Strangers in a Strange Land

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“What is in the smallest of the seeds?” asked Chesterton in a charming poem. We are too apt to think of God as somewhere “up there,” conveniently vague, an old man with a beard. But Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds. The seed is familiar, perhaps too familiar. Old men with beards are familiar also

Perhaps that’s why Jews were forbidden to make graven images of God, lest they reduce Him to the familiar and the manageable. That is always a temptation, because we can use the familiar for our own purposes, or ignore it with impunity. No one opening the door and beholding the blue sky falls to his knees in astonishment. Just so, no one, beholding a mustard seed, would naturally ponder the Kingdom of God.

Yet Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” His hearers had seen such seeds, and had probably heard the phrase, “Kingdom of God.” But they had never put those two things together. Some may say, “Jesus is using ordinary things to illustrate a point for the ordinary people listening to him on the hillside.” He is using the familiar to reveal things beyond our comprehension.  But this, I believe, is inadequate.

The parable turns our attention from a familiar term, the Kingdom of God, to a wholly unfamiliar and mysterious being, namely, the Kingdom of God as it really exists.  The parable is more than a clever comparison, but a path into being. So much so, that when we meditate upon it, even the mustard seed becomes strange and wondrous to us.

What is in the smallest of the seeds? Chesterton’s poem ends with an answer that opens out into unfathomable mystery:

God Almighty, and with Him
Cherubim and Seraphim,
Filling all eternity,
Adonai Elohim.

The soul of poetry is not so much to make strange things familiar, but to make familiar things strange, so that we can really begin to see them. When Odysseus, disguised as a beggar in his own house, takes his old bow in hand, which none of the arrogant suitors for his wife had the strength even to string, he handles it like a craftsman, and with one smooth bend loops the string around its notch.

Then he plucks that string, and Homer compares him to an expert harp player; and so the poet makes the familiar strange to us again.  His hearers had seen many a man with a bow, and with a harp, but to see the artistry in the soldier, and the musical order in the hero returning to govern home and city – that they had not seen.


            Dante sees purgatory (Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1530)

We all know that the sky at dawn is not the light blue of noon. But it takes a poet to show us how strange and wondrous those heavens are. So the pilgrim Dante, having escaped the gloom of Hell, finds himself on the shore of a mysterious island – and beholds the dolce color d’oriental zaffiro, “sweet sapphire of the morning in the east,” that blue as deep as sapphire, and as precious; like the deep blue of the robe of Mary, which no doubt Dante had seen in manuscript illuminations or stained glass.

Dante’s observation so startles us into beholding what is familiar as wonderfully strange – that I can no longer see that color in the sky without recalling another line from the same scene:  Ma qui la morta poesi resurga, “Here let dead poetry rise to life again.”

It’s not only the occasional metaphor that clears our eyes and makes us see familiar things as the strangers they really are. Sometimes all it takes is a twist of the language. When Macbeth hears that his wife has died, he responds:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.

That first line is brilliant – and utterly simple. There is no metaphor here, just a repetition of an ordinary word. But when Macbeth strings along those tomorrows, we suddenly see how strange tomorrow is, how empty and horrible, for the wicked who have lost all hope. 

So Macbeth sees it; and we, who have heard the word “despair,” now behold it in dramatic form. It is not thereby made ordinary for us, as if we now understood and could put it in our pockets, but unfamiliar, and only in its unfamiliarity do we begin to understand it.

Or one small corner of it. Edmund Spenser gives us another picture of Despair, an old man in tattered clothes, crouching in a cave, scribbling in the dust – a chilling parody of Jesus in the Gospel of John – and “musing full sadly in his sullen mind.”  Despair speaks with the subtle eloquence of a dark poet, an inverted theologian, an evil genius. So he tempts the Redcross Knight to take his own life:

What if some little pain the passage have
That makes frail flesh to fear the bitter wave?
Is not short pain well borne, that brings long ease,
And lays the soul to sleep in quiet grave?
Peace after toil, port after stormy seas,
Ease after war, death after life doth greatly please.

To such poetry of evil we Christians must respond with the poetry of life. So Saint Paul cries out in joyful defiance:

Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O grave, is your sting?

How pallid, if Saint Paul had simply used ordinary language in an ordinary way, and said, “We now have no cause to fear death.”  It would have been true, but it would not pierce to the heart.  It would express an idea, and the idea would grow too familiar to us, and therefore less real.

What are the implications for the translator of a sacred text? I’d like to take those up next time.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.