What are we to make of a genius who states categorically that he believes in angels, the Fall, the Gospels and the spirit of God brooding over human historyyet whose faith eludes us even at his most candid? One of the world’s and Christianity’s great poets, Poland’s Czeslaw Milosz, has left us. The Catholic who just a few years ago wrote of God: Now You are closing down my five senses, slowly,/ And I am an old man lying in darkness died on Aug. 14.
His work remains, a solace and a challenge to believers everywhere. Along with Israel’s Yehuda Amichai, Milosz wrote some of the most searching religious poetry of the 20th century. The man may have found his certainties on that August day, and the angels of the Lord may have gone out to meet him; but here on earth, the questions raised in his poems still clamor.
It is usually a dangerous game to assume that the I of the poem is the poet. With Milosz’s transparent first-person verse, however, we are more justified in thinking that the I believe refers to the man himself. Flip through his collected works, and every third poem seems to wrestle, Jacob-like, with religious mysteries. Yet the avalanche of Christian imagery and outright credos fails to settle several questions. What kind of God, loving or otherwise, does the poet believe in? Are humans more good than bad? Will anything overcome evil?
In one sense, Christians could hardly hope for a more orthodox poet. Only Christ is the lord and master of history, says one ode. Speaking of God: overwhelmed by pity,/ you descended to the earth/ to experience the condition of mortal creatures. Milosz’s earthy, tactile poetry clearly reflects an incarnational theology, which he touches on in other meditations:
Every day He dies
The only one, all-loving,
Who without any need
Consented and allowed
To exist all that is,
Including nails of torture.
Milosz confesses, in the original sense of that word, that his world swarms with spiritual beings: Though of weak faith, I believe in forces and powers/ Who crowd every inch of the air.
His poetry covers not only these spiritual beings, but also the Bible, prayer, the afterlife and the whole wide sweep of Christian theology. On angels: They say someone has invented you/ but to me this does not sound convincing/ for humans invented themselves as well. On reading Scripture: it is proper that we move our finger/ Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone. A friend’s suffering proves the existence of Hell: You remember, therefore you have no doubt; there is a Hell for certain, Milosz says in Proof.
Milosz was fully engaged in the Christian literary tradition: his work speaks of translating the Psalms and New Testament Greek, quotes Martin Luther in epigraphs and mentions his indebtedness to Simone Weil. His poems are not simply Christian, but specifically Catholic in both outlook and details. There is an ode to Pope John Paul II, that Polish romantic; a fond recollection of Milosz’s childhood priest; and references to monstrances, the Mass, the Virgin Mary and the role of the church (for years/ I have been trying to understand what it was).
Perhaps Milosz’s most powerful declaration of faith appeared in his essay If Only This Could Be Said: I must ask if I believe that the four Gospels tell the truth. My answer to this is yes. So I believe in an absurdity, that Jesus rose from the dead? Just answer without any of those evasions and artful tricks employed by theologians: Yes or no? I answer, Yes, and by that response I nullify death’s omnipotence.
In this same essay, however, Milosz made a confession that frequently appears in his poetry: I understand nothingabout God, religion, salvation, even ethics. This is too difficult for me, he says in the poem How It Should Be in Heaven. His is not just a failure of comprehension but of belief; he freely admits that as with most of us, his faith often wavers.
Milosz’s poems spell out, even embrace, his religious contradictions: I am fond of sumptuous garments and disguises/ Even if there is no truth in the painted Jesus. I am unable to imagine myself among the disciples of Jesus/ When they wandered through Asia Minor from city to city. Finally, there is the perplexed admission that I don’t know how to care about the salvation of my soul. Writing poetry that is obsessed with the fundamental questions of Christianity, Milosz yet knew that a desire for faith is not the same as faith.
Milosz, then, was a different kind of religious poet. No wonder his verse, saturated with Catholic imagery, is not often used in homilies or quoted in devotional books. No wonder his remarkable and vivid lines are not (yet) used to buttress or ornament theological arguments. He was a seeker’s Catholic and a Catholic seeker, unsure of his beliefs even when professing orthodoxy, arriving at no certainties even when repeating age-old creeds. Milosz’s brilliant inconsistency mirrors our own: he wants to believe but only occasionally succeeds.
Milosz has more than usual justification for his weak faith. Born in Lithuania in 1911, he worked for the Polish resistance during World War II before defecting to the West in the 1950’s. A man who witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust and the war had a right to doubt. The miracle, indeed, is that he could believe at all. Though a childhood faith of incense-filled churches breathes through many of his poems, the same poems make clear that 20th-century history battered and scarred that faith until it was almost unrecognizable.
In Milosz’s poetry, as in life, the question of suffering overshadows all speculations on the nature of God. How can it be, such an order of the worldunless it was created by a cruel demiurge? one poem asks. Even if it was not, Milosz’ lines on Purgatory reflect his feelings about God inside history: howlings and pain...Contradict continuously the goodness of God.
If God, Jesus and even angels are out there, is not their function, Christian theology argues, to save us? Milosz might answer that they may save us spiritually, but they will not save us from earthly suffering, even the most appalling and degrading suffering. While the devils and malevolent spirits that crowd Milosz’s poetic landscape can harm us, the celestial beings that populate it just as thickly cannot save us from this harm.
Unlike most people preoccupied with God’s relation to human suffering, Milosz did not attempt explanations. The poem A Story describes a grizzly bear who has rampaged for years because of a blinding and incomprehensible pain: a toothache. Humans, too, are doomed to suffer inexplicable pain, and not always with the hope/ that we will be cured by some dentist from heaven. Similarly, I pray to you.../ Because my heart desires you, says another poem, though I do not believe you would cure me. In Theodicy and other poems, Milosz chides sweet theologians whose rarified prooftexts are so much straw in the face of human agony.
The magnificent recent poem Prayer says flatly that Jesus’ suffering/...cannot save the world from pain. How much less, then, can ordinary religion be expected to help? In the huge war with the Great Spirit of Nonbeing, the Prince of the World, God is defeated every day/ And does not give signs through his churches. Does this imply God will win the war, if not the battle? We cannot speculate, because the party in question is missing in action: God has been hiding so long it has been forgotten/ how he revealed himself...in the breast of a young Jew.
The divine attributes of justice and mercy are similarly veiled: God does not multiply sheep and camels for the virtuous/ and takes nothing away for murder and perjury. Milosz once called Job the most poetic book of the Bible, and Job’s cry resounds through his poems, with the same inscrutable results.
In his 1980 Nobel lecture, Milosz said that the demoniac doings of History acquire the traits of bloodthirsty Deity. Even if these traits are deceiving, it’s impossible to assert, based on the evidence alone, that history has a providential meaning. In a poem that references the gulags, Milosz says when out of pity for others I begged a miracle,/ The sky and the earth were silent, as always.
Can we understand Milosz’s beliefs? In the poems, God seems simultaneously omnipotent and powerless, steadfast and capricious, all-pervading and nonexistent. Evil is winning; good is winning. God has abandoned humanity; God breathes through everything we do. Prayer, if not pointless, is lacking in efficacyyou ask me how to pray to someone who is notand yet so many of the poems are prayers. Milosz made no apology for his inconsistencies, for they are the stuff of real religion. He prefaced Two Poems with the statement the poems taken together testify to my contradictions, since the opinions voiced in one and the other are equally mine.
Many contemporary thinkers have argued that doubt is integral to belief, and Milosz is no exception. Speaking to God, the title character of An Alcoholic Enters the Gates of Heaven says, It seems to me that people who cannot believe in you/ deserve your praise. The ode to the pope suggests that only the doubters remain faithful.
The poet’s beliefs spark and glimmer and fall, only to rise from the ashes in the next poem. As his work shifted in and out of orthodoxy, how did Milosz keep the faith? Only in the most important sense: he kept talking to God. Though any Pole of his age would be justified in ending the conversation, Milosz miraculously did not succumb to permanent bitterness. I have felt the pull of despair, he said in the Nobel lecture, yet on a deeper level, I believe, my poetry remained sane and, in a dark age, expressed a longing for the Kingdom of Peace and Justice.
Worshipping the God who nourished him with honey and wormwood, reciting prayers against my abominable unbelief, and perhaps made wise by mere searching, Milosz stood with those who prais[ed] your name even as they continued to suffer. Writing into his 90’s, he identified himself as a worker in the vineyard and hoped he would prove to be deserving. Embracing the most painful contradictions, Milosz’s great poetic and spiritual achievement is that he refused, finally, to give God the silent treatment. Perhaps now his uncertain prayers are fulfilled, and he walks, as he hoped, holding the hem of the king’s garment.