Our conceptions of God and God are not the same thing. This is why, for me, poetry surpasses religion in the knowing of God, because poetry looks to discard the concepts that don’t work to discover and embrace the ones that do. This takes forever, and is a constant sloughing. However, for loving God, which is different from knowing, religion is better. That’s all the religious do: love God. Whatever and whoever he or she is. A man might participate in a religious life and a poetic life. I see no contradiction here. One can love the thing he doesn’t know as he gets to know it. (Isn’t this what marriage requires of us?) Finally, the object of the mystic is to become one with God. That union is a forgetting beyond all knowing and loving. It is big and it is fatal.
I’m speaking simply and generally here, and that means I am misleading you. Inevitably, this must be the case, because it is impossible to talk about these things, love and God, directly. The words are tropes for experiences, which are larger than all words. The word “wind,” for instance, doesn’t do the wind any justice. All words fall short. All poetry, all good poetry, ought to point that out. A fair reading of every poem might be: If I could say what I mean these wouldn’t be the words I would use. And yet, aren’t these better than the words I used yesterday, when last I tried to say it? If you work your relationship with your lovers and friends and neighbors that way, you will be wise. If you work your relationship with God that way, whoever you think he might be, you will be happy.
There is a subject of medieval painting, depicting a scene from the book of John which is particularly instructive. Mary Magdalene sees Jesus after his crucifixion. First, she mistakes him for a gardener. And when she realizes he is, indeed, he – the same thing happens with the two nameless disciples on the road to Emmaus – she falls to her knees and attempts to touch the hem of his robe. Christ says, “Noli me tangere.” This has been translated to mean: Let no one touch me. But this is a mistranslation. The original Greek, from which the Latin comes, means something like: Don’t let anyone hold on to me.
I grew up in a house where the word God was never mentioned. My father was a lapsed Catholic, and my mother an irreligious Jew. Whatever God I have found, or whatever piece or glimmer of God, or whatever experience of God I have had, has come from seeking, from partial revelation, or from chance. I have had no concept projected before me to accept or reject. Therefore, this message “don’t let anyone hold on to me,” is easier for me to practice. The resurrected Jesus means: this image, this flesh that you see, isn’t what I am. I am something else. That which “flees,” as Dickinson says of poetry. When the book of Thomas – a Gnostic text – has Jesus saying, “Turn over a stone, and I will be there,” this is what it means. Or, to put it in Whitman’s terms: I stop somewhere waiting for you. Or as Yahweh says: I am that I am. These lines are ironic. They don’t quite mean what they say, and serve to undermine all expectations and even language itself, which is always a little ironic and confusing. Jesus’ directive to Mary, who was his special consort – or spouse – means let go of what you think I am, and then you will experience me.
Jesus as the way, or The Way, for the religious person, for a Catholic, means one thing. But to a free, unsponsored spirit, that is, for the poet, he means something else. He is a pattern. A way. But so then are Whitman, and Dickinson. And Stevens, when he says, “We say that God and the imagination are one…” This revelation is stunning, when you think about it. A misreading, and a weak one, would be that both of these things, the imagination and God, aren’t true: God is an illusion. A better reading would be both are the only truth. God is a fiction, but so is the all of everything, a wonderful, beautiful, true fiction. What we see and think are the only things that are. The rest is poverty and dust. One must align oneself ultimately with consciousness, which is that which illuminates the world. Consciousness, like the sun, is a light wherever it goes. Love, then, for me, is the experience of this light rising to meet its image in another. The little flame of my love leaps when it sees the sun set, the image of a man at his love’s window, a mother holding her child and touching him gently, a father strong and tall.
I find these images everywhere. In the wind, in the sun, in the music of the trees. And I see them, too, in the relationships of one person to another, a solitary walker against the glimmering far away, or a shadow moving over a distant landscape. We move closer, if we can, and learn to love the motion toward. Each step brings us closer to our aim. And once there, we are consumed.
There is one last thing that occurs to me. One might read the Divine Comedy according to some of the principles alluded to above. Hell is the place, where one says in one’s heart: “There is no God,” like the fool in the psalms. Purgatory is the place where one burns through one’s misconceptions of God. And Paradise is the place, where one moves closer and closer to the object one desires most, until there is nothing else except the All of Everything.
I think I mentioned a documentary I saw recently, which documents the lives of Carthusian monks. One old blind monk says that the world has lost all sense of God. That is too bad. Then he says that death is the fate of all human lives, and one moves more quickly toward God the closer one gets. Dante learns something similar on the Mountain of Purgatory. The higher one climbs the more quickly one moves. The idea being that the more one understands God, or understands how little one understands, the more one loves God and the more urgently one moves. The question remains, then, that if there in the Mountains of France the Carthusians are speeding toward God, to where are we speeding with such urgency?