“Between the rupture of life and the rapture of language lies a world of awe and witness.”
— Christian Wiman
I was 20 years old, wearing Birkenstocks and composing flowery poetry, much of it set to guitar in hopes this would make me attractive to young women. It was not my style to darken the door of the campus auxiliary auditorium on Wednesday mornings for weekly chapel.
Then came the Tuesday morning when planes exploded into skyscrapers.
The day after 9/11, there was standing room only for the service. I don’t recall what Scriptures were read. Only that a wild-eyed young woman standing next to me cried out, “Je-sus!” when we heard a jet outside. The campus was not far from an airport. Jets flew overhead all the time. Suddenly we noticed with religious devotion.
Later that week, an English professor gave his class a poem by W.H. Auden: The unmentionable colour of death / offends the September night. These lines speak to the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. But reading this poem for the first time after the terrorist attacks made them come alive: I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.
If it does not always repeat, perhaps history rhymes like a couplet. A poem may not provide answers, but rhythmic connections may echo down the corridors of time and space. Words may resound in our ears, our minds, our hearts.
Fast forward to a few months ago.
On the last Saturday before he was to start kindergarten, my son Sam sat happily at the breakfast table and, between bites of his favorite pancakes, my wife asked our firstborn what he wished to do in the day ahead. The park or a museum? Perhaps a picnic at the pool? Our boy set his fork down: “Mommy, I would like to sit around and talk to one another.”
Language brings pleasure. Everyone loves a good story — a tale that tugs at the heartstrings or tickles your funny bone (or makes milk come out of your nose in the case of a certain kindergartener). What I think my son was saying, however, was his desire for a connection. Planes pass overheard, we move through our days on autopilot. When do we pay attention? When we are afraid! But don’t we want something more in our day-to-day lives? The writer and mystic Howard Thurman dared to put words to our deepest desire:
The givenness of God is the movement of the heart of a [human] toward God; a movement that in a sense is within God — God in the heart sharing its life with God the Creator of all Life.
True, Thurman is not discussing the spoken or written word per se. As a preacher, I am fully aware of the poverty of language to speak of the richness of life, either physical or emotional or spiritual. Who am I to argue with the poet Mary Oliver that the sun in your face is the best preacher that ever was? Ah, but I might not appreciate this morning’s great hands of light if she hadn’t put it exactly in those words.
Tracking my thoughts so far, a crisis will jar us from our state of waking slumber. Afterward, we seek a means of interpreting such ruptures of life, as Christian Wiman says. And so, words matter. And the right words matter even more.
E.L. Doctorow has a brilliant essay about the first book of the Bible in which he argues that modern translations, such as the Revised Standard Edition, make Genesis seem like a collection of whimsical folk tales. But the King James is epic poetry:
What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.
Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee.
Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.
Ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good.
Put differently, both Robert Louis Stevenson and my son Sam offer blessings before supper. But I don’t think I’m being a high-minded literary snob when I note the world of difference between Lord, behold our family here assembled / Give us peace, gaiety and the quiet mind as compared with Good bread, good meat / Good God, let’s eat!
I do understand that language matters in utilitarian terms. I do not want poetry sprinkled, say, into the Ikea instructions for assembling my children’s bunk bed. But, again quoting Wiman, the rapture of language lies a world of awe and witness. The right words matter personally.
This past September, I gave a parishioner a poem. This widow had offered these verses at her beloved’s memorial: And I shall have some peace there, for / peace comes dropping slow.
Because of her reading of W.B. Yeats, I presented her with a copy of one of Wendell Berry’s books of poems, which included “The Peace of Wild Things.” She immediately pointed to Berry’s verse: I come into the presence of still water.
For her, Berry’s “still water” was a direct literary allusion. The eloquent sun was preaching through her kitchen window as she, robed in light, recited from memory: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
And I tell you, gentle reader, that something happened, a something that I fail to put into words. Perhaps, as Thurman claimed, it was the movement of her heart toward God — the Creator who is closer than her jugular vein. What I will submit is that the same something would not have happened if she had not been mourning her beloved or if I had pulled out my NRSV and read even though I walk through the darkest valley.
You remember W.H. Auden and his moving September poem? The same writer penned: Poetry makes nothing happen. And this in elegy of the literary giant W.B. Yeats! Yeats, who devoted his considerable talent to the written word in hopes of resolving the religious conflict his native Northern Ireland, died with the violence intensifying. In this case, the pen was not mightier than the Molotov cocktail. We have all heard the tired maxims that talk is cheap and that actions speak louder than words. We know that we are 17 years into America’s interminable war against the Taliban. Do words – even beautiful, wise ones strung together like pearls or dew glistening on the spider’s web at dawn – make a bit of difference in the “real” world?
We might first question what is really real.
Annie Dillard notes that modern physicists are stark-raving mystics, believing in such ideas as galaxies twirling indefinitely and quantums dancing a synchronized duet over thousands of miles. After considering chaos theory’s a pirouette of butterfly wings, then a massive typhoon across the deep, Dillard writes:
Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape. … Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.
“Swaddling bands of darkness” is an allusion to Job, a man who fell silent before the whirlwind’s chaos. And so maybe poetry doesn’t change anything. But maybe, when poetry evokes senses of awe and witness, we find that something has changed in us, something has changed us.
John Calvin is rarely accused of being a poet, yet the theologian begins his magnus opus with this ringing claim: Every person, upon coming to knowledge of the self, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led to find Him.
A story, then, about my younger son, Asa, who just celebrated a birthday. Never one to sleep in, even on a holiday, he called me into his room at dark-thirty. I mustered a sleepy smile: “Today, you are three!” To which he replied, “Today, I am ‘Asa’.” He was fully awake in more ways than one.
The faith of my children teaches my slumbering self to look and listen in words and deeds for the givenness of God — the Holy that poet William Stafford called the always-arriving present. Seems appropriate to end with a few lines of my own, which might hint at the certain “something” I have been trying to hang words upon:
A Chaos Theory of Grace
I did only what I had done before,
waiting for his medicine to bring calm.
I took my bawling boy into my arms,
and paced our creaky wooden floorboards.
Out in the dark, I heard our lone neighbor’s
truck, starting across the fields of his farm,
that he might comfort lambing ewes in his barn.
In a million years, he couldn’t of paid more
than a fleeting and flashing second glance
to our home. As his two guiding headlights
shone, marking his passage through the cold night,
these same twin beams appeared to us by chance,
like angels flying in luminous white,
stilling my child by their sudden grace dance.
Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This year, he will publish “Going Gently Between the Words,” a collection of essays and poems.