Discalced Carmelite Friars

Province of St. Therese

Abraham Heschel
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“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 Hours ~ 4 Poems – Part 1



I.

Sunrise:  Lauds
~Night Lingers On

Among the watchers for the dawn,
Lord, I am yearning for Your Grace
to end my darkness.
(Ps 130:6)

1.

I was, early in life, of two minds
About the sheer sweep of the night sky,
Something in the way the stars winked at me
Even as the looming emptiness around them

Took aim.  The Divine Artist had let dribble
A drizzle of white paint across His
Otherwise limitless black canvas.  Maybe I
Should have sought merely to admire

His work's unblemished beauty.  Instead,
I looked for, but never found,
A higher meaning behind such breathlessness.
If only I had, from the first, been content

Simply to let myself look up in wonder
At the utter grandeur of it all—of this His
Creatio ex nihilo—as both the child and child-like
Among us so easily succeed in doing.


2.

Early each morning the portly silhouette
Of the billowy beech tree out front
Presses itself flat against the first flush of dawn,
And a sketch of the tree, drawn with a No.1 pencil,

Lounges a moment on the lawn, torn
From a shadowy sketchbook.  Soon everything
Starts to take shape, insisting on its right
To be.  I look out the window; strangely my heart

Grows a tad uncertain about the emerging day.
Perhaps if I whistle a tune to myself in the half-light:
—"How sweet and sour my soul is today,” the
Mockingbird sings, mimicking my song.

“How mixed up I am amid all the delicate breezes
That stir within the world's great dream of day
Nudging me awake.  Look, outside something’s
Tumbling down, something that resembles

Volcanic ash, or maybe a flurry of goose feathers
Tossed about on a gust of grumpy old air only just now
Awakened.  Soon, fine-tuned to perfection,
This first sign of day will stretch from one end

Of the sky to the other, its wingspan vast
As the soul’s in flight."  Yep, sure enough, of a sudden
Dawn leaps fully into view, the size
Of a giant flamingo standing straight and tall.

"Oh, what a burden its spindly legs must bear”—
I think referencing dawn's pinkish hue,
But also the lumbering, top-heavy weight
Of the flightless day that must surely follow.


3.

From beneath earth’s wormy soil—raised to new life
And become a block of red-brick bungalows
Set back from the street—the green

Of morning’s ever verdant dew bubbles up,
Oozing forth like the Holy Ghost
And flooding each square inch of lawn.

Eying such a miracle I'm willing to surrender
Every wish I once may have had to feel something
Of the sap of a primal agelessness coursing

Through my soul.  I'm ready to grow old,
I say to myself, though not yet ready to die.


4.

"If I'd been present from the first day of our race,”
I fantasize, letting the idea of agelessness
Overwhelm this poem—“If I'd been present
To witness Lucifer's precipitous fall

And monitor through millennia his influence
Over us as his blackened soul cozies up to
Ours and wraps itself in a tight knot
About our morally more ambiguous exaltations;

Then I would, at the choicest of times, have seen fit
To journey forth across the wastes of, let us say,
The Mojave Desert, there where the need of mercy,
Like a savage thirst sipped at again and again

At each step, causes the lips, door
Of all speech, to crack and bleed and blister.
But nothing of the sort would ever stop me.
I'd struggle steadily on, prying open

My speechlessness so as to rail madly, like one lost
To fever, in the words of this or that favored
Psalm.  All the while my eyes, clinched tight,
Would closely scan the dry-as-dust earth,

With its twisted trees and crumbled, chalky rocks
Huddled at their feet.  Constantly I’d be combing
The landscape looking for any glint, large or small,
Of Lucifer’s fiery glass eye . . .”—Yes, it was thus

That I fantasized, pretending I was some sort
Of Elijah-like figure, my heart full of fire
And supremely confident in its inspirations.
But then, alas, the fantasy burst into flame

And, placing my hands before my eyes, I fashioned
An impromptu blindfold to shield my sight
From the assaults of the sun's blaring
Brass band bleating its harsher dissonances

At me, taunting me mercilessly—“The fact
That you live a half-baked life,” it sneered,
“Something you yourself freely admit—
Your life embedded as much in darkness

As in light—it puts the lie to this fantasy
Of heroic sanctity you so cherish.  Indeed,
The present state of your lounging conscience
Fits you just fine, like an old pair of shoes.

There's no need to rethink the many mitigations
Of rule and norm you've adopted through the years.
In fact, you sort of prefer it this way, right?
It’d hobble you to the point of permanent paralysis

Were you to try to don a morally more constrained
Pair of slippers.  And what, I ask you, would be
The point of that?  One's got to live, right?  So,
Be happy; enjoy yourself, presume on God’s mercy.”


5.

I rise early.  Dawn breaks in upon the brittle
Morning air, softening it, warming it up,
Reshaping it slightly.  Consciousness
Struggles free from my heart like a boy scout

Wriggling out of his sleeping bag.  My body,
For its part, carries me out to where
All can decipher in my stooped shoulders
The perfect posture of a knowledgeable soul.


Written by Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD
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Conjuring Up the Eternal – Part 7 of 7




VII.

The Not Yet Already

First, there was the river the boat followed when,
As I'd decided, I set sail for the sea.  Second,
There were the spongy tufts of grass pushing up

From the earth and padding the riverbank where
I stepped ashore, releasing the boat back into
The river's sleepy embrace.  Third, there was

The tree whose leaves held the sun's tyranny
At bay; I sat in its shade and spoke to the quiet
Around me.  "Whose voice is this," I asked, "that

Lowers itself down to me as if on an invisible wire,
Issuing its long crescendo of praise?  Have I
Stumbled upon creation's very first day, here where
It's been waiting for me, never really having left me?"

*

And I knew then that all that had happened along this
Long slog of years was really just the stuff of nothing:
"A vacuous eddy, a swimming void," I called it.

Rather, it was this moment, and this moment alone,
That had wrung from nature's buzzing hive of plucked
Strings and bunched chords a fair melody of Eden

Housed deep within this world, thoroughly steeped
As it is in its own creation.  "As if from a high cliff
Where eagles roost breathing the thin air," the song

Sang, "he looked out at a feathery wisp of cloud afloat
Beneath the sky's blue dome, the blue surface
Of the sea rising to meet it, and he saw not cloud,

But a man's hand, its index finger pointing, like
The white tip of the angel Gabriel's airy lance,
Towards the womb of the shy maid, the Virgin Mary."

*

Thus, from today I no longer cry out for more life,

Nor for that magic word that alone can unlock
My voice.  Instead, I listen for what I am to do,

Emboldened as I am, ever since a steady heartbeat
Awakened me and clear insight, like a stream
Cutting through meadow and tumbling over rock,

Set me firmly on my feet.  I may feel overburdened
With all this new vigor, this fire coursing upward
Through my lungs and throat.  But the sunlight

Has spoken, and before my very eyes, as if
At a word of command, the gates of the sea
Have opened by themselves.  Out of the solid

Blue wall of the horizon I summon a shadowy green
To set upon my lawn; I order up strips of a fiery red
To pin to the setting sun like the tail of a kite.

The breeze this evening, thick with the smell
Of the dying day, I paint in vivid black.  "It's time
We slow down," I suggest, "and settle into our

Armchairs, the lamplight flush on our faces.  It's
Time we greet each other in the dark, our words
Of peace flowing out from us into the sacred silence."

***

This poem is very much a parable of the world to come (the Not Yet) as it is present to us in some measure even now (the Already).  The poem makes sense, then, only as imagery, as symbolism, marshaled to this end.
By the way, the "fair melody of Eden," quoted, so to speak, in the second section of the poem, is a reference to the OT story of Elijah atop Mt. Carmel, where he sees a cloud far out at sea no bigger than a man's hand (1Kgs 18:42-44), announcing the end of the drought and the coming of rain.  This cloud Carmelites have long associated with the Virgin Mary, specifically at the moment of the Annunciation.
Do you believe it possible to have such foretastes, even in this life, of that new heaven and new earth, that new creation, which God has promised us?  The poem presents us with the experience of the idyllic face of nature, of the setting sun and gathering dark of nightfall, and the peace these moments bestow.  How have you experienced such moments of a transcendent peace?


Written by Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD

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Conjuring Up the Eternal – Part 6 of 7



VI.

Living by Standing Still

It began when You sat down beside me,
And I heard words shaken like sparrows
From Your breath:  "It will be as it should be;

Let go, don't look back."  I knew then that,
In the end, You didn't care whether my efforts
Toppled and fell into ruin, or held long sway

Through the ages as admirers gathered at
My feet.  Either way You weigh each stone
One by one, each in itself as it is set into place.

*

Stars shine, joined in constellations,
Their spirits skating in unseen figure-8's
Across the dark between.  Each month 
A full moon cuts its way through to me,
Driving its white blade into my heart.

Somehow these ease the night sweats that,
As a child, once seized me and would not let go.

Come morning my face turns eastward
Stricken with wonder, ready to greet the
Sheet of white rain that sweeps by overhead
And washes my eyes clean in the promise
Of a new day, its wakefulness of soul.

*

The Spirit's strength had been fashioned
Of only three days' rest; yet He'd been assigned
The thankless task of watching over me.

Now He stands near, towering like heaven's blue
Mirror, His smile calm, wise, pressing itself
Invisibly against my skin.  He looks away,

And, when He looks back, He sees that my life
Is not quite the same.  "I've never asked fixity
Of you; that's Mine to give."  I, for my part,

Having asked no shrine of Him, have dreamt it.
And whenever I look about, there it is.

***

Life in or with the Holy Spirit is at once movement and stillness, for the Spirit seems to carry us, providing both direction and support.  Our concern is to be the here-and-now, the present moment of grace.
The poem concludes with a kind of dialogue.  The Spirit says:
"I've never asked fixity
Of you; that's Mine to give."

And the poet answers:
I, for my part,
Having asked no shrine of [You], have dreamt it.
And whenever I look about, there it is.

We can imagine that what is meant by a "shrine" here is a moment of grace, a sacred or holy moment given us in life.  Is the companionship of the Holy Spirit, then, a central part of your spiritual life?  How does the Spirit reveal His abiding, guiding presence to you?  Are there such moments, such markers of holiness, set here and there along your way?


Written by Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD
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Conjuring Up the Eternal – Part 5 of 7

V.

Grace Builds on Nature


There's no sweetness these fruity molecules,
Packed tight as clay and strung like lights from
The graceful, arching branches of these trees,
There's nothing they will not undertake for you,

Filling your belly with the nectar of a ripe plum,
Or stuffing your satchel with choice pears, shaped
Like teardrops and tasting of a plenary indulgence
From purgatory's cleansing bubblebath of fire.

*

And then, each night as you sleep,
No far-flung vision, no oracle of wisdom,
Is denied you.  You're growing older
Each day, yet you know deep down, beneath
The soul's unbroken silence, that this weight
Of flesh enfolding you will become

Someday, inwardly, as invigorating as
That first thin thread of water let loose
By spring's long-awaited thaw; while,
Outwardly, it will shine as sharp and lucid
As a bed of irises popping into bloom.

*

It is then that he will appear to you, he who
Had appeared often before, though mostly
In unrecognizable guises, but who now
Has become the very exemplar of that life
You knew, again deep down, had been

Promised you.  He will step forth from hiding
To gaze with amazement on the likes of you,
Indeed, on the likes of everyone.  Here is
The birth he once enjoyed in a stable
Multiplied innumerably and become

A vast choir; and here is the grace

And energy he once freely imbibed, and
Happily called Abba, now spread out over
Land and sea, exceeding in extent even
The empire of Genghis Khan.  Yet it rests
Peacefully, impartially, lying everywhere

Like sunlight on grass, or seed freely sown.
Yes, he had once dreamt it would be this way,
Where all will finally have become themselves,
Singly and together.  "Behold, friend," he says,
"See how very wondrous and radiant it is."

***

Very simply, this poem enacts what the title suggests.  Grace emerges from nature.  The fulfillment or perfection of all things is accomplished wondrously by God.  (By the way, the he in the third section is, of course, Jesus, although you knew that.  It's obvious.)
Jesus gave us parables to help us imagine God's Kingdom.  Here are a bunch of other images, from my own imagination.  For example, on that day our bodies "will shine as sharp and lucid / As a bed of irises popping into bloom."  Which of the images offered by this poem perhaps touches or speaks to you most?  Do you have an image of your own to suggest?


Written by Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD
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