Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Blessed Are The Peace-Poets

In the Beatitudes, Jesus states, "Blessed are the peacemakers . . ."

Peacemakers in the Greek is "eirenpoios" or "peace poets."

I love that idea: peace poets.

When I read that phrase, I immediately thought of the poet Mary Oliver's writing the lines, "Wage peace." Blessed are the peacemakers for they will wage peace. Oliver adds, "Wage peace with your listening."  How much more peace would there be in this world if we did less of the talking and more of the listening?  In Greek the word for listening is akoúō which means to comprehend. That is more than a passing listen but to truly hear someone with the intent of understanding why they are saying what they are saying or not saying. Often we can hear more in a person's silence than in their words, in what they don't say. The poet Anne Sexton said that to write a poem, "Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard."

To "listen hard" to one's soul requires discipline because one has to be still, be mindful, and to actually listen. All of these things are spiritual acts. "Be still, and know I'm God" scripture tells us. The Talmud also says that "Peace" is one of the names of God. He prizes peace so highly that it is one of His very names. That's why Jesus tells us that, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God." When we work for peace, we are striving to be like our Father Peace. To be in peace is to see the world as beautiful, as others in the image of God. Peace is God's vision of well-being for creation.

A poet is someone who distills a moment, an image, or a feeling into such preciseness of words that the reader must also bring to the poem their own selves so that the spirit of the poet and the spirit of the reader co-mingle into meaning. Poets are keen observers who tells us: Pay attention! Take notice!

Because of Wordsworth, I cannot pass by daffodils and not think of his poem, which I memorized in school and had to recite in front of the class. I will even recite part of it whenever I see them. Usually it's my favorite lines:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Read that wonderful poem and see if you cannot think of it whenever you see daffodils; in fact, it will make you notice daffodils. Poets do that. They draw our attention to something common and make it transcendent, so that every bush is a flaming one if we only really see it.

One of the best at doing this is Emily Dickinson, my patron saint. Diminutive Miss Dickinson with her chestnut hair and amber eyes looked out at the world contained in her garden and she saw what no one else dared to see. She encapsulated deep truths at a tiny desk that was only seventeen and a half inches across. From there, in the span of six years, she secretly composed 1800 poems. In those poems she showed herself to be an acute observer who saw minute, momentary events that most would not have seen and saw in those brief glimpses the divine contained in them. She could do this with a slant of light in a room, a bumblebee, a fly, or a hummingbird.  It reminds me of Jesus telling us all, "Notice the flowers of the field . . . Notice the birds of the air . . ." Most of us nod and forget, but the true poet hears that call and sees it as one that reveals the kingdom of God. 

By giving anything our closer attention, we are enriching our own spiritual life. We are seeing the handiwork of a poet God who creates all through Word. The Word even takes on flesh to dwell with us. Incarnation as poetry. What rich poetic images those are. Jesus even asks us to look more closely at him with, "And who do you say I am?" or "How do you see me?" This means pay attention, don't take for granted, and that it is not enough for us to just look but for us to see. 

To notice something is to give it value. To name it, is to give it worth. The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen understood this when he wrote, "The task of the poet is to make clear to himself, and thereby to others, the temporal and eternal questions which are astir in the age and community to which he belongs." 


Because when the poet does they are creating  poems that reverberate and resonate deeply within the reader who senses the truth behind the words. It forms a kind of communion between the poet and the reader. Most of the poets I cherish are ones who mingle science, theology and life in their poetry. Often it balances between faith and doubt. 

Poetry is what I turn to when I find myself in a place where I cannot pray and cannot read scriptures. So many times in my life when I could not go to the sacred it changes shape and comes to me in the form of poetry. In poems I find myself coming into contact with and being drawn in by the holy mystery of the Divine within the poems themselves. Why is this? Because the poet strives to get at the mystery and meaning of a thing; be it themselves, another person, or something in nature. The lyric poet William Blake was obsessed with God and adored Jesus. It was he who wrote:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wildflower
Hold infinity in the Palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour

There is such beauty in such theology. This could have been written by a Psalmist or prophet. The images Blake writes connects us to something greater, our Creator. It fills us with humility, yearning and awe. Great poetry does that. As Mary Oliver wrote, " . . . holiness is visible entirely." 

When I cannot pray, I read poems aloud and find that they are prayers.

When I am in doubt and full of questions, I find that being in such a state is not only okay it deepens my faith because it requires more trust. I like how the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves . . .
Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually,
without noticing it, live along some distant day
into the answer.

I love that! We can live in our questions, love them instead of fearing them, and trust that one day we may get those answers. God doesn't give us the answer then because we are not yet ready for it because we cannot live it yet. 

In Hebrew the word for peace is "Shalom" and they use it as a greeting of hello and goodbye. Shalom means peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, and tranquility.  That is the art and craft of poetry. Poetry finds the sacred in the secular. A great example of this is how the Psalmist gave us the image of God as a shepherd. He took the commonplace, the lowliest of jobs, and raised it to the divine nature of God. How much this must have delighted God, who is the lover of words? He must've laughed with joy and cried out, "YES! David gets it!" Is it any wonder then that David is called a man after God's own heat?

Mary Oliver said, "Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable." That is great advice for all us, from the poet to the theologian to the mother or office worker to the teacher to the student. In the unimaginable we find God. He is beyond our understanding and we cannot look on Him directly, but we can find the transformational power of God in the world that was formed by His words. It is to be like Jacob who found that in the ordinary landscape of the desert was the sacred: a ladder of angels ascending and descending from heaven to earth. How many of us miss such things because we are too busy to be still and pay attention?

That's why we need poets: to remind us to notice that the world is full of miracles. Is it any wonder then that "Blessed are the peace-poets?"

The painting at the beginning of this post is entitled "Golden Fire" by the artist Makoto Fujimura who is in the video.

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