In the Orthodox understanding/experience of the world, the interior world, of which the exterior is but a reflection, man was created in a state of pristine innocence, the nous clear as windows. As hieromonk Damascene writes in Christ the Eternal Tao, and St Gregory of Sinai, quoted in The Philokalia, he knew no mental distraction, following the principle of the universe, the Logos, God’s Word.
This universe is ordered, it is liturgical. The earth resolves by revolving in ordered patterns, we experience seasons, pulls, a silent drawing forth – again, internally as well as externally. The universe is one verse of God’s breath invigorating life, from mountaintops down to vibrating photons and electrons. And so good poetry, I think, reflects this natural, even musical process of becoming.
Poems, like icons in the Orthodox Church, signify something of greater, even timeless, value. The Greek word for poetry is poiesis, which is a verb meaning to transform or continue the world. It is an action, a movement beyond death. This movement is experienced both individually as well as communally through the Church, in her cycles, liturgically in liturgies of Saints John Chrysostom, Basil and James as well as the psalms.
Words are vessels through which we share ideas, emotions and experiences in attempts to express and glorify the uncreated. St Nicodemus of Mount Athos writes that “God has placed man to be a sort of macrocosmos – a ‘greater world’ within the small one,” elucidating that man is a sort of bridge between the visible and invisible worlds. Poetry is a gate into this mystery.
Translator Tony Barnstone notes how in classical Chinese painting, the white space defines what forms emerge. The way a sky’s negative space in painting defines mountains and trees, so too a mind polished of thoughts and passions by prayer and fasting mirrors the light shining before it. Like apostolic fishermen, some poets – - and the poems of Saints Romanos and Symeon, in particular – - cast nets over the whole of the universe for nourishment. Like prayer, good poems arise from the unspeakable and reflect the soul’s appetite for wholeness, unity, beauty. Barnstone is right. If we place an ear against our heart, while reading poetry one discovers not only what the poem says but what it does.
Magnus Frangipani writes children novels, poetry and non-fiction. On a pilgrimage to India, he found Christ in a Himalayan cave and converted to Orthodoxy in Alaska upon his return to America. Magnus lives and prays in Port Townsend, Washington, where he attends St Herman’s Orthodox Church. Glory to Christ our God for all things.