Come Holy Spirit, Come Heavenly Newt

Red spotted newt

Spiritual Sunday

Sue Schmidt, a regular respondent to Better Living through Beowulf, is allowing me to reprint the following exploration of a Mary Pratt poem from her blog Let’s Choose Joy. Sue appreciates the way that Pratt is dissatisfied with the metaphor of the Holy Spirit as a dove, an image that appears in Matthew 3:16. To apply ideas in Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry to Matthew, the evangelist invented the metaphor to approximate the power of the Holy Spirit, and while the image once had power, it no longer seizes the mind as it once did.

Of course, I’m speaking of the metaphor, not the Holy Spirit itself. But language plays an important function in bringing us closer to God, and for many people the Holy Spirit as dove has become a cliche, a dead metaphor. As Shelley puts it, “if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations…, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.

Sue sees Pratt as a poet who, through fresh metaphors, helps us experience the Holy Spirit afresh.

By Susan Schmidt

In last week’s post “Present to the Presence”, I talked about being open to the myriad ways that God comes to companion us. “Not Like a Dove” by Mary Pratt is an invocation of the Holy Spirit. Its title gives us a hint that the author imagines the Holy Spirit in some unusual ways. Choosing a new metaphor wakes us up, a bit like brisk air in these autumn mornings. The Spirit as chameleon? gecko? komodo?

Each image deserves some pondering. I’ll pause on a few, starting with the Chameleon, well-known for blending into varied environments. Does God, who never changes in essence, change in form, depending on our situation? And why would the change be neessary? I’m reminded of these verses addressed to God in Psalm 18:

With the kind You show Yourself kind;
With the blameless You show Yourself blameless;
With the pure You show Yourself pure,
And with the crooked You show Yourself astute.

And there’s this line: “Come like Komodo parting the ways/with your stinking breath. Come/clear the carrion from this isle.” Last autumn I penned a short poem of thanks to the vulture, who though not as “awe-inspiring” as the hawk, performs the necessary task of clearing the countryside from death and disease. Like a surgeon who does not flinch at blood and stench but willingly comes into surgery to remove a cancerous growth, so God does not turn aside from his own cleansing work in our minds and souls.

Spirit as Dragon takes the lizard metaphor and gives it wings, a far cry from the gentle dove.  After all, the work of Spirit is not always gentle.  John Donne begins one of his sonnets with this plea: “Batter my heart, three person’d God” and ends by stating,

“Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”

The poem ends with the phrase “burn away all that will burn.” With fiery and fearsome breath, the dragon comes, evoking those Hebrew scriptures which liken God to a refining fire. Knowing that there is gold in the ore, the Spirit is not satisfied until the dross is consumed and we are revealed as precious and brought into the community of the Godhead.

This is the purpose of God: to embrace us and then to purify us and make us whole. The Spirit comes in whatever means necessary, under cover of night, hidden and unsuspected, fierce and rattling. When we know the purpose and trust the desire, we embrace the coming of Spirit in whatever way God chooses to enter our lives.

Not Like a Dove

Mary F. C. Pratt

Come Holy Spirit, come
like a red eft creeping out
from under wet leaves
crossing the traveled highway
at night after rain.
Come like the brown anole comes north
unexpected in bananas or limes;
like a gecko hunting roaches on a walll.
Come like Chameleon;
like Iquana still as deep green death
flittering a cloven tonge.
Come like Komodo parting the ways
with your stinking breath. Come
clear the carrion from the isle.
Come Holy Spirit
come like the Dragon remembered of old
rattling and clanking on golden wings.
Seize our treasures for your glittering hoard.
Burn away all that will burn.

“Not Like a Dove” appears in “At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time. An eft is a baby newt.

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  • Mary F C Pratt

    What fun to see the poem here. Thanks–I like this blog, too, and will visit from time to time.

  • Farida

    Thank you for sharing this poem Sue. I love this perspective that is so unlike anything I’ve heard in reference to the Holy Spirit.

    I find this line intriguing “Seize our treasures for your glittering hoard.” It made me stop and think of this idea of the process of cleansing and renewal and the idea that so much that we hold onto “our treasures” is really what needs to be burnt away. The idea of the Holy Spirit with this “glittering hoard” is really disconcerting.

    And the juxtaposition of glittering and hoard is unsettling,in its play perhaps on the idea that all that glitters is not gold. And perhaps goes back to what you say Sue, that it is the dross (and its glittering consolations) that needs to give way to the gold.

    And the title “Not Like a Dove” seems both menacing and humorous. It reminds you that the process of cleansing (of reaching within) is a often messy business and not really a blithe dove like spiriting away of one’s burdens.

    I also love that it is a female perspective. So much of religion (all religion) is told through a male perspective and it is men that often interpret religious texts and ideas (even in literature perhaps) for the rest of us, that its heartening to reflect on female perspectives (that are challenging and thought provoking) on faith.

    I love what you say at the beginning that “there are myriad of ways that God comes to companion us” and thank you (and Mary Pratt) for opening us up to those myriad of ways.

    Oh.. I’ve also learned what efts, and anoles and newts are! Much to reflect on…

  • Susan

    Good comments, Farida. Like you, I love that this poem uses such unusual imagery. I think the lines about the glittering hoard have to do with dragon lore. Their lairs are always filled with treasures that they have stolen from their rampages. (The hobbits, for instance, come back to the Shire with caskets of treasure they have reclaimed in from the dragon Smaug in Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.”)

    In this case, I think that the Spirit knows our great value, and desires to brings us back to God’s “lair.” But we need to be purified so that we can more fully engage with God’s love, which is the essence of God’s being. The things that need to be burned away: pride, anger, envy, etc only keep us from “participating in the energies of God,” to use an Eastern Orthodox phrase.

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