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"In the beginning was the Word," begins John's account of the birth of Christianity, a story with which my gargantuan childhood ego avidly identified, having been listening to God for as long as I could remember. Sunday mornings in the Scarborough Brethren Gospel Hall were one long string of Bible verses, precarious syllables warning me about the dangers of doubt and worldliness, promising me the top prize of eternal life. In my beginning too, the Word was everything, the very source of consciousness. Being religious was an ultimate adventure, an inner life like William Wyler's big budget Ben Hur.

I don't remember seeking out much poetry as a young child beyond the usual nursery rhymes and riddles, but I knew all about the incredible energy of language. Early on, David's battle with Goliath and Daniel in the lion's den were practically boiling over with dread and danger. My Sunday school teacher used words like "wrath" and "ravenous" and the shiver going up and down my spine was both hot and cold at the same time. Sunday mornings made the rest of the week as dull and safe as living inside the lines of a colouring book. I ached for God's high stakes, His impossible rules. At the time, I figured being that close to the mystery of the universe made me a disciple and I dedicated my enthusiasm to dodging sins and somehow living up to it all.

Now in these clearer, less drastic days when my spirit has flown the Brethren coop, I realize how close I was to fundamentalist distortion, losing myself to judgment and fear, without the imagination to appreciate subtle words like "tolerance" and "grace." Still, without those crazy opposites of hellfire and salvation, without the constant warnings, the fiery tears and dizzying praises, I wouldn't be a poet. Poetry comes from extremes, from the left field of all experience, and my passion and impudence came straight from God.

American poet Mary Oliver writes, "In art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place." I came to poetry as a fanatic, my confidence shaken by discovering a distance between God and myself. Some of the words I was insistent on were all mine, while others, God's favourites, were stuck to the roof of my mouth; I could still remember what they'd felt like rolling down the length of my tongue. But this new adversarial God was every bit as personal as the former all-encompassing one: God the father, my father, God the first and final word. It took a lot of loneliness and anger and listening to the powerful Word(s) of others before I began to loosen my hold on that long-ago beginning. "Jesus Christ is the poem God made," Oscar Wilde said, someone the Scarborough Brethren Gospel Hall would never ever quote. So, from personal God to poet God, the long, exhilarating journey from the literal to the metaphorical. I was awed by the inclusiveness of this new view. I stole pages from the Bible, mingling in a little karma, a little nothingness, adding a few lightning scribbles of my own. "In the beginning..." With each new word, a small enlightenment, another way of looking at heaven and earth.

As my faith stretched itself beyond that tiny suburban Gospel Hall, so did my poetic vocabulary. I began learning a string of wonderful new words like Rumi, Milton, Issa, Wordsworth, Rilke, Lawrence, Eliot, Neruda, my ears brimming over with the music of so much assumption and audacity. Kathleen Norris says it as simply as it comes, "Poetry, like prayer, is a dialogue with the sacred." I realize that I've known this ever since that first time I heard God talk.

                              first published in the anthology A Matter of Spirit, Ekstasis Editions

Barry Dempster's works copyright © to the author.

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