Sacred/Profane #3: Geoffrey Hill and St Teresa sing the blues
Proud citadel of meekness
Likening us our unlikeness
Majesty of our distress
Emptiness ever thronging
How long until this longing
End in unending song
And soul for soul discover
No strangeness to dissever
And lover keep with lover
A moment and forever
From ‘The Pentecost Castle’ in Tenebrae (1978)
Sacred/Profane #2: Hafiz of Shiraz has a midnight visitor, and a century’s worth of English translators make different decisions about the careful withholding of a gendered pronoun in the original. Is it a he? Is it a she? Is it the ancient of days? She or he or He is certainly drunk, anyway. Unless that’s a metaphor too.
Source: Parvin Loloi, Hafiz, Master of Persian Poetry: A Critical Bibliography (2004)
A quarter of the U.S. population — and 40 percent of the population of New York, where my novel is set — self-identify as Catholic. One of the most striking features of the city is that there are churches everywhere, from one of the world’s largest cathedrals to hundreds of storefront churches. And a bit of investigation will reveal that those churches fill up every Sunday. Not to mention the fact that there are more Jews in New York than in any other city in the world. But for some reason the publishing industry in this city tends to view the introduction of religion into contemporary realist novels as a willful act that must have some strong rhetorical justification. From where I stand, the exclusion of religion is the willful act. Novelists never get asked why they don’t include religion in their books, or why the religion they do include — often just a species of madness — bears so little resemblance to religion as it is practiced by the majority of Americans. If they were asked, I suspect, most of these writers would not have a very good answer. It simply doesn’t occur to them. Whatever one’s beliefs, this seems like a basic failure of verisimilitude. Reality includes religion; realism should, too.
Sacred/Profane #1: the Reverend Al Green sings
The takeaway message is this: no one needs churches to be nice or tasteful. If churches have a future, it’s in addressing our existential darkness: sin and death. Progressive politics is important, but it doesn’t do any deep religious work. And liberals in the church will have to rediscover this after we have won our culture wars. What other religion has such a dark image at its centre? And yet my own brand of liberal Christianity too often seeks salvation through a few gentle verses of All Things Bright and Beautiful or lots of self-important dressing up and wandering around in fancy churches. Devoted atheists are never going to be persuaded by a theology of the cross. But no one whatsoever is going to be persuaded by a theology of nice.