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New Harmony: In religion and art, the toads are very real

Published: Saturday, Aug. 2 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Worship touches a portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe with a rose at Saint Bernard Church in Riverdale, Md., Friday, Dec. 12, 2008. The feast day commemorates the appearance of the Virgin Mary in Mexico City in 1531 to Juan Diego.

Jose Luis Magana, AP

I must say I've been amazed in recent months at how much time and effort have been spent trying to prove or disprove the foundational stories of various religions.

Did Muhammed really see the angel Gabriel in a cave near Medina?

Did Bernadette see the Virgin Mary in the grotto at Lourdes?

Did Uncle LaVern really have a vision of the blue waters of paradise as he lay dying?

I think people who wring their hands over such questions must see religion as a science experiment, something that must be tested and proven.

I see religion as an art.

I think religion has more in common with poetry than, say, pediatrics.

With pediatrics, if the doctor believes a bunch of iffy information, the child may die. Facts are all.

Those of us who see religion as art are more concerned about the effects of religion on the human heart.

The poet Marianne Moore said that poetry was an imaginary garden, but it had real toads in it.

What she meant, I think, is it doesn’t really matter if Robert Frost really stopped by the woods on a snowy evening. Perhaps he did. Perhaps he didn’t. Those are “garden” concerns.

What matters are the “toads” — the fact that Frost’s poem contains soul-stirring notions about oblivion, that it shows us that our yearnings, though “lovely, dark and deep” — can never trump our responsibilities.

Those are real toads, real issues.

Whether Frost really owned a horse with harness bells is fodder for scholars.

Let them argue about the “garden.”

I’d rather go toad hunting.

In the world of religion, I divide things out in a similar way.

It doesn’t matter to me if Bernadette chatted up the Virgin Mary in France or if Juan Diego had a conversation with her in Mexico. What matters are the noble sacrifices of the Catholic workers who keep the soup kitchen at St. Vincent’s up and running.

What matters, to me, is that Catholic volunteers are on our southern border, trying to relieve the suffering of children.

Those are real toads, not just garden musings.

When it comes to Catholicism, it doesn’t matter to me if St. Patrick was transformed into a deer or if St. Martin de Porres could get dogs, cats and mice to drink from the same bowl of milk.

What matters is that when I read the writings of Henri Nouwen, Therese of Lisieux and other Catholic authors, I get in touch with my deeper self. My heart lightens. I feel authentic.

Those are real toads.

Religion, in my world, is never a premise to be believed, disproven, then discarded. Religion is what brings a tear to your eye or makes you feel as if you’ve sprouted wings.

Religion is not a story problem to be solved.

It is a dance.

A song.

A poem.

Religion is a lovely garden, maybe of the mind, maybe anchored to actual historical events.

But wherever religion originates, it is filled with real toads.

Email: jerjohn@deseretnews.com

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