not let Him go,
    until I had brought Him into my mother’s house

  17. You said so many beautiful things Father…..

    If I may share, my favorite “nugget” was the part about how if someone sings too loudly in a choir, they stand out and the harmony and beauty is lost….. And then you sort of made an analogy of the same being true about how we live our life, “if our life is *louder* than that of others around us”, it’s not good….

  18. Agata and Father Freeman, I apologize! I have indeed seen those talks and greatly enjoyed them! Still, many thanks for posting them again.

  19. After I watched the video, the Glory2God website no longer shows recent comments. How can I get back seeing that feature?

  20. Lynne,
    Perhaps when you’re done viewing it, you click back on the Top Header (Glory to God for All Things). That puts you back on the main page where the articles are reduced and the new comments are over on the sidebar…

  21. The late Ray Bradbury had this to say in Zen in the Art of Writing, in the chapter, “How to Keep and Feed a Muse”:

    If we are going to diet our subconscious, how prepare the menu?

    Well, we might start our list like this:

    Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. Such metaphors, like Japanese paper flowers, may expand outward into gigantic shapes. Ideas lie everywhere through the poetry books, yet how rarely have I heard short story teachers recommending them for browsing.

  22. I am glad to see more of St. Porphyrios! Of course, all saints are ultimately speaking the same Truth, but I find I resonate the most—out of all of the modern Greek Elders—with him. He was quite gracious to me when I has just converted and was much younger in the faith (mid 2000s), back when not as many people called him “Saint Porphyrios” publicly!

    In any case, I have thought a little bit about poetry and prose. Seeing as that I work a lot with text, markup, and code, the topic is quite relevant to me on a daily basis. My first big “aha” moment after reading this post was to try to define poetry. If poetry is so helpful, what is it? How can we get more of it? Of course, it cannot be defined; or, at the very least, that cannot be done very satisfactorily. But, I also found, neither can prose. While I would say all reality is relative (or relational, as that word doesn’t carry the baggage of the former), prose is also one of those concepts that is particularly difficult to pin down. And that is how I came to my second “aha”: not only do I think that poetry or prose can’t be defined, I don’t think they can be written, either. I think they must be read.

    Take a small word like “forgive”. We can read into this a very “flat” definition: to excuse something. Or, if we’ve been following the blog (or Orthodoxy), we might define it a little more deeply: to restore a relationship. This is more poetic, but still within the grip of prose. If we break the word down into parts, “for” + “give”, things get richer. Along with the second definition, this hints at an active, creative force. To forgive is not to remove something passively, but to actually take something of one’s own and give it to another. This can be done “for” the other person, for the sake of kenotic love, but it can also be done “fore” the other person: that is, we can give them ourselves even before there is a brokenness. Forgiveness has a restorative effect, sure, but we can’t start reading “coulda-shoulda-woulda” into the salvation history [either here or in tougher topics like gender] and turn forgiveness into something that God did, does, and will do as a *reaction*. That makes Him contingent upon us. Everything leads to and flows from Christ. Thus, forgiveness is something that is more akin to kenosis. It exists where there is sin, but it also exists where there is no sin. It is a state of being.

    Now we’ve left the realm of mere data, of definition, and getting closer to *meaning*. But we can pry things apart even more peotically. To forgive is a strengthening act: it has 2 syllables and 2 root words; 2 is, of course, the number meaning strength. It also has 7 letters, meaning a kenotic peace: if we don’t forgive in peace, as Christ laid in the Tomb on the seventh day after dying to Himself in the flesh in triumphant repose, we aren’t forgiving. Forgiving (9 letters) elevates us to the level of the angels, or even higher. It is not something we can do in a purely verbal way: it must be a spiritual act and, more than that, requires a spiritual power outside ourselves. And forgiveness itself (11 letters, as in “11th hour”) is eschatalogical. As noted before, it is not just something that we do—it must be something we are. And it is one of the chief methods of “breaking” the Kingdom of God into this world. Some of this may seem a bit odd and I don’t think we can do the process in reverse: we can’t take data (numerical or otherwsie) and get Christ, get Truth. But, as Christ came down and became man, so we can look to Him and then see these connections. And since we cannot look at history in a merely linear fashion but in a Christ-centric fashion (though we can certainly look at things in a Christ-centered, linear way as one possible angle), I think these are revelatory truths from God despite the English language being spoken (in any recognizable form, even) only centuries after the First Coming (and my apologies, Father, if I appeared to suggest a different reading of history in a thread a few months ago on icons; miscommunication on my part).

    But now the plot really thickens, as they say. My third “aha” observation is that as poetry is a higher reading than prose, so there must be a higher “reading” than poetry. And this is it: person. We start out by seeing only information: input from our senses, data from a conversation (what, when, where…), and have a generally very narrow and dim view of existence. Next, we are led to poetry: not as some [potentially pretentious] artform, but as a way to see deeper meaning. It leads us to second-order beliefs, something that my current parish priest likes to talk about a lot a defining element of personhood! We hear not just what our brother says to us, but why he said it and what he is feeling. We see not just what our sister does, but the pain behind it and her beautiful struggle. And that leads us to the highest level, the person. At that point, though we still see prose and poetry, data and meaning, we go even deeper and meet another person. We connect in a way that, while not abhoring the means of communication, transcend them and enter into communion. That isn’t always easy to achieve, but it seems like the whole point of this small ladder: prose -> poetry -> person.

  23. Father, your post reminded me of Captain James T. Kirk’s response to Sybok in “The Final Frontier” when he said, “Pain can’t be taken away by a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!”

  24. Speaking of which, St. Gregory’s statement “Only wonder understands anything” reminded me of the “sense of wonder” sought by so many science fiction fans and authors since the genre’s inception. It’s that “Oh, wow” feeling when you see massive planets, spacetime-twisting anomalies, strange new creatures, or epic space operatics.

    I actually had a little touch of it today: they had an Oculus Rift virtual reality setup at the library, and I used it to take a 3D tour of the solar system. It actually got kind of scary at times while I was swooping between planets; I’d feel the ground shake, and have to remind myself that it was footsteps from the people around me, and not the spaceship I was “riding.”

  25. A note on poetry: it comes from God.

    Of course, all good things come from God. As with many spiritual gifts, people often receive poems without knowing they come from God. They think they have written them themselves! How silly.

    I have become so bold lately that I have started asking God for poems. Only after first telling Him that I would like to write for Him – and only if it is His will, of course.

    (May I have a poem, please?)

    Ahhh…..

  26. I’m so glad to be introduced to St. Pophyrios! Anyone who sees the profound in the mundane is a poet. Life without poetry would be no life at all.

    This reminds me of my story of conversion. When given the choice of all the philosophies of the world, I chose the one that would let me keep my pain…

    No longer able to be an atheist after having an unexpected and mystic encounter with Infinite/Eternal Presence, I tried to find a way to connect to this Presence, to God. Physically disabled since infancy, weaker and weaker every year, one might think that I would like to find a way to escape my sufferings – either through some religion that promised a cure or through meditation to take me away from the pain. I thought about becoming a Buddhist, but I did not agree that “The path to true happiness is the avoidance of suffering.” I knew that I wanted my suffering, I never wanted to escape my pain.

    I am a living creature that desires and loves. I am deeply in love with life – with God who is the Source and Giver of Life – and I am willing to suffer anything for my love. In order to be alive and, therefore, able to know and love God, I gladly suffer my lethal and debilitating disease. True loving will always bring suffering. And there is profound and exquisite beauty in that suffering.

    I want the fullness of life!

    And, yes, that’s poetry.

    And, yes, that’s Christ.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this post.
    Pax Christi
    Christina Chase

  27. Alex,

    Yes, the better science fiction is always a story of “wonder” breaking into/out of some “technical” limitation. That Oculus Rift experience sounds fascinating – it appears it will be cost prohibitive at first, perhaps I can get in line of Oculus Rift 2.0… 😉

    Christina,

    Thanks for posting your story!

  28. Christina,
    Thank you from the bottom of my wounded heart! I looked at your blog and your story. I thank you for the poetry of your life, the wonder of God’s goodness and the generosity you have in sharing yourself. May God uphold you and let the words flow. I will commemorate you in my Liturgy.

    Fr. Stephen

  29. Christina,
    The superabundance of meaningfulness, or meaning,
    seeing that there is a profound loving, personal, ‘Logos’ in everything,
    no matter how small, mundane, and, apparently worthless, is –in my understanding- the first gift that God’s great Grace bestowed on St Porphyrios on that day that it visited him in great power – at seventeen years of age. But your story, for which I thank you deeply, is genuine testament to the truth that our problem is not suffering but ‘suffering bereft of meaning’ (a kind of ontological atheism). ‘Meaning’ is provided first and foremost when we remedy our relationship to our loving God, the Divine Logos. When we start seeing Him looking upon us despite His (loving) hiddenness.
    The more we intensify our focus on Him, and help our heart walk with him, the more meaning, love, and life we perceive in everything, even in our suffering, even in our bodily death…

    Even though we remain unworthy, God looks upon us as infinitely worthy. So, despite Him being invisible, we ought to apprehend, worship and fear Him, as infinitely visible. This way we will walk together with Him; this walking together will then endure beyond this life; and when they will be lowering us into our grave, Christ Himself will be right there with us, He will take us by the hand and, in his arms lead us to ascend to the heavens – to be as one with Him (John 17:21).

    (Elder Aimilianos of Simonopeta)

  30. I followed Michael Bauman’s recent comment to the page with the videos and will view them soon. So I’m good now.

  31. Dino,

    Thank you for this beautiful response to Christina (thank you Christina for your story). It has answered a question I struggle with, the seeming hiddenness of God in my life, a question I was not even able to formulate well….

    Is this story of bestowal of Grace on St. Porphyrios in the book “Wounded by Love”? I must say I have not read it cover-to-cover, just picked different chapters from time to time… Maybe it’s time to read it from beginning to end….

  32. Joseph,

    I was interested in your exploration of the word “forgive” and wanted to add my own 2 cents. Though this will reveal my amateur etymology knowledge, it appeared to me after some study that “for” and “give” breaks down into the phrase “to give back”, but in a certain way.

    If you hurt me and then we go through the process of reconciliation, at some point I forgive you. In other words, I give you back the possibility of the way things were before the harm was done. I know you’re weak and fallen but in the act of forgiveness I give you back (as a gift) at least possibility of the goodness and innocence of our relationship such as it was prior to the hurtful act. I “fore give”. I give back what we had before.

    This is a trite analysis of a small individual interaction. If viewed in the bigger picture God forgives us our current sins and state so that we have the possibility of returning to our former state of innocence and purity. Then for this effective or meaningful we have to meet that offer with a response of repentance.

    Seen pictorially: though our glass is currently half empty, God looks upon us as what we were created to be – the whole glass. This is forgiveness, giving us back what we lost or threw away.

    Repentance on the other hand is not grovelling like we often internally imagine, but a change in our direction. Following God’s initiative, we look up and also start to view ourselves as a whole glass. All are plagued by sin, but half-glassers see it as inevitable and thereby continue to live at half of their potential. But those who repent begin to see the possibility that they were made to be more than this – and therefore are more ready for the change that occurs as God begins to fill them up.

    I realize that eventually the analogy will break down but it is a way I’ve started to look at the concept of forgiveness that pulls away from the old paradigms of debt and angry gods. This may not be poetry but I hope this is helpful.

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