Image for Psychology & Spiritual Formation

Shortreads

From Exile to Kinship: Following the Spiritual Path of Poetry

Michael Wright

The right poetic metaphor can create new contemplative space in our minds and hearts, and as we begin to read poems with spiritual themes, a path comes into focus that can guide us from exile to kinship.

In Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling reads a book that explains his place in the universe—words that leave him with a peculiar sense of dissatisfaction:

“The only difficulty was that though the universe had been disposed of, I myself was left over. There I lay in my hotel room with my search over but still obliged to draw one breath and then the next.”1

For Binx, the larger explanations about the meaning of his life didn’t matter—not because they were true or not, but because there was an unassailable distance between them and his daily life. He finished the book about the cosmos, but he was still left lying alone on his bed, counting breaths. Ironically, it’s easy to feel that same dissatisfaction from Christian language and belief. You could read a stack of this year’s most important theological treatise, but you might find yourself left over when the last page turns, recognizing Binx’s vague dissatisfaction in yourself as you take the next breath. Our words have to go somewhere; they have to incarnate meaning in real life in ways that abstract thought can’t always touch.

 

This struggle to find a language to express the meaning of our lives is exacerbated by a public discourse fraught with dualistic thinking. In a recent study at the Wall Street Journal, researchers intuited what our recent election cycle has proven: The internet contributes to an echo chamber effect where we only see the beliefs we already have on our side of the liberal/conservative binary.2
Reflecting on this research with a friend, I asked him where Christ would be. “In that dark lonely middle,” he said, “offering loaves and fishes to whoever was there.” It was an insight that pointed to a contemplative way forward, and one that resonated deeply with what I had first read from the mystic poet Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” This is an invitation to move beyond the abstract ideas and the dualistic thinking that ruptures our culture to compassion—and it’s an invitation spoken in the language of poetry. Poetry can help us name subtle spiritual experiences. The right poetic metaphor can create new contemplative space in our minds and hearts, and as we begin to read poems with spiritual themes,3 a path comes into focus that can guide us from exile to kinship.4
This path can directly address the dynamics I’ve described above, and while the following four stages aren’t necessarily linear, they’re markers we can return to again and again in our spiritual lives.
  • Stage 1: Discovering Our Exile
  • Stage 2: Clearing Mental Clutter
  • Stage 3: Loving the Animal Body
  • Stage 4: Remembering Our Kinship

Stage 1: Discovering Our Exile

Binx’s dissatisfaction is actually a blessing: it quietly shows him that he must attend to the dislocation he feels in his life. For many of us, it’s much easier to ignore or suppress this feeling, but recognizing our avoidance is a significant step forward in addressing the deeper feeling of being detached from the depths of our own lives. In “Bluebird,” the poet Charles Bukowski famously wrote,
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
you. there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
he’s
in there. there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
works?
you want to blow my book sales in
Europe?
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
sad.
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
die
and we sleep together like
that
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do
you?5
Reading the poem, we can sense the poet’s exile from himself and his fear that letting go of control would disrupt his ambitions. The poet doesn’t say specifically what he’s suppressing but personifies it as a bluebird—an image we would associate with flight, music, and freedom. No matter what we’re discovering suppressed within ourselves, we can be encouraged that it’s only more freedom, not whatever specters the loss of control might create. In the poem “On A Theme By Thomas Merton,” Denise Levertov gives us more insight into that experience of exile:
‘Adam, where are you?’
God’s hands
palpate darkness, the void
that is Adam’s inattention,
his confused attention to everything,
impassioned by multiplicity, his despair. Multiplicity, his despair;
God’s hands
enacting blindness. Like a child
at a barbaric fairgrounds–
noise, lights, the violent odors–
Adam fragments himself. The whirling rides! Fragmented Adam stares.
God’s hands
unseen, the whirling rides
dazzle, the lights blind him. Fragmented,
he is not present to himself. God
suffers the void that is his absence.6
Where Bukowski gives us a first-hand experience of alienation, Levertov uses the image of a fairground to show us how our choices can lead us there. Together, these poems give us a handle on the ways we willfully avoid ourselves and God, and becoming aware of this alienation is actually very hopeful. Thomas Keating calls these habits our “emotional programs for happiness”that we construct to feel good and avoid suffering, and once we begin to see them, we can begin to attend to them. This is partly where Binx’s alienation comes from—it’s not only the airy distance of theological discourse, it’s also the disconnection he feels within himself, and becoming aware of that exile is the first step on a transformative spiritual journey.

Stage 2: Clearing Mental Clutter

If we have the courage to become aware of our “emotional programs for happiness” and begin to say “no” to the things that fragment us, we’ll soon discover that our minds are flooded with thoughts, images, and fantasies that we’ve accumulated during our lives. The “barbaric fairground” we thought we could leave behind now appears when we close our eyes. In “Etc,” the poet Ruth Stone reflects on her own experience of this mental clutter:
This borrowed pressed-wood table
is molecularly unhooked in parceled impulses,
stored in my lobes where Adolf Hitler
is also shredded, his repulsive
mustache distributed throughout
my eclectic electrical system.
But that’s not all.
His hoarse disembodied voice,
without a decibel, still shouts,
goose-stepping through my cracked
cranium. As now, another snowfall
sculptures an unreality, clean and fresh,
bringing down in its light crystals
industrial particulates as it settles.
Out there, a miracle;
in here, disassembled
encoded visually, linguistically,
tagged with the rest of the garbage
that my brain recycles, that is myself;
this cumulative trash that goes with me.8
We all have thoughts that snowfall within us—the trick is to commit to practices like meditation and contemplative prayer that can guide us through them. Over time, we might begin to sense a reality deeper than our whirring minds, and reality Scott Cairns describes in his poem “Having Descended To The Heart”:
Once you have grown used to the incessant
prayer the pulse insists upon, and once
that throbbing din grows less diverting if undimished, you’ll surely want
to look around—which is when you’ll likely
apprehend that you can’t see a thing. Terror sometimes sports an upside, this time
serves as tender, hauling you to port.
What’s most apparent in the dark is how the heart’s embrace, if manifestly
intermittent, is really quite
reliable, and very nearly aides
as if another sought to join you there.9
If we make choices based on our accumulated fantasies, we will live towards that same fragmentation and “barbaric fairground” that Denise Levertov describes in her poem. But if can commit to practices like contemplative prayer that help us descend below our swirling thoughts, we can discover—and live from—a deeper and more prayerful place within us.

Stage 3: Loving the Animal Body

Paradoxically, discovering that prayerful place within us cannot happen by our own willpower, since it’s one of the reasons we feel alienated in the first place (see how controlling Bukowski is of his own self above). Instead, we have to practice an open-hearted acceptance of our own limited bodies and grace beyond our efforts. In her popular poem “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver invites us toward this experience:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.10
Loving ourselves in this way is not a license for hedonism or spiritual narcissism. Learning to “love the animal body” means we give up the will-powered pursuit of virtue and ease into our own selves.11
This is a subtle and difficult shift, and it might look like what Kathleen Norris describes in her poem “Goodness”:
Despite our good deeds,
the chatter
of our best intentions,
our many kindnesses,
God is at work
in us, close
to the bone,
past the sinews
of our virtues, to the marrow
we cannot feel,
the sudden, helpless tears
when we know what we are,
and can go on.12
On this path, even our good intentions and forced attempts at goodness—even reading and discussing theology—can get in the way, but if we can relinquish that desire to build our own virtuous selves or solve mysteries with our own rational minds, if we can learn to ease into a deeper trust where our own weakness is welcome, then, “we know what we are, / and can go on.”

Stage 4: Remembering Our Kinship

Over and over again, poets and mystics describe an experience of a deeply felt embodied connection to God and the world around us. Rediscovering our kinship with this “family of things” is the telos of this particular spiritual journey that these poets describe and a holistic answer to the alienation many feel from their own faith. Consider this poem by e.e. cummings:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes (i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth) how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You? (now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)13
The senses cleared and mind uncluttered, the poet’s full self is porous and present within God’s creation—and his experience overflows into gratitude. The Catholic mystic Hildegard von Bingen described a similar experience centuries earlier in her poem-prayer:
Holy Spirit,
giving life to all life,
moving all creatures,
root of all things,
washing them clean,
wiping out their mistakes,
healing their wounds,
you are our true life,
luminous, wonderful,
awakening the heart
from its ancient sleep.14
For Hildegaard, the Holy Spirit sustains that embodied experience “moving all creatures” and flooding e.e. cummings with gratitude. Together these poems give us a taste of embodied intimacy with both God and the world—an intimacy that is not created but rediscovered, not a hazy nature mysticism but as a God-given gift expanding through the world and within our own hearts.

A Great Cloud of Kinship

The poems here reflect only a small portion of the variety of voices reflecting on the spiritual life. When we read and reflect on their work over time, a cloud of witnesses begins to form, encouraging us as we move from the abstract and dualistic thinking that alienates us and towards a kinship that we would recognize as the very body of Christ:
We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me. I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood). I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? — Then
open your heart to Him and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real, and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.15

Anthologies

The Soul is Here For It’s Own Joy, Robert Bly, Ed. (Ecco Press, 1995)Women In Praise of the Sacred, Jane Hirshfield, Ed. (HarperPerennial, 1984)Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty, Alan Jacobs, Ed. (Watkins, 1999)The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, Steven Mitchell, Ed. (Harper Perennial, 1989)The Rider Book of Mystical Verse, J.M. Cohen, Ed. (Rider, 1983)Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious And Poetic Experience, Karen Armstrong, Ed. (Puffin, 1987)Poetry of Doubt and Belief: An Anthology, Tom Driver and Robert Pack, Eds. (MacMillian, 1964)Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets, Luke Hankins, Ed. (Wipf and Stock, 2012)Chapters Into Verse, Vols. I & II, Robert Atman and Laurance Wieder, Eds. (Oxford, 1993)Holy Fire: Nine Visionary Poets and the Quest for Enlightenment, Daniel Halpern, Ed. (Harper Collins, 1994)