Franciscan Spirit Blog

Notes from a Friar: The Theology of a Poet

Notes on paper | Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I do have a favorite author and one who is deeply appreciated by many: Emily Dickinson. She lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the latter part of the 19th century. She was shy and lived a very reclusive life. During her 55 years, she wrote over 1,500 poems which were filled with simple wisdom. Two examples of such wisdom: “Old age comes on suddenly, not gradually as it thought” and “Saying nothing sometimes says the most.”

Only a few dozen of her poems were published in her lifetime. When she died, her family found hundreds more hidden all over her room and throughout the house. I have found two of her poems supremely thoughtful. In fact, I frequently quote them in my funeral homilies. The first one I use is “I Never Saw a Moor.”

“I never saw a moor; I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks and what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God nor visited in heaven,
Yet, certain am I of the spot, as if the chart were given.”

Deep Truths

I catch people smiling when they hear Dickinson’s words because they touch on a truth that is in every believer’s heart. Isn’t it true that we’ve never seen heaven or had an audible conversations with God? Yet, as a people of faith, are we not certain of that heavenly “spot” as if we had a very map in front of us?

If you argued with a nonbeliever who begged you to prove there was an eternal destiny, you might find yourself fumbling for Scripture passages to prove heaven to him. But I suspect after all the Scripture passages we might quote, what would likely make the nonbeliever think more deeply would be a line from one of Dickinson’s poems: “I’m certain of that spot; it’s like I have a map right in front of me.”

There is another poem she wrote that startles with its simple truth.
“Because I could not stop for Death–
He kindly stopped for me–
The Carriage held but just Ourselves–
And Immortality.”

While most of us secretly hope for a peaceful death with loved ones surrounding us, for the majority, it is not we who “stop to die,” but death which stops for us. And within that carriage, in the seat across from us, sits immortality, with a lovely smile.

What I see in this poem is really a basic truth of faith. Once God gives life, it never ends. It can’t end because our lives are a sharing in the eternal life of God. The moment of death is just the last piece of mosaic that completes the story of our life’s journey. And every moment of that journey has been accompanied by a loving and providential God.

Dickinson said that she never went to church. She said that the birds were her choir and the sky her cathedral vault. But one thing is quite certain: She was a woman of deep faith.

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10 thoughts on “Notes from a Friar: The Theology of a Poet”

  1. Constance McIntosh

    I read her poems in elementary school. Then, I just heard rhyming words. Reading them just now, I was taken to a very deep place within. Thank you

  2. Karen O’Neill Linderman

    The Belle of Amherst, Emily Dickinson was truly a faith filled person, not in our traditional Catholic way but perhaps a more Franciscan way. She did not keep the Sabbath in the traditional way of mass every Sunday but better yet she seemed to see God everywhere and could celebrate Him in her own yard with a bird for her choir; she knew her earthly journey was just the beginning of an eternal journey of immortality. She could teach us much that our own Catholicism with all its rules and regs misses. She is an inspiration to us as many of our poets are and have much to offer us spiritually!!!

  3. Eleanor Brundage

    We need more Emily Dickinsons who can bring us to our faith with honesty and sublime beauty not just via the usual Sunday masses, devotions, rites and rituals.

  4. Carol Stephens

    The Catholic rules and rituals have reason and meaning. Perhaps you need more study of the Catechism.

  5. Joan E. White

    To get ‘lost’ and be ‘found’ at the same time when reading ‘Em’ as I with due respect refer to her, has been a lifelong gift.
    With birds as her choir and the blue sky as cathedral and a heart full of wonder and awe, she might very well have coined
    the saying “I am never not in church.”
    I , too, am in awe … and filled with hope in that you, dear Friar Von Vurst have such an open and loving heart to see what I
    believe God sees in his own creation, “The Bell of Amherst.” Keep ‘ringing’ that bell.
    Joan E. White

  6. Joan E. White

    Windows flew open; doors unlocked .. allowing for the Holy Spirit’s arrival, .when Friar Von Vurst penned this praise for Emily Dickinson. His words, more than
    likely, would have tripped off the tongue of Jesus in assessing this truly faith-filled woman who honestly could have coined:
    “I am NEVER NOT in church. ”
    I am encouraged; inspired; filled with hope , joy and gratitude by the derring-do of the good Friar and Franciscan Media
    Amen. Alleluia!

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