Praying with the Poets: God Here, Now
This is especially noteworthy, because it's not uncommon for my solitude (my children live far away and my wife works in another state) to segue into distraction and even loneliness. And the happiness that I experience in those moments is not a blissed out sentimentality, but a simple, quiet, and deep contentment. The simplicity and depth of that contentment suggests that a profound existential hunger—something deeper than fleeting pleasures, a longing for God or for a spiritual calm—is met, if briefly. Indeed, the intensity of the joy—and joy here is something much more abiding than transitory pleasures or satisfactions—is matched by a soft sadness as my quiet time comes to an end. I sometimes find myself whispering, "I don't want to leave." I know that leaving often means stepping back into the commotion of mundane responsibilities, distraction, and occasional loneliness, but that brief time of felt connection, a cup of cool water in the desert, struck something deep in my core and offers, for me, an insight to a fundamental existential orientation and trajectory.
We are oriented to God; we need God. And we may restlessly try to meet that need with countless ephemeral satisfactions, but they do not finally satisfy. We need to see and feel the divine. The great meditative and monastic programs in the world's religious traditions speak to cultivating the awareness of the presence of the sacred in all things. This may be axiomatic in the spiritual life. But the psychological, empirical record for many of us is the rupture of that sense of intimacy under the press of mundane distractions, tedium, loneliness, and distress. Even the great Sufi saint Hafiz writes, "I need to know I am yours, beloved"—this from a poet whose work so typically is marked by intense buoyancy and jubilation. Yet, we, too, may feel, "I need to know I am yours, beloved." And sometimes, astonishingly, the beloved shows up, perhaps as a kitten, or in a walk in the woods, or gazing at the night sky, conversing with an old friend or discovering a new friend—or perhaps even in the enjoyment of a cigar and a bourbon on a summer porch.
1) Mahadeviyakka was a 12th-century South Indian poet-saint of the Virashaiva ('heroic Shaivism') tradition. Her preferred name for Shiva is "the lord, white as jasmine." A.K Ramanujan, trans., Speaking of Shiva (London: Penguin Books, 1973), 119.
2) Ikkyu was a 15th-century Zen monk from Japan who, after attaining awakening, lived a robust life as a vagrant monk, mixing with a variety of social classes, but often retiring to the mountains for retreats. John Stevens, trans., Wild Ways (Buffalo, NY: White Pine Press), 26.
Author's Note: This article is taken from my forthcoming book, Praying with the Poets: Poetry of the Sacred in the World's Traditions.
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.