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Flight of Faith

August 19, 2010
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Flight of Faith

An article by Paul Oakley

Can we ever not think about God, about death? Can we not read and write poems about faith or spirituality given our final destination? Piety aside, isn’t faith something like magic? Isn’t poetry something like magic? Paul Oakley compares George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” and Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.”

Occasionally I cast through time, impressionistically examining poems in which the spiritual or the religious impulse expresses itself in some compelling way, exploring what makes them compelling, what makes them religious.

I begin, here, with myself and first contact. It was during my undergraduate days, more than a quarter of a century ago, that I became aware of religious poetry for the first time.

Reading my first flight poem

In the poetry unit of the mandatory literature class, one day Prof Murray assigned us to read George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” a carmen figuratum, a type of poem where some or all of the words of the poem are arranged to produce a visual pattern on the page.

Herbert’s poem, when first published in 1633, was printed on opposing pages with the lines running down from the top of the page, making very obvious the form of wings though requiring the book be turned to read the poem. My college anthology printed it with lines running horizontally, but we turned our books ninety degrees, the better to see the wings.

George Herbert, “Easter Wings”

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
           Decaying more and more,
                Till he became
                 Most poore:
                 With thee
               Oh let me rise
            As larks, harmoniously,
       And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne:
  And still with sicknesses and shame
       Thou didst so punish sinne,
               That I became
                Most thinne.
                With thee
             Let me combine
         And feel thy victorie:
    For, if I imp my wing on thine
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

The rhyme scheme paired with the number of syllables per line was:
10a / 8b / 6a / 4b / 2a / 2c / 4d / 6c / 8d / 10c //
10e / 8b / 6e / 4b / 2e / 2c / 4f / 6c / 8f / 10c.

Prof Murray wanted us to see how the visual effect and strict structure worked together with the words to build the expression of Herbert’s faith that was his poem. I also remember she drew our attention to the fact that this resurrection poem was written in the last year of Herbert’s (1593-1633) short life, as he was suffering from tuberculosis.

The lark’s flight merged with the Resurrection which merged again with the hope of resurrection that was at the core of Herbert’s Anglican faith. Of course, Prof Murray knew how little interest college students tended then to have in things religious and, so, drew our attention to the sophistication of shape poetry grounded in the Renaissance.

And, of course, it helped that Herbert wrote aware of his own impending death, as did Chidiock Tichborne and François Villon before him. Doom hanging over the artist fills a psychological niche not unrelated to the risk of injury or even death that is in the backdrop of every stock car race.

Now that we are Postmoderns or something like and quite sophisticated and all, we may find less to appreciate in Herbert’s verse. But, as a young man, raised in a strict fundamentalist Protestantism that looked with suspicion on any post-biblical artistic use of language, I found Herbert’s wings were a ticket for me to ride, for the first time finding art a potential vehicle for expressing ultimate concerns.

Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”

Some 353 years after Herbert wrote “Easter Wings,” Mary Oliver published “Wild Geese,” a very different spiritual poem grounded in bird imagery. Where Herbert was a personally devout Anglican clergyman, Oliver is a lay person whose poetry explores the parameters of her existence in the world, her poetry not declaring a religious faith but a spiritual existence in relation to nature.

Though often claimed by Unitarian Universalists as one of them, Oliver was, for public purposes, religiously ambiguous until her late-life conversion to the Episcopal Church after the death of her life partner in 2005. In “Wild Geese” Oliver tells us that the ultimate belonging that Herbert finds in resurrection imagery is also available to us in images of the natural world unmediated by myth or the supernatural:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

– “Wild Geese”, Mary Oliver, Dream Work, 1986 (read the full poem here.)

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” Oliver writes to Herbert’s statement that “My tender age in sorrow did beginne:/ And still with sicknesses and shame/ Thou didst so punish sinne…” Oliver’s reality is natural and is scientifically, as well as poetically, explorable while Herbert sees inscrutable moral agency at work in his illness.

The common idiom in Oliver and Herbert alike is bird imagery. From Edgar Allen Poe’s image of doom as a raven, to Jonathan Livingston Seagull’s airborne escape from this ordinary reality to the next level of being, to the craven scavengers who pick at the lives of the weak as if the flesh from the dead we term “vultures” – birds capture our imagination and our clichés precisely because they so easily elude us. But, elusive as the birds of their imagery are, both Oliver and Herbert ground us in sickness, weakness, despair or impending death, the too common heritage of humanity.

20th-century naturalism and 17th-century piety can only speak mutually incomprehensible prose, but when rendered in poetry, the bird soul of each is set free, soaring aloft, carrying Oliver’s despair and Herbert’s sinne alike, each speaking the language of their times.

Paul Kent Oakley has lived most of his life in small-town and rural southern and east-central Illinois. However, he has also had the opportunity to live in: West Germany before the Berlin Wall fell; Communist Romania in the last year of Nicolai Ceauşescu’s dictatorship; Japan before its economic crisis; Jordan, when you still needed a second passport to go there if your first one held an entrance visa from Israel; and the New Jersey suburbs of New York City. He has had the great good fortune to travel widely in Europe, the Middle East, and Japan. He has degrees in French, English, Japan Studies, and Accounting and pursued a doctoral program in Comparative Literature for three years before thinking better of it. Paul is religious but does not believe it is necessary for everyone to be so. He is a seminarian training for ministry in a liberal denomination but also loves seeing the way people in different traditions make or express meaning, celebrate life, and commune with the Ultimate, both as religious and non-religious people. Paul lives with his partner and two big dogs in southern Illinois in a town of 16,000 people with not much but agriculture around it.

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11 Comments
  1. August 19, 2010 11:47 am

    Interesting post Paul, thank you for sharing it. You seem a man of intellect and possessed of curiosity. I believe I would enjoy conversing with you regarding the “ultimate”, to use your very apropos term. My son, and my two best friends, engage often with me in such exchange.

    I too abide in lifelong inquiry regarding the essence of all, finding myself spellbound and filled with awe when I behold the natural beauty of our earth and all that inhabits it, wholly amazed by the vastness and mystery of space, and filled with wonder when I consider the complexity and apparent dichotomy of humankind.

    I have, since first realizing my consciousness, wondered why I am here, how I got here, if am I going elsewhere, what is this awareness named “I” that lives in this body of mine, how did here get here, what is the infinite/eternity, and is there an overriding order/logic to all this — god, if you will.

    I was able, as a child in bed at night, to conduct this exercise with my imagination, which would seemingly take me to the threshold of comprehending eternity — only to frighten myself, and snap out of the experience. They had an out-of-body sense. It was so compelling that I clearly recall the ability, but I have been unable, for many years now, to reproduce it.

    Born into and raised in Catholicism, I found it rich in pomp and ritual, but for me, devoid of inspiration. Driven by these childhood glimpses of eternity, as I considered them to be, I began my exploration into many isms, religious perspectives, and metaphysical possibilities; protestantism, christian fundamentalism, unitarianism, judaism, paganism, new thought, zen thought, transcendentalism — I have even considered atheism, and pursued other disciplines of thought, such as est and meditation.

    Where I stumbled consistently was when the human construct of these ways of thinking attempted to describe, explain, or claim to know/understand the overriding order/logic – the “god in their pocket” syndrome, as I refer to it.

    The point I have reached in my quest is to realize that the human constructs of religion/isms/thought-disciplines leave me empty. I now know that, by the very essence of my positional relationship to it, I do not and cannot comprehend the overriding order/logic (god). Moreover, I have come to understand that it is not required that I do comprehend, to still be filled with the awe, amazement, and wonder that has always been a part of me. It is this that I embrace, and which lifts and fills me – even when I fall sad and low… it is that inspires me.

  2. August 19, 2010 12:49 pm

    nicely written Paul…between good and bad hands at Wed nite 25 cent limit poker….we on occasion loosley and quickly discuss these things…prom all perspectives…then the huge betting goes on with the occasional bluff….seriously I somewhat come from…or am..with Robi certainly have tons of questions with no answers….agnostic?….dont know….it is ALL so fascinating and indeed beautiful for me when I keep it open and in the moment….whatever that means….anyways take care and happy trails

    • August 19, 2010 5:56 pm

      Following your fascination Wayne, it is being “open and in the moment” which I find difficult to truly achieve, and more difficult to maintain — but it also the state which I find sacred and wherein I am filled with grace… it is my state of grace, and that which I seek perpetually…

  3. August 19, 2010 2:01 pm

    I want to thank Irene for being a fine editor of the manuscript I sent her. Thank you, Irene!

    And thanks to Rob and Wayne for engaging with the issues approached in the article. Being full of questions is what propelled our species from caves and hovels into the realm of architecture and imagination, landed us on the moon and our robots on Mars, and made poetry and the other arts both possible and rewarding. Both science and the religious impulse come from the same questioning mind. To use a traditional religious word, I believe it is holy to question everything!

    • August 19, 2010 6:05 pm

      You are so right Paul, it is most holy to remain constantly inquisitive, and embrace one’s sense of wonder. When one becomes ‘certain’ one becomes rigid and closed, and one shuts the door to enlightenment — becoming shrouded and dark…

  4. Irene permalink*
    August 19, 2010 3:59 pm

    Delighted Paul! And the hidden hand belonged too to Neil who did the formatting (a task!). Your new poem in response to the image of the country shelf I feel is excellent, drawing a picture of gran and her faith and the idea of icons both religious and personal. Love it.

    Rob & Wayne, I found your responses totally honest engaging…seems we’re all on common soil.

    • August 19, 2010 11:04 pm

      Many thanks to Neil for the perfect formatting job! And I’m happy that you enjoyed my poem, Irene.

  5. August 20, 2010 3:37 pm

    I will chime into the discussion a bit here. Paul, first of all, I want you to know how much I appreciate your perspective.

    Sometimes, in this day and age, I hesitate to share poems which express my spirituality (actually Christian spirituality), for fear that it might offend someone or turn someone off.

    Paul, I also believe it is holy to question everything. Religion, whatever religion, should not be afraid of this questioning and should seek answers.

    Rob and Wayne, I enjoyed your perspectives too. I also am a questioner, questioning my purpose, why I am here, and what will be left after I am gone. I love the big questions, the writing about them, the discussing of them, even when there are no clear answers.

  6. August 20, 2010 9:31 pm

    Mary, thank you for “tuning in” to this article! I understand about hesitating to bring your spirituality into your art. If your faith prompts your art or informs it, though, I would encourage you not to hide it. As long as we are open to the validity of other people’s truth and present aspects of faith non-dogmatically, we should never apologize for admitting our own faith. Nor should the person who holds a different faith or none ever need apologize for living honestly according to their best lights.

    Think of art through time. Think Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. It is very Catholic and very mystical and very Counter-Reformation. An expression not just of the ecclesiastical commission that paid for it but of Bernini’s own faith. But I challenge anyone to tell me truthfully that they are unable to appreciate it because of those qualities. If a person doesn’t like it, it’s probably because they don’t like High Roman Baroque. An atheist is just as able to relate to the artistic expression of Bernini’s faith as a Christian is.

    Because in being our authentic selves we have greater power in our art, writing simultaneously from ourselves and for a wide, diverse audience.

  7. August 22, 2010 11:37 am

    Thanks Paul ….also Rob..Irene…Mary..for opening up and and speaking from the heart…reallly enjoyed reading and contemplating all your wonderful words…Thank ya !!!

  8. August 24, 2010 10:30 am

    Wonderful article Paul. And great responses from Rob, Wayne, Irene, and Mary. I left organized religion a long time ago, when I realized that each had a piece of the Truth, and although each claimed it as whole, no one could emcompass that unless they were Divine. I found a much deeper sense of the Spiritual in nature and that allowed me to ‘see’ the Spiritual in all things. I too, struggle to stay open, to find answers that suit me and whatever belief system I own. And am glad to know that search will never be completed in my lifetime. That awareness simply invites more searching, more wonder, more awe as I grow older and my understanding deepens with each year. It allows me to relate and identify with both Herbert and Oliver, as well as innumerable others.

    More important, however, I think my sense of the Spiritual informs everything I write, everything we write. I have long believed that poets are the prophets of whatever age in which they reside. We bring all of who we are, what we belive, our truths to the page, so that others may find, read, and resonate with it, and with our words. That is, I believe, the function of all Art.

    Elizabeth

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