The Word-Soaked World
Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith
Since 1989, Image has hosted a conversation at the nexus of art and faith among writers and artists in all forms. As the conversation has evolved, certain words have cropped up again and again: Beauty. Mystery. Presence.
For this issue, we invited a handful of past contributors to examine our common lexicon as a sort of personal inventory on the part of the journal. Were there words we were using too glibly, we asked, words that needed to be reconsidered, revitalized, or tossed out?
The writers’ responses surprised us. Some pieces retain an element of that self-critical spirit we requested, such as the essays on beauty and suffering. But the majority of the essays ended up as a referendum on the power of language, like art itself, to represent and reveal. Words, the writers seemed to say, deserve to be weighed heavily. On consideration, some words that seem simple or obvious are more demanding than we think.
Language is double-edged. On the one hand, the ability to call things by their names can connect us to others, and can anchor an artist in the created world. Perhaps language itself even offers an image of the divine. Some would even go so far as to say that language is what makes religious experience possible.
But at times, even after long wrestling and careful study, language can seem inadequate, more a stumbling stone than a pathway. Sometimes language seems able only to point to things just outside its reach, things we crave but can’t grasp, things we dare not approach, things we draw back from in awe or revulsion.
This collection of short essays demonstrates the push-pull relationship believing artists have with words: We are in pursuit of a God who is revealed through the poetry of the oldest Psalms, but whose true name is impossible to pronounce.
I dwell in the house of God.
THAT’S WHAT I chose say, to repeat internally for my meditation this morning, the 19 of Elul 5772, ten days before 1 Tishrei 5773, the first day of the New Year, Rosh Hashanah.
The source of this simple sentence: Psalm 27, the psalm Jews read daily beginning on the first day of the month of Elul and concluding on the 23 of Tishrei, the holiday of Simchat Torah, the holiday that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings and the immediate return, on the same day, to Bereshit, the first verses of Genesis, to begin the cycle anew.
I dwell in the house of God: for the ease of repetition, I made an intuitive decision to simplify the psalm’s famous passage:
One thing I ask of God,
only this do I ask—
to dwell in the house of God
all the days of my life….
But who am I to change the words of a psalm?
I dwell in Possibility—
Another revision? Possibly. A variation on the theme? Possibly. All I know with certainty is this: it’s the first line of one of Dickinson’s poems, a poem we discussed in class on September 19, just after Rosh Hashanah, a poem in which Dickinson celebrates the house of Possibility (poetry), “a fairer House,” she writes, than the house of Prose.
The house of Possibility is
More numerous of Windows—
Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of eye—
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky—
Such a house, such a house of contradictions—numerous windows to admit light, rooms that no eye may see into; superior doors to welcome guests…or keep them out; a house of man (or woman) with the standard features, though on a larger scale, of any house, a house of nature with an “everlasting” roof of sky. Such a house!
(Such a night, it’s such a night / Sweet confusion under the moonlight. Dr. John.)
(Such a house, such a night, such a noun:
——–The small nouns
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.
The conclusion of George Oppen’s “Psalm.”)
It’s simple, really, this practice. I read Psalm 27, inviting a phrase, a verse to call out to me. For this practice, I could choose any text (couldn’t I?), but I choose (or am I chosen by?) a sacred Jewish text. A few days ago it was I dwell in the house of God. Another day it was I shall see God’s goodness in the land of the living (same psalm). I repeat the words that called to me, some days for thirty, some days for forty or forty-five minutes, quietly, internally.
I don’t purposely analyze them (what does it mean “to dwell”? what is God’s “house”?). I don’t force the simple meaning of the verse upon myself. I neither try to convince myself that I, Rick Chess, dwell in God’s house nor berate myself that because of my failings (I gossip! I judge!) I am prohibited from dwelling in there. (“Who may rise in God’s sanctuary? / One who has clean hands and a pure heart.” Psalm 24.) I simply repeat them, repeat them and try to remain open to whatever comes: visitors welcome! (“Of Visitors—the fairest—”; not always, Ms. Dickinson, in my case.) And when my mind wanders, when I’ve noticed it’s wandered, I gently bring it back. My occupation—This (Dickinson): bringing my attention back to the words.
“The small nouns”: a woman, a poet who dwells in a house with an everlasting roof, who dwells in a poem; a man, a poet who is startled by and startles wild deer “bedding down” “in the small beauty of the forest,” in the small beauty of a poem.
I, too, am a small noun “[c]rying faith / In this”: this psalm on which I dwell.
My faith in this: this process, bringing my attention, after it has been drawn to other sounds, other (internal) sights, back to these words: I dwell in the house of God. Perhaps “God.” For sure this: this process.
Faith in, devotion to, concentration on.
“Rabbi Yaakov said, ‘Were one to be walking on the road while studying [Torah] and then interrupt one’s studies to say, “How beautiful is this tree!” or “How nice is this plowed field!” such a person would be considered by Torah to have sinned against one’s own soul’” (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers 3:7).
But why? Nature’s beauty, isn’t it worthy of my eye’s attention, my heart’s affection?
Our fathers say, keep your head in a book, the Book; dwell in the house of God, a house of words, all the days, all the walks of your life.
Our fathers say, keep the Book in your head, your heart at all times, lest your heart wander from the Book (the house) to this tree and this plowed field. Lest you are moved by what you see to declare your faith in this work of nature and in this work of man. Lest you forget the creator of nature, the creator of human life, the creator of work. Lest you forget the brukha, the blessing, the prayer: “Barukh Atah Y-H-V-H, Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of all time and space, who has such as these in your world.”
Are the words, then, the words of blessing, the words of Torah, meant to protect us from misplacing our faith in the world, a world of sensory, aesthetic, emotional experience, a world prior to or beyond words, when our faith should be placed in your world, your word-soaked world?
It is you whom I seek, says my heart.
It is your presence that I seek, Adonai. (Psalm 27)
Or is it just Presence that I seek, Adonai?
I dwell in the house of nouns.
In this, Psalm 27’s house of nouns (translated from Hebrew): light, strength, life, enemies, fear, war, trust, beauty, sukkah, days, tent, rock, head, joy, chants, voice, heart, presence, anger, father, mother, ways, path, integrity, foe, enemy, witnesses, goodness, land, eternal, eternal.
At least for as long as I am reading Psalm 27, a minute or two each day for another few weeks, I dwell in its house. But are its nouns windows or walls, mirrors or lamps, lamps that illuminate, for a moment, fear within, giving me a chance to, if nothing else, acknowledge its presence in my life and then, perhaps, in the stillness of the posture in which it arises, to observe my reaction, even while sitting still, especially while sitting still, to this unpleasant feeling?
To illuminate my own experience of fear (of failing at my job, my marriage, or this, the composing of this essay) or longing (if not exactly for God—Adonai, hear my voice when I call; be gracious to me, and answer—then just to be heard, deeply, truly heard)—is this the psalm’s work? And when it succeeds, which it does not always, has the distance between the psalmist and me, between God and me, been narrowed?
In another week or two, I will cross campus toward my office, like I have for twenty-three years, and my eyes will be lifted from the ground of my worries to October’s luminous maples enclosing the quad. Then, perhaps, as I have before, I’ll find myself suddenly nounless, homeless, godless. Astonished. Achingly alive.
Stay, my heart will plead to regal autumn (your presence?) that will have arrived while I slept, while I meditated, while I prayed, while I planned my day.
“Were one to be walking on the road while studying (v’shoneh) and then interrupt one’s studies (mimishnawto).” Shoneh, mishna, translated here as “studying” and “studies,” also mean “repeat” and “repetition.” Thus, walking on the road, repeating to oneself words of Torah. Thus, interrupting one’s repetition of words of Torah.
In my case, working with Psalm 27 for my morning meditation, and composing this essay, repeating the verse “I dwell in the house of God”—until I’m interrupted or distracted by….
What then? Having drifted away from the words, God’s words (Torah), man’s words (this psalm) addressed to God, have I sinned against my own soul? My soul, my soul, my soul: is it made of words, words received from God, words returned to God (“God’s breath in man returning to his birth,” George Herbert)?
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be on your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5–6).
On your heart. Why on and not in, asks the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk (1787–1859). Because hearts aren’t always open, the Rebbe teaches, so the words are placed there. We place them there by repeating them, to ourselves, to our children. When we sit in our house and when we walk by the way, when we lie down and when we rise up, when we feel inclined to speak them and when we don’t, when they feel near and when they feel distant, the words are placed there so when the heart does open, these words, these very words placed on the heart (why not in the mind?) will enter like a guest who waits patiently at the door until we are ready to unlock, open, and welcome her into our house, only to discover that what we had thought until now was our home is her home, and we are her guests here.
I dwell in the house of God.
Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Third Temple. He has recently been appointed by the North Carolina Poetry Society as the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet of Western North Carolina.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.