Prophet and Gnome cozy up to what they call a dandelion gigantosaurus.
I came across an old essay by Wendell Berry in which he dissects the challenges of poetry and language in the present. His regard for history and tradition has much to admire in it- much I wish I could emulate (if it weren’t for the unrepentant revolutionist within).
Wendell’s respect for the past is ecological. He respects the past as we respect heirloom seeds over Monsanto-generated GMO versions. We cannot improve the present unless we acknowledge the past and build upon it. We cannot end slavery until we acknowledge the social and cognitive mechanisms by which persons were made to internalize the possibility of a human as personal property.
Wendell mourns the extent to which politics has evolved into an act of professional strategizing- responding and reacting to polls and events rather than reflecting upon them.
What I take from this is not where Berry leads in the essay but another place altogether- a place which has been returned to my life over the past three years. A place where my soul rests easy in mystery and awe having forsaken the practice of piecing apart the Bible, word for word, pronoun for pronoun.
As Protestants, we have been accused of worshipping the word, the Scripture, while losing sight of the Spirit. The result is that one line about same-sex love or masturbation (i.e. onaism) can undercut the entire vision with which Christ animates the Bible— a spirit of love, empathy, tolerance, compassion, mercy, and complete disregard for social or conventional hierarchy. In worshipping the word, we become prey to literalism, our eyes abandoning the mysteries of art for the brisk verbiage of advertisments.
Yellow Goat’s Beard seed head
I remember the scent of the moist, cool cathedrals in France. I remember how the silence and beauty made me hungry for prayer. I remember wishing the tourist groups would pick up a pamphlet and walk the stations of the cross on their own rather than guffawing and blabbing with their habitual irreverence. I say habitual because reverence is a habit we pick up as children. Reverence is a way of observation which a child either learns or learns to disregard.
I say habitual because we attend a church where the service is liturgical and habit-forming, the habit of silence and rapt attention hatched early in young hearts. My husband and I value this together. We admire not what we see in shopping malls and amusement parks but what covets our attention in sombre wooden icons, stained glass windows, the red vein of late summer leaf.
The decision to attend a more traditionally-liturgical church (an Episcopal church) was rooted in our desire for self-discipline as well as the belief that faith is only a costume without a deep sense of reverence. Both of us have worn the costume. We taught Sunday school together and hosted small-groups at our home. We pitched verses like footballs on sterilized stadium grass, stadiums being America’s version of cathedrals, places we go to wave holy symbols and fabrics and worship some vast and nameless corporate franchise together.
I remember the rise of the megachurch in the early 2000s. I remember wondering at which point at which altars became stages for self-promotion. Certainly this is a modern development, a far cry from the creekside baptisms of the previous century. The church of Northpoint in Atlanta comes to mind— church of rock concerts and cafe latte counters, daycare dressed to resemble an entertainment park, endless cycles and promises of nonstop fun. An extravagant warehouse geared towards consumers of current Christianity where the walls are covered with hashtags and trends, a place where everyone can be entertained with the enjoyment of modern convenience, and nothing permanently exquisite is built because who knows when you need to expand and who knows what people want next, maybe even a bowling alley.
Musk thistle is a member of the sunflower family.
There is an aesthetic dimension to reverence— it is simple as the soft velvet underside of a magnolia leaf, complex as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is a line which connects us to the past, the soil beneath our feet and the challenges of human history.
I do not believe we can become better people without an awareness and engagement of this past. I do not believe the incessant amnesia of Christian pop or strobe lights enables us to make a habit of forgiveness though it certainly leaves us with memory and salience issues, certainly leaves us prone to forgetfulness. We must un-know as often as we know, but we must do this with wisdom rather than the need for fun, immediate gratification, or convenience. Perhaps a revolution can be wise after all? Perhaps the revolution is poetry.