Focusing on our involvement with a poem raises an additional question: can God be present in our experience of a poem? To talk of this I need to include a word that is not often invoked in evangelical circles—"sacrament." Christians disagree on the sacraments. We disagree on how many there are and how they function in the life of a disciple of Jesus. For example, the taking of the cup and bread, some call the Eucharist, some Communion, and others The Lord's Supper; our different names reflect in part our different understandings of it.

But we are all agreed on a more general sense of sacrament. All Christians know that God is continually at work in every aspect of creation, that as Karl Rahner says, "Grace is everywhere." All areas of our lives are open to the actions of God, and in every instance, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear and the senses to feel and taste, we can know that God abundantly and continually acts upon our behalf beyond anything we desire.

John 15:5: "I am the true vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." To remain in Christ the vine we must learn to receive God's help through the ordinary matters of life. God can teach us and transform us as we offer our work as prayer, as we care for our families, as we give and receive in our communities. God is at work in both our feasting and our fasting. He can make us more like him as we feast on a savory meal, receiving the richness of creation. He can make us more like him as we fast, dealing death to our gluttonous and lecherous impulses.

Poetry is well suited to be a vehicle of sacrament, though perhaps no more so than running a 100-yard dash or struggling with a plumbing job. God may use a poem like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to convict us of our own hypocrisy and folly or to enrich us with the love of the created order in all its joyous tastes and textures. We may even encounter God. Frank Burch Brown has suggested four ways in which this can happen: negative transcendence, radical transcendence, proximate transcendence, and immanent transcendence

Negative Transcendence: This is when an artistic work, because of its representation of loss and tragedy, seems to ache for God's presence, even while in the work itself God appears absent. The one not present is the one that the work cries out for. Elie Wiesel's account of the Holocaust, Night, Shakespeare's King Lear, or the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz (reflecting on the impact of Communism on Catholic Poland) are examples of such an ache. Each manifests a terrible vision of the world's misery and longing for the divine. R.S. Thomas’ poem "The Absence" attempts to put into words such an experience:

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
[. . . .]

                      What resource have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor? (1-7, 14-16)

Radical Transcendence: Here, we experience God as the one who is Wholly Other, high and infinite above our experience. The literary work offers an austere vision of God as fiery and powerful, glorious beyond our understanding. Many of John Donne's Holy Sonnets or the essays of Simone Weil look to God's majestic difference. We have a sense of our finiteness, dependence, even sinful separation from the the universe's designer. In "Without Ceremony" Vassar Miller reflects on her cerebral palsy and her state before God:

While Father Pain instructs us in the arts
Of praying, hunger is the worthiest fast.
[. . . .]
Borne on the wings of what we bear, toward You,
Oh Word, in whom our wordiness dissolves,
When we have not a prayer except ourselves. (7-8, 12-14)

For Miller, there can be nothing but a kind of emptying at this level before the highness of Christ the Logos. Her attempts at speech mean little and yet everything here.

Proximate Transcendence: This is when the text offers us a picture of God who is mysterious, "within and among and beyond things earthly and tangible" (120). C. S. Lewis' Aslan or Ron Hansen's novel of the stigmata, Mariette in Ecstasy, offer examples of such experiences--the world seems ordinary but something is also mystical, challenging our common perceptions. Scott Cairns asks in "Approaching Judea" what would happen if the ineffable broke through to us. The speaker in his poem describes a journey to the Holy Land through the desert with its dusty, harsh conditions. The poem ends with a vision that transcends the normal:

                           And as I stared blindly
into the blank world, the moon lifted
from behind a dune, lightning up
an entire desert of moose, their shaggy heads
all lifted and calling out their one, holy word. (15-19)

This could be a final heat-inspired hallucination, but something suggests that it is more.

Immanent Transcendence: Here we sense God's sacredness within the ordinary aspects of life, the enfleshed life of the body, a life which we can sense even in a poem, story, or play. The poetry of Kathleen Norris or the film version of Babette's Feast focuses on God in the daily stuff of life. We sense his profound presence through the world about us. Norris is often noted for her humor. In the first prose movement of her poem "Mysteries of the Incarnation" called "She Said Yeah," we encounter the Rolling Stones song by that name being picked up by the bells in a monastery:

"She said yeah," the Rolling Stones sing from a car on the interstate, "She said yeah." And the bells pick it up now, saying it to Mechtild the barn cat, pregnant again; to Ephrem’s bluebirds down the draw; to the grazing cattle and the monks (virgins some of them) eating silently before the sexy tongue of a hibiscus blossom at their refractory window. "She said yeah." And then the angel left her.

The meaning of the annunciation and incarnation are at work in a radio song, a cat, and monks. To live sacramentally is to meet God in the particulars.

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"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding