Grace in Contemporary Poetry
Eric F. Tinsay Valles // Desmond F. X. Kon ZC-MD
“Part of the complexity of the problem for the Catholic…writer will be
the presence of grace as it appears in nature, and what matters for him here
is that his faith not become detached from his dramatic sense
and from his vision of what is.”
That grace builds on nature is a truism that Scholastic philosophers first expounded on during medieval times, a period of Christian flourishing and abounding grace, especially in the West. This notion of grace rests on the premise that one can be a faithful Christian—or one with a deeply Christian sensibility—and a competent lyric poet or literary writer. In the contemporary world of reductive categories and extreme secularism, however, this notion of a unity between one’s being and activity is often suspect. That situation has led to Christian poetry being brushed aside as sappy, fanatical or subpar. The editors, however, suggest a relook at contemporary Christian poetry as a site where the moral and lyrical senses can happily meet.
This online anthology is an experiment that seeks to prove two things. First, the Christian poet is free to work on concrete experience—that is, nature that is transformed by the grace of faith—into art. Second, some contemporary Christian poetry can hold its own among the best in the field of verses. We have gathered together 100 voices from all over in this project to test our claims. Together, they present to us some 300 poetic texts, a resplendent largesse.
In keeping with Christ’s great commission to preach the gospel to all creatures, the editors have made this anthology free for all Net readers. We believe that Christian poetry not only has enduring value but can also be a means for people to know more about the Word Made Flesh.
This anthology features eight chapters, structured according to these broad themes: fellowship, devotion, profession, striving, contemplation, expectation, blessedness, and charity. From the theological viewpoint, conversation is part of the essence of humanity insofar as it is in relation to its Creator. Indeed, humanity is created in “the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:26-27).
Each chapter houses twelve writers, paired to simulate conversation. Having poets dialogue with each other provides at least one more perspective on various depictions, impressions, themes or experiences. After all, the entire history of ideas, especially in the West but true as well in the East, is a series of conversations.
Moving beyond monologism, Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogism receives thought and voice as multiplicities. Discourse is not declaratory; rather, it interacts in the relational. In the numerous poetic utterances within this anthology, what is perceived is a vast fretwork-openwork of laced signifying practices. The dual-author display is, in fact, woefully inadequate to reflect such complex reticulation, but it hopefully avoids easy closure of meaning for readers.
Approach the whole opus as a verse novel, one might suggest, as if working through its heteroglossia and polyphony, even as each authorial speaker does reify itself, turn up boldly in the speech acts. Feel the shifts in sense, that persistent drift.
This project comes at a most auspicious time. This year marks the quincentennial of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines, a Christian bastion in the Asia-Pacific, and the bicentennial of the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in Singapore, the region’s gateway and trading hub.
On 31 March 1521, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, under the auspices of the Spanish crown, sang the Te Deum and celebrated mass with his ragtag crew and the local chieftain of an island in Leyte. Magellan had commanded the first expedition to circumnavigate the world after discovering a new route from Spain to Southeast Asia with the guidance of the Malay Enrique of Malacca. That set off the conversion of the indigenous peoples of the archipelago with the complicity of native chieftains in military alliances, as attested by Antonio Pigafetta and other credible historians.
In December 1821, Fr. Laurent Imbert, a future saint, officiated at mass for a few Catholics in what is now Singapore’s civic district upon the request of the apostolic vicar of Siam. Already cosmopolitan, the nascent church in Singapore interacted with missionaries sent from Malacca and Siam. This interaction came at a cost as Chinese secret societies massacred members of the growing Catholic community in February 1851 after the latter, in obedience to the Decalogue, refused to join those secret societies.
Like Magellan and St. Laurent, the contemporary Christian poet is an explorer and pioneer in discovering the sacred in a profane, post-religious world. He or she deserves a vital role in the aforesaid dual celebration. Though encompassing multiple facets such as ethnicity and language, he or she is really one person, writing verses in a study one moment and worshipping at Sunday mass the next. He or she has been transformed by grace, entirely not merited, to be an adopted child of God. This experience, coloured by faith, is as legitimate a subject matter as any other for the imagination to process not only in a religious tract but also in lyric verse.
Indeed, Christian poetry is the Christian poet’s purest response as an individual to his or her unique encounter with grace. It is one of several possible responses, to be sure. But it is one that is most fitting to the poet’s talent and vocation. He or she embraces faith as an integral part of experience. It is in this sense that grace transcends building nature towards, as the great Scholastic St. Thomas Aquinas puts it, perfecting it. Language remains as the poet’s raw material with inherent limitations. But, with grace, language may yet reveal an inner, luminous dimension. Thus, Christian poetry is no different from prayer. It is a communion with God.
This grappling between nature and grace in literary writing is not new. It is a motif that runs throughout Sacred Scriptures. In Western literary writing, it begins with St. Augustine of Hippo. In the first confessional memoir, aptly entitled Confessions (397) and the treatise On Christian Doctrine (396-426/7), he provides models for theorising and symbolically representing grace for the edification of souls.
In Confessions, St. Augustine poetically delineates the action of grace on a dramatic speaker who is caught in dissolute youth and aimless philosophical inquiry. The narrative follows a journey arc drawn from classical rhetoric. The youth episode, for instance, corresponds with the pity of Virgil’s Aeneas for the hapless Dido. At the same time, Confessions shows elements of the Christian pilgrimage, which is also the context for two 14th-century magna opera, Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It is grace that initiates one into union with God as the Supreme Good. The narrator in Confessions progresses from the will’s enslavement to lust towards redemption through the acceptance of grace in love. The narrator undergoes a conversion as he aspires to become another Christ through self-denial.
Grace has inspired men and women of letters of all ages to seek to be another Christ, perfect God and perfect man, by making readers keenly aware of the snatches of the divine in broken creation. In The Divine Comedy, grace abides among the living and the dead. Virgil, the epitome of reason, is the narrator’s guide through the Inferno but steps aside for Beatrice, the embodiment of spiritual love, in the higher realms. In The Canterbury Tales, there is often doubleness in the pilgrims. They succumb to lust in different degrees but are aware of divine love in discourse in a veritable “amor vincit omnia”.
The verse touched by grace often suggests its meaning. St. Teresa of Avila, for instance, shows the ecstasy of divine love through sensuous romantic imagery: “my Beloved is all for me, / and I am all for my Beloved.” Sometimes, careful reading is needed to reveal the sublime in it. Alexander Pope, for instance, writes mock-heroic epics to critique what he perceives as a corrupt high society that yearns for redemption. In “The Universal Prayer” though, he invokes God’s mercy in tender supplication: “Mean though I am, not wholly so / Since quickened by thy breath; / Oh lead me wheresoe’er I go, / Through this day’s life or death.”
The Christian poet, conscious of his or her own limitations, is cognisant of the same in the reader. Part of the writing strategy then is to rouse the reader from lukewarmness or jadedness into reviving a sense of mystery in nature. This sense takes the reader’s will close to assent to ultimate realities.
Gerard Manley Hopkins does so more explicitly than other Christian writers. In a sermon, he repeats St. Ignatius of Loyola’s dictum: “Man was created to praise.” He does this again in various works such as “Pied Beauty”: “All things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) / With swift, slow; sweet, sour, adazzle, dim; / He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: ….” Those limitations, captured in radiant verse, are not bereft of beauty.
The works of Christian poets of colour bristle with the mystery of redemption as do the works of Hopkins and other white European Christian poets. The former also subscribe to the notion that a rich imagination may engender an equally rich spiritual life. This is on display in the Christian poems of Filipino national artist Nick Joaquin, one of whose favourite themes is the individual’s being torn between the tugs of original sin and those of divine grace. His Christian poems imagine fantastic scenarios such as the dramatic speaker in “Holy Communion” doing a double take as the Divine Lover, Christ, arrives not with a mouth like “a fountain of lilies” or “an immaculate spring of peace” but, unexpectedly, “with a sword”. Though better known for his short stories and novels, Joaquin writes poetry about his faith while meeting the exacting demands of his art, such as the adept use of figurative language.
Grace-touched verse of any era is the site of the paradoxical situation of God as being all-powerful and of the Christian believer as being buffeted by the effects of evil. St. Augustine maintains that one effect of evil—that of lust—is a disorder not of the body but of the will, which is a spiritual and not a sensuous faculty. He adds that love, the desire that obeys the will, is the ultimate remedy for lust. This discussion of the will has repercussions on the dynamic between grace and free will as revealed in the poems featured within this anthology.
The contemporary Christian poet runs up against the stark reality of the offer of grace and his or her own limitations in accepting it. This time of the Covid pandemic, for instance, has underscored this condition with the heroic acts of front-liners despite the inertia induced by prolonged strictures on everyone’s mobility. The Christian poet’s fallen human nature is locked in perpetual battle with an inclination towards sin in a world riddled with evil. The option to remain mired in self-love or sin is always dangling in front of the poet. Human nature thus needs a power outside of itself to enable it to embrace redemption. That power is grace. The act of versifying experience becomes preeminently what O’Connor, a fiction writer with a deep poetic sensibility, calls a “redemptive act”.
This anthology attempts to show that the contemporary Christian poem in itself could be a moment of grace, though sometimes grace appears as a flash of light in a dark night of the soul. Grace is the divine life in the person. It transforms his or her selfish heart with the supernatural love of Christ. The more he or she grows in grace, the more he or she is moved to embrace love of God.
One notable Singaporean Christian poet in this collection is Cultural Medallion recipient Edwin Thumboo. A convert from 30 years ago to a Pentecostal Brethren church, he has been writing poems inspired by Sacred Scriptures in the past few years. He states in his most recent memoir, The Votive Pen, his two aims in writing Christian verse—firstly, “to enter into the spirit of Christianity”; and secondly, to “make space for invention in a devotional world”. His poem “Jonathan before Gilboa” renders in verse a gentle acceptance of one’s destiny. He writes: “Night falls. I have no shadows left. Only that empty / Hush dallying with death before battle. I yearn for still / Waters and that perfect Garden walk at Eventide. Sela.”
Another featured Singaporean Christian poet is Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, also a Cultural Medallion recipient. She was mysteriously touched by grace at a university campus in the 1980s when she had a vision of Christ in the face of a student. She later was baptised as a Roman Catholic. She succinctly sums up the work of the Christian poet in the essay collection, Short Circuits, thus: “Poetry has the potential for many epiphanies, be they of the spirit or the intellect. And that, for me, has long been the grace-filled link between my faith and my writing.”
With the divine life slipping into or dwelling in the poet or reader, his or her natural virtues are raised to participate in Christ's life. One’s charity, for instance, partakes of, though does not exhaust, Christ's charity. Likewise, one can strive to be humble with Christ's humility. When grace starts to transform one’s poetry or life, one can begin to say with Mary (Luke 1:38): “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word.”
For all one knows, one may be as resolute and fearless as the convert and preacher St. Paul, whose verses offer some of the most lustrous in Sacred Scriptures. Perhaps one may, with his courage, boldly proclaim Galatians 2:20—"It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”