The poet Emily Dickinson loved her garden. Though famously reclusive, she spent countless hours admiring and caring for her garden of flowers. Many of her poems reflect on her love of the outdoor world even if it only consisted of the wonders of her own yard. She writes whimsically of bees, clover, honey, and the summer grasses that grew green and lush around her Amherst, Massachusetts home. One of Dickinson’s most well-known poems speaks of her garden as the location of worship—with church, preaching, and heaven all represented by creatures in the natural world:
Some keep the Sabbath going to church
I keep it staying at home,
With a bobolink for a chorister,
And an orchard for a dome….
So instead of getting to heaven at last
I’m going all along!(1)
For Dickinson, the kingdom of God was as close as the bird’s song in her yard. The experience of heaven was not something awaiting her after death, but an experience available to her as she worshipped God in her orchard sanctuary. Her poems often affirmed God’s presence and grace communicated through the beauty and wonder of the natural world.
But the seeming simplicity or whimsy often characteristic of Dickinson’s poetic style could not disguise her deep wrestling with the intellectual challenges to the Christian faith which were taking place during her lifetime. The Calvinistic understanding of God’s sovereign design was being challenged by the writings of Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche. So thoroughly entrenched in modern thinking today, most of us cannot grasp the radical and cataclysmic impact of their ideas on their contemporary audience. At best, these critics to Christianity seemed to make the Christian God irrelevant; at worst, in Nietzsche’s words, they described God as ‘dead.’ In addition to these intellectual challenges, the American Civil War was raging and threatening to tear the nation apart even as it tore apart lives, families, and faith.(2)
Dickinson’s poetry often reflects this larger struggle and its challenge for her own faith:
Apparently with no surprise—
To any happy Flower
The Frost beheads it at its play—
In accidental power—
The blond Assassin passes on—
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an Approving God.(3)
Dickinson’s poetry gives voice to these universal questions by using the death of a simple flower. Why does God allow suffering? Does God love the creation even in its death by ‘accidental powers’? How does one interact with a God who does not always intervene on behalf of that creation? Dickinson’s poetic wrestling stands in the great tradition of the biblical writers: Why do you stand afar off, O Lord? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? How long, O Lord? Will you forget forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul having sorrow in my heart all day long?
Even as she wrestled with faith, Dickinson found solace in the suffering and crucified Jesus. Because of the crucifixion of Jesus, God draws near to human suffering, even if God seemed to remain in silence for her:
Jesus! thy Crucifix
Enable thee to guess
The smaller size!
Jesus! thy second face
Mind thee in Paradise
This Jesus who was willing to give away his life—’to us—Gigantic Sum—’ was the shelter under which Dickinson’s faith found a refuge. She wrote that “when he [Jesus] confides to us that he is ‘acquainted with Grief,’ we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own.’”(4)
For Christians, what Jesus did as the Son of God through his sacrifice on the Cross presents a God who is also willing to submit to the assassins of this world. As one author notes, “In this redemptive action there is a way made through what might be an otherwise inscrutable moral mystery—the purpose of an omnipotent and loving God’s apparent refusal to eliminate evil and suffering—is resolved in the redemptive suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. In the miracle of his resurrection from the dead, believers see a harbinger of their own survival beyond this vale of tears.”(5) Yet the hope of the resurrection is more than just a hope for a blissful beyond, it offers hope for this life as well.
The resurrection body of Jesus contained the scars from nail and sword, and these scars identified Jesus to his followers. While still reminders of the violence of crucifixion, his wound-marked resurrection body demonstrates God’s power over evil and death. And his wounds reveal something else. God’s work of resurrection—indeed of new creation—begins in our wounded world. His resurrection is not a disembodied spiritual reality for life after the grave; it bears the marks of his wounded life here and now, yet with new significance.
Questions remain, to be sure, as they did for Emily Dickinson. The charming consolation of the natural world could also be the theatre of death. But God is not the Unmoved Mover; God acquiesces to life and death in that world and punctuates both with the reality of the resurrection. All who live in light of that resurrection can, like Dickinson, say:
“Faith—is the Fellow of the Resurrection,
Scooping up the Dust—
And chanting – Live!”
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson, eds. Originally published in Poems, 1890; Poems, Second Series, 1891; and Poems, Third Series, 1896 (New York: Avenel Books, 1982), 114.
(2) Roger Lundin, Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 126.
(3) Cited in Patrick J. Keane, Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering, (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2008), 25.
(4) Roger Lundin, Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 177.
(5) Patrick J. Keane, Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2008), 103.