In their prefatory letter to The Wick, Harvard Divinity School’s literary journal, editors Liam McAuliffe and Meghan Guidry observe that literature has the unique capacity to unlock depth. Literature can “unlock the depths of ourselves, of all selves,” they write, “by leading us into the depths of another, and creating sympathetic resonance from the most unlikely fodder.” To me, this insight sensitively and beautifully captures the power of literature and the lure of writing, especially in the context of our divinity school.
Toni Morrison recently assured the graduating class at Vanderbilt that “art takes us and makes us take a journey beyond price, beyond cost, into bearing witness to the world as it is and as it should be.” We can recall, here, the great feminist theologian Nelle Morton’s suggestion that “maybe ‘journey’ is not so much a journey ahead, or a journey into space, but a journey into presence.” This is, perhaps, the very form of journey that literature stimulates: a journey without travel, a quest into the presence of that which is immediately proximate and irreducibly far in its alterity, mystery, depth. After all, for Morton, “the farthest place on earth is the journey into the presence of the nearest person to you.” Ours, then, is a voyage toward vision and a trek into the depths of self and other, culminating in the witness of our world both as it is and as it could be.
As that which unlocks and unsettles, literature challenges our habitual modes of perceiving and being. It ruptures the familiar and discloses both the unknown and the possible, while simultaneously illuminating those rare and fragile rhythms of resonance, relationality, sympathy, love. In all its glittering humility, literature proves to be consummately ethical—replacing hegemonic models, ossified as they are, with fresh, intense, and self-consciously partial glimpses into the irreducible depth and divinity of self, other, and world.
In this regard, I’ve found that the practices of literary reading and writing are central to the kind of work we’re after here at HDS, whether one chooses “Religion, Literature and Culture” as an area of focus or not. Literature is deeply alive in the curriculum and community here, with courses like Michael Jackson’s Poetry and Religion (Fall 2012), Stephanie Paulsell’s Virginia Woolf and Religion (Fall 2012), and Mayra Rivera’s Spirits in Latina Literature (expected Spring 2014). The Wick collects our own efforts to bear witness, to delve into mystery and presence, and to write our world. It continues to stand out as a significant part of life here at HDS. These are, after all, our poems, our stories, our prayers.
The Interior Castle / Agatha Smith in Ecstasy
and blessed be the first sweet suffering
that I felt in being conjoined with Love,
and the bow, and the shafts with which I was pierced,
and the wounds that run to the depths of my heart.
– Petrarch, 61, trans. A.S. Kline
She keeps it in her pocketbook,
in between that wilderness of lipstick tubes
and business cards, balled up tissues
and all those broken peppermints from Esther’s second wedding.
She goes into Raven Books after work on Thursdays.
She got it from a box called Western Religion.
She’d been to that bookstore six weeks in a row, now,
because the man behind the counter closed his eyes
when he spoke about poetry and jazz,
just as her mother did, singing Billie Holiday in lieu of grace—
not just sadness, but solemnity, transforming those potatoes
into something almost nourishing.
She crushes her cigarette. The bus is coming.
The surrounding world hurtles back into centrality.
A woman drags a rag across the snowmen on a storefront,
Christmas becomes a balled-up blur of color;
Eight or nine Red Auerbachs smoke victorious cigars
on used television sets, almost synchronized;
Twin girls dribble basketballs down the snow-flecked sidewalk,
slapping a staggered and shifting rhythm;
An angel lifts the marble folds of Saint Teresa’s dress,
and with it, the thin, familiar fabric of Agatha’s ego,
metallic flesh of bus and concrete bones of Boston—
it drives its shining spear through: