I don’t know if I arrive at church on Sunday morning by faith or by reason. I prop open the wooden door for my wife; I ascend the small flight of stairs just inside the door and briefly debate whether I should first accept the bulletin from the person at the landing, or I should dip my fingers in the stone baptismal birdbath, cross myself, and remember I wasn’t always this way.
At “our” seat, I try to quiet my insides and steady my breathing. I observe the fluttering candle flames on either end of the altar top, dangerously close to setting the flowers beside on fire; someone should move them. I smile when I make eye contact with the child in the pew in front of me who has just finished roving the ceiling with his eyes. He holds our stare long past what is acceptable, but that’s okay. There’s a grace here that covers a multitude of awkward stares.
My mind wanders to the classrooms just below the floor. This church is also a school. Oh, what education the students must receive in the cellar-like rooms filled with bookshelves, between sanctuary above and ground below! I imagine myself there, alone, at a desk reading a poem.
A wanderer comes at last
to the forest hut where it was promised
someone wise would receive him.
And there’s no one there; birds and small animals
flutter and vanish, then return to observe.
Denise Levertov’s “The Spirits Appeased”: a wanderer moves through the forest expecting some kind of presence. He arrives, as many do on a Sunday morning, based on a promise: someone will meet and receive me here. But, no one does.
No human eyes meet his.
Objects make their appearance: a meal has been made for him, set beside a fire.
But in the hut there’s food,
set to keep warm beside glowing logs,
and fragrant garments to fit him, replacing
the rags of his journey,
and a bed of heather from the hills.
And not only a meal, but the means of comfort and refreshment. Replacing the soiled and torn rags with a new fragrance and a place to rest upon the heather of nearby hills: this must be the comforts of home. Yet there is more. The wanderer has only just arrived, maybe not even moved a muscle except his eyes.
He stays there waiting. Each day the fire
is replenished, the pot refilled while he sleeps.
He draws up water from the well,
writes of his travels, listens for footsteps.
While he sleeps, unaware of the secret movements of the hidden, more food appears and the fire grows again. Still, the wanderer waits faithfully and he draws water from the well; he writes of his experience, and listens carefully.
Little by little, he finds
the absent sage is speaking to him,
Until the discovery of grace, faith remains unmoved. Through the poetry of worship in the collective setting the body of Christ comes together to renew the union between ourselves, soul and body, and the Hidden. We approach the Divine by faith, and grace turns absence to presence, lost into found, and hungry into satisfied.
Poetry puts our body and soul into the posture of faith. Poetry is not meant to be understood in a place of isolation, just as we are not meant to worship alone. We must read together, we must sing, hear Scripture, and take Communion together. Nor is poetry a culmination of all thoughts, philosophies, and theology. No one can see everything from standing in one place. Rather, poetry, like worship, sets our faith in motion toward something we can sense and hardly know how to approach. But, when faith is made attentive by fingertips on the surface of water, by the fluttering of candle-flame, by the eyes of a child, it begins to move—little by little—even if only for a moment.
In the larger space of a classroom, or a sanctuary, or within the cathedral of tradition, both poetry and faith ascend higher than devotion. In this place we can no longer say “poetry is…” or “faith is…” but we see something as a result of poetry and faith. That something is the only True, Good, and Beautiful reality: the face of God.
The sanctus bells ring. Nothing new is happening. The bells ring as they did last Sunday, even though I missed the service. We stand, we kneel, we listen for footsteps. At the table, the same bread is given and eaten, the same cup is filled and drunk.
This is the way
you have spoken to me, the way—startled—
I find I have heard you. When I need it,
a book or a slip of paper
appears in my hand, inscribed by yours: messages
waiting on the cellar shelves, in forgotten boxes
until I would listen.
Your spirits relax;
now she is looking, you say to each other,
now she begins to see.
Layne Hilyer presently lives in Plano, Texas with his wife Lauren. He works as an English teacher and Department Head at a local private school and worships at a local Anglican parish. He received a BA in English from Asbury University in Lexington, Kentucky.