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Helen C. White Prayer and Poetry Wimmer Lecture VIII* Prayer and poetry, while differing profoundly in their surface manifestations, have fundamentally very much in common. Both spring from the same deep ground of the spirit which has commanded man's fascinated attention from the dawn of consciousness, and which still eludes his most sophisticated probings in even this most self-conscious of centuries. Those hardy pioneers of the mind, the ancient Greeks, recognized the ageless challenge in the legend they put above the portals of the Oracle at Delphi, "G??d?? sea??d?," "Know thyself," and in the speculations of their wisest and greatest, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, discovered that they had embarked on an unending quest. And conversely, some eight centuries later another hardy adventurer into the undiscovered realms of the spiritual universe found that all searchings came home to that familiar mystery. "O Thou *This Wimmer Lecture VIII was delivered at Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in 19^4 and published in i960 by the Archabbey Press. Copyright© 1 960 and permission to reprint by SaintVincent Archabbey. LOGOS 2:3 SUMMER 1999 PRAYER AND POETRY Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new!" cried Saint Augustine of Hippo in one of the most ringing passages ofhis Confessions, "Too late I loved Thee! And behold, Thou wert within, and I abroad, and there I searched for Thee; deformed I, plunging amid those fair forms, which Thou hadst made."1 But as both the Greeks and SaintAugustine so well knew, it is no simple thing for man to penetrate into that realm within himself, and it is hardly to be wondered at that he shrinks from attempting it unless he is driven to it by what amounts almost to compulsion. It takes a very special kind of experience to disturb the calm waters of everyday acceptance and shake the consciousness out of its lethargy and its complacency. And this is true both for the poet and the man of prayer, for diverse as the manifestations of poetry and prayer often are—even on occasion to what seem the extremes of opposition —both have their roots in the same type of experience. The first mark of this experience is surprise, with its handmaid, wonder. The great poet-critic of the English Romantic Movement put it very well for the poets when he said it was the part of his friend Wordsworth in the epoch-making Lyrical Ballads:"to give the charm of novelty to things ofevery day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us."2 The masters of the spiritual life have, also, agreed that the distinctive mark ofhigh religious experience is that it makes all things new, and particularly the man who beholds them. So the converted Paul exhorts the Romans to "walk in newness of life"3 and the Ephesians to put on the "new man."4 Men have long tried to explain what it is that creates this extraordinary disturbance in the depths of the consciousness. Some years ago a German writer, Rudolph Otto, in his analysis of what might be called the concept of the holy, suggested the term, the "numinous."5 This sense of something divine is a very general thing, for the experience is a widely diffused one. Sometimes it attaches itself to 179 l8oLOGOS places. One recalls the Lord's admonition to Moses in Exodus, "Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereonthou standestis holyground."6 The Old Testamentis full of such episodes, and so is classic literature. More often it is people who give this sense of the presence of the divine. The famous definition of the small boy in a stained-glass window parish, that saints are people through whom the light shines, expresses a very ancient experience. One thinks of the Apostles and their unrecognized Companion on the road to Emmaus—"Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way?"7 And, on the other hand, the lover's sense that there...


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