On Mysticism and the Poet
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd; in which the world
And all her train were hurl'd.
I leave tomorrow, though I return in July. But John asked if I would do this final meditation on the poet as mystic. I read the opening lines of a poem by Henry Vaughan, a Welsh poet of the seventeenth century writing in English. The poem is entitled ‘The Vision’ and there is something visionary about it in its startling depiction of the embrace of the cosmos in an “endless light”. It seem to depict those special states we often associate with mysticism – moments when the spiritually elite like St. Paul are caught up into the third heaven. But that’s not what the poem is about. After these opening lines Vaughan describes the very mundane aspects of our social lives. All things, large and small, he suggests, dwell within the embrace of the eternal. There’s no mention of St. Paul, but he’s communicating what Paul spoke of continuously as our being “in Christ” or “hidden with Christ in God”: the God who is “in all things, through all things and above all things.” It’s not a vision then of either God or Christ (they are not mentioned in the poem); it’s an attempt to communicate an experience in and through words and the way they are uttered, breathed, and full of nuance, of being enfolded in what is so much more than us. And the rhymes he uses are not ornamental, they search for an inner attraction between words - ‘years’ to ‘spheres’ and ‘world’ to ‘hurl’d’ – an attraction that listens to the music within them that’s deeper than meaning and yet receive a more resonant and richer with meaning when they come together.
You don’t read poetry so much as listen to what the poet is probing as he or she uses words to lift the edges of the things they name, to disclose what is in and beneath them. The word ‘mysticism’ comes from the Greek ‘to disclose the hidden’; just as the word ‘truth’ in Greek literally means ‘to bring the hidden or forgotten into the open.’ Not all poetry is trying to do that but when poetry is trying to do that the poet engages the mystical. And ‘mystical’ then is that turning of the attention to what lies beneath the surfaces and edges of things; that which is evocative and sings of something of deeper significance; something that can be noticed in the very ordinary and little things: washing, dripping and hanging to dry in the sunshine; the many layers of taste in a good curry; the smell of wood shavings – each of these can evoke the intangible, the invisible. When this is evoked the ordinary is transfigured and the world in which in sits changes.
You don’t have to be consciously committed to any faith to experience this and you don’t have to be in a particular location. The Russian dissident poet Irina Ratushinskaya was imprisoned in the Gulag. She was given no writing materials so she wrote poetry on blocks of soap, committed it to memory and gave other women the poems to remember that they or she on release might write them down. But she, and the women who heard and carried those poems were transformed by them, for the Gulag became a place of plenitude as its starscapes, camp fires, frosts, dawns and sunsets filled them with wonder and hope through Ratushinskaya’s words. Her poems brought an irrepressible creative freedom into their imprisoned lives; it unlocked resources in them and the world. She was a Christian, but she saw something more than and beyond the visible violences around her. Her volume of poetry written in the Gulag has been acclaimed world-wide. It’s called Grey is the Colour of Hope. This is the beginning of one of her pieces:
I will live and survive and be asked:
How they slammed my head against a trestle,
How I had to freeze at nights,
How my hair started to turn grey...
But I'll smile. And will crack some joke.
And brush away the encroaching shadow.
And I will render homage to the dry September
That became my second birth.
She writes in the poem of “rainbow ice” on a “tiny pane of glass” and ends the poem with “Such a gift can only be received once/ And perhaps it is only needed once.” Again, it is the small and ordinary in which and through which the extraordinary is sensed, smelt, tasted as sustaining something more significant. And this becomes the fuel for hope.
Poets know, to prise beneath the edges of things, cannot be forced. It has to be given. There may be expectancy but there is always a waiting, dreaming, drifting, attending, listening. What are you listening for? You are listening for the unlocking of cadences that transfigure the way you hear and see; like a jazz pianist or a bass guitarist feeling the way ahead musically. You are attuning yourself to the textures of sound and circumstance – the undisclosed textures in you as much as those outside and around you. You are listening to a breathing deeper than your own that comes from being “hidden with Christ in God”, the God in whom all being is sustained, Paul tells to Greeks on Mars Hill, quoting the Greek poet Lucan. That breathing is available to everyone; disclosed for everyone. That’s why we can recognize it. The poet, the pianist, the guitarist only tries to communicate it. In fact, I believe salvation as healing (salus) comes from learning that deep listening. Listen then to my attempt in this final poem:
Still is the night
and so hushed the crush
of stars illuminates
though the moon is thinly pared.
Trees and mountain-tops are
pencilled quills and charcoal smudges.
A breeze abates, and about me
the valley closes in while
the heavens and earth hold fast
to a secret, betoken a secret
I am held in its weight,
impressed by an infinitesimal
We are known.
We thank you Lord for all those able to communicate life to us, deep life, life hidden in you the giver life. We thank you that we are created to respond to that life and to you, able to present ourselves that you might breath and speak within us, within your creation. And we pray for all those who through circumstance and emotional complexity cannot hear and cannot respond. May you bring them all to a place of healing, a place of right judgement, and a place of forgiveness.
Regius Professor of Divinity : Christ Church Oxford
6 April 2017