To paint the ineffable

How are we to converse with one another when what our hearts and minds are in awe of (and in awe of often, and lifelong) is also ineffable – impossible, or at least well-nigh impossible, to describe in words?

I am wondering, and shivering – just now returned to our fireside from another cold-night contemplative standing beneath clear, domed and twinkling night sky. Warming, I lift the loved book from the fireside shelf again, turning quickly to Vincent Van Gogh’s great The Starry Night (1889) – and though familiar with it, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s poetic empathy speaks to me as though in a first encounter. Painters and poets and great, great prophets and parables: reaching, stretching, yearning – and sometimes, when least expected or looked for – suddenly communicating, dying, healing, rising, touching. Like prayer.

What laughter booms across the night sky
from the bellies of heavenly beings? Few hear it,
but sometimes the breath of heaven curls like a bard’s beard
and what has only twinkled begins to beat and throb.

Behind it all a drumbeat calls over the mountains.
The villagers think it’s thunder, those who are not asleep.
Only a few remain awake to see the starry, starry night
and witness what they can barely imagine how to tell.

Some nights the roar breaks the silence. One was there
when it happened, and saw, and tried to tell the secret,
and died young. How much of life he gave for this
we cannot know. We only know that something precious
as nard was poured out at the foot of these hills,
the blue, the yellow bought with solitary tears.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
The Color of Light

The end of …

When May Sarton, in company with other contemplatives, orators and poets, reflects on “the end of …” – a flower, perhaps, or a person, or a poem, or the theatre, she’s thinking not just of the finale, or the last stanza, or of expiration, or of wilting and composting, of conclusion. “The end of …” might sometimes be rendered “the purpose of …” – albeit that this may, or may not, include a conclusion to some activity, or to some thing, or for someone.

There’s something of purpose intertwined with all of life’s beginnings and endings. And this is the subject material in Austin Farrer’s collection of university sermons The End of Man. Both purpose and ultimate end, both end and ultimate purpose. So Farrer often brings poets to mind, and poets often make me think of Farrer.

Of the Church, rather as another might of poetry, Austin Farrer writes:

We may begin by making a fuss about the Church, as a clever boy may make a fuss about a telescope, admiring its mechanism of tubes and lenses, and fiddling with the gadgets. But the purpose of the telescope is to eliminate itself and leave us face to face with the object of vision. So long as you are aware of the telescope you do not see the planet. But look, suddenly the focus is perfect; there is the hard ball of silver light, there are the sloping vaporous rings, and there the clear points, the satellites. And where is the telescope? It is no more to us than the window-pane through which we look into our garden.

Austin Farrer
The End of Man, page 52

Poet and prophet alike ask of humankind, “What is your end? What is your purpose?”. And just every once in a while, for all of us, for a fleeting moment, “suddenly the focus is perfect”. That’s why we need prophets and poets. That’s why we need to be poets and prophets.