Welcome to this week’s ALL TOGETHER, the podcast dedicated to exploring how religious ideas and spiritual practice inform and shape our personal lives, our communities and our world. ALL TOGETHER is hosted by Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, the Executive Editor of HuffPost Religion.
This week Raushenbush speaks with the celebrated poet, author and Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer Patti Smith; who is sometimes referred to as the ‘Godmother of Punk’. (Download in iTunes )
When news hit that the iconic rocker was at the top of the line-up at the Vatican’s annual Christmas concert the reactions ranged from joy to surprise -- after all, this is the artist who once famously intoned ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine’ in her version of the song ‘Gloria.’
However, in this extraordinary interview that covers the artist's unique approach to religion, spirituality and inspiration, Smith explained to Raushenbush that the lines in Gloria are often misinterpreted:
It’s really not against Jesus, and doesn’t mean I don’t believe in Jesus. It was a young girl’s declaration of existence and independence. My ideas of Jesus and his teachings have evolved through the years.
Smith has had several interactions with the Vatican, which have been helpful in her interest in Pope John Paul I and John Paull II. As it turns out, the artist played last year's Christmas concert as well. Smith was not raised Catholic, but Jehovah’s Witness and had a biblical education growing up before leaving organized religion when she was twelve. However, she still studies the Bible:
I still study the scriptures. I sometimes study with my sister who is Jehovah Witness, but I’ve studied all religions. I’m not into dogma of religion but in the history, and art and manner of prayer. I’ve been reading the Bible since I was very young. I have my own way, and my own moral structure and my own interpretation of the Bible, which is always evolving and changing.
Her favorite passage in the Bible is something she found late in the 70’s where Jesus says:
"Lo I will be with you even until the end of the world" (Matt 28:20) – that struck me. That it would be uttered so long ago to project that someone being there for you infinitely. Walt Whitman took a page from that when he said: "Young poet 200 years from now, I am with you." I like that thought. The sense that someone is thinking of you, that sense of projection.
Patti Smith’s take on spirituality was perhaps the most intriguing. When asked if there were other poets or Rock and Roll stars to whom she looked for spirituality she explained that ultimately spirituality came from within:
Spiritually, one has to have the ability to be lifted up themselves. You can be inspired by a rock-and-roll song but spirituality is innate. Someone can make you feel good or happy, but the actual framework of spirituality is within you.
Smith admitted her attraction to the ‘trappings of religion’ as she calls it. The rituals, the prayers, the art, the simplicity of kneeling before a candle and even the beauty of the altar piece:
I look at these things as the beauty of man’s imagination. However, no matter how many times it’s said or simplistic it sounds, everything stems from love. If someone wanted to understand Christ’s teachings for instance, it’s based on love and to love one another. Everything else could fall away: the dogma, the art, the churches, everything. It’s basically to love one’s self, to love one another, to love the earth.
But the imagination and the mind of man is so interesting and captivating. So I am attracted to religious arts from all faiths, from the poetry that comes from it. I’m attracted to the prayers and the vestments that people where, but I don’t mistake these things for the absolute principle.
When asked by Raushenbush about her own role as a prophetic artist, Smith balked and talked about her own shortcomings. But when pressed about the value of her songs such as ‘People Have the Power,” Smith explained where she is coming from:
I’m a common person. I don’t feel common as an artist. My goals are lofty. But when I speak about things in our world I come from a common place. The needs of the common people are the most important. And what do they need? They need simple things: food, shelter, clothes, clean water, children need education – simple things.
I look at our governments and our religious institutions and pharmaceutical companies and what I see is that power seems to be the essential goal. When I wrote ‘People Have the Power’ it’s not the same kind of power. It’s not the idea of power as to dominate or to have the wealth. It’s the power to own themselves. To be able to do the things they need to do to not feel beaten down, inadequate or helpless.
Raushenbush made the connection between what Smith was saying and the way Pope Francis has made the caring for the poor and marginalized a central them of his papacy. The artist responded with some particularly keen observations that stem from her interactions with the Pope:
Oh, he loves the people. He does his duties with the high officials who want to talk to him and have their picture taken, but he can’t wait to slip away from them and go and talk to children, or people in wheel chairs, or older people, or young couples, he loves talk to them. It’s such a genuine thing. He loves the people. He loves the common man.
I think he’s a visionary. If he were completely free to do whatever he would be doing even more sweeping reforms… Pope Francis (and Pope John Paul 1) are well aware that Christ said it’s easier for a camel to get through eye of a needle that a rich man to go to heaven. The pope is sitting in this pool of wealth, wearing costly garments and it must be very hard for them sometimes to reconcile this wealth knowing the poverty in the world. But he does what he can to make some kinds of statements in the simplicity of how he dresses and the way he doesn’t live in the main apartment and likes to break bread with his brethren – he does these things and shows by example.