We’re God’s poetry. But are we familiar with how we become the best poets possible?
Last week was about why we’re God’s poetry in motion: to reveal the triune God’s eternal “hidden” plan to “wed” their love with us. It’s a mystery, Paul writes, but earthly marriage depicts this mystery of God seeking to “marry” us (Eph.5:32). This is the ancient marital gospel. But it raises a question. How do we become the best poets possible?
I recognize that’s not an obvious question for many of us. For many decades after coming to Christ, I never asked this question. Now I do. Here’s why.
Earthly marriage depicts the gospel, so God designed Jewish marriage in three stages (betrothed, preparation, consummation). It depicts salvation in three stages (have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved). That’s why Paul writes, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (we have been saved) “to make her holy, to present her to himself…, without any blemish, holy and blameless” (the second stage, we’re being saved, Eph.5:25-27). Being prepared to be presented to Jesus requires becoming the best bride possible.
But this isn’t solely a work of Jesus. We too work out our salvation. It’s why Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “I betrothed you to one husband, to Christ, that I might present you as a pure virgin to him” (II Cor.11:2). Paul participated in preparing the Corinthians to be presented as the best bride possible. They, like all Christians, were God’s handiwork, his poetry in motion. He wanted them to be the best poets possible.
So back to my question: How do we become the best poets possible? Let me throw out an idea. Dorothy L. Sayers said learning is becoming a poet. It develops in the three stages: parrot, pert, poet. Familiar with these? If not, here’s the Dummies (i.e., Mike’s) Version.
Sayers’ model attempts to link our modern minds with the deep wisdom of earlier ages. The parrot phase is when we learn by rote (recite this, repeat this). We mimic the wisdom of earlier ages. The second stage is the pert. Having learned by rote, the pert asks informed questions, makes logical arguments, draws sound conclusions. The pert can then become a poet, able to widen their imagination because they’re fluent in the wisdom of earlier ages.
And therein lies our challenge: the parrot stage. C. S. Lewis wrote that, in the wisdom of the earlier ages, “the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to reality.” The solution included reciting liturgies, including the Eucharist, eucharistic prayers, rites of initiation, and Lexio Divina, all developed in the fourth through the sixth century A.D. and are still seen today in sacramental churches. Lewis felt that most of us (including Christians) see little value in parroting these liturgies since, “for the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man.” In other words, I want a church that conforms to my wishes, my preferences, how I understand the gospel.
The irony is these Christians unknowingly mimic Martin Luther. He had an unprecedented take on human nature—individuals can follow their own private judgement in reading scripture, deciding what’s right in their own cases. This flies in the face of ancient wisdom, what Ignatius, the first-century bishop of Antioch, wrote: “On no account persuade yourselves that it is right and proper to follow your own private judgement.” Most Christians today are unfamiliar with Ignatius’ ancient wisdom. So it’s difficult to imagine how these Christians will become the best poets possible, a prepared bride for Christ.
But with God, nothing is inevitable. I too was a thoroughly “modern” believer for many years, conflating traditionalism (what Chesterton called “the dead faith of living saints”) with tradition (“the living faith of dead saints”). I confused rote (liturgies designed to yield poets) with ritualism (liturgies done without regard to their purpose). C. S. Lewis helped clear up my confusion. Here’s how.
Lewis was a fan of Dante and Dante practiced lectio divina, specifically meditating on the Our Father in the Lord’s Prayer. So did Francis of Assisi, Angela of Foligno, and Hugh of Balma. All began as parrots, reciting “Our Father” and the Lord’s Prayer, phrase by phrase, and sometimes word for word, lingering over each bit. After some years, they moved to being perts, questioning each phrase, trying to get the hidden meanings Paul refers to. They became poets. Hugh of Balma wrote the medieval “best seller” on Our Father.
Dante took the Lord’s Prayer, of which the Latin has forty-nine words, and turned it into an Italian prayer of more than 160. Dante was doing his own festooning (i.e., adorning) of the prayer with beauty, depicting God’s Bride being adorned, ready to be presented to her husband. Lewis picked up on festooning in his Letters to Malcolm, describing how he paused over parts of the Lord’s Prayer, pondered it, and then rephrased it, laying on it new and fresh thoughts (hence, “festooning”), all in alignment with ancient wisdom.
I, of course, knew nothing about this 25 years ago. Then I began practicing lectio divina, specifically meditating on the Lord’s Prayer. Over the years, the prayer blossomed into a bride’s loving prayer to Our Father for his love incarnated in His Son, our Bridegroom. As God’s Bride, the prayer became wondrous. Three years ago I began teaching a course called “Widen Our Imagination.” I shared my “festooning” of the Lord’s Prayer with the class. Today I see how this mediation is drawing me to strive to become the best poet possible.
You don’t have to be a writer of poetry to be the best poet possible. In the marital gospel, our physical bodies represent our body of work. Our bodies tell God’s story, so our bodies are poetry, a body of work preparing us for our husband, Jesus.
Next week we’ll consider a better poet than I’ll ever be, one who took the spousal love of God to rapturous heights.
 Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Lost Tool of Learning, (GLH Publishing, 2017).
 Joshua Foa Dienstag, “Reflections on Sheilaism,” The Hedgehog Review 2.1 (Spring 2000).
 The Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians, Verse/Section 7.
 Jason M. Baxter, The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind, (IVP Academic, 2022), 52-54.
 Dante, Puratorio, 11.1-24.
Quoting Joshua Foa Dienstag, whom you seem to agree with: “The problem is not that we will pull ourselves apart, but that we will fall apart, as early Protestant micro-churches did, if we cannot find something more solid than a Wal-Mart to hold us together.” You seem to deplore a Martin Luther kind of individuality as it is equally deplorably described in JFD’s piece. Google indicates it’s the 3rd time you’ve referred to JFD’s piece. Three thoughts come to mind: even if we are as harmlessly individualistic as cereal boxes on a shelf at Mal-Mart, I’d rather that than even the hint that JFD prefers: I do not want anything more “solid” than that. 2nd thought: We are sinners – we’ll never align. Get over that desire. The whole situation is dangerous – whether we are held together forcibly or we fall apart – it’s okay – Jesus is my rock. 3rd thought: you keep leaning into Catholic (upper-case C) solutions. One day that upper case C becomes an A for Authoritarian. Or it seems you mean lower-case o for orthodox – whatever that means, maybe you could clarify. But one thing for sure you deplore is upper case I Individualism. You seem to want a King – I suggest we’re better off without an earthly king, but being who we are, we can’t seem to live without one. I’d just rather our kings were no more powerful than War-Mart shelves. Mike whether we dive deeply into The Our Father or the whole book of James, we lose nothing treating the Word like Gold. It’s just that when we bonk each other over the head with our gold bricks, then we’re deplorable. Why can’t you find an appreciation for Luther’s concern that you really can read the text for yourself and make your own judgment? Do you really think if we disagreed with some priest’s take that we’d say “Oh, pardon me, you have a collar on, you must be right.” No. Even individuals listen to other individuals and modify their thinking – voluntarily – not because of a collar or because of a British accent or because an ancient like Augustine said it. I love that a deep dive in any gold delivers poetry – I agree, I deep-dive as much as I ever have and I’m addicted. That you did so and I do so demands your and my individualist’s attention. We can’t rest on someone else’s judgment. Keep going with that.