I HAVE TRIED to learn the language of Christianity but often feel that I have made no progress at all. I don’t mean that Christianity doesn’t seem to “work” for me, as if its veracity were measured by its specific utility in my own life. I understand that my understanding must be forged and reformed within the life of God, and dogma is a means of making this happen: the ropes, clips, and toe-spikes whereby one descends into the abyss. But I am also a poet, and I feel the falseness—or no, not even that, a certain inaccuracy and slippage, as if the equipment were worn and inadequate—at every step. And that’s in the best moments. In the worst, I’m simply wandering through a discount shopping mall of myth, trying to convince myself there’s something worth buying.
What is the difference between a mystery in which, and by means of which, one’s whole spiritual and intellectual being is elated and completed, and a mystery that merely deflates one’s spirit and circumvents one’s intellect? The latter, you might say, occurs in quotes. Nothing is more frustrating than listening to an inept or unprepared preacher (or poet!) defer to the mystery of existence and God when more mystery is the last thing his words need or can bear—nothing, that is, except perhaps plowing through some twelve-volume Teutonic tome explicating every last letter of the laws of God. I begin to think that anything that abstracts us from the physical world is “of the devil,” as we said in the baked—and sometimes half-baked—plains of west Texas where I was raised, though there we were more inclined to blame Satan for tempting us too close to the sweet stinks of the earth. What I crave—and what I have known, in fugitive instants—is mystery that utterly obliterates reality by utterly inhabiting it, some ultimate insight that is still sight. Heaven is precision.
Eternity, the idea of it, is a powerful magnet for the mind, but the heart remains unmoved. It is a truism to say that we are never more alive than when we are closest to our deaths. (It is also, at times, if said of one whose suffering has swamped his humanity, an obscenity.) Yet under the easy gesture toward this fatal intensity (easy so long as it is safely intellectual, remote from us) there is a sharp edge: it might take an illness for you to feel that edge, either in your body or in the body of one you love, or it might simply be a kind of cut in consciousness so sharp that there is a pause between you and all that is not you, and, like a quick-handed cook whose deft slicing suddenly opens his own thumb, you are stuck in the shock of watching.
We live in and by our senses, which are conditioned in and by our deaths. When some singular aspect of reality—an object, a person, even a duration of time—seems to acquire a life in excess of itself, what we feel is more complicated than joy. This is because that excess is at once some inexplicable ongoingness of the thing and the loss of the thing as it is, at once eternity and oblivion. And this is why poetry is so powerful, and so integral to any unified spiritual life: it preserves both aspects of spiritual experience, because to name is to praise and lose in one instant. So many ways of saying God.
__________Joy’s trick is to supply
______Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
__________Nothing can satisfy.
—Richard Wilbur, “Hamlen Brook”
“God is distant, difficult,” writes Geoffrey Hill, a contemporary religious poet whose work—distant, difficult—might be said to have grown out of the seed of that assumption. But in fact distance from God—the assumption of it—is often not the terror and scourge we make it out to be, but the very opposite: it is false comfort, for it asks nothing immediate of us, or what it asks is interior, intellectual, self-enclosed. The result is a moment of meditative communion, perhaps, or a work of art, or even—O my easy, hazy God—one more little riff on the ineffable.
To believe in—to serve—Christ, on the other hand, is quite difficult, and precisely because of how near he is to us at all times. In Seattle once, when I was twenty-one and working at some crap temp job downtown, I used to spend my lunch hours near the docks. One particular day when everything was crisp, blue, new, and even the molten men emerging from the metal with which they were working, and the bickering gulls buoyed up in gusts, and my own release from numbing office efficiency seemed to verge on some mysterious, tremendous articulation of light and time—suddenly a tattered gangrenous man staggered toward me with his arms out like a soul in hell.
Modern spiritual consciousness is predicated upon the fact that God is gone, and spiritual experience, for many of us, amounts mostly to an essential, deeply felt and necessary but ultimately inchoate and transitory feeling of oneness or unity with existence. It is mystical and valuable, but distant. Christ, though, is a thorn in the brain. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how ungodly that clarity often turns out to be.
I thrust my lunch into that man’s hands, one of which was furred green as if a mold were growing on it, and fled.
It is easy enough to write and talk about God while remaining comfortable within the contemporary intellectual climate. Even people who would call themselves unbelievers often use the word gesturally, as a ready-made synonym for mystery. But if nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors a vagueness. If God is love, Christ is love for this one person, this one place, this one time-bound and time-ravaged self. Geoffrey Hill:
What is there in my heart that you should sue
so fiercely for its love? What kind of care
brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew
seeking the heart that will not harbor you,
that keeps itself religiously secure?
Religiously secure. A brilliant phrase, and not simply because it suggests the radical lack of security, the disruption of ordinary life, that a turn toward Christ entails, but also this: for some people, and probably for all people for some of the time, religion, church, the whole essential but secondary edifice that has grown out of primary spiritual experience—all this is the last place in the world where they are going to find God, who is calling for them in the everyday voices of other people, other sufferings and celebrations, or simply in the cellular soul of what is.
And yet the merely individual connection with the divine, that moment of supernatural communion, the whole modern muddle of gauzy ontologies and piecemeal belief that leads so many people to dismiss all doctrine out of hand, or to say that they are spiritual but not religious, or to emphasize some form of individual transcendence over other aspects of spiritual experience—all this is fine until life, or death, comes crashing into you with its all-too-specific terrors and sufferings. We do not need definite beliefs because their objects are necessarily true. We need them because they enable us to stand on steady spots from which the truth may be glimpsed. And not simply glimpsed—because certainly revelation is available outside of dogma; indeed all dogma, if it’s alive at all, is the result of revelation at one time or another—but gathered in. Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery—those moments when we suddenly know there is a God, about whom we know absolutely nothing—accessible to us and our ordinary unmysterious lives. And more crucially: definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.
Of course I say all this as someone who gets so bored in church that I often recite poems to myself in my head, someone an interviewer once called (approvingly, I think) an “atheist Christian,” someone who all too often forgets that it is much more important to assert and lay claim to the God you believe in rather than forever drawing the line at the doctrine you don’t. But I say it, too, as someone who has had his own gauzy ontology overwhelmed with real blood, my mystical sense of God-in-nature obliterated by nature wreaking havoc with my body. If wisdom is, as Kant said, “organized life,” I’m afraid I have little to offer. I am still right down in the filthy tumult. If I ever sound like a preacher in these passages, it’s only because I have a hornet’s nest of voluble and conflicting parishioners inside of me.
Does the decay of belief among educated people in the West precede the decay of language used to define and explore belief, or do we find the fire of belief fading in us only because the words are sodden with overuse and imprecision, and will not burn? We need a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but communal need. I sometimes think that this transformation is already happening outside of religious institutions, that faith is remaking itself in the work of contemporary artists and thinkers (yes, I mean to deflect the agency like that: the moment an artist becomes conscious of remaking or reimagining faith, he becomes a barrier to it). For twenty-five years I have held this passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping in my mind:
Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweet as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smoothes our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.
This seemed (and seems) to me, besides being prose of consummate clarity and beauty, to so perfectly articulate not only the sense of absence that for years I felt permeating every spiritual aspect of my life, but also, and more importantly, to bestow upon it an energy and agency, a prayerful but indefinable promise: “the world will be made whole.” The language is clearly biblical, but it occurs in a secular context; it is spiritually suggestive (and useful) but rooted in—even contingent upon—the actual natural world; it is absolutely given over to the transitory instant that, by means of its intense attentiveness, it transcends.
People flocked to the book, especially—if my conversations over the years are any indication—secular readers, most of whom seem not to even have noticed the Christian dimensions of the language and the story. I’m not sure the book offered much of a way forward—its ending has always seemed to me the least convincing part of the novel—but it cleared the metaphysical air, so to speak. It gave us—would-be believers, haunted unbelievers, determined secularists whose very passion for the book undermined their iron exteriors—something to build on.
And then: twenty-four years of silence. There were articles here and there, and a book of essays, but no more fiction. I wondered if Robinson had simply lost her faith in the form, and like many people I was surprised and pleased when, in 2004, she published Gilead, a novel told from the perspective of a mid-twentieth-century Midwestern Protestant preacher who is old and dying. The book reads like a flowering of the emptiness and absence, the whole bone-cold weather of elegy, that both animated and limited Housekeeping. (“Limited” in terms of what the book could do for a person; in the end, I feel that Housekeeping is Robinson’s best book.) There are even passages in both books that echo and answer each other, like the one above and this from Gilead:
I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.
The specifically Christian element is more explicit here (she alludes to First Corinthians: “We shall not all be taken, but we shall all be changed”), but it’s a kind of Christianity that would be unfamiliar to many people, including many Christians. If piety forbids one to imagine any afterlife that makes this life seem altogether inferior, then piety essentially forbids one from imagining any afterlife at all. (Unless you simply imagine this life somehow continuing in perpetuity, which would, even for the happiest person, eventually be a kind of hell.) One can still have faith in an afterlife, but it is a faith both kindled and limited by the earth. What, according to Housekeeping, does our most intense longing for otherness, our soul’s notion of some ultimate elsewhere, finally bring us? The wild strawberries that are right in front of our eyes.
It is enough in literature—it is essential—to keep one’s little patch of language pure, to reconcile oneself to nothing that has not passed through the crucible of one’s own most intense experiences and thoughts. But that won’t do for life, or faith, which are defined by, and contained within, relationships. And to be in relationship often means foregoing the self and its crucible of truth, learning to live with—and love—the very things that compromise our notions of what we need, what we think, what we are. I feel a strong need—an imperative, really—to believe something in common; indeed I feel that any belief I have that is not in some way shared is probably just the workings of my own ego, a common form of modern idolatry.
The soul at peace—the mystic, the poet working well—is not simply inclined to silence but inclined to valorize it. Poets say that the better part of poetry is what is not said. Mystics and other meditative savants say the final fruition of prayer is silence. And they are correct. And yet the soul in extremity craves language; and even more than that, craves within language some fixed point of perception, some articulation of soul and circumstance that neither wavers nor decays, some—how the modern mind pretzels itself trying not to speak this one word—truth. But here’s a truth: every word, even the, begins to leak meaning the minute you turn your attention to it. When I was young, until I got sick in fact, what I most wanted from art was to tease those implications and connotations out, to lose myself in, fuse myself with, the larger meaning that this constant loss of meaning makes possible. But now what I crave is writing that strives to erase implications, art that aspires to get right down to the nub of now. I want the “pure, clear word,” as James Wright once called it: thought and object, mind and matter soldered seamlessly together by pain, faith, grief, grace. That I do not believe in such a word only intensifies my desire for it.
When life is thriving in us, we crave to get beyond it: experience that takes us out of ourselves, poetry that articulates a shape and space for the inexpressible, prayer that obliterates self-consciousness for the sake of God. When it is death that is thriving in us, though, when the inexpressible has begun to seep into us like some last ineluctable dusk, and the tick of each instant is the click of a door closing us out—we look back. Hospitalized again, breathless because of my useless blood, tethered twenty-four hours a day to multiple chemotherapies, angered into someone I hardly recognize and do not like—I reach over randomly to the pile of despised books on the bed stand and read:
Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn,
More coiled steel than living—a poised
Dark deadly eye, those delicate legs
Triggered to stirrings beyond sense—with a start, a bounce, a stab
Overtake the instant and drag out some writhing thing.
—and weep for the world this tiny, terrifying, and blessedly untranscendental clarity gives back to me again.
Saint Augustine’s famous statement at the end of his endless book on the Trinity: “We have said this not in order to have said something, but in order not to have remained altogether silent.” How many theologians have I heard quote this self-justifying sentence, as if the only choice were between a kind of iron-willed industriousness and impotent silence. Augustine isn’t to blame (elsewhere he says, “If you think you have understood God, it is not God”), but contemporary interpretations of that one sentence should be balanced by another famous quotation, this one from Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” The purpose of theology—the purpose of any thinking about God—is to make the silences clearer and starker to us, to make the unmeaning—by which I mean those aspects of the divine that will not be reduced to human meanings—more irreducible and more terrible, and thus ultimately more wonderful. This is why art is so often better at theology than theology is.
The great battle that Augustine faces is with his own physical desires. His total commitment to God is simultaneous with a sharp renunciation of lust (or, more accurately, an acceptance of the grace that enables his will toward God to vanquish his will for physical pleasure). But what in the world can this mean for a modern person with some notion of biology, or just a sense that God is not some puritanical schoolmarm? Was Augustine, then, who was one of the greatest thinkers of the western world, simply blinkered in this sense, a little simplistic? It seems a lot easier to posit a concrete thing between ourselves and God, a specific and potentially eradicable sin, than to live in the mental storm of modern faith, in which faith itself is always the issue. Renouncing sex may not be easier than renouncing disbelief, but at least you can understand it. It is a problem you can, so to speak, grapple with. Trying to take hold of disbelief is like fighting your own shadow.
Or is it? Here’s a passage from Augustine, describing the extended and anguishing time when the call of God and his own lust were at war within him:
But I was immobilized—less by another’s static imposition than by my own static will. For the enemy had in thrall my power to choose, which he had used to make a chain for binding me. From bad choices an urge arises; and the urge, yielded to, becomes a compulsion; and the compulsion, unresisted, becomes a slavery—each link in this process connected with the others, which is why I call it a chain—and that chain had a tyrannical grip around me. The new will I felt stirring in me, a will to “give you free worship” and enjoy what I yearned for, my God, my only reliable happiness, could not break away from the will made strong by long dominance. Two wills were mine, old and new, of the flesh, of the spirit, each warring on the other, and between their dissonances was my soul disintegrating.
The object of idolatry is not really the point here. It is the war of wills that any genuine spiritual experience—and you will know such an experience is genuine by the extent to which it demands uncomfortable change—sets off inside the heart and mind of the one who has it. Every man has a man within him who must die. For Augustine that man was the one whose spiritual being was occluded by his physical being. For me—and I suspect for many modern believers, or would-be believers—the problem is not physical but nevertheless more palpable than we allow ourselves to admit, and the tension within us that seems so urgently and singularly modern is in fact the oldest sin in the book: intellectual pride.
One thing remained attainable, close and unlost amidst all the losses: language. Language was not lost, in spite of all that happened. But it had to go through its own responselessness, go through horrible silences, go through the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech.
Paul Celan. Who lost both his parents in the Holocaust and spent time himself inside a labor camp. Who found a way to write poetry—a whole new kind of poetry—after events so cataclysmic and depraved that the act of making art in their wake seemed, to many, not merely an impertinence but an obscenity. God was gone, and not simply in an intellectual sense either, not in the God-is-dead style of coffee-shop existentialists, but really gone, ripped from humanity’s very viscera, a howling silence at the center of some of the worst suffering men and women have known. This would seem to be the end of theology, and for some theologians, it was. For others, though, it was, as for Celan, a hard new beginning:
Our faith begins at the point where atheists suppose that it must be at an end. Our faith begins with the bleakness and power which is the night of the cross, abandonment, temptation and doubt about everything that exists! Our faith must be born where it is abandoned by all tangible reality; it must be born of a nothingness, it must taste this nothingness and be given it to taste in a way that no philosophy of nihilism can imagine.
I take Iwand’s words from Jurgen Moltmann’s great book The Crucified God. Moltmann, as it happens, was a conscripted, low-level German soldier and a contemporary of Celan’s. He had no experience of Christianity until he converted in an Allied prison camp, where he also first learned of the horrors that the Nazis had done—horrors which, if he had not exactly been fighting for (he surrendered to the first Allied soldier he saw), were nonetheless done by his country and in his name. Moltmann, who compared his experience of Christ in the POW camp to Christ’s merciful descent into hell (“I didn’t find Christ, he found me”), forcefully asserts the presence and power of the living God, but his work is haunted by the same question that haunts Celan’s: how does theology exist after—how does it speak to—such suffering? For Moltmann the answer lay in that moment on the cross when Christ agonizes, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” and he argued in The Crucified God that all modern theology had to be developed “in earshot of the dying Christ.”
It’s not difficult to see how the language of poetry was changed by Celan, whose poems are full of jagged fragments and lacunae, inexplicable associations, austerities, poverties, words crammed roughly together so that meanings splinter off wildly as from a wreck—and then, through it all, miraculously, a sable radiance. But how does the language of faith change? One of my problems with Christianity is that all talk of heaven seems absurd to me, though I believe that we have souls and that they survive our deaths, in some sense that we are entirely incapable of imagining (“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt…”). I don’t know what it means to say that Christ “died for my sins” (who wants that? who invented that perverse calculus?), but I do understand—or intuit, rather—the notion of God not above or beyond or immune to human suffering but in the very midst of it, intimately with us in our sorrow, our sense of abandonment, our hellish astonishment at finding ourselves utterly alone, utterly helpless.
How to speak of these things? Language, even as it reaches for a life beyond this one, must bear the mark of being lost. Not having been lost. Being lost. Because however intently one believes in the resurrection, it remains a matter of belief. That absolute destitution and longing that caused Christ to call out on the cross, though, that terror and emptiness in the presence of death and grief—these things we know. This reality is the ground on which we can begin to build. Or rebuild:
Christians who do not have the feeling that they must flee the crucified Christ have probably not yet understood him in a sufficiently radical way…. More radical Christian faith can only mean committing oneself without reserve to the “crucified God.” This is dangerous…. It offers no recipe for success. But it brings a confrontation with the truth. It is not positive and constructive, but is in the first instance critical and destructive. It does not bring man into a better harmony with himself and his environment, but into contradiction with himself and his environment…. For ultimately, in a civilization which is constructed on the principle of achievement and enjoyment, and therefore makes pain and death a private matter, excluded from its public life…there is nothing so unpopular as for the crucified God to be made a present reality through faith. It alienates alienated men, who have come to terms with alienation.
—Moltmann, The Crucified God
We want to fill what wants to be empty. We seek meaning in what seeks to be free of that. Everything is aspiration, effort, achievement, though the true goal is often immune to all of this, sometimes even anathema to it. The great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert has a poem in which, after a lifetime of aspiring to the stars, the speaker finally sees them fall right down from the sky in terror at being his everything. And then?
He no longer dreams of flight
but of a fall
that draws like lightning
a profile of infinity
—from “The Stars’ Chosen One”
A beautiful new expression of an old idea. George Herbert, in the sixteenth century: “Then shall the fall further the flight in me.” This isn’t simply the literary equivalent of bottoming out before you can begin to recover. No, what both Herberts are pointing to here is the fact that sometimes meaning inheres in unmeaning. I don’t mean “what seems like unmeaning”; this is hedging one’s bets, as if meaning were always there waiting to be found, as if meaninglessness were a veil we need only learn to tear aside. It is the absoluteness of meaninglessness that Christianity, as I understand it, inhabits and inflects, the shock and stark violence of the cross that disclose the living Christ. Revelation, like creation, arises not merely out of nothingness but by means of it.
There is a long-muted but recently resurgent tradition in Christianity that seeks, not to articulate exactly, but to frame a space in language wherein this dynamic between meaning and meaninglessness, or between God and the absence of God, can occur. “We pray God to free us of God,” Meister Eckhart writes, suggesting, I think, that we pray to God to free us from the ways in which we pray to and understand God; we pray in language to be lifted out of the limitations of language. Or there is this, from the thirteenth-century Beguine Marguerite Porete:
I call this life clear because she has surmounted the blindness of the life of annihilation…. She does not know who she is, God or humankind. For she is not, but God knows of himself in her for her of himself. Such a lady does not seek God. She has no “of what” with which to do that. She need not do that. For what would she seek then?
The “of what” that Porete mentions, according to Michael Sells in his book Mystical Languages of Unsaying, refers to the questioning will, the ever active part of our minds that will not stop asking why. This is what, when God expresses himself in us, and when we come as close as possible to expressing this state in language, is gone. Sells points out how close this passage is to Sufi thought:
The fundamental doctrine of Sufism is the annihilation (fana) and subsequent abiding (baqa) of the self. These mystical states are compared to a polished mirror. When the heart of the self is “polished,” and the ego-self of the Sufi passes away, the Divine is said to reveal to it(self) through it(self) its mystery; or to use a different convention, to reveal to Him/him through Him/him His/his mystery. At this point the referential distinction between reflexive and nonreflexive, self and other, human and divine, breaks down.
Apophatic language, language that seems to negate or undermine the very assertions that it is making, may be at this point not simply the only proper means of addressing or invoking God, but the only efficacious one as well. “O Lord, let me not love Thee, if I love Thee not,” writes George Herbert. We need to be shocked out of our easy acceptance of—or our facile resistance to—propositional language about God. Besides being useless as any definitive description of God, such language is simply not adequate for the intense and sacred spiritual turmoil that so many contemporary people feel.
It goes both ways, though: mystical experience needs some form of dogma in order not to dissipate into moments of spiritual intensity that are merely personal, and dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual services so common in mainstream American churches. So what does all this mean practically? It means that congregations must be conscious of the persistent and ineradicable loneliness that makes a person seek communion, with other people and with God, in the first place. It means that conservative churches that are infused with the bouncy brand of American optimism one finds in sales pitches are selling shit. It means that liberal churches that go months without mentioning the name of Jesus, much less the dying Christ, have no more spiritual purpose or significance than a local union hall. It means that we—those of us who call ourselves Christians—need a revolution in the way we worship. This could mean many different things—poetry as liturgy; focused and extended silences; learning from other religious traditions and rituals (this seems crucial); incorporating apophatic language. But one thing it means for sure: we must be conscious of language as language, must call into question every word we use until we refine or remake a language that is fit for our particular religious doubts and despairs, and of course (and most of all!) our joys.
What is it about speaking faith that releases it? That almost creates it at times, when faith has fallen so far into the rut of habit, or been rendered so mute by despair? At a reading at a hip loft space full of hip literary people I keep dropping God into every segue, keep needing the poems to be heard in that context, even the ones that work better without it. Public proselytizing does little good, at least in words, and I’ve never felt a call (or competence) in that direction anyway. No, it’s more that the occasion is calling forth my primal voice, poetry, and in that voice, thank God, is God. There is risk in it, and a raw awkwardness, and only now, as my soul seems to stir inside of me, do I begin to feel faith’s latency echoing back down the days through which I walked, I thought, faithlessly, giving those days shape and dimension, giving me reason to have lived them. The feeling is akin to—but not the same as—the feeling I had when writing the poems in the first place, a pure charge of electric life that so illuminates a moment that the past shines by means of it, and the future seems possible.
Faith is nothing more—but how much this is—than a motion of the soul toward God. It is not belief. Belief has objects—Christ was resurrected; God created the earth—faith does not. Even the motion of faith is mysterious and inexplicable: I say the soul moves “toward” God, but that is only the limitation of language. It may be God who moves, the soul that opens for him. Faith is faith in the soul. Faith is the word faith decaying into pure meaning.
And yet, and yet…. Saint Bonaventure:
There are three crossings, that is, the crossing that is a beginning (incipientium) and the crossing that is in the making (proficienctium) and the crossing that is an arrival (pervenientium)…. This then is the threefold paschal crossing, of which the first is through the sea of contrition, the second through the desert of religion, the third through the Jordan of death; and thus we arrive at the promised land.
The desert of religion: as if we moderns had a lock on institutional contempt, as if we were the only ones suspicious of our desire to codify the way to God. Bonaventure was writing in the thirteenth century. His metaphor for the church’s part in achieving grace is hardly hopeful; it is however immutable. You cannot go around a desert. And once you’re in, once you’ve turned at all to God, then you are stuck with the language and rituals of whatever faith you know. Like it or not, religion rises between the man of God—or the man who would be of God, if he could believe in him—and his death.
From the start I had a great desire to change the language, for example, to replace the word “grace” with something else. I was annoyed by the word “humility” and many other words, which I hadn’t used in a long while. It seemed to me that “faith” was also a matter for the dictionary. Of course, language is a system of metaphors and contains the whole experience of farming communities, migrant peoples, various social orders, monarchy, slavery, serfdom. We’ve grown used to many words, forgetting that they’re only metaphors, though in their own time they were actively metaphoric, new discoveries. I thought that ceaseless linguistic invention was required even in the realm of faith. Thinkers must be poets. I’m slowly relinquishing my claims in linguistic matters, though, and I humbly return to faith and to humility, since these are word-vessels so saturated with content through ages of thought and use that to abandon them would be the act of a heedless parvenu.
—Anna Kamienska, Diaries
She’s right. You can’t really know a religion from the outside, and you can’t simply recreate it to your liking. That is to say, you can know everything about a religion—its history, iconography, scripture, et cetera—but all of that will remain intellectual, mere information, so long as your own soul is not at risk. To have faith in a religion, any religion, is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality. This doesn’t mean that the words and symbols are reality (that’s fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, is that “you can no more be religious in general than you can speak language in general” (George Lindbeck), and that the only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deepen your knowledge and experience of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion. Lindbeck would go so far as to say that the religion you grew up with has such a bone-deep hold on you that, as with a native language, it’s your only hope for true religious fluency. I wouldn’t go that far, as I have friends whose patchwork religious lives have a hard-earned authenticity to them. I do think, though, that regardless of what religion one practices, eventually one has to submit to certain symbols and language that may be inadequate in order to have those inadequacies transcended. There is an analogue with poetry here: you can’t spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality. At some point, you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them. You have to believe that poetry has some reach into reality itself, or you have to go silent.
Exhortations to myself, mostly. My restless, useless parishioners. For the question remains: what do you do, what do you say, what in the world are you going to believe in, when you are dying? It is not enough to act as if when the wave is closing over you, and that little whiff of the ineffable you get from meditation or mysticism is toxic to the dying man, who needs the rock of one real truth. I have spent so much time in the hospital recently, and so much time in truly perilous situations, and yet never have I felt farther from any adequate prayer. A preacher comes to see me and we sit like stiff antagonists because the language either won’t come out of my mouth, or feels so foreign, so obviously a capitulation, so—I should just say it—embarrassing to me, that I basically do a little linguistic dance around Christianity as if I were hedging my bets. Is it merely, right to the bitter end, a form of intellectual pride? No, it’s more serious than that. There is some disconnect between language and life. I cannot live toward these words—grace, sin, salvation—with the same creative abandon that poetry makes possible in me. Or perhaps I should say that I simply cannot live with the same creative abandon with which I can (sometimes) write, because life is a hell of a lot more difficult—and important—than art. And thus I cannot live up to my own exhortations and am left with my parvenu hesitations, my lonely and vertiginous mysticisms, sounding not the clear, true notes of what I believe, but the varieties of quiet in between.
from a poet
no one knows.
And no one
if by chance
some far year
when I am
I tell you
to that wordless
open in your head:
There are many
as the dead.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.