Category Archives: Enlightenment

Emily Dickinson and John Donne Speak to Us

Emily Dickinson knew the human heart, as do any poet who is worth their poetic salt.  Therefore, she knew about meaning and understood that it was obtained only in the inner most depths of the heart which she captured with the following poem:

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
Dickinson knew that meaning comes from “heavenly hurt” and that it leaves, “no scar” to the casual observer, those who look only on the surface of things; but those who can withstand the pain will find, “internal difference—where the meanings are.”  This “internal difference” allows an ephemeral “certain slant of light” to daunt the citadel of the heart and bring into question certainties which had, to that point, been biases and premises unsullied by the “certain slant of light” of conscious awareness.  It is in the resulting disarray, confusion, doubt, and fear that “meaning” can surface in our heart and allow “words fitly spoken” to flow from our inner most being.

To borrow from another line of Dickinson poetry,  she called this intrusion into our consciousness of this, “slant of light,” a “splinter in the brain.”  This “splintering” is a violation, a penetration, not unrelated to what the famous poet John Donne had in mind when he noted that God would not be able to penetrate the stubborn rational fortress of his egoic self, “except thou ravish me,” which would come only after the answering of his prayer, “Batter my heart, three personed God.”


“Tired of Speaking Sweetly” by Hafiz

God is found at the boundaries of our life, in what I like to call a “liminal zone” where the distinctions between “me and thee” are nebulous; one might even say where all distinctions are nebulous.  When this experience comes to us…if it ever does…it comes as an intrusion or invasion of sorts which psychologist Carl Jung described as an “einfall.”  This phenomenon is usually conveyed with the image of a transcendent God toying with mankind…in some sense fiddling with him…until he breaks through his resistance and allows Him in.  John Donne wrote a beautiful sonnet in which he prayed, “Batter my heart, three-personed God” for otherwise his adamantine resistance would never be overcome.

Hafiz, aka Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī, was a 14th century Persian poet who wrote a beautiful poem about this process of einfall.  This very human experience, so very human that it merits the description Divine, is often gut-wrenchingly painful as the Donne sonnet conveys and as Hafiz conveys here in a more light-hearted fashion.

TIRED OF SPEAKING SWEETLY (aka “God’s Drop Kick”) by Hafiz

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.

Love sometimes get tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds
All your erroneous notions of truth

That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,

Causing the world to weep
On too many fine days.

God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself
And practice His dropkick.

The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:

Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.

But when we hear
He is in such a “playful drunken mood”
Most everyone I know
Quickly packs their bags and hightails it
Out of town.

An Alternative to “Truthiness”

Yesterday I shared a Carl Sandburg poem about truth, titled, “Who Am I?” Today I would like to explore the poem more deeply as Sandburg grasped intricate dimensions of Truth, describing it as “the most elusive captive in the universe.”

Just how can truth be so elusive and how can it be “elusive” if it is already “captive’d” within our heart?  Sandburg believed that we have intrinsic knowledge of the truth in the depths of our inner most being but we have a fear of acknowledging and embracing this Divine gift. “Truth” is frightening to our ego-bound consciousness because She is a process which is disruptive to our shallow, self-serving grasp of her intricacies.  “Truth” is a dynamic process which is catastrophic to our shallow certainties about life. It is very frightening when She begins to penetrate “the small bright circles of our consciousness” (Conrad Aiken) and challenges the “canned” truth that our ego prefers. Therefore, Truth eludes us though She is already in our heart, a “captive” which usually we do not allow to “come out and play” in our life.  But She is always there, nevertheless, nudging us along and encouraging us to let Her in for a visit someday.

And what did Sandburg have in mind when he asserted that Truth disregards “all signs that read, ‘keep off.’”  He realized that Truth, as opposed to what Stephen Colbert described as “truthiness,” is contrary with the self-serving limits that we have created in our life.  If Truth is given access to our heart, it will always confront “Do not trespass” signs marking the areas of life that we don’t want challenged. T.S. Eliot had this in mind when he encouraged us to “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain and therefore the fittest for renunciation.”  Sandburg and Eliot were not discouraging having anchor in our heart that affords us existential courage, but saw that the only “anchor” that survives the test of time is the “certainty” of some “thing” that lies beyond the grasp of our finite mind. This is the very Ground of our Being.  The self-serving bromides that we take for truth will never pass the test that this “Ground” presents to us. And on this note a conclude a witticism from a dear pastor of my youth, “Yes, Truth will set you free.  But it’ll first make you miserable.”

Wordsworth’s “Preludes” and Subjectivity

Just after the turn of the century, I had the privilege of living in Cambridge, England for an academic year with my wife who was doing research at Lucy Cavendish College at Cambridge University.  One of my personal highlights was attending a wine tasting at the Cambridge University office of William Wordsworth.  There I was in awe as I soaked up the atmosphere of the room where this great poet had studied and written, my “awe” certainly enhanced by very the very fine wine!  I was taken by handwritten copies of some of his poetry displayed on the walls and original editions of his work on display.  I reveled for a while in the “spirit” of one of my most beloved poets.

This past week the New York Review of Books had a lengthy report of a new book about one of Wordsworth’s most famous lyrical poems, “The Preludes.”  This book review by Helen Vendler delves into some of the personal misfortunates that befell Wordsworth in life, especially in his youth, all of which turned him inward and eventually gave expression to beautiful poetic imagery of a soul that had been denied the comfort of traditional life.  It reminds me of something W. H. Auden said of W.B. Yeats, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”  Wordsworth’s world was often very maddening and it did turn him away from the horror of what he was witnessing toward the subjective comfort of poetic reverie.

I will post a link to the entire book review at the conclusion.  Here I would like to share an excerpt from the preludes which has been offering me reassurance for the past 30 years or so, reassuring me that he too saw as did Shakespeare, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may”:

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange, that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!

Book review by Helen Vendler of Wordsworth’s “Preludes”:


ADDENDUM–I have diversified this literary effort of mine.  In this blog I plan to focus more on poetry and prose.  Below you will see two other blogs of mine relevant to spirituality and politics which have lain dormant for most of the past five years.  I hope some of you will check them out.  However, the boundaries will not be clear as my focus is very broad and my view of life is very eclectic/inclusive/broad-based.  Yes, at times too much so!





Sleep Walking in the Spiritual World

An “awakening” is an interesting notion as it implies having been asleep before.  And it brings to mind the notion someone posited that we are a “nation of sleep walkers” in reference to not apparently having any idea what we are doing.  And the notion that one is not “awake” is disconcerting to say the least.  It can threaten one to the core and technically should do so as the “core” is where the “stuff” of life is found.  There we find the heart.

Spiritual traditions usually have awakening as a primary concern for spiritual teachers who help formulate these traditions always “see through” the falsities of life and want to bring them to the attention of others.  And this was certainly so with my spiritual tradition, Christianity.  But the spiritual truth that Jesus offered to the world was wisdom from the depths of the heart and this wisdom cannot be put into words.  Jesus, of course, used words but knew these words would only rattle around in many heads and never make it into the depths of the heart where meaning could be experienced.  This is what he meant by “having ears to hear, but hear not” and “eyes to see, but seeing not.”  For He knew that the real “stuff” of life takes place deep in the bowels of the heart and words can furrow there but only when great resistance is overcome.

This issue is very relevant to my spiritual history.  I was “Christianized” from early on.  I imbibed the “stuff” from even before I was conscious and one might say that since then everyday was summarized by, “Wind me up and watch me be Christian.”  And, yes, I grew up and got an education and dared to become a “damn liberal” and then it became, “Wind me up and watch me be a liberal Christian.”  Same song, different verse.  Only in the past decade or so have I realized just how I was embedded in my own thought, including in my own Christian teachings, and was largely just an indoctrinated automaton.

So, what is the solution?  Atheism?  Agnosticism?  Self-indulgence?  All of the above?  Well, I don’t know if I have a “solution” but I do know that I have been granted awareness of my self-serving faith, I have been made aware that ego-gratification was one of its primary intents.  And with this awareness, or “awakening,” I have suffered the disillusionment that I think is necessary at some point in life.  But this descent into the darkness has taught me that there is some inner resource I have other than the ego and its trappings.  I am finding a Center that is solid which words and spiritual traditions can only point to.  Yes, I still think of that “Center” as God, or even the “Christ child” that is within us all but I’m aware that these are only words.  I only know that in the depths of my heart I am a mystery, and that the whole of my life is a mystery, and that I’m living for a while longer in a beautiful world that is full of mystery, part of which are you!

So often I conclude with the observation, “But I have no need to convince anyone or to convert anyone.”  In my spiritual tradition, the spiritual passion has always led to an urgent need to evangelize and hope that others will “join the team.”  Not so in the least now, and that is one indicator that I’m growing up.  Changing others is no longer my job.  Changing my own life is the issue and gawd is there work to do there!  And I firmly believe that as I focus on “working on my own salvation with fear and trembling” any impact on others that needs to take place will occur.