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Poets & Preachers: Mountaintops and Deserts

June 29, 2013

The poet’s habit of living should be set on a key so low that the common influences should delight him.  His cheerfulness should be the gift of the sunlight; the air should suffice for his inspiration, and he should be tipsy with water. Emerson

I have rarely enjoyed the ideal posture of “the poet,” as Emerson describes him; however, their have been moments of sublimity when I have experienced the grace of the cheering sunshine and the gift of inspiring air.  Any honest and decent poet can tell you that writing poetry often involves dark clouds and brooding air.  These dark mines of devils come unexpectedly and one either explores them or puts down the poet’s pen forever.

The oft-troubled poet and novelist James Dickey writes of the pains of writing poetry in our self-destructive culture: “This is what is driving our whole civilization into suicide; the feeling that we are living existences in which nothing matters very much…for the poet everything matters and it matters a lot—that is the realm where we work.”  To write serious poetry, one must believe that life matters, that people matter and that words matter and have the power to bring healing and hope.

Good poetry confronts readers with reality.  The fact that, as T.S. Eliot states, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” means that good poetry can disturb and even hurt readers.  I think we all enjoy a nice rhyme now and then that offers refreshing frivolity.  And that is the thing with poetry; it comes uncontrollable to the reader.  When we begin the first line of a poem, if we are willing, we invite reality to artfully expose our delusions and woundedness.  We want the guarantee of frivolity and affirmation; while, a good poem guarantees truth and confrontation.

Reading poetry resembles listening to a sermon; reactions are as varied and uncertain.  A penetrating Christian sermon may uplift one’s spirit; it may encourage listeners and affirm them in their Christian endeavors.  A realistic Christian sermon also echoes the rebukes of the Lord and Scripture.  Jesus tells us that “Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline.” (Rev 3.19)  If you, as an adult, have not been rebuked and disciplined lately, then you haven’t heard a good sermon or read a good poem.

The general reaction of people to truth that rebukes our delusions or challenges our sins is to point a finger of accusation and utter sarcastic words of dismissal toward the messenger.  Such a reaction inspired Jesus’ words of indictment against Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.”  (Matt 23.37)  Conversely, the one to whom God looks is, “he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at [God’s] word.” (Isaiah 66:2)

We may think we are judging rightly when in fact we are protecting our fragile self-image and view of the world that cradles our depraved self.  Our culture does collectively, and we do it individually, what Dan Berrigan describes as setting up a “court in the kingdom of the blind and condemning those who see.”   If we are not spiritual and morally blind completely, we all have blind spots.  We need the poets and the preachers to point them out and give us sight.

So, writing meaningful poetry or preaching meaningful sermons…how does it happen?  Does it require what Emerson prescribes as being “tipsy with water” while soaking in the sunshine of cheer?  I think that is part of it, but that is not the whole story anymore than enjoying gallons of miraculous wine at a wedding is the whole story of Christ’s ministry.  Certainly, the joys of life and creation contribute a necessary ingredient to poetry and preaching.  Without the grace of sunshine and life-giving air both fall flat upon the backs of those already bent down with the weights of the world.   The poet and the preacher must be willing and courageous in diving into the waters of baptism and exploring the darkness of death and Hades.

Poetry and preaching comes only at a costly price.  Wordsworth got to this point in his “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads where he describes the manufacturing process of poetry.  It may sound flowery here, but try doing it and you will see the grueling effort of it:

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility:  Poetry of value comes from a person possessed of more than usual organic sensibility who has thought long and deeply.  The poet is a person endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, a person who rejoices more than others in the spirit of life that is in him; emphatically may it be said of the Poet, as Shakespeare said of man, ‘that he looks before and after.’”

Time, space, quiet, deep reflection, sacrifice and an invitation to the Creator to invade our souls—that is what is behind true words of life; along with those requirements being fulfilled, one must gather up the courage to proclaim what has been given.  Facing the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in private is one thing; unshielding our hearts and souls to the crowd is no act for cowards.

Again I look to Emerson for elaboration.  He writes, “The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”  That sweetness must be hard-won following the prescription of Wordsworth – for the poet and the preacher.  Thomas A’Kempis’ exhortation must be followed consistently, “Enter into thy secret chamber, and shut out the tumults of the world.”  Pascal warns us that the pleasure of solitude is a thing incomprehensible to humans because there we face our feeble, mortal and miserable conditions.

The poet and preacher learn that in this sacred place of solitude is where we find our deep depravity and inadequacy overwhelmed by God’s infinite grace and whirling redemption. Thomas Merton was both warned and encouraged by God to enter into this solitude.  In a message that he ascribes as being from God included in his autobiography, he hears God tell him, “You shall taste the true solitude of my anguish and my poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of my joy and you shall die in me and find all things in my mercy which has created you for this end…that you may become the brother of God.”  In this vision, Merton sees the joys and anguish of solitude required to bring forth the truthful word.

The courage to deliver the words in print or person assumes a learned skill and art that enhance rather than hinder the message.  The privilege for the poet or preacher to speak into your life assumes an accountable authority that has been earned and proven.  The value of the message assumes a quality of life congruent with the substance of the words delivered.

In light of the above, the challenge turns to the audience.  Sure, when you are uplifted, entertained, encouraged or affirmed by the message, you will applaud.  When the words are arrows and the shafts drive deep into your flesh, heart and soul, what then?  Will you turn back and walk away? (John 6.66) Will you take offense and excuse yourself?  Will you leave sorrowful, angry, hurt, condemning, confused, untransformed? Or will you stay courageously and be conformed to the image of Christ—crucified, risen and ascended to heaven?

If you value the expression of the poet or preacher in your life, pray for him or her diligently and earnestly.  Pray for the audience.  None of this happens in a peaceful vacuum but in a constant vortex of the battle between good and evil.  “No neutral ground,” as Lewis has said, exists in the world.

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2 Responses to “Poets & Preachers: Mountaintops and Deserts”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    “We may think we are judging rightly when in fact we are protecting our fragile self-image and view of the world that cradles our depraved self.”

    The preachers themselves may not be immune to what you elegantly stated above. To me that’s the power of the statement, it’s universal. Understanding that truth is why I refuse blind faith and will remain agnostic.

    Joshua


    • Thanks for your comments Joshua. I like to think of what St. Anselm wrote regarding faith, that following Christ is not based on blind faith but on “Faith seeking understanding.” Preachers are certainly not immune to problems of the broken self. I think this is why God speaks highly of the person who has a “humble and contrite heart” and is continually seeking healing and transformation through the experiential relationship with the Holy Spirit. I think it is through such an experience that agnosticism turns to faith.


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