The Word made Flesh: Poetry, Spirituality and Scripture

July 5, 2009
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I find some poetry immensely moving, even spiritually satisfying.  Even though I am not ‘well-read’ I still sense that there is a vast reservoir of literature that could provide other channels of communication with God.  Poetry has been one of those channels for me.  For example, when it comes to conisdering my fear of death, I have found poetry helpful and liberating (check out ‘Aubade’ by Philip Larkin).  In addition I have discovered a changing relationship with God through poetry.  One example from a fairly recent poet is ‘The Word made Flesh’ by Morri Creech.   Perhaps it is worth noting that Creech was raised as a Southern Baptist but as far as I can tell is an Atheist, if that has any bearing on the following.  The poem is from his ‘Testament of Judas’ from his book ‘Paper Cathedrals’, which as a whole is brilliant.  The text follows: [Judas is the speaker]

Say what you will about the coming of the Kingdom,

Morri Creech

Morri Creech

of the fire-washed multitudes

that shall gather together and be raised whole

and inhabit the clean rooms of the spirit -

but that first morning we followed him to the mountain

no one was healed.  There was not flash

from the heavens, no chorus of hosannas:

there was only Jesus, in love with the world

even as he renounced it, swaying

like a storm-shaken reed as he spoke to us,

saying, the poor in spirit shall be sundered,

sundered and blessed, and the wind

caught his robes, and parted to make room

for his body, and his voice was like honey

drenching the olive leaves.  And I knew him then,

knew him for what he was: dust

torn from the light, imperfect and radiant,

an untrammelled flame loosed on the ripe fields

that Sabbath, eating the grain from the cupped hands

like a blessing – and when he said, Judas follow me

and you shall taste the abundance of paradise

how could I turn from him then,

blessed as I was, blessed with a love

that would rise and consume me forever?

I do not want to explore all the reasons that I find this particularly moving, but it may be worth highlighting just a few.  ‘No one was healed’ suggests to me the in my interaction with God miracles are not the only way he communicates with me or shows his love.  I think I should be able to feel that just from being with Him. ‘There was only Jesus, in, love with the world’ inspires me to look with new sight at sensuous importance of this life.  Further this poem makes Jesus so human.  He is like us and relishes his experiences with the world and the people in it.

All this connects in my mind with a quotation I read from from Bernard Loomer, cited by Dan Wotherspoon (former editor of Sunstone) at his ‘Pillars of my Faith’  presentation at the symposium recently.  Using Size as a metaphor for spirituality, Loomer, who is a process theologian, writes: “By size I mean the stature of [your] soul, the range and depth of [your] love, [your] capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions. I mean the magnanimity of concern to provide conditions that enable others to increase in stature.”

This poem suggests to me that Jesus grew in Size, and so must we.  

David Rosenberg has written: “Much of the Hebrew Bible was written by poets who were not parochial writers but more resembled a John Donne or T.S. Eliot: poets first, devotees second.”  Perhaps the distinction between poetry and scripture is not so easy to define.  Steven Walker has argued that the literary style of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants often changes, as he sees Joseph become more influenced by the spirit.  He notes that “When the Prophet records the direct words of the Lord, his style is different from the style in which he writes his own thoughts… when he is intensely inspired, he is more eloquent than when less moved by the Spirit.” 

A recent Master’s candidate  at BYU who attempts to discuss the relationship of contemporary American poetry with divinity wrote: “The purpose of both scripture and poetry becomes the examination of the individual‘s relationship with God or the divine… That God is present in [poetry] is indisputable.  What is created here is not only a conversation of how man is like God, but how the individual is like God—how the reader can relate to a being who is all things, who is in every way so unlike him/her that the only way to understand is to find those similarities.”

My questions are these:

Do you like this poem, and/or are there other examples of poetry or other forms of literature that have affected you spiritually and if so which?

Does poetry, or other literature, do things for us that ‘sacred’ texts cannot?

Are poetry and scripture closely tied together?  Is the influence of scripture linked to the aesthetic of the words as much as the truth of their content?

10 Responses to The Word made Flesh: Poetry, Spirituality and Scripture

  1. July 5, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Aaron, I love this post. Poetry affects me very much, and in a spiritual way. I think that is why much of scripture is written in poetic form. It is a shame that when we don’t know the original languages we don’t get the full power of this. I guess that’s why I love the KJV, because it gives more of a poetic feel to the verses sometimes than many of the other translations.

    One of the poems that touches me spiritually is The Chambered Nautilus, by Oliver Wendell Holmes. It has the same theme you mentioned above, of growing in size. Holmes speaks of a sea creature which, as it grows, builds new and larger chambers onto its shell then leaves the smaller and moves into the larger room. The first part of the poem describes this process poetically and declares that it holds a heavenly message for the author. The last verse goes:

    “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
    As the swift seasons roll!
    Leave thy low-vaulted past!
    Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
    Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
    Till thou at length art free,
    Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!”

    That really gets me.

    PS — The pic of Morri Creech is nice. Can someone introduce me?

  2. July 5, 2009 at 9:49 am

    Don’t forget as well that many of our sacred texts are poetry in the original. We’ve just lost much of that in translation.

    I am particularly fond of San Juan de la Cruz’s mystic poetry, and that of Santa Teresa de Avila. They manage to take our physical yearnings for satisfaction and translate them very well into spiritual terms:

    ¡Oh noche que guiaste!
    ¡oh noche amable más que la alborada!;
    ¡oh noche que juntaste,
    Amado con amada,
    amada en el Amado transformada!
    —San Juan de la Cruz, “En una noche oscura”

  3. Aaron Reeves
    July 5, 2009 at 11:52 am

    re 1: and 3: I have never read nor heard of either of those so I will have to look up the full versions, in english unfortunately. I have found the idea of the scriptures being poetry in the original interesting primarily because I have wondered whether they were written spontaneously or whether they were planned and prepared. I guess I would lean toward the latter, but then, I would naturally assume that scripture is written spontaneously. Does that add or detract from the importance of the scriptures?

    Further, now that poetry in many ways is a dying art form, whereas in the past it used to be regarded as the highest form of literary writing, according to Stephen Fry, will this reflect a change in the nature of scripture. Is the stylistic literary shift between the bible and the D&C reflective of a changing view of the value of certain forms of literature? In fact the newest revelations we have in the Church, if my memory serves me correct, are visions and public manifesto’s. Is this important?

  4. wayfarer
    July 5, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    I’m not sure that it’s possible to speak of an individual’s spiritual process without resorting to poetry-spiritual process is not prosaic.To speak of it in terms that others can relate to requires us to use language that resonates on the deepest and most archetypal plain.I certainly don’t have any inside track on the scriptures,but when we try to eliminate poetry from them they seem to me to be less than themselves.There is something of the visionary in great poets,struggling as they are with the big questions,and the spirit most often communes in it’s most concentrated form through the effort to purge language into it’s most essential form.It seems to me that a Prophetic writer has to be an individual who has honed the skill of communicating spiritual experience.Love their seared souls.

    On a personal note,since being ill I find myself almost unable to endure the intensity of experience communicated in both scripture and poetry.That is hard to endure.

  5. July 5, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    A few more brief thoughts:
    1. Joseph Smith saw fit to transpose D&C 76 into poetic form. It may reflect both the bent of the prophet and the time available to him or her to work on a text.
    2. The aching, pleading God revealed in the Minor (and Major) Prophets of the Old Testament, who often used poetic forms, is the face of God that I have most been able to relate to.
    3. Poetry requires one to think about the words being used to communicate as much as the idea being communicated, an intensity and economy of phrase that I’ve never felt so strongly in prose forms. This may also explain some of the human and prophetic tendency to take our spiritual experience and try to express it in a very demanding format.

  6. Aaron Reeves
    July 6, 2009 at 1:56 am

    btw, i should acknowledge a great post by Margaret Blair Young that discusses a poem on BCC which is great.

    re 4: I wonder if there are poets who have been skipped or dropped, or re-written because they were not poetic enough. We do not hear of them now because they were prosaic in style? Also, although, IMO, there are elements in the D&C and BoM that are poetic I do not see that as common. For the most part I find the language a bit dry. So was Joseph poor at this?

    also, are there modern GA’s that do this well. For my part, I enjoy immmensely Jeffrey Holland.

    re 5: does anyone know why Joseph did that with 76 but not with the other ‘visions’ he had? I like the idea of demanding experiences requiring demanding style?

  7. July 6, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    “Do you like this poem, and/or are there other examples of poetry or other forms of literature that have affected you spiritually and if so which?”

    The poem above seems to describing a religious idea using common Christian imagery and language its the kind of thing I shy away from, its pretty one the nose. The great thing about modern poetry is that it does an excellent job of exploring the spiritual nature of human experience without needing to be overtly religious. Robert Frost and William Stafford as well as the Russian Arsney Tarkovsky are three examples of poets who doe this very well. Further, the poetic need not be limited to written form. Its more difficult for other forms of art to be poetic, but I think that the Cinema has an easier time that other forms of creating its own poetry. Andri Tarkovsky (som of Arsney) was the master of this, certain passages in his films the Mirror & Stalker are without questions visual spiritual poems.

    “Does poetry, or other literature, do things for us that ‘sacred’ texts cannot?”
    I’m not sure what this question means since so much of the OT & NT is in fact poetry I can’t say I know what distinction you are making here. One of the things that is so marvelous about the Biblical text is all the different ways it communicates to us about the condition of humanity and the nature of the divine and the relationship between the two. The Bible itself is proof that figurative language is a favored tool of the divine. That’s one of the things that makes contemporary Mormon culture a bit disappointing to me, it thinks in prose, preaches in prose, only draws from poetry to buttress ideas always already expressed in prose. Broadly speaking my experience of being in church on Sunday suggests that contemporary Mormon culture does not trust the poetic or believe in the way it works. the spiritual / literary possibilities of the poetic have been traded in for a prose of certainty that relies upon ideology, economy, technology and so on. I do love those rare moments when prose is ruptured by poetry.

    “Are poetry and scripture closely tied together? Is the influence of scripture linked to the aesthetic of the words as much as the truth of their content?”

    The distinction between form and function is not universally embraced. Literary criticism of the last 40 – 50 years is critical of this distinction. Ferdinand de Saussure famously said there is no distinction between and idea and the language used to expressed it. There is a lot to that idea but on the most simple level he was at least suggesting that if you change the words you change the idea. “Listen closely” and “let my words sink into your ears.” do not mean the same thing, even if people who are dulled to the power of language want to believe that they are both equivalents for “I’m talking here, pay attention!.”

    “The purpose of both scripture and poetry becomes the examination of the individual‘s relationship with God or the divine… That God is present in [poetry] is indisputable. What is created here is not only a conversation of how man is like God, but how the individual is like God—how the reader can relate to a being who is all things, who is in every way so unlike him/her that the only way to understand is to find those similarities.”

    This feels like a straight jacket to me. Walter Brueggemann has shown that there is a great deal more to it than this. at the very least look at his book Finally Comes the Poet. Granted the topic is a bit difference but the necessity of poetry in scripture, prophetic address, and in the preaching moment has multiple sources and many purposes. Also what would this BYU grad student do with community laments found in the book of Psalms? They might be articulated by an individual but these poems give expression to the needs of a community, and I would also say that in such Biblical poetic forms, the relationship between the community and the divine is already established. Such texts take their form because the author is working within an already existing and known structure.

  8. Aaron Reeves
    July 7, 2009 at 2:14 am

    re 7: Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I wanted to make some responses to your questions/comments:

    ‘I’m not sure what this question means since so much of the OT & NT is in fact poetry I can’t say I know what distinction you are making here.’ I think the distinction I was aiming at was the same one you highlight a little later in your response, which is that that Mormon culture has a prosaic relationship with scripture (thus scripture=prose poetry=non-scripture). In addition in #3 I mentioned a shift in literary style when it comes to receiving revelations, what may have caused this shift?

    “The Bible itself is proof that figurative language is a favored tool of the divine.”

    I am not sure this is accurate, it seems like a circular logic. It may have been that poetry was the way of that culture to express their highest experiences whereas the shift away from that in Mormon Culture is sympotmatic of a wider cultural shift. I like the idea of God being a poet and caring about using beautiful language but I am not sure that it is a defensible position.

    Your question about community laments is interesting? This poetic style may be reflective of a shift in thinking. The Hebrews at least viewed the community as the subject, the community sinned or was obedient; whereas there is a much greater emphasis on the individual as subject. To answer your question I think she, and in fact we, probably struggle with really feeling that sense of community accountability.

    But again thanks for your comments. I will have to look up Finally Comes the Poet.

  9. July 8, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    I think that the practice of religion *is* poetry. A good portion of the world tries to treat it like a technical manual, but it’s not. The critics of religion to me are like people who say “love contains no molecules of H2O, so I refuse to feel it” when a poet says their love is like an ocean.

    I’ve really been digging Rumi lately (13th century Sufi poet). I really feel a bond with him. I love how he weaves language into a beautiful expression for the love of God.

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