Tag Archives: religion

‘I was nothing’ by Lalla

When my mind was cleansed of impurities,
like a mirror of its dust and dirt,
I recognized the Self in me:
When I saw Him dwelling in me,
I realized that He was the Everything
and I was nothing.

Lalla was a Hindu mystic and saint who lived in Kashmir, India, in the 1300s. I think this poem is a beautiful expression of what it feels like to meditate on God. We realise that God is “Everything” and that the “I’ — our ego — is “nothing”. This is not a negative thing, and we are losing nothing in this transformation, we simply become connected to the Divine — are filled and consumed by it — and become one with it.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Consecrated’ by St. Catherine of Sienna

All has been consecrated.
The creatures in the forest know this,
The earth does, the seas do, the clouds know
as does the heart
full of love.

Strange a priest would rob us of this knowledge
and then empower himself with the ability
to make holy
what already was.

This is a poem by one of the great Catholic saints, Catherine of Sienna, who lived in the 14th Century. Her’s is a fascinating biography: she saw guardian angels from the age of 6, and became a nun at the age of 16 (against the wishes of her parents, who wanted her to marry.) She continued having visions and mystical experiences throughout her short life (she died at just 33), as well as writing much poetry, letters, and as other writings that are still considered very important in the Church.

I love this poem because it seems almost heretical, yet it was written by a saint. It is so beautiful, and voices something that I have often thought myself — Why do I need a priest to act as a mediator between myself and God?

“Everything has been consecrated”, St Catherine tells us. The world knows this; nobody has a special authority to make places, things or people holy. There is something almost pagan here, in the idea that the “creatures in the forest”, the “earth”, the “seas” and the “clouds” know it. St Catherine finds holiness everywhere — in nature — and tells us that we do not need another person or ‘holy man’ to consecrate what God has already consecrated. You do not need a person to perform any kind of ritual, or blessing over you to make you holy: you already are holy.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Reality’ by Rabia al-Basri

In love, nothing exists between heart and heart.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.
The one who tastes, knows;
the one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
And who lives as a sign for your journey?

Rabia al-Basri lived in the 8th century in Basra, Iraq, and is generally considered to be the first female Sufi saint. There are many fascinating myths surrounding her life, though there doesn’t seem to be any definitive story for her. What does seem sure is that she never married, and that she instead devoted her entire existence to God, surrounded by some very faithful disciples.

To me, the first line of this poem really communicates what I understand to be the essence of mystical Islam: “In love, nothing exists between heart and heart”. Here, we find the idea of there being no reality but God: God is omnipresent. God and man — God and all of creation — are one. It is easy to understand this if you have ever been in love.

All of this puts me in mind of the Sufi practice of Silent Dhikr. Silent Dhikr is a form of meditation; it is the constant prayer of the Sufis. It literally means ‘remembrance of God’. The prayer consists of contemplation of the First Kalima, which is heard in the Islamic call to prayer:

La Illaha, Il Allahu.

I only know a few words in Arabic, and so my understanding of this vital phrase comes from books on Sufism that I have read. The traditional translation of this phrase is “There is no God but God”, which is fairly straightforward. However, other translations (which I prefer) are “There is no reality but God” and “The ‘I’ is an illusion; God alone is real”. What a beautiful, far-reaching mantra on which to meditate.

I love the part of this poem that says, “The one who tastes, knows;/ the one who explains, lies”. Surely knowledge of God is something that one cannot employ reason to attain. As Keats said of poetry, it is “an experience beyond thought.”

Next, Basri beautifully illustrates an important spiritual paradox: God is one “in whose presence you are blotted out” and yet “in whose being you still exist”. This is a wonderful poetic expression of the experience of Divine Love. One is annihilated by God — one’s ego dissolves in his presence — and yet one’s entire existence is only in Him. It is a peculiar and (I think) eternally fascinating paradox. It reminds me of something the Prophet Mohammed said: “Die before you die”.

In my opinion, Rabia al-Basri had an incredible gift to be able to express such elusive, intangible truths in her poetry.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Starry Night’ by Anne Sexton

That does not keep me from having a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars. –Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.

This poem is inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting Starry Night. It begins with a quote from a letter written by Van Gogh, which says that, despite himself, he has a deep, “terrible” need for religion, and that it is when he feels this need that he goes out and “paint[s] the stars”. I think there is something profound here about man’s need for something eternal and sacred. Though Van Gogh didn’t want religion in his life, he nevertheless had a need for the sacred. By creating art — by going out and painting the stars — Van Gogh was in effect immortalising the beauty of the world. He was acknowledging the transcendent power of beauty. Though he may not necessarily feel the presence of the Divine, a painter understands eternity, and s/he understands the holiness of beauty.

Van Gogh was a tortured, troubled artist just as Sexton was. When you look at ‘Starry Night’, the painting, there is such movement in the brushstrokes, and such turbulence — almost violence — in the thick swirling sky with its “eleven stars”, boiling in the “hot sky.” I love Sexton’s description of the painting, with the “black-haired tree” slipping up “like a drowned woman into the hot sky”. This particular description really struck me. When you look at the painting you will see that the tree does indeed look as though it were made of hair. There is something so dark and sinister about that image — it’s so “alive”, and “it moves”, as Sexton writes. I love the way the night “boils” in the poet’s description, because that is exactly how the painting looks to me.

The refrain “This is how I want to die” is repeated twice in the poem. It is a sort of mantra, and is central to the meaning of this poem in my view. I know that I always bring everything back to Keats, but this reminds me of his Ode to a Nightingale. In Nightingale, the poet listens to the beautiful sound of the bird’s voice (which represents the eternal beauty of Poetry and Art) and feels that this would be the perfect moment to die:

“Now more than ever seems it rich to die,/ To cease upon the midnight with no pain,/ While thou art pouring forth thy soul/ In such an ecstasy!”

I think Sexton is expressing something similar, here. However, there is of course more violence in Sexton’s desire for death, which I think reflects her suicidal nature and the fact that she would eventually commit suicide. Sexton does not want to simply “cease upon the midnight with no pain”; she wants to be “sucked up by that great dragon, to split/ from my life with no flag,/ no belly,/ no cry.” Sexton wants to be a part of the violent narrative. She wants to be a part of the mythology — the world where the “old, unseen serpent swallows up the stars”. There is religious imagery here with the serpent (the devil), and the moon pushing children “like a god, from its eye”. I think perhaps that — in the same way that Van Gogh painted the stars because he had a “terrible need” for something eternal and sacred — Sexton wanted to die in a glorified way — through suicide, as a tortured poet  – in order to join the hosts of dead poets that are immortal because their stories and their work is eternal. Perhaps this poem expresses a sense that Sexton felt suicide would be dramatic and violent and would immortalise her.

My final thought on this poem is to do with the final words: “no flag,/ no belly,/ no cry”. This part of the poem seems extremely violent to me. Sexton is expressing her deep, dark desire to part with life, but she goes further… The “no flag” part suggests to me that the poet is saying she wants to die not as a martyr, or for any particular cause — not holding up the flag of patriotism, or religion (or even the white flag of surrender.) No, the poet does not want to die as a victim (perhaps that is part of the attraction of suicide to her). She also writes that she wants to die with “no belly”. This is an interesting image, which is clearly linked to the poet’s femininity (the belly being the home of the womb and the place in the body where life starts.) Is Sexton saying here that she wants to die with no belly — with no gender? Sexton did have children in reality, I think maybe three or even more, I can’t remember. In any case, here she is expressing a desire to die without producing more life in the process; she wants her belly — her ability to reproduce — to be gone. I think that is is mostly about not wanting to be defined by her womanhood, but rather by her abilities as a poet. There might also be a sense here in which she is saying that she wants her creative production to stop (as it would, at her death) — to be final and untouchable.  Finally, the poet writes “no cry”. I think that these final words come back again to the idea of surrender. I think Sexton is saying that she does not want to die a victim, with a “cry” of pain or defiance. She wants to go willingly, bravely, and on her own terms.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Unbreakable’ by Mirabai

Unbreakable, O Lord,
Is the love
That binds me to You:
Like a diamond,
It breaks the hammer that strikes it.

My heart goes into You
As the polish goes into the gold.
As the lotus lives in its water,
I live in You.

Like the bird
That gazes all night
At the passing moon,
I have lost myself dwelling in You.

O my Beloved Return.

Mirabai is a Hindu saint and she wrote an enormous amount of devotional poetry in the 16th century. I find her work very inspirational and full of wisdom and beauty. I think this is a simply beautiful poem. I love the images of the poet’s love for God as an unbreakable diamond, and of her heart as a lotus, and God as the water in which it lives. My favourite image is that of the lotus flower, because it is so still and peaceful and pure.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The parable of the old man and the young’ by Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This poem retells the story of Abraham and his son, Isaac. At the beginning of the poem, you could almost believe that it is going to be a conventional telling of the story, because it sounds just like the Bible translation. It is not until you read the description of Abram’s preparations of “fire and iron” that it becomes clear that this is a different version of the old parable. Owen creates a clear depiction of the particular war in which he was fighting, with the “belts and straps”, and the “parapets and trenches”.

In the original story from the bible, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son for Him. Abraham goes to do this, preparing an altar and a knife, but at the last minute, God tells him to stop. God tells Abraham to sacrifice a Ram instead. Abraham is relieved and sacrifices the Ram in the place of his son, and Isaac lives.

In this poem, Wilfred Owen has changed Abraham into a symbol of the politicians of Europe, sending the young men to die in their millions during the First World War. It is a recurring theme in much of the poetry from the Great War — the horror and disgust that the soldiers and soldier-poets felt at the reality of old, rich men sending the young masses to the trenches be slaughtered. Siegfried Sassoon (fellow poet and friend of Wilfred Owen) describes similar disgust for the ignorant men who sent the masses to their deaths in his poem Base Details:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say–“I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die–in bed.

I wanted to post Sassoon’s poem here because I think that it is interesting to see the difference between Sassoon’s tone and Owen’s. You can feel the anger in Base Details — but Sassoon has channelled his anger into a satirical piece that uses irony to mock what he called “callous complacence” (in his letter, A soldier’s declaration, which was read out to the House of Commons in 1917).

In both Sassoon’s and Owen’s poems there is a strong sense of the futility of the slaughter of the soldiers, but I am personally more drawn to Owen’s poem because I prefer the tragic tone rather than the satire of Sassoon…

Owen’s contempt for the politicians is clear in ‘The parable of the old man and the young’ as he talks about the “Ram of Pride”. The angel in the poem asks Abram to sacrifice his Pride instead of his son, but Abram “would not so”. Here you can see the disgust that Owen has for the politicians and perhaps for civilians too, like Sassoon. How can we not have contempt for one who would sacrifice his son (and “half the seed of Europe”) rather than his Pride?

I love the way that Owen has separated the final two lines of the poem, because it sets them apart and emphasises their importance and tragedy:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

There is, to me, a real sense of powerlessness in these lines; even God could not stop Abram from killing his son and the sons of Europe. That phrase “half the seed of Europe” delivers such a sense of waste. The description of Abram as “the old man” is very evocative, I think, of a miserly creature — it is a description that has very negative connotations. Isaac, however, is an innocent victim, like the soldiers.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Lovers’ by Jalalud’din Rumi

The Lovers
will drink wine night and day.
They will drink until they can
tear away the veils of intellect and
melt away the layers of shame and modesty.
When in Love,
body, mind, heart and soul don’t even exist.
Become this,
fall in Love, and you will not be separated again.

Rumi’s poetry has become very important to me over the past couple of years. His descriptions of God make sense to me. I chose this particular poem as an example because I love the analogy that Rumi often uses of God as a lover. Sufis talk about God as ‘The Beloved’ and I think this is such a perfect name. A lot of Rumi’s poems could be read as love poems, but they are in fact addressed to the Divine, and I just think that is very beautiful.
This poem explains how finding God is like falling in love. You have to become intoxicated by Him, like the Lovers, and the “veils of intellect” must fall away. The “body, mind, heart and soul don’t even exist” when one is in love — you become the other that you love. “Shame and modesty”, and the “intellect” — these are the things that separate us from God. We must “become” a Lover — fall in love with the Divine — “and you will not be separated again”. If we are not separated from the Divine then we are the Divine — one with God.(And if you are thinking that such a surrender of the intellect is stupid, then I refer you to my blog about ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats’. That explains why I don’t think this is stupid, and why I don’t believe the intellect is the only path that can lead us to truth.)

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh