More Frightening than Arrest, Freedom

Gustave Doré, “Peter’s Escape from Prison”

Spiritual Sunday

A couple of weeks ago Julia and I were visiting a former history colleague, Dana Greene, who has moved back to Alexandria, Virginia after spending several years heading up Emory University’s  junior college, Emory at Oxford. While we were together at St. Mary’s, I always felt a special kinship with Dana because we both received our PhDs from Emory University, and I was fascinated as she told me about her forthcoming biography about poet Denise Levertov (Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life), whose work I have featured frequently on Spiritual Sunday.

Dana once sent me Levertov’s poem “Beginners,” which for years was taped to my door and which I turned to when we experienced the Gulf oil spill. (You can read my post on it here.) Dana is interested in Levertov’s spiritual vision and emphasizes the poet’s focus on “primary wonder.” What I love about Levertov is that, for her, such wonder is not the end but the beginning. When we experience divine revelation, that’s when the real work begins. That’s how it was for the disciples after they encountered the risen Jesus and how it is for Peter in this poem about his miraculous escape from Herod’s prison.

Somewhat like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Peter realizes that our most challenging task is handling the freedom we are granted. When we can no longer feel the angel, that’s when we hear our own footsteps and experience the “long street’s majestic emptiness”:

St. Peter and the Angel

By Denise Levertov

Delivered out of raw continual pain,
smell of darkness, groans of those others
to whom he was chained–

unchained, and led
past the sleepers,
door after door silently opening–
    And along a long street’s
majestic emptiness under the moon:

one hand on the angel’s shoulder, one
feeling the air before him,
eyes open but fixed . . .

And not till he saw the angel had left him,
alone and free to resume
the ecstatic, dangerous, wearisome roads of
what he had still to do,
not till then did he recognize
this was no dream. More frightening
than arrest, than being chained to his warders:
he could hear his own footsteps suddenly.
Had the angel’s feet
made any sound? He could not recall.
No one had missed him, no one was in pursuit.
He himself must be
the key, now, to the next door,
the next terrors of freedom and joy.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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