Religious Insights from Emily Dickinson

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 22, 2016

Genesis 32:22-28 CEB; Poem #49 by Emily Dickinson

Pre-Readings Note: Occasionally I am asked how long it took to prepare such and such a sermon.  The answer for some sermons is a lifetime.  In other words, in some cases, years of study, reflection, and experience go into the composition of a sermon.  Well, such is the way with today’s topic.  It has been years in the making.

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Have you ever despaired over the death of loved ones?  Or been perplexed by the hiddenness of God?  Or felt that your prayers rose no higher than the ceiling above you?  Or vacillated over the reality of life after death?  Have you ever felt like you were in a wrestling match with God?  If so, then today’s topic may be of interest to you, and you may identify with Emily.

One of my English instructors during my freshman year in college often remarked that one of his favorite things to do—especially on a rainy day—was to curl up with Emily.  In addition to being an English instructor, he was also a Presbyterian minister, so his comment was quite innocent.  What he meant was one of his favorite pastimes was curling up with his favorite copy of the poems of Emily Dickinson.  It was a passion of his to read and try to interpret what Dickinson was seeking to say.  Well, such was my first exposure to Emily Dickinson, who was often referred to as “that Poet of Amherst.”  But it would be some eighteen years later before I would become better acquainted with Dickinson’s poetry in the course of a master’s level class on American literature.

Then ten years after that—when I paid our son a visit at his post-doctoral office at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst—I stopped by the nearby Emily Dickinson home where she lived and wrote and died.  Not unlike my college English instructor, I, too, have grown to love and admire Emily.  A couple of years ago, it dawned upon me that Dickinson’s poetry is ripe with poignant quotations that go well with my nature photographs.  And so, I began to combine two things that that are meaningful to me and that I find rewarding—nature photographs and poetry.

And so, I set a goal for myself of reading The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, all 1775 of them, totaling some 716 pages.  It took me several months to accomplish it, but I did it.  Now, if you are familiar with the poetry of Emily Dickinson in the least, you know that she often is not easy to understand or interpret.  Dickinson is quite elusive at times.  So in many cases, I haven’t the foggiest idea of what she was trying to say.  And a poem that on the surface may appear to be child-like simple can hold deep symbolic meaning pertaining to the poet’s own struggles with life or faith or the pressing issues of her day.  She often touched on contemporary issues of technology and science.  Consequently, after making my way through her poems, I decided I needed to also read a biography.  So just a couple of weeks ago I completed a fairly recent, award-winning Dickinson biography by Roger Lundin titled Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief.

Well, this past week happened to be the 130-year anniversary of the death of poet Emily Dickinson.  So I felt it was a good time to bring together in a sermon some of the religious insights of that poet from Amherst.  Not in every way, certainly, but in many ways some of her religious convictions and leanings and questioning resonate with my own and, I am betting, with yours as well.  Lundin says of Dickinson, “Her poetry is in large measure about belief . . . she explored the full range of human experience in her reflections upon such subjects as God, the Bible, suffering and immortality. . .  Emily Dickinson stands as one of the major religious thinkers of her age”(3).  Lundin continues, “throughout her adult life, in her poems and letters, she brilliantly meditated upon the great perennial questions of God, suffering, the problem of evil, death, and her ‘Flood subject, immortality” (4).  In her poems and personal letters, Dickinson quoted from thirty-eight different books of the Bible, with the King James Bible being her most often quoted source.

There are certain objects or concepts that show up in Dickinson’s poetry over and over.  On the lighter side, she loved writing about bees, butterflies, and birds.  But on a heavier note, Dickinson seemed fascinated with the subject of death, maybe because her life was touched with death so often, as she lost in short order a number of people who were so close to her.  “In a span of less than three years, she would lose her mother, her [10-year-old] nephew, a beloved friend, and the only man she ever seriously considered marrying” (Lundin 243).   As already noted, she wrote much about immortality.  Her biographer writes, “Of all the articles of the Christian creed, the one that Dickinson most fervently longed to believe was that of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting; and in assuring others of its truth, she steadied her own wavering faith” (236).  Although “Dickinson had no certainty about the life beyond the grave . . . she also refused to believe that, having created the entire universe, God would let it all be given over to death” (261).

But a paramount point to be remembered is the fact that as with Jacob of old, Emily Dickinson was one who spent her entire life wrestling with God.  And her poetry was the primary platform for doing so.  Lundin says of her, “She remained . . . one who wrestled with God and who continued to write in his shadow until the very end” (243).  Indeed, one of the most important and most pertinent aspects of Dickinson’s poetry has to do with her struggles with religious faith and her wrestling with God.  For instance, Dickinson did not let herself be swayed by the emotional revival that came to Amherst and the church her family attended; she refused to make a public profession of faith in the way that most of the other young people she knew had done.  And by the same token, Dickinson struggled long and hard over the decision to join the Congregational Church in town that had played such a vital role in her family; but she never did.  Maybe it was because of all the human suffering she witnessed; maybe because of the disappointments she experienced in human relationships; maybe because of the many deaths she suffered of those close to her; and maybe because she had failed to have an answer to prayers she had prayed.  Emily “wrestled with God all her life.”  That wrestling with God plays out in many of the poems she wrote.

Such wrestling manifested itself in Emily’s thoughts about prayer.  She experienced God to be hidden, absent; and that absence was a source of great pain for her.  Therefore, she depicted prayer “as a gesture as futile as that of a bird stamping her foot on the air” (150).  In one of her poems she confessed:

Of Course – I prayed –

And did God Care?

He cared as much as on the Air

A Bird – had stamped her foot –

Consequently, for Dickinson “prayer is something we fling into the hollow of the divine ear . . . a form of self-expression and not an occasion of divine communication” (148).

Not surprisingly, Dickinson also wrote much on the topic of suffering.  A curious note of interest is Dickinson had a difficult time relating to God whom she felt was withdrawn, unknowable, and somewhat unapproachable, as already noted.  But she closely identified with Jesus, but primarily through his passion and suffering.  “I like a look of Agony,” she wrote, “Because I know it’s true.” (241)  Lundin notes that “For Dickinson, crucifixion was important as an example of suffering love and not as an act of atonement” (172), and “the suffering of Jesus had put a human face upon God for Emily” (254).  “She trusted Jesus because he had suffered unspeakable grief . . .” (242). Whereas “God the Father was often her foe, then God the Son was her trustworthy friend” (169).  Yet, similar to many of the Christian mystics and saints (Mother Teresa, for example), “At certain points, Dickinson despaired even of Jesus, when she feared that he, too, might become silent and as distant as the heavenly Father” (177).

Well, such are some of the major religious insights of Emily Dickinson, who has been described by some as America’s greatest poet.  But the pertinent point for a Christian sermon is the fact that many of us can, no doubt, identify with Emily as one who wrestled with God.  As noted earlier, who of us has not been brought to the precipice of despair over the death of a loved one, or a number of loved ones in short order?  Who of us has not felt like we were wrestling with God over the problems of suffering and death of the innocent?  Who of us has not had the experience of the awful hiddeness or absence of God?  Who of us has not felt like our prayers went no farther than the ceiling over our head?  Who of us has not wondered about immortality, life beyond death, but at the same time struggled to make ourselves believe it?  In any or all of these religious struggles, we may identify with the poet of Amherst who gave poetic voice to such struggles in a way no other American poet has ever done.  Hence, one might say that Emily Dickinson was not only America’s greatest poet but also humanity’s greatest poet (after the psalmists) as pertaining to wrestling with God and the existential religious questions regarding suffering, the efficacy of prayer, death of the innocent, and everlasting life.  In such ways, we can identify with her.

But in spite of all her struggles, questioning and wrestling, Emily also sought to see the beauty in life and nature, and in that regard I love and resonate with her poetry as well.

“I dwell in possibility- “ she wrote.

“How good – to be alive!

How infinite  – to be

Alive . . .”  Amen!

 

Cited: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, Roger Lundin.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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