In this five-part series, we will compare the writings of two reclusive women of faith, the poet Emily Dickinson and the mystic Teresa of Avila, who were driven by a passionate desire to know God that often resulted in an internal struggle between the flesh and the spirit that was expressed in their work.
Born in 1830, Emily Dickinson wrote 1775 poems, most of which were published after her death in 1886. Although she rebelled against the constraints of institutionalized religion, her faith in God never wavered. Yet the poet labored to define and express her relationship with God as Creator, as Savior, and in Dickinson’s mind, as an authoritarian Father.
In her biography of Dickinson, Bettina Knapp quotes from a letter the poet wrote to a friend, “I hope you are a Christian for I feel that it is impossible for any one to be happy without a treasure in heaven. I feel that I shall never be happy without I love Christ” (30).
Emily Dickinson understood that hope, happiness and love are to be found in Christ, and yet she had difficulty allowing herself to accept what was so freely offered. One of her best-loved poems is number 254, where she compares hope to a selfless bird, in whom we can recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit:
“’Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of Me.”
Hope is a promise and a gift from God. Teresa of Avila said this about experiencing the presence and power of God residing in her soul, “…God seemed so present to me that I thought of St. Peter’s words: You are Christ, Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16). For God was thus living in my soul. This presence is not like other visions, because it is accompanied by such living faith that one cannot doubt that the Trinity is in our souls by presence, power and essence. It is an extremely beneficial thing to understand this truth” (Avila 7051).
Romans 15:13 says it this way, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (ESV).
Because the Christian walk is not without difficulties, and sometimes the trials that we face seem to be more than we can bear, we can remember that God has given to us the promise of his sweet Holy Spirit, who abides with us forever. Like the joyful, tenacious bird that Emily Dickinson describes in her beautiful poem, the Holy Spirit is alive within our souls, singing an eternal song of hope and guiding us through every storm.
Avila, Teresa. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila: Volume One. 2nd ed. Trans. Kierran Kavanaugh, O.C.D and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1987. Print.
Dickinson, Emily. The Seagull Book of Poems. 4th ed. Ed. Joseph Kelly. 79 - 83. New York: Norton, 2018. Print.
Knapp, Bettina L. Emily Dickinson. New York: Continuum, 1991. Print.