This article was first published at The Master’s Artist.
We see the word “epistle” and we immediately think of the letters in the New Testament – 13 by Paul, one likely by Paul and seven by Peter, James, John and Jude. The epistles, or letters, were written to groups and individuals who were followers of Jesus on a wide array of subjects. They, or most of them, were meant to be read aloud and shared and discussed with others.
I repeat what’s well known to most of us to consider a 2007 collection by poet Mark Jarman, entitled Epistles: Poems. The volume is a collection of 30 previously published prose poems, in such literary publications as The American Poetry Review, Crazyhorse, The Hudson Review, Image and The Yale Review. The poems are numbered for this collection.
Jarman, the Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt, does something both very contemporary and (for Christians) very unusual in these poems: he uses science and the terms and concepts of science to explore and describe faith.
In “4. We Want the Operation,” faith and sanctification are seen as God performing a surgical operation. “We want the operation because we want the cure,” he writes, and then goes on to precisely describe each step of the operation:
“…Later, he shows how the sick part was woven in, by lacing the middle
finger of his right hand, his knife hand, among the fingers of his left. He
found it, severed it, stitched closed the wound it left, then backed out of
the larger wound, shutting each layer behind him. An eye tips each of
his bloody fingers…”
When the patient awakes “with a new unease that did not fade by lunchtime,” he discovers that he is not cured. “Thus God performs his surgery, closing and opening simultaneously, always with new reasons to go in,” a way of describing sanctification as surgery.
In “20. Out of the Whirlwind,” Jarman uses the backdrop of a storm, like a tornado, that has destroyed large swaths of a town or city – homes, trees, “churches knocked down ecumenically,” schools, stores. He ponders, among this carnage, the singularity of “one death among the deaths…one loss among the losses” caused by this natural destruction. One death among the many becomes the poem’s recurring theme, and then he reaches for an explanation, considering this one death inside the phenomenon, this event of the storm:
inside , where it is hard to get a message in or out. We will ask him many
questions when he returns, but he will never return completely...
Meanwhile look at him, in there, under the fallen tree, inside the
Phenomenon. A singularity, a unity, a oneness that is not atonement…”
And he concludes: “One death has changed us all. One loss. It is right to count this way.” One death matters because there was once One Death.
“22. As the couple turns toward each other” further explores faith, this time in considering the kinds of things we pray about – the rejection of a new kidney, chemotherapy, missionaries and their travels, recovering after surgery, a delayed airline flight, death, and even the Kurdish separatists in Turkey and Iraq.
“Prayer aligns with random forces. It is an impulse among impulses. It
is like shining a flashlight into the night sky in your backyard. The light
from prayer diverges, so its intensity (the flux per unit area) grows
weaker the farther it goes. Mainly prayer is scattered (dispersed in new
directions, if you like) by other prayers. In urban settings, there are lots
of them in the atmosphere, and they deflect each other toward different
ends. And yet our prayer heads into space, full of presumption that the
speed of light will carry it beyond the Pleiades.”
He then moves into a stark, concise description of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane:
“He sweated blood. He knew he was going to die. He prayed. He
sweated, not blood but drops like blood. Arterial. Pulsing. As if to sweat
this way might kill him. He could see how he would die and asked not
to die. The one to whom he prayed answered with silence…”
Curiously, this use of the language of science and mathematics – the languages our contemporary culture finds so amenable – draws us closer to faith and belief, making both more understandable and more approachable. Yet, like all scientific studies, they remain unfinished, never finished, always something new to be discovered, learned understood and lived.
Photograph by Dawn Hudson via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.