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God loved the world enough to give us His Son, but He also imposed upon the world the high duty of showing forth His grandeur with constant invention. That is the signal task and privilege of poetry—and the freshness of the life of faith.
When I was a junior at the University of Georgia, I took a course with a Shakespeare professor who was notoriously difficult. Our first paper was on Othello, and I read the play three times in one weekend. The second time through, since I already knew what happened, I was much more alert to the shadings of the characters and the development of the major themes. The third time, I entered a different territory. As I pored over the text in anticipation of the great predatory intellect of my professor, subtleties of image and metaphor began to emerge across the play like reticulations revealed by a special dye, and the experience became ever richer—not as repetition of the initial reading, but as continuous discovery of the poetry.
Dana Gioia’s recent essay in First Things, “Christianity and Poetry,” makes the point that “Poetry is not merely important to Christianity. It is an essential, inextricable, and necessary aspect of religious faith and practice.” To criticize poetry, he argues (unanswerably, to my mind), is to criticize God, who chose it for at least a third of Scripture. I heard Mr. Gioia (pictured above) last week at the Napa Institute, where he made the point that poetry has to be joyfully physical. Analyzing it has its place, but our students love poetry because they memorize it together, often inventing a kind of choreography of recitation—Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” for example, with its “ooze of oil/Crushed” (fists into palms) and the treading feet of generations.
I want to add to Mr. Gioia’s emphasis another suggestion: that lively understanding of our faith requires the slightly terrified attention that I gave to that third reading of Othello. The Holy Spirit moves through Scripture and prayer, and yet we gloss over familiar phrases and images as though we already understood them. Countering this slothfulness is the weekly work of a friend of mine in Dallas. He explicates the Sunday Gospel with great care and imagination for a circle of friends at his parish, often teasing out the connotations of the original Greek words. I have urged him to find a wider audience for these meditations, but he told me that doing so would change his very local reason for doing them—a sentiment I admire.
For freshness’ sake, ideas need to be physical and local, and that’s not easy to achieve. Many students have difficulty with rhetorical “invention”—that is, coming up with something new to say. In Othello, as I discovered all those years ago, the demonic Iago complains of his inability to invent anything when Desdemona asks him what he can say in her praise. “Indeed,” he says, “my invention/Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frieze;/It plucks out brains and all.” His startling simile reveals that, despite his protestations, Iago has an astonishing capacity for invention.
What is “birdlime”? A sticky substance that people daub on tree limbs to catch small birds. “Frieze”? It’s a word from Middle English signifying a coarse, plain-weave, woolen cloth. Iago’s comparison describes the attempt to get something very sticky out of coarse cloth, like tar out of burlap—it plucks out whatever it is stuck to. The attempt to think up something about Desdemona, he claims, “plucks out brains and all.” The simile makes the idea vivid, but it makes a difference in Othello that the comparison is to birdlime (a word used only this one time in all of Shakespeare) and not to tar, which is much more common. Why? Because birdlime traps things, and Iago means to trap Othello with a lie. He invents something about Desdemona all right—that she is adulterous—and catches Othello with an idea that he cannot extricate from his very soul. Early in the play, apparently in an irrelevant context, Shakespeare subtly embeds an image of the Moor’s jealous torment that plucks out brains and all.
That physical metaphor embedded in the play is like what my friend in Dallas helped me see about the “Our Father” in the Gospel of Luke. In “give us this day our daily bread,” the word for “daily” is epiousion, which occurs only twice in the Gospels and obviously means more than “every day.” Jesus uses a word whose roots lie in the Greek term for substance, ousia, so perhaps the bread is closer to St. Jerome’s Latin translation of epiousion: “supersubstantial.” Give us this day our supersubstantial bread. Jesus urges us to pray for the true manna that feeds us until we cross into our eternal homeland, a Eucharistic manna made available only by His death, which is therefore embedded in what He tells us to pray for. If only we are aware of it, we cannot pray this simple prayer without being taken deep into biblical typology. Epiousion means more than we might think, yes, but it also means “daily,” which brings home the circumstances of this unrepeatable day in my life.
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” writes Hopkins, and we tend to read “charged” as though the world carried a kind of restless electric vitality—a reading encouraged by the second line: “It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” But I think Hopkins also means “charged” in the sense of a conferred responsibility, a commission. God loved the world enough to give us His Son, but He also imposed upon the world the high duty of showing forth His grandeur with constant invention. That is the signal task and privilege of poetry—and the freshness of the life of faith.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s weekly newsletter.
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