Tag Archives: spirituality

‘If strangers meet’ by E.E. Cummings

If strangers meet
life begins-
not poor not rich
(only aware)
kind neither
nor cruel
(only complete)
i not not you
not possible;
only truthful
-truthfully, once
if strangers(who
deep our most are
selves)touch:
forever
(and so to dark)

 

I love this poem because of the way it describes a chance meeting between two people, and the connection that can be made between strangers. This poem always makes me think of strangers on a bus, or on a train; it makes me think of the recognition we can find in a chance glance exchanged — the innocence that exists in that moment — before we know anything about the person — before judgement can interfere.

You could also read the poem as showing us a sort of “love at first sight” moment, which is truly touching. In the moment the strangers’ eyes meet, their owners are no longer “poor, not rich/ (only aware)”. The self has been forgotten and each person is only aware of the other and nothing else. The strangers, in this moment, are neither “kind” nor “cruel” but “only complete”. This part is so beautiful because it delivers the idea of how, when we connect with strangers (on a bus for example) we recognise instinctively — in the split second before all our baggage and judgement and personality interferes — a fellow spirit and inhabitant of this world.

The fleetingness and sense of chance that pervades the poem (note the title: “If strangers meet”) reminds us of the rarity of humanity recognising itself in others. It might only happen “once”. But when strangers, “who/deep our most are/ selves” — who are the same as us, at the core — “touch”, then it is “forever”. There is something divine in this recognition that makes it eternal.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘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

‘The Journey’ by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – – – determined to save
the only life you could save.

Here is another poem by Mary Oliver that I love. As always, her language is fresh and deft, and simple in the way that wisdom is always simple. There is almost something Hemingway-esque about its simplicity.

I think that this poem is a very beautiful description of what it is like to discover one’s vocation. A vocation is something you “[have] to do”, something you will gravitate toward despite the “bad advice” and the “old tug” of those around you pulling you back or in other directions.

And there is always a moment where you must “[leave] their voices behind”, and when you do, the “stars [begin] to burn”. Suddenly, you can hear your own voice and it “[keeps] you company”. I love the description of the burning stars here; the world is brighter, richer, and more beautiful when you are doing the thing you were born to do. The burning stars deliver a sense of beauty, but they also make me think of the idea of destiny or fate — as though the stars are burning with pleasure that their decree is being carried out.

A vocation could be anything: it could be being a writer, a painter, a mother, a priest, a good friend… Whatever it is, it is the “only thing you could do” and yours is the “only life you could save”. I firmly believe that everybody on this earth has a vocation — a thing that they were born to do — the “only thing” they could do. But it always takes courage to do it.

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

‘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 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