17 July 2008

For a Child of God

While on retreat, as I already noted, one of the topics we touched on was the enlarging of our hearts. It is a central Benedictine theme --- indeed a central theme of all good spirituality. If you have read my blog for some time you know that the dynamic and dialogical nature of the human heart (and of the soul, for that matter) is something that has intrigued me for some time. Our hearts are quite literally the place where God bears witness to himself. Heart is, in the NT (and I think the OT as well), a strictly theological term: it refers first of all to God's activity within us. As I have posted here before, it is not the case that we have a heart and that God comes to dwell there, but that that "place" within us where God dwells, speaks himself continually, calls us by Name and summons us to life and meaning, is called "heart."

If you are familiar with the sayings of the desert Fathers, you will know the story about the disciple who came to one of the Abbas saying he had kept the fast, been faithful to all the daily ascetic practices, prayed the psalms, etc but wondered what more he could do. Abba Moses raised his hands and moved his fingers back and forth, and as he did so he said, "If you would, you can become all flame!" It is a tremendous goal, and the very same thing as becoming authentically human and functioning as the heart of the church and world --- an image which resonates with monastics, and especially (from my perspective) for hermits. It also relates to the interpenetration of heaven and earth those of us who share in the life of the risen Christ know first hand.

Well, with these images and themes in mind, there were a couple of poems shared during retreat during Sister Donald's conferences; both had to do with the human heart and use the metaphor of flame. One of them, a poem by Jessica Powers (sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit) I would like to share now.

The saints and mystics
had a name
for that deep
inwardness of flame,
the height or depth
or ground or goal
Which is God's dwelling
in the soul.

Not capax dei
do you say;
nor yet
scintilla animae
nor syndereisis ---
all are fair ---
but heaven
because God is there.

All day and when
you wake at night
think of that place of living light,
yours and within you
and aglow
where only God
and you can go.

None can assail you
in that place
save your own evil,
routing grace.
Not even angels
see or hear,
nor the dark spirits
prowling near.

But there are days
when watching eyes
could guess that you
hold Paradise,
Sometimes the shining
and everyone
around you knows.

"For a Child of God" (1953)