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On poetry and God and creating, Part III

February 11, 2014

There is another world but it is in this one.

Paul Éluard

My own struggle to know God and be known by God has led me to a particular kind of life, a life devoted to ministry.  In this world I inhabit, language can often fail me, both in the sense of not having the words to adequately name the deep truths I find in serving and in the lives of those I meet on the journey, and in the sense that religious language is too often vacuous and meaningless to the vast majority of people.  Part of my calling, my vocation, is to translate the language of theology and epistemology and eschatology and pneumatology and lots of other ‘-ologies’ to the real, lived experiences of the people with whom I live and move and have my being.  And part of my job is to help makes sense of life as it relates to God, to see the becoming and potentiality in life as God being present and active, calling forth the best and truest self from each of us.

In his book The Pastor as Minor Poet, Craig Barnes’ picture of the pastor as poet resonates deeply with me.  For Barnes, and for me, the image of poet offers a way to work in ministry that is biblical and truthful.  He writes, “Poets see the despair and heartache as well as the beauty and miracle that lie just beneath the thin veneer of the ordinary, and they describe this in ways that are recognized not only in the mind, but more profoundly in the soul.”  Like the prophets, those of us in ministry are called to have vision, to see beyond what is to – there it is againsomething more.  Poets, in Barnes’ articulation, remind me of Don Quixote, always seeing beyond, never taking what is as the last word.  “Poets are devoted more to truth than to reality; they are not unaware of reality, but they never accept it at face value,” writes Barnes.  “The value of reality is only found by peeling back its appearance to discover the underlying truth….they value the reality they see primarily as a portal that invites them into a more mysterious encounter with truth.”  Perhaps ministry is a quixotic endeavor all around, and especially because we always seem to see two worlds:  the world as it is, and the world as it should be, as it could be, as it yearns to be made together with God.  And that is the calling I answer: to reveal the deeper truths that we all know are there and that so often seem to be beyond us, just beyond our reach.  We do indeed see another world, and it is in this one.

I’m not exactly sure what French surrealist Paul Eluard intended by his quote, but to me it speaks to what happens at the Eucharist.  As a person in ordained ministry, I look for the intersection of my understanding of theopoesis and the work I am called to do.  And at the Eucharist, I find a model for how to understand my own theopoetics as embodied and lived.  In the Eucharist the intersection of God and humanity meet; all are present and accounted for.  Richard McCall explores the notion that “the liturgy reveals the very symbolic, dialogical, and inter-subjective nature of reality which…can only be encountered in a concrete sacramental mode.”  McCall touches on ideas already mentioned:  the symbolic and its translucence, and the relatedness of God, which is both dialogical and inter-subjective, shared and based on our experience.  In liturgy, all this becomes tangible and real.  The actions, the sights, the sounds, the words, the flow and movement – all these work in concert to make something; this is theopoesis.

With liturgy as a central place to dwell in Mystery, two aspects become important in the work I’m call to do, to my own theopoesis:  language and beauty.  Language is important.  Through it, the pastor or priest opens up the Mystery in a new way.  Barnes writes, “As a poet the pastor speaks in language that is neither descriptive of what is happening (the text) nor prescriptive of what should happen (the desired text), but evocative of the startling mystery God is making happen (the subtext).”  The subtext is the thing that often goes unseen, which the pastor/poet is called to name, to call forth.  Sometimes this is done through relationship, in the daily rounds with parishioners as ministry happens – in weddings and funerals, in hospital rooms and at soccer games, in the parking lot and the grocery store.  And especially it happens when we gather together around God’s table, reminding ourselves again of the divine Mystery that dwells in us every day, all day.

Words become the tools of the trade.  This certainly happens in the sermon, that place where I can paint pictures and use images to show truth.  Barnes quotes Barbara Brown Taylor, who points out the there is a lot of ‘beholding’ in the gospels, and that the deep truths are often found in the beholding:  Behold, the Lamb of God; Behold, I bring you good news of great joy.  Part of my job is to make a case for the beholding, to use images to help illumine the way, and let the truth seep in over time.  As McCall points out, “It seems we cannot transcend words without using words.”

The sermon is not the only place that words carry weight in liturgy.  McCall draws on Aristotle’s Poetics to help understand the action that is happening in the Eucharist.  Like drama, the actions matter, and language is part of that action.  McCall writes, “What is important in Aristotle’s theory is the realization that any enacted form operates on the level of Plot structure, and that in ignoring it we run the risk of missing, of remaining unconscious of, the real organizing principle of the enactment.  In the case of liturgy, this is to remain ignorant not only of the vision of the Church and of God mediated by the structure of the rite, but to ignore the effects which this structure will have inevitably on the participants.”  The words we say in the liturgy matter; the effect they have changes us.  “We become what we are doing,” McCall reminds us.  This is central to an Anglican understanding of what happens in liturgy:  praying shapes believing.  My place in the drama does matter.  As Barnes points out, “in the act of worship on Sunday mornings, the preacher is assisting the congregation in moving deeper into their knowledge of God, which involves a relational experience with God.”  In a liturgical church like the Episcopal Church, worship is a relational experience.

Beauty is also a part of the Eucharist, at least it should be.  To be sure, there is beauty in the words.  Yet worship appeals to all the senses.  Music and art are a part of the whole; the ritual itself can be beautiful.  “Beauty is important in healing people,” Ivone Gebara reminds us.  So our liturgy becomes a place of healing and wholeness, a re-membering of our selves as we put life back together from the brokenness we bring to the altar.

My call, my theopoesis, is to be a poetic priest.  “The purpose of poetry is to reveal the mystery and the miracle that lie beneath the ordinary,” writes Barnes.  This will come to fruition in the intersection of my ministry and the lives of those with whom I share it; it is a labor of love.  Keller reminds me that love is risky.  “We flow into the unknown, the unpredictable….The gospel invites us to risk our best possible response to the irritating neighbor, the scary stranger, the random fellow creature, the immoral society – regardless of whether or when those others will give back.  The metaphor of streaming love makes it possible for us to relate to the unknowable deep of reality.  Its infinite, impersonal mystery gets personal. In spirit and in truth:  we find ourselves permeated in love.  We may realize that we are in Love.  Or is Love in us – inviting, drawing, desiring?”

And so I am left to wonder, to create, to open myself to God’s mystery.  I am a fan of Julia Cameron and her work with creativity and poesis.  She writes, “The creative journey is characterized not by a muzzy and hazy retreat from reality but by the continual sorting and reordering and structuring of reality into new forms and new relationships.”  This captures much of theopoesis as it is lived out in ministry:  relational, experiential, forging new ways.  May it be so.

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