What Light Can Do by Robert Hass
I’m always on the look-out for accomplished poets who pause for a moment at the sacred texts of the church, or at the traditions and received patterns of church life. I look, in part, because I hope that gifted writers–especially poets–will shine light on what the laity think and feel about matters of faith. The theologically trained tend to assume too much; we speak a language that often bemuses and annoys educated others.
Within this volume of essays by Robert Hass are two on literature and religion. Haas writes about his own spirituality which, not surprisingly, he locates in the vincity of his own literary endeavors, reading and writing. The work of mind, especially of the imaginative mind, is a representation of spirituality.
Perhaps this is a commonplace: spirituality as a personal matter opposed to “institutional” religion, congregations, churches, ecclesiastical authority, communions, fellowships, etc.. Haas writes about abandoning his childhood, public Catholicism as he moved into a life of literary ambition, all alone with the world.
“…for me the content of spirituality was almost always everything in me that rebelled against whatever the pattern of being a socially approved and good person was, even when I experienced that rebellion as failure.” p. 294
There is, for Haas, childhood shame and sadness in this leaving. There is also, of course, loneliness, which he identifies accurately as pain. Out of this pain of loneliness, some have created art. He turns to Emily Dickinson as a poet who faced with determination and courage the pain of human existence, felt as absences. Equipped with New England Protestant thought she made her art out of the felt absences of life.
His essay on the the Epistles of John (pp. 277) is poignant: a Catholic kid, grown up, discovers a taste of the historical/critical method familiar to every Protestant seminarian, and enjoys the insights brought by that “objective” study of a sacred text.
Haas identifies death-fear and world-hatred in the early Christian church, and gnosticism that aimed the faithful out and away from the body and the world around them. He tries to be fair as he rejects the other-worldliness of church thought while affirming the Gospels’ framing of eternity in terms of childhood and stories. He rejects public piety of processions as he affirms the richness of the symbols and the powerful intellectual struggles pulsing and flexing here and there under the scriptural texts.
Following President Obama’s address at the memorial service for the victims of the shooting in Connecticut, in which he read scripture, as much for the communal tone and timbres as for the content, I read Robert Haas’s admission that “….we need sacred texts…to read them at occasions in human life.” p. 278