Mountain view of the original Our Lady of La Salette shrine in the mountains near Grenoble, France.
God and poetry ~ Which is the highest form of spirituality?
To be a Catholic priest in Western culture is a position of the very highest social and cultural regard in a religious community. To have a priest in a Catholic family is akin to receiving a direct and permanent blessing from God himself. For an individual to decide to become a priest is one of the most profound gifts and greatest sacrifices they will ever make. Becoming a priest requires a certain renouncement of the world, a sincere dedication to the solitary spirituality that holiness deserves. To be ordained, an individual must have the devotion that originates in childhood from a deep premonition, almost another language. For the child to recognize such a request does justice to their inner strength, their duty to the priesthood. For my grandfather, this premonition came in the form of his grandmother. Grandmère believed not specifically in his particular spirituality, but in his infallible awareness of others’ and of the making the world around him more just.
The La Salette priesthood is a group of individuals who pride themselves not only on their dedication to the Catholic religion and to the Pope, but to a radical, progressive state of spirituality that risked conflict and dispute. The La Salette priests had religious centers throughout Europe and the United States, one in particular being in Attleboro, Massachusetts. In Attleboro, my grandfather joined the priesthood at fifteen and was ordained in his mid-twenties, becoming one of the most quietly treasured members of the small Catholic community. The La Salette education was thorough and rigorous, with great attention dedicated to literature, writing, and the French language. The Attleboro sect was based at the rural Enfield campus, where the priests and students maintained a functional agricultural operation that they subsisted on and provided to the community. Everything about this spiritual education was based on dedicating deep attention and time to experiencing the world and its people before imposing formal Catholic teachings. From the stories I have had the opportunity to hear, God, at Enfield, was a way of seeing the world, of finding a sense of love and pride in one’s belief and spirituality.
Perhaps there is a similar debate between definitions of God’s proximity and of spirituality that exists in all major religions. In Islam, there is a conscious debate between the original pre-Islam system of spirituality and the Islam upheld by Muhammad that was designed via the writing of the Quran. Is the prophet represented in the chaotic aspects of the world such as nature, love, despair, and desire? Or is it necessary that the Prophet, or Allah, uphold the binaries of society and not be associated or described in in the likeness of humanity or the forces of chaos we experience daily?
Religious philosopher Mahmoud Darwish tackles these questions in his poetic representations of God as a being steeped in chaotic reality. The poem below is written in the style of Darwish, whose idea of spirituality directly opposes the values of the Quran, which imposed that followers of Islam were constrained to follow the binaries set up by Muhammed to create order through submission. Through the vehicle of the Quran, God wields his influence by existing in a separate, cloudy reality. Allah is an “Other”, much as scholar Edward Said’s description of Orientalism describes the power-producing separation between the East and the West. Post-Quranic Islam establishes a system that distances its believers from their awareness of reality, discouraging a concrete connection between the Prophet and the believer. In both scenarios, the process of “othering” creates a power dynamic that imposes a “right” and a “wrong,” a system of binaries.
In The Absence of A Cross
A green shifting field lies fallow in the mist
Anat lies dormant, the forces of her love and chaos curled embers
unable to light through the damp,
My poem is neither a description of reality, nor a message to God,
nor then to the Italian order.
I have found myself at the edge of what I believe,
The beautiful days have become few and far between,
When time and action shorten the thread of life,
and injustice falls on shoulders to slight to hold its weight,
What is language without thought? Without long pauses and sand grains scattered forever,
marking progress into the future, or failure into the past,
I think not.
Magic plays no role, when I realize the distance of You
High above clouds, untouched fingers like the fine soil in the garden beyond the white
Or in the echo, the white noise beyond the smoking gun of poetry
and words being written by the young,
By the vulnerability, by the miracle of faith in the unknown,
But sadness has made me know, has made me realize the unconformity,
the hopeless separation of You.
Of why Anat doesn’t dance under your stormy sky,
where there is no language, there can be no abyss,
Where is your guidance? Where is your voice in the conversations on the streets?
In the rings lost in the backs of dresser drawers smelling of oak, of forest, of truth
Where’s the truth in a distant Bible,
a dusty trail of words that they say is Your body,
but that drifts into nothingness,
fades into the sand crystals clouding with age,
I want to have the abyss in the streets of New York,
both in the protest rooms of the courthouse
and in the gray concrete slabs reflecting the faces of the unjustified, the unheard.
I don’t want conversations about what is to come.
There is no tomorrow,
without a moment in today.
Anat must dance out of the overturned flowers, the angry men,
she must balance between the edges of my cross and over the white cap of my ordainment,
Because I believe the truth,
The truth is in the language of the fields and the La Salette,
In the lit windows of the blue house in Massachusetts and the white house on the coast,
In the waves of the sea, rolling through the harbor,
And through the wings of the terns wheeling through stormy air.
This is the story of my grandfather’s realization that the La Salette order was perhaps not as aware of the poetry in society, of the world Darwish founded and stood for, and of his definition of religious being that was necessary to be a fully functioning member of life and of love. The poem is written in the likeness of Darwish’s “A Rhyme for the Odes,” which describes the necessary tension between two desires, and the formation of one’s identity from just such a tension.
From my grandfather’s perspective, this conflict was between the rigidity of certain distant teachings of the Catholic church and the rapidly progressing radical social movements (reality) that were fueling youth in the mid 20th century; in their “conversations in the streets,” or the “abyss in…New York,” or in the “protest rooms of the courthouse.” The poem deals with the question of God’s proximity, and the extent to which his existence in the distant Catholic church or in the vagueness of Allah strengthens or weakens the power and influence of his spirituality. The truth mentioned at the end of the poem is the movement forward of my grandfather towards following a personal spirituality rather than one imposed by a specific structure.