Archive | February, 2013

Are we pitchers or catchers?

28 Feb

             What faith and poetry share is awe, the life of wonder.  The essence of awe is captured in poet Jack Spicer’s words, “Poets think they are pitchers, when they are really catchers.”  To stand in awe is to allow catching to shape us.


            Such thoughts run through a book I mentioned last time, A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith.  In the Introduction, editors Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler comment on the difficulties we have in conversing about spirituality in our society today:  “. . . irony holds sway over much of our public intellectual life, and a dialogue about faith asks us to set aside irony for a direct engagement with beauty, hope, doubt, and fear.”  They seek ways to discuss faith “outside the polarized, and polarizing, influences of ideological religious politics.”


Think for a moment about the public discussion that might follow in this vein.  What difference would it make if we started with an image of ourselves as catchers?  We feel the pressure today to present ourselves as able pitchers.  Imagine if a prospective student wrote her college application essay on the theme, “The most important things I’ve caught.”  Period.  It reminds me of the 1960s slogan, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”  Job-creators have become the culture heroes du jour, and a job-creating society wants to know what you’re pitching—not what you’ve been catching. 


            How would our public discussion be altered if we exchanged ideas of what is awesome for us?  Not sharing our views of God, or asking whether there is a God, or describing our religious communities or our beliefs about abortion or stem cells, but rather asking about what gives us meaning.  Surely, some will say, this makes it all about God.  Yes, about how we experience God functioning in our lives—whether we call it God or not–not “god” as a word or an idea or a belief.  Let us call this our conversation about the Big Catch.


Last time, I talked about soul and soul-shape.  Perhaps soul is that which reveals to us the foundations of awe and makes it possible for us to be receivers.


One responder to my last blog posting said that when she changed her name some years ago, she chose the Hebrew word for “soul” as her middle name—neshamah.  Another said “this morning the soul shapes into the form of a cardinal.”  These comments sound like openings for conversation about receiving.  Our experience of the soul’s mystery is personal, but we are enhanced by catching the stories others tell us about life in their zones of awe.


If there must be a god in the house, must be,

Saying things in the room and on the stair,

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,

Or moonlight, silently. . .

                        (Wallace Stevens)

The shape of my soul

21 Feb

The shape of my soul

I like my coffee black and strong

My scotch neat, same with my gin

I hate overpowering my food with sauces

Italian, Greek, Spanish are to be preferred

Pasta aglio et olio—

No tomato or meat sauce if you please

Mies and Bauhaus speak to me more clearly than

Frank Lloyd Wright or neo-Baroque

The Great Plains of Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado

New Mexico’s mesas

The endless Atlantic as I sailed to and from Europe

Restless waves lapping on any shore

The flow of cars on the Drive, along the shore

Echo the waves

These nourish my soul

There’s a starkness deep down there

That’s more satisfying than elaborate décor

In the sanctuary, it’s the classic liturgy,

Its bare-bones structure clear to view

Absent, please, elaborate decor

Does it make sense to talk about the “shape” of your “soul”?  About a year ago, sitting in that same café that figured in my previous blog piece, it suddenly occurred to me that my soul does have a shape, and I’ve been aware of it for many years.  These verses suggest how that shape appears to me.  I have since written a much longer poem that elaborates these images.

Is the term “soul” still usable?  Does it mean anything?  For the past two decades or more, I shied away from using the word at all—even in theology classes.  It means too many things to too many people.  We caricature the soul as a thing about the size of my fist, located between the top of my head and my belly button.  Who believes that?

A couple of years ago, I ran across a group of poets—some religious, some not—who assert that without a belief in the soul, there can be no poetry.  Some of them put together an essay collection,  A God in the House:  Poets Talk about Faith (Tupelo, 2012).  Sven Birkerts describes himself as non-religious, yet he writes that his soul is “the active inner part of me that is not shaped by contingencies, that stands free.”  It is “the part of the ‘I’ that recognizes the absurd fact of its being.”  Hear Adam Zagajewski on the soul:

We know we’re not allowed to use your name.

We know you’re inexpressible,

Anemic, frail, and suspect. . .

And yet we still keep hearing your weary voice . . . (“The Soul”)


It camps in the Rocky Mountains of the skull.

An eternal refugee.   (“The Self”)

Denise Levertov, in her poem, “An Interim,” speaks of that which,

While it drags on, always worse,

the soul dwindles sometimes to an ant

rapid upon a cracked surface;

lightly, grimly, incessantly

it skims the unfathomed clefts where despair

seethes hot and black.

“Soul” in these poems is far from a bland “thing” lodged somewhere in our bodies.  And soul has more than one mood, more than a single voice.

So, I ask you—what’s the shape of your soul—and what difference does it make?