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On poetry and God and creating, Part 1

January 25, 2014

I’ve been pondering how poetry and God and life are related.

Both poetry and God are very close to my heart, I guess you could say.  Perhaps that is because the two seem intimately related:  poetry seems to be a way to experience God, a way that God can be present.  Poetry somehow touches God, or is God touching us – that’s the paradox, the mystery of it.  The paradox is that poetry, and God, are both/and rather than either/or:  both spoken and unutterable, both seen and unseen, both heard and silent.  Not just poetry, but art in the broadest sense, in the sense of being that which we make, create, bring to being, whether it be to voice, to pen, to brush, to string or key or horn or beat.  Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara says it this way:  “We are always returning to this ‘something more’ that is both here and there; before us, within us, and outside us; first and last; transcendent and immanent; good and perfect; existent and nonexistent; spiritual and bodily – and enveloped in mystery.”  That ‘something more’ has always been a lure to me, pulling me toward expressions of deep truth that longs to be brought from the depths to the surface, longs to be known, to see the light of day or the dark of night, as is sometimes the case.

From my earliest memories, I have always had a sense of something more, of something elusive, something calling to me.  In college, with the rush of discovery both in classes and out, I began in earnest to explore the voice that beckoned.   I looked everywhere – in the words of songs that touch my soul, in the faces of people I knew, in the words and sounds and movements of Sunday mornings, in the conversations that sometimes challenged and sometimes soothed me, in the voices from long ago that inspired my own lines of exploration.  I explored it in my own writing and poetry.

Even then, I felt a tension between all the human attempts to name, to hold, to bring to life that which is sometimes fleeting or elusive – and the limits of doing so.  Yet there was still the seeking, always the seeking.  And in the many years since, as life goes rushing by, I have come to welcome this tension, because it seems to be that God, the very God that I too often hold at arm’s length or view as ‘out there’ somewhere, is begging to be present in the many and varied parts of my life.  In fact, God is not just out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered, hiding.  Nor is God distant, in the heavens, having set the world in motion, and so far away that we can only hope to one day be in God’s presence.  Instead, God is within our world and within ourselves.  Speaking of God is a way to make sense of ourselves, of life as we know it, of our human plane of existence.  It means breaking out of limits and bringing something new to birth.  We do this through poesis, through making something with the stuff of life, in all its particularity and specificity.  Poesis, as Heidegger names it, is a bringing forth, that liminal moment at the threshold of something new emerging.  And, for me, this is not just any poesis; it is theopoesis, God-making.  Not that we make God in our image (which is all too common in our culture, the desire to force God to be whatever we need at the moment, in an effort to endorse our own behavior and misbehavior in the name of God) but rather, that God yearns to be made present through our humanity, in our humanity – God present, God with us In the process, we find not only more and more of God, but more and more of ourselves.

In the Christian tradition, process theologians speak of the divine lure; this is an understanding of God as reaching out to humanity in love.  We experience this as desire, as yearning, as the reaching for that something more that Gebara and I and so many of us in life try to articulate.  Catherine Keller, expounding on the work of Whitehead and what he calls ‘the Eros of the Universe’, explains the concept as “a cosmic appetite for becoming, for beauty and intensity of experience.  The divine Eros is felt in each creature as the ‘initial aim’ – or the ‘lure.’  It is a lure to our own becoming, a call to actualize the possibilities for great beauty and intensity in our own lives. … The Eros attracts, it calls:  it is the invitation.”  I am drawn in by God, drawn in by the love, the Eros that calls to me.  I find it in poetry, in theology, in music.  I see it when I look at the world around me, in the faces of people I meet.  Beauty that takes my breath away, a song that fills me with yearning – this is God’s invitation, God saying ‘make something of all this; make something of yourself through me, or me through yourself,’ more accurately.  God’s love comes from within us, as we take God into ourselves; the paradox is that God is in me and not in me, is outside me calling, all in the same moment.  Niketas Stethatos, monk at Constantinople, recognized this in the 11th century when he wrote this:

If you seek after God with all your heart

and all your strength,

then the virtues of your soul and body

will turn you into a mirror

of the image of God within.

We become a mirror of God within, a radiance of God’s presence and glory.  That which is God which is outside me comes to dwell with the presence of God within me; deep calls to deep, and something new is born.  This is theopoesis, for me.

There is something about art and the artfulness or poetics of life that is always below the surface, breaking through in mostly unexpected places and ways.  We often speak of these moments as liminal, as numinous, as the moments when we are standing on the threshold, moving from one place or state of being to another, becoming.  Theologians speak of these as thin spaces between heaven and earth; poets live in these places.  Coleridge wrote of symbols in this way, noting that “a symbol is characterized by a translucence of the special in the individual or of the general in the especial or of the universal in the general.  Above all by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal.  It always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible;…”  This translucence that Coleridge notes is the same thing – the thinness, the nearness of God that is made present.  Our symbols, our metaphors, our parables are ways we speak about the Mystery – translucent and liminal and numinous.  We try to speak of this Mystery in many ways – our theopoesis – and yet it remains something which seems elusive.  The best metaphor or symbol touches the Mystery but never fully contains it.  I think this is what Solzhenitsyn was talking about when he said, “Like the tiny mirror of the fairy tale: you look into it and see—not yourself—but for one fleeting moment the Unattainable to which you cannot leap or fly. And the heart aches….”  And it is that ache that drives us to create.

How can this be? I often ask myself.  How do I create, bring to life that which yearns to be?  Because it sometimes seems that when I am the most creative, the most open to God’s lure and invitation, those are the times when I’m the most out of sorts, when my life seems messy and complicated and out of kilter.  Yet doesn’t that echo the Genesis creation account?  Creation comes forth, making something out of the chaos and disorder of the primordial stuff of life.  Keller sees this as the potential for our poesis:  “Amidst the mess of our past stuff and present inclinations, God calls.  Love lures and lets be.  Our mess becomes our potential.  And we creatures be-come, come forth.  You this moment come forth, a wave freshly breaking on the face of the deep.  In an ocean of overlapping waves, all new, all different.”  Just as Heraclitus recognized, we never step in the same river twice; the flow of life continues, giving us more and more ‘stuff’ with which to make something new.  Or in the beautiful poetry of Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;/his mercies never come to an end;/they are new every morning.”  That is the promise of life in God:  every morning is an eternal chance, generated from the very love of God that calls us forth.

From → On Faith

One Comment
  1. I love the profoundness of this post. It is so true that poetry and God are interrelated. As someone with a literary blog, I am so inspired by this thought. Great read!

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