Literature as Sacrament: thoughts birthed from grief

Three weeks before graduation, my boyfriend of four years broke up with me. Bad timing, of course, but is there ever a good time to get dumped? At the time I was knee-deep in reading and writing, this being my last term and, frustratingly, one with important classes for my degree. (One class on being an artist and a theologian, another on spiritual formation in C.S. Lewis’s fiction–a theology and lit class!) The last weeks of class are still a blur to me; I’m not sure how I managed to write my three big final papers between crying and (ugh) packing to move out of our lovenest. (OK, really bad timing, dude.)

Chelle, who taught these two important classes, told me to just do my best. It’s OK if you have to half-ass your papers. You do good work; you’re fine.

What I wrote was a somewhat disjointed final paper with tear stains (figuratively) all over it. My sadness so informed how I wrote this paper; as much as I was pulling from the texts in class, I was pulling from what I knew to be true right then. What was getting me through this break up really? Literature, story.

Below is an excerpted version of my paper. I’ve chosen to excerpt it not because it’s super long (in my half-assing, I didn’t write the full 8 pages, even) but because some parts are just messy. 

Literature as Sacrament: Toward a Theology of the Arts

“For me poetry was eucharistic. … It was as if I could eat the poems, like they went into my body. That’s what I mean by eucharistic: somebody else’s passion, suffering, comes into your body and changes you.”

-Mary Karr, interviewed by Image in issue 56

“At the Eucharist, I serve as a chalice bearer, following along behind the priest, offering the cup and wine to parishioner after parishioner. Some clasp the cup and guzzle with what looks like relish; some are daintier, more polite, as though handling fine crystal; some don’t touch the chalice to their lips but, practicing what’s call intinction, dip the water into the wine and then consume the crimsoned host.”

-Lauren Winner in her grief memoir, Still: Notes of a Mid-Faith Crisis[1]

 

During Advent last winter, my church moved aside all the tables, arranged the chairs in concentric circles, and flipped the altar upside down. No Eucharist this month, Pastor Phil tells the congregation. Instead, I’ve been asked to read poems during the mid-service Eucharist time. This is my sacrament. The third Sunday of Advent, the lectionary has us in Matthew 11. John the Baptist, who’s in prison now, sends a message with his disciples to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”[2] John’s expectations were not met in Jesus; he was disappointed, maybe a little embarrassed. Phil asks, what about us? What do we do with our disappointment? (And how do we live with other people who have what we’ve been waiting for our whole lives?) This week I read a poem by American poet Amit Majmudar, “The Miscarriage.” The poet sighs, telling the story of his wife’s trip to the doctor, their lonely dinner at home, the desire he has to console her, but how he’s not sure how:

… we laid beside ourselves

a while because I had no words until

our bodies folded shut our bodies closed

around hope like a book preserving petals

a book we did not open till the morning when

we found hope dry and brittle but intact[3]

I finish reading, and Phil tells us—this is his sermon. What more could he say? The world waits for the messiah to come, and when he does, the zealots are disappointed. The religious are confused. This poem says everything in between.

Poetry, like all art, has a way of speaking the unspeakable, putting words (or paint or clay) to a feeling or sense buried deep inside a person. Like Mary Karr, I see artful writing as Eucharistic—an act of taking, eating, and drinking the mystery of another person or God in the particular and tangibility of a poem or story. Like the sacraments of the Church, the act of writing and reading literature draws a person closer to the mysterious God.

The Medieval Church debated over something like this. They asked, is there something substantial in the partaking of Communion, more than just remembering the life and death of Christ? The Fourth Lateran Council affirmed transubstantiation, the transformation of the elements into the very body and blood of Christ. Wycliffe said no way—there is something sacred and mysterious about the presence of God in the elements, but no true transubstantiation takes place. Still, there’s something going on here. This is not mere bread. This is not mere wine.

The bread and the wine are placeholders. They tap into the mystery of God. They are elements to be swallowed, ingested.

Professor Robin M. Jensen writes of beauty (aesthetics) in this way: “Beauty does not satisfy but draws us. It imitates, evokes, and draws us in or out.”[4] It can draw us deeper into ourselves (self-knowledge) or out into the world and toward God. In that process, the art itself is not worshiped. The art does not become a proxy for God, an idol. How this is done, writes Jensen, is through the particularity of the art (the bread, the wine). “The movement from the particular to the general,” she writes, “and finally to the ideal is what keeps us from falling into idolatry. Remaining attracted only to the created things of this world can only frustrate us, since they are finite and will fail us as themselves alone.”[5] Art in its beauty and particularity points away from itself and toward God and toward the other. There is something wholly mysterious going on here: how can a poem about a miscarriage mean something true to a person who’s never had one? How can eating bread connect us to the divine and to the parishioners around us?

A poem or story can, and should, have multiple meanings, allowing for connections to be made between text and reader beyond the subject of the content. George MacDonald writes, “The truer its art, the more things it will mean,” suggesting that true art ought to not “convey a meaning” as much as it should “wake a meaning.”[6] Art does not need to make sense in the way a textbook ought to make sense to its readers. Often the reader does not understand the literal meaning of a poem (or understand the circumstances of the narrator), but she has a sense for its meaning. She has an implicit knowing; she senses her own connection with the piece emotionally or spiritually. At the end of a poem, she finds herself making a bit more sense of the world; she knows a bit more of who God is. This is the same experience of the writer of literature, too. Kathleen Norris writes,

I recalled the wisdom of my first writing teacher … who said, “Our poems are wiser than we are.” No small part of the process of writing is the lifting up into conscious of what has long remained in the basement, hidden, underground, as in a tomb.[7]

Norris writes of her poems as being markers of her spiritual development. “What emerged out of my unconscious as lines of verse became the raw material that the pastor worked with in guiding me on my journey,” she writes.[8] Her writing both guided her spiritual growth and testified to where she was in her development. Those poems spoke a truth to her that she may not have understood at the time.

[…]

The writer makes room for God, or makes room for the mysterious; she makes room for multiple meanings to emerge. In this way, the writer surrenders to the Spirit of God to move through her and create beyond her own ability.

[…]

Out of this process comes a piece of writing that speaks both of a private experience of the writer and a universal experience of the audience. This is, too, is a great mystery: how something rooted in a time and place can speak volumes to a person in another culture, place, and time? And again we’re taken back to the Eucharistic experience of creative writing. This is not just for the readers of great poetry and stories; it’s a phenomenon for the writer too. As a writer, she is inviting her experience to be taken in and “eaten” by her readers; she trusts that her experience is worthy of describing and that it can meet the reader wherever he or she is.

During Epiphany this spring, I continued to read poetry to my church; this season the poems were more joyful, full of sensual experience, humor, and surprise. I read the poems after Eucharist. Again, this is my sacrament. Some of the parishioners are unsure what to do with these poems; some comment on the sweetness of them, like Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring” or Susanna Childress’s “Muchas Gracias.” Others sense there’s something deeper going on in them while I read. They sigh relief. They tear up. I see nods and smiles from where I stand. There’s something about the poetry that meets them in the moment, the way the communion bread had not 10 minutes before. They feel a connection with the divine, with each other, with me; I feel it too.

 

[1] Lauren Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 37.

[2] Matthew 11:3, English Standard Version.

[3] Amit Majmudar, “The Miscarriage” in Poetry, October 2005.

[4] Robin M. Jensen, The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 8.

[5] Ibid., 9.

[6] George MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination” in A Dish of Orts (Charleston: Bibliobazaar, 1997), 261.

[7] Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and ‘Women’s Work,’ (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 48.

[8] Ibid., 47-48.

 

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

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