Prayers amidst Parodies and Empty Praisesongs – By Luke Johnson

Luke Johnson on Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson, Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry

I never lost as much but twice,
And that was in the sod.
Twice have I stood a beggar
Before the door of God!

Angels — twice descending
Reimbursed my store —
Burglar! Banker — Father!
I am poor once more!

-Emily Dickinson

Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson, Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry, Yale University Press, 2013, 464pp., $35.00

I began reading Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry in a hospital waiting room filled with fake-leather chairs that reclined too far. These were chairs for spouses and siblings and parents waiting to hear the most recent prognosis. These were chairs for sleeping because these family members must, at some point, sleep.

My three brothers and I sat outside the neurosurgery ICU in Chapel Hill. Our father, 83, had been rushed to the hospital by ambulance after he was discovered in bed unable to move or speak. A Mauritanian-born nurse described his subdural hematoma and how she recognized it immediately on the CT scan. Her accent transformed declarations to questions. It appears to be mostly old blood around the brain? Is it possible he could have hit his head? As our father became less and less responsive — coma-like — the attending nurse recommended a procedure to drill burr holes through his skull to drain the blood putting pressure on his brain.

The nurse explained: It won’t take long? There is a very high success rate? We’ll be done by halftime, gesturing to the muted UNC-Kentucky basketball game on the waiting room television. The surgery sounded medieval because it was. I sat back and flipped through the poems in this collection, drawn to the weight of the book and the way in which all of the work felt relevant and substantial in the shadow of our collective worry, eventually landing on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Comfort”:


Speak low to me, my Saviour, low and sweet
From out of the hallelujahs, sweet and low,
Lest I should fear and fall, and miss Thee so
Who art not missed by any that entreat.
Speak to me as to Mary at Thy feet —
And if no precious gums my hands bestow,
Let my tears drop like amber, while I go
In reach of Thy divinest voice complete
In humanest affection — thus, in sooth,
To lose the sense of losing! As a child,
Whose song-bird seeks the wood for evermore,
Is sung to in its stead by mother’s mouth;
Till, sinking on her breast, love-reconciled,
He sleeps the faster that he wept before.

The poem appeals to me as a nostalgic Christian, the notion that grief can lend meaning to the rest of our moments (or, as in the poem, the moments of our rest). The first four lines seem to speak most to our predicament as brothers and prayer-makers, asking for divine murmurings, “low and sweet / from out of the hallelujahs.” It is a powerful sentiment to ask for a quiet assurance that can be heard through the hoopla and to resolve that no prayers go unheard (“Who art not missed by any that entreat”). The poem suggests that the supplicant cannot fully comprehend the moment of her need that pushes “in reach of Thy divinest voice complete / in humanest affection” until after that moment has passed. It is human affection that allows the speaker “to lose the sense of losing.” It is the mother’s singing that allows the grief-stricken child to sleep. We can never know which prayers we’ll need.

Editors Kimberly Johnson and Jay Hopler lay out the scope of their anthology with purpose and clarity. Before the Door of God addresses a deep tradition with a sense of the comprehensive, covering over 3,000 years and adhering to poems of direct address to the divine rather than endeavoring toward the more broadly defined “Religious Poems” (most notably and recently attempted in Harold Bloom’s American Religious Poems). As Hopler articulates in the preface: “we have chosen to interpret the term ‘devotion’ as being almost synonymous with the term ‘colloquy.’ The vast majority of the poems in Before the Door of God are addresses to the unknown, conversations (albeit one-sided) with the divine, in whatever way these authors have interpreted that term.” These are poems of considered uncertainty, of questions asked and seldom answered. There are a number of contemporary collections that are well-suited to this anthology — I immediately think of Mary Szybist’s recent Incarnadine and Maurice Manning’s Bucolics, both of which are represented by individual poems here. The book tilts toward the contemporary, smartly, as there seem to be an abundance of recent poems that adopt the posture of prayer, whether through familiar rhetoric (“let us [verb]”), biblical lexicon, or simply by capitalizing on the Church as a metaphor-rich backdrop (the nativity scene a stone’s throw from the gentleman’s club). This trend creates a difficult task for the editors of an anthology of devotional poetry: to distinguish the devotional from the existential, to find lasting prayers amidst a sea of parodies and empty praisesongs.

Ordered chronologically, the book begins with liturgical psalms and hymns before moving into the 20th and 21st centuries with numerous poems titled “Psalm” or “Hymn” or “Prayer” that are clearly not intended for use at worship services and are likely more interested in life than in liturgy (not that the two are mutually exclusive). One of the strongest of these poems is Carl Phillips’s “Hymn,” in which the concept of divinity becomes entwined with the speaker’s sexuality and mortality, arriving at a revelatory metaphor:

When I think of desire,
it is in the same way that I do

God: as parable, any steep
and blue water, things that are always
there, they only wait

to be sounded.

 The word “sounded” is perfect here because it implies a relationship that is intimate but not equal: for the sound to exist, it must be initiated. For the question to be answered, it must be asked. The poem continues and concludes:

And I a stone that, a little bit, perhaps
should ask pardon.

My fears — when I have fears —
are of how long I shall be, falling,
and in my at last resting how

indistinguishable, inasmuch as they
are countless, sire,
all the unglittering other dropped stones.

Before the Door of God is a litany of these dropped stones, of questions as to how and how long we will be falling. Tragedy can raise questions from the fixed and understandable world, can cause it to shift. These are the moments in which we reach for prayer, the moments in which this book becomes indispensable. Johnson and Hopler are expert curators, and the book they have made is for anyone interested in the questions we ask when there aren’t any immediate answers.

Image: Theodosius Arrives at Ephesus (Scene from the Legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus), ca. 1200–1205. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Theodosius Arrives at Ephesus (Scene from the Legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus), ca. 1200–1205. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons.

My brothers and I were able to see my father the night after his surgery. He was sleeping, unresponsive, and seemingly unchanged from before, though a portion of his head had been shaved and he had acquired a bandage. We lingered at his bedside for three hours before returning to his house and his Christmas tree, to sleep surrounded by his books and his art and photographs of us together.

This was not supposed to be a personal essay. Before the Door of God sat on my backseat because I hadn’t fully unloaded my office after the fall semester. The book was there as I drove at midnight from Virginia to Chapel Hill, where my father spent almost twenty years as campus chaplain and Director of the Wesley Foundation, just around the corner from the hospital. Brother Paul flew from Boston; David drove from Ithaca, and Chris from Alamance County. Chapel Hill was my father’s spiritual home, where he learned to preach and worship through the 1960s. Chris and Paul were born in the hospital where my father lay. As is so often the case with prayer, this is not so much about what was planned as what happened.

That morning, our nurse smiled. You have not seen him? Come. Come here with me. He sat up in one of the fake-leather chairs next to his hospital bed. Intravenous tubes tinseled from fluid bags to his arms covered in bruises. He was speaking and eating and remembering. Sometimes it takes a few days for the frontal lobe to resolve. The inhibitions to return?

He was manic. His recovery was not certain, but that morning he was exceedingly alive. Between stories of his ministry and how he lusted for British starlets (Helen Mirren and Judy Dench, specifically), he recited the e.e. cummings poem “i thank You God for most this amazing.” He told us he would use the poem as an invocation to Bible study at the Wesley Foundation and how it would “befuddle the Catholics.” The poem appears in Before the Door of God and my father delivered it tremulously in a hospital gown, from memory and from mania, for his sons:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings; and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any — lifted from the no
of all nothing — human merely being
doubt imaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake
and now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

It’s reasonable to tire of cummings’ poems and their inexhaustible, almost syrupy zeal for the living world. With the rain pounding down in Chapel Hill and our father seeming to have returned to us from death, however, I couldn’t help but be charmed by this affirmation song, by cummings’s wry treatment of the Bible story, resurrection as parenthetical and attention as paramount. My father loves the earliest gospel, Mark, and quotes Jesus after the Sermon on the Mount, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). It’s an idea that appeals across denominations — that the kingdom of heaven can be accessed in each present moment, requiring nothing more than holistic attention (“tasting touching hearing seeing / breathing”). Cummings’s poem is a call to full presence, an opening of the ears of the ears and the eyes of the eyes.

The closed door is an apt metaphor for prayer, the intermittent asking and the uncertainty of an answer. The Dickinson poem from which the anthology borrows its title, “[49],” gives us a beggar in the dirt “before the door of God.” It recalls angels descending and a speaker who has been brought low before, twice now, still astonished to be there again in the asking.

To get to the neurosurgery ICU from the waiting room, you have to pick up a phone and wait for a voice to answer. There are sealed double-doors. The voice will ask who you are there to see and will tell you whether you’re allowed to see them. There are signs directing you not to touch the doors. There are no visible angels. The doors will swing open, or they will not.

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