Write me a book
passionate and profound
of loss and longing
and you will discover
true sorrow is sacred
and your songs are psalms
– Yahia Lababidi
(from Learning to Pray:
A Book of Longing)
(from Learning to Pray:
A Book of Longing)
Yahia Lababidi’s Learning to Pray: A Book of Longing is a beautiful collection of poems and aphorisms.
It also includes an insightful preface by Lababidi entitled “Poetry Is How We Pray Now.” Following is an excerpt.
The human heart abhors a vacuum. With organized religion losing ground, all sorts of substitutes rush in to fill the God-shaped hole. One particularly effective and time honored balm for the aching human heart is literature. For some, poetry is how we pray now.
In these skeptical times, there still exists an Absolute Literature, in the coinage of Italian writer Roberto Calasso, where we might discern the Divine Voice. Such pre- and post-religious literature share aims and concerns similar to belief systems: sharpening our attention, cultivating a sense of awe, offering us examples of how to better live and die – even granting us a chance at transcendence.
Mysteriously, certain strains of literary art are capable of using words to lose words – ushering us to the threshold of that quiet capital of riches: Silence. After all, it is in silent contemplation that difficulties patiently unfurl and entrust us with their secrets.
By deepening our silences, such literature allows us to overhear ourselves and can lend us a third (metaphysical) eye. We are able not only to bear witness to the here and now but, past that, calmly gaze at eternal things . . . over the head of our troubled times in order to try and understand our spiritual condition (where we’ve come from and where we’re heading).
In our fractured world, beset by so much physical suffering and political turmoil, as a kind of (unconscious?) corrective, more people are reading and writing literature that addresses the life of the spirit, overtly or otherwise.
One manifestion of this renewed spiritual hunger that is being met by literature was the publication of a major anthology, The Poet’s Quest for God: 21st Century Poems of Faith, Doubt, and Wonder (Eyewear, 2016), featuring over three hundred contemporary poets from around the world and of great value (as the jacket blurb indicates) “to those for whom poetry has become a resource or replacement for faith-bound spirituality.” This ambitious book of collective soul-searching was followed by another similar anthology, Without a Doubt: Poems Illustrating Faith (New York Quarterly, 2021).
Likewise, more spiritual oases are appearing in the desert of popular culture to slake the great thirst of seekers. Among the ones that I admire, and turn to for sustenance and inspiration, are edifying podcasts such as Krista Tippett’s On Being and Godspeed Institute or questing, interfaith journals such as The Sun, Parabola, Tikkun, Tiferet, Sufi, as well as many others.
Yet, since we cannot step into the same river twice, what does a return to religion look like? There remain, of course, poets, writers, and artists who pursue direct paths to God through their art. Similarly, there are readers, myself included, who study the lives and utterances of traditional saints and mystics for moral guidance and uplift.
Brad Gooch’s biography, Rumi’s Secret (Harper, 2017) is a fine example of this genre. In his “Secret,” the celebrated mystical poet and the world he lived in (around eight hundred years ago) come to life, and we develop a deeper appreciation of why this Muslim saint matters to us so much at our historical moment. Gooch, in conversation with respected Rumi translator Jawid Mojaddedi, quotes Mojaddedi as saying to him: “Rumi resonates today because people are thinking post-religion. He came to see mysticism as the divine origin of every religion.”
Nowadays, there is also a more ambiguous literature (as well as audience) that finds it needless to define their nameless yearning and sees no contradiction in drawing on different traditions to make a patchwork quilt of their inchoate longing. This peculiarly modern pilgrim, unencumbered by dogma, is unembarrassed to treat organized religion as an archaeological site to be excavated for durable ruins – unearthing fragments of Beauty, Grace, Wisdom wherever they might find them and leaving behind what does not resonate, spiritually.
In such literature that is not directly religious, all sorts of spirits are invited, random relics were thrown into the spiritual pot to prepare a nourishing bone broth. Amid the clamor of the culture wars dominating the headlines and airwaves, prayerful prose or poetry and mystic art grant us the opportunity to share Good News and make a joyful sound.
One way of doing so is by giving thanks, even in the midst of suffering. [. . .] Belief, in the midst of chaos [. . .] teaches us to deeply trust, in spite of appearances, in the innate and inexhaustible goodness of life and how we might contribute to it by caring for our souls. Instinctively, out of self-preservation in the encroaching darkness, we seek out the light with greater urgency – recognizing the necessity for transformation, re-evaluation of values, evolution . . .
We are called to sancify our days, in the phrasing of Kahlil Gibran: “Your daily life is your temple, and your religion. Whenever you enter into it take with you your all.”
Thus, literature in the service of belief, though mindful of other disciplines, is also shrewdly aware of their inadequacies – how the consolations of psychology, philosophy, science, even language cannot quite address the mysteries of the human heart. Mystical art addresses a profound, mute center in us, initiating us into hardly communicable secrets, numinous states of being, and a knowing (gnosis) at the very limits of our self or ego. Our metaphysical eyes are expert at collapsing distances, that way, seeing through the apparent to the Infinite.
Increasingly, I’m intrigued by the idea of artists as mystics and the worship of beauty as a form of prayer. How, for instance, in Omar Khayyam’s deceptively simple utterance, “I pray by admiring a rose,” one finds the connection among the visible, invisible, and indivisible laid bare. Theologian and Sufi mystic Al Ghazali put it thus: “This visible world is a trace of that invisible one, and the former follows the latter like a shadow.”
One year before his death, we find the great poet of longing, Rilke, meditating upon the inseparability of the material and spiritual worlds in these memorable, numinous words:
It was within the power of the creative artist to build a bridge between two worlds, even though the task was almost too great for a man. . . . Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being. It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves, so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, invisible, inside of us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.
Reverence for the visible world is not in opposition to the invisible one; in the same way that it is through the body, we access the life of the spirit. Remembering that we are “bees of the invisible” sweetens the suffering and even cheats death of its ultimate sting. We are saved by the very idea of a back and forth, between a here and There.
Through myth and parable, the defiant muse instructs us in the art of being present and then how to vanish without a trace. Poetry explores these variations on the time-honored themes: loss, ecstasy, home, negotiaing how best to live with our unquenchable thirst, using odes to joy and manuals of love. Yes, the essence of this art of living is, always, Love. . . .
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• A Return to Spirit
• Come, Spirit . . .
• “Window, Mind, Thought, Air and Love”
• As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible
• Guidelines for the Advent of a Universal Mysticism
• New Horizons
• “Joined at the Heart”: Robert Thompson on Christianity and Sufism
• The Sufi Way
• Sufism: A Call to Awaken
• In the Garden of Spirituality – Doris Lessing
• My Travels With Doris
• Blue Yonder
• The Landscape Is a Mirror
• November Musings
• “This Autumn Land is Dreaming”
• James Baldwin’s Potent Interweavings of Race, Homoeroticism, and the Spiritual
• Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
• What We Mean By Love
• Passion, Tide and Time
• Love At Love’s Brightest
• At Swim, Two Boys: A Beautiful Novel
• Remembering Mary Oliver’s Queer Pagan Spirit
• Reading About Keats on the Spring Equinox
• Under the Blossoming Pear Tree
Opening image: Michael J. Bayly.