Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Such visions of Thee

Several weeks ago in church, I heard a prayer that included the words “Grant us such visions of thee.” The phrase reminded me of a poem from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology--the collection of epitaphs he wrote to depict the life and people of a small town in downstate Illinois.

The speaker is Faith Matheny. Matheny is a name you find in histories of Springfield, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln had a friend whose last name was Matheny. But we don't learn anything specific about Faith from the poem. Here's the epitaph Masters wrote for her:

AT first you will know not what they mean,
And you may never know,
And we may never tell you:—
These sudden flashes in your soul,
Like lambent lightning on snowy clouds
At midnight when the moon is full.
They come in solitude, or perhaps
You sit with your friend, and all at once
A silence falls on speech, and his eyes
Without a flicker glow at you:—
You two have seen the secret together,
He sees it in you, and you in him.
And there you sit thrilling lest the Mystery
Stand before you and strike you dead
With a splendor like the sun’s.
Be brave, all souls who have such visions!
As your body’s alive as mine is dead,
You’re catching a little whiff of the ether
Reserved for God Himself.

I performed this poem long ago in a staged version of Spoon River Anthology. It came at the end of the first act. The director of the production had asked the members of the cast to tell her which two characters--which two poems--they most wanted to do. Faith Matheny was my first choice, and I was happily surprised when the director gave her to me. As the only young woman in the cast and the possessor of a certain radiant quality as an actress, I knew I was going to get saddled with the Anne Rutledge poem that ended the second act of the show. I didn't think I would be allowed to be sweet and radiant at the end of both acts. It may have been a bit much.

“Faith Matheny” is the better poem. Anne Rutledge was the young woman whose untimely death drove the young Abraham Lincoln into a severe depression--or so the legend goes. In the years after Lincoln’s assassination, his law partner and biographer, William Herndon, interviewed many of Lincoln’s early friends and acquaintances. In a public lecture, he then declared Anne Rutledge to be Lincoln's first and only love. This made Mary Todd Lincoln furious, which probably gratified Herndon instead of bothering him. Historians still debate the evidence about Anne’s role in Lincoln’s life. Masters, writing in 1915, came down heavily on the sentimental side: "Out of me the forgiveness of millions toward millions/And the beneficent face of a nation/Shining with justice and truth. . . . Bloom forever, O Republic/From the dust of my bosom!"

Imagine me—a skeptical realist even at twenty-one—saying all that, and more, with a spotlight on my face and the rest of the cast in a semi-circle behind me, humming something—I don’t remember what—that was inspirational.

Faith Matheny is remarkably clear-sighted by comparison, though perhaps a little daffy. I wanted to perform that poem because I knew what she meant and I adored the way the poet’s long phrases sped along to convey that breathless thrill--the moments when you become acutely aware of God’s presence on the surface of your skin or in the air around you or in the magnetic pull between you and someone else.

I think what you’re seeing there is pure love. Love beyond human attachment, possessiveness, fierceness. Love that has all the glory, warmth and light of the sun.

“Be brave, all souls, who have such visions,” says Faith. Maybe she needed to be brave. Mystics make the rest of us uncomfortable. Did the people of Spoon River dismiss her as a crazy old lady? Was she a young woman, a schizophrenic? Or was she an ordinary person, who cooked and dusted and sat near the lamp to sew in the evenings? When I portrayed her, I did not think about what she looked like, what her life was like, whether she died old or young. I just tried to look out into the blur of lights and audience through her eyes. What she saw was more important than what other people saw of her, and she spoke as a spirit, dead, free, and urging others to recognize the spiritual reality around him. It was so much more real than the patriotic mish-mash springing from the dust of Anne Rutledge’s bosom.

What I like about Faith Matheny’s visions is that they are made of plain stuff—solitude, or sitting with a friend. They’re not the kind of visions that can be explained away with neuroscience. They’re not migraine auras or psychotic hallucinations triggered by low blood sugar. They’re social and intellectual. They come from recognizing something about yourself or another person.

I have to ask myself, when have I had such visions? I can think of one such vision I had, reading a letter that my father wrote to his parents on the day after I was born. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy,” he wrote. I was flooded with warmth and reassurance from discovering that my newborn helpless existence brought him such contentment and satisfaction. It was a vision of love like God’s perfect love, a “whiff of the ether” shared with me, a creature made in God’s image.

The prayer I heard in church asked for such visions and followed up with a phrase that began “so that we.” It asks for the power to share such visions, not from a spirit world beyond the grave but in actions in the world around us.

Visions are fine things, but it’s a material world. One of the other characters I played in “Spoon River Anthology” was Lois Spears, who was born blind, but who married, raised a family, and “went about the rooms/And about the garden/With an instinct as sure as sight/As though there were eyes in my fingertips/Glory to God in the highest.”

She had visions of the real world, and these, too, pointed to God.