Thursday, April 28, 2011

Poem

(Let me excerpt today a few paragraphs from When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy. I do so because I want tomorrow to begin here, and then go somewhere else. So if you've read the book, bear with me and be reminded. If you haven't read the book -- well, now's the chance to order it.)

Consider this well-known, much-loved eight-line poem by William Carlos Williams:
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, not as theologians. Something hidden deep 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 mighty wind that shatters rocks or tumbles the walls of Jericho. Not Lazarus waking from the dead. Not a miraculous cure of a terrible disease. Rather, a red barrow glazed with rain. The prayer of the heart is not garrulous. It listens in silence, expectant. If, as so many of the mystics said, the creation is the primary revelation, then it is when we listen to what is that we hear the voice of God.

(More tomorrow.)