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. The Theotokos, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Kassiani, 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.”