I am not a religious person. I usually tell people, if they ask, that I’m a secular humanist, because religion plays no part in my life. And mostly, this is true. In my non-writing life, that is.
But. Religion, or at least the basic tenets and concepts of Judeo-Christianity, figure prominently in my writing life because, though I am not a religious person, some of my favorite poets were or are. I used to be a poet, so the writing fanning out in back of me, stretched out in a long haphazard peacock-dazed line, is largely still poetry. Some of my favorite poetry has the fire and fury of the Old Testament and some the sweet forgiveness of man’s sins the New Testament promises.
It would be more accurate to say I feel a kinship with the religious, because I, too, know the yearning for redemptive grace. And yet because I am an agnostic, (and probably would be an atheist were I not a Midwesterner, too passive and polite to commit fully to my own conviction), that grace is not something that is open to me through religion. It must come through story and poetry instead—through the myths that sentences build, the paradise of words and wonders found and documented here on earth.
I should note here for any well-meaning evangelicals that when I say ‘yearning’ I do not mean I yearn for religion itself. Whatever it is that makes people believe in a god, I have never had it, never that I can remember, and have instead sought its substitute in the world around me. I do not feel I am missing anything; indeed, I feel lucky to have begun my search for grace in literature so early on, fueled by parable and metaphor and by never having to see anything so mundane as truth in such bright colorful stories. In James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, one of my favorite films, Dr. Pretorius tells Dr. Frankenstein to: “Leave the charnel house and follow the lead of nature – or of God, if you like your Bible stories… Create a race, a man-made race upon the face of the earth. Why not?”
Why not indeed? As writers, can we not create our own kingdom of Heaven on the face of the earth? Can we artists not all be gods and monsters? This is, has always been, if a little bittersweet, a mostly exhilarating prospect for me. If I can’t believe the story, at least I can create my own.
But even so – my writing will be filled, is filled, with the myths and motifs that have come from the Bible and the Torah and other religious traditions and texts. And so why religious writing? I think that, whether biblical texts or writing with deep religious conviction, it tends to be full of mystery, of high language and ancient themes, of chaos followed by order, order broken by chaos, of parable and repetition and ritual, of a strong appreciation for nature, and of the fear and wonder of death and what follows. It is, in other words, full of the things I admire most in literature. Small wonder, then, that I should so enjoy some of its practitioners. (This is not to say, by the way, that most religious writing is good, or that I like purposeful religious writing. Like any kind of writing meant to instruct, that kind of writing is usually cardboard. The texts that come from the author’s sense of the sublime are the ones that are, seldom but sometimes, glorious.)
This has meant I have long been moved by and drawn to religious poets and writers. I have long loved the conservative, Catholic poetry of David Jones and T.S. Eliot, rooted in Christian legend and mythology. Even when I was young I enjoyed The Narnia Chronicles, and the writings of Madeline L’Engle. They made a certain sort of mathematical sense, which the universe that I knew, frankly, did not. They gave a calm to a deeply unmoored young neurotic, though I never understood their religious underpinnings until I was much older.
And then, in a separate and exalted category, stands my long love affair with Gerard Manley Hopkins. As a Jesuit priest, his poems came from what he saw as an ecstatic appreciation for the miracles of the divine here on earth. Consider this bit of one of my very favorite poems ever written, “God’s Grandeur”
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell:
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
This poem is full of ecstatic feeling and delicious language at the order and beauty of nature, at the divine mystery that Hopkins believes enfolds and gives birth to green and growing things, to the sun and the light and the sweet, dark soil. How can I not be moved by this, though I do not believe in any god? How can I fail to understand exactly what my fellow human being was feeling, one hundred and fifty years ago? How can I fail to love his explanations for the order of the world, and his joy, his creative use of form, of chant, of repetition and rhyme and glorious, bursting, worshipful language? As a child, the only part of church that I enjoyed was the part where we took our red, satin-covered hymnals from the backs of the pews and sang, stood and sang in exalted and glorious four part harmonies. I loved to sing and was unselfconscious about it then, and although I didn’t believe in god, I believed that perhaps this was what people meant when they spoke about god: this raising of voices, this triumphant and joyful melody. This ecstasy of noise. Hopkins still represents that feeling for me.
Of course my lack of religious faith has also meant that I feel a strong kinship with the many poets who, like Emily Dickinson, doubted. I have long appreciated how earnestly and yet how slyly she wrestled with the problems of death and truth and some kind of afterlife, and how often that doubt defines her poetry. In her poem which begins, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died,” she seems to suggest that the Fly lies between her dead soul and the afterlife – until the end of the poem, “I could not see to see – “ after which we realize the Fly is a sort of dark and damning truth, the darkness that she seems to fear will come instead of promised grace. This chord echoes again and again in much of her poetry, along with the brilliant conflation of the sexual and the holy. And they are lines only someone who doubted could produce.
Being, myself, a non-religious person, I am perhaps most of all drawn to the language-driven poetry of Charles Wright, who, like me, cannot believe, but can attempt to find a substitute for grace in the material world around him. Wright is perhaps a Southern poet, concerned with the past and the legacy of loss, but he is also a poet concerned with his lack of faith and the attempt to reconcile it with his love of nature and the world around him. In fact, I have heard critics and scholars compare Wright with Hopkins many times, and Hopkins’ line of influence seems clear and bright to me, with the element of loss and yearning that comes with lack of belief drizzled through. Adam Kirsch, reviewing Wright’s “Appalachia,” said that, “the still center around which these themes whirl, has always been Wright’s metaphysical yearning, his desire for a mystical or religious transcendence that is seemingly impossible today.”
This yearning is precisely what drives Wright’s work. He has always been obsessed with death, particularly as he ages. From his book Littlefoot, a meditation on mortality, this stanza always breaks my heart a little more, every time I read it, every time a little older:
We’re not here a lot longer than we are, for sure.
Unlike coal, for instance, or star clots.
Or so we think.
And thus it behooves us all to windrow affection, and spare,
And not be negligent.
So that our hearts end up like diamonds, and not roots.
So that our disregard evaporates
as a part of speech.
This is sadness mingled with joy, the loss of certainty, the coming of science to crowd out our myths and hang a canvas beyond believing. And yet here, here is the Hopkins within, the agnostic Jesuit who wants to feel ecstasy over something we can’t call god, although perhaps we might:
How is it we can’t accept this, that all trees were holy once,
That all light is altar light,
And floods us, day by day, and bids us, the air sheet lightning
To sit still and say nothing,
Here under the latches of Paradise?
After reading again all these writings, all these poets – the religious, the spiritual, the doubters, the non-believers like me – I believe we are all talking about the same thing. I believe that whether we write about god or the absence of god – if we write honestly – then we write about the greatest unattainable wish, the dream of the cave, the strange note sounded in the night that draws men to their death. We write of ultimate mystery and unknowable meaning. And what that is to each man? To each writer that wrestles with the problem? That might be religion indeed, for I have no better word for it. As Wright writes, in “Thinking of Wallace Stevens at the Beginning of Spring”:
The poem is virga, a rain that never falls to earth.
That’s why we look this way, our palms outstretched,
Our faces jacked toward the blue.