"To see the world, to see ourselves in the light of the resurrection, means that Christians cannot help but discover that our language is inadequate for the task. That is why poetry is so important for the work of theology. For the poet is in an ongoing struggle to find the words necessary to say what cannot be said."
--Stanley Hauerwas, Image, issue 60.
Poetry speaks to the soul in ways that sermons and essays cannot. Why is it that R.S. Thomas' "Via Negativa" says so much in such a conservative amount of words? I got to thinking about chapel at Asbury. 3 1/2 years of attending chapel 3 times a week, and I can count on one hand the number of sermons that stuck with me. This isn't a polemic against chapel--it had its place on campus, as important for fellowship (perhaps more so) than a way to drill sermons into flighty students' heads--just a curious observation that I got more out of R.S. Thomas, Madeleine L'Engle, even Emily Dickinson, than I ever did out of sermons.
Via Negativa (by R.S. Thomas)
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.
When I read this poem, I remember how sometimes when I go home to visit my folks, I would walk into Grandma's house, half-expecting to see Grandpa sitting in the TV room, wearing his typical plaid short-sleeve shirt and faded jeans, eating pickles while watching TV, waiting for his grandkids to burst in for a scratchy kiss (he always had a thick mustache). He has been gone for almost 16 years, but the ache of missing him remains. This poem calls up that ache, so powerful I feel as if I am at Grandma's, standing in the living room, not wanting to look into the other room because as long as I don't, I can entertain the thought that Grandpa is there.
What does missing Grandpa have to do with a poem musing on the perceived absence of God? Well, not much, besides the uncanny ability of poetry to evoke associations and summon memories, bypassing logic to touch the core of our being, using what we know to help us understand what the poem is suggesting.
Poetry is a way of saying what cannot be said.