One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems is #236 – Some Keep the Sabbath. It captures for me several of the qualities that I admire most in her work: playfulness, irreverence and – deeply related to the first two qualities – a profound awareness and commitment to waking up to one’s identity in God.
As anyone who has read her work – poems and letters both – knows, Dickinson was a brave and eloquent woman. Her intelligence had a ferocity to it that most of us can only dream of. I’ve always disliked Julie Harris’ portrayal of Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst because it indulges in a timidity that was simply not a salient characteristic of this extraordinary poetic and religious mind.
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
Even though in that part of New England in the middle of the nineteenth century it was not unheard of to prefer to the woods to church (as even a cursory review of Thoreau and Emerson makes clear), Dickinson’s opening lines are still a radical rejection of tradition – both spiritual and cultural. She is not denying the inclination to worship, to know God through the Sabbath, but she is announcing her intention to do so without bowing to conventional means. She eschews both hierarchy and patriarchy in one fell couplet.
More than that, she is denying the human inclination to organization altogether. As the poem unfolds, roles typically assigned to people or buildings – directing a choir, the dome overhead – are assigned to nature. Dickinson is not just saying that we can perceive God in the natural world around us – she is positing that all our efforts to the contrary are precisely what shut God out, what render God in accessible.
People, in the ordinary course of being people – who set about building churches and filling them on Sundays – are not following God so much as walling any experience of God out.
That is still not a very popular position to take in Christian circles.
In a sense then, what Dickinson is asking is this: you want to worship? Do nothing. The Kingdom is already here – the bobolink sings, the apple tree limbs shift in the breeze. It is already done. The altar is not encased in four walls. It is bestowed in equal measure on the world and all its contents. The sermon is not spoken through a chosen minister (in Dickinson’s day, almost always a man) – rather, it is spoken all the time, by all things.
Reading Dickinson, one is hard-pressed to escape the sense that we are being subtly called to pay attention. She is not the first person to hear a bobolink sing. But the implication in her poems – and poem 236 stands as a strong witness – is that our attention can go deeper. Can take us deeper. Indeed, salvation – in the truest, most natural sense of the word – may require that we go deeper.
Emily Dickinson taught me to return to the woods, to turn my face to the sky, to gaze long and fiercely at the birds within range of my vision. She is my patron saint of intense devotion to awakening. She is a witness to the way that our physical sight is but a shallow substitute for the broader, the more divine vision with which we are all blessed but so few are able to employ.
Accept no substitute for spirituality! Accept no other experience of God – of spirit – whatever word you use to signify that Divine Source that forever pours forth its grace in all moments, in one continuous line. Dickinson’s gift was not merely literary – it was also a profound spiritual wisdom. There are few people who have gone so far – and left such a helpful and powerful record – in pursuing their vision of God.
Consider those last lines of the poem.
So instead of of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.
Heaven is not a goal – an objective to be achieved at the end of some superior effort. Rather, it is a condition of the present moment, one into which we can slip with joyful ease. Emily Dickinson shows us how – all we have to do is choose to follow.