Can we reimagine the sacramental life? Ask this poet/farmer/educator.
One infernally hot July weekend in 2016, I drove three hours or so to a rather unique meetup at a place called Stella Matutina Farm, located a bit west of Ann Arbor, Mich. “You’ll love it,” my Facebook friend Michael Martin assured me in his email invitation. It sounded like he was planning some kind of outdoor fiesta for Catholics, convening a mix of writers, naturalists, theologians and neighbor farmers.
His farm is a 10-acre place, located (as Martin eventually discovered) on a Native American burial ground, an Ojibwa site excavated in the 1930s.
All I knew about the farm at the time was that they put up a maypole every year. “We live as close as you can get to the spirit of Robert Herrick’s poetry,” Martin joked. “Convivial, festive, with folk religion, pagan elements and the classical tradition. It’s a mess.” (With his nine children, I could easily imagine Martin’s farm as a festive mess.)
Along with attending an Eastern-rite liturgy in the barn, eating meals together and enjoying the company of mostly new friends, we had an agenda for our time together. Martin was inviting us to help him reimagine “everything” (primarily art, culture, education, even the economy) in a “radically Catholic” way. Under the trees, we sat on lawn chairs for two days, exchanging thoughts on each of these broad topics. I think Martin was taking notes as we went.
“I was grateful for a certain sense of urgency that weekend, one that matched my own as we watch certain cultural structures giving way,” recalls Holly Taylor Coolman, a fellow attendee who teaches theology at Providence College in Rhode Island. “I think we all felt a need for new ways of encounter, new modes of thought. It was like when you reach that point of feeling, ‘We gotta talk!’”
Dr. Coolman was thinking of a particular problem. “Intellectual reflection and contemplation in the context of the modern university has serious limitations today. For Catholics, doing theology in the seminary also has its limitations. Same for big academic conferences. So where,” she asks, “are we going to do this work? We have to find new spaces.” Thus the farm meetup, several days of not just conversation but sustained dialogue.
Michael Martin was inviting us to help him reimagine “everything” (primarily art, culture, education, even the economy) in a “radically Catholic” way.
Most of us were already familiar with Martin’s scholarly work and his poetry. We knew he had no interest in projects recovering some lost religious culture (“Make Catholicism Great Again!”, as he jokingly described such doomed efforts), nor in embracing the “poetic-industrial complex,” as he referred to the dead M.F.A. programs and high-tech AutoTune music of our creative culture. He is himself a mandolin-playing rebel, a college professor and a former Waldorf School teacher turned biodynamic farmer, focused on art as an act of adoration.
His books—a mix of essays and poetry—include The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics, Meditations in Times of Wonder, The Incarnation of the Poetic Word and Transfiguration: Notes Toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything.
Martin grew up in Detroit. He reports that high school was a disaster but that he had a record deal for his band at age 18, acting out his vision of himself as a working-class troubadour of sorts, a hip Philip Levine. He finally got around to college at age 25, and he eventually obtained a doctorate in English literature.
Over our weekend of talk, music, food and worship together, we explored Martin’s claim that a sacramental life separated from cosmological awareness cannot be truly sacramental. “And life is not life,” he proposed, “if it is not sacramental.”
We can probably all agree that this cosmological dimension does not exactly form the foundation of most adult Christian initiation programs. Thus Martin’s goal of reawakening the church on this vital matter of spiritual formation and its implications for art and culture.
Not surprisingly, given the bookish nature of the group, countless names were dropped in our sessions: William Blake, E. F. Schumacher, Jane Lead, Goethe, Thomas Merton, David Jones, Simone Weil, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Sergei Bulgakov and others. Our approach was not “academic” but instead (to use a favorite term of our host’s) agapeic—grounded in love and appreciation.
The hope for the weekend, Martin had advised us, was fairly simple: If we gather some good people, something will come of it. And something did—or rather, several things did.
"Life is not life,” Michael Martin proposes, “if it is not sacramental.”
Fruits of contemplation
“One of them was a new magazine with a Blakean name, Jesus the Imagination,” Kevin Hughes notes, “a wonderful publication.” And a rather radical one in its aims, as its subtitle (“A Journal of Spiritual Revolution”) suggests. “Our intention,” Martin writes on its Amazon page, “is not altogether modest: the regeneration of Christian art and culture.” Why, he asks, should Christians read Meister Eckhart, Simone Weil and William Blake? How do the mystic and the artist invite us to encounter the mystery of Christ’s being in the world?
Hughes, who teaches theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, observes that sources of Martin’s inspiration also include Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’”: “Just as with Michael’s project, it’s about reimagining down to the roots our relationship to the natural world and a fraternal relationship with created beings.” Noting Martin’s agrarian lifestyle and its link to integral ecology, he observes, “Michael is one of the few people I know really putting his money where his mouth is in the very way he is living.”
This led me to suggest that Michael Martin reminded me of Wendell Berry. “Yes,” Hughes responded, “a lot like Berry, in being a farmer-poet and a deeply insightful soul.”
Therese Schroeder-Sheker, a musician, educator and creator of the Chalice of Repose Project, has visited Stella Matutina Farm and says something similar about Martin’s life: “He brings the whole body, soul and spirit right up to the table. His day might begin with writing, then teaching, then working on the roof of his barn, and then end by helping bathe his frail mom, who is living at home with the family. Michael is embedded in multiple structures of accountability. He is a profoundly integrated person who ‘walks the talk,’ as people used to say. His ideas and his work are all symbiotic and connected.”
Michael Martin reminded me of Wendell Berry.
The Christian artist
I am struck by Martin’s nomination of the locust-eating wild man John the Baptist as the archetype of the Christian artist. “He calls the Messiah out of the future. He’s embedded in a tradition but lives on the outskirts of that tradition. He does not listen to criticism. He does not solicit advice. He does not fear death. He does not network or build his résumé.”
As the latter statement suggests, Martin does not view the vocation of the poet as a “career.” In his essay “On Poetry and Prophecy,” he writes: “Our times do not associate poets with prophecy, with vision, or with mysticism. Instead, poets, if they are considered at all, are considered in the context of political or cultural movements, or as aloof and elitist poseurs living parasitically off the academic class. They are not seen as agents of revelation.”
Drawing on his experience as a Waldorf School teacher, Martin holds up that model over what he terms “the soul-destroying power of the Baltimore Catechism and its arid progeny. It’s my claim that the premature intellectualization of the faith is more responsible for the emptying of the churches than the lures of the world offered to young innocents today.” He cites the Waldorf School Method of celebrating Christian festivals and the liturgical calendar as a way of holding on to what Catholic education has lost: “a Christian cosmological awareness, the rhythms of nature and their relationship to the church year.” In his view, the sacramental sensibility we hope for arises precisely from acknowledging the cosmological structure of our lives.
“The movement of celestial bodies, the sprouting of life from a seed, the intricate social structures and behaviors of a bee colony, the wondrous unfoldment of gestation—all of these reveal a wisdom that speaks to more than the randomness of cosmic and evolutionary accidents,” he says. The biblical term for wisdom, “sophia,” along with its rich literary and theological traditions, turns out to be a key to Martin’s “sophianic” understanding of reality.
Drawing on his experience as a Waldorf School teacher, Martin holds up that model over what he terms “the soul-destroying power of the Baltimore Catechism and its arid progeny."
Martin’s work recovering the Christian wisdom tradition recently caught the attention of a Canadian-based women’s study group called Colloquy 2020, which has been hosting an annual series of seminars on the feminine dimension of the church. Martin’s book The Submerged Reality, which emphasizes the sacramental nature of gender and sexuality, was taken up by the group. He was also scheduled to address their Sept. 3-6 meeting, originally to be held in Assisi until the pandemic hit.
He believes that sophiology “needs to be considered not as theology and not as science but as a poetic metaxu [roughly, a poetic field] uniting the two.” Nonetheless, one notable Anglican theologian, John Milbank, believes that Martin is on to something important with this work, even if it is not technically understood as theology.
“It suggests that in a sense the boundaries of orthodoxy are not as clear as we think,” Milbank observes:
Sophiology is taken from the controversial margins of the West—the hermeticism and esotericism of figures like Jacob Boehme, John Pordage, Jane Lead, Rudolf Steiner, and others. Then there are the Russians—Solovyov, Florensky, Sergei Bulgakov. I think these figures were possibly more about trying to defend a damaged tradition than we have realized. The project of sophiology is committed to the unity of the cosmological with the metaphysical, a response which owes much to the way these historical figures saw their own worlds coming apart.
For philosophically-minded readers, this project of “poetic metaphysics” (and not of theology or science) may resemble the field of phenomenology, which influenced the thought of Max Scheler, Edith Stein, Dietrich von Hildebrand and Karol Wojtyla. Both approaches begin in contemplation and address matters of perception.
Moreover, sophiology, as Martin argues, is incomplete “because we have yet to say exactly what (or who) Sophia is.” Some figures in the wisdom tradition have claimed that Sophia is a person and even claim to have met her. In the Bible, Sophia is both a person and a quality, but not synonymous with the Logos, despite their cognitive associations.
Nevertheless, if we learn again to see the world in an integral sense—that is, to poetically engage with creation in this fashion—Martin suggests we will find open “a way to a science more concerned with care than with domination, an art renewed and redeemed in the presence of the beautiful, and a secure return of cosmology to religion.”
A “post-modern sophiological hedge school” (as Martin describes his vision) is not an attempt to be quaint.
A new kind of education
Perhaps the most striking of Martin’s books is hisTransfiguration, a collection of essays on science, art, education and economy, all with a view to thinking out loud about what an integral Christian culture could mean.
One chapter answers the question many readers already have in mind: Is this author making a proposal for a new kind of Catholic education? That proposal has a whiff of the long-forgotten (and illegal) “hedge schools” found in rural Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. A form of cultural resistance to British hegemony, the schools (which probably met mostly in barns) were simply informal groups of students gathered around itinerant teachers of the “four Rs” (Reading, ’Riting, ’Rithmetic and Religion), plus Irish history and literature. Sometimes subjects like the Greek or Latin classics or bookkeeping or physics might be included.
But a “post-modern sophiological hedge school” (as Martin describes his vision) is not an attempt to be quaint. Instead, the school would emphasize “engagement with what is real: color and sound, beauty and presence, human interaction and contemplation.” Students in this school—with no textbooks or computers until age 14—“would need time to think, time for reverie, in addition to time for instruction.” A place and a way of learning imbued with the arts and engaged with practical (and outdoor) activities, combined with a contemplative ethos, in Martin’s description.
In the meantime, Martin’s school is mostly represented in the website for his Center for Sophiological Studies, where he combines a blog with links to his books, articles, courses (fee-based video instruction) and additional videos.
On his YouTube channel, the viewer can watch a free series of talks on the metaphysical poets (Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Traherne, Crashaw), with attention to their work in the tradition of poetic metaphysics described above. This series is also a chance to see Martin’s agapeic style as a teacher and as a poet appreciating fellow poets.
His friend Dan McClain, a chaplain at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, sums up Martin this way: “There are two kinds of theology. There’s the academic stuff, and then there’s the theology that every Christian is called to do. Dwelling with your heart and mind on God in order to become inflamed with the love of God. Poetry is a way of dwelling on God and in his work on the farm, Michael is doing that theology every day.”
Holly Taylor Coolman adds: “He’s doing what he can with what he has. In this moment of falling apart and reimagining and maybe even building anew, it’s important to remember: This is what it looks like.”
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