Literature as an Invitation to Spiritual Growth
An Online Book Group
Discussion Guide by The Rev. Margaret Gunness
A look at work written by a selection of poets
This month we varied our process. Instead of reading a book of fiction or biography in our actual book group, we had a poetry reading. As we read aloud selected poetry written by several favorite poets (my favorite poets, I must confess!), we were guided by the same intention as that which has guided our study over the past several months, namely, seeking spiritual insights and implications. These, I now share with you, our online book group members at large.
Let's begin our reflections with a short statement from Emily Dickinson.
"A word is dead when it is said," some say.
I say, it just begins to live that day.
I wonder why a word becomes dead once spoken? Because it cannot be un-done? Because it no longer has the vitality of expectation? Because it gives a certain shape to meaning which can only be changed or grow by the addition of yet another word? I believe that a word spoken is a word born, brought to life out of a pregnant silence. Its meaning resounds in every ear that is listening. Its life breaks death's silence. Think, for example, of the Prologue of John's Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. —John 1:1& 4
It is to words that we turn to express our thoughts and our feelings, through words that we come to know and to understand one another. We use words in our prayers, and in our worship we both speak and listen longingly to hear and receive the Word of God. I believe that words are filled with life, that they are perhaps the most essential instruments of our communication with one another, and also, in a deeper sense, of our communication with God. They are vital, in the root sense of that word—giving and manifesting life.
With this sense of the living power of words in mind, let's turn to poetry. And let's begin with a Psalm. Please look up Psalm 139:1-11,22-23. This is a Psalm of intimacy, of God's knowing us thoroughly—knowing our past and our future, our thoughts and our actions, our dreams, our darkness, our death. I believe the kind of knowing the Psalmist is talking about here is the knowing of the heart and soul, not just the knowing of the mind. It is knowing as one knows a person, not simply as one knows a fact. In French, there are two different words to express this difference: connaitre means to know thoroughly, personally, while savoir is to know intellectually, factually. "Lord, you have searched me out and known me" —personally, thoroughly, eternally.
Now let's turn to Rainer Maria Rilke, a German poet who lived from 1875 to 1926. Rilke's poems quoted below are found in his book The Book of Hours. As is noted in the book's preface, Rilke's poetry reflects faith in "a God remote from the august if benign Father of western Christianity,
(a God) waiting to be born of the artist's alert and sensitive consciousness." Further on, the preface continues:
Certainly the Deity invoked in these poems is no distant and supernal power, but one close to the adorable humanity
not the Creator of the universe, but
rather (himself) the creation of mankind, and above all, of that most intensely conscious part of mankind, the artists. He is present and to be revered in all that 'truly lives' but he is not yet perfected; in a sense, he is also the future, the incomplete, the unachieved, the cathedral still in the building, the wine that has not yet ripened.
I find this an intriguing way to think about God, and have savored some of Rilke's poetry that presents God in this way.
For example, one of his poems begins with this address:
You, neighbor God, if sometimes in the night
I rouse you with loud knocking, I do so
Only because I seldom hear you breathe;
I know: you are alone.
And should you need a drink, no one is there
To reach it to you,
This same poem goes on:
Between us there is but a narrow wall,
The wall is builded of your images.
They stand before you hiding you like names,
Do you ever think of God's need for you, for your hands, your voice, your presence to help make God's presence more real, more palpable, more perceptible in the world, even to yourself? How can we try to break through that wall of images? One way, perhaps, is by the way we pray—talking to God at times as if our prayer is an informal conversation and God a close friend who knows us well, as we know him. That's what the poem quoted above seems to be doing. Think about what ways of praying might be good for you.
Or another Rilke poem that expresses God's need of us:
What will you do, God, when I die?
When I your pitcher, broken, lie?
When I your drink, go stale or dry?
I am your garb, the trade you ply,
You lose your meaning, losing me.
Another poem in this collection seems to pick up on the same idea. You have so mild a way of being, it says. They who name you loudly when they come to pray forget your nearness. Again, the poem seems to recognize a need God has for intimacy with the people of creation.
Yet even with this yearning for intimacy and this sense of God's need for us, the poet also recognizes that we alone cannot build or comprehend God, that God is beyond us and greater. God, you are vast, Rilke says. And we can almost hear him whisper it in awe. When you and I pray, or when we just think about God, do we come to that same place of feeling both God's nearness and God's being beyond us? And though the two seem irreconcilable, can we accept, honor and embrace them both?
Next, I would refer you to another poet, Mary Oliver, and her poem titled "The Journey," written, I think, in 1986. It appears in a book titled New and Selected Poems (copyright 1992 by Beacon Press, Boston). It begins:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice
though the whole house
began to tremble-
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
And it concludes,
you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save
How much faith this poem seems to put in the individual. How much it seems to stress the importance of our need to know ourselves truly, not as others see us but as we know ourselves to be—and I would add—to know ourselves as God has created and called us to be. Often this requires that we seek guidance or counsel from someone else, carefully chosen. It requires also that we pray, standing open before God, seeking to discern God's purposes and desires for us. The voices of others often seem to be able to keep us from pursuing our own wholeness, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not.
So as you reflect on this poem, think of God calling you to become ever more fully who you are created to be, not who others want you to be. The model of Jesus himself comes to mind. He spent a lifetime caring for the needs of others, yet he also knew how important it was to go away to a quiet place and to be alone in the presence of God. This was where he sought clarity. This was where he could be open and vulnerable, build his strength and deepen his understanding. This was where he would go to drink deeply of God's love and wisdom, and be refreshed. I believe this is what we are to seek too, in the same way and from the same source, the God of immeasurable love.
One more poet to look at
Let us turn now to the work of David Whyte, also a contemporary poet whose work is published by the Many Rivers Press in Langley, Washington. He was born in Yorkshire, England, and worked for a while as a naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands and the Andes. He currently lives in the Northwest of this country. He is a sensitive observer of the world of nature, and this is reflected in much of his poetry.
One of his poems, I think my favorite, is entitled "Faith" and is found in his book Where Many Rivers Meet. In it, he begins by saying:
I want to write about faith,
About the way the moon rises
Over cold snow, night after night,
Faithful even as it fades from fullness,
Then, further on, he continues, musing it seems, on the truth of his own soul:
But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.
In these lines there seems to be a sense of longing, of yearning for that which seems unattainable. Have you ever experienced such a longing, such an ardent desire that your faith were stronger, more vital within you? I have, and I'd even go so far as to say that I think it is a desire that many people have, in fact, that it is an integral, necessary part of faith.
Such yearning makes me think of that extraordinary painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, painted by Michael Angelo. It's titled The Creation and at the very center of it two hands are extended towards each other, having just separated. They are the hands of Adam and of God, and the painting is of God's creation of humankind. Yet what I see in it is rather God and humanity reaching out, now as then, stretching out our hands to touch and grasp each other. It is a painting of our yearning - of our yearning for God and of God's yearning for us. And I believe that such mutual yearning is an essential and profound part of faith and of believing. It is this yearning that David Whyte expresses in his "small poem," as he calls it. Perhaps he too recognizes that longing itself as an integral part of faith. Do you know such yearning? Can you know and accept it as a part of faith itself?
Finally, one last poem, also by David Whyte, titled "The Sun" and published in his book The House of Belonging. In it he makes reference to another poet called Kavanagh. As I recall, (and time may have embellished my memory, he once described Kavanagh, himself a poet, as an older and somewhat broken man who had lost the only woman he ever loved and who was perpetually filled with the grief of loss and loneliness. This is what he writes:
Kavanagh I look out
Growing so wild
And faithfully beneath
Why we are the one
Part of creation
To refuse our flowering.
So these, then, are some of my favorite poets and favorite poems, which speak to my mind, my heart, my faith, my questioning. I hope you can find something in them which speaks to you as well. Or I hope you are perhaps encouraged to turn to some of your favorite poets or favorite verses of scripture and read them in a new and probing way.
Copyright ©2001 Margaret Gunness
To purchase a copy of Rilke's BOOK OF HOURS, visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith.org visitors and registered users.
To purchase a copy of Mary Oliver's NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, visit amazon.com.
To purchase a copy of David Whyte's WHERE MANY RIVERS MEET, visit amazon.com.