The Rev. Al Kershaw (1919-2001) was a jazz historian as well as an ordained minister. A man of letters, some of which are held in collection by Southern Mississippi State University, he also brought together noted jazz musicians. Louis Armstrong, Bob Crosby, Black Bottom Stompers, and Chicago Rhythm Kings to name a few, joined him for an LP record entitled, “The History of Jazz.” He was actually known then as the unofficial “Chaplain to Jazz.” Al was a mentor of mine when I was in seminary and served for three years as an intern in his Boston parish.
Al preached and wrote about the intersection of arts and religion, and I remember him declaring from the pulpit that theological language had died — like Latin, it was used by scholars and punctilious clergy but jibberjaw to the average person in the pew or on the street. This was back in the 1970s, long before the phrase “spiritual not religious” came to describe the cultural landscape. He prophesied that music, painting, sculpture, poetry, and dance were far better at evoking our sense of the sublime than ancient theological formulas pronounced in creeds, doctrines, and liturgical prayers.
An obvious addition to art as a language that speaks holiness, is nature. For those who seek and see the sacred, nature is nearly a universal language. I suppose that is why Mary Oliver’s nature-imbued poetry stirs and resonates within so many who recognize their own spirituality. Perhaps it also is one of the reasons poetry is making such a comeback. Like a sunset, eagle in flight, painting, or sculpture, a poem can evoke a particular thought or insight without prose or narrative. It operates at the level of experience with innuendo, playing on the strings of both the rational and emotional.
I write these essays every week but routinely harbor a deeper desire to speak with poetry. So here goes, a simple “theological” poem that is spiritual not religious. Unlike an essay, it leaves much for interpretation and begs the reader to enter it and discover a personal connection rather than an opinion to embrace or reject. That seems like a good thing just now.
A swollen chickadee clutching wire,
plump sphere of winter fat
inside a puffball of feathers,
she is a blowfish of the air.
Why does she not freeze in the envelope of wind
now icing taut window glass?
From late stick season
all the way through the annual ice age,
her song infiltrates my winter hermitage.
All other singers are gone.
Trees naked, earth hardened white,
fields perforated with brown straw –
my solitary winter cell
bereft of music if not for her.
Sure, crows scraw
and jays snat, pilfering
winter silence with urgent noise. Not music.
Chickadee stays, and sings.
Her song is faded now, summer bravado
Still, when the sun is warm upon the snow
and sky a hopeful blue,
In a world falling headlong down the chute
of economic quantifiers, imprisoned
within the narrows of merciless cost-benefit analysis,
thin quiet moments become rare —
an endangered species inside my heart.
The small unwitting warrior, that chickadee’s song,
lifts me to a new, more primordial
definition of value.