- Tying Shoelaces With The Holy Spirit
I want to begin with what may seem like a quixotic linking. First, a rabbinic parable:
Once there was a man who wished to sit in the presence of a gifted rabbi. When asked if he wished to hear what the rabbi had to say, the man said no. When asked if he wished to ask the rabbi a question, the man again replied, no. When asked what, then, did he want, the man said he just wanted to watch the rabbi tie his shoelaces.
And, second, a personal memory: some years back, I did a year-long version of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. Before we began each session, my spiritual director made a little prayer of invocation, asking that the Holy Spirit be with us so that our own attempts at understanding might be augmented.
The man in the rabbinic story supposes that if the rabbi is truly a man of God, he will have learned to tie his shoes with God in mind; thus the man need only watch the mundane act of tying one's shoes to be in God's presence. He also seems to know that in all our routines—sweeping the floor, folding clothes, making tea, doing the dishes, folding sheets—we often find ourselves sensing the extraordinary mystery in the midst of which we live. I don't mean here that beyond the surface lie extraordinary depths. I don't think sweeping the floor reveals a hidden God. Sweeping the floor or doing the dishes is just that. And yet we experience at times that feeling of how, as we do the dishes, both unhurried and thinking about nothing, enjoying the warm water on our hands, we can look through the window at the late slant of light in the trees, and suddenly feel preternaturally receptive, feel we know what life is, though what it is, is always more than we can say.
We feel, that is, that being alive is multi-layered, dense; that the world we live in has an amplitude, which we can sense, but never fully know. It's a disquieting feeling mostly: that there is another dimension to life which we feel, and perhaps even see and live at moments, but which, for the most part, remains in the background, a "buzz of implication," as Lionel Trilling in his book, The Liberal Imagination, once called it. For me, the spiritual dimension of writing poetry has something to do with taking a practiced look at this [End Page 260] "buzz of implication." By "practiced" I mean to imply that attending to the world is no easy task. That attending takes practice, and that practice always involves detachment. In an entry entitled "Detachment," included in the volume Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil writes: "The reality of the world is the result of our attachment. It is the reality of the self, which we transfer onto things. It has nothing to do with independent reality. That is only perceptible through total detachment." Detachment is the opposite of attachment; attachment for Weil produces illusions. We see what we need to see. As Czeslaw Milosz recognized, "we are unable to live nakedly. We must constantly wrap ourselves in a cocoon of mental constructs, our changing styles of philosophy, poetry, art."
Thus, the reason for my little memory about the need for invocation: whether an invocation to the muses in poetry, or to the Holy Spirit in religion, an invocation implies a recognition of the limits of one's own understanding and faith in the possibility of being opened up, inspired, so that we might take in the largest possible, but necessarily incomplete, view of the world. Because we cannot "live nakedly," I believe invocations are necessary, particularly in our contemporary world, if only to remind myself that poetry is an act that continually tries to overcome fantasy, egotism and solipsism. Such an act requires love. Let me insert Iris Murduch here, who in her essay "The Sublime and the Good" defines love this way: "Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real." For Murdoch, love entails a tragic freedom...