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Whether Utah (like this image) or Wiman’s West Texas, the desert can be a crucible for poets and pietists

This is a continuation of the theme from my previous post…Here are a few more passages from Ambition and Survival, Becoming a Poet by Christian Wiman. His insights into creating—poetry and painting share so many aspects in that regard—as well as a childhood spent among fundamentalist Christians (I grew up in the Mormon faith) speak deeply to me.

On the discipline of preparedness:

I find I can get prose written in just about any circumstances, but I’ve never been able to write poetry, which I find infinitely more satisfying, without having vast tracts of dead time. Poetry requires a certain kind of disciplined indolence that the world, including many prose writers (even, at times, this one), doesn’t recognize as discipline. It is, though. It’s the discipline to endure hours that you refuse to fill with anything but the possibility of poetry, though you may in fact not be able to write a word of it just then, and though it may be playing practical havoc with your life. It’s the discipline of preparedness.

On growing up within the Christian fundamentalism of West Texas:

I grew up with a notion of radical conversion, a sudden, sometimes ravaging call for which the only answer was your life.

The religious extremity, the way some people seemed to have looked too long at God as into the sun, so that everything they saw subsequently both was and wasn’t that blaze. You must be born again. For most people this happened in puberty, and may be seen, of course, merely as one religion’s way of trying to restrain the animal volatility and confusion of that time, the body’s imperatives countered by God’s.

I’d seen my share of people…using God like a drug to both heighten and dull a reality that’s too ordinary and painful to bear, and i’d seen my share of people…who had turned his annihilating loneliness into a spiritual mission.

On moving beyond the religion of one’s childhood:

It seems that a god possessed ecstatically, as mine was in my childhood, not by books but in my blood and bones, would make a hard departure. I can’t find the scar, though, and I’ve done some serious searching. I’ve begun to wonder if doubt, like grief, is less one moment you can point to, one would you can heal, than all the moments of past and future, memory and imagination, into which that doubt, that grief, has blend. Iv’e begun to wonder if the god I knew so bodily and utterly in my childhood could ever be completely gone.

At some point, though, that whole visceral energy of image and language, that charge with which my childhood was both enlivened and fraught, became mere myth and symbol, as if the current simply went out of them. That is happened so easily, was so devoid of crisis, might argue that my faith had no real purchase on me; that I seem prone to periods of apparently sourceless despair might argue the opposite. At any rate, whether that loss is cause or effect, whether it has infiltrated my life in other ways or is merely one dimension of a wide loss, which I would call consciousness, the fact is I don’t give myself over to much. I don’t trust.

A ringing headache…persisted…as if my brain were a bell that God, running out of options, sometimes strikes.

Points of light: From the Kiki Smith installation at the DeYoung Museum, San Francisco

If you don’t look at things through your concepts, you’ll never be bored. Every single thing is unique. Every sparrow is unlike every other sparrow despite the similarities. It’s a great help to have similarities, so we can abstract, so that we can have a concept. It’s a great help, from the point of view of communication, education, science. But it’s also very misleading and a great hindrance to seeing this concrete individual. If all you experience is your concept, you’re not experiencing reality, because reality is concrete. The concept is a help, to lead you to reality, but when you get there, you’ve got to intuit or experience it directly.

–Anthony de Mello

De Mello was a priest and a psychotherapist whose wide angle mind caused him to be seen as, well, a troublemaker. In 1998 a certain Cardinal (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) declared that de Mello’s positions were “incompatible with the Catholic faith and can cause grave harm.” (Harm? I’m having a hard time imagining what he had in mind.) And some editions of his books include this caveat: “The books of Father Anthony de Mello were written in a multi-religious context to help the followers of other religions, agnostics and atheists in their spiritual search, and they were not intended by the author as manuals of instruction of the Catholic faithful in Christian doctrine or dogma.”

Here is a bit more from the backgrounder posted on

Until his sudden death on June 2, 1987, Fr. Tony de Mello was the director of the Sadhana Institute of Pastoral Counseling near Poona, India. Author of five best selling books, renowned worldwide for his workshops, retreats, and prayer courses, he aimed simply to teach people

Most people, he maintained, are asleep. They need to wake up, open up their eyes, see what is real, both inside and outside of themselves. The greatest human gift is to be aware, to be in touch with oneself, one’s body, mind, feelings, thoughts, sensations.

Here are some of his typical challenges:
Come home to yourself!
Come back to your senses! Do you hear that bird sing?
How can you hear the song and not hear the singer?
How can you see the wave and not see the ocean?
How can you see the dance and not see the dancer?”

Sounds like he was my kind of religious transgressive.

Thank you Whiskey River for the quote at the top.


Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Case for God, was recently reviewed in the New York Times by Ross Douthat. Armstrong is a prolific writer whose energy to explore, explain and probe the human proclivity to religious belief is enthusiastically optimistic and beguiling expansive. (You can hear and see Armstrong speaking at TED.)

As a Christian convent escapee, Armstrong thought she was running away from religion, not towards it. But through a number of unexpected career shifts she ended up right back in the fray, writing and researching about world religions and the religious impulse itself. It was her expertise in Islam that ended up catapulting her into the public eye following 9/11.

Her view of religion in general emphasizes the eminence of an unknowable Diety, not the fixation on theological exactitude. It is her claim that approaching religion in this manner allows it to be compatible with a “liberal, scientific, technologically advanced society.”

In this new book, Armstrong furthers the case that religion is not about what a person believes but about how he or she behaves.

From the review:

The early Fathers of the Church…understood faith primarily as a practice, rather than as a system — not as “something that people thought but something they did.” Their God was not a being to be defined or a proposition to be tested, but an ultimate reality to be approached through myth, ritual and “apophatic” theology, which practices “a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred” and emphasizes what we can’t know about the divine. And their religion was a set of skills, rather than a list of unalterable teachings — a “knack,” as the Taoists have it, for navigating the mysteries of human existence.

This liberal interpretation of the religious urge is very appealing to those who, like me, love what is elusive and mystical. But as Douthat wisely notes, that isn’t everybody:

[Religious] literalism can be taken too far, and “The Case for God” argues, convincingly, that it needs to coexist with more mythic, mystic and philosophical forms of faith. Most people, though, are not mystics and philosophers, and they are hungry for myths that are not only resonant but true. Apophatic religion may be the most rigorous way to go in search of an elusive God. But for most believers, it will remain a poor substitute for the idea that God has come in search of us.

There’s the rub.