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Poetry in the pulpit


The following editorial by Andrew Britz, OSB, is titled “Poetry in the pulpit,” and was originally published in the Feb. 10, 1992, issue of the PM. It is also included in his book Rule of Faith: as we worship, so we believe, so we live (Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi).

The church needs preacher-poets, according to Walter Brueggemann, a noted Old Testament scholar. The Scriptures, he said, are reduced far too often to lifeless forms by preachers who rely on the scholarly, historical analysis they learned in the seminary.

What Brueggemann laments in scriptural studies is even more true in many of the moral and dogmatic classes Catholic seminarians are obliged to take. We belong to a church that has placed great confidence in the correct dogmatic expression; we believe that if we say it right, our tradition will be safely handed on — even if our Sunday pews are filled with sleeping or daydreaming worshippers. To be too concerned about the faith experience of the heart is frowned upon: “Isn’t that where the Protestants went wrong?” we knowingly ask.

Only one subject is really considered seriously in the preparatory work to theological studies: philosophy, and the more medieval the better. Modern philosophy which takes seriously the role of symbol in human existence is often summarily discredited. Filled with confidence we declare that the essence of human existence can be expressed in matter and form.

No one is calling for a downplaying of the intellect. We as church have had too many bad experiences of anti-intellectualism. We must, however, acknowledge that for a large majority of people the head alone is not the way to the soul. We are more complex than that; few of us are going to find ourselves in peace without both minds that have disciplined our hearts in wisdom, and hearts that have taught our minds to sing songs filled with a healthy dose of raw emotion.

The Catholic Church prides itself on being a sacramental church. One would think that this thrust would have kept us deeply appreciative of symbolic expression. In reality we have been more distrustful of symbol in sacramental theology than in any other theological discipline. The polemics of the post-Reformation period has had a devastating influence.

Traditional symbolic expressions were replaced with ontological ones favoured in medieval philosophy. The only truly adequate expression of the eucharist, for instance, became transubstantiation, in which even the smallest speck on the corporal cloth on the altar was declared the real presence of Christ. Traditional symbolic expressions, such as the breaking of the bread, sharing a meal or partaking of food, were all seen as inadequate; the fact that these expressions speak naturally to our deepest selves was simply disregarded.

Not since the days of St. Basil has a leader in our church succeeded in an apology for literature. Without a sense of literature the preacher is doomed to using moralistic ditties in the Sunday homily.

The preacher, as Brueggemann rightly noted, is called upon to be counter-cultural. The status quo will never be challenged by nice moral platitudes, nor by trivializing the truth with simple answers.

A church with all the answers is fine for people who are afraid to question anything, and for people who do not want to question anything because they like the world pretty much the way it is. Pope John Paul’s social encyclicals, however, do not allow us the comfort of either of these solutions.

Let us not just idly hope that our future preachers have some imagination, that they be poetic enough to challenge us with creative dreams of new possibilities for the human family. Let us insist that literature in its various expressions be an integral part of their training.