The Intrusion of an Overwhelming Joy

Sir Joshua Reynolds, "The Infant Samuel at Prayer"

Spiritual Sunday

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which is a time of waiting and listening for a message from God. This poem by Mark Jarman, one of his “Unholy Sonnets,” captures the spirit of the season.  Having once experienced “the intrusion of an overwhelming joy,” the poet finds himself driven to perpetually search for a recurrence:

Half asleep in prayer I said the right thing
And felt a sudden pleasure come into
The room or my own body. In the dark,
Charged with a change of atmosphere, at first
I couldn’t tell my body from the room.
And I was wide awake, full of this feeling.
Alert as though I’d heard a doorknob twist,
A drawer pulled, and instead of terror knew
The intrusion of an overwhelming joy.
I had said thianks and this was the response.
But how I said it or what I said it for
I still cannot recall and I have tried
All sorts of ways all hours of the night.
Once was enough to be dissatisfied.

Jarman’s dissatisfaction reminds me of the discontent of the three wise men in T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” after seeing Jesus.  (I post on the poem here.)  Here’s Eliot:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

Poetry, in other words, can be the product, and the shape, of a restless search for the divine. We enter into that search ourselves when we read these poems.

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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.

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