Whoever 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. The Fathers tell us to “pay attention.” This is true with regard to the heart, but it is also true with regard to the world around us. Attention does not solve the mystery, but it at least acknowledges its presence and gives rise to enough wonder to make understanding possible at some point. 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.
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 confront 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.”
“Attention does not solve the mystery, but it at least acknowledges its presence and gives rise to enough wonder to make understanding possible at some point.” I’ll be thinking about this during Liturgy when I hear, “Let us attend.” But I’ll also be thinking about it as I go about my day, striving to pay attention so that I don’t miss the wonder, the awe. Thanks, always, for sharing your gifts with us.
How easy it truly is to go from day to day and be oblivious to the wonder around us. Only a poet sees the little miracles that happen all around us. I also think you are on to something substantial, Father, when you say that the language of the poet often express that which is beyond what we can really speak about in literal terms. To see a day that dawns gray and misty is much different than experiencing a day graced with gray gossamer lace. The poet experiences, the literalist merely exists. We seem to be called to experience not merely exist.
“Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.”
Step 1. become a poet…
Not the kind of plan of salvation you can reduce to a bead bracelet. 🙂
I’ve been suffering with a sinful banality in my life recently (and for much of my life, to be honest); it is unbearable. Many thanks for this writing, Father!
Coincidentally (sic) enough, I was reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy the other day and he got me thinking along similar lines…how the poet is far more sane than the rationalist philosopher. The reduction of what is inherently, innately beautiful to simply that which ‘works’ or ‘feels good’ is one of the huge tragedies the humanistic enterprise has laid on mankind. Thanks for sharing!
Modern man has divorced letters numbers and living illustrations from the Thing Itself. Every thing tells a story. I wish sometimes the monks would illustrate the books of letters and numbers like the old days.
Portable altars. Good for pilgrims. Piles of rocks and cave paintings are hard for travel.
And they say why not make joy even if not discovered until later?
Leave stuff for later, give away everything that can be carried.
My husband is a poet and I have had enough of
and college education to know that I am definitely NOT a poet.
So I am glad I’m married to one, if this is true!
Glory to God for All Things!
Definitely a favorite of mine. So good.
Good article, but you missed one of my favorite poets, St Symeon, the New Theologian.
Something perhaps that we all need to do; become poets and for that matter, writers in general. We need to see the beauty around us, the beauty of God’s creation and please Him by expressing that beauty in words. One reason to write poetry is to flush from the deep thickets of the self some thought, feeling, comprehension, question, using the music of words.
My father was a seaman, with over 45 years at sea before his death. He graduated from New York Nautical School in 1921 as a Merchant Marine officer and then spent over 20 years in the US Coast Guard.
I one point, I was interested in clipper ships, probably the most beautiful sailing ships ever made. On the spur of the moment, I asked my father if he had ever seen a clipper ship at sea. His reply was so beautiful, he said “Yes, I saw one once. We were working our ship into Long Island Sound (NY) and a French Clipper had just cleared the sound. She was painted completely black and all of her rigging was out (sails) and taut with sailors swarming the tops (topsails). The wind was behind her and gale force, her ropes were so tight and vibrating in the wind, it sounded like a shipload of screaming women. Yes, she was beautiful, a clipper running before the wind.”
To me his answer was poetry and he said it better than I wrote above; poetry is always in the eyes of the beholder.
I’ve endured some intense suffering over the past several years which has I’m afraid more often than not inclined me to flee from present sufferings of a much smaller degree. Of course it’s not quite so simple. I also subject myself to suffering which has deep roots but nonetheless does not belong to me. I suspect that were I to move towards the poetic and the wonderful (in the true sense of it) that I might find my elusive joy and the willingness to suffer what’s necessary for my salvation. God help me.
wonderful article -thank you so much; and brilliant comments too. My question is: how can you get these sentiments across to a ‘flat earther’ when they just don’t get it? They miss so much and suffer as a consequence and it can be heartbreaking to see.
Don’t try to change them. Make a poem about them and enter into the wonder of who they are. Change is God’s business, not ours.
I like that Father, rather than trying to fit others into our world, we need to enter (to some degree) into their world and a try to find beauty that can be expressed in poetry. The modern Rap phenomena is an attempt to express via words and tempo.
Looking at a definition for rap, I find:
“Hip hop music, also called hip-hop or rap music, is a music genre consisting of a stylized rhythmic music that commonly accompanies rapping, a rhythmic and rhyming speech that is chanted.”
Some of the Protestant folks have made an attempt to enter into this form of communicating the gospel via “Christian Rap.” Personally, I find Rap repugnant, but I have to admit that the genre is an attempt by flatlanders to reach out to flatlanders. Perhaps those of us who live in the heights of Christian worship need to allow God to help us, somehow, to reach out via the beauty of poetry to those who are in such need, but that poetry has to be relevant to those who dwell in the flatlands.
In my case, living in the Sierra Nevada foothills 1/2 mile from a monastery, I have a real hard time in relating to those who live in the degrading atmosphere of modern society. The trip to the flatlands on a once or twice a week basis continually opens my eyes to the degrading morays of modern American society and the depths to which it has and continues to descend. I am continually amazed, for instance, when I sit in the automobile in a parking lot while my wife shops, and watch what goes on around me in the parking lot. God is very faithful in only allowing me to observe and participate in what I can handle; a recent trip had a young woman coming to my car window begging for money to eat. I gave her enough cash to be able to go to a nearby fast food vendor and buy food while thinking to myself that I was probably feeding her drug habit. I was pleasantly surprised when she returned to the lot eating her food and bringing enough to feed her male companion who was doubled up in a shopping cart and waiting for her. She came over to my car and thanked me and blessed me with “God bless you.”
My poetry needs to reach out to the beauty of such situations for those whom I associate with, my brothers and sisters in Christ. In the degradation of that parking lot scene, there was beauty; I just needed to open my eyes to see it. I had to somehow look past the tattoo’s and the dreadlocks to see the beauty of Christ in those young people. Unfortunately, I have never seen them again. We mountain dwellers tend to stay in our enclaves and do not know how to reach out. Poetry is an answer, but one has to allow God to open our eyes to the beauty around us, even in the flatlands of this sinful world.
Saint Symeon, please help us.
I was wondering if when you say that evil is not creative, if that means those who do not use their creativity are evil in a certain way? I struggle to be creative and do try to write poetry, but none of it is any good. Just wondering your thoughts. Great post though. It makes you think.
No. I don’t think so. I’m not very artsy myself. I write prose moderately well (but not nearly as I wish). Poetry aludes me. But I like to sing – especially when no one is listening. And offer praises to God…
Thanks for this gem: “One reason to write poetry is to flush from the deep thickets of the self some thought, feeling, comprehension, question, using the music of words.”
We live in a very flat world. Accordingly our definition of creativity also suffers from this situation, when in fact there are many ways to create. With your home you can create a space of peace or love or kindness. With your smile you can create a reflection of joy. With your time you can create a moment to watch or listen to an artist – or to someone with a story in need of a listening ear. With your work you can create a thing done well. With your thanksgivings you can point others to all that God has given and created.
In fact we are always either in a state of creation or destruction, coming closer to life and the wholeness thereof or drifting further away from that very same life. There is nothing neutral about our time in this world. Our days are about death, or they’re about living in the acts of suffering and praise. When the Day of Judgement arrives, God won’t need to ask us any questions; we will continuously be answering with our very lives.