A poet’s approach to gospel truth

Published on: 1 June 2019

Poet-priest Malcom Guite invites us to take a poet's perspective to Biblical truth.

Audrey: I do not know what ‘poetical’ is. Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?

Touchstone: No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most feigning…’[1]

This little exchange between Audrey the Shepherdess and Touchstone the fool, in As You Like It, touches lightly on some deep questions: Whose truth is it anyway? Can the poet add anything to the work of the historian or the scientist when it comes to getting at the truth? Shakespeare, who always puts his greatest wisdom into the mouth of his fools, seems to be saying ‘yes, truth belongs to the poets as much as to the others’.

During Holy Week of this year, I had the privilege of speaking each evening in Norwich Cathedral, offering reflections and meditations that might guide us deeper into the central mysteries of our faith.

Of course, I could have opened out some of the truths of our gospel by taking an historical or an expository approach and that is a right and proper thing to do. But I am convinced that sometimes the poet’s approach to truth can offer insights which are distinct from, but complementary to other approaches.

Here is a little sample of two of the many poems I offered in that Holy Week, and some of the things I said in reflection about them. Perhaps, in reading them you will get some sense of the distinct fruits of a poetic approach to gospel truth.

Jesus weeps

Jesus comes near and he beholds the city

And looks on us with tears in his eyes,

And wells of mercy, streams of love and pity

Flow from the fountain whence all things arise.

He loved us into life and longs to gather

And meet with his beloved face to face.

How often has he called, a careful mother,

And wept for our refusals of his grace,

Wept for a world that, weary with its weeping,

Benumbed and stumbling, turns the other way;

Fatigued compassion is already sleeping

Whilst her worst nightmares stalk the light of day.

But we might waken yet, and face those fears,

If we could see ourselves through Jesus’ tears.

This sonnet is a meditation on a single verse in Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 19 and verse 41: As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it.

It’s hard to see through tears, but sometimes it’s the only way to see. Tears can be the turning point, the springs of renewal, and to know you have been wept for is to know that you are loved.

I have a God who knows what it is to weep and who weeps for me, weeps with me. So, the Octet of this sonnet, its first eight lines, contemplate the tears of Christ, his infinite compassion, but when the ‘turn’, the ‘volta’, comes in line nine, I turn to think about our own ‘weeping’, about the sources and limits of our own compassion.

And here I confront that modern phrase ‘compassion fatigue’. Our capacity for compassion, literally to be com (‘with’ or alongside) the passio (the suffering) of others, is God-given and is part of his image in us. It is also natural that when we feel compassion we should have the desire to act, to do something, to respond to and alleviate the suffering we witness.

And for most of human history most human beings experiencing compassion would have had the chance to act and do something immediate and particular about it, because any suffering they witnessed would be local and they could at least begin to engage in the great ‘works of mercy’ of which Jesus speaks in Matthew, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick.

But because of instant news exchange, our generation has the daily experience of exposure to suffering on a large scale that is at once vivid and distant. We see the hungry, and the distressed every evening on our TV screens but we cannot immediately or directly contact the person whose tears we are seeing, whose tears may have provoked our own.

What to do? Of course, we can and do support the emergency appeals and we know, intellectually, that we are making a difference, however small. But still, we are haunted by that particular face, the one whose actual need we saw, whose particular need we couldn’t meet.

The danger then is that the natural link between compassion and action is severed, compassion freewheels in its own frustration and burns out, we can’t deal with it anymore and so the world, ‘weary with its weeping,/Benumbed and stumbling, turns the other way;’ Then, if we are not careful compassion fatigue becomes a long sleep or even the death of our capacity for fellow feeling:

Fatigued compassion is already sleeping.

Whilst her worst nightmares stalk the light of day.

What can we do? Jesus comes close to us, and we need to come close to him, for his compassion, unlike ours, is infinite, and ours can be renewed in his, our compassion not just for the world, but for ourselves. We need first to receive and feel his healing compassion for us, compassion for us in our very state of compassion fatigue, and in so doing, the healing springs can rise again and our own capacity for compassion will be renewed.

Cleansing the Temple

Come to your Temple here with liberation

And overturn these tables of exchange,

Restore in me my lost imagination,

Begin in me for good the pure change.

Come as you came, an infant with your mother,

That innocence may cleanse and claim this ground.

Come as you came, a boy who sought his father

With questions asked and certain answers found.

Come as you came this day, a man in anger,

Unleash the lash that drives a pathway through,

Face down for me the fear, the shame, the danger,

Teach me again to whom my love is due.

Break down in me the barricades of death

And tear the veil in two with your last breath.

When Solomon dedicated the Temple, he declared that not even the Heaven of Heavens could contain almighty God, much less this temple made with hands, yet God himself still came into the temple.

He came as a baby, the essence of all light and purity in human flesh, he came as a young boy full of questions, seeking to know his father’s will, and today he came in righteous anger to clear away the blasphemous barriers that human power-games try to throw up between God and the world he loves.

Then finally, by his death on the cross he took away the last barrier in the Temple, and in our hearts, the veil that stood between us and the Holy of Holies, the very presence of God, in us and beyond us.

This sonnet reflects on all four of those advents of God to the temple, but this time focusing on his advent to the inner temple of the heart, on the challenge and cleansing that must happen there.

Jesus ‘overturned the tables of exchange’. It’s very clear what that might mean for both the outward and visible church and for the world at large, it represents a challenge to the dominance of finance, to the deification of the market. It is a call to take down the financial barriers that prevent people and whole nations from developing fully as they should.

But what might the tables of exchange be in our inner temple? In the outer temple, one kind of currency was being exchanged for another, one set of terms for another. And that is happening in us all the time, as we change terms between the outer and the inner, between the language of the world and the language of our hearts.

There is a right and proper way to do that, a rich and imaginative way, but there is also a cold and calculating way, a temptation to cash everything out as a payment to the ego. That is why this sonnet begins with the petition to Christ:

Come to your Temple here with liberation

And overturn these tables of exchange,

Restore in me my lost imagination,

Begin in me for good the pure change.

And then I ask for Christ to come in all his ways; as the infant to claim and renew my infancy, and all that is and should remain child-like in me; as a questioning boy that I too might have the courage to question the learned doctors of the church and offer some insights too, as a man of zeal and passion, that he might stir in me a proper anger and courage in the face of injustice.

But it is the last of his comings to the temple that changes everything, on Good Friday. For that final visit to the temple is done, paradoxically, from the cross, when, as Jesus breathes his last, the veil in the temple is torn in two from top to bottom.

As Hebrews tells us, that veil hangs between heaven and earth, and Christ, the great high priest, has gone within the veil on our behalf and brings not just our outer names but our inner nature into the heart of Heaven itself.

I hope that this little taste of poetic truth-telling has opened out new possibilities for your approach to truth itself, and especially the truth about Jesus.

[1] As You Like It Act III scene 3 line 20

The poems and some of the comment in this piece are drawn from Waiting on the Word (Canterbury Press, 2014) and are used with the author’s permission.

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