Next door to God

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I’m currently reading a new Tupelo Press anthology of essays by poets, A God in the House. The essays are based on interviews with poets whose work engages with “the spiritual” or with “faith”–often in similar ways, though attained through widely varying means and experiences.

It’s lovely to savor these thoughtful commentaries on the spiritual. Many of the poets wrestle with the concept of faith, soul, or the spiritual as they try to put into words what that feels like. Poets know better than most people the limits of what we can say in words, and they push at those limits in and through their work.

And this book features some marvelous poets. Jane Hirshfield, Jericho Brown, Grace Paley, Carolyn Forché, Li-Young Lee, the incomparable Alicia Ostriker, Gregory Orr (one of my long-time favorite living poets), Annie Finch, and many others. Even if you are not interested in poetry all that much, the anthology is valuable if you are interested in the spiritual and how we obtain, understand, incorporate, question, and express it.

Can we attain transcendence? Or immanence, instead? Or are we fooling ourselves altogether?

Good questions.

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When I was a very young child, my father, a newly-minted Presbyterian minister, was assigned to a small parish in a rural area of New York. We lived in a ranch-style manse across the driveway from the 19th-century shingle-style church. We had a large yard which bordered a large field. There was a post fence along the side of the church yard and a barbed-wire fence in back of our own yard. I liked to sit on the post fence’s wooden stretchers and pretend I was riding a horse. There were tall pine trees at the front of the church and I recall watching birds fly in and out of the trees and also in and out of the eaves of the steeple. All of those memories I now associate with church-going and whatever the spirit is. I always think of that time of my life as the days I lived next door to God.

I was raised in the culture of God-the-Father. My father, my human father, was the man behind the pulpit. He wore flowing robes and he sang beautifully, but what I liked best was watching him as he opened the enormous Bible and read from it.

Yes, I was a bibliophile from the get-go.

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I suppose the words mattered. Certainly the verses, the language of scripture, its pacing, and the intonation of recitations, creeds, and prayer–not to mention the music–made their way into my forming mind. I learned to read by doodling on church bulletins and pretending to follow along in the hymnals as we sang “Fairest Lord Jesus” or “The Doxology.” But I do not recall ever believing, quite, that the words equaled the spirit, even though I memorized that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.

Now I have come around to words again. (Writers do that.) I am not in the right frame of mind to write eloquently, as the writers in A God in the House have done, about how my poetry, my practice, my beliefs entwine with the spiritual. Perhaps someday I will, inspired by the thoughts and reflections of others. It is a brave thing, to write about one’s faith–so personal. I am grateful to the editors (Illya Kaminsky & Katherine Towler) who envisioned this project and interviewed the poets; and I heartily recommend this book.

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Lewis, Buber, Dickinson

“Meeting with God does not come to man in order that he may concern himself with God, but in order that he may confirm that there is meaning in the world. All revelation is summons and sending.”   –Martin Buber, I and Thou

I suppose I ought to know this, but I cannot recall reading about whether C.S. Lewis was influenced by Martin Buber’s work, specifically I and Thou. Some of Lewis’ writing seems to suggest that he agrees with the concept of relation: as Buber describes it, the stepping out to meet Thou as Thou, and the insistence that “Man’s [sic] desire to possess God” keeps said man from true relation with God (a point described in The Great Divorce through the allegorical character of the Episcopal Ghost). God has become an “It” rather than a Thou for the Bishop, though he feels he is a true believer, an error made in lesser ways by other characters such as the Big Man.

Many of the students I tutor are writing their final papers for a Theology class that uses Lewis’ texts as a foundation for the course, which is why I’m feeling a bit conversant with Lewis lately, many long years after reading his fiction and his theological writings. And a random quote (above) that I read on a colleague’s email put me in mind of Buber, whose I and Thou reads, often, like poetry….which got me thinking about Emily Dickinson.

How’s that for a train of thought? Perhaps I need to examine the concatenation step by step.

1) Buber, I and Thou, a work deeply influenced by the author’s immersion in non-Western and Cabbalistic “mysteries” (the idea of the radii and the Centre closely parallels the Hindi conceptualization of Indra’s Net, just to name one example). Buber returns to the Western religious traditions throughout, though he mentions the way of Buddha and others as he examines the ever-present confrontation with the Thou of relational experience.

2) Lewis, The Great Divorce. Students interpret this work as one in which the author outlines his agreements and differences with, among other things, ideas about free will stemming from Socratic/Platonic through Augustinian and more modern concepts of Heaven/Hell. They tend to miss the concepts of what makes union/relation significant in the choice to unite with God, but they “get” the gist of the allegory.

3) Emily Dickinson, who more informally and more frequently uses “you” and “I” to explore these depths, but whose contrarian views on soul and spirituality knit the religious with the genuine in complex and exciting ways through the art of language.

An example, in which she does employ the King James Bible diction:

725

Where Thou art—that—is Home—
Cashmere—or Calvary—the same—
Degree—or Shame—
I scarce esteem Location’s Name—
So I may Come—

What Thou dost—is Delight—
Bondage as Play—be sweet—
Imprisonment—Content—
And Sentence—Sacrament—
Just We two—meet—

Where Thou art not—is Woe—
Tho’ Bands of Spices—row—
What Thou dost not—Despair—
Tho’ Gabriel—praise me—Sire—

How similar to Buber, those lines “And Sentence—Sacrament—/Just We two—meet—”

and the idea that “Where Thou art not—is Woe—”

Poetry precedes philosophy more often than not, though philosophy may object.