I have often felt that it is going to be up to poets to save Christians from having our hearts turned to stone by those demanding literalism alone as the way to approach the Word of God. God’s Word after all is not to be carved into hearts of stone, but is meant to sown like seeds in the good soil of our hearts. Poetry helps remind us that Scripture is meant to be living and active and bearing fruit, causing us to sing in joyful praise, not just be memorized or obeyed. As the Lord says in Isaiah 55:10-11 –
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Scott Cairns, Professor of English at the University of Missouri, and an Orthodox Christian, is considered by many to be one of the best poets currently writing. His book of poetry, LOVE’S IMMENSITY: MYSTICS ON THE ENDLESS LIFE, is a collection of poems based on the writings of numerous Christian saints and mystics – Eastern and Western. His poetry helps convey the sense in which Christianity cannot be conveyed only through the rationalism of biblical literalism. Truth is also beauty, and taking the time to encounter Christ through the beauty of icons and words leads one to the Orthodox experience of salvation in the incarnation as well as the resurrection.
Cairns in describing the Western Christian mystic Walter Hilton (d. 1396) says he lived at a time when being a Christian had been reduced to “a mere matter of fire insurance (salvation from hell).” Such reductionism in Christian thinking deprives Christianity of any value in this world – it says we live only for the world to come. Why then did God create our world, place us in it and why does He act to save it? If the only goal of Christianity is salvation from hell, then it is completely based in the non-biblical notion of dualism wherein the created world is of no value to God or His people and in fact is considered completely depraved and evil. The Biblical truth is that God so loved the world that He gave His own dear Son to live and die in this world in order to redeem it and give it the life of being made a new creation. There is goodness and life in God’s creation, He did not make a completely evil material creation nor has He allowed sin, evil and death to completely triumph over His world or His people.
Christianity is about living in this world and giving thanks for the world and rejoicing in God’s blessings. We experience the created order transformed and transfigured by Christ. This new creation of theosis can be experienced by every Christian in this world and lifetime. It is not meant only for life in some distant after death “other world” which has not come. Christ came into this world in the incarnation and returned to this world in the resurrection. Salvation is not abandoning this world, nor are we saved from the world or from our bodies. Christianity proclaims the resurrection of the dead – the transformation of our bodies in the new creation of God’s saving plan. In this world and in this life time we can fully experience the love of God, and embrace it by loving both God and neighbor.
I offer four excerpts from the Cairns’ book (with the disclaimer that excerpts can never do justice to the poem or poet) as examples of how he captures holy truth by using the beauty of language:
A] Know this: whoever bears a grudge when he prays
is like a man who sows grain in the sea
and expects to reap a harvest.
B] No one who loves true prayer and still gives way
to anger or resentment can be protected
from the appearance of insanity.
C] Bearing our curse, becoming sin,
You loose us from both the burden
of the law and from our lawlessness.
D] Observe the tress. Just as they
must endure the winter’s storms
before they can bear fruit, so it is
with us. This troubled age is our own