“I could tell of the splintered sun. I could Articulate the night sky, had I words.“ — N. Scott Momaday, “Prayer for Words”
“In my dream it seemed to me you’d stumble upon the mouth of hell and I thought that you would lower a rope to those of your friends who’d gone before. You didn’t.” — Cormac McCarthy, The Passenger
One of my favorite poems is N. Scott Momaday's “Prayer for Words”. In it, the poet expresses the greatness of life along with its struggles. Our mortality plays a game with us as we strive to understand and convey the beauty and wonder that is life and all that encompasses us as finite beings. There is no simple explanation to be had: of the world, of God, of the universe, or even of ourselves. Rather, there is experiencing and living and thriving and struggling. Our life explains itself in the “rolling thunder” and “the rattle of mortality”, things that happen to us and through us.
We are simple lifeforms floating in a vast universe, unaware of our minuscule impact on anything within the larger system of stars and violence in the above void. We don't have the right words to describe this life: who we are, what we do. Yet, the curiosity of humanity is that we never stop trying.
There is hope in this poem as it creates something unique by way of describing the indescribable. We feel something when we read poetry. We understand something about ourselves or the world in its embrace. We don't live purely exhaustive lives, each of us only a part of one another, but our lives are unique and worthy of being shared.
The beauty of this poem is that Momaday excels at his attempt to describe the human experience while understanding the futility of those same words. Our words are only a breath, as fleeting as our lives. And yet they pierce hearts and convey something that touches us as humans deep within. There is an unmatched power in poetry, altogether unique and effective.
Elsewhere in my reading, I pick up new ways of thinking and expressing from writers like Cormac McCarthy. His latest novel, The Passenger, is full of the prose that makes McCarthy unique. In this seemingly rambling text, words jump out in their full power, making their presence known as purposeful and exciting. McCarthy attempts the same thing as Momaday: to tell the human story as best as possible, regardless of the outcome.
I often watch scientists like Brian Cox and Sean Carroll explain physics and the universe in ways that make my head spin but helps me to understand something as vast as our universe, leaving me in awe and wonder. But how anyone really grasps that sort of thing is beyond me. Sure, I try. But I often fail. I also watch pastors like Francis Chan and theologians like N.T. Wright explain God in ways that help me to understand and reconcile that which seems irreconcilable. I often try to grasp the concept of God, but there too, I often fail to realize what that word means fully.
But there's excitement in the trying. Why do we, as such minuscule beings, continue to write such grandiose statements declaring what the human experience is? Why do we try to explain the universe? Why do we try to explain God? For many of us, we can do nothing else but try. We can do nothing else but write and think. We can do nothing else but explore and experience. That's what the poets do. That's what the novelists do. That's what the scientists, philosophers, and theologians do. There is so much out there that to leave it untouched or unengaged is to be wasteful of the one life we have.
Sure we can never explain God or the universe or even the human experience in a way that will resonate with everyone. Yet we can leave breadcrumbs of thoughts, ideas, and ways of thinking that help others to think too. We can express ourselves in ways that give others the words to say, think, or experience. We do help others when we think and write. Both Momaday and McCarthy (and many other poets and writers and scientists and theologians) have done that for me.
Momaday's poem exemplifies three things that I am heavily interested and invested in: theology, literature, and indigenous people. As such, I'll write about those three things here. I had thought about splitting each up into its own expression, but that sounded like too much work. I'm mostly experimenting here anyway. My own mortality on display.
“And, God, if my mute heart expresses me, I am the rolling thunder and the bursts Of torrents upon rock, the whispering Of old leaves, the silence of deep canyons. I am the rattle of mortality.“