Magazine article World Literature Today

Seeking the Light through Literature

Magazine article World Literature Today

Seeking the Light through Literature

Article excerpt

Religion is at its best when it becomes a countercultural force; when it has no power, only influence, no authority except that which it earns, no claim to people's attention other than by the way it creates values that cannot be found elsewhere. It is then that it loses its perennial tendency to corruption and becomes again what it once was-a startling new voice, redeeming us from our loneliness, framing our existence with meaning, and teaching us to remember what so much else persuades us to forget-that the possibilities of happiness are all around us, if we would only open our eyes and give thanks.

-Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The word mythos comes from the Greek word which means to close the mouth or close the eyes. Mystery and mysticism come from the same root. . . . We approach this kind of knowing in art. . . . You're being pushed beyond the rational thoughts and distinctions into a silent intuitive space.

Theology is poetry. A poet spends a great deal of time listening to his unconscious, and slowly calling up a poem word by word, phrase by phrase, until something beautiful is brought forth, we hope, into the world that changes people's perceptions.

Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed.

-Karen Armstrong

The human heart abhors a vacuum. With organized religion losing ground, all sorts of substitutes rush in to fill the god-shaped hole. One particularly effective and time-honored balm for the aching human heart is literature. For some, poetry is how we pray now. In these skeptical times, there still exists an Absolute Literature, in the coinage of Italian writer Roberto Calasso, where we might discern the divine voice. Such pre- and postreligious literature shares aims and concerns similar to belief systems: sharpening our attention, cultivating a sense of awe, offering us examples of how to better live and die- even granting us a chance at transcendence.

Mysteriously, certain strains of literary art are capable of using words to lose words-ushering us to the threshold of that quiet capital of riches: Silence. It is, after all, in silent contemplation that difficulties patiently unfurl and entrust us with their secrets. By deepening our silences, such ethical literature allows us to overhear ourselves and can lend us a third (metaphysical) eye. We are able not only to bear witness to the here and now but, past that, calmly gaze at eternal things, over the head of our troubled times, in order to try and understand our spiritual condition (where we've come from and where we're heading).

Currently, in our fractured world, beset by so much physical suffering and political turmoil, as a kind of (unconscious?) corrective, more people are reading and writing literature that addresses the life of the spirit, overtly or otherwise. One manifestation of this renewed spiritual hunger that is being met by literature is the recent publication of a major new anthology, The Poet's Quest for God: 21st Century Poems of Faith, Doubt and Wonder (Eyewear, 2016), featuring over three hundred contemporary poets from around the world and of great value (as the jacket blurb indicates) "to those for whom poetry has become a resource or replacement for faith-bound spirituality."

Likewise, more literary-spiritual oases are appearing in the desert of popular culture to slake the great thirst of seekers. Among the ones I'm aware of, and turn to for sustenance and inspiration, are edifying podcasts such as Krista Tippett's On Being and Godspeed Institute, or interfaith literary journals such as The Sun, Parabola, Tikkun, Tiferet, Sufi, and many others.

But, since we cannot step into the same river twice, what does a return to religion look like? There are poets, writers, and artists, in this special issue and beyond, who pursue direct paths to God through their art. …

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