Religion and faith are two complex aspects of any person who believes in any kind of supernatural or inexplicable entity. Religion and art have a very long and interconnected history, most famously studied across Europe, where the Catholic Church was, for years, the most powerful patron of those arts. Countless poems, paintings, buildings, and stories have been created throughout history to attempt to express the deeply personal relationship that exists between a religious or faithful person and the supernatural phenomena they believe in. In the late twentieth century, Maya Angelou added her poem Savior to that list, and has managed to create a piece that stands out from its crowded world and stand on its own as one of her most intriguing and thought-provoking works on the subject.
The first verse of Savior, which can be read in full here, is written as a quatrain, without rhyming lines. Notably, it begins with an alliterative insult that is typically used to describe the opposite of a priest (or, at the very least, what a priest would ideally be like). The verse describes petulance, greed, and incense, and concludes with a comment about love, depicting the prior adversaries as obstacles. The use of priests and centurions suggests that peace and war (as a centurion was the commander of a legion in the Ancient Roman Empire) are irrelevant ideas, and that the negative attributes that are being described are present regardless of circumstance. One million incensed gestures could be a reference to any number of things — it is just vague enough that it will mean something different to each unique reader of the piece.
The title of the poem, Savior, brings important context to the second verse. The titular image is most often associated with Christianity, in which Jesus Christ is considered to be the saviour of the world, who endured brutal execution as a sacrifice for the betterment of humanity. This makes sense as the “agape sacrifice” described in the first line, and it brings interesting meaning to the rest of the verse. The glass is likely a reference to common cathedral imagery, wherein stained glass windows depict scenes of Biblical importance. Vapid penance, therefore, is a likely reference to the Christian concept of atoning for one’s sins, and “tedium of ritual” symbolizes the repetitive nature of religious observance.
Angelou’s word choice here is careful and precise; “vapid,” “agape,” and “tedium” in particular are all uncommon words with distinctly negative connotations. Without the use of rhyme, this verse uses its careful wording to make an impression on the reader. Interestingly, the verse does this by seemingly condemning the Christian Church, despite beginning with an acknowledgement of sacrifice, implying that the event that much of the religion is built upon was meaningful and important. Based on the first verse, it seems that this distinction is drawn based on the difference between the sacrifice itself (“stand / between your love and me”) and the religion build around it since it took place.
The third verse of Angelou’s Savior departs from the four-line pattern established in the first half of the poem. This verse is fairly straightforward in meaning, and continues to avoid rhyme, but rather takes advantage of line breaks to emphasize ideas, and atmospheric language to convey meaning. The speaker views their saviour, presumably Jesus Christ, as being present through footprints that “mark the crest of / billowing seas,” a seeming oxymoron that may be a reference to a popular story that describes Jesus as having walked upon water. In contrast to this miraculous event, the speaker goes on to describe words carved in tablets, a significantly more boring image that contrasts with the “joy” that is placed on its own line for effect. This verse laments how something as wonderful as the idea of a saviour, as a miracle-worker who could be attuned with the natural world, can be faded and forgotten and become little more than words in stone. The images of billowing seas and carved rock contrast with one another, with the sea being a much livelier, more impressive, and powerful image than the one that follows.
In the last verse, the speaker calls out to the figure represented in their faith, if not their religion, and describes the followers of that faith as being burdened and blinded children, who have forgotten the essence of what it is they pray to. The images described in this verse are all associated with being lost. The most striking image invoked is that of a blinding “patina of wisdom” — specifically the idea that wisdom can be a blinding force, one that leads to a significant amount of thinking and not quite enough experiencing.
Savior draws attention to the idea that Jesus Christ was executed close to two millennia ago, and much of the world has changed significantly since that time period. Angelou seems to be suggesting that the true essence of the faith, the love brought up only once in the poem, has been lost to history. Instead, there are ordained prophets, tedious rituals, and one million incensed gestures. The idea that there is a fine line that divides faith and religion is hardly a new one, but it is explored in a unique way here, and appears to be a central theme of Angelou’s work. When faith is described — as billowing crests, a Saviour, a sacrifice — it is described in splendour. When religion is described, it is done so almost with misery. Since faith is, by definition, something that a person explores beyond the physical world, it is best described with images and metaphors — but the ritualistic nature of religion can be described with physical descriptions. Savior explores these ideas with a unique finesse that likely made it a work of great importance to its author in her lifetime.
Savior was originally published by Maya Angelou in 1990, in I Shall Not Be Moved, her fifth collection of poetry. The religious nature of the poem is not a surprising topic coming from Angelou, who worked notably with Martin Luther King Jr. and for organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Angelou was also the leader of a very full and, at times, very difficult life, and she once said that “survival with grace and faith” was at the core of her works. Her early life, which included various jobs in the sex industry and no small amount of racist discrimination that held back her potential, made faith and religion notable aspects of her life.
Considering the role Angelou played in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the difficulties that were such a significant part of her life, it is perhaps unsurprising that she felt compelled to write a poem that explored the differences between religion and faith. Whether or not she felt at any particular point that her religion was failing her or the people around her is unknown as it relates to Savior, but it would not be an especially surprising revelation, considering how heavily she would have needed to rely on her faith at the most difficult points in her life.