life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

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Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Friday, December 08, 2006

a poet's view of worship....

I have been reading the book The Cloister Walk (Penguin) by writer and poet Kathleen Norris. (It won NYT Notable Book of the Year when it came out.) Given the loss of metaphor in the modern world view, and the corresponding lack of value attached to it, the impact on Christian worship (and other areas of Christian practice) and especially faith has been quite profound and devastating. At least that's my opinion. I include below a some paragraphs--rather lengthy, I know--where she explores worship from a poet's perspective. Let me know what you think.

The ancient understanding of Christian worship is that, in the words of the liturgical scholar Aidan Kavanagh, it "gives rise to theological reflection, and not the other way around." We can see the obvious truth of this by shifting our attention to poetry, and entertaining the notion that one might grow into faith much as one writes a poem. It takes time, patience, discipline, a listening heart. There is precious little certainty, and often great struggling, but also joy in our discoveries. This joy we experience, however, is not visible or quantifiable; we have only the words and form of the poem, the results of our exploration. Later, the thinkers and definers come along and treat these results as the whole--Let's see; here she's used a metaphor, and look, she's made up a rhyme scheme. Let's stick with it. Let's teach it. Let's make it a rule. What began as an experiment, a form of play, an attempt to engage in dialogue with mystery, is now a dogma, set in stone. It is something that can be taught in school.

Let's return to our classroom setting, only this time we'll be exploring faith as well as poetry. A poem, as Mallarme´ once said, is not made of ideas but of words, and faith also expresses itself through that which is lived, breathed, uttered, left silent. If faith, like poetry, is a process, not a product, then this class will be messier than we can imagine. To make the poem of our faith, we must learn not to settle for a false certitude but to embrace ambiguity and mystery. Our goal will be to recover our original freedom, our childlike (but never childish) wisdom. It will be difficult to lose our adult self-consciousness (here the discipline of writing can help us), difficult not to confuse our worship with self-expression. (All too often the call for "creativity" in worship simply leads to bad art.)

(Skipping a paragraph)

Poets are immersed in process, and I mean process not as an amorphous blur but as a
discipline. The hard work of writing has taught me that in matters of the heart, such as writing, or faith, there is no right or wrong way to do it, but only the way of your life. Just paying attention will teach you what bears fruit and what doesn't.
But it will be necessary to revise--to doodle, scratch out, erase, even make a mess of things--in order to make it come out right.

When it comes to faith, while there are guidelines--for Christians, the Bible and the scaffolding of the church's theology and tradition--there is no one right way to do it. Flannery O'Connor once wisely remarked that "most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow," and Martin Buber implies that discovering that means might constitute our life's work. He states that: "All [of us] have access to God, but each has a different access. [Our] great chance lies precisely in [our] unlikeness. God's all-inclusiveness manifests itself in the infinite multiplicity of the ways that lead to him, each of which is open to one [person]."
(skipping the rest of the paragraph)

The first time I went to a monastery, I dreamed about the place for a week, and the most vivid dream was of the place as a chemistry lab. Might religion be seen as an experiment in human chemistry? And the breath of the divine as the catalyst that sparks reactions and makes our humble institutions work as well as they do, often despite ourselves? Imagination and reason, those vital elements of human intelligence, are adept at dismantling our delusions. Both bring us up against our true abilities and our limitations. But we've gotten ourselves into a curious mess in the modern world. We've grown afraid of the imagination (except as a misguided notion of a "creativity" granted to a few) and yet are less and less capable of valuing rationality as another resource of our humanity, of our
religious humanity. We end up with a curious spectrum of popular religions, a rigid fundamentalism at one end, and new Age otherworldliness, manifested in "angel channeling workshops," on the other. And even religious institutions--I'll speak here of the Christian churches, because they are what I know--often manifest themselves as anything but Christ's humble body on earth. What gets lost in all of this is any viable sense of the sacred that gives both imagination and reason room to play.

Can poets be of any use here? I believe so, though I'm not sure of the reasons why. I may be doodling. But the sense of the sacred is very much alive in contemporary poetry; maybe because poetry, like prayer, is a dialogue with the sacred. And poets speak from the margins, those places in the ecosystem where, as any ecologist can tell you, the most life forms are to be found. The poet Maxine Kumin has described herself as "an unreconstructed atheist who believes in the mystery of the creative process," while my husband, who is both a lyric poet and a computer programmer, declares himself to be "a scientific rationalist who believes in ghosts." If, as Gail Ramshaw has said, "Christianity requires metaphoric thinking," if, as a Benedictine liturgist once said to me, the loss of the ability to think metaphorically is one of the greatest problems in liturgy today, maybe the voices of poets are the ones we need to hear.

I know this is long, and I want to type even more. (I've probably already gone beyond the limit allowed under copyright law. Forgiveness please, and thanks to Ms. Norris and Penguin.)

But what do you think?

I think the modern church and modern science are both suffering from the same problem.

Let me know.

The next several paragraphs are stunning. Perhaps I'll post them later. In the meantime...

Grace and peace,



Blogger Marshall said...

Wow, Owen - what a rich post! I will likely be back to offer more, but the first thing that comes to mind upon reading your post are some words by the poet Robert Frost. I am interested in how you think they might apply to worship or religion in general.

The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom.... It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life - not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

I had to think for a bit about Frost’s words. Taking too long to think about it, of course, can ruin it, as Ms. Norris observes. What I like about what Frost says is that there is almost a playfulness, a deep and serious and joyful playfulness, full of expectancy, (I’m using my words here, not his), in the writing of a poem. Even a tragic epic poem. I would attribute the same kind of serious playfulness (the tension in those words is intended) to the best expressions of the Christian religion and Christian worship. I’m sorry, but I don’t know enough about other religions to know. I’ve been to several Jewish services where I’ve seen a similar kind of thing, but my experience is limited there.

Also, as a writer, I would have to say that my creative process, whether writing poetry or fiction, is a deeply religious form of play. Whether one’s interplay is with one of the Muses or with God (as I believe), the things that come from my pen defy my ability to create (IMHO). Not to blame the Muses – or God – for bad writing! Even if one discounts the back and forth with the Muse or God or a collaborator, at the very least there is the interplay of words and situations and unlikely events and very different characters thrown together in a playful, yet serious, way. And a lot of sweat and tears and craft and moments of sheer inspiration. (Not to mention moments of utter despair and emptiness!)

Adopting that metaphor, I believe Christian life and worship, at its best, better resembles child’s play. (I fully intend for one to chew on that sentence for a while.) When you start with the premise for “pretend” as a child, you never quite know where you’re going to end up until you experience that “course of lucky events.” One of the greatest critiques of today’s penchant for over-involving children in lessons and performance and sports, etc, is that they have little time to play spontaneously. And in losing such play, they lose the little “clarifications” of life on which lives are built. Maybe the same thing is true of many of today’s Christians. Perhaps that is what Jesus meant when he told his followers that only if they became like little children could they encounter the Kingdom of God.

Just to clarify, I don’t believe religion and worship to be “pretend” at all. I just believe they are playful. This can be true, IMHO, even in the use of liturgy. A surprising something (or Someone) can enter the picture when you least expect it and send life off in an entirely different direction than you were expecting, yet one that often makes great sense of “the very first line laid down.”

One last note… I will settle for Frost’s [small] clarifications of life any day. One such clarification well-lived is worth much more than many of the grander, expansive clarifications that in the end make no difference. To that end, one of my greatest hopes and dreams is that Christians will get back to living in their Story.

Okay… one more note. It is exactly this that I meant over a year ago on this blog when I prayed that God would give us poets and writers and musicians and storytellers and dancers and thespians (I think I just added the last one!).

Don’t know if this makes sense or not, as I am incredibly sleep-deprived at the moment. So, off to bed!

9:44 PM  
Blogger Marshall said...

That's a very lovely and full response for one so sleep-deprived. :)

You make me think of a recent essay by poet Kay Ryan (a current favorite of mine) in the journal Poetry, in which she writes about the "humor" of poetry - even very serious poetry - by which she means something very akin to the sense of "serious playfulness" of which you write.

Or - as far as that goes - you make me think of my telling my own students for years in literature classes that the creation of literature is a form of "serious play." But then so is real children's play! (Ever gotten upset because you had to play the monster or the robot or something?)

I think part of Frost's words that seemed appropos to your discussion is his saying that poems begin in delight. It seems to me that many old, tired, and now essentially meaningless worship traditions began in a sense of joyful discovery. I'm sure Frost would not have agreed that once he had written that one perfect poem, he should stop writing. No, no, no - bring on the new poem!

And I suddenly realize - how biblical is that! "Sing a new song." :)

Perhaps this is a digression, but I think of late that we may, as a species, be just beginning our spiritual journey. Perhaps waves of "ossification" are unavoidable, but the new will out. Is there anything new to be learned and expressed about a "life in Christ"? If there is truth to the story's claims, then I would say there had better be!

Incidentally, Frost himself was quite tradition-bound in his craft; he hated the then-developing concept of "free verse," saying writing it was "like playing tennis without a net." Yet great beauty and insight have come from other poets mining that vein.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Marshall said...

One other thought, based upon part of your original quote above: "It will be necessary to revise--to doodle, scratch out, erase, even make a mess of things--in order to make it come out right."

Sometimes when teaching rhetoric, I tell students I will draw a detailed map of the creative process on the board, then I make a hasty, elaborate, squiggly mess - the messier and more chaotic the better. The product, I tell them, should look neat and effortless, but the process is by definition messy, for it is a journey of discovery. How could the process of faith be any different?

When I read the Bible now I very much see an evolution. For me, the author of Job seems to think the author of Deuteronomy simplistic. Peter says Paul can be hard to understand. Mark's Jesus seems more human in ways that John's (to me, anyway). And thank God we've outgrown slavery, witchhunts, and the Inquisition!

"To make the poem of our faith, we must learn not to settle for a false certitude but to embrace ambiguity and mystery."


5:09 PM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

Several thoughts...

First, I thought that particular sentence in my original quote would resonate with you. It did with me.

Second, about Frost's assertion that poems begin in delight, as a writer myself, I am most delighted when someone reading what I have written experiences the same delight. Not to belittle your chosen occupation, but the academic analysis of poetry can absolutely kill it. ;-D But (and I know you well enough to know that this is your desire as well for your students) to rediscover the delight of the poet or author or, in some cases, editor is what makes writing worth it. In the same vein, IMHO Christian worship suffered a great blow when the modern worldview came in precisely for the same reason. The mechanistic view of a relationship with Deity spawned by the Industrial Revolution alone turned worship into something that quickly lost its meaning and cut it loose from its ancient moorings that were rooted in mystery and metaphor.

All that to say that the delight of which Frost speaks is often rediscovered in the reading of poetry and the experience of ancient worship practices, as well as in the act of creating new ones.

Finally, I think the greatest delight comes in something other than practices or poems or stories, and that is in what those practices, poems and stories revolve around -- what I would call sustained relationship. Think of it as a long walk together. It's not always a peaceful walk, nor without conflict. (I for one don't like playing the robot!) But just as in child's play it moves on to the next "game" or story or stage. And it often involves delight--and at the end a bit of serious wisdom.

More to say, but I have to go for now.....

7:55 AM  
Blogger Marshall said...

I'd very much like to hear an elaboration of your thoughts above, the last two substantive paragraphs in particular. So I think I shall be quiet and patient, listen and learn.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Dan Dalzell said...

Owen (& Marshall),
I enjoyed reading your discussion here and look forward to more thinking/writing along these lines. I'll have to check your blog more often to keep up though!

12:03 AM  

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