Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Attention is the highest form of prayer

There is a well-known, much-loved eight-line poem by William Carlos Williams that goes:
so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens
The poem has been discussed endlessly by critics, but the secret of its appeal remains elusive. Sixteen words. Nursery words. No capitalization. No punctuation. The simplicity of the poem belies its power. Certainly, simplicity is part of the poem's meaning. It affirms something that we all know, even if we cannot put our knowledge into words. Something that exists beyond words, beyond philosophy, beyond science. "So much depends." So much depends upon something we can intuit -- in silent, jubilant beholding -- but not express, not as scientists, certainly not as theologians. Something hidden deeply in the exquisite complexity of the world.

It is the thing that Thomas Merton draws our attention to in his discussion of prayer, and in particular what he calls "prayer of the heart." He writes: "In the 'prayer of the heart' we seek first of all the deepest ground of our identity in God. We do not reason about dogmas of faith, or 'the mysteries.' We seek rather to gain a direct existential grasp, a personal experience of the deepest truths of life and faith." We discern this truth in direct and simple attention to reality, he says.

We need not feel obliged to use the G-word to appreciate Merton's notion of prayer. Apprehension of a red wheel barrow glazed with rain can be the highest kind of prayer, if, as the poet suggests, we are aware that so much depends upon the apprehending. We are struck, rung like a bell, a shudder down the spine. Color, shape, texture, matter, animation: red, wheel, glazed, water, chicken. Not a a mighty wind that shatters rocks or wrecks the walls of Jericho. Not earthquake, nor fire. Rather, a gentle breeze. A barrow glazed with rain. A mask that hides another mask, and another, and another. The prayer of the heart is not garrulous. It listens in silence, expectant.