- "A Grace of Sense"
The bells keep on repeating solemn namesIn choruses and choirs of choruses,Unwilling that mercy should be a mysteryOf silence, that any solitude of senseShould give you more than their peculiar chordsAnd reverberations clinging to whisper still.—Wallace Stevens
Life in the cities and towns of "old Europe" is unimaginable without the persistent sound of bells. From early morning until dusk they ring out the hours for worship with a stubborn regularity and persistence, with a seeming disregard for the dwindling numbers of those who heed their call. They sound an invitation to join in what St. Benedict simply calls the opus Dei, or "work of God," bearing witness to the perdurance of spiritual traditions that shaped European society. In a stirring meditation on bells, Thomas Merton describes them as "the voice of our alliance with the God of heaven." And, in these lines from "To an Old Philosopher in Rome," Wallace Stevens speaks of how their repetition of "solemn names" suggests that they are "[u]nwilling that mercy should be a mystery of silence." Bells gesture beyond themselves to spiritual traditions and depths that are our inheritance, gesturing toward what the apostle Paul calls "this treasure we carry in earthen vessels."
I found myself musing over the poetics of bells as I finished this introduction for the collection of essays that follow in this issue. This was in part due to the fact that I live within a stone's throw of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in the German city of Bochum, and hearing the bells is unavoidable since they toll frequently throughout the day. These essays, contributed by a select chorus of American poets, are the result of our inviting them to reflect with us on the theme "Poetry and Spirit." We might also receive them as a version of Stevens' description of the bells—itself a poetic metaphor, of course, with a spiritual valence that is as deep as it is wide. Together, they stand as a symposium on art and spirituality, a theme that has regularly found expression in the pages of Spiritus.
Indeed, the journal's stated purpose as a forum for the study of Christian spirituality suggests something of Stevens' insight into the bells' "unwillingness" [End Page 235] that mercy—alongside other manifestations of the sacred—be left "a mystery of silence." While "mercy" does not emerge as an explicit theme here, each of these essayists addresses the role that the spiritual—or the lure of the spiritual—has played in their vocation as writers. They each presume that "a grace of sense," as T.S. Eliot put it in Four Quartets, lies at the heart of their work as poets.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
The idea for this symposium originated several years ago out of conversations I had with the journal's editor, Douglas Christie. As long-time readers of Spiritus will know, most issues of the journal, from its inception more than a decade ago, have included contributions by contemporary poets. That decision seems appropriate, at least in terms of the range of poems we have published and the generous sense of spirituality that shapes this journal's identity. But while the presence of poems as "primary texts" in the wider horizon of spiritual literature illumines this connection, and the use of poetry by authors of essays that have found their way to these pages has not been infrequent, this symposium is a new feature for the journal: it is the first time we have invited artists to help us understand the relation of "Word and Spirit," generally understood, in this case by inviting their reflections on the ways that spirituality informs their poetry. Here, then, is the fruit of their creative efforts in response to our query. [End Page 236]
As might be expected of essays by writers as gifted as these and on a theme as deliberately broad as this, the contributions assembled in this symposium are both rich and richly diverse. What follows is a veritable harvest of insights, approaches, and discoveries to this theme, one that serves...