A Vast Unfolding Design Lit by a Risen Sun

Caravaggio, “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas”

Spiritual Sunday

My former history colleague Dana Greene read from her new biography on poet Denise Levertov this past week. The reading was at the National Portrait Gallery in front of Levertov’s portrait. “Spiritual Sunday” has featured Levertov’s poetry several times, and at my request Dana sent me the following excerpt from her book about the poet’s spiritual quest.

Dana also recommended Levertov’s poem on the disciple Thomas, which captures Levertov describing her breakthrough. I have appended it at the end of the excerpt. The poem ends with a pun that was popular with the 17th century metaphysical poets, most notably John Donne.

By Dane Greene, excerpt from Denise Levertov, A Poet’s Life

Levertov continued to explore these theological issues with friends. She told Murray Bodo that she thought of God as an artist, one who created humans with freedom. If God exercised omnipotence and eliminated human choice, then God’s joy in human achievement would also be nullified. When she queried Robert McAfee Brown about his understanding of this paradox, he suggested that God could not renege on the gift of free will because it was constitutive of human nature, but he also believed the Holy Spirit could enter into the course of events effecting subtle change if humans remained open and receptive. Levertov listened, but in the end she would make her own way through this thicket of theological confusion.

Some years later she was able to deal with this morass by means of images given her in the process of writing poetry. Imagination was not only the key to poem-making and peacemaking, but to theological understanding as well. She explained this connection:

As to my more substantial stumbling block, the suffering of the innocent and the consequent question of God’s nonintervention, which troubled me less in relation to individual instances than in regard to the global panorama of oppression and violence, it was through poetry–through images given me by creative imagination while pondering this matter–that I worked through to a theological explanation which satisfied me.

In both her work as a poet and as a Christian imagination was a key. She wrote in her diary:

[W]hen I’m following the road of imagination . . . in the word-by-word, line-by-line decisions of a poem in the making, I’ve come to see certain analogies, and also some interaction, between the journey of art and the journey of faith.

St. Thomas Didymus

By Denise Levertov

But when my hand
            led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
                     my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
                      what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
                                 obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
                         into me, over me, filling the room
as if I had lived till then
                          in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
                                 the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
            all things quicken to color, to form,
my question
             not answered but given
                                   its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
                               by a risen sun. 

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