The miracles of the church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always. – Willa Cather, (1873 -1947) U.S. novelist, poet and journalist.
Growing up on the southern plains in the Texas panhandle, I have always appreciated the insights of Willa Cather. What she describes in such a plain and understandable way can also be described as the process of hermeneutics or the ways we account for our own view of the world in relationship to a text or situation.
We all have the ability to perceive things differently if we take into account the way our experiences, education, and current life situation affect our ability to make sense of the world. When we become completely aware of our own lenses and biases, then we can make shifts in perception in the same way that a painter may make use of a microscopic view or a scientist a telescopic view.
Over the years I have laughed at art critics and historians talk about the abstract expressionism of the great painter of the Southwest Georgia O’Keefe. Her paintings seem quite realistic to me because I have spent a lot of time in the high deserts where she painted things pretty much the way they actually look, albeit from different perspectives. For her flowers, she zooms in on the minute details, while her landscapes are sweeping vistas replete with the amazing colors of New Mexico.
Poets are also prone to hermeneutical acrobatics. By zooming in (or way out), a poem can illuminate a particular aspect of life in a startling new way. And more often than not, such revelations become vehicles for spiritual growth.
Jane Hirshfield wrote a wonderful article about poetry and spirituality that issues a great invitation. She suggests that anyone seeking enlightenment or answers to a difficult question or some sort of spiritual intervention can simply take any anthology of poetry and let it fall open as it will and see what that random poem might say to the situation. “Any poetry worth the ink will work”, Hirschfield claims. In the article, she also identifies a number of poems that she has found spiritually enlivening. In our Spirit and the Arts group, we read through many of the poems Hirschfield recommends and found them to be both challenging and enlightening.
I’ve done this exercise with the Bible too and have often been amazed. Try it and feel free to report your experiences in the comments.