The Religion of Poetry
Last week, we touched upon the idea that Mary Oliver found her freedom, her way of being in this world, through an interplay between nature and poetry, as she recovered from the hurtful and broken family she was from. I find this idea of finding healing through poetry quite compelling. I think it’s quite a similar process to what happens within religious community. In both religious communities and poetry (I have given you a list if you want to follow along), you focus upon the interior world, you think about things in an associative way, drawing out tacit connections between one thing and another, you speak together a language which is not the language of our everyday lives, you are very attentive to the present moment, and not simply swept along by the rhythms of the mundane, you are not self or ego orientated, you place a value on things which goes beyond financial matters, and finally both religious communities and poetry are both incapable of realising, or fulfilling, the impulse from which they arise. I’m going to unpack what I mean by each of these similarities. First, in religious community and poetry, we focus upon the interior world. Focusing upon our interior selves is not a thing valued much in the West. Through introspection, we very slowly and meaningfully consider all the dimensions of things. Say for example, you have an emotional response to something, and you consider where that emotional response comes from within you. Does it resonate with something about which you have strong feelings, does it hook up with memories from your past, will the consequence of ‘it’ (whatever ‘it’ is), be contrary to what you want? In this introspective process, we delve into the implications of what is happening in the world, and how we might act in this world. An introspective person is a conscious person, a person who thinks first and acts second, a person more rooted into this world - they’re not just skimming over it. They feel the world’s pain and her joys.
There is a pop song that came out a few years ago which is the antithesis of this introspective process. It’s a song I really hate, but it captures in many ways a prevalent spirit of our age, a nihilistic, nothing matters, flippant, don’t think about it type attitude. It’s a song by Natalia Kills called ‘Controversy’. It’s a Pop song so it has a lot of repetition in it as you would expect – ‘controversy, controversy, controversy’, followed by ‘controversies’ being listed: drug dealers, porn addicts, under age, politicians, teen brides, headlines, STDs, high school shootings, peer pressure, working late, society, online is the new reality, prostitution, hate crime, and on and on it goes… And then we get to the chorus – ‘Drink the Kool Aid, don’t drink the Kool Aid’, ‘Drink the Kool Aid, don’t drink the Kool Aid’. In other words, take it seriously, don’t take seriously, care, don’t care, take up the cause or don’t, either way it ultimately matters not. This nihilistic mentality I personally find quite troubling. I value, as I think all of us gathered here do, taking weighty issues seriously, being reflective, and thoughtful. Of course, it goes without saying that being a conscious person does not mean being a religious person, one can obviously be a thoughtful, spiritually attuned person without going to a place of worship on a Sunday, though I would imagine it helps. Poetry, in this way, often shows up as a way of doing spirituality in a secular way. Again, Mary Oliver’s poetry strikes me as a very good example of this, of being spiritual without being religious. I think Unitarianism often functions in that way also; a place for people who feel spiritual, without necessary feeling religious.
Okay, returning to similarities between religious communities and poetry, the second on my list is thinking about things in an associative way. In poetry, you often take an idea or image, which at a surface level, or in literal terms, is unrelated to the subject matter, but through associating them you draw out a particular feeling or sense. This of course happens all the time in poetry. Like in the poem we heard of a man on a walk under the trees in the evening, reminiscing about a past with bare feet and silk dresses. The leaves on the trees rustle gently, and this is likened to voices – muffled voices, locked in a past he can no longer access. He reaches for images and senses in his present, to articulate a sense, a longing… This reaching after inadequate words to express something which is ultimately beyond words is a recurring theme of poetry, and also religious language. Take the passages we heard from 1 Kings, the Lord passing by Elijah who was in his cave. In those verses, you have words which are basically prose poetry, “There was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” We can only speculate about what is happening to Elijah. He is having a transcendent experience of the divine, and he is reaching for words to try and express it. I would imagine there is not really any splitting of mountains, earthquakes, or fires. He reaches for ideas he can take hold of, to express something he cannot. The journey of faith is really a journey of wrestling with metaphor, of groping after language that we can share in common which expresses something luminous, something essential, that speaks to our most essential selves.
Often a mark of spiritual maturity is a recognition that an idea or assertion within a religious text can be understood in a multitude of ways. In the same way that we each experience poems uniquely, filtered as they are through our own unique perception, so it is likewise that biblical texts are going to be coloured by our individual reading of them. The spiritually awakened person is someone who is able to think associatively. We reach for associative language because it helps us be more experimental. This way we can try to express originality, attempt to find new structures of intelligibility, new ways of thinking in this world, which at least optimistically, should help us discover new ways of being in this world. When you read a poem you enter into an unspoken agreement with the poet. You recognise together that associative language is being used. You’re not using the language of our everyday lives. You expect a poet to string concepts together in an unconventional way, to communicate the subject matter uniquely. As you read poetry, and think poetically, you become better at reading poetry, and thinking poetically. There is a process, a growing taking place. This is also the case within religious communities. We, by virtue of being a religious community, think and unfold ideas in way which is unique to this community. We have our own, Ipswich Unitarian Meeting, ‘language’. A language which has taken shape here for decades, centuries, which we all have a stake in. I think it’s very easy for religious communities to forget how odd what we’re currently doing is. When new people come into this community, they’re not going to just get it. There is a process of enculturation that has to take place. You could almost say there is special knowledge; as I said a couple of weeks ago, there are key ideas we as Unitarians move in concentric circles around. Each service builds on the previous, each conversation builds on the previous. To be a Unitarian is to learn the language of Unitarianism.
Number four is focused on the present. In a poem, one is intensively focusing upon the particularities of a present moment, making oneself aware of every sensation, feeling, sight, sound, smell, of that moment. And by capturing it in words, trying to make that present moment universally accessible. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” In other words, God has sent Jesus to show us the way, and if we follow Jesus’ way, we will not perish but have eternal life. Now what is that? The traditional conception of eternal life is the literal definition – that somehow, our bodies, or our souls, or our essences, will be eternally preserved in some way. But what if we read Jesus words and assume that as he often does he is not talking literally, but rather, talking associatively. What if he’s not talking about a future reality, but rather possibilities within our present reality. What does Elijah say - “There was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” Being utterly present, infinitely present, eternally present to sheer silence. In silent meditation, we endeavour to silence the mind, a silence which goes deep, a deep silence of our unconscious mind. Here we gather in the Meeting House each week, to be wholly present to ourselves, to one another, to our world. We’re not trying to kill time. In our everyday lives we may naturally slip into just coasting through, numbed by just how repetitively mundane everything is. Here we are awake, to the present. We practice being present in this space, to these people, we practice what Jesus was inviting us into, being eternally alive people now. Full of life, love, and compassion. Both religious community (at its best) and poetry (at its best) are about being wholly alive to the present.
Number five is probably the most self-evident. In both poetry and in religious community, we expand our circle of compassion. By imaging what it’s like to be in someone else’s subjective space, we learn to not just view this world through the lens of our own wants and desires. Being in religious community, being in any community to an extent, helps us practice putting others before ourselves. To quote Albert Einstein, “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”.
Number six is value beyond money. In the West, we are in the throes of a self-esteem epidemic. Suicide rates are high, clinical depression is prevalent. As far as we know, it’s worse now than it’s ever been in human history. Now why is that? One likely explanation is the extent to which value is determined today by something’s economic worth alone. A human being is worth the sum of his skills, skills by which he or she earns money. Each of us is under pressure to prove his or her own worth, by maximising their own value. The more we earn, money, recognition, likes on Facebook, hits on our blog, the more value we perceive ourselves to have. Through poetry, through religious community, we measure value by a far different criteria, a more humanising criteria, by which we recognise innate value. Poetry is a particularly good example of this in the arts, because a poem has essentially no economic value at all. The greatest poems ever written can be owned by anyone, easily accessed on the internet, downloaded, and printed. If you have the words, you own the poem. It’s not like a painting, in which you have the original, and the limited prints of that piece. Paintings are subject to market forces in a way poetry is not. Both poetry and religious community turn the criteria of value our world operates under on its head. ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did to me.’
And finally, number seven. The poet comes to a white piece of paper, white space. She seeks to create a timeless moment, to express an individual experience with universal appeal, to create a sense of communal identity. There is an ideal, a transcendent impulse which poetry attempts to capture, but by virtue of being reduced to finite words on a page, the poem fails. All poetry fails to live up to the possibility of poetry. Religious community is the same - we long to inhabit some pure crystallised transcendental moment, to feel wholly at one in some primordial sense with reality. Every poem and every religious service is a record of failure, another example of an unrealised possibility. What’s interesting though, is that by virtue of being inadequate, and us recognising that inadequacy, it proves in a way that we instinctively have a criterion by which to know we fail. To know this is to make the journey worthwhile. Religion does not give us what we want, it gives us what we need.
The poetics of religion.
The religion of poetry.