Back in June, on the feast of Pentecost, in the chapel at the Bishop’s Ranch, instead of a Psalm, we read a poem called “tongues-talk,” based on Acts 2:1-35. The poem placed recognizable, familiar words placed together in a way that created more of wash of sensation than clear meaning. What to do with a sentence like the following: “is the ghost-groan a gift of incorporation / fixing prices on the scheme of sanctification / like salvation in a k-mart package?”
The writing teacher in me was all too poised to parse and analyze, but I kept going. I had to. That’s the thing about listening to poetry being read aloud; you’re carried along to the next line, so that if you stop to make sense of what you’ve just heard, you’ll fall behind.
That Sunday in June, the reader’s voice was so animated that following along felt joyful and imperative, sense happy—for now—to take a back seat.
Here are the last two stanzas: “this is the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl / making love on the tongue / like fourth-of-july between the teeth / spitting flames of reconciliation / in the sky of war / making messiah praise out of the air itself! / this is Pentecost in your head / like becoming what you never dared / for the first time and forever.”
We prayed the phrase again, after the Prayers of the People: “O Holy One, may the boldness of your Spirit transform us, May the gentleness of your Spirit lead us, May the gifts of your Spirit enable us to become what we’ve never dared for the first time and forever.”
At the end of the service, I tucked the poem in my pocket to take home. What would it mean for me to become what I never dared?
In high school, I stumbled upon a saying of Colette’s, pushpinned its words to my bulletin board. “You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.” At the time, I thought of a reckless crush I fostered and indulged. My friends and I drove past Chris’s house all hours of the day and night; we made calls asking for made-up names, hoping he’d answer. I dropped a Valentine in Chris’s locker. Later, in college, a friend and I TP’d my boyfriend’s car.
I loved the permission Colette’s quote gave me, as if to say, I know it’s silly. I’ll only be young like this once; might as well go for it.
Now, as a woman on the cusp of turning fifty and of being married for the first time, I think of those age-appropriate acts as sweet, benign versions of the kind of daring the Pentecost poem refers to. To cover a Datsun pickup in Charmin might not have brought reconciliation or fourth-of-July sparks on the tongue, but it allowed a long-overdue release for a cautious, careful, inhibited seventeen-year-old who, at last, had a boy interested in her.
To become what we never dared speaks, yes, of a release from some kind of prohibition—personal or cultural or social—but also of the slaking of deeper longing that we’re not always ready to acknowledge to ourselves.
Recently—just about the time of Pentecost, come to think of it—a student reminded me of a moment in my memoir in which a social worker said to me, “Jesus is madly in love with you.”
I got all excited when I read that, the student e-mailed, and then, with an honesty that impressed me, but then you dropped the ball. You didn’t follow through.
Yes, I did! I explored the idea for four or five pages! What “mad love” means, I’d written, is risk and danger and trust and the only life worth living. It means being known and seen and cared for.
What more did my student want?
Jesus is madly in love with you. That’s where I dropped the ball. Jesus, madly in love with me? That made me squirm, sounding so fundy, so ardent, so scary.
Yes, it means he knows my name, and feels responsible for and takes care of and watches over me. But there’s a lot more to it.
“Madly” in love isn’t about responsibility and duty. It’s about wildness and passion and voraciousness. It’s sexual. Is that what my student meant? That there is something sexual in God’s love for us, and ours for God?
I’ve starting writing a new nonfiction book that explores this question. I’ve got about eighty pages written—first-draft-written, all over the place. It excites me, and it scares me.
If it’s going to be worth anything, it—and I—might become what I never dared.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Lindsey Crittenden