Present Help: On Thinking of God at an Angle

What do you hold onto? Where do you land when you fall?

I’ve noticed more and more how images of God’s presence that once spoke to me will empty out over time. New ways of thinking and feeling take their place. Even the most meaningful language can wear out with use, after all, and we ourselves experience the world differently as our lives shift and change.

I suspect this is why I resonated so much when a writing workshop I’m taking asked us to consider poetry that approached God from an unexpected angle. The shift or redirection of familiar imagery for the divine can confront us with new perspectives. For instance, Jacqueline Osherow’s reworking of imagery from the Psalms in her poem “III (Thrones and Psalms)” (from Dead Men’s Praise) pictures God not “on Ezekiel’s throne of sapphires” but, rather, “held aloft by the religious ladies” who recite Psalms daily. I found myself puzzling over this one but a little charmed, too. Suffice it to say, unexpected ways of envisioning the divine leave us with things to think about.

Jumping off a psalm in my own homework for this workshop, I tried writing the poem below called “Present Help.” It’s brief, as I experimented with something approaching the Japanese poetic form known as the “Mondo” (two stanzas of 5-7-7 syllables each). Within that form, I took the language of refuge and strength from Psalm 46 and reacted to it, reflecting on the tumbles of life and what a divine presence has meant to me then. 

Present Help

God is our refuge and strength.
– Psalm 46:1

I think of Her as
the last thing I’d grab when grounds
shift and crack, and I stumble. 

She’s then like nowhere
further down to go and not
much left to know but here, now.

– Callie J. Smith

What about you? Where and how do you experience divine presence these days?

Prayer on Waking and Trying Something New

Do you enjoy trying new things? 

I do, and I don’t.

I do enjoy the mix of experiences, personalities, and perspectives that new things can bring. I enjoy learning and surprises. I enjoy finding unexpected beauty and encountering the world in new ways.

Sometimes, though, I don’t enjoy the vulnerability of immersing myself in things I’m not good at. I don’t like to fail. I fear looking ridiculous when I don’t know what I’m doing.

I had this in mind earlier this spring when I ran across a poetry-focused writing workshop by the Collegeville Institute called “Writing Toward God: The Sacred for the Perplexed.” The title caught my attention. It also made me suspect, even though the workshop focused a great deal on the reading and writing of poetry, that a person like me – who doesn’t regularly read poetry and certainly doesn’t write it – might find an entry point regardless. So, I decided to try immersing myself in poetry. I signed up. 

Two sessions in so far, we’ve read quite a bit by writers like Kafka, Rilke, Joy Harjo, Mary Szybist, Yehuda Amichai, Cesar Vallejo, and Jericho Brown. It’s struck me how poetic reflections on the divine (or the sacred, or the meaningful) can involve what one doesn’t know every bit as much as what one does know. In fact, these reflections can involve way more questions than answers. Perhaps this strikes me all the more because of my fears of vulnerability, and failure, and looking ridiculous. I like carving out space to not fear them quite as much. 

In the spirit of trying my hand at “writing toward God” (and of doing my homework), I wrote a poem called “Prayer on Waking.” I’d enjoyed reading selections of Joy Harjo’s poetry, appreciating how she shows speakers shifting and changing in perspectives over the course of a poem. In my “Prayer on Waking,” I wrote with her in mind.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Prayer on Waking

I have missed that stained glass angel 
in the sanctuary, how it silently sent 
light along the palms 
I’d turned up in hurt
and hope, and longing.
In the beginning, I thought
to capture faith, to hold it
still as glass and see the sacred 
like colored light glowing 
as a sign of something.

Perhaps that is how we wake to the world:
one stained-glass moment
at a time. One meaning imagining 
herself into color, 
gorgeous with the light 
of now.

This morning, strolling past 
that church, I ponder
the hope of that girl who sat
gazing at glass 
in prayer.

I used to believe
that windows, like lenses 
could make each piece fall
into place. I used to expect
that rightness would freeze
into clarity, solid
and stable.

I expect nothing anymore,
not really, as I walk beyond
a childhood’s path. I expect nothing
but movement from here to there,
one window to the next, 
this building to another,
to trees and trails,
and blossoms opening fresh 
before me, breezes in my hair, 
and scents passing through me, 
from blue bell, to lilac, 
to honeysuckle, from glory 
to glory, from one petal
to another as each day dawns.

Perhaps this is how we wake to the world:
scent after scent gathering into a perfection 
of fullness, into colors glowing 
together, each moment growing 
into the next, into a world
without end. 

– Callie J. Smith

I wrote “Prayer on Waking” with a sense of how my hopes for meaning (expecting it, observing it, receiving it, honoring it, risking it) have changed over the years. Perhaps that’s a function of gaining experience and perspective. Perhaps it’s a function of bringing a little less fear and little more openness to those experiences. I’m still reflecting on what exactly emerged for me in this poem, but I think something did. 

What about you? How have your hopes changed over time, and how are you doing with the vulnerability that may have come with it?

Smith’s novel Kat’s Dreams: A Sacred Grounds Novel Book 1* (Clay Patin Press 2022) is available for free on Kindle today (4/26/23 Pacific Time) only.