Identifying the Spirit of the Poetic

Managing Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.

As a student of religion, above all else, I am committed to identifying the spirit of the poetic in my work. I turn to writing as a form of prayer, a languaged response to the unlanguaged Other of the sacred. Yet in the process of engaging in Christian ritual and studying the ritual of other faiths, I expand to a state beyond language.

Years ago, kneeling prone and powerless in the nave of Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Paris— wondrous white cathedral on a hill—I gazed into the mosaic face of Christ, looming beyond the altar. Somewhere, nuns sang—the high clear vowels of their voices trembling, lifting like doves, and the words of their hymns beckoned the marrow from my bones, into the air. All around me was God, and in that moment, God was as bright, as without substance as a stream of murmured words.

This summer, as I anticipate deepening my studies of Buddhism and participating in the Woodenfish Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life program—a month-long immersion for Western students of Buddhism into the cadence of living the liturgy of a Chinese Buddhist monastery—and beginning my interreligious studies at Union Theological Seminary in the fall, I turn to the potential for an epiphanic light in encounters with the religious other.

As the paleontologist-turned- theologian Teilhard de Chardin says, “God only enters when you reach for the other.” When I study the imagery of Vajrayana monks, bowed and chanting before a gilded Buddha in a dark grotto, deep in the remote reaches of Tibet, amid the low ardor of candles and the sfumato of incense—when I respond, remembering when I saw old nuns performing a novena, prostrate and rosaried among the votives in a cathedral in Rome, and was moved—I know the sacrament that beckons me into Christ, the deep abiding stillness of devotion.

It is because of dialogue with other faiths that I see more clearly and more viscerally the face of my own. My commitment to the language of ritual and culture notwithstanding, it is because of transformative encounters with image, with experience, with visions ascendant beyond words, that I reach toward the void, like Michelangelo’s Adam, and touch knowledge.

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