Conversatio Divina

Poetry and the Art of Presence

Dana Cunningham

As a woman from a conservative, southern, Protestant background, I am grateful for the grounding love in which my faith journey was birthed. The foundational gifts within this crucible enabled me to explore my spiritual self in the world without losing the essence of faith, even as the search would eventually lead to avenues of expression beyond the spiritual landscape of my early church life.

I have been compelled for some time by the words of Paul in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (NRSVScripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). Within the context of my journey, the experience of transformation has been powerfully facilitated by two discoveries: poetry and the cultivation of inner stillness. Through these gates I have found that the search for this kind of renewal is part of the very fabric of life itself. It is a search that can take a lifetime and, perhaps, not less than everything.

01.  The Reciprocity of Silence and Poetry

There are times when we hear or see something that feels deeply resonant within us. As this truth is often accessed through cognitive awareness, it sometimes stays in the mind and does not become fully a part of us. I have been deeply curious about how we embody what shines for us, how we make it real. How does this resonance move from the mind into the body—the viscera, the cells, the very heart—so that we live it with the very fabric of our being?

Inner stillness and poetry can lead us to both a greater attentive presence within ourselves and, thus, a broader access to reality. Attentiveness enables us to participate with our whole being in what was glimpsed initially only with the mind. It is as if silence, which implies listening, and poetry participate in a mutual reciprocity, each feeding the other. A quiet and clear mind receives those spare words that reveal truth, and a hush comes over us as a poem leads us into a new way of seeing.

Poetry, then, becomes an avenue for encountering oneself in a way that approaches the edge of the wordless place—the still point in which we simply are. The desire to rest in who we are is at the root of our deepest human longing. It is this longing that silence opens and poetry evokes, and suddenly what could not be revealed in a thousand lectures, sermons, or therapy sessions emerges for us as something entirely fresh. We gain new access to something previously hidden. While the mystery is not solved, we are given the capacity to interface with the veil, almost as though we are remembering. Within this remembering, we have an opportunity to move closer to our essence.

02.  Cultivating Attentiveness

What does it mean to cultivate contemplative awareness as a quiet landscape within the self? In the words of the late Gerald May, contemplation is “immediate open presence in the world, directly perceiving and lovingly responding to things as they really are.”Gerald May, “Contemplative Spirituality.” A Shalem Senior Staff Monograph, March 2004, http://www.shalem.org/publication/articles/contemplativespirituality.html.

Thomas Merton described it as an intuitive awakening in which our personal reality becomes fully alive to the mystery of God. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1962) 9. Both recognized that the real work of learning to respond to things as they really are starts with the practice of noticing and honoring who we really are in any given moment.

The relationship between silence, contemplative awareness, and poetry is revealed in Rilke’s love poem to God from the Book of Hours. It begins,

You come and go. The doors swing closed
ever more gently, almost without a shudder.
Of all who move through the quiet houses,
you are the quietest.

Rilke is inviting the reader to the place of quiet, the place where listening is cultivated. In these next lines, he exposes our noisy forgetfulness and how easily we become indifferent to the holiness of even the smallest acts:

We become so accustomed to you,
we no longer look up
when your shadow falls over the book we are reading
and makes it glow. For all things
sing you: at times
we just hear them more clearly.

 At the end of the poem, we are given an astonishing insight into how we and our spheres of influence are enlarged. Rilke speaks of the importance our center point holds for integration and wholeness:

You are a wheel at which I stand,
whose dark spokes sometimes catch me up,
revolve me nearer to the center.
Then all the work I put my hand to
widens from turn to turn.Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, translators, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1996) 81.

With these extraordinary images Rilke invites us to notice the quiet place that exists within our own being amidst all the distractions of daily living. This theme parallels the writings of John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Julian of Norwich. Their powerful accounts of their inner journeys reveal the importance of learning to attend to the interior contours of one’s being. For Rilke, acknowledging this inner place and consistently nurturing it translate into inspired action in the world, one’s work “widening from turn to turn.”

We find another powerful invitation to this kind of attentiveness in “The Guest House” by Jelaluddin Rumi. The thirteenth-century poet encourages us to open to all that is rising within, without discrimination: 

This being human is a guest house,
every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably,
he may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.Coleman Barks, translator, The EssentialRumi (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1995) 109.

Our modern culture discourages honoring these unwelcome experiences. Instead, we either repress our feelings or express ourselves in reaction, ignoring much of our emotional life. We are left with responses that do not truly serve our deepest longings, but only perpetuate our reactionary cycle.

It is interesting to note that the words reactive and creative are formed with the same letters. I have found this to be a powerful metaphor for working with the mind, and an impetus to explore ways in which destructive patterns of reactivity can find more creative avenues of expression. The invitation to pay attention to oneself in this way is also found in the Buddhist teaching of “not expressing and not suppressing”—the idea that careful attention to oneself in the moment renders a kind of spaciousness in which we are not compelled either to express reactively or to suppress our emotions. Spaciousness is the fertile ground in which new, creative insights can emerge.

03.  Cultivating Openness and Surrender

Rumi’s “Guest House” gives us permission to acknowledge that every moment brings new experience, and whatever it is, it can be held in loving awareness and treated honorably. This practice can be an entrance point into knowing the self more directly, noting where the emotion resides in the body and what might be below the surface of what has our attention. In these sacred moments, one can acknowledge the presence of the Spirit moving within and pointing us toward the possibility of healing.

Similarly, “Easter Morning in Wales” by David Whyte calls the reader to the possibility of seeing with new eyes a deeper, more personal meaning of resurrection. The poem begins with vivid imagery of the inner garden and all that lies hidden there, and then shifts our attention to the rays of sunlight calling us to awaken from our sleep. We are surprised, even stunned, at the end to find we are right there in the midst of that garden where the stone was rolled away. Suddenly there is the possibility of sharing at the depths of our being in the experience of life coming out of death and surrender.

 

A garden inside me, unknown, secret,
neglected for years,
The layers of its soil deep and thick.
Trees in the corners with branching arms
And the tangled briars like broken nets.

 

Sunrise through the misted orchard,
Morning sun turns silver on pointed twigs.
I have woken from the sleep of ages and I am not sure
if I’m really seeing, or dreaming,
or simply astonished
walking towards sunrise
to have stumbled into the garden
where the stone was rolled from the tomb of longing.David Whyte, Where Many Rivers Meet (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 1996) 76.

 

In Rumi’s poem “Quietness,” we encounter a fiery word painting that reveals the severe nature of the journey toward love—a journey that requires the death of all our striving:

 

Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Escape.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
You’re covered with thick clouds.
Slide out the side. Die,
and be quiet.
Quietness is the surest sign that you’ve died.
Your old life was a frantic running from silence.
The speechless full moon
comes out now.The Essential Rumi, 22.

 

Within the stillness of dying and letting go, our deepest longings are transformed as the energy held within them is released. In this embrace, we are met in the heart of God. The experience is rich with the buried truth of who we are: fearfully, wonderfully, and uniquely made. This can be the birth of a powerful new embodiment of our true selves. Permission to be real may undergird the process in which we become fully seen and known by God and ourselves. We begin to experience a wholeness that we have not known before: the integration of the shadowy parts of our being as they come into the light of our welcoming presence.

The following two poems, by Mary Oliver and David Whyte, respectively, speak powerfully to the practice of making one’s life and faith one’s own. They serve as an invitation to find one’s place amidst the competing voices in one’s internal and external worlds. Read these poems contemplatively and notice what each evokes.

04.  The Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination.
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992) 110.

05.  Self Portrait

It doesn’t interest me if there is one God or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world
With its harsh need to change you.
If you can look back with firm eyes,
Saying this is where I stand.
I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living,
Falling toward the center of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day,
With the consequence of love
And the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.
I have heard, in that fierce embrace,
Even the gods speak of God.David Whyte, Fire in the Earth (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 1997) 10.

 

These poems remind us that the path of becoming fully human and fully alive is not an easy road. They speak in powerful images of the ways we are coerced to conform, the ways we are made to feel guilty, the ways we are compelled to try to get it right in order to belong. They expose how we strive for the right theology, the right behavior, the right look, the right mate, the right life, revealing that the search for “getting it right” is ultimately unsatisfying if it doesn’t resonate with the truth of our souls. In “Self Portrait” the poet demands that we not give him a neat, pious theology if we haven’t first come face to face with our own longings, grief, fear, loss, and failures.

In a similar vein, the following poem, David Whyte’s “The Well of Grief,” invites us to ponder what we will miss if we avoid opening ourselves to life’s inevitable pain:

 

Those who will not slip beneath
The still surface on the well of grief
Turning downward through its black water
To the place we cannot breathe
Will never know the source from which we drink,
The secret water, cold and clear,
Nor find in the darkness glimmering
The small round coins
Thrown by those who wished for something else.Whyte, Where Many Rivers Meet, 35.

 

Again, we feel the power that is released when we are given permission to embrace the reality of our lives. Allowing the questions and the struggle invites an honesty that moves us toward surrender. This process is inextricably a part of our becoming more present to who we are and to things as they are. Within a spaciousness cultivated over time, we can truly meet those parts of ourselves that are hardest to face, and surrender our deeply ingrained defenses against them. Here, if only for a moment, we may experience a place marked by a particular kind of tenderness and, perhaps, even lightness. This is the place of transformation.

06.  Cultivating Compassion

This kind of surrender also serves to awaken a larger vision within us. When we meet fully our own suffering and joy, we move toward a broader compassion for those in our daily lives and for the larger, global family. Our surrender also transforms our capacity for intercession and understanding what is required of us in any given moment. We realize our connectedness with all beings; a different kind of belonging emerges, one that is not contingent on an external experience of belonging. It is as if we have learned to drink from the spring that Jesus describes to the woman at the well, a source that will not run dry. In this way, our internally sustained presence has influence. We catch a glimpse of this kind of presence in Rumi’s poem “The Image of Your Body”:

 

You’ve made it out of the city,
That image of your body, trembling with traffic
And fear slips behind.
Your face arrives in the redbud trees, and the tulips.

 

You’re still restless.
Climb up the ladder to the roof.

You’re by yourself a lot,
become the one that when you walk in,
luck shifts to the one who needs it.
If you’ve not been fed, be bread.Open Secret: Versions of Rumi, trans. John Moyne and Coleman Barks (Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, Inc., 1984) 51.

 

In the presence of the Holy One, we begin to belong to ourselves. We have the opportunity to realize, perhaps more deeply than ever, the ways we have attempted to hide those parts of ourselves that we have in common with everyone else. Here we may discover the emerging capacity to inspire a sense of compassion and belonging in others as we practice this kind of presence.

 

To One Who Has Seen and Understood

Tread gently when you walk into my life,
For around the body of my soul I have gathered
Fragile gossamer, to the floor, of little lies—
Not to deceive you—but to protect me.

Do not pull at them to render my soul naked,
For they hide truths I have not yet the strength to face.

And when they are gone I may perish.
In the cold realities of your judgment I may die. 

But let me stand protected yet awhile.
Talk to me in love, and when I am secure in that
Those lies will fall away as unneeded peel
Revealing the fruit, the feast.Anonymous.

 

In exploring the extraordinary awareness that infuses these poems, we see that the poet and the contemplative are one. The poets who have graced my journey have spent a great deal of time looking within and listening to their own deep life. By doing so, they have cultivated a capacity to respond to things as they really are. Their work has provided a sacred space in which I have been able to ask the questions that have fueled my search for an authentic life and faith.

The capacity to engage in the mystery of Truth in a Trinitarian way—with mind, heart, and body—makes all the difference in the expression of our full humanity. Indeed, the embrace of a deep, abiding attentiveness makes all things new. For these unheralded saints who have so richly contributed to my experience of being contemplatively present to myself and to the world, my gratitude is inexpressible.

Footnotes

Dana Cunningham is an instrumental pianist whose primary passion is performing her original compositions and reciting poetry in concert and retreat settings. She has a degree in communication from Vanderbilt University, where she also studied piano at Blair School of Music. Dana currently lives and composes in the mountains of New Hampshire. For more information, visit www.danacunningham.com.