Once in a while

Today is Trinity Sunday, a day given to the attempt to explain the unexplainable. Long ago, tradition created a package for God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and preachers and theologians have been trying to explain it ever since.

When I was a newly minted pastor, Trinity Sunday was my opportunity to explain the doctrine of the Trinity: no small task, because it’s not found anywhere in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures, and after Jesus’ life and teaching, it took more than 300 years of theological wrangling to settle on it.

At this point in my life, Trinity Sunday takes me not to theologians but to poets. I won’t dismiss theologians and their reasoning about God, but mere reasoning won’t satisfy in the end; we hunger for an experience of God. Poets invite us to experience what cannot be explained in reasoned words. Poets open us to a truth that can be told only with a poet’s imagination, from an angle, never head-on.

Listen to Walt Whitman in his poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” as he grappled with reasoned truth and experienced truth.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

There’s value in reasoned explanation. Reason is a gift of God, and the concept of the Holy Trinity has its place. And there’s a time when we need to walk out of the lecture hall into the open air and stand face to face, in perfect silence, before unnamable, inexpressible Mystery.

While writing these ruminations, I had to walk away from my desk and into the garden, experience the sunlight and breeze and the bees humming around the million bells. I had to inhale the animating Spirit and clear my head of words if I were to have any hope that a word from beyond might visit me.

Another poet, Wendell Berry, while working at something on his farmhouse porch, was interrupted by a word from beyond that came not as a grand concept but in the form of a bird (VI, 2003, This Day: Sabbath Poems Collected and New, 1979-2013 [Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013], 243).

The yellow-throated warbler, the highest remotest voice
of this place, sings in the tops of the tallest sycamores,
but one day he came twice to the railing of my porch
where I sat at work above the river. He was too close
to see with binoculars. Only the naked eye could take him in,
a bird more beautiful than every picture of himself,
more beautiful than himself killed and preserved
by the most skilled taxidermist, more beautiful
than any human mind, so small and inexact,
could hope ever to remember. My mind became
beautiful by the sight of him. He had the beauty only
of himself alive in the only moment of his life.
He had upon him like a light the whole
beauty of the living world that never dies.

God is always more beautiful than every picture, every doctrine, every attempt to capture and explain and preserve what we cannot capture and explain and preserve. More beautiful, even, than every name we can give (and there have been so many).

Read the scriptures in the morning and at night. Teach them to your children and to anyone who will listen. Bring all your powers of reason to bear on them. And read poetry: Rumi, Whitman, and Wordsworth; Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins; William Stafford, Robert Frost, Joy Harjo, William Blake, Jane Hirschfield, some others who move you and feed your imagination. And once in a while, leave them all behind, prophets and poets alike, wander out into the mystical moist night-air, and look up in perfect silence at the stars.

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