"Live in the layers, not on the litter." —Stanley Kunitz
What is the pattern for growing in knowledge? Usually, we observe what we want to know from a distance, then move closer. We stand on the beach and get an idea of the sea’s vastness, but when we walk to the water’s edge we know the sea better by feeling it on our skin. Or we see the orange fruit among the dark leaves, but we only know its pebbly skin and juiciness until we pluck it from the tree. From a distance, we won’t know the Bayeux Tapestry is embroidery on linen rather than a tapestry. We can’t run our fingers over the stitches (its entire 230-foot length is under glass), but if we move close we’ll learn through its details abouts the events surrounding the Battle of Hastings and William’s rule over England. We’ll see the graceful arcs of figures pointing toward Halley’s Comet; careful stitching that portrays kings and coronations, knights and longships, castles and seas.
The same ratios of proximity and knowledge can be said of poetry. When we look at a poem from the distance of a single reading, we’ll see its surface and shape. But as we get closer with a second reading we’re drawn into deeper layers. A recent poetry forum came up with a dozen ideas for what the word “Checks” might refer to in an Emily Dickinson poem. We can’t sit with Emily and talk to her about her poetry, but we can get closer by seeing how the ambiguities she creates benefit from a careful consideration of individual words.
In his book Prayer, Tim Keller tells us that a slow meditation of scripture can make our prayer life more like conversation with God. His method for meditating is a lot like close reading a poem or a slow look at the Bayeux Tapestry. Referring to Paul’s use of the term “power to grasp,” he says: “At first it seems a very strange word to use when talking about the love of God, but Paul is talking about meditating and pondering something until you break through...” He then goes on to show how he contemplates the words, wide, long, deep, and high and what this contemplation reveals about the “dimensions of Christ’s love.”
Keller says that prayer resulting from this kind of meditation “is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him” and that this encounter will “change the way we see all of life and how we behave in this world.”
Wasn’t it through a close-up look that the apostles got to know Jesus? As John put it: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life—.”
Don’t we just want to get closer?