The Poetry of God

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.”

Just so.

 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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26 responses to “The Poetry of God”

  1. Annie Lockwood Avatar
    Annie Lockwood

    Beautifully written, and wise. Thank you

  2. Penelope Avatar
    Penelope

    Or an artist

  3. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    A very moving post, Father Stephen.

    The choice of e. e. cummings to help illustrate the point is fitting, not only because that poem is such a fine expression in itself, but because he evidences that even a language with 250,000+ words was inadequate in its standard grammar and punctuation to get at what he wanted to say.

    (This is not to argue for or against his unconventional methods, which would not be on topic here, but all artists–of whom poets are one kind–work with tools “insufficient to the human experience or to the reality in which we live.” That self-aware inadequacy is likely what it most means to be a “suffering artist.”)

  4. KS Avatar
    KS

    Among all the drivel I have to read every day, this blog is the only place where I feel at home. We’ve got to have faith that its truths will speak to others beyond the infatuation with AI, STEM, contemporary pieties, and a world “smeared and bleared by commerce: “Mystery is not only an aspect of the divine, but part of the nature of all reality. Everything is far more than it appears.”

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The modern linear man is a fantasy. An actual DC Comics superhero team. We try to dessicate ourselves by denying Christ and our own hearts and create fantasy lands were we are shadow especially in the political. A reduction to one dimension. A life without the Cross. That door to beauty and love and peace that is the fullness of our being. The Kingdom because we turned back and became real.

  6. Patricia Avatar
    Patricia

    I saw a large banner hung on the front of a local church (Evangelical, though no judgement here) that said “Pray to end abortion.” I thought to myself…well, I don’t disagree with that. But, abortion is just another leaf on the tree of causes that we all have to rally around. Pro Life. Black Lives Matter. Ageism. Feminism. Gun rights. On and on goes the list. But the root of all these causes is that we do not value life. Period! We lack “the patience and imagination to find the truth.” We’re all too selfish to take Christ’s calling seriously. May we pray to VALUE all LIFE!

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Patricia,
    Life in itself has value because it is the gift of God who has given us to share in it. It is ultimately not life that we ignore and despise – but God.

  8. christa-maria Avatar
    christa-maria

    How Beautiful! YES YES YES!

  9. christa-maria Avatar
    christa-maria

    “I am , therefore I think ” said the artist today at the panel discussion. I AM THAT I AM is My name says God. I AM THAT I AM brings all into Being. All into the condition of I AM, into the condition of Creation. Partaking of it and Being it and Letting it out to join with all nature in giving honor and glory to I AM THAT I AM.

  10. Sofia Avatar
    Sofia

    Beautiful post Fr. Stephen! I wonder, if “wonder” as expressed by St. Gregory of Nyssa is akin to the “fear of God” as expressed in the Psalms?

  11. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,
    Over the past month, in preparing my heart for Lent, I’ve been searching for edifying reading. Last year I bought Fr Zacharias’ “At the doors of Lent,” and a few weeks ago, St Sophory’s The Mystery of the Christian Life. Periodically I roam into places online that delve into philosophically-styled theology. (Forgive me I don’t want to name names or places, but they are more indicative of what I usually call western Christianity). I’m sure there is a better description than what comes first to my mind. But compared to my heart’s edification while reading Fr Zacharias’ and St Sophrony’s words, the other sort of endeavor is akin to trying to eat cardboard for nourishment. Undoubtedly, some readers will find such writing in the philosophical vein rewarding. But it seems the longer that I live in Christ, the dryer (and unfruitful) such work seems for me. I’m not sure what sort of meaning this might have about where I am in heart and soul. Perhaps it just means I need ‘baby food’. And yet Archbishop Alexander Golitzin’s work is a goldmine for me and very enriching. Therefore, I can’t help but believe that it is what is in the heart of the writer-theologian that counts most to reach and speak into the hearts of others.

    As other commentators have alluded here, within this blog is the fountain of living waters.

  12. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Or perhaps I should have said “Who” is in the heart of the writer-theologian that counts most to reach and speak into the hearts of others.

  13. Síochána Arandomhan Avatar

    Thank you for this; it makes me smile for so many reasons.

    Here’s just one: in March 2015 my eldest daughter was 5 months old, and I was looking at her “small hands” and remembering the e.e. cummings poem, which may have been written for romantic love but which really spoke to me in that moment. Such a sweet memory.
    http://torthuiljourney.blogspot.com/2015/03/microblog-mondays-somewhere-i-have.html?m=1

    And then I noticed you first posted this blog in May 2015, not that I was reading it then, but I find it rather delightful that you write about the same poem around the same time.

  14. Julia Cleghorn Avatar
    Julia Cleghorn

    Thank you so much for your beautiful writing and insight….it touches my heart as I prepare to get my beautiful Grandaughters for church. I do indeed pray that all of my grandchildren seek to follow our dear Lord all of their lives through all of the difficulties of this life…..

  15. Leigh Frank Avatar
    Leigh Frank

    Exquisite!
    Thank you Father Stephen.
    The poetry of slowly watching your beloved die. Love and suffer…deeper still…

  16. Leigh Frank Avatar
    Leigh Frank

    And there our God is!!!
    Lord have mercy!

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Leigh Frank,
    What a wonderful observation. In my case it was a bit like a Shakespearean play in three acts but with a joyful ending that was totally unexpected.

  18. Tom Avatar

    שמש ומגן יהוה Masoretic Text Psalm 84:12
    “The Lord is a sun and a shield. ”
    The Lord loves mercy and truth. (Translation from the Greek of the same line.)

    I may think that I know how sun and mercy are connected or how shield and truth are connected, but it’s ultimately a mystery. I love that.

    Our services are constructed from poems, the psalms.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Tom,
    There is often a mystery in translation. In this case, I suspect that the LXX (Greek) translator may have had a different Hebrew text in front of him. The LXX is, on the whole, reflective of an older Hebrew textual tradition than the Masoretic text that is standard these days. Exactly how and why that is so is something that has been pondered (and debated) for centuries. But your poetic point stands.

  20. Leigh Frank Avatar
    Leigh Frank

    Thank you Michael.
    We, I learn so much about Love through our pain and suffering.

  21. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Just an FYI
    Once upon a time (1970’s) when I studied Hebrew texts among Jewish scholars (Brown University Student Hillel) , the bible that was used was the LXX version of the Torah. And I suspect that the Hebrew version that was read was actually a translation from the Greek.

  22. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    This is random, as they say, but . . . last week I read “The Great Passion” by James Runcie. You might recognize the name as the author of the Grantchester detective series on British TV. It is a novel about a young boy who studies under Bach, witnessing and even performing the Saint Matthew Passion for the first time on Good Friday. Mr. Runcie lost his wife in 2020 to motor neuron disease (another wonderful book — his memoir of her illness — Tell Me Good Things) and his grief, as well as the grief and sadness of the world is palpable throughout the story. At the same time, it’s a wonderful evocation of creating and performing music to the glory of God. Can’t recommend it enough, especially as we approach Great Lent.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    James Runcie’s father was Archbishop of Canterbury back in the day…

  24. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    Yes. I forgot to mention that.

  25. OnosZizaniaTrogon Avatar
    OnosZizaniaTrogon

    There was a comparison of two guitarists back in the day. It was said of one guitarist that he would play eight notes in one second and blow your mind. Of the second guitarist it was said that he would play one note for four seconds and break your heart.

  26. Chris Avatar
    Chris

    Very edifying. People seem to forever punish themselves in search of life’s meaning. But it’s oh so simple. Love is God in motion. There is no right way to do something wrong. God Bless

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