By guest writer LeighAnna Schesser.
Recently, a friend wrote to me saying, “I’m skimming Jesus of Nazareth and Pope Benedict XVI mentions all the mountains in Jesus’ life (temptation, teaching, prayer, transfiguration,) and it just struck me as, well, really poetic. Do you have any thoughts regarding God as a Poet or something similar?”
Perhaps because I am a writer myself, the idea of God as a poet delights me. My first articulate thought was that, of course God is a poet; He is a craftsman and an artist, and we and the universe we inhabit are His great work. But something else came immediately to mind as well, and it was only in writing a response to my friend that I began to elucidate the connections:
Let me begin to reply to that question with another question: have you read the last paragraph of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy lately? Allow me to refresh your memory; it’s one of my all-time favorite passages:
“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers whoever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomats are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”
If God is a poet – and of course He is, as He is all good things – then this is the best encapsulation of how and why that I can think of.
Jesus, the first and final Word, is the foundation and fulfillment of all communication. The universe and everything in it was spoken into being through and by the Word of God. The Source of all poetry and all that with which poetry concerns itself is both Poet and Poem – and reader/audience.
Poetry is distilled, refined, artful communication. Even if the poet, speaker, message, and audience are a single person, the author, it is genuine communication between parts of the self, ideas, and (usually) an imagined audience. (If that sounds trinitarian, it absolutely should.) All that poets do, in their minds and in their output, is a dim reflection of the self-contained communion of the Triune God, and His awesome creative process recorded in the first chapters of Genesis and the Gospel of John. Thus Tolkien’s word for the artist’s labor: subcreation. Like a nesting doll, our efforts to create – in our souls and in action – are within and depend on the Creation.
There are few more potent landscapes within that Creation for encountering sublimity than the mountaintop and the desert. The mountaintop and the desert are archetypical locations, liminal places in reality and imagination, intimately familiar to two very similar types of people: the artist and the mystic. Those who seek Art, find God; those who seek God, find Art. Art, perhaps especially poetry, is – metaphorically – a kind of alchemy. At one time alchemy was understood to be primarily a spiritual process: what one did with metals and physical transformations was only an aid to, and a sign of, the purification of the soul. That’s an apt image for how art works, especially when one understands that the essence of art, especially poetry, is refining: as Chesterton put it, the essence of every painting is the frame – the limitation – where one draws the line. It’s the cutting away and the framing that makes the art. Just so, the mountaintop and the desert are places where the world is refined, reduced, delineated: the extraneous is stripped away in the landscape, and so, in a kind of alchemy, that landscape helps strip away the extraneous in our outer and inner selves, leaving us primed, open, and ready to encounter the elusive Divine.
On the mountaintop or in the desert, we leave behind the company of the world for the privacy of an intimate relationship with the ultimate Other. But the thing about the poet, often more so than the mystic (though not always), is that urge to communicate which prompted going out and up to begin with, is also the desire to return to the rest of the world – to bring back what one has learned and experienced and sing it out. (In the mystic, this is primarily an evangelistic urge, though art can be its fruit – St. John of the Cross comes to mind – whereas for the poet that is reversed.) Yet even in that return and openness, there is something personal, something private, something kept to oneself, that belongs only to and within that Divine relationship. Chesterton sees that private element of the relationship between the Son and the Father as mirth.
The best poetry is, as Robert Frost so famously said, the kind where the poet learns something by writing the poem; there must be surprise. Whether a new insight, the revelation of something we didn’t know we knew, or the fresh perspective offered by juxtaposition, this surprise is, I believe, the same kind of surprise that is the essence of mirth. When you examine what makes something funny, one or more of those three ways of surprise are usually at the heart of it.
We have an unfortunate cultural preconception that poets must be black-clad, brooding, and Always Very Serious; it’s tied into the sharply mistaken notion that angst, unhappiness, and suffering are the only worthwhile fuel of art. The concept of the funny in poetry is almost completely restricted these days to “light verse” and doggerel. We similarly conceive of the truly religious person and the mystic as grave. In secular parlance, that would be conflated with joyless and mirthless, solemn. Yet as the world mischaracterizes happiness, so too it does not understand what lies in the depths of “solemnity.”
Here we really come down to it: joy can be painful. Joy and happiness are separate from pleasure. (Whereas the world says only pleasure is happiness.) What should be equally yoked to this concept of “Catholic joy” but is often forgotten, is this: mirth can be solemn. Something serious can be very, very funny, and something that causes laughter can be weighty and awe-full.1
Jesus is the God who weeps, who rages, who suffers. Emmanuel, God-with-us, means not just that he walked the earth but that he shares fully in the human condition (save sin, of course.) In Chesterton’s image of His hidden mirth, I see the sharp outline of His humanity, and, veiled from our weak sight, His Godhead – the surprise of divinity, the divine surprise, the final, satisfying twist and fitting conclusion at the end of the poem. The Triune God, revealed in the person of Jesus, is and delivers the surprise, the whole picture, the final punchline, the definitive communication; the part that takes our breath away, moves us to tears, and delights us.
Is God a poet? He is the Word who comes to us and goes from us, in continuous dialogue; the Word that seeks the mountaintop and the desert and then returns, to bring us to them, and them to us; He is the Word that absolutely reveals, yet remains mysterious in His essence; the Word that is so beautiful it wounds us,2 and yet, in the wounding, makes us whole.
1 It is important to distinguish this idea from the way it’s appropriated by some comedians. There’s a world of difference between the breathtaking union of the mirthful and the solemn, and laughing at something tragic or making a joke of – stripping the dignity from – something that should not be made light of.
LeighAnna Schesser is the author of Heartland, a poetry collection exploring identity, love, and faith through place and landscape. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Virga, Kindred, Peacock Journal, and elsewhere. She holds a B.A. in Theology from Benedictine College and an MFA from North Carolina State University. LeighAnna lives in Kansas with her husband, three children, half-wild garden, and many overstuffed bookshelves. Find her at leighannaschesser.wordpress.com.