Happy St. Patrick’s Day to those who are celebrating; Happy Green Everything Day to everyone

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.
Attributed to St. Patrick



Okay, it IS St. Patrick’s Day, but the whole green thing, I made up. Why not? Celebrating green: as in the traditional color of St. Patrick’s Day; as in the Emerald Isle with its engaging traditions; as in a sustainable world; as in the lovely green eyes some people have; as in Christmas Trees, front lawns, and forests.



All over the world there are wonderful religious and cultural traditions around this day, which in Ireland is a holy day of obligation for Catholics, meaning attendance at Mass is required.

St. Patrick, a fifth century Roman, went to Ireland to convert its peoples from their pagan* Celtic traditions. He is considered the Apostle of Ireland, equal to the original twelve. He is revered by Lutherans, Anglicans, and the Eastern Rites (Orthodox and Catholic) as well as the Roman Catholic Church. It is a day cheerfully celebrated with long colorful parades and famously or infamously (depending on your view) with a heavy-duty beer-fest, sometimes with beer that is tinted green.

*”Pagan” is often used as a pejorative. I would submit that the pagan path is simply another well leading to the one great Spiritual river. We see evidence on the Earth and in the sky, that the Creative Essence (also known as God) expresses with great diversity. Dishonoring and dismissing other traditions, other mystical expressions of the one Light, is disrespectful and a powerful way manipulative political and religious leaders pit us against one another for their own ends, even to war, torture and genocide. “To connect with the great river we all need a path, but when you get down there there’s only one river.” Matthew Fox The other guy’s religion is sacred, not superstition.


On my nightstand, I keep a copy of Eknath Easwaran’s God Makes the Rivers to Flow, An Anthology of the World’s Sacred Poetry and Prose. Here is St. Patrick’s Prayer shared by Eknath in that small treasure of a volume. Depending on what your tradition or leanings are, you could substitute God, Allah, Being, Mind, Light or some other resonating pointer in place of “Christ” as used here.

ST. PATRICK’S PRAYER

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Salvation is of the Lord.
Salvation is of the Christ.
May your salvation, Lord, be ever with us.

© 2019, Jamie Dedes; illustration from Saint Patrick Catholic Church (Junction City, Ohio) – stained glass, Saint Patrick courtesy of Nheyob under CC BY-SA 4.0.; clip art courtesy of Public Domain Clip Art.

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WORLD PEACE & PEACE OF HEART, A DECISION, NOT A PRAYER

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Dalai Lama

PEACE IS A DECISION, NOT A PRAYER.

I’m taking a few days off but not before I wish you a joy-filled holy season and a peace-filled 2019.

Warmly,

Jamie


FOUR MOTTOS

Look up and not down;
Look out and not in.
Look forward and not back;
Lend a hand!

Unitarian Minister, Edward Everett Hale (1882-1909)


RECOMMENDED: RETURN OF THE MYSTERIOUS DIALOGUE, Anjum Wasim Dar, The Unsaid Words of Untold Stories, in which Anjum ji gives me too much credit but is a fine example of someone who is working in maturity to find and refine her voice and who practices the presence of God each minute, each hour, every day and who strives continually to be her best poet and best self. Bravo, my stout-hearted friend, and thank you for the inspiration. ♥ 


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Poet and writer, I was once columnist and associate editor of a regional employment publication. I currently run this site, The Poet by Day, an information hub for poets and writers. I am the managing editor of The BeZine published by The Bardo Group Beguines (originally The Bardo Group), a virtual arts collective I founded.  I am a weekly contributor to Beguine Again, a site showcasing spiritual writers. My work is featured in a variety of publications and on sites, including: Levure littéraure, Ramingo’s PorchVita Brevis Literature,Compass Rose, Connotation PressThe Bar None GroupSalamander CoveSecond LightI Am Not a Silent PoetMeta / Phor(e) /Play, and California Woman. My poetry was recently read by Northern California actor Richard Lingua for Poetry Woodshed, Belfast Community Radio. I was featured in a lengthy interview on the Creative Nexus Radio Show where I was dubbed “Poetry Champion.”


The BeZine: Waging the Peace, An Interfaith Exploration featuring Fr. Daniel Sormani, Rev. Benjamin Meyers, and the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi among others

“What if our religion was each other. If our practice was our life. If prayer, our words. What if the temple was the Earth. If forests were our church. If holy water–the rivers, lakes, and ocean. What if meditation was our relationships. If the teacher was life. If wisdom was self-knowledge. If love was the center of our being.” Ganga White, teacher and exponent of Yoga and founder of White Lotus, a Yoga center and retreat house in Santa Barbara, CA

“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.” Lucille Clifton

“A Local Habitation and a Name” — Poetry, Memory, and Biography by James R. Cowles

Prof. Molly Worthen’s recent reflection on the paucity of emphasis on memorizing poetry resonated with me very strongly, though for reasons she did not account for in her recent op-ed piece in the New York Times. Based on my own experience spanning an academic lifetime, I would suggest a different approach that could render memorizing poetry more relevant and even more pleasurable. My methodology is very simple and straightforward to describe and, perhaps for that reason, quite effective:  instead of emphasizing rote memorization of poetry, instill a love of the text itself. Learn to love Hamlet, love it to the point that you read it over and over again during a lifetime, and memorizing the great soliloquy will most likely take care of itself. Above all, learn to reflect on your life experience within the enclosing context of literature.  Herewith some personal examples, which include both poetry and prose.

The first time I can remember that a literary text revolutionized my life was when, in 8th-grade AP English in the early 60s, Mr. Gordon Morse, teaching English at Horace Man Intermediate School in Wichita, KS, where I grew up, one day handed out to his class mimeographed copies of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great poem “Ulysses”.  I have written of this elsewhere. I had always had, even at that callow age, a restlessness, an intellectual wanderlust. (I think that my one signal achievement in the American educational system, in fact, is that I managed to emerge from junior-high school with my capacity for gratuitous passionate curiosity intact. Many are not so fortunate.) Thanks to Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, I realized that I was not alone. A poet writing in Victorian England was writing about me. I remember cloistering myself in my bedroom that night and skipping dinner … just to read that poem over and over again. (To this day, those few occasions when I smell mimeograph fluid always evoke memories of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”.) Now I can recite it by heart, not because I sat down and deliberately memorized it, but because awakened passion did what a brute determination to memorize could not.

In my twenties and into my early thirties, I was subject to periods of dangerously black clinical depression and abject panic attacks. That I am no longer thus tormented I credit to being married to a woman who is uniquely proficient at just putting up with me. But it was not always thus.  During that grim time, I would turn … yes … to Hamlet’s soliloquy and escape possible suicide by remembering  Hamlet’s haunting question about “what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause”.  I continued living precisely because I was more disposed to “bear those ills [I] have than fly to others [I] know not of”.  I also read multiple dozens of times Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus in my first undergraduate philosophy course at Wichita State University, and can still recite from memory the opening paragraph about suicide being the “only truly serious philosophical problem”, and why ancillary questions are just “games”. I do not know when I realized these texts were so intimate a part of me. As with “Ulysses,” I just “woke up” one day and realized they were. Over time, in both cases and in both cases because those texts had become so “existentially” important to me, I had memorized the text without consciously realizing it or intending to.

The crisis was intensified, in fact, nearly rendered hopeless, when I discovered T. S. Eliot’s pre-1929 poetry, e.g., “Hollow Men” and, of course, The Wasteland. Both were, on vastly different scales – “Hollow Men” on the level of individuals; The Wasteland on the level of the whole of western culture – autobiographical in the sense of being descriptions of my own self-perception during this period, i.e., when I was an undergraduate and early in my grad-student years.  We are the hollow men, / We are the stuffed men, / Leaning together, / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!  … Thanks to The Wasteland, I also understood intuitively and from the inside the vapidity of Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante … the wisest woman in Europe, but behind  whom stands only A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And / the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, /And the dry stone no sound of water.

But fortunately for me, at some point in the process of dealing with my predisposition to depression and intermittent suicidal ideation, I discovered T. S. Eliot’s post-1929 poetry. (The “magic” year of 1929 turned out to be Eliot’s annus mirabilis:  the year he converted to Christianity, joined the Anglican Church, and became a self-described “Anglo-Catholic” — to the astonishment of good friends like Virginia Woolf.) I still saw myself in “Gerontion”:  “An old man [though I was only in my thirties] in a dry month … waiting for rain [whose] house was a decayed house”. “Gerontion” remains for me to this day one of the most starkly terrifying poems in the English language, much of the terror being traceable to Gerontion’s insipidity by virtue of his embodiment of the buried life Matthew Arnold had previously written aboutThere rises an unspeakable desire  / After the knowledge of our buried life,  / A thirst to spend our fire and restless force  / In tracking out our true, original course; / A longing to inquire  / Into the mystery of this heart which beats  / So wild, so deep in us, to know  / Whence our lives come and where they go. I could relate, and to this day can recite large passages of “Gerontion” from memory.

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Little Gidding

 

I say “fortunately for me”, because, along with “Gerontion,” I also discovered Eliot’s great cycle of religious poetry, The Four Quartets, which I am still, after forty-plus years, very much in the process of unpacking, and which I still consider to this day to be the greatest religious poetry ever written, worthy of favorable comparison to Dante’s Divine Comedy.  (So compelling was this estimate that I even wrote an undergraduate thesis delineating the relationship between the two great works. Being a math, physics, and philosophy major, not an English major, at Wichita State at the time, I had to move heaven, earth, the Office of the Academic Dean, and the WSU English department to get permission, but it was worth the effort.) I do not have time to write, nor do you have time to read, the reasons why the discovery of the Quartets was the beginning of the decades-long process by which my life – I mean the following literally – was saved, and by which I was able to climb out of the black hole to which my childhood and adolescent experience with a dysfunctional family and an equally dysfunctional hyper-fundamentalist religious upbringing had previously consigned me.

So suffice to say that Eliot’s great accomplishment in the Quartets was to achieve a kind of coincidentia oppositorum of Comedy and Tragedy, depicting the dependence of each on the other, not only or even primarily at the level of the culture, but in the individual’s life – “the fire and the rose are one” (“Little Gidding”) — a reconciliation rendered even more authentic by the fact that Eliot had actually lived his poetry in his own religious and spiritual struggles, and in his fraught relationship with his disturbed wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood, culminating in her commitment to a mental institution, in collaboration with Vivienne’s own brother. (To this day, I wonder if the lines Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding” refer obliquely to the pangs of conscience he suffered as a result of this collaboration:  … the shame of motives late revealed, the awareness / Of things ill done and done to others’ harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue.) At the very least, the Four Quartets is a prominent exception to Eliot’s later – and, I think, well justified — contention that the greatest problem with religious poetry is that the poet usually writes more about how she wishes she felt than about how she really feels. Perhaps so. But the Quartets is a great exception. So I feel a great kinship with Eliot because, as he wrote in Burnt Norton, “[H]uman kind / cannot bear very much reality,” and in many related ways, Eliot and I both came very much to the edge of how much “reality” a human can “bear”.

All the above accounts for why, to this day, at least half the poetry I have “accidentally” memorized is drawn from the works of T. S. Eliot, from “Hollow Men” to “Preludes” (the worlds revolve like ancient women gathering fuel in vacant lots) to The Wasteland to “Gerontion” to Four Quartets. Despite being physically and chronologically separated, these works collectively constitute a kind of twentieth-century equivalent of Pilgrim’s Progress. Different as are the poets, and prose authors, whose work I have “accidentally” memorized, they all share one common characteristic:  beginning with Tennyson and “Ulysses,” they all, without exception, made explicit in words many thoughts, feelings, intuitions, insights, and just plain “hunches” that had been circulating in me for some time, and gave those thoughts, feelings, etc., an overt form.  (That is true even of the French symbolists and the more recondite texts of Wallace Stevens:  I don’t “understand” them … yet I do.) One concluding element of my “accidental” archive, this from A Midsummer Night’s DreamThe poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, / Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; / And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name. Yes. Exactly.

During the junior-high year in AP English at Horace Mann I spent with Mr. Morse, he gave the class two poems to memorize, one for each semester:  The Wreck of the Hesperus and The Highwayman.  They were excellent poems, and, in a way, memorizing them and reciting them before the class, as we all were required to do at the end of each of the two semesters, was actually fun. But neither ignited, or was ignited by, a “fire in the belly,” like the foregoing examples. Neither “memorized themselves” as did, e.g., for me, “Ulysses” or the opening paragraph of “Little Gidding”. (Today, in fact, I remember The Wreck of the Hesperus primarily because of the hilarious and ribald Mad Magazine satire of the poem.) The common thread that unites the other poems is a love of the text itself, and the correlative love of the language – both of which were forged in the crucible of actual life-experience. I literally cannot imagine, nor do I particularly want to imagine, my life without, e.g., “Ulysses” and The Idylls of the King and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets” and Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” (and “The Snowman” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream” and “Sunday Morning” … etc.) and A. R. Ammons’ “Easter Morning” and Eliot’s “Hollow Men” and The Wasteland and “Preludes” and Four Quartets. Prof. Worthen simultaneously overestimates and underestimates the importance of memorization:  she overestimates it because she seems to confuse knowing a poem with memorizing it; and she underestimates it by seeing poetry as less than what it is, or at least as what it can eventually become:  an actual load-bearing structure of one’s identity and self-hood. A part of one’s soul.

© 2017, James R. Cowles

Editorial note: James is a feature writer at Beguine Again, the sister site to The BeZine, and a core team member of the The Bardo Group Beguines. He has master’s in math from Wichita State University, a master’s in physics as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow from Tulane, a master’s in English literature from Tufts by way of Harvard and, as a Council of Europe Fellow, Oxford (Exeter College … same Oxford college as JRR Tolkien), and a master’s in theology (MAPS) from Seattle University.

Image credits

Homer … British Museum … Public domain
T. S. Eliot, 1934 … Lady Ottoline Morrell … Public domain
Church of St. John the Evangelist, Little Gidding … Nick MacNeill … CC BY-SA 2.0
Portrait of Shakespeare … John Taylor (?) … Public domain
Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet … James Lafayette … Public domain
Albert Camus … Robert Edwards … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Poetry as Prayer … a little inspiration from Robert Lax …

Everything that exists
can turn to prayer;
even the water,
even the air.

– Robert Lax
A Song For Our Lady

If you are viewing this post from an email subscription, you’ll likely have to link through to watch the two short videos included today.

“And in the beginning was love. Love made a sphere: all things grew within it; the sphere then encompassed beginnings and endings, beginning and end. Love had a compass whose whirling dance traced out a sphere of love in the void: in the center thereof rose a fountain.”

– Robert Lax
from his renown poem, Circus in the Sun (about the circus of creation), it was read at Lax’s funeral in New York


“I think it’s a metaphysical concept
starting with Aristotle and flowering in St. Thomas
that God is pure act and that there is no potentía in him
…. Almost everything else in the universe is potentía,
it’s on its way to being pure act”

An excellent – award wining – biography – of Lax

Robert Lax (1915 – 2000) was an American poet who converted from Judaism to Catholicism. He has been called “saint,” “mystic, “one of the great enigmas of American poetry, “a pilgrim” and “a prophet.” His poems where innocent, ecstatic and even whimsical. Over time they became more and more minimalist … one simple word or strings of sounds stretched into long narrow word-cascades that sometimes stopped here and there to puddle.

“Robert Lax’s poems [prove] yet again that the gift to be simple is the gift to be free, that less is more, and that least may sometimes be most.”—John Ashbery

In addition to his poetry, Robert Lax is know for his friendship with the writer, poet and Trapist monk, Thomas Merton, also a convert to Catholicism.

Lax went to school with John Berryman and was mentor to Jack Kerouac. He was friends with and appreciated by the Beats and one of my fave writers, James Agee (A Death in the Family and – with photographer Walker Evens – Let Us Now Praise Men). Denise Levertove and e.e. commings numbered among Lax’s friends as well. He was also close to the artist Ad Reinhart.

In 1962 Lax began his travels in Greece, settling into life as a hermit on the island of Patmos, seen by many as a sacred space. Patmos is the alleged site of the vision of and writing of the Christian Bible’s Book of Revelation. Because of that connection, the island is a destination for Christian pilgrimage.

Although Robert Lax lived quietly in Patmos and did nothing to promote his poetry or himself, people – including the Beats and other poets – came to visit him. He always welcomed his visitors and purposeful or accidental students. He was mentor to more than a few.

If poetry as prayer is a topic of interest, you could do worse than to explore Lax’s life and work. A light read and good introduction to this poet is The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit Lessons with Robert Lax.  It was written by San Francisco writer, S.T. Georgiou (Greek Orthodox), who went to Patmos in search of some spiritual answers. As good fortune would have it, he met Robert Lax, became friends with him and visited often with him on several trips back to Patmos.  Subsequently, after Lax’s death, Georgiou wrote The Way of the Dreamcatcher, a book about this adventure in friendship, mentoring, the sacred and poetry.

Robert Lax received the National Council of the Arts Award in 1969.

Books by Robert Lax include:


“because yes – he likes to ‘write’ – but to ‘do’ – to do a particular thing – perhaps on paper (perhaps on canvas – perhaps in stone – perhaps, perhaps in a musical score) – a thing that will stand, a thing that will bear (that will sustain) repeated contemplation: a thing that will sustain long contemplation, and that will (in a ‘deep’ enough way) reward the beholder.”  Robert Lax, Love Had a Compass: Journals and Poetry