Friday, February 20, 2009

Czaslaw Milosz "On Prayer"

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That Bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word is
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.
--Czeslaw Milosz, "On Prayer"
I'm sharing this poem "On Prayer" by Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel-winning, Polish, Christian poet, because it seems particularly mystical to me. Milosz invokes God in the tradition of the via negativa ("who is not"), speaks of the negation of all our constructs ("the shore of Reversal"), and emphasizes "the word is" with the suggestion that "being" means something we "hardly envisioned."

I don't think that the whole bit about prayer being a "velvet bridge" springing us "above landscapes" by "magic" is so useful for explaining the practical practice of prayer on a daily basis, which I find much less exhilarating. But perhaps the metaphor is getting at the mystical (rather than practical) aspects of prayer, which are important to discuss though impossible to find fully suitable metaphors for. The mystical aspects of prayer: spirit permeating matter, the intersection of eternity with here and now, "the stopping of the sun" (timelessness) on the landscape (in which we live in time).

The most mystical and most important part of the poem, though, is the emphasis on we which Milosz uses four of these twelve lines to explain.


RC said...

Paul, thank your for this lovely poem and for your lovely commentary on it. It's tenderness and love are very moving and encouraging. Thank you for the emphasis on "we." I'm grateful.

John Orzechowski said...

Paul, thanks for sharing this poem and your reflection with us. As you pointed out, I find the idea of the "shore of Reversal" to be a fascinating way to express a spiritual reality (and appropriate for the liturgical season, I think). I am always thankful for the "we" of this community.

living stones said...

Paul, Thanks for sharing this special poem. I appreciate metaphors that seek to express the mystical. We were with Cynthia Bougeault recently and she said, "Human beings are constructed to be a bridge between the finite and the infinite and angels dance on the bridge." So I particularly liked Milosz's line, "that prayer constructs a velvet bridge..." And I'm grateful to be participating as a "we" in the travels.

Daniel said...

Since reading your post, I've found myself returning to this mystical metaphor in my prayers. I especially appreciate the final line, "We will walk that aerial bridge all same." This reminds me that the destination is not my goal, but rather the journey itself, together "with all the saints," moving deeper into communion with God.

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