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

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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Conjuring Up the Eternal – Part 4 of 7


IV.

Otherworldliness

For long years, or so the Anchoress confessed,
The sooty black bricks of night encased her on
Every side.  And yellow smoke rose like incense

Each morning.  "One would think I lived
In a chimney," she sighed.  Yet the smell of peas
And carrots, of beans simmering in a pot,

Spiraled slowly upward on invisible wings,
While the pulp she squeezed from meaty apples
Merited the name she gave it, "earth's own chrism."

*

Barren mountains hovered in the distance,
And sharp winds, swirling about nearby,
Rattled the rickety slats of the door to

Her cell, or so the Hermitess remarked.
Fields and farms and dense woods fled
From view, far beyond all thought of

Turning back until spring should arrive.
There, far away, dressed in white, they became
The stuff of dreams.  At day's end an angel

Knelt beside her, bearing in his blood
The red embers of God's mercy.  "He's come
To stoke my tired heart into a flame."

*

The Beguine knew that she should live among
Her kind.  "Only then," she declared,  "can I
Rest well and rise early, do my chores with

Steady hand and keen eye."  "A carpet of tall grass
Rolls down the hillside and spreads out around,
Gracing the valley with its green waves," the

Foundress wrote in her diary.  "It's an ideal spot."
Thus, some years later her Spiritual Daughter
Realized that she could still smell the sea here,

Wrapped in its cloak of summer air.  "Our remedy
Is adoration," the Visitandine opined as the
Wee hours of the morning crept by silent as

A ghost, its veil of flickering shadows shielding
Her Lord's sad eyes from the stabbing candlelight.

***

The poem is straightforward enough.  It moves from one to another of various figures, each of whom leads a life "in the world, but not of the world."  Yet each remains very grounded in the feel and texture of life--in the taste of apple cider, in the sound of the winter wind, in rest and work, the beauty of green grass, the flicker of candlelight.  It is an earthy kind of otherworldliness.

How do you yourself strive to keep a certain distance from the world, practicing what Carmelites call detachment?  Yet how, through prayer and simplicity of life, do you remain immersed in the brute fact of God's creation?


Written by Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD
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