Praying with the Poets: God Here, Now
We might say, from a theist perspective, if God is, God is here. If the divine is, the divine is here. And to see God or the divine doesn't mean contorting information to buttress weak faith, somehow prettifying ghastly events with empty, disturbing claims that "it's God's will." The fact is that brutal, terrible things happen in the world, owing to cataclysmic natural events and the evil choices of humans. Nonetheless, if God is, God is here. It would seem unlikely that a being or reality who or which is unconditional compassion and wisdom would not manifest or express hints or touches of such presence, offer some savor, some grace in destitution or deprivation. Were God to leave us totally bereft, one might charge the divine with being niggardly, if not cruel. What romantic partner or parent doesn't want to express his or her love, in very concrete, real terms, by sustained acts of thoughtfulness and generosity? The very embodiment of love is contained—and seen—in those gestures. And they are encouraging and nourishing at the deepest levels. They can become as a cup of cool water in the desert. The proper response to that is gratitude.
God is here. Closer to us, said Muhammad, than our jugular veins. However we understand God—as an external supreme being to whom we owe adoration, or as some principle of wisdom and compassion at the heart of things, somehow quietly accompanying, even guiding, our evolution—the sacred, religions testify, is here, present, immanent. Religions speak to this truth, as does the poetry at the beginning of this essay. We see the holiness of the present moment captured, ironically, in many Zen poems—ironic, because the ultimate nature of reality, in Mahayana Buddhism, is fundamentally ungraspable, something as impossible, as Robert Ellwood has described, as lassoing a rainbow or dropping the sunset in a bucket and carrying it away. Still, a good Zen poem draws us into the present moment in its pristine holiness, for, if eternity or awakening obtains anywhere, it's there. We step into eternity when we are most alive and awake in the present moment.
But this subdued sensibility, less roiling with passion and simply calm, is sometimes seen in theistic poetry as well, perhaps most vividly expressed by the great Christian mystic of nature, Francis of Assisi. But even the young Siddhartha, before he became the Buddha, once experienced a natural and spontaneous meditation whereby he enjoyed a peaceful calm, momentarily free of the standard hankerings that beset most people at least occasionally. While that experience was not theistic, the calm he enjoyed was an important whiff of nirvana, a formative experience to which he returned much later in his quest.
A subdued awareness of the immanence of the divine sometimes can be discretely noticed in our own lives, too. Far less epic than the account of young Siddhartha, I will sometimes treat myself to a cigar and a glass of bourbon as I sit on my back deck—both pleasures, by the way, are considered problematic in Buddhism (and other religions), since they are intoxicants, and intoxicants, of course, can cloud judgment. Nevertheless, in a spirit of moderation, there I sit. The deck faces a church, and in the summer evenings, as the skies grow lavender, the stained glass windows gradually illumine. Typically, I feel a great calm, deep gratitude, and a sense that all is well. Most of all, I feel close to God, and as such, I feel close to myself, that is, I feel most myself. I feel happy.
Thomas A. Forsthoefel, Ph.D., is associate professor and chair of Religious Studies at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania. He served as poet laureate of northwestern Pennsylvania (Erie County) 2010-2012. His work focuses on the religions and philosophies of India, and he has published numerous articles and has written or collaborated on several books, including, Knowing Beyond Knowledge: Epistemologies of Religious Experience in Classical and Modern Advaita, a study of cognitive dimension of religious experience in Hindu non-dualism; Gurus in America, an edited volume; Soulsong: Seeking Holiness, Coming Home, a cross cultural exploration of holiness; and Dalai Lama: Essential Writings.