the St mary magdalen school of theology is  a network of women and men who read, pray, and teach the Christian faith. 

Poetry and Lent: Descending Theology (Mary Karr)

Poetry and Lent: Descending Theology (Mary Karr)

Our Lent series on poetry continues with Fr Jarred Mercer writing on Mary Karr’s Descending Theology series.

Mary Karr writes that ‘Poetry and prayer alike offer . . . [an] instantaneous connection—one person groping from a dark place to meet with another in an instant that strikes fire’[1]. Poetry is akin to prayer, perhaps a form of prayer, as it turns us outward. Language itself does this, moving us beyond ourselves to connect with another. Even if a poem or a prayer is inward reflection, its gaze is outward-facing, meeting, confronting another. Poetry, as prayer, is a salve against our narcissism as it opens us up to the world, to others, to the unknown, to God. It is one of the few places in our world today where mystery is not only essential but celebrated; where what is unknowable is the aim, the object of desire and at the same time the space where the desiring happens; where questions are more important than answers; where the truth can be met not with measures and proofs and certainties, but deep in our bones. Prayer, of course, shares that same space. Both are the space where we are ‘groping from a dark place’ in the unknown but also receiving illumination—that striking of fire. 

Prayer can be all sorts of things, but it is ultimately simply being with God. God is always with us, if God’s presence were not with us sustaining us in creative love we simply would not exist. That’s what we mean by God. But prayer is our awareness, being attuned to God’s presence with and within us. Whether we are on our knees in church or walking down the street listening to our favourite podcast (or, if you’re outside a city and don’t have to mask the hideous sounds of bus exhaust and people talking too loudly on their phones, perhaps listening to bull finches and sparrows and the sound of earth beneath your feet), prayer is doing so in God’s presence—in awareness. Often this involves requests, intercessions, praise, confession, and often it is simply silence, but it is always this attuned sense of awareness. And as prayer, poetry is a good deal more but certainly not less than being aware—seeing the world as it presents itself and presenting back on the page. 

The shared practices of poetry and prayer enable the breath-taking experience that takes place when the lines between the two are entirely blurred; when you cease to be able to really distinguish whether you are reading a poem or caught up in something like prayer (or, we might just say, prayer). We are often turned off poetry at a young age as we’re taught in school to find the hidden meaning, as if a poem were a code to decipher or a puzzle to be solved, ariddle in which to find the answer, and we miss the whole point. The main purpose of a poem, if it needs one, is not to disseminate information, but to move somewhere, so that the reader ends up in a different place than they started. We are moved along with/in the poem. While some people might treat prayer in the way poetry is often treated in school, as if God were an ATM machine and if you punch in the right code you get what you want, most of us would agree this is a rather shallow vision of prayer. Prayer, too, is meant to move us somewhere—into God’s presence, into God’s love. 

The poem does not need to be religious or directly ‘spiritual’ in content for the simile with prayer to hold. The same process of movement, of awareness, and presence can take place as Ellen Bryant Voigt writes about a groundhog, or Kaveh Akbar about addiction, Kevin Young about childbirth, or Sharon Olds about, well, I can’t really mention that sort of subject matter here, but you get the idea. But I want to return to some of Karr’s religious poetry here, which bracingly brings to the forefront the notion of poetry and prayer as simile and also makes for deeply appropriate content for Lenten reflection. 

In her collection Sinners Welcome—which I highly recommend—she stands boldly on the borders of faith and doubt—as all prayer must—with humour, depth, sorrow, and struggle. There is a particularly striking series of poems within the collection entitled, ‘Descending Theology’. These are five poems moving form Christ’s nativity to Christ’s resurrection spread throughout the rest of the poems, which itself has a welcomed effect—Christ is met in the midst of the other poems, amidst all the muck and mire of the rest of life. 


 The first two of these poems are concerned with Christ in infancy. ‘Descending Theology: The Nativity’, vividly describes the movement of Christ from womb to birth: ‘in the muted womb-world with its glutinous liquid,/the child knew nothing/of its own fire’, and after his birth ‘Some animal muzzle/against his swaddling perhaps breathed him warm/till sleep came pouring that first draught/of death, the one he’d wake from/(as we all do) screaming’. The infant Christ is pictured as moving already toward death. The second in the series, ‘Descending Theology: Christ Human’, continues this theme, which is here in full: 

            Such a short voyage for a god,
and you arrived in animal form so as not
            to scorch us with your glory.
Your mask was an infant’s head on a limp stalk,
            sticky eyes smeared blind,
limbs rendered useless in swaddle.
            You came among beasts,
as one, came into our care or its lack, came crying
            as well all do, because the human frame 
is a crucifix, each skeletos borne a lifetime.
            Any wanting soul lain
prostrate on a floor to receive a pouring of sunlight
            might—if still enough,
feel your cross buried in the flesh.
            One has only to surrender,
you preached, open both arms to the inner,
            the ever-present hold,
out-reaching every want. It’s in the form
            embedded, love adamant as bone.
In a breath, we can bloom and almost be you

Karr likes to speak of the incarnation as God as a ‘piece of meat’ (in-carne), a jolting way of putting it, and here in this poem we see this working from Jesus’s birth forward, and we see it working on us as well. Christ descends as baby among beasts, as one, crying because the human frame is a crucifix. Because to be human is to exist as cruciform, as cross-shaped, as made to be broken. The skeleton in the poem is a crucifix, but it is love—adamant as bone—and we bloom, we develop, we sprout up and grow towards our end which is love itself—we bloom into Christ, into divinity. We extend through to the end of our cross-shaped skeletal frame, so that our very cruciform, broken bodies become the means by which we reach out to take hold of our salvation. 

 ‘It’s in the form/embedded, love adamant as bone’. The very form of our body, the shape of our humanity, bends toward the cross. 

The Lenten flavour of the first two poems, moving toward the cross with Christ, makes it unsurprising that the last three skip forward to the end of Christ’s life: the Garden, the Cross, and the Resurrection.

In ‘Descending Theology: The Garden’, we are taken to the scene of the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus pleads with the Father that the cup of suffering be removed and where he is betrayed by his friend. There is something distinctly human about Christ in the poem because of his anguished prayer: ‘We know he was a man because, once doomed,/he begged for reprieve’, are the opening words. But Jesus’ prayer shifts: 

 The dark prince had poured the vial of poison 
       into the betrayer’s ear,
and it was done. Around the oasis where Jesus wept,
            the cracked earth radiated out for miles.
In the green center, Jesus prayed for the pardon 
            of Judas, who was approaching
with soldiers, glancing up—as Christ was—into
            the punctured sky till his neck bones
ached. Here is his tear-riven face come
            to press a kiss on his brother.

I cannot help but think of Christ’s prayer for the pardon of those crucifying him: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ when reading here of Christ pleading for Judas’ pardon. But here the request is specific. This is not a plea for pardon of a faceless, distant mass of people. There is something quite powerful in imagining Jesus’ tenderness toward Judas of all people—and thus toward me, and toward you, specifically, intimately. Of course, as early as John 6 Christ had indicated that he knew where Judas was heading, and he still loved him, broke bread with him, knelt down to wash his feet. It is as if Jesus is saying to Judas (and to you, me, anyone, everyone), ‘My love cannot be defeated by your betrayal. You will not be the end of my love for you'.  

The next poem in the series, ‘Descending Theology: The Crucifixion’, begins by going the other way, to non-specificity. Karr describes the process of a person, any person, being crucified: 

To be crucified is first to lie down
on a shaved tree, and then to have oafs stretch you out
on a crossbar as if for flight, then thick spikes
fix you into place.

Once the cross props up and the pole stub
sinks vertically in an earth hole, perhaps
at an awkward list, what then can you blame for hurt
but your own self’s burden?

It is only near the end that anyone specific is set into this description of crucifixion, and he is only mentioned as ‘The man on the cross’. Jesus’ name never appears. Perhaps this is due to all of us being drawn in during the last poem. The phrase ‘This/was our doing, our death’, appears almost randomly and somewhat out of place between the description of Christ’s prayer in the garden and the shift toward Judas (then again, maybe it is not so out of place).

The ‘forsakenness’ of the cross features prominently: ‘If God/permits this, one wonders if some less/than loving watcher//watches us’. And the distance Christ feels in the forsakenness is transferred to us, we feel distant from the (now nameless) Christ. This distance is a part of prayer, too. Yes, prayer is awareness and presence, but sometimes it feels as though we are just talking to ourselves, like we’re alone and no one is listening. Have a look at Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘terrible sonnets’ if you need evidence of this. But I would wager that you do not need convincing. God’s absence is something I imagine every life of prayer has known. 

‘Descending Theology: The Resurrection’ is, at least at the moment, my favourite poem in the series:

From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in—black ice and blood ink—
till the hung flesh was empty. Lonely in that void
even for pain, he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist of his heart

began to bang on the stiff chest’s door,
and breath spilled back into that battered shape. Now
it’s your limbs he longs to flow into—
from the sunflower center in your chest
outward—as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.

 We witness life leaving and reentering Christ’s body, and as in the second poem of the series, we reach to the end of our extremities to ‘bloom’. Christ longs to extend again throughout the reaches of his body, and in the process our cruciform bodies, born for brokenness and born for love, are filled. Christ’s desire to inhabit his corpse is one and the same with his desire to inhabit us—to awaken our deadness to new birth, to re-creation, to resurrection. 

‘When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”’ (John 20.22). 

and breath spilled back into that battered shape. Now
it’s your limbs he longs to flow into—
from the sunflower center in your chest
outward—as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.

Lent is a season of prayer, of self-denial and reflection, of searching ourselves for ways in which we can make room in our lives for the radical in-breaking of Christ’s love at Easter. But it is really just a forty-day dramatization of the entirety of our lives. The whole of the Christian life is about letting go of our self-sufficiency, learning to de-centre ourselves, learning to love. It is, at its essence, learning the cross. And this learning is a life turned outward in prayer toward God and in service toward others. It is a poetic life, a life that moves, a life that becomes deeply aware of the holy presence of the world around it and presents itself in return as an offering, a gracious gift that moves that world toward its redemption. 

 So as we continue this season of Lent: read good poetry [2]. But also practice the poetic life—a life turned outward beyond ourselves, what we typically call the life of prayer. And as a result, that love adamant as bone and embedded in our form might find expression to river every way through our world.

[1]‘Afterward: Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer’, in Sinners Welcome (New York: Harper Collins, 2006).

[2]There is a vast amount of great poetry being written at the moment. For a few other examples of retelling of biblical narratives through poetry, see Marie Howe’s Magdaleneand Jericho Brown’s The New Testament.

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