A Convocation Address to Austin Seminary
Here is a poem, by Richard Wilbur, written in 1956:
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”
I love this poem. The poet awakens to the “cry of pulleys” as the morning’s laundry, sheets and shirts and smocks, is cranked through the air pinned to clotheslines. In the liminal moment between sleep and wakefulness—before the brain begins dictating to the eyes what they may see and to the soul what it may believe—in that moment, “the morning air is all awash with angels.” The world is an enchanted place, and the land of the imagination knows no limit. Wilbur’s poem invites us to linger in that moment, to imagine angels in shirts on the backs of thieves and bed sheets that embrace lovers and, yes, even the white undergarments beneath the dark habits of nuns, “keeping their difficult balance” in a morally ambiguous world.
I want to talk about poetic imagination, the realm of poets like Richard Wilbur. I suppose these remarks are a rudimentary theopoetic: theology informed by elements of poetic expression—four in particular: imagery, mystery, form, and hospitality. To tell the truth, though, what I really want to do is read poems, and to invite you through the reading to see the world as I see it, a world where the boundary between theology and imagination is no thicker than a line of poetry. In my world, imagination pokes holes in the surface of the status quo and lets me to peer beneath to a deeper beauty, one that that drifts in the direction of the divine. In my world, there are angels in the laundry.
As the word suggests, the heart of imagination is image. Poetic images are made of words, but are always more than words. They are the peculiar collusion of the specific and the abstract, the poetic “thin place” where the mundane has truck with the transcendent. Poems, wrote the Modernist poet Marianne Moore, are “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Ezra Pound once defined an image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Images are windows into the workshop where we manufacture meaning. They are not symbols, exactly; they do not “stand for” something. Rather, they evoke something—often multiple somethings—that tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the image itself. Poets—and theologians—pay careful attention to images…
…because the language of believing is the language of images. Let us take the most obvious: we are created in imago dei, in the image of God. To look at each other is, poetically speaking, to look into the face of God. But I wonder: is not our yearning to see God is also a way of yearning to see ourselves? And when we stare into the face of Christ, whom Colossians calls “the image of the Father” (Col 1:15), do we not yearn to be seen by the very face we see? The language of faith is full of images, and to speak the faith is to speak in images, each one an invitation to part the conventions of the ordinary and peer into a deeper truth, and to be seen by truth in return.
Last year, Eric Wall asked me to write a poem about the tendency of Protestants to “splinter”—his word—into sects and denominations. That word, splinter, put me in mind of wood, and wooden things like chairs and tables and the crosses my father used to cut out of pine scraps with his bandsaw. An image sprang to mind: a photo I had seen of the hands of a friend of mine, a very skilled amateur woodworker, holding a table leg he had just finished turning. His hands were nicked and bleeding from wounds made by flying splinters, the inevitable result of turning wood on a lathe. I began thinking about the image of blood, and the relationship of blood and wood, about the blood-price burned up on altars and bled out on crosses, and about the Body of Christ bleeding on the table, the One Cup speaking words of unity even as we who hear them tear each other apart. Here’s the poem:
It’s about the blood—
joining boards at angles,
edges are negotiations, prone to pinch,
and nails pierce like
splinters burn like lightning
beneath the skin—
red stains in the palms of hands.
It’s about the blood—
a lifetime of little cuts
chisel slips on turning lathes
scrapes from roughened surfaces
in rapid motion,
currency to pay
for chalices and tables,
for chair legs in church parlors,
and for crosses. Always crosses.
It’s about the blood
smeared on every lintel, doorpost,
a wound for every wonder.
Impassive as a judge’s smile, the paschal lamb
has nothing more to say
after the planer’s blade has smoothed
the ragged faces of the cross,
and with every hammer-blow the blood
sinks deeper in the heartwood
unseen and silent,
until all that’s left is argument, quid pro quo.
Leave the dead behind
in the night when angels pass,
and head for parted water.
But it’s about the blood
crying out from every field
and every brother without a keeper,
every lamb laid on every altar,
every cup on every covenantal Table.
That’s where the wounded Body lies
while survivors lurk in hallways
fighting over the personal effects.
If it is true that an image is a porous boundary between the mundane and the transcendent, then perhaps we should ask what we mean poetically by transcendence. I want to suggest that transcendence is a theologian’s word for mystery. Mystery is the realm that stands over against us, inaccessible and yet inviting, defying explanation while demanding exploration. Mystery is the darkness beyond the ring of light, the eternal “no” to our persistent, inquisitive “yes.” Unseen but not unreal, mystery hovers at the edges of imagination…
…and at the edges of theology, too. The landscape of Christian faith is littered with mystery, with liminal spaces where we stand at the edge of our experience and peer over into the wild unknowing. And yet, so ubiquitous are those liminalities that we grow accustomed to their presence in our vocabularies. We speak of the Trinity—the perichoretic oneness-in-threeness-in-oneness—or of the Incarnation—two natures, unconfused, in a single being—and our sentences trip merrily from our tongues as though we were making sense. We stand at font or table and evoke the presence of the divine in Basin, Bread, and Cup, yet nary a lip quivers nor finger trembles. It is as Annie Dillard once observed about us: we “saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger.”
Poetry knows better. Poetic imagination is always on high alert in the presence of mystery. It strains to peer into the darkness, but knows cannot always trust what it sees. Poems refuse to know too much. So they retrace their steps, second-guess their assumptions, are constantly aware of their own fragility. A poem is a candle in the darkness, easily extinguished when the Spirit exhales. And yet occasionally, as much by luck as by design, a poem illumines an enduring truth dwelling in that darkness. Here’s a poem:
Before the dawn, he slips into the flow
so silently no star in heaven hears
nor earth beneath, nor even hell below.
It seems it hasn’t been like this for years.
Silence reigns. No star in heaven hears
the subtle, scuttling last retreat of death.
He thinks it hasn’t been like this for years;
it would be such an effort to draw breath.
The subtle, scuttling last retreat of death
rolls the stone aside, and now the breeze
suggests the effort of unsteady breath.
Nothing in this life is done with ease.
Stone rolled aside. The movement of the breeze
wafts the acrid dust stirred from the floor.
Not so, he thinks; the one thing done with ease
is dying. Living always summons more.
Wafting, acrid dust stirs on the floor.
Another moment: could he just abide
in dying? Living summons. There is more:
they want his blood, their fingers in his side.
Another moment. Rest, and just abide.
But then the nostrils twitch and muscles move;
the blood flows into fingers at his side,
rising from the deep abyss of love.
The nostrils twitch, and now the muscles move.
Neither earth beneath, nor hell below
can stop this rising river, deep with love.
The time has come. He slips into the flow.
If you were listening carefully to that poem, you detected the repetition of lines, verbatim or in substance. The poem is a pantoum, a form characterized by its repeated, interwoven lines, a sort of dance with four steps forward and two steps back. The pantoum is a wonderful form for speaking of mystery, because its structure disciplines the poet to proceed cautiously, reverently; to be patient and wait for the nuance within the already-known.
Poems are imagination disciplined by structure. This is true of any poem, even free verse. A poetic form is like a riverbed that channels the currents of the poet’s imaginative vision. Form helps imagination flow downstream toward poetry, instead of flooding the page and inundating the literary landscape.
There is a significant sense in which what we do in this seminary is to give form to the wild rivers of faith. It’s no accident that a chunk of our curriculum is called “ministerial formation,” but formation is not just Supervised Practice of Ministry or Clinical Pastoral Education. It’s formation all the way through. To study theology is to be formed by creeds, confessions, and the work of great theologians. To learn to preach is to be formed by styles and methods of beloved preachers. Liturgy shapes the flow of the Eucharist between the riverbanks of anamnesis and epiclesis. Biblical studies tracks the trails carved out by scholars, following the blazes of their hermeneutics left on the tree trunks of the text. Christian education teaches methods both ancient and modern that lift up the practices of the faith. From its very beginnings, theological study structures thought to clear a path for discovery and nuance.
If you’ve studied poetry, you’ve probably come across a classical form called the sestina. Sestinas are complicated beasts: thirty-nine lines, gathered in six sestets (stanzas with six lines), followed by an envoi (a tercet, or three-line concluding stanza). The ending-word of each line in the first sestet must be used as the ending-word of a line in each of the remaining five sestets, but in a specific order. The envoi then employs all six ending-words within the three lines of the tercet. If the description of a sestina confuses you, you should try writing one. But here’s the thing: making yourself arrive at the end of each line in a predetermined word uncovers nuances of meaning in that word. You begin to discover a world of imaginative possibility beneath the surface of those six words. I tried writing a sestina, prompted by a photo of a garter snake as it was shedding its skin. When snakes shed, I have learned, the skin first loosens over the eyes, forming a bluish-gray cataract that renders the snake temporarily blind. The ending-words I chose for the first stanza about the blind snake got me thinking about other kinds of snakes, and other kinds of blindness. Here’s the poem.
What in the world is a blue-eyed snake?
A sign that things are surely changing,
that what is old is sloughing off,
not yet replaced by something new.
It’s hard to know just where you’re going
when you can’t see just where you are.
Snakes shed their skin. It’s how things are.
It must be hard to be a snake:
about the time you get things going
your eyes grow dim and things start changing.
You have no choice: you face the new
blind as a bat. The first thing off
is eyelid skin—before it’s off
it turns opaque, and your eyes are
useless and blue. It’s nothing new,
unless you don’t know you’re a snake,
can’t understand why things are changing,
can’t see which way the way the world is going.
I can’t help wondering if what is going
on with us is not far off
from snakes whose skin is always changing.
How vulnerable it seems we are
to fear of change. Like a snake
reflexively we hiss at new
threats perceived though unseen, new
phantoms in the fog, going
past in the dark. A shedding snake
will strike at you to warn you off.
I have a sense that’s how things are
with us. Our lives are always changing—
new people keep arriving, changing
settled ways, demanding new
accommodations in how we are
used to speaking, used to going
about our days. Something’s off,
we think, and learn to strike like snakes.
We’re holed up like a blue-eyed snake.
The old skin’s changing. Shuck it off.
We need new skin where we are going.
I think of that poem as a poem about hospitality, although perhaps a blind and temperamental snake is an odd image of welcome. As a practice, hospitality is the habit of opening one’s life to accept the presence of others, attending to their needs, accommodating their differences, making room for those who otherwise have no room. Hospitality changes both guest and host, making friends of strangers and community out of separation. Hospitality is Leviticus’s demanding that we love the neighbor as ourselves. It’s Deuteronomy’s command to welcome the widow and orphan. It’s Hebrews’s injunction to “show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:1). Hospitality makes space for the other.
Poetry practices hospitality, too, in the form of imaginative openness, a willingness to make space for the stories the story doesn’t tell, narratives ignored or squeezed out by the dominant metanarrative of faith and life.
A few years ago, President Wardlaw preached a sermon using the Joseph narrative in Genesis—Joseph’s arrogant dreams and his brothers’ hatred, his sale into Egyptian slavery, his rise to power in Pharaoh’s court, and his ultimate reunion with his family, now safely within his protection. Ted focused on Joseph’s final speech, in which Joseph looks back over the long arc of his story, and says to his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” When Ted read those words, the thought sprang into my mind: “Well, that works if you’re Joseph. But how about if you’re Issachar, the only brother whose story the story doesn’t tell?” That thought snatched up my imagination and ran off like a pickpocket down a crowded street. I didn’t hear another word Ted said. I decided to give Issachar a story. It’s not a hero story, but a story about what it feels like to be the not-chosen: the kid not picked for basketball, the dunce in the back of the class who never gets the answer right, the second choice for the coveted job, the runner-up, the also-ran, the guy who one day gets enough of it all and walks into school or work carrying a loaded AR-15. It’s not a hero story, but it is someone’s story, perhaps someone you know. Poetic hospitality invites us to imagine stories we do not hear, and visit worlds we do not live in. Maybe if we practiced a bit more hospitality, there would be fewer mass shootings. Here’s a poem:
The Dream-Coat: Issachar’s Tale
Gen 37 and 50:20
You meant it all for evil, but God meant it all for good
was what he said. Perhaps, but not from where I stood.
I was drowned in his endearment, undone in his desire,
rejected in his rescue, yet kindled by his fire.
Had it been left to me that day when Joseph topped the rise
I’d have stabbed the little prick as soon as I laid eyes
on that dream-coat—stuck him like a slaughtered sheep
and left him lying in the dirt to beg and bleed and bleat.
That dream-coat—so he called it, for he always wore his dreams
like blazes on its panels and piping at the seams—
See here, he said, the sun and moon and stars bow on my sleeves
and here I stand so tall and gold amid your sodden sheaves.
Don’t kill him, pleaded Reuven—always one to work the con—
and Judah said let’s sell him to those slavers coming yon
and divvy up the proceeds while they tie him to the board
and soak his coat in goat’s blood and tell Pa he was gored.
So we did the deed. Afterward I kept the coat—
A keepsake? A trophy? A hospice for a hope?
Lesser son of Leah, scion of the unloved spouse,
cursed to dream of flocks and streams and even of a house
of Issachar—I liked the sound of that. But years
of famine, death, and desert burn up everything but tears
and drive a man to Pharaoh’s land to barter dreams for food.
You meant it all for evil, but God meant it all for good.
They sing of Joseph’s wisdom, but it catches in my throat,
and even after all these years I scarce can touch the coat.
But dreams were written on it. They were written in my blood.
I do not know the difference between evil and the good.
This is what I know: here’s his body, wrapped and dressed,
encoffined for the nether world that waits upon the blessed.
Alone of all the brothers now I stand at Joseph’s pyre
and return the blood-stiff dream-coat to the one who lit the fire.
A last word. In this place we engage in the enterprise of theological education. We pursue that enterprise with any of several aims in mind: preparing for ministry, exploring one’s faith, learning the classical disciplines of theological study. Allow me to add: peeling back the surface of the ordinary in order to peer into the face of the enchanted beauty that pulses beneath; listening for the voice of God humming the ancient, wordless song that vibrates below the basement vaults of creation. Wallace Stevens, perhaps the greatest poet of the imagination in the English language, once wrote of listening to a woman sing as she walked along the seashore, and how the words of the song she sang restructured the way he imagined the woman and the song and the sea and, ultimately, even himself. He ended the poem with these lines:
Oh, blessed rage for order, pale Ramon!
The makers rage to order words of the sea,
words of the fragrant portals, dimly starred,
and of ourselves, and of our origins,
in ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
Here is my hope for you: that something of Stevens’s “blessed rage for order,” his yearning for “words of the fragrant portals, dimly starred,” will begin to stir in you while you study here. I hope you will build a life-long friendship with your imagination. Let it restructure the way you look at everything: yourself, your loves, your world, even your God. Who knows? It might even make you a poet. It all starts when you look for angels in the laundry.