For my teaching this week I'm reading three works that seem at the moment to cross-talk to each other in ways that I am finding fascinating. Revisiting Shakespeare's King Lear, Alan Paton's novel Cry the Beloved Country, about South Africa in the period just before apartheid was imposed, and the gospel of Luke. The poetry of Lear, with its repeated plays on "nothing" and deceit and disguise and bitter foolery, and utter brutality among people who are supposed to love and be loyal to each other, draws me into a world where everything is upside down, children desert parents, parents mistakenly banish children and pay dearly for it, and the only decent people, it seems, are also powerless and marginal: Edgar, Kent, the servants who try to prevent the brutality against Gloucester, Albany, in the end. And the effort, after the horror of Act V, to restore some kind of order, seems paltry in the face of so much evil and basic human duplicity, brutality and folly. It is a world all too recognizable. Now as then.
What I find fascinating as I reread it for the millionth time, is how I keep reaching between the lines for some kind of order, some sense of how things SHOULD be, and it is there: I suppose it is there, partly, in the poetry itself, which gives shape to this broken world without for a moment denying that it is broken. The poetry is so beautiful, what it says so terrible. This is great art and it carries some kind of hope just by naming what it names in such beautiful language.
The same is true in Cry, the Beloved Country, where the story is just gut-wrenching, couched in a world of racism and violence, and yet the people you come to know and follow are real, decent people who make contact with one another. And Paton's poetic language, especially his descriptions of the land, and the prophetic voice of the white social activist who has been murdered by the black protagonist's son, hold up a vision of human dignity that is glaringly absent from the social system he describes. The characters ask, "Is there mercy" - for the young murderer. And there is no mercy. And yet we know some greater mercy exists, somewhere, because they, and we, can imagine it. We reach for it, desire it, know it is something real, even when it is absent.
And all this against the background of my Lenten readings of the gospel of Luke, which tells of a broken world turned upside down, and of Jesus calling his disciples to embody a hope that seems impossible: a hope that reconciliation and healing are not only possible, but fundamental to what God wants for us. And that the power of God is somehow behind that hope. Somehow the stories of Jesus, with that recurring theme of the in-breaking of divine presence into the world, the proclamation and healing that happens wherever he is, show us how to embrace hope -- to believe that God desires a different life for us, that we know the shape of it, and that Jesus' ministry shows us the way to it, if we will follow. The cost of following is part of the story, and that is the mystery, and the beauty of it. I'm still looking for words for this.
My reading in these books is reminding me again that the life of faith rests on the assumption that there is another way, even if it's totally counter-cultural and counterintuitive, and even if it seems to have been almost totally forgotten, as in the final, paradoxically lyrical act of Lear. And that we are free to embrace and seek that way, and to participate in the divine project of transformation. The way things are is NOT the way that they are supposed to be. We acknowledge that, make it a part of ourselves, not by retreating from the world or rejecting the world or holding ourselves in some kind of utopian vision of purity, but by looking squarely at the brokenness of the world, wherever we find ourselves, and wading right into it, and somehow naming it, feeling it, shaping it into something --watching and listening for the deeper order, the poetry, that is always there.
I think I discover that deeper poetry in my own practice of writing -- writing what is, to uncover the deeper reality that sings through everything. This seems naive in the face of so much mess in the world. But I am glad of the spiritual and creative practices that keep inviting me back into that deeper reality, even through the worst of what we see & hear every day. Something about the poetry of Lear, Paton, and Luke -- all of whom write in ways that uncover a deeper hope while naming the worst of what is -- something about this poetic language, this grounded, awe-ful story-telling -- puts me in touch with the Poem of Creation --what the world was meant to be, and is still called to be: the dream of God. "The real, but faroff hymn/ That hails a new creation," as a favorite gospel song puts it. In beautiful language about terrible things, I hear the Poem of God.
- Kathleen Henderson Staudt
- I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.