“My own heart let me more have pity on,” Gerard Manley Hopkins once intoned. And while the words begin what we can definitively conceive as a poem, are we also right to receive it—and perhaps even take it on our own lips—as a prayer?
Well, it’s complicated. We might be amazed to discover that Hopkins himself, the very Jesuit who asserted that the whole world is charged with the grandeur of God and that Christ plays in ten-thousand places, often labored under the burden of this dilemma, passing seven years largely refraining from poetry in order to devote his energies to the seemingly more needful and worthy labor of devotional prose. Why the gap? Can it be decisively overcome? Should it be?
Over the course of an extraordinary weekend, two of Hopkins’ most devoted students, Christian Wiman and Eugene Peterson, guided us in our consideration of these questions. “Poetry and prayer,” Wiman spoke aloud, starting us off on Thursday evening. “What they might have to do with each other.”
As we listened, asked questions, told stories, and sought to air things out, we found that the slow, thoughtful overcoming of one false split would often lead to the collapse of other dualisms: faith and unbelief, mystery and doctrine, sacred and secular. Whatever sense of haste we might have brought to our time together–that rush to love our labels as ourselves–was gently challenged at every turn. As Peterson put it, “It takes a while to get the poets…It takes a while to get the gospel…We have to quit getting in a hurry with people…I think the besetting sin of Americans is impatience.”
If this is true, and the nods in the room said it was, we might begin to find ourselves both compelled and comforted by a renewed sense of God’s revelation and our attempt at witness to it as always demanding a certain open-handedness. Knowing with certainty where we’re headed is not in keeping with the vision of friendship, creativity, and right reverence we found emerging in our conversations. “If you know the end of what you’re writing, forget about it,” Wiman observed. The same could be said for prayer. The same must be said for faith.
And the same goes for a tight-fisted take on belief—or confidently confessed certainty—as somehow constitutive of faith itself. As Wiman sees it, there’s an ebb and a flow when it comes to the feelings we have (or don’t have) in our experience of faith. Over and over again, he suggested a posture more artful and honest: ”Art is like faith…if you talk about it for too long you just leach it of its meaning.” As he invited us to consider what “an art of faith might look like,” he made appeal to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s assertion that faithfulness isn’t a matter of feeling God’s presence intensely at all times; it’s a matter of being true to this presence, or our memory of the presence when we don’t. It consists of, in Wiman’s paraphrasing, “faithfulness to the times that we had faith.”
In this way, the work of being true—or trying to—regardless of whether or not we’re feeling it, was placed before us throughout the weekend. And it was as if a great burden of trying to feel a particular way was consistently being lifted. Perhaps paradoxically, it was as if many of us began to see that a poetics of faith requires a kind of new-every-morning commitment to candor, a gospel of candor that invites us to see and articulate our experience in an undivided way. The temptation to “parcel out our moments of devotion,” as Wiman put it, has to be overcome because “the soul is not piecemeal.” A poetics of faith isn’t stretched to the breaking point by the range of how we feel and the fact of where we are. Explanation and easy consolation might be, but not poetry and prayer. In fact, “Sometimes people are called to unbelief so that faith can take new forms.”
“Sometimes people are called to unbelief so that faith can take new forms.”
Where does one go to see a poetics of faith embodied, articulated, and facilitated in this way? Both Wiman and Peterson spy the phenomenon at work in the communities we call church. This isn’t to say it’s happening in every last gathering of people calling themselves church, but the witnessing work of God’s reign is still visible. Peterson offered a provocative assessment: “I don’t think there’s any problem with the church these days except all these non-churches.” Regardless, the summons to be this community is still forever upon us. And with this in mind, Wiman characterized church as “an insoluble problem we’re always called to solve.”
When we think of it this way, being bearers of the inspiration we’ve known and experienced in word and sacrament is a work that is never finished. Among the many dictums Wiman proffered was an especially evocative assertion on what faithfulness to this inspiration involves: “If faith requires you to foreclose on an inspiration, it is not faith.” Does this mean the biblical canon itself is a chronicle of inspiration? For Wiman, “it’s an explosion of inspiration,” an explosion to which we’re called, again and again, to be true to. Or as Pastor David Wood put it, it’s a chronicle of inspiration we have before us so we’ll know it when we see it.
Watch and pray.