Last week I traveled to Leuven, Belgium for the 9th Leuven Encounters in Systematic Theology conference. I have been to this conference before, and I find that my perspective is generously enlarged by hearing voices that emerge from contexts and concerns that differ from my own in the USA. This year, the conference theme was “Mediating Mysteries: Understanding Liturgies.” The keynote speakers offered inspiring investigations into what “full, active, and conscious” participation of people in the Catholic liturgy means today (for, such were the goals for liturgy articulated at the Second Vatican Council). Some provided critical evaluation of the newly revived Roman missal. One speaker offered a searing critique of the distinction between true mystery and fabricated mystique in the Mass. The breakout sessions were exceptionally well designed. Here I noticed a common thread of people searching beyond the formal magisterial liturgies and studying the value of those mediated mysteries that are celebrated and communicated in culture, literature, and art.
My paper was one such departure, exploring the music venue as a liturgical space and considering historical examples of the migration of secular music/poetry into formal liturgy. I was delighted, moreover, to be on a panel with others who had a deep pathos for the grace of liturgical(-like) languages and behaviors that occur spontaneously in culture. I was especially moved by Scott Holland’s (Bethany Theological Seminary) “A Theopoetics of Liturgy.” His work along with others’ confirmed my own deep belief that the divine speaks democratically to and through us, and sometimes we are able through our own co-creative processes to transmit effectively that light to others.
Of course, this is no new insight. Plato, in his dialogue of Socrates with Ion, observed that:
The Muse not only inspires people herself, but through these inspired ones others are inspired and dangle in a string. In fact, all the good poets who make epic poems use no art at all, but they are inspired and possessed when they utter all these beautiful poems, and so are the good lyric poets; these are not in their right mind when they make their beautiful songs, but they are like the Corybants out of their wits dancing about. As soon as they mount on their harmony and rhythm, they become frantic and possessed and out of their senses, as the Bacchant women, possessed and out of their senses, draw milk and honey out of the rivers, so the soul of these honey-singers does just the same, as they say themselves. The poets, as you know, tell us that they get their honey-songs from honey-founts of the Muses, and pluck from what they call Muses’ gardens, and Muses’ dells, and bring them to us like honeybees, on the wing themselves like the bees, and what they say is true. For the poet is an airy thing, a winged and holy thing, and he cannot make poetry until he becomes inspired…For not by art do they speak these things, but by divine power…God takes the mind out of these poets, and uses them as his servants, and so also those who chant oracles, and divine seers; because he wishes us to know that not those we hear, who have no mind in them, are those who say such precious things, but God himself is the speaker, and through them he shows his meaning to us.
Plato’s ancient reference to the Bacchant women is arresting for me because it taps into a key theological question: what distinguishes mysticism from madness? By what criteria will inspiration be tolerated as genuinely Spirit-induced as contrasted with hysterical or mental or demonical? The question of inspiration then emerges as having less to do with when and in whom it occurs and more to do with how inspiration is received by those empowered to render judgment on it. This inspiration is a highly gendered question from the institutional perspective, and it comes to light that perhaps the ultimate effect of the magisterial liturgy is its ability (invested by those who believe and participate in it) to trump all other experiences of the divine. For, even while (as I argued in Leuven) formal liturgy may lean toward the sensus fidelium over the long course of history, it nevertheless stands as prescriptive ritual whose authority in the very least intends to organize for believers all their other experiences of inspiration. Sadly, I think this may lead (one hopes here) unwittingly to a strangulation of divine interiority, especially among women.
I taught a student once who experienced this effect as a sort of spiritual violence, although she would not have named it as such. She was a nurse working in end-of-life care, and she held a very orthodox core of Christian beliefs. Yet, her patient experiences often radically contrasted with her faith. Her sadness was palpable, and she shared with me at the end of our semester several of her poems. There was great vision and voice in her work, inspired by the truths she had discovered in her roles as nurse and mother, but the theology entailed within her writing was different from her religious indoctrination. She thus viewed her poetic voice as burden. I myself could understand her situation, having in my late teenage years put to fire nearly a dozen journals of poetry that I had written from the time I was about eleven years old. I simply could not then stand my own voice, and it was only decades afterward that I began to appreciate the reach and depth of the self-silencing and self-deprecating messages I had internalized as a girl.
Blessedly, in my own case, I began to write again nearly before the ashes of my own bonfire cooled. And, I am now greatly encouraged to discover a growing theological conversation that honors and studies even “secular” song and poetry as authentic public languages in which to both offer and receive prayer. I will make this “theopoesis” the subject of some of my forthcoming posts, so it is here fitting that I close with a short poem about reconciliation…
I too should despise those hateful offences to your great Name
if I believed that you only taste meat from one line of priests.
But, even were it so, I would have nothing but to love you,
so I forgive us both by praying in many directions.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.