contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Contemplative poetry

HADEWIJCH THE BEGUINE

How could I believe this

If I had not found it true?

The soul that wanders in free nakedness

Births all that is and will be,

Participates in ecstasy

In engendering the Son

In creation and re-creation

Of all the worlds.

In sublimest mystery

All words drown.

From: Andrew Harvey (translator) Love is Everything: A Year with Hadewijch of Antwerp: 365 Poems Singapore: Medio Media, 2002 (Forewords by Matthew Fox and Laurence Freeman)

Hadewijch of Antwerp lived in the 13th. century. She was a Beguine, part of a women’s lay order who took no religious vows beyond promising not to marry “as long as they lived as Beguines”. They could leave at any time. For a period, they flourished in the Low Countries, France, and the Rhineland. The only definitely known Beguine community (Beguinage) in England was in Norwich in the 15th. century, well after the time of Hadewijch or indeed the English anchoress Julian. Beguines stressed voluntary poverty (though they could keep their own property), care for the sick, and a life of devotion. They worked in the world, for example in the woollen and silk industries, and in laundries. Leading figures such as Hadewijch also wrote for the wider community and effectively developed their own theology.

Andrew Harvey salutes Hadewijch as “one of the most incandescent and inspired of all Christian mystics” and sees her now as pointing the way to an “evolutionary transformation into embodied divinity” that “our devastating global dark night is both urgently demanding and making possible”. Literate in Latin and French as well as the middle Dutch in which she wrote, Hadewijch was well acquainted with with the literature of Christian mysticism and also the works of the troubadour tradition with its own philosophy of love. She is known to have written 31 letters, 14 visions, 45 poems and stanzas, and 16 poems in couplets, initially circulated in the Flemish lowlands and in the Rhineland.

Hadewijch was influential on the historically better known mystics of the 14th. century – particularly Jan Ruusbroec, who acknowledged her influence in his own work, and probably also Meister Eckhart. But she herself was forgotten by the end of the 15th. century and not rediscovered until the middle of the 19th. It is only in recent decades that she has once more received widespread attention.

The church and society of Hadewijch’s day were at best ambivalent about the Beguines and their relative independence. Hadewijch was able to flourish for a time, but “the intensity of her witness to Christ consciousness aroused bitter opposition from both church clerics and from within her own community”. She may have spent time in prison and possibly lived her last years serving and sleeping as an unpaid helper in a leprosarium.

By the early 14th. century, attitudes had become even harder. The French Beguine Marguerite de Porete was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310, as a ‘relapsed heretic’. In her widely popular book The Mirror of Simple Souls, she had written that “a soul, annihilated in the love of the creator could, and should, grant to nature all that it desires”. Her view was that such a soul could desire nothing but good, and was incapable of sin. But her words were interpreted as an invitation to ignore the moral law, and to suggest that one had no need for the Church and its sacraments or its code of ethics.

In 1311-12, the Council of Vienne attacked the Beguines for their alleged tendency to “dispute and preach about the highest Trinity and the divine essence and introduce opinions contrary to the Catholic faith concerning the articles of faith and the sacraments of the Church”. Although the Beguines continued to function, they became more cautious, more mainstream for their time and more likely to be aligned to other Orders. There were no more influential writers that I am aware of. Their wings had been clipped. They were no longer a threat.

I am drawn to Hadewijch’s writing for its eloquence in evoking profound contemplative experiences. Her spiritual boldness and unswerving commitment earn my deepest respect. She reveals the power in contemplative culture. Though not on the same path as Hadewijch, I am sensitive also to the heartbreaking gender, theological and institutional issues raised by her life and work.

My personal take-away is that innovative spiritual movements, however contemplative and mystical, are also part of the social world. They need to develop supportive communities, however precarious and marginal. They are effectively co-creating new culture, and it needs to be nurtured and protected. They also need to avoid turning entirely inwards and degenerating into cults. The Beguines seem to have got this balance about right, despite the highly repressive conditions of their time. This is a source of inspiration in itself.

POEM: CONFRONTED BY CHRYSANTHEMUMS

For his morning tea

A priest sits down

In utter silence –

Confronted by chrysanthemums.

Matsuo Basho The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches London: Penguin Books, 1966 (translated with an introduction by Nobuyuki Yuasa)

The introduction names Matsuo Basho (1644-94) as one of the greatest figures in Japanese literature, and describes his life and work. A younger son of a minor samurai family, at nine years old he was sent to the Todo family as page and study-mate for Yoshitada, its eleven year old heir. Yoshitada, born with a delicate constitution, was more interested in literary than in military arts, and he and Basho studied the fashionable art of linked verse under the poet Kigin.

When Yoshitada died at the age of 25, Basho left the service of the Todo family by running away to Kyoto where he spent five years studying Japanese and Chinese classics at Buddhist temples. Later he based himself in the younger city of Edo (now Tokyo) where he felt greater freedom to find his own direction as a poet.

Dissatisfied with the, to him, superficial culture of Edo’s ‘floating world’, Basho turned to Zen and learned meditation from the Zen priest Buccho. Poetry still came first for Basho, but his understanding and practice changed. He wrote of his own work: “What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and returning to the world of our daily experience to seek therein the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry”. Basho is a pen name, and the name of a species of banana tree about which Basho said: “the big trunk of the tree is untouched by the axe, for it is utterly useless as building wood. I love the tree, however, for its very uselessness … I sit underneath it, and enjoy the wind and rain that blow against it”.

Discussing the relationship between the poet and nature, he wrote: “go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective pre-occupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry might be – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”

By the time Basho came to write travel sketches, mixing haiku and prose in the genre known as haibun, he had spent some years casting away his material attachments. Now he had “nothing else to cast away but his own self which was in him as well as around him. He had to cast this self away, for otherwise he was not able to restore his true identity (what he calls ‘the everlasting self which is poetry’ in the passage above). … He left his house ‘caring nought for his provisions in the state of sheer ecstasy'”.

I love the haiku at the top of this post. I love the freshness and naturalness of the priest’s encounter with a flower that is steeped in the formal (and auspicious) symbolism of both Buddhist tradition and Japanese national culture, but is offered here in its simple yet extraordinary essence.

I cannot claim real understanding of traditional Japanese Zen culture and its relationship to creative arts. I have a smattering of knowledge and an awareness of some principles. But I am sure that much is lost in translation. What I do have is the capacity to open myself up to the words and images. Here I find the resonance of a richer experience of being, better grounded whilst also more spacious.

For his morning tea

A priest sits down

In utter silence –

Confronted by chrysanthemums.

POEM: THIS STILL CENTRE

Here, indeed, is no ordinary spot:

no place on the map, in the cosmos,

is anything like it.

This still Centre is the one spot

where energy is actually discovered

welling up out of Nothing.

All the irresistible torrents

which swirl and roar through every other place

rise silently in this place,

never ruffling its perfect calm.

Douglas Harding Everyday Seeing: daily meditations on the One within. London: The Shollond Trust, 2019 (Quotations selected by Richard Lang)

POEM: ASTONISHED BY THE ORDINARY

A discarded flowerhead, wet mud and grass.

I am drawn down into seeing,

And,

Astonished by the ordinary,

I am opened up to awe.

THOMAS TRAHERNE DAY 2021

The image is of two modern stained glass panels in Hereford Cathedral, commissioned in honour and remembrance of the seventeenth century priest, poet and mystic Thomas Traherne. The Anglican Church has dedicated 10 October to his memory. Here is the first verse of Desire, one of his poems:

“For giving me Desire,

An Eager Thirst, a burning Ardent Fire,

A virgin Infant Flame,

A Love with which into this World I came,

An Inward Hidden Heavenly Love,

Which on my Soul did work and Move,

And ever, ever me Enflame,

With restless longing Heavenly Avarice,

That never could be satisfied,

That incessantly a Paradice

Unknown suggest, and som thing undescried

Discern, and bear me to it; be

Thy Name for ever praised by me.” (1)

(1) Denise Inge (ed.) Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and His Writings London: The Canterbury Press Norwich, 2008 (Canterbury Studies in Spiritual Theology)

NOTE: Thomas Traherne (1636-74) was the son of a prosperous Hereford shoemaker – big house, numerous resident apprentices.  He grew up during the civil war (1642-49) and England’s  republican experiment (1649-1660) in a naturally royalist area. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1652 (16 being a normal age at the time) under a strictly Puritan head, took  a BA in 1656 and was appointed minister at the Herefordshire Parish of Credenhill by the Commissioners for the Approbation of Public Preachers in 1657. As soon as Charles II returned to England Traherne arranged to be ordained as Credenhill’s Anglican vicar, developed strong links with the renewed life of Hereford Cathedral, and also found time to be Chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Charles’ Lord Privy Seal. Denise Inge* describes Traherne as “distinguished from his seventeenth century peers by the fact that he is blissfully untroubled by the tensions, doubts, anxieties that (we are repeatedly told) mark the age in general”.

*Thomas Traherne Poetry and Prose London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002. (Selected and introduced by Denise Inge for the series The Golden Age of Spiritual Writing)

FAREWELL POEM

Passion too deep seems like none.

While we drink, nothing shows but the smile that will not come.

The wax candles feel, suffer at partings:

Their tears drip for us until the sky brightens.

Tu Mu (803-52)

From: Poems of the Late T’ang translated from the Chinese with an introduction by A.C. Graham Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965

Of this poet, Graham says: “Tu Mu is most admired as the master of chueh-chu, the New Style quatrain with an AABA rhyme scheme, like that of Omar Khayyam. The swift elegance of his verses, running effortlessly within strict formal limits, cannot be captured in my easy-going sprung rhythms.”

TURN ME TO GOLD

Turn Me to Gold: 108 Poems of Kabir (1) is a beautiful book, and the fruit of “five years spent in the unremitting presence of Kabir”. For Andrew Harvey, “Kabir is far more than a poet; he is a universal initiatory field, as expansive as Rumi and as embodied, radical and ferocious as Jesus”. Harvey himself is more than a translator, working with his “whole mind, heart and body on breathing and living his words, the fierce temperature of his truth” and speaking of his own work as “strange, precise” and “ecstatic”. I do not think of this post as an attempted book review, since both Kabir and Harvey are asking to be met rather than evaluated. Rather, I am attempting an act of recognition.

I have written about Kabir’s work before in this blog. In the past I have used other translations (2,3), particularly Robert Bly’s. Having now read Harvey’s work, I am clear that it would now be my first port of call when engaging with Kabir, whilst retaining my respect for the other translations and feeling glad to have them. When a text from another language, culture and time is important to me, I like to have multiple translations. Turn Me to Gold has the additional merit of Brett Hurd’s accompanying photographs of modern Varanasi.

A weaver by trade but a poet-singer by calling, Kabir lived in the Varanasi (Benares) of the fifteenth century. His philosophy incorporated various beliefs of both Muslims and Hindus and later became one of the major influences behind Sikhism. Like Rumi, further to the west and generations earlier, he followed a devotional and ecstatic path, and like Rumi he tried to be a bridge builder between traditions. His work, written as songs for public performance with musical accompaniment, was enduringly popular, surviving in late manuscripts from different parts of India, which show modification over time by the region, religion and caste position of generations of listeners. Kabir experienced himself as filled with the Divine, simply, directly and completely, and so was not a friend of religious formalism or extreme practices done for their own sake:

“I’m not in austerities, not in meditation,

Not in feasts, not in fasts,

Not in rituals laid down in sacred texts,

Not in yogic exercises –

Look for Me with passionate sincerity,

I’ll be beside you immediately.

Kabir says; Listen to Me –

Where your deepest faith is, I am.

Kabir had no truck with waiting for an afterlife: “everyone says they’re going to ‘Heaven. Where this ‘Heaven’ is, I don’t know … As long as you look for ‘Heaven’, you’ll never find your home’. To come alive, spiritual experience needs to be present and embodied:

“More than anything else

I cherish at heart,

What in this world

Makes me live

A limitless life”.

That sense of living a “limitless life” in “this world” connects Kabir’s poetic witness to my own contemplative inquiry, helping to enrich its purpose and meaning. I am a modern Druid, more Universalist than Pagan, and I have been concerned, though active, practical inquiry, to craft a practice that I call ‘contemplative’. But this identification, socially useful as it is, dissolves within the molten core of the practice itself. I do not have quite the sense of personified divinity that Kabir and Harvey do, but I have what I imagine to be the cognate experience of at-homeness in the flowing moment. In practice terms, this is represented in the “peace” at the centre of my circle, which I describe further as “the bubbling source from which I spring and heart of living presence”. This is an energised, dynamic and joyful peace, not a calm or static one. Such a peace, for me, is a taste of limitless life in this world. I find it hard to talk or write about – the words keep going subtly wrong for me. Kabir and Harvey use the language of love, and perhaps they are right. This peace is an aspect of love.

“You can’t tell

The story of love.

Not a word of it

Has ever been told.

A dumb man

Eats a sweet

And smiles for joy.”

(1) Kabir Turn Me To Gold: 1018 poems of Kabir Unity Village, MO: Unity Books, 2018 Translations by Andrew Harvey Photographs by Brett Hurd.

(2) Kabir Ecstatic Poems Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992 English versions by Robert Bly

(3) Kabir Songs of Kabir New York, NY: MacMillan, 1915 Translated by Rabindranath Tagore, assisted by Evelyn Underhill

AFFIRMATION: THOUGHTS OF A MODERN TAOIST

“Stand at the precipice

That existential darkness,

And call into the void.

It will surely answer.”

“The precipice represents our dilemma as human beings, the sense that this existence is all too random, all too absurd. Is there order? Is there a force directing things? These are the important issues, so important that we cannot rely on scripture, but must instead explore on our own.

“The followers of the Tao compare the void to a valley. A valley is void, yet it is productive and positive. The emptiness of the valley permits water to accumulate for plants. It allows life-giving sunlight to flood its surface. Its openness gives comfort to people and animals alike. The void should not be frightening. Rather, it contains all possibilities. Peer into it, call out, not just with your voice but with your whole being. If your cry is deep and sincere, an echo is sure to return. This is the affirmation of our existence, the affirmation that we are on the right path. With that encouragement, we can continue our lives and explorations. Then the void is not frightening, but a constant companion.”

Deng Ming-Dao 365 Tao: Daily Meditations New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992

RUMI: IN PRAISE OF MATURE COMPANIONSHIP

I say, Bring the simple wine that makes me loose and free!

You say, There’s a hurricane coming.

And I say, Let’s have some wine then,

and sit here like old statues and watch.

From the collection Unseen Rain: Quatrains of Rumi translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1986

A CONTEMPLATIVE LENS

As the autumn deepens, I find that my canal walking has slowed down and detached itself from notions of exercise. It has become spontaneously and informally meditative. I am simply noticing what is available, rather than striving to get to some other place in myself or in the world. Followers of the Headless Way (1) describe such attention as ‘being capacity for the world’, since the world knows itself through this awareness. One of the Headless Way’s poets, Colin Oliver, has the lines (2) “In the oneness of things/ I am nowhere in sight”. I am like that with my phone/camera. I rarely have it in the selfie mode, so it is a good device for the purpose.

My combined walking and photography have become a contemplative opportunity, an informal opening to the magic of what is given, here and now, which I sometimes refer to as ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. They have taken their place, unplanned, at the heart of my contemplative Druidry. They enable immersion in the apparent world, and provide a setting for what I like to call valley experiences, to distinguish them from the peak experiences more often discussed. I notice also an aversion to calling this activity a ‘spiritual practice’, a feeling that comes with the image of a caged bird. Not right for the context. Not right for that in me which does this.

Through this contemplative lens I can be appreciatively open even to appearances of dereliction and decay. They are simply part of what is. When I see an old and roofless building without this accepting contemplative gaze, I can become irritated and grumpy. Why isn’t it being renovated or pulled down, one or the other? Who is responsible? But in my picture taking mode, through the lens of contemplation, I am entirely at ease. The building has its place, just the way it is.

My meditative walk can highlight processes as well as still images. A decaying rose becomes a rose hip. The dying flower makes way for fruit, which will die back in its turn after seeding the next generation. ‘Decay’ is relative.

The lens of contemplation makes space for things that would be easy to miss otherwise. A waning moon, for example at 8 a.m. …

… or the delicacy, close-up, of old man’s beard …

… or a naturally sculpted head of an unknown bird or reptile, which also offers space for a cobweb …

These walks have taught me a lot. There must have been a gestation period between the time I gave them up – what with Covid-19 and my concerns about narrow paths and passing – and the time I resumed them. Along the way I’ve gained a different perspective on their role in my contemplative life. I used to see them as ancillary. Now they seem central.

(1) http://www.headless.org/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2016/04/28/poem-the-oneness-of-things/

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