Glory to God for All Things

The Poetry of God

dor_dcma_art2267_624x544Whoever 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 recent conversation about male and female within the comments section has been an outstanding example of paying attention. It has not “solved” the mystery, but has at least acknowledged its presence and given rise to enough wonder perhaps 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.”

Just so.

 

19 Responses to “The Poetry of God”

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  1. Grant Hudson says:

    Amazing. Thank you again. I am reminded of Doctor Who and C.S. Lewis, oddly enough (they’ve both had 50th anniversaries lately) -but it’s not just the Tardis that is bigger inside than out, nor Lewis’s wardrobe only that can lead to Narnia: everything is bigger inside than out, everything can lead us to magical other worlds.

    With God’s grace.

  2. kay says:

    “…the sudden illumination we had the experience
    but missed the meaning.
    And approach to the meaning restores the experience
    in a different form.”

    T.S. Eliot
    Four Quartets

    Thank you again, Fr. Stephen

  3. kelly says:

    Wow! Now I finally understand why humans make poetry. Our common, simple view of the world is not a one to one correspondence to reality. Awesome.

  4. Linda says:

    Father,

    I am currently reading Wounded by Love, by Elder, now St. Porphyrios and I am enjoying it immensely.

    In the past, I have taken such quotes that you mention in your article both literally to my detriment, in relation to my now ex-husband, as well as metaphorically, in relation to God. For a woman to take such quotes literally can only lead to despair, resentment, and possibly abuse. You can never live up to the ideal. It’s part of your culture, your personality, the people who shaped your life, mainly those in authority, including religious that can be a cause for those of us who have taking such quotes literally, as well as to please God.

    Growing up Catholic, I took seriously what I was taught regarding the saints, the bible, etc. In particular, I remember learning about St Monica, I believe, who was Augustine’s mother and how she took abuse and suffering from her husband and because of it, both her husband and Augustine were converted and we should do the same in similar situations. As an adult, no way could I even one millionth of a millionth, live up to such an ideal.

    In all my years in the Catholic church, I have never heard a priest talk against a man or husband abusing a woman.

    Since attending several Orthodox Churches in the past few years, I have heard a single priest speak out against abuse. He said, “warn your husband once and tell him if he ever does it again, you will leave. If he does it again, then leave because he is not going to stop.”

    Maybe I am growing up, in my sixties, maybe I am becoming too modern, but I am not yet a feminist. So, while I understand the cultural context of these metaphors/allegories, I still cringe when I read these type of quotes. Personally, I believe it’s time that religious become more sensitive to these types of metaphors and stay away from them when making a point.

    Respectfully.

  5. Michael Bauman says:

    Linda, the pain you and many too many others have experienced and, Lord have mercy, often internalized is a horror. To the extent that such a distortion is taught or supported in churches that is IMO blasphemy.

    The statements you allude to are not saying that. In fact, just the opposite. There is no coercion in them at all.

    In Orthodox understanding ascetical suffering is redemptive precisely because it is not coerced. It is not a passive acceptance of someone else’s rage and evil.

    It is the realization that we are all broken and that brokenness is only healed when we embrace the Cross, not out of some narcisistic masochism, but because we desire union with God.

    I think of my beautiful wife who has endured such evil at the hands of twisted and perverted men yet always sought Jesus with the simple heart of a five year old.

    I know the stony, hard and evil coldness that claims the heart of many men in this world even if they wear the rank of religious authority. There are few who escape it entirely, may God forgive me. It is the cold of the heart flattened to one dimension and ruled by fear and power: Satanic nihilism that hates the feminine most of all because salvation came through a woman who said: “Let it be done unto me according to your word”.

    That evil would have you read itself into the descriptions Fr. Stephen quotes and reduce them to metaphor rather than the connection to the ineffable reality of the divine/human union of which they speak–verbal icons that draw us into the Kingdom of God.

    If we put away our icons, we have ceded our greatest weapon against the velvet darkness of the seduction of nothingness where we sit in our remembered pain seeking only the numbness of semi-consciousness.

    I’ve been there too. For different reasons than you and being aroused from it is a bit like, I imagine, a burn victim having their flesh abraded so that infection does not set in.

    The result is a new life and real love. As my wife says, “He always loves me, no matter what–even when I was mad at Him”

    Please forgive me, a sinner know that I am speaking of myself, not you.

  6. Kev says:

    Only a good poem or a good story can truly touch reality. I remember the first time I read THE LORD OF THE RINGS, I thought ” now that was so real”. I think that it is because good stories or good music or good poems involve the heart.

  7. Dino says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with “In Orthodox understanding ascetical suffering is redemptive precisely because it is not coerced.” Michael. It’s what I keep banging on about when mentioning the need of Joy in asceticism as opposed to the western understanding of the notion.

  8. Michael Bauman says:

    Dino I was thinking of what you had said as I wrote that.

    Even involuntary suffering can be transformed in grace if one believes the testimony of the martyrs and confessors under the Soviets.

    In a world ruled by comfort and individual will such ideas are crazy you know.

  9. mary benton says:

    Linda,

    Your point about the text above is well-taken. Your perspective had not occurred to me because I have been fortunate not to have personal experience with an abusive relationship. I can see it now that you have pointed it out, however.

    In light of our recent discussion on gender and the sexes, I considered – what if St. Porphyrios had written this instead:

    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. He runs all through the night; he stays awake; he stains his feet with blood in order to meet his beloved. He 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. (note – this is my edited version)

    From a theological perspective, its meaning would be no different – giving ourselves totally for the Beloved and not counting the cost.

    However, from a poetic perspective it falls a little flat, doesn’t it? And I think that is because, in our sinful world, this image of the woman is a romantic ideal. Or at least it has been in the past and still is among some cultures and subcultures.

    And intelligent, well-intentioned people can drawn in by romantic ideals, often quite unconsciously. In this case, the woman feeling that she is most fully a woman if she sacrifices herself even to the point of accepting threats/abuse; the man feeling manly if he can command this level of “devotion” from a woman and dominate her. Such “ideals” are a grave distortion but ones that are much easier to fall prey to than most people realize.

    BTW, as a RC, I was never taught that Monica’s husband and son were converted because she took abuse – rather, that it was because she never ceased praying for them and she continued an example of faithfulness to God despite her difficult situation.

    I also have never heard her story used to say that a woman should stay with an abusive man. However, I’m not denying that YOU may have heard that – and if you have, it was very poor teaching indeed. And I’m sorry that you heard it from my church. May God have mercy on us.

  10. fatherstephen says:

    Linda (and Mary),
    I think Mary’s example is good – what if the image used had been with a masculine pronoun. Actually, it’s interesting, because the reason it reads as it does because agape is the antecedent of the pronouns, and in Greek, agape has “feminine” gender.But it definitely brings up issues for us in English. We’ve mentioned Lewis. He had an ear for this, and, apparently events that brought about healing in his own life. His mother died when he was young, and he clearly endured various kinds of abuse as a young man in boarding schools – especially very mean men. He was a bachelor until very late in life, not terribly unusual for an academic don. But if you know his whole story, his eventual coming to love Joy Davidman, and then be with her through her very painful death, as well as paying attention to Lewis’ writing during the time of his grief – it seems rather clear that God did a life-long healing in Lewis around some of these issues. A lot of its details are clear, I am sure, only to his confessor. But the fruit of such mature reflection – he thought very long and hard about love itself – can be found throughout his writings.

    Though he was pretty much a failure as a formal poet – his poetic gift did not fail him in the genius of his prose. It’s not so much the poetry of his words – they are quite good for story-telling – but it is the genius of his characters and situations as revelations of Classical Christian understanding. At that, he is pretty much without rival. His “space trilogy” has been mentioned – though the device of science fiction can easily be off-putting for some. But it’s better read as theological fiction.

    I would add his book, ‘Til We Have Faces. Lewis thought it his own best work. There is a lot of development there as well.

    I am currently working on a manuscript for my next book – developing a selection of material from off the blog. One chapter/section will definitely incorporate a lot of this reflection. I’ll doubtless have to work harder on it than anything else in the book.

    The book will be something of a companion to Everywhere Present. It will be Filling All Things. The material collected will have a general tie in to the Christian life as fulfillment and fullness of Christ in us.

    The fullness of life as a man or a woman will doubtless be quite important.

  11. LI says:

    Father, I am reading now the book of Solomon and marvel at its fierce depth and poetry, each time I open the Bible there, I’m thinking, why do I not read this every day? Now, further off-topic (sorry!), I’d dearly love to have a Bible in English, but I couldn’t figure out what version do the English speaking Orthodox use. Thank you so much.

  12. fatherstephen says:

    LI,
    There’s no one translation in use at present. I generally use the Orthodox Study Bible (when I read it in English) published by Thomas Nelson. It uses the New King James Version, which is contemporary English but not a paraphrase. The Old Testament is edited to bring it into agreement with the Greek Old Testament (called the LXX) which is generally considered by the Orthodox to be more authoritative than the Hebrew text. The study notes a also good and reliable.

  13. AR says:

    To compare with other versions (which I sometimes find helpful) biblegateway.com is an easy place to start and it’s free. Many translations are available there. But I also prefer to use the OSB at this point for the reasons Fr. Stephen mentioned.

  14. AR says:

    Fr. Stephen, I’m very glad to hear about the forthcoming book with its chapter on gender. I think it’s very difficult for people a little younger than me not to feel that the Christian requirements for chastity and heterosexuality (to begin with) are somehow cruel or unrealistic. So far the movies and books and television shows have succeeded. But Christians are not mindless slaves of popular thinking, even when they are young. If they hear some truth and some challenge to glory articulated with heart and feeling and spirit, they respond, because of what is buried within them. I’m sure you know this, but this is the hope I give myself that patient investigation and expression and sharing will pay off.

    I recall the words of the archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Daniel as he prayed for his people: “O Daniel, a man greatly beloved… from the first day you set yourself to understand and to chasten yourself before your God, your words are heard and I am come for your words.” This has been ringing in my ears for 15 years or so. May the holy Prophet’s virtue and prayers, and the angel’s swiftness and purity, and the Lord’s providence and loving disclosure of himself, be with you in your effort.

  15. Michael Bauman says:

    I have ordered a book from 8th Day Books titled: Washed and Waiting. It is the personal story of one man’s (Dr. Wesley Hill) life long struggle with homoerotic temptation that began at puberty. I saw an interview with him conducted by Fr. Josiah Trentham on Fr. Josiah’s website patritisticnectar.org

    I haven’t gotten yet so I can’t report on what it says, but the interview was amazing.

    His basic stance has been that as strong as the temptations were, he wants and has always wanted to be faithful to Jesus Christ, more than he wanted to follow his temptations. He no longer expects them to go away and to be totally victorious over them in this life but the victory will come. He intends to be faithful until then.

  16. AR says:

    On that subject peter-ould.net is fascinating and (I find) helpful.

    He’s involved in another website called livingout.org

  17. Bhera City says:

    Its very Nice information …..very nice post . grate site .

  18. LI says:

    Thank you, Father and AR for your help,

    I am ordering the book now. I don’t need it that much for comparison with other versions, just want to be able to read parts of it to my dear one; it happens sometimes that I wish to share certain verses but my ad hoc translations are rather poor. We’re coming from different countries and backgrounds, and since English is our lingua franca, a Bible in English is getting necessary :).

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