The Poetic Witness



‘We retreat.  We don’t escape.  That’s a word I loathe.  But retreat – that’s a characteristic word for me, that you retreat for strength.  You don’t escape; you withdraw with God.’

– Robert Frost


The poet Robert Frost was not a religious man.  During his childhood years, his multi-denominational family only occasionally attended Church, and later as an adult, he followed the same practice.  Frost seems to have been something of a non-practicing Protestant, with a proclivity for the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  And to add even more mystery to the man, he cited the Old Testament – not the New Testament – as one of a small number of books that had most influenced him.

In spite of the absence of overt religiosity, Robert Frost recognized the importance of one element of authentic Christianity, one that is seemingly of little importance to most Christians.  That element is the need to retreat from the world and rest in God.  Christ, the saints, and the poet all harmoniously emphasize that retreat is not a form or act of escape.  It is not a running away from the world, but a withdrawing from it in order to be refreshed and strengthened by a divine spring.  For the world – meaning, all that is opposed to God and His Kingdom – is an ugly and wearisome thing.  Excessive exposure to it and absorption in it draws the soul perpendicularly downward into countless thoughts, concerns, and activities that isolate it from its source of celestial inspiration and light – God the Almighty.  Man was not made for this world, even though he was placed in it.  He was made to pass through it, and, after being refined in its sorrows and hardships, after enduring all by the grace of God and rising victorious in Him, to finally triumph over this world.

Immediately after His baptism and just before the initiation of His public ministry, Jesus withdrew to the desert for a forty-day period of absolute fasting, prayer, and demonic temptation.

“Now Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led about the desert by the Spirit for forty days, being tempted all the while by the devil.  And in those days he ate nothing; and when they were completed he was hungry” (Lk. 4:1-2).

Although the extreme asceticism of this retreat exhausted Our Lord’s physical body, it prepared his spiritual soul.  It was not an escape.  No, the forty days were anything but that, due to the demonic confrontations Christ endured.  But this was the only appropriate preparation for a ministry that would demand, not only physical exertion, but spiritual as well.

Throughout His earthly life, Jesus continued to practice solitary prayer.

“The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray” (Lk. 5:15-16).

He also recommended it to His disciples.  In the Sermon on the Mount, He taught,

“But when you pray, go into your room, and closing the door, pray to your Father in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Mt. 6:6).

Shortly before He selected His twelve apostles, He withdrew by Himself.

“Now it came to pass in those days, that he went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.  And when day broke, he summoned his disciples, and from these he chose twelve” (Lk. 6:12-13).

After the apostles had been sent out in pairs by Jesus to preach, heal the sick and crippled, and exorcise the possessed, and after they had been wearied from the constant demands of such a mission, Jesus said to them,

“‘Come apart to a desert place and rest a while.’  For there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  And they got into a boat and went off to a desert place apart” (Mk. 6:31-32).

Scripture repeatedly reveals that, before each important act, Jesus prepared Himself by withdrawing from the world to a solitary garden or mountain and passing even an entire night in contemplation and prayer.

Previous to His most important Eucharistic discourse, after miraculously feeding well over five thousand people on the plain of Bethsaida, and after finding the crowd on the verge of proclaiming Him their political Messiah, Jesus quickly dismissed both the people and His apostles.  Then, as the Gospel of St. John expresses it, He “fled again to the mountain” (Jn. 6:15) to pray.

Each of these biblical examples shows our Lord and His disciples retreating to quiet solitary places, not only to eat and rest in peace, but also, to think and pray apart from the chaos, demands, and distractions of the world and the worldly.  It is as if the human being was made for another sort of life and can endure a mundane busy-body manner of living for only so long, as if it is contrary to human nature and well being to be immersed in external activity morning, day, and night.  Positively, such a life style is contrary to the needs and vitality of the soul, and whoever wholly devotes himself to such a manner of living devotes himself to a slow and meaningless death.

I have no intention of spiritualizing Robert Frost or of reinterpreting his life and work as secretly religious.  The fact is, he was not a religious man, nor a Gospel man, but simply a secular poet.  So, it would be foolish to try to make him into a philosopher, mystic, or theologian.  Nevertheless, the poet in general stands in a unique place in society, as a sort of bridge between religion and irreligion.  He bears witness to a much-neglected side of life.  And I would even go so far as to suggest that there are “secular” prophets – the literary equivalents of the Persian King Cyrus, who was used by God to liberate the Jews from their Babylonian Captivity, even though he did not worship the God of Israel.  As another example, I would mention George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.  These two books prophetically warned the modern world of the dystopian hell that man can and will create for himself.

Poets remind us of the interior life.  They witness to the possibility and importance of calm reflection and critical reasoning.  They stand apart from the mindless bustle of the world and the mad pursuits of money, possessions, power, and popularity.  They are the indictment of the life of empty show, of living on the surface.  Their lives and work proclaim to the religious and irreligious alike a vital message that amounts to a Christian responsibility:

“Retreat.  Withdraw from the world – and not as an escape, but for the strength that will be found in sacred solitude.  For you are not only a physical body; much more, you are a spiritual soul.  And you were made for the life of the mind, – not only to live, but to examine the life you were given.”

One of my favorite poems by Frost begins in this way:

“Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day….”

Now who walks in a swamp? And who walks in a frozen swamp?  And who walks in a frozen swamp on a gray wintery day?  The obvious answer is: the poet.  As if in response to the cryptic voice of Christ that whispers to every soul on earth, “Come apart to a desert place and rest a while,” the poet forsakes the familiar pleasantries of modern civilization and wanders in order to wonder.  He or she is a standing witness to a fundamental Christian truth neglected by most Christians; namely, the innate religious nature of the human creature which finds its repose, not in the way of Martha, but in the way of Mary (Lk. 10:38-42), not in a frenetic exterior life, but in a rich poetic interior life.

Christian soul, retreat and withdraw often, not to escape from the world – for you cannot – but to defeat the world after being strengthened and guided by the God whose soft mellifluous voice is most distinctly heard when all others are silent.