Many years ago, I wrote about my experience of depression: “I often feel a profound hunger for language, for something that will honestly speak to the realities of my experience. But it is not easy to find words that speak to this hunger. I sometimes go to bookstores or libraries and hunt with a sense that I am falling off a cliff and I need words, I desperately need them, and I can’t find them anywhere.” I often reflected on this passage in Amos:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and not find it.'”1
One problem I was running into was that so little, whether it was based in religion or psychology, said anything that resonated with what I was actually experiencing. I was deeply turned off by the feel-good tales, positive thinking, and sentimental notions that pervaded much “faith-promoting” literature. But I was equally put off by psychologists who talked about depression in clinical terms and reduced everything to brain functioning or to Freudian dynamics. For a while, I nearly gave up on finding anything at all that would help me to navigate the darkness.
Somewhat to my surprise, it turned out that in my worst moments, it was not psychological or religious cures that did much for me—but rather poetry. For years I had no interest in the genre, thinking that poems were basically a kind of puzzle to be solved, and feeling like I was lacking in the treasure-hunting skills required to discover their “true meaning” (which is pretty much how poetry was taught in high school English). But then my sister Eve introduced me to Adrienne Rich, who memorably writes at the end of one poem:
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.2
I was completely blown away by this. I still am.
I think good theology (and often, I’ve found that some of the most beautiful, resonant, and accessible theology of the great thinkers in Christian history can be found in their sermons, rather than their systematic works) speaks in a similar way. It’s not chicken soup for the believer’s soul. It’s words like these from the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich:
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life . . . Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted . . . Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”3
In my quest for the Word, I found that poetry (or philosophy, or history, or theology) could speak in the way that scripture did. And in a kind of reversal, I found that reading poetry as scripture allowed me to in turn read scripture as poetry, to return to canonized works, and find more complexity there than I remembered from my seminary days of memorizing proof-texts. Scripture too often gets taught in the same problematic way as poetry, as if the ultimate aim is to decode it and find the hidden moral, or the “one true meaning” of the symbols. The experience of reading a lot of poetry just because I liked the way it sounded, and because it resonated with me on a level I couldn’t even articulate, allowed me to at least sometimes take this approach to scripture as well. I found that the jarringness and dissonance and utter strangeness of the Bible was not an entirely bad thing; to quote Tillich again, the Old and New Testaments are honest about “the human situation and they take it seriously. They do not give us any easy comfort about ourselves.”4 But it was exactly “easy comfort” that was falling short for me.
In the account in Matthew in which Jesus is tempted, and the devil tells him to turn stones into bread, Jesus responds that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”5 I’ve thought about that a lot when I’ve been depressed, because in my experience, depression knocks out your ability to communicate, leaving you trapped without any way to articulate what is happening to you. It is a profoundly isolating and terrifying feeling. I found that indeed, bread was not enough; I needed words, real words, if I was going to survive.
Prayer is the effort of wresting words
not from silence,
but from the noise of other words.
To penetrate heaven, we must reach
what breaks in us.6
I needed to touch you
with a hand, a body
but also with words
I needed a language to hear myself with
to see myself in7
Words are the thunders of the mind.
Words are the refinement of the flesh.
Words are the responses to the thousand curvaceous moments—
we just manage it—
sweet and electric, words flow from the brain
and out the gate of the mouth.8
No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true nature of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a common language.9
Language is of course not apolitical. It is tied to power structures, to privilege. It many contexts it can reflect who has influence, who is in control. It can be limiting and alienating—and yet we cannot make do without it.
It was a suicide mission, to smuggle language
from mouths of the dying
and the death; last words of the murdered mothers—
Germany, Poland, Russia.
They found that what they’d rescued
wasn’t the old language at all;
only the alphabet the same.
Because language of a victim only reveals
the one who named him.10
this is the oppressor’s language
yet I need it to talk to you11
Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez makes an interesting point about the power of linguistic diversity to counter dictatorial tendencies, arguing that despite the Babel story, a variety of languages, “far from being a punishment, helps protect their freedom. It prevents a totalitarian power from imposing itself with no resistance.” Such diversity, he comments, is “a great treasure.”12
Catholic theologian Karl Rahner proposes that language itself is sacramental, pointing to the connection between the divine Word and human words. In John’s Logos christology, it is through the Word that God comes to us, reveals himself. This suggests that all words have this possibility, that “in every word, the gracious incarnation of God’s own abiding Word and so of God himself can take place.” A Christian must therefore always be listening to “the inmost depths of every word” for its “incarnational possibility,” “to know if it becomes suddenly the word of eternal love by the very fact that it expresses man and his world.” For Rahner, then, words have the possibility of transcendence; he speaks of the words of the poet in particular as “gates into infinity.”13
You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can’t poe one either. It is the same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,
fixed centrally, we call it a religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror
that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry
or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds – crested pigeon, rosella parrot –
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut. 14
In Rahner’s view, the very word “God” is an essential part of being human. The word “comes to us in the history of language in which we are caught,” he says, and “poses questions to us as individuals without itself being at our disposal.” It “asks about reality as a whole and in its original ground.”15 The issue here, it is worth noting, is not one of belief or disbelief in God; Rahner is simply observing that the very word calls us to grapple with questions of meaning and the nature of reality.
Tillich also writes of the power in speaking of God, commenting that “the invocation of the holy does not leave us unaffected. If it does not heal us, it may disintegrate us. This is the seriousness of the use of the divine name.”16 Another well-known Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, writes of the dilemma coming from “the need in which man finds himself simply by virtue of his being man,” in that “we hear the imperative even from history: we ought to speak of God!” And yet “we are human, however, and so cannot speak of God.”17
Searching for God is the first thing and the last,
but in between such trouble, and such pain.18
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.19
And certainly and easily I can see
how God might be one rose bud,
one white feather in the heron’s enormous, slowly opening wing.
It’s after that
it gets difficult.20
Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
into scared places;
a quick glance, and away—and back,
I have long since uttered your name
I elude your presence.
I stop to think about you, and my mind
like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
the river’s purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
everywhere it can turn. Not you,
it is I am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow,
you the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?21
Liturgical theologian David Power sees the poetic as reflecting “the innovative and creative uses of a language rather than the purely directive. It is always open to that fresh reading and hearing within which its power is newly revealed.”22 According to Rahner, the poet speaks “words of longing,” concrete words which point beyond themselves. As quoted earlier, he compares them to “gates, good and strong, clear and sure,” but “gates into infinity, gates into the incomprehensible.” As such they are “acts of faith in the spirit and in eternity; acts of hope for a fulfillment which they can never give themselves; acts of love for unknown goods.”23 The poetic word “evokes and presents the eternal mystery which is behind expressible reality and in its deepest depths.” It “conjures up the inexpressible in its utterance.” There is real power here, power to bring truth and clarity to the world. “By means of his word, things move as though set free into the light of others who hear the words of the poet.”24 This seems reminiscent of the comment of the Psalmist that “thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”25 The words of the poet, like the word described in scripture, help us to see far off, into the distance. Poetry calls us toward eternity.
The poem is not the world.
It isn’t even the first page of the world.
But the poem wants to flower, like a flower.
It knows that much.
It wants to open itself,
like the door of a little temple,
so that you might step inside and be cooled and refreshed,
and less yourself than part of everything.26
I would not have been a poet
except that I have been in love
alive in this mortal world,
or an essayist except that I
have been bewildered and afraid,
or a storyteller had I not heard
stories passing to me through the air,
or a writer at all except
I have been wakeful at night
and words have come to me
out of their deep caves
needing to be remembered.27
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.28
And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.29
We do not want to only have poetry of the past, comments Rahner; we “wish the poet to say frankly what he finds in us, and to divine what the future brings, so that he may be the poet of his own new age, of its pain, of its happiness, of its tasks, its death and of eternal life.”30 Poetry addresses us in our current situation. In the words of Adrienne Rich:
Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.31
This is not always an easy thing, for it means that it must speak to us candidly, and often darkly, of the reality we face. Rahner suggests that “great poetry only exists where man radically faces what he is.”32 The hunger for the Word I’ve experienced has included a hunger for honesty, for authenticity, for a straightforward grappling with all of my experience, including the most intolerable parts. In another poem, titled “To a Woman Dead in Her Forties,” Adrienne Rich writes,
Most of our love took the form
of mute loyalty
we never spoke at your deathbed of your death33
It is admittedly difficult to speak of such things. And yet, like her, I find that “I want more crazy mourning, more howl, more keening.”34 To look unflinchingly at the darkness, says Rahner, is the call of Christianity: “in the anxiety of time, in the futility of our labor, in the brutal harshness of human history. Again and again we shall lie in the dust of our weakness, humiliated and weeping . . . We shall experience again and again that we are dust.”35
O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.”36
There is no health; physicians say that we
At best enjoy but a neutrality.
And can there be worse sickness than to know
That we are never well, nor can be so?37
And I knew then
that I would have to live, and go on
living: what a sorrow it was; and still
what sorrow burns
but does not destroy my heart.38
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.39
for it’s true, isn’t it,
in our world,
that the petals pooled with nectar, and the polished thorns
are a single thing—
that even the purest light, lacking the robe of darkness,
would be without expression—
that love itself, without its pain, would be
no more than a shruggable comfort.40
I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.41
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give— yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.42
And although it wrenching to be open to such an honest word, in doing so, writes Rahner, a person “is more exposed to the happy danger of meeting God, than the narrow-minded Philistine who always skirts cautiously the chasms of existence, to stay on the superficial level where one is never faced with doubts— nor with God.”43 The language of poetry, like the Word of Christianity, is one that leads to hard truths at times, but the compensation is that it leads to truth, and in that truth we find redemption.
But also I say this: that light is
is an invitation
and that happiness,
when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive
inside the bright fields
touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight—
and what are you going to do—
what can you do
deep, blue night?44
Naomi Shihab Nye:
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.45
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.46
You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light. It will be
the light of those who have suffered
for peace. It will be
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.48
But we have only begun
to love the earth.
We have only begun
to imagine the fullness of life.
How could we tire of hope?
—so much is in bud.
How can desire fail?
—we have only begun
to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision
how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.
Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?
Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?
Not yet, not yet—
there is too much broken
that must be mended,
too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.
We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.
So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,
so much is in bud.49
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.50
Rainer Maria Rilke:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.51
- Amos 8:11-12 [↩]
- Adrienne Rich, “Dedications,” An Atlas of the Difficult World (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 26 [↩]
- Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 161 [↩]
- Tillich, 66-7 [↩]
- Matthew 4:4 [↩]
- Anne Michaels, “What the Light Teaches,” Poems (New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 129 [↩]
- Adrienne Rich, “Tear Gas,” The Fact of a Doorframe (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984), 199 [↩]
- Mary Oliver, “Work,” The Leaf and the Cloud (Da Capo Press, 2000), 12 [↩]
- Adrienne Rich, “Origins and History of Consciousness,” The Dream of a Common Language (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 7 [↩]
- Anne Michaels, “What the Light Teaches,” Poems (New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 128 [↩]
- Adrienne Rich, “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” Collected Early Poems 1950-1970 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), 364 [↩]
- Gustavo Gutierrez, “Theological Language: Fullness of Silence,” Essential Writings, ed. James Nickoloff (New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 68-9 [↩]
- Karl Rahner, “Priest and Poet,” Theological Investigations, Volume 3, trans. Karl H. and Boniface Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1961), 316 [↩]
- Les Murray, “Poetry and Religion,” Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poets, ed. David Impastato (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 127-8 [↩]
- Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1978), 49-50 [↩]
- Paul Tillich, “The Divine Name,” The Essential Tillich, ed. E. Forrester Church (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 58 [↩]
- Karl Barth, “The Task of the Ministry,” The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith, 1978), 197-8 [↩]
- Jane Kenyon, “With the Dog at Sunrise,” Otherwise (Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1996), 177 [↩]
- W.H. Auden, “Friday’s Child,” Selected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York, Vintage Books, 1979), 238 [↩]
- Mary Oliver, “Evening Star,” The Leaf and the Cloud (Da Capo Press, 2000), 49 [↩]
- Denise Levertov, “Flickering Mind,” Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poets, ed. David Impastato (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 122-3 [↩]
- David Power, Sacrament: The Language of God’s Giving (New York: Crossroad, 1999), 72 [↩]
- Rahner, “Priest and Poet,” 316 [↩]
- Rahner, “Poetry and the Christian,” Theological Investigations, Volume 4, trans. Kevin Smith (Baltimore Helicon Press, 1961), 363 [↩]
- Psalm 119:105 [↩]
- Mary Oliver, “Flare,” The Leaf and the Cloud (Da Capo Press, 2000), 5 [↩]
- Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998), 182 [↩]
- T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” The Treasury of American Poetry, selected by Nancy Sullivan (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1978), 455 [↩]
- Pablo Neruida, “Poetry,” Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, ed. Roger Housden (New York: Harmony Books, 2003), 8 [↩]
- Rahner, “Poetry and the Christian,” 364-5 [↩]
- Adrienne Rich, “North American Time,” Your Native Land, Your Life (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986), 33 [↩]
- Rahner, “Poetry and the Christian,” 365 [↩]
- Adrienne Rich, “To a Woman Dead in Her Forties,” The Fact of a Doorframe (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984), 255 [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Karl Rahner, “Ash Wednesday,” The Great Church Year: The Best of Karl Rahner’s Homilies, Sermons, and Meditations, ed. Albert Raffelt, trans. Harvey D. Egan (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 125 [↩]
- W.H. Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” Selected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York, Vintage Books, 1979), 62 [↩]
- John Donne, “An Anatomy of the World,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1, 17th edition, ed. M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 1264 [↩]
- Jane Kenyon, “Evening Sun,” Otherwise (Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1996), 75 [↩]
- Robert Frost, “Desert Places,” The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lanthem (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1969), 296 [↩]
- Mary Oliver, “A Certain Sharpness in the Morning Air,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 41 [↩]
- Wendell Berry, “The Want of Peace,” The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998), 29 [↩]
- William Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” The Darkness Around Us Is Deep, ed. Robert Bly (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 136 [↩]
- Rahner, “Poetry and the Christian,” 365 [↩]
- Mary Oliver, “Poppies,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 39-40 [↩]
- Noami Shihab Nye, “So Much Happiness,” Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, ed. Roger Housden (New York: Harmony Books, 2003), 24 [↩]
- David Whyte, “Sweet Darkness,” Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, ed. Roger Housden (New York: Harmony Books, 2003), 32-3 [↩]
- Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998), 192 [↩]
- Derek Walcott, “Love After Love,” Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, ed. Roger Housden (New York: Harmony Books, 2003), 5 [↩]
- Denise Levertov, “Beginners,” Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women’s Spirituality, ed. Marilyn Sewell (Boston: Becon Press, 1991), 181-2 [↩]
- Mary Oliver, “Morning Poem,” Dream Work (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), 6-7 [↩]
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 119 [↩]