Friday, January 26, 2007

Christopher Merrill

So much then for art going secular. What about the opposite direction, when art returns to religion, hat in hand? I can't think of a better recent example of this phenomenon than the poet and writer Christopher Merrill's chronicle of what happens when a literature professor meets Mt. Athos. It is the story of a man wavering in his devotion to two masters: Art and God... and one wins:
"In his Nobel lecture Saul Bellow remarks 'There is another reality, the genuine one, which we always lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which, without art we can't receive.' But art is not the only intermediary between us and the divine. My pilgrimages to Athos, my encounters with holy men, my readings of Scripture and patristic literature - these have convinced me that prayer is a more direct route to the other reality, which is why Gregory of Nyssa called prayer 'the leader in the choir of virtues'" (215).
And if you missed it that time, Merrill lays it out again.
"'Poetry is a means of redemption,' wrote Wallace Stevens, seeking a supreme fiction by which to live in the absence of God. He believed the loss of faith was a form of growth, yet a priest reports that on his deathbed Stevens converted to Roman Catholicism, saying it was time, 'to get in the fold.' I treasure this story, which complicates our picture of a poet who once said that 'God is a symbol for something that can as well take other forms as, for example, the form of high poetry.' But Stevens often visited churches, and I suspect that in his last days he discovered the limits of the poetic imagination. As a friend said, 'He wasn't taking any chances.' Nor am I" (257).
That may have earned him a few sneers in the faculty lounge. But it did get him a spot on millinerd.