Understanding the ineffable

Poetry draws back the curtain on mystery and makes the soul sing

T.S. Eliot (1888-1964): "redeemed from fire by fire." — Wikimedia Commons T.S. Eliot (1888-1964): “redeemed from fire by fire.” — Wikimedia Commons

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. A holy spark animates the natural world. The lifeblood of divine power courses through creation.

The Spirit of God that fills the world is ineffable: Words can’t express it. But poets have tried.

When I wonder how it is possible to understand something as ineffably mysterious as the Holy Spirit, I am grateful for the gift of poetry — and for professor Anna Juhnke’s literature classes at Bethel College nearly 40 years ago.

Much of Scripture is poetic, thanks to translators who faced the seemingly impossible task of preserving the essential qualities of poetry — the sound and rhythm of words — in a different language than the original.

Few have made Scripture more poetic than the scholars who translated the Bible for King James of England in 1611. The words they chose became so well-loved they seem divinely inspired.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof;

the world and they that dwell therein.

For he hath founded it upon the seas,

and established it upon the floods.

— Psalm 24:1-2

Modern poetry retains its power to put the ineffable into words. If the ­poetic urge strikes, anyone can try it, as Shari Wagner describes here. The writing exercise Wagner’s congregation did for Pentecost last year demonstrates how poetry speaks to the soul.

Poetry gives “aesthetic form to our spiritual yearnings,” says Duane K. Friesen, professor emeritus of Bible and religion at Bethel College, in his 2000 book, Artists, Citizens, Philosophers. It challenges our complacency by helping us to see the world in new ways. It might bring delight or move us to repentance.

The poetry project Wagner led prompted me to revisit the works of poets who pondered the mystery of the Holy Spirit.

In “God’s Grandeur” (published in 1918), Gerard Manley Hopkins describes a world broken but resilient:

All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell. . . .

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; . . .

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods

With warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Hopkins’ image of a brooding Spirit echoes the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters in Genesis 1. Even after, as Hopkins says, “generations have trod, have trod, have trod,” leaving their smudge and smell, the Holy Spirit still hovers, like a dove, bringing warmth, light and hope.

More than 20 years after “God’s Grandeur” was published, T.S. ­Eliot used the image from Acts 2 of the Holy Spirit descending as tongues of flame to make a clashing comparison: ­Pentecost and the bombing of London in World War II. In “Little Gidding” (1942), he says the worst suffering produces the strongest faith.

The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge of sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre,

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Eliot sees suffering as a path to purification. Here, the dove that descends is a bomber in an air raid. We do not get to choose whether or not to suffer. But we must choose how to meet suffering, with hope or with despair.

Eliot says the Holy Spirit’s refining fire leads to redemption. He believes heaven awaits those who endure: “The tongues of flame are in-folded into the crowned knot of fire, and the fire and the rose are one.”

While most of us need footnotes to fully understand Hopkins or Eliot, Scripture offers a clear picture of the Holy Spirit as our intercessor in times of hardship: “The Spirit helps us in our weak­ness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words. And God, who searches hearts, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27).

While the mysteries of the human soul and the Holy Spirit are ineffable — “too deep for words,” as Romans 8 says — poetry draws back the curtain, revealing glimpses of truth and making our souls sing.

A poet should have the last word. Here is William Blake’s “Pentecost”:

Unless the eye catch fire,

The God will not be seen.

Unless the ear catch fire,

The God will not be heard.

Unless the tongue catch fire,

The God will not be named.

Unless the heart catch fire,

The God will not be loved.

Unless the mind catch fire,

The God will not be known.

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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