Almost thirty years ago, my wife and I joined a small Presbyterian Church named St Cuthbert's, in the city of Hamilton, Ontario. At the time, I had two published books of poetry to my name. A number of months after we started attending St Cuthbert's, the music director, Bart Nameth, approached me and said, "You write poetry. Do you want to write a poem for Pentecost?" My reply was an immediate, "Not a chance. I am not a religious poet." Religious poetry, to my mind, meant predictability of subject, knowing before you begin where you will end, and sentimentality.
But I respected Bart. He played the piano for our church services. A grand piano, with which he accompanied the hymn singing and responses (many of which he wrote) and from which, during the Prelude, Offertory and Postlude, those times in the worship service when he was free to roam, could come the strains of composers from Bach to Frank Zappa to Miles Davis to Bjork. To Bart’s way of thinking any music on earth can be brought into that space on a Sunday morning and become praise and worship.
And so, out of that respect him and for his catholicity, and trusting his perception over my own, I agreed to give it a try. I set one rule for myself: anything I wrote for Sunday morning should also be readable in any other context, when I gave public readings. Let’s not call it a rule, but a challenge. I was challenging myself to walk that line of tension between church and world.
In fear and trembling, I sat down to write, taking what I had in front of me, which was the vague sense that the street and house lights we saw laid out below us when we drove down the escarpment that runs through our city was somehow connected to the flickering tongues of flame. Also, that the wrenching disagreement I was experiencing at the time with a longtime friend was also the subject of Pentecost. We couldn't speak to each other, after all. Our tongues were confused, even though we spoke the same English language.
The surprise for me once I began writing was that this new hermeneutic of the text took everything that I had internalized about the story over a youth and childhood of churchgoing and channelled it through my own experience and into my own words. It sent me down avenues new, holy and wholly unexpected. It felt as though I was living the scripture. Nothing in my past or present thinking had prepared me for this possibility.
I gave a copy of the completed (as completed as possible before his deadline) poem to Bart a few weeks before Pentecost Sunday. He read it and let it wind through the hurdy-gurdy of his musical mind. In the week before Pentecost we rehearsed a few times, and on Sunday morning, during the Offertory, I stood at the back of our small church, where the piano was also placed, in front of amicrophone, and read the poem to the music that he had composed. It is a form of music which he calls "structured improvisation”, where he takes often familiar songs and hymns which the poem suggests to him, and plays and improvises on them as I read, structuring his playing to the flow of the text. It is not background music but true accompaniment. We are a duet. It is also more fun than any one poet should be allowed to have on a Saturday night, much less a Sunday morning.
That first poem begat others, and over the years I have written for days on the church calendar that include Advent, All Saints, Lent, Ascension, Trinity Sunday and more. Some of these days and seasons have accumulated more than one poem. One year Bart asked for poems for Good Friday based on the Fourteen Stations of the Cross: fourteen poems. His request coincided with my pursuit of a natural, tree-cross to hang in our church, a pursuit that led me into a derelict orchard, where I found that shape. The poems became a narrative of the tree in the garden becoming the tree of crucifixion and of life. My first true Easter poem arrived only two years ago; a long time coming, because the tightrope between church and world quivers greatest when you walk the subject of resurrection. It wouldn’t take much to fall.
Inevitably, along the way I broke my own rule and wrote poems that only those on the inside of the building, those versed in scripture, could understand or appreciate. Poems so specific to the text that when the poem is published I include a verse reference from scripture under the title. But I have also strayed from scripture and written poems that have to do more with what our congregation is experiencing, or what is happening in the local and wider world around us, though scripture finds a way of weaving through much of what I write, regardless of the subject at hand.
All the poems I write are liturgical, for they are part of the work of the people of our congregation, and I am one of those people. They fit with what we are doing by showing up, by being there rather than in bed reading the New York Times or having brunch with friends, and by believing what we do and continuing to walk and stumble on.
All in all, for a poet, it is a dream come true. I have been able to write poems that are part of the life of a community. I have had a job as a poet, a job as essential and mundane as that of a carpenter or a doctor. Poets do not usually find this kind of hire. They may find hire in teaching poetry, but not writing it. “I hope you know how lucky you are” a fellow poet said to me, when I described what I did. I do.
The work is unpaid, mind you. My reward is in heaven. I am more than half-serious when I say this. From the beginning I understood that poetry had nothing to do with money. It was one of the things that attracted me to it. I was attracted to meaningful activity that was outside the capitalist system. Experience has borne out this intuition I had when I was sixteen. But a poet has to eat. I have been able to survive as the grasshopper in an Aesop fable because I am not alone but belong, first of all, to the community of two that marriage creates, second, to the community of faith that has nurtured what gift I have, and third, to the civic community and setting that has done likewise. I consider these latter two communities as patrons of the arts, of my art, for it is from them that I receive the commissions to do the bread-winning work that is the other half of my life, namely woodworking and carpentry. The distinction between the two communities, between as it were the church and the world, has in the process broken down somewhat. Walking that tightrope has been and is an exercise in faith, on a daily basis, but by grace it has paid off. Soli deo gloria
Would I want to be paid? Would I want my congregation to pay me for writing poetry? Then the singer/songwriters (of which we have a few) should get paid as well, and the others who write liturgy. It could get unwieldy, and I am not sure that any of us actually want that. When the time came that I wished to produce a CD of the various poems Bart and I had done together, we had no problem finding full funding for the project from within our congregation. The same was true when I wanted to publish chapbooks of poetry. And I am fairly certain that if I asked to be paid for the poems I write for Sunday mornings, money would be forthcoming. But it is more important to me that I am able and welcome to contribute in the specific way that I can, by writing poems. This to me seems like an entirely new way to go about the business of church and congregation’s participation, and not one that I grew up with.
New ways of integrating art and artists of various stripes into congregational life and worship are shooting up everywhere these days. This is simply how it has worked out in my specific case.
John Terpstra led the writer's workshop segment of the graduate-level summer program in Art and Theology developed by the Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto), and hosted by the Studio for Art, Faith & History in Orvieto, July 2015. Terpstra's nine books of poetry and four works of creative non-fiction have won the CBC Radio Literary Competition as well as numerous Hamilton Literary Awards, and have been short-listed for the Governor-General's Award, the Charles Taylor Prize, the BC Award for Canadian Non-fiction and the Raymond Souster Award. He has served as Writer in Residence at McMaster University and Hillfield-Strathallan College. He divides his time equally between writing and his chosen trade, which is woodworking. Find more of his work at www.johnterpstra.com.
Flames of Affection, Tongues of Flame
I walked to the end of Dundurn Street,
to the quiet hind of a busy road,
where the bus loops. I walked
to the foot of the escarpment and looked
up, way, way up, at all those stairs.
And though they are wooden stairs
that make a nice wooden sound, and though
they lean endearingly to one side or the other
in a manner steel could never comprehend,
there are still two hundred and forty-six of them,
and before I was even halfway to the top
my legs had begun to feel lead-filled,
and the next step seemed a millenium away,
which, after all, it was, in a way, since here
I was, scaling the rocky old face
of mother earth, climbing her limestone chin,
her sandstone, siltstone, shale, dolomite skin,
terra mama, and all those labour-intensive layers
of her make-up, so that when I reached the top
I had to sit and catch my breath, and there
down below, was our little city, lying
spread out on its beach of glacial rubble,
sunning itself on a completely other
geological time, and I thought, well,
here I am, three hundred and fifty million years
God! but it's been a while
since the foundation of the earth.
ALL THAT TIME!
and no one to talk to.
I was alone, sitting on the brow
of the Niagara Escarpment, and except
for the constant swell and surge of cars
coming up Beckett's Drive to Garth Street,
or going down, it might have been peaceful.
I tried to concentrate on Lake Iroquois,
or Algonquin, whichever prehistoric pond it was
that lapped and bashed against this wall, but
the sun had set, and stars were beginning
to tinkle in the sky like wind chimes,
and a million lights were coming to life,
car lights, street lights, porch lights,
bicycle lights, night lights, and people
in their dim homes were moving
room to room, switching lights,
so the whole lovely view
flickered, all the time,
like lively little tongues, like
the lively little tongues of lovers
in the flame of affection,
and I thought
this is like Pentecost, kind of.
How is it we can barely talk to each other anymore?
Three hundred and fifty million years is nothing.
We're at least that far apart, sitting across
the same room. Switch the light. Is it
just me? Or where on this hardened planet
is there a hope our mutually exclusive, accrued
believings of the truth will break down, soften,
and flow together in the heat of some unimaginable
quaternary change? Or do we grow old this way,
waiting till the common weather finally erodes
these bloody unforgiving rocks
into a willing roundness?
There's nothing much
to say--and it gets so tiring, climbing
the endless staircase of our wooden
chit chit chat
if only the window would blow open once,
and the conversation catch, like fire, so that
we're both, we're all consumed, and the room
isn't big enough anymore, and we take
to the street, and talk and talk,
and the languages we've learned to cultivate
exhaust themselves, so we have to dig deeper
and break out other mother tongues,
and get a bit drunk, spilling words
we never said before, didn't know
we knew, and we couldn't tell how long
we'd gone till people stopped
on their way to work, wondering, "What the...?"
but then they'd join in too--because
it was contagious, it changed the face
of the earth, and these three hundred
and fifty million years
the words we use,
they fly, they arc
and dive through air, land
where we don't look, won't dare.
I pick up another, palm it, a stone
chip off the top of this cliff,
I should bring it back home.
Put it on the table between us.
Show you. Show me.
How hard it is.
How long it's taken to get here.
In the church where we go to now a remnant people
fan themselves with the white paper wing of the bulletin,
on which is listed their comings and goings,
events, the summer schedule.
In the church where we go to now the white wings of seagulls
float among the rafters, above the sand,
where medieval castles of childlike construction,
that weren't there yesterday
and will be gone tomorrow,
are built and rebuilt,
subject to the rhythm and eternal Love of water.
People in low chairs line the shore,
observe the unmoving line of the horizon,
the motion of waves, the slow motions of the sky,
looking for signs, signs, signs--
though really they are not looking for anything at all.
Their present situation is quite sufficient.
The rhythm and eternal Love of water drew them here,
where the land ends and their faith stretches beyond limit,
and is quite sufficient.
In the church where we go to now a man and a woman
stand knee-deep in the water, talking,
allowing the lake to take its sweet, satisfying time.
They are talking Deep Ecology, Current Fiction, or fictions.
They are talking the Desert Fathers.
A beach ball makes a dash for freedom,
launching itself across the waves with the wind,
chased by a paddler on an air mattress,
past the third sandbar.
The paddler returns, rejoicing.
In any sanctuary, indoors or out,
the inscrutable parable of our childlike lives
is open to ongoing interpretation.
A man throws a tennis ball.
His young, long-haired Labrador bounds into the waves
and swims to shore holding in his jaws the fuzzy yellow pearl
it is clear he would gladly sell everything he owns
Among the animals, it is our hairlessness
that stands out. In the holy, catholic church
there is no fear or shame. The godly walk and bask
beside the rhythm and eternal Love of water.
Bellies hang bulbous over the waist bands
of men whose jewels dangle in small pouches hung below,
like stones in a slingshot.
The round tops of numberless breasts abound,
leap from their halters. All that is hidden
will one day be revealed, and the day
seems very near.
The knee-deep man and the woman are still talking.
They are discussing if and how the surface tension of lake water
might bear their everyday weight.
The wind begins to rise.
Medieval castles of air and water
begin construction on the line of the horizon,
and as the people prepare to flee the wrath foretold,
they ask, Will the weather always be so variable
in the church where we go to now?
The white wings of seagulls hang in the rafters
as the seagulls wait for signs.
They land, filling the spaces left vacant by the departed.
They scream their screams for the departed,
picking at the sand for any trace,
their last communion with the departed.
I remember now. A family of four or six drives down the highway
on the last day of summer vacation, arguing and debating
where to stop to eat, where every day and meal
is a communion, one with the other,
and with the creatures of flesh who congregate the shoreline,
and with our eternal brother, who walked and basked upon
the rhythm and eternal Love of water,
that bids us, so appealingly, Come.