When Emily Dickinson Puts You In Your Place

On Monday I had the pleasure of attending a talk hosted by the Forest Hills branch of the San Antonio Library with guest Dr. Glenn Hughes — newly appointed 1st Chair in Catholic Philosophy at St. Mary’s — on the topic of “Emily Dickinson and Spirituality”.


I really enjoyed the discussion at this event. I vaguely remembered her poems from high school and some college but I had been recently re-reading some of her work in honor of National Poetry Month. What struck me about Dickinson was her capacity to be authentic. She was true to herself, even when that self was so very conflicted. She is so transparent in her writing because it was hers and hers alone. I’m not sure what she would think about the fact that the whole world is reading some of her most private thoughts that she never intended to see published. Nonetheless,  I’m glad we have them for our sake.


I feel like I can relate to some of her motivations in writing and even some of her lifestyle choices. Dickinson is traditionally typed as an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). As a fellow INFJ,  I can see the appeal of living what appears to be the life of a recluse even though the 1800 plus poems that she crafted in her space hardly speaks of the pigeon holed “spinster” that we have made her out to be. She was doing her life’s work in that room. She was someone that lived in her head and that is evident in much of her writing that wrestles with the idea of eternity.

What I love about her work is the humanity of it all. She is so effortlessly genuine, albeit messy at times. She seeks to appease no one. She is on a mission for understanding and she needs to write it out in order to come to find her resolve. It is no wonder that scholars have compared her writings to Job of the bible as he wrestled with God.

Dickinson was no stranger to what St. John of the cross refers to as the “dark night of the soul”.

I’m banished – now – you know it
How foreign that can be –
You’ll know – Sir – when the Savior’s face
Turns so – away from you –

Even in her doubt, she did not hide her contempt for those who utterly disregarded the divine.

How much the present moment means
To those who’ve nothing more —
The Fop — the Carp — the Atheist —
While their commuted Feet
The Torrents of Eternity
Do all but inundate —

Throughout the ebb and flow of this inner turmoil of questioning and seeking, she can’t seem to abandon her notion of the divine, as mysterious as it is to her.

I know that He exists.
Somewhere – in silence –
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.

One of the themes that was discussed was Dickinson’s bravery in how she expressed herself. Even today in 2016 we see people at the opposite ends of two extremes when it comes to faith. You can either ignore the nagging questions, add more activity and “take it by faith” or you can throw your faith away, become jaded and rely solely on science, logic, and reason. But why not both? The bravery that we see in Dickinson is that she doesn’t give up the struggle for an easy “I’ll hang my hat on that” ending. She doesn’t care about being contradictory in her writing. She cares about finding the truth.

I dwell in Possibility

As a Christian, I try to err on the side of hope. I do have moments when I can feel jaded and skeptical, and that’s ok. Emily puts us in our place. Her writing seems to cry out, “never stop searching and don’t be afraid”. Let’s get messy! Let’s not be afraid to have a “taboo” conversation that may or *gasp* may not have a resolution! Don’t be afraid of your questions or doubts. Let them provoke you! I wish I knew what Emily’s last conclusions were when she died. All anyone can know for sure is that she never stopped having the conversation. She never stopped seeking. I think that is the greatest lesson she can teach us — greater than any eloquence or masterpiece her arrangement of words to the page may prove to be.

Life, theology, and faith are not always precise, color coded and by the book.

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, don’t know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

Sometimes you can’t be a Paul. Sometimes you need to be a  Job.

♥ MM


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