Eucharist & Poetry: dwelling in possibility
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP, PhL, PhD
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA
Do I need to define the term “eucharist” to a group of Catholics? We've all been there, to eucharist. We know the words, the gestures, the scents and sights, all the in's and out's. Whether we've been doing eucharist for 80 years or 8 months, we know all about gathering, singing, listening, responding, taking and eating and drinking, and then going out to do likewise in the world. We might even know some of the history of the eucharist, some of the theology and philosophy that gives it its shape and flavor. And we certainly know about the conflicts, the divisiveness, and the compromises we've endured around how the eucharist is useful, used, and changed over the past few decades. It would be easy for me to spend my time this evening reminding you what you probably already know about the eucharist, or reinforcing ancient teachings around our sacrificial meal, or even challenging some of your favorite pious beliefs. But none of that would involve poetry. And I'm charged with involving poetry. So, what can I do with the eucharist and one of humanity's oldest arts? Here's what I came up with: poetry grants us permission to speak about our experiences of the sublime, the ineffable (the unsayable), the beautiful in a way that no other art form can. It also lends us the tools, the energy, the purposeful resolve to think and write and speak about that which we might only rarely dare to approach.
Our Latin tradition of theology and philosophy – for all of its welcomed clarity and concision – sets aside – for now – questions about how we might craft our responses to that which we can never fully understand. Granted, we have abundant space in our tradition for asking questions and shrugging our shoulders at the mysterious answers. Aquinas himself shrugged at his mountains of intellectual work after just one sublime, personal revelation. After glimpsing the perfection he labored to reveal fully in his imperfect work, he needed a word, an image to convey his failure. He needed a metaphor: straw. And this one word fulfills the duty set for it. “Straw” tells us that his ST, his SCG, his philosophical works on truth, evil, the soul, all his biblical commentaries, his sermons, and hymns – all of it. . .fails to express the compressed Truth perfectly delivered in one fleeting vision. All that he has written is written. True, good, even beautiful! But it is not nor can it be perfect. What he left unsaid about the Trinity, about the Christ, the sacraments, the scriptures, about being, the virtues – what he left unsaid is where we can turn to the hesitant poking and prodding of poetry and attempt to find a slice more of perfection, just a jot and tittle more of what we need to grow in holiness.
Thinking about who in our western poetic tradition does an excellent job of pointing us toward the unsayable, the sublime, I thought of dozens of poets. And I settled on three. Emily Dickinson, Rainer-Maria Rilke, and Wallace Stevens. Now, what to do with them? Well, what do they have in common? Two Americans and an Austrian. One from the 19th c. and two who lived across the 19th and 20th centuries. All three lived in a Romantic age of poetry and all three found the age's themes and style limiting. All three use their verse to wrestle with what it is to exist in a reality silent about its designs and intentions. All three see the world as already interpreted and wholly uninterpretable. There are many other commonalities. But the one I want to pull at is this: all three struggle mightily with our experience of the sublime and the inadequacies of our languages and symbols to speak about the experience. The questions they ask, the images they create all gesture toward an accommodation with both the sublime and the unsayable. That accommodation – to be present and to be silent – is the discipline we need while doing eucharist. Not the presence of “just being there” or the silence of “not talking.” But the presence and the silence of being disposable in our will and still in our intellect. We'll look at one poem from each poet and see how he/she teaches us to be while we give thanks and praise to God the Father.
But before we dive into the poems, we need to define some terms. Two in particular: sublime and ineffable. Not exactly words we come across in our daily lives but ones used quite frequently in writing and talking about the Eucharist. Defining “the sublime” goes all the way back to the 2nd c. of the Christian era. We have the classical definition from Longinus: “...the Sublime consists in a consummate excellence and distinction of language...For the effect of genius is not to persuade the audience but rather to transport them out of themselves” (1.3,4). Not to persuade but to transport beyond the self. Latin helps here. Sublīmis is literally “beneath the line” or “up to the line.” We can assume for now that the line is limit of the Self, the horizon over which the Self is lost to Self – one's experience, one's language, one's memories. Encountering the sublime is encountering that which both threatens and elevates the totality of who I am. Properly understood, the Eucharist is a sublime liturgical act that moves me from Me to Us – me, you, and God. We are elevated into the Divine by the Divine, and this elevation threatens our merely creaturely being.
If sublime language elevates, and The Sublime is that which elevates and threatens, then we can define The Ineffable as that which leaves us speechless, inarticulate. We can go further and say that there are experiences of the sublime that we cannot put into words. Why? Precisely because the experience stretches us to our limits. That we are faced with the ineffable in the sublime may tempt us to quietism, to simply going still and mute before the unsayable. This could be an involuntary, temporary reaction to encountering the sublime. But as rational animals – human persons, body and soul – we are built to comprehend, created to investigate and understand. And we do this through art, music, science, philosophy, theology, and poetry. Each discipline provides its unique tools and vocabularies for investigating and describing what the disciple finds in the created world. For the Catholic artist, musician, poet, scientist the created world reveals the Divine – granted, imperfectly, incompletely, in hesitant and imprecise gestures, words, notes, and paints. But nonetheless prayerfully, sacramentally, and ultimately, sacrificially. The ineffable tempts the intellect and will to keep approaching; to exhaust the hesitancy, the imprecision of our tools and materials. Our tool tonight is the imprecision of language, the music of words grasping at their limits.
first disciple in the art of exhausting the imprecision of language
is R.M. Rilke. Considered the last German Romantic poet and the first
modernist poet from his homeland, he completed his best known work,
in 1922 and published it a year later, one year after Eliot's
ground-breaking poem, “The Wasteland.” We'll consider the opening
fourteen lines of “The First Elegy.” Here we find a soul crying a
lament for his insignificant existence, mourning the disdain with
which the higher things of creation (“angelic hierarchies”)
regard him. We can ask him: why are you crying out? What's happened?
Why do you
merit attention from heaven? He doesn't answer. All he says is that
if one of these angels were to embrace him, he would “perish/in
the embrace of his stronger existence.”
Does he desire to vanish? Is he threatened or elevated by this
superlative being? Apparently, both: “For beauty is nothing but the
beginning of terror...” Elevated to beauty; threatened by terror.
But why should beauty terrify? If beauty is Sublime, why should we
find terror in its contemplation? His answer is straightforward:
“[we] are awed because it [the angel] serenely disdains to
annihilate us.” We are that sort of being that is annihilated in
the contemplation of beauty. Not only annihilated but annihilated
with serene disdain. And it's not entirely clear if we are to be
terrified by our imminent non-being or by the fact that we can be
snuffed out with such peaceful contempt. It's almost as if the angel
who would take us to its heart is unaware of our fragility, too
perfect to note that it's our dire imperfection – our whole being –
it destroys. Since “[e]ach single angel is terrifying,” our poet
retreats from his subjunctive, elegiac vision, forcing himself
instead to “swallow and hold back/the surging call of my dark
sobbing.” Here we see Rilke struggling with two existential
realities: our apparent helplessness in face of eternity and our
inability to express this helplessness in any way more coherent than
“dark sobbing.” IOW, we have our stance before the Sublime
(helplessness) and the consequences of our stance, the Unsayable. The
ineffability of this encounter with the terrifying angel is made
clear: “Oh, to whom can we turn for help?/
Not angels, not humans...” Angels cannot help us articulate our helplessness b/c their beauty terrifies. Humans cannot help one another b/c every human is terrified by angelic beauty. The non-human animals of creation may sense our anxiety, but they do not interpret the world; they do not create language-worlds to live in. That we humans must interpret what we experience alienates us from the things of the world, leaving us bound to concept, words, symbols, and gestures – all artifice and inadequate, in the end. Is this why Rilke contemplates crying out to the angelic hierarchies? And then, hesitates? He's trapped between the annihilating superabundant being of the Sublime and the maddeningly imperfect Unsayable.
What can Rilke's lament teach us about the Eucharist? If we take these dense fourteen lines as an introduction to an existential crisis, a cry of grief at realizing what it is to be, to be human, then we can ask: what does the Eucharist teach us about being imperfectly and perfectly human in the presence of the Divine? Rilke gives us one way of answering the question – though he never explicitly addresses the question in terms of the Eucharist. Our ancient teaching on the Real Presence of Christ places us directly in front of the Divine during the Eucharist. We employ an arsenal of words, symbols, gestures, smells, sounds, and colors to create an interpreted liturgical world. That world – we know – is inadequate to the given task of cleanly, wholly representing who we are in the Divine presence. It is also inadequate to the challenge of communicating the Divine to its creatures. Rilke recoils, halting his frustrated cry, b/c to be embraced by the angel is terrifying, annihilating. Is this our response to being in the presence of the Divine? If not, should it be? If so, if we recoil, then how are we welcoming the Divine into our interpreted world? These few lines from Rilke's first elegy reveal the necessity of remaining disposable and still while in Christ's sacramental presence. If beauty is the beginning of terror, as Rilke says, then we can retort: fear of the Divine is the beginning of wisdom. Rather than shrink away, swallow our cry, and look to the things of the world for consolation, we respond as creatures being perfected in our humanity. We can do what Rilke never considers: give God thanks and praise. Not for threatening to annihilate us in the beauty of His superabundant Being but for coming to us perfectly human and for opening the possibility for us to become Divine w/o losing our humanity. The Eucharist is our way of welcoming and receiving this promise with praise and thanksgiving. In the purest sense of fear, we abide in awe before the sacramental Christ, take him in – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – and then, take him out. . .into the world to be all for all.
We've noted that Rilke seemed – at least in the beginning – to be trapped between the perfected being of the angel (the Sublime) and his inability to bring the Sublime into his interpreted world (the Unsayable). Our next artist, the Cloistered Poet of Amherst, is quiet at home, writing through the imprecisions of language. In fact, she happily declares: I dwell in Possibility –/A fairer House than Prose –/More numerous of Windows –/Superior – for Doors –. Possibility. Potential. Contingency. Maybe probability? Poetry as possibility may strike our modernist ears as old hat. We're used to the hesitancy, the deferral, the subjectivity, the prominence of the otherwise interior confessional in poetry. But Dickinson was no modernist poet. Set against her contemporary, Walt Whitman – the wild man prophet of American Exceptionalism – Dickinson's voice is the voice of a cloistered contemplative. Spare, indirect, demur, merely hinting-at but often brightened with bursts of searing clarity. The poem we're using tonight is just four lines: The words the happy say/Are paltry melody/But those the silent feel/Are beautiful—. So, there's a distinction to be made between the happy who sing and the silent who feel. What is she implying? We can feel w/o singing? Singing betrays feeling? Maybe the crux of the question has more to do with the melody, which is paltry. It's thin, meager. Maybe worthless? Words, tune, pitch. . .the hymn is adequate but not fulsome? What's missing in the melody to make paltry? Obviously, there's more. In the presence of the Sublime, what counts as an adequate response, what manages to be sufficient in conveying how we feel? And does this response matter. . .to the Sublime? Here we get to the root of the reality: does the Sublime have a response to us? That is, is there a required, a necessary response to our being so close to the Perfect from the Perfect? Sure, we – being imperfect – feel compelled to shout out, to reach out, to stretch out toward the perfect – but does the Perfect need our shouting, our stretching? No. The Sublime is perfect; therefore, it needs nothing. Yes. The Sublime is only sublime in our viewing of its sublimity. Otherwise, it is what it is. “Sublimity” is a function of our interpreted world. It's what we “add” to the reality. But notice: Dickinson writes that it is those words the silent feel. . .they are beautiful. The unspoken words are beautiful. Not the muted speakers. Likewise, the words the happy speak compose the “paltry melody.” Our Cloistered Poet is pointing us toward the ineffable, the Unsayable. With her usual intense care, Dickinson is teasing out the difference between the poverty of spoken words and the beauty of unspoken words simply felt. For a poet, an artist with words, this is a strange position to take. It would seem more natural for her to claim the spoken word as the more powerful. After all, silence makes no use of metaphors, rhymes, rhythms, or enjambments. So, what's going on here? One way of reading Dickinson's poem is to see it as a frame for the ineffable; that is, she is “locating” the ineffable by identifying where it isn't – the spoken word. The only way she can do this – as a poet – is with words. These four lines then gesture toward what cannot be said – the beauty of words simply felt. Now, why are the words spoken by the happy so impoverished? Is it because they exhaust themselves, their significance in trying to say what cannot be said? Yes, I think so. Dickinson wants us to notice that she's praising the ineffable with words, thus making her poem a delightful contradiction! And I can't resist quoting here one of my favorite Dickinson poems: Tell all the truth but tell it slant — /Success in Circuit lies/Too bright for our infirm Delight/The Truth's superb surprise/As Lightning to the Children eased/With explanation kind/The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind —. As a statement of her overall poetic project, Dickinson could not do better.
So, how does our little poem about speaking and silence help us to understand the Eucharist? There's a lot of speaking in the Mass. Prayers, readings, the homily, singing. There may even be short moments of silence. Taking Dickinson's proposition that the ineffable can only be framed but never spoken, we can ask: how does the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist – all of the sights, sounds, smells, motions – how does it frame our experience of the Divine? Are we merely happily saying the words? Or are we – in silence – letting the words be beautiful in us? Rilke challenges us to contemplate the possibility of being annihilated by the Sublime. He provokes in us a question about our relationship with that which is beyond us in every way. Dickinson doesn't seem to be much interested in the Sublime. Her interpreted world is the world of possibility, the world of exhausting the imprecision of words. Her challenge to us is not an existential-crisis-invoking gut punch but rather – like her strong, delicate poetic lines – a nudge to notice ourselves failing to participate in the salvific action of the Eucharist. “Active participation” isn't about getting up and moving around and having a job at the Mass, like reading or taking up the collection or serving as a CM. The Latin term translated as “active participation” is better translated as “actual participation;” that is, that sort of participation that moves your potential to be holy to actual holiness. That kind of participation can be done in silence. Our prayers, the homily, the readings, the singing – all words. All spoken words. But merely repeating them does not frame the ineffable. They are the least wrong way to understand what we are doing at the Eucharist. What will better help us approach the fullness of Christ's beauty in the Eucharist is attending to the silences that frames the ineffable. Most importantly, the interior silences we construct by muting our paltry melodies.
Before moving to our last poet, I want to take a moment to talk about the Eucharist from within the tradition, making sure – despite my earlier assurances – that we have a good idea of what of we're talking about. I said earlier that we all know what the Mass is. We've all been to Mass, celebrated the Eucharist probably hundreds of times. And the doing of eucharist is immensely more important to our salvation than merely understanding it intellectually. This truth does not mean, however, that we cannot or should not try to grasp at a rational level what the Eucharist is. To help us here, we turn to Pope Benedict XVI and his 2007 exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum caritatis, the Sacrament of Charity. I strongly recommend reading this document b/c it is probably one of the best explanations of the Eucharist available. He writes, “In the sacrament of the altar, the Lord meets us, men and women created in God's image and likeness, and becomes our companion along the way. In this sacrament, the Lord truly becomes food for us, to satisfy our hunger for truth and freedom. Since only the truth can make us free, Christ becomes for us the food of truth. . .Each of us has an innate and irrepressible desire for ultimate and definitive truth...Jesus Christ is the Truth in person, drawing the world to himself. . .” (SC2). Lots to unpack here. In the Eucharist: 1) God comes to meet us; 2) He becomes our companion along the Way; 3) knowing that we hunger for truth and freedom, He becomes our food; 4) knowing that only the truth can set us free, Christ becomes for us the food of truth; 5) our irrepressible desire for truth is met in the person of Jesus Christ, who draws the world to himself. BXVI is re-orienting our perspective on the Eucharist away from the dominant modern view that the Eucharist is principally (if not only) about the community of believers, gathering together to reinforce their identity as followers of Christ. This communal reinforcement of our identity is certainly a result of celebrating the Eucharist, but it is not purpose, the telos of celebrating the Eucharist. What is the telos of the Eucharist? BXVI continues, “The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of 'nuclear fission' . . .which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all” (SC2). The telos of the Eucharist is the transfiguration of the entire world so that God will be all in all. The task of transfiguring the entire world falls to you and me. BXVI uses the image of nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion is the process of drawing atoms inward toward a central mass. Nuclear fission is where atoms are scattered, pushed out and away from the central mass. In this image from physics, we can see that we come together in the Eucharist (fusion) and then we scatter into the world (fission). But – like the particles in a nuclear reaction – we do not scatter unchanged. In the Eucharist, we offer Christ – BBSD; we offer ourselves individually and as a Body to the Father, surrendering everything we have and are to be transfigured into imperfect Christs. Our task is to go out – as living, breathing tabernacles – and bring Christ to the entire world.
I'm arguing in this talk that our poets can help us investigate how we participate in our own transfiguration during the Eucharist. Rilke and Dickinson give us insights into how we encounter the Sublime and struggle to articulate what we experience – the Ineffable. They are especially useful to us b/c they come to us from outside our Catholic tradition. Their questions and pokes and prods assume nothing we take for granted. Our last poet, Wallace Stevens, spent his entire career as a poet rejecting the very idea of God's existence. In fact, he proposes poetry as a replacement for religion altogether. There is good evidence that he made a deathbed conversion and was received into the Church before he died. But his life-long rejection of Christianity and his search for Something Else to ground his humanity fueled his poetic project.
Stevens' poetry is notoriously difficult. It is also spectacularly beautiful. That combination of difficulty and beauty makes choosing a poem for this talk frustrating. I've settled on “Sunday Morning.” I'll start with a quote from his Adagia, a book of aphorisms, “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption.” Or, as he put it in one of his most famous poems, “Poetry//Exceeding music must take the place/Of empty heaven and its hymns,/Ourselves in poetry must take their place”(TMWBG). Neither Rilke nor Dickinson advocated for the abandonment of religion. Rilke was, at best, wary of it; and Dickinson shared his wariness, if not his post-Romantic despair at losing it. Stevens, on the other hand, being a good disciple of Emerson, easily shifted from the simple Lutheranism of his family into a humanist exaltation of things, the things of the world. Not worldliness. By all accounts, his personal life resembled that of a monk. But a fascination with how poetry, the poetic imagination, shapes and polishes the furniture of the universe. He believed this shaping and polishing was the limit of worship. Joan Richardson, a Stevens biographer, succinctly summarizes our poet's work: “Reading his poems, we learn the same habit of close attention, intense concentration, demanded by prayer; his body of work a breviary, a primer in practicing a 'constant sacrament of praise' for mere being”(HTLWTD 18-19).
While Rilke wrestled with the deadliness of the Sublime and Dickinson carefully picked her words to frame the ineffable, Stevens chose to construct the necessary fictions of life that a non-existent God never created. His poems are those necessary fictions. His first fiction tonight is “Sunday Morning” first published in Poetry Magazine in 1915 and later included in his first volume, Harmonium, published the same year as Rilke's Duino Elegies, 1923. Stevens was 35yo when “Sunday Morning” appeared in print. He was well away from his family's Lutheranism and very much in the thrall of Emerson, William James, and George Santayana, the self-professed “Catholic atheist.” “Sunday Morning” announces his departure from religion in general and Christianity in particular. The poem opens with a woman enjoying her Sunday morning – oranges, coffee, a cockatoo, all working together, dissipating “[t]he holy hush of ancient sacrifice.” She dreams, walking “[o]ver the seas, to silent Palestine,/Dominion of the blood and sepulcher.” Stevens sets the scene, contrasting a bright, pleasant modernity with the dark, bloody history of sacrifice. And then he asks the question modernity demands: “Why should she give her bounty to the dead?/What is divinity if it can come/Only in silent shadows and in dreams?” Why should someone possessed of worldly beauty surrender it to tradition – the dead? What is the power of divinity if it cannot be seen and heard in the things of the world? Shadows and dreams aren't a reliable means of revealing reality! The poet tells us the secret that will relieve her worry: “Divinity must live within herself...” Despite this revelation, she insists, “But in contentment I still feel/The need of some imperishable bliss.” And the poet answers, “Death is the mother of beauty...” Without an end, a conclusion nothing is beautiful. Look to your death, then attend to the things of the world, know that you and they will pass – there is your bliss, knowing you are impermanent.
This early declaration of nihilism (1915) prompts us to consider “[t]he holy hush of ancient sacrifice” as we live and move and have our being in a world bereft of religious enchantment. Stevens' secular religion seems almost sterile, lacking in the jagged edges that makes belief so vital to the human soul. Where's the praise? The thanksgiving? The offertory of self and other? Even his confessed despair comes off like a distant object observed behind glass: “At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make/Ambiguous undulations as they sink,/Downward to darkness, on extended wings.” Beautiful. But hopeless. So, we can ask ourselves during the Eucharist: does my actual participation in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving fill me with hope? Do I experience the telos of this liturgy – the perfecting of my humanity into the Christ? We don't have to stay at home on a Sunday morning with coffee and the TV to refuse to be transfigured. We can do that from a pew while reciting the Creed and queuing up for Communion. The service Stevens' poem performs for us is this: he starkly contrasts the existing options for those who lay claim to the faith. As beautiful as this poem is, and it is, its beauty works to seduce us away from the demands of sacrifice; its eros tempts us to just stay in bed – whether we actually leave our beds or not. The transfiguring power of the Eucharist only works for us if we dispose ourselves to be worked upon. This means having the courage to encounter the Sublime in God and one another; it means having the patience to trust our limitations and wrestle with the ineffable; it means surrendering ourselves to the telos of our common work – the liturgy – and sharing the fruits of that work with the world; and finally, it means practicing suffering-well for the redemption of creation.
Can we do any of those things without God? Or, minimally, without some sense of the Sublime, some impulse to recognize that there is Something larger, more fundamental that sits beyond the limits of our immediate humanity to know and love? In 1915, Stevens announced his allegiance to what many critics called a hedonistic nihilism. “Sunday Morning” was described as the work of an aesthete. In 1936, he published Ideas of Order, which includes the poem, “The American Sublime” – our second necessary fiction for this evening. Sharp, spare, unadorned, our poem gets right to the question at hand: “How does one stand/To behold the sublime...?” It's striking that Stevens wants us to meditate on how one stands to behold the sublime. We might expect a question about the nature of the sublime, or whether or not the sublime is knowable, or how beholding the sublime will change us. What we get is a question meant to turn our contemplation back on the beholder. The move here is not a denial of the reality of the sublime but rather than emphasis on the role of the imagination in beholding the sublime. Of course, this begs the question somewhat. Am I asking myself how I am to stand to behold the really real sublime? Or am I simply invoking my imagination to create the sublime? Stevens absolutely delights in this sort of ambiguity. But he insists that we not exclude an interrogation of the imagination's role in beholding the sublime – whether it's an exterior or interior phenomenon: “When General Jackson/Posed for his statue/He knew how one feels.” We have two historical events: Jackson posing for the sculptor and how Jackson felt while posing. Neither of these is available to us to question. What we have is the statue. Does the statue capture that which is beyond us, the sublime? If so, we have access to the sublime. If not, we have to imagine the sublime at work in the statue. Then he announces something like a secular Pentecost: “And the sublime comes down/To the spirit itself,/The spirit and space,/The empty spirit/In vacant space.” The progression of emptying out here is telling. What exactly is the sublime descending upon? The Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and disciples at Pentecost. But Stevens' sublime is descending first on spirit, then spirit and space, then empty spirit, and finally, vacant space. Is the Sublime sublime if there is no imagination to behold it? He answers with a deceptively pedestrian set of questions: “What wine does one drink?/What bread does one eat?” These questions leave the ambiguity of the sublime's existence open to the how the reader understands the significance of the bread and wine. If bread is just bread and wine just wine, then the sublime descends on a vacant reader. If the bread and wine signify something more, something transubstantiated, then the sublime descends on an imagination used to imagining sacramentally.
Our poets have given us the chance to look at the Eucharist in ways we may have never thought of. Rilke's subjunctive and elegiac cry for meaning in the face of his terrifying angel asks us to consider how we encounter the Divine. In fact, it asks: do we encounter the Divine in the Eucharist? Surely, God comes to us in our liturgy, but we do go to Him? And we if go to Him, do we bring everything we have and everything we are? What Rilke calls annihilation, we call being perfected in Christ – not going into nothingness but being transfigured into living, breathing tabernacles to carry Christ to the world. Dickinson, so meticulous and coy, asks us to acknowledge the ineffable, to give a hesitant nod to the Unsayable and dig in to offer it a fleeting frame. Words said are happy. But in the face of the Real, they sing a “paltry melody.” The truly beautiful words are silently felt. Left unsaid, these words remain tied to the imagination in their lack of physical expression. She asks us to consider silence as a means of encountering the ineffable, as a way to pick-out the unsayable, experience it to the limits of our capacity, and then let it go. In the Eucharist, we have the Church's collective response to God coming to us. Our response is words, smells, colors, gestures. But these sacramental elements remain merely ritualistic if they are not framed by the silence of a properly disposed soul and stilled intellect. For the whole person to be present at Mass, the possibility of the unsayable must be too. Maybe Ms Dickinson meant to write, “ I dwell in possibility/a finer house than prayer”? Stevens offers us the chance to take on the larger dare – set religious tradition aside in favor of shaping and polishing the things of the world with language. For him, poetry must displace prayer as our primary means of finding and keeping some semblance of enduring meaning. The tombs and chapels and old rugged crosses of the ancient world cannot reveal the divine – not b/c they are too small to contain greatness but b/c there is no divinity for them to contain. He asks us to abandon the eros of sacrifice for the “[c]omplacencies of the peignoir,” a beautiful but ultimately infertile nihilism.
At the beginning of this talk, I suggested that the task of poetry is to exhaust the imprecision of language. This task – wringing out every drop of a word's inadequacy – cannot be accomplished. Whether the poet is showing us his rage against existence, or sharing the fruits of her contemplation, or daring us to ground our faith in the creative imagination – language will always ultimately fail to capture the Real. This failure extends even into our liturgies. And thanks be to God! If getting the formula right were enough to achieve salvation, then it would be enough for us to memorize the formula, repeat it when necessary, and then simply get on with our day. IOW, following Christ and becoming Christs would be a matter of magical incantation, not a liturgical labor. That we must actually participate in our own salvation puts the burden on us to choose – freely choose – to be members of the Body. Just showing up and being still is necessary but insufficient for growing in holiness. The Eucharist calls us to make of ourselves an oblation to God. Not b/c He needs a sacrifice but b/c we need to be sacrificed, to be made holy in surrender. The only language that even begins to capture the sublimity of God and articulate His ineffability is the language of praise and thanksgiving. The Eucharist and our attentive participation in it is just the beginning of our dwelling in possibility. What we possess of possibility that none of our poets did is the Catholic imagination; that is, the faculty to interpret our lived-world through the complimentary lens of sacramentality and incarnationality – God reveals Himself continuously through created things and those created things live and move and have their being in Him. We are participatory beings, beings who are held in being by Being Himself. The Eucharist is our received means of perfecting our participation in His divinity, thus everything about each one of us who celebrate the Eucharist is suffused with the gift of experiencing and interpreting creation as a fellow-being participating in the divine. Where we see grace, we see God working. We see God b/c He is His work. Our poets gave us liminal insights into the Sublime, the ineffable and prompted us to ask questions we may have never considered. They may have pricked our conscience to attentive contemplation, telling us all the truth but telling it slant. That slant – that squinting hesitancy – can never overcome faith, but it can move us out of complacency and routine and along the ragged edges of growing in holiness.