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

The Main Course—What is Contemplation? (Part One)

       There is a poem by Denise Levertov--an English poet who spent much of her life in the US, and who died in 1997 at the age of 74—which was written towards the end of her life, and which gives expression to a truth of the human spirit gained through a lifetime of poetic practice.  The poem is entitled “Sojourns in the Parallel Word," and in part it reads:
    Whenever we lose track of our own obsessions,
    our self-concerns, because we drift for a minute,
    an hour even, of pure (almost pure)
    response to that insouciant life:
    cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing
    pilgrimage of water, vast stillness
    of spellbound ephemerae on a lit windowpane,
    animal voices, mineral hum, wind
    conversing with rain, ocean with rock, stuttering
    of fire to coal—then something tethered
    in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch
    of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free . . .

       This breaking free, if only for a moment, from our obsessions and self-concerns, so as then to be able to see, to really see, with wonder, care, gentleness, delight, that which lies at hand all around us, right here, right now, so as to be able to see it in its movement and interplay, its life—this is at least the beginnings of contemplation.  It is to step out of ourselves and into that parallel world the poet speaks of, there to take a brief sojourn.

       Such a moment of simple, yet profound and luminous vision may not be the end of contemplation.  It may not be contemplation's fullest realization.  That lies, rather, in the practice of interior prayer.  But it is certainly a beginning.  Until we have at least some experience with this sort of breaking free of ourselves in order to see what is, to see some snippet of the vibrant being of this parallel world, then we can’t really learn how to enter into the practice of prayer with a similar sort of freedom--seeking only to be present, in the here and now, to the one who is always and everywhere present to us.  To feel or sense, in an attitude of interior prayer, the unseen presence of the one who holds what is in being, and who does so strangely, mysteriously, incomprehensibly, as an act of love--that is contemplation in its fullest realization.


       Yet, with this endpoint in mind, we have to begin somewhere.  We can’t just start on our own, whole and complete, launching out into the experience of contemplative prayer as though it were Athena bursting fully formed from the head of Zeus.  We need a grounding, for starters, in a religious culture of some sort, with its language and ritual and sacred imagery, all born from the accumulated wisdom of those many, many who have gone before us.

       And we need the example and guidance and teaching of others, with whom we share a spiritual communion--especially those living today, of course, those who, like ourselves, are trying to live by the Spirit in this age where together we find ourselves.  But also we need the example and teaching of those others, the saints, who have gone before us and passed on their wisdom freely down through the ages.

      We need, therefore, a spirituality--which is to say, a way of talking about and sharing in and coming to understand ever more personally the life of the divine Spirit at work in us.  Without this grounding in an explicit religious faith tradition, understood as a spirituality, there can be no prayer life and, therefore, no contemplation, in the fullest sense of the word.

       But there is also the need we have to experience in some manner, and to do so repeatedly, this parallel world around us.  We need to take short sojourns in it, from time to time, so as to let these sojourns train us and mold us in the ways of quiet seeing. Thus, we learn, by degrees, how to break free and let the world of creation be itself for us.

       Science can help here—not science as technology or as a system of ideas and laws, principles, theorems, axioms, all of which provide a window onto the world, as crucial and significant as this is.  I have in mind, rather, science as a way of seeing, of looking, of taking notice and letting things be themselves, and then of finding ourselves in their presence as simply, freely curious about them and, in gentle humbleness of mind, as thoroughly amazed and wonderstruck.

       Botany, for example, can tell us all kinds of things about bluebonnets.  But in doing so it can also assist us in acquiring that attitude of heart towards them whereby we might more easily stop and contemplate this particular bluebonnet which we see here before us, the one that is clutching this particular patch of earth, its head raised above the grass as it reaches towards the sun there in the sweep of blue sky.  Unlike "bluebonnets" as a specie of flower, this unique bluebonnet we cannot, of course, really understand because it's not really an idea.  It is itself, very simply, a creature that inhabits the parallel world.

       Thus, science, as a way of looking, can help train us and, as it were, soften us and open us, open our inner eye, preparing our souls for contemplation.

       Art has a role to play here, too.  Music, poetry, fiction, painting--there is a difference between, for example, seeing a painting on the wall of an art museum, which is one thing, and letting ourselves stand before it and really see it, which is another.  There is a difference, that is, between the painting as a thing, hanging there on the wall, and the painting as an experience we can enter into--an experience where, say, the loneliness depicted there causes our throats to tighten briefly.

       And this difference has something to do with the contemplative spirit of art—with how art can teach us to contemplate, of course, but more importantly with how it can assist us in becoming contemplative persons, possessed of a contemplative heart.

       To be continued . . . 

Written by Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD
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