MOTETS AND PSALMS
by Jnana Hodson
Years ago, considering some of my theological writings, a friend suggested I allow a stretch of my poems to directly address God. It was a proposal I have long resisted, in part because such works fall far from what is generally acceptable in the field of contemporary poetry, in part because of the low state of what I find in most present-day religious literary endeavors, and in large part because of the intrinsic hazards in the exercise of composing in that field itself. (How easily one becomes self-righteous or bombastic, or slides over into generalizations rather than imagery, or, especially, begins preaching – no matter how much that mode has been the mainstream of English poetry.)
Still, I have found some of my poems kept drifting over into this unfashionable circle, awaiting some sense of collection.
To call these motets is an homage to my longstanding love of a cappella Renaissance music, an embrace of its settings of standardized ecclesiastical Latin texts. But to voice the faith and practice I know also asks pointedly what would function as updated lyrics, with or without music. Certainly not Latin, except for an archaic effect. Not that I have any fluency there or in Greek or Hebrew, which could likewise be invoked. Concurrently, I had also recognized how sharply some of the biblical Psalms skirt blasphemy and psychological despair in their confessions of religious experience. Strikingly, by the Baroque period, the two converge once Psalms prevail as motet texts.
At last, I returned to sets of written answers I had composed over the years in response to an old Quaker exercise known as Addressing the Queries. I cherish a spirituality that encourages questioning, and the monthly sets of queries do just that, first as the answers focus on individuals and then as a religious community. (Surprisingly, none of the queries ask what we believe, but all demand we examine what we do – in all facets of our lives.) This time, I turned the dialogue away from the circle itself and instead to the Holy One directly. Since the responses arise in a period when I knew Friends who continued the Old Ways, I cast the poems in the Plain Speech of thee/thou/thy/thine when addressing second-person singular, and you/your/yours for second-person plural (the “you all” of Southern colloquial speech). This, then, is an homage to an archaic language, too.
Along the way, I also rediscover my love of Rumi and the poets of the bhakti Hindu vacanas.
I am left considering that what Jesus expresses as the Father, may as readily be what we envision as the Holy Spirit – the Comforter promised in the gospel of John (14:16, 14:26, 15:26, and 16:7).
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