An old pastor sits in the front corner of his small country church one autumn evening. The lamps are coming on outside, the children are hurrying home for supper, and each chime of the bells above brings the priest a moment closer to the time when he must deliver his Sunday sermon. But he is at a loss for words. He has drilled into his parishioners the proofs for God’s existence, the reasons for the immorality of abortion, and the importance of prayer. Time and again he preached about the need to live a life of stewardship, the significance of the confessional, and the wrongs of gossip. And the fruits of his work are visible. The children recite the catechism with diligence, the women’s guild prays the rosary with devotion, and the young men can reason through disputes over the saints and Blessed Mother with their protestant co-workers. Yes, his flock has been given a toolbox. What more then is there? What further work can he do?
Suddenly he hears the creaking of the door to the church open behind him. “Somebody has got to oil that one,” he thinks to himself, making a mental note of this task for the custodian. The quiet patter of feet passes him and then stops. As the priest lifts up his head, he is taken aback at the site of the scene before him. A little child is there, kneeling before the crucifix. Father recognizes the lad from Sunday school, a quiet fellow from a good family. His hat in his hands and his eyes fixed upon the mangled body of Christ hanging limply on the tree, the child’s lips move slowly, reverently. The priest leans in, trying to hear what soft sounds are exuding from the boy’s mouth. He is quietly uttering the Anima Christi, each powerful word taking on new meaning in this child’s sweet voice. With that, the priest falls to his knees. And then the answer comes…
In order to reconcile his people to himself, God became seeable, hearable, touchable, and reachable, taking on true human flesh. “By nature incomprehensible and inaccessible, [God] was invisible and unthinkable, but now he wished to be understood, to be seen and thought of,” writes St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In a sense, he became concrete and graspable, yet at the same time mysterious and unknowable, bridging the imminent and the transcendent. Preface I for Christmas so beautifully reads, “By the wonder of the Incarnation, your Eternal Word has brought the eyes of faith a new and radiant image of your glory. In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.”
It is poetry that most fully takes on these characteristics, creating images that rouse our senses and help us to understand reality, yet always leaving a sense of the unknown, an aura of mystery. It is poetry, that theology (as St. Anselm defined it, “Faith seeking understanding”) so desperately needs, else it turn into the mechanical “study of God.” It is poetry for which the faithful long in order to come to know Christ, the Divine Poet himself. It is poetry, which this priest’s preaching is lacking.