Discalced Carmelite Friars

Province of St. Therese

Poet and Contemplative

“From the abundance of his spirit [the poet] pours out secrets and mysteries rather than rational explanation” (Prologue, The Spiritual Canticle).

“In contemplation God teaches the soul very quietly and secretly, without its knowing how, without the sound of words” (Chapter 39, The Spiritual Canticle).

In the spirit of St. John of the Cross, this blog reflects on the contemplative experience and the poetic experience, sometimes separately and distinctly, sometimes in common, as mutually enlightening.

I will also post to this blog, from time to time, my own poetry, with a short interpretive note attached.

~ Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD

Setting the Table—Part Two

        The following lines are from a poem by Kathleen Raine, a British poet and scholar who died in 2003:

    And must I then take pity on
    The raging of the storm
    That rose up from the great abyss
    Before the earth was made,
    That pours the stars in cataracts
    And shakes this violent world?
        There is, at the root of creation, something that seems to resist the divine creative impetus.  We might call it a state or condition of "un-createdness," a tendency towards "de-creation," so to speak.  Or, if we wish to avoid the moral implications of words like “de-creation,” we might call this resistance to creation lying at its root a kind of residual, enduring "pre-created" condition.
        Traditionally Christianity has attributed this enduring condition, especially in its resistance to the larger divine creative purpose, to an original or primordial sin.  Creation is, at least partially, in a state of rebellion against God in a way that goes back almost, although not completely, to the very beginning of things.  It is, thus, original--emerging alongside the origin of things and showing itself as darkness, not light, disease, not health and well-being, violence, not rest and sabbath peace.
        Even beyond the strictly human realm of action, this original sin is present in creation working its disruption.  Earthquakes, floods, plagues, barren deserts, the beasts of ocean and wilderness in their savagery and violence—all of it contradicts God’s creative design and purpose.  Something seems to have gone wrong, attributable not solely to human misbehavior.  Some de-creative power is at work resisting the divine intent.
        Violence is disorder, is de-creation.  Thus, the violence so present in creation—let alone in the human world—manifests something un-created at its root.  It is, you might say, creation's original, pre-created state still kicking and screaming like an angry child, fighting against the divine art.  The divine art, though, will ultimately prevail.
        According to the poem of Kathleen Raine, in the lines quoted above, we are called to take pity on this violence, this disorder, as it squirms and twists and struggles against God.  It is compassion that lies at the heart of God’s creative impetus.  It is thus compassion that continues to fuel it.
        God would create peace.  It is compassion for the violent, therefore, that impels him onward in this work.


        Gen 1:2 describes our pre-created state in a few choice words:
        From the Revised NAB:
        The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.
        Or the Revised English Bible:
        The earth was a vast waste, darkness covered the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water.
        Or the Jerusalem Bible:
        Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, and God’s spirit hovered over the water.
        Or the Revised Standard Version:
        The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
        Or, for a change of pace, the Easy-to-Read Version:
        At first, the earth was completely empty.  There was nothing on the earth.  Darkness covered the ocean, and God’s Spirit moved over the water.
         Or, for poetic effect, the Message Bible:
        Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness.  God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.
        There are some interesting variations in translation here--“a vast waste,” “a formless void,” “completely empty,” “a soup of nothingness” . . . “a might wind sweeping,” “the spirit of God hovering,” “the Spirit of God moving,” “God’s Spirit brooding like a bird.”  The Hebrew is difficult to translate, written in a particularly rich and evocative, yet very concise language.  The translator, therefore, must make choices.  Perhaps we can say, though, that the overall picture or image is clear enough.
        There are the heavens above, the earth below, the sea all around—or, in other words, the sky, the dry land, and the watery deep, each in its proper place.  But, at the beginning, it wasn't this way.  It was all mixed up and jumbled together as one formless, shapeless, watery mess, cloaked in deepest darkness.  Yet the spirit of God--which is to say, the wind, the breath, the forward impetus and push of the power of God--was moving there, was sweeping over the waters, searching, probing, biding its time.  The Spirit of God hovered over this un-created mess like a bird hovering over its brood.
        In the next two verses of the story (Gen 1:3-4), we learn that God inaugurates his work of creation by calling forth light and separating it--that is, distinguishing it--from darkness.  “And God saw that the light was good.”
        So begins the biblical creation story, arising out of this pre-created mess.  What is its human equivalent when, say, a poet sets to work, brooding over the watery mess of his poetic impulse?  That will be the question of my next post.
        It is not my intention in these reflections to engage in metaphysical or theological speculation.  While obviously the creation story that opens the Book of Genesis appropriately and authoritatively helps shape Christian and Jewish theological reflection on divine creation, the story itself is not, in my view, a theological text, at least not in the sense of our modern notion of theology.  It is, rather, a thoroughly poetic text that expresses its meaning through symbol, archetype, repeated verbal patterns, rich imagery, the thick use of language.  In fact, in a culture where literalness and a supposedly matter-of-fact objectivity are taken as the only way to get at and express truth, it is in part my hope in this blog to explore other ways of communicating truth, especially spiritual truth.
        To be continued . . .

Written by Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD
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