A friend sent me a Mary Oliver poem I had never read before (thank you, Peter), and it made me ache. Truly, it was a craving in my bones.
I loved it, as I do so many of her poems. It made me ache to be able write that well and so exquisitely. I aspire to be such a writer though it is unlikely I will ever get there. And in all probability, my mind and my style are far more like Anne Sexton than Mary Oliver; though the deceased Sexton left a very high mountain of aspiration herself.
So now I am trying to figure out the appropriate amount of ache for a writer without falling into covetousness or fantasy.
This is how I know, after several years of exploration that I am a preacher that writes more than a writer that preaches: I do ache to be a better writer and most of all I yearn to be a remarkable poet, but my writing is a vehicle rather than an art. I have never seen writing as an end in itself but always as a medium for the sermonic word I have been give to share. I am doubtful a true writer or poet would feel that way about his or her art – although what I know about true writers could not yet fill a thimble.
Poetry and fiction are eloquent voices for theology, as is music.
A long-ago preaching mentor of mine, Al Kershaw, used to say that theology was a dead language at the end of the 20th century, and that music speaks God in our world. Even though I was just learning to speak theology at the time, I was pretty sure he was right. When I hear people holding forth in the language of classical theology these days I don’t know whether to laugh or cry because of how woefully disconnected from our lives it sounds. It might as well be Latin in a world full of Chinese speakers.
It is possible though, to insinuate the ordinary presence of the holy into story and poem. When that little worm pops up unexpectedly amid narrative or metaphor, the reader or hearer listens more intently from within their own life than if told what they are supposed to believe about God.
Sermons have the distinct advantage that people come to them expecting to hear about God in some way that is meaningful to their lives. It would be a most surprising sermon indeed, that did not reference or make reference to the divine. The best we can do as preachers is offer the unexpected about the expected and hope that it echoes in the lives of those listening. But as a writer, we can tell the story or give voice to an image and simply allow the holy to remain as it is in the grass or between the leaves for the reader to discover.
Perhaps that is too fine of a distinction – too hard an edge between forms. Perhaps preaching is also more of an art than I give it credit for, and good writing less agendaless than it seems. But I am rummaging through the leaves now myself, trying to figure out how all this works and who I am in the midst of it.
Who knew growing up could take so very long, or that figuring out what to be when we grow up is an active ingredient in the graying of hair?
EDWIN BECK says
Cam – you moments of self-criticism are only proof (for your readers) that yours are talents of writing and language (in general) which place you among the “One Percenters” – and I ain’t kiddin.’
I agree with your assessment about music and feeling something holy-ish when it can touch. However, let me add that something like that also occurs when I overhear Adelaide and Noah (now five-and-a-half) talking among themselves, or asking us questions which reveal their innocence and unmuddled thinking. Or, when the fourth grader down the street made his way to our sidewalk on his scooter, and proceeded to patiently give Adelaide and Noah some instruction as to how best maneuver this big-kid vehicle up and down our driveway. The interaction was akin to a holy-ish moment – at least it felt that way for this mega-doting grandparent.
Cam Miller says
Oh yes, yes, yes. Jesus had a few things to say about the presence of God and children. Thanks!
Stephanie Mesler says
Many years ago, I told my priest that I did not pray. Ever. He insisted that I must, that he was sure that I did. I was, at first, a little taken aback that he thought he knew my practice better than I know it myself. Said priest went on to tell me that he had heard me pray in song and read my prayers in the poetry and drama I wrote. I was struck pretty much dumb by the notion that the act of creation is an act of prayer. For years, I have mulled that over– in fact shared this very antidote with a group of writers one day last week. This idea of artistic creation as prayer changed my life and allowed me to accept God where God finds me.
Rarely do I write anything with the express purpose of sharing my theology, but, of course, it is ever present, weather I call it into being or not. I am mindful that the written or sung word (Should that be “Word?”) and the carefully and lovingly composed phrase have more power to change minds, and possibly deeds, than all the carrots and sticks a nation of courts and jails has in its arsenal.
I do not think theology is dead. Has it not always found its most effective expression in the written and spoken word (Word)? What else are the Rig Veda, Genesis, the Qu’ran, the Analects and all the rest, if not theology expressed through words and song? And do we really believe that those writers of Psalms and the Bahagavad Gita set out to tell God’s story? I, for one, don’t believe that. What Mary Oliver and you do is not different from one another and not different what those ancient writers did. The only difference is that history has not yet granted you or Oliver the credential it requires in order for your non-homiletic written works to be considered theology.
Cam Miller says
What a wise priest you had! But not that wise because, as you say, your song and verse echo with prayer for all the world, as well as God, to hear. I didn’t mean to say theology is dead, and perhaps that was a bit of hyperbole as well. But the voice of theology in our world is different, needs to be different. The ancient voice continues to be heard, thank goodness, but new language is all I mean – perhaps new media. I think we’re saying the same things. Thanks.
Carole Grant-White says
Sure agree with you, Cam…in fact, used G.M.’s-” God’s Grandeur” to close last week’s ” homily”.
My question to you is ( unless somehow I missed it) is to what Oliver poem are you referring?
Cam Miller says