Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Caspar Friedrich, The Raven Tree

I love the dark hours of my being

I love the dark hours of my being
in which my senses drop into the deep.
I have found in them, as in old letters,
my life that is already lived through,
and become wide and powerful, like legends.

Then I know that there is room in me
for a second large and timeless life.

But sometimes I am like the tree that stands
over a grave, a leafy tree, fully grown,
that has outlived that dream, that dead boy
(around whom its warm roots are pressing)
lost in his sorrows and his songs.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly


Impatient Reader, if you stop reading this post after the first paragraph, I will understand. Imagine a popular Christian best-seller based on the idea that God is not a father, not a judge, but a lover. Furthermore, God feels hurt because in so many (most? almost all?) cases, his love is unrequited.

I agree that it’s difficult to visualize a deity wasting away with passion because a Rejecting Beloved, let’s say a housewife in Chula Vista or Bakersfield, is not praying but instead shopping at Vons, eyeing the tomatoes, knocking on the melons, without being filled with awe at the divine presence. God as the Rejected Lover – it may sound romantic, but is not as convincing as the Yiddish saying, “If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.” Just the fact that one of the authors died in a tragic accident while writing this book seems to cast shadow on the idea that if you trust God, everything will be peachy (apologies for drawing my metaphors from the produce aisles). 

It was in the Vermont Studio Center library that I found this book: The Sacred Romance, by Brent Curtis and John Eldredge, two evangelicals who formed a partnership that combined preaching with leading wilderness retreats. In 1998, Curtis died in a climbing accident; Eldredge finished the book. The Christian vocabulary quickly got on my nerves, but when I discovered that if I substituted the word “life” (or “reality”) for “God,” the book did have something to say about the challenge of continuing to have a love affair with your life in spite of disappointments.

Or a love affair with your vocation.

Or simply a love affair. When I'm told that there are people in their eighties still waiting for "the One," I believe it. I met an eighty-nine-year-old man, a sweet and beautiful person, who hoped I was the One. “With men, it never ends,” he told me, a saintly fervor in his voice. I am saying this in the spirit of reverence, not mockery. Our search for the beloved has something sacred to it. 

Once I realized that I could substitute “life” for the various god terms, I thought, The point is not to love God. The point is to love LIFE.

Can you love god in spite of disappointments? A true believer will say Yes. True believers also find excuses for god. Can you love your life in spite of disappointments? That may take an extensive "dream adjustment." 

But let me first try to summarize the message without the non-theist translation. The authors claim that our trusting, adventurous attitude toward life is dampened, or even completely crushed, by all the disappointments and suffering we experience. “No use trying. Things will never change” is the “Message of the Arrows,” the arrows being all the negative events that wound us. If this message prevails, we give up our dream and settle for living “in a smaller story.” We learn how to survive – but not how to thrive. Broken-hearted, we settle down to a life of “quiet desperation.”

In an early poem, Mary Oliver expresses this theme, using a different metaphor:


Feeling the icy kick, the endless waves
Reaching around my life, I moved my arms
And coughed, and in the end saw the land.

Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim,
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim,

Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all
About swimming, but only

How to put off, one by one,
Dreams and pity, love and grace –
How to survive in any place.

~ Mary Oliver


The big story, the book’s authors claim, is nothing less than a divine drama: God is a lover who is pursuing your soul, his Beloved. He (the authors admit that God has both genders, but choose the masculine pronoun) feels hurt that his love for you is not requited, and does all he can (which isn’t much, a naughty inner voice whispers to me) to woo back his lost love, your soul. I can almost hear Woody Allen’s voice here, suggesting that it would help if, to prove his love, God made a large deposit in your bank account. But most of us lose faith in this sacred romance, this increase in being, as Saint Augustine puts it. Based on the hurtful experiences, we don’t believe that "God has a good heart" (the authors’ expression), much less that he passionately loves every single person on earth.

I directed this question to a very smart rabbi I know. “Does God love us?” I asked. Rabbi Stan Levi replied, “God loves humanity, but not on an individual basis.

Eldredge and Curtis will have none of it. They urge us to dismiss the Message of Arrows and recklessly trust that wonderful things are ahead – in fact nothing short of heaven. Reckless, irrational trust in the future is the key. If we choose to trust unconditionally, the authors assure us that life will turn around: we will find a meaning and be happy.

Reader, stop chuckling. Something in the book unexpectedly spoke to me, starting with the title. I understood this attraction when I translated the theistic language into one more suited to describing the struggle of a creative person. I knew that the “message of the arrows” had the power to kill a great dream. And once the dream is shattered, and you feel that the future has been stolen away from you, what is there to energize your life? (“The small story,” answers my naughty but possibly wise inner voice. “Local recognition.”)

But the notion of reckless trust has its own powerful attraction for an artist. It can be translated into daring to live for the impossible, developing toward a greatness that will most likely go unrecognized. So you alternate between thinking small and thinking big. Hopefully you put most of your energy into your work rather than into this Angst. But the anguish of being self-accused of wasting your life cannot be entirely avoided, especially if the Kindly Others, such as parents and friends, also join in the accusation, and the not-so-kindly “world” keeps sending rejection slips.  
                     Mantegna, St. Sebastian, 1450


Of course I’m familiar with this crisis (“hello darkness my old friend”). This is a near-universal narrative: you have a dream, the dream gets shattered. No one is surprised to hear that yet another poet, artist, or musician has just committed suicide. Sadness, yes; surprise, no. It has become a cliché. Yet the really interesting stories are about those who manage to pull out of this crisis, having developed a life philosophy that makes it possible for them not only to pursue art, but to enjoy their creative work and their life more than ever. Thus their narrative becomes: you have a dream, the dream gets shattered, you readjust the dream and live on, more contented than ever before.  
The older you get, the richer you get – psychologically, but often also financially.

The older you get, the happier you get – all surveys have confirmed this completely unexpected finding (up to a point – ah, those happy centenarians, laughing at funerals and counting their lucky genes . . . )

Since only the survivors are reading this post, let’s continue the exploration of dream readjustmentThen I know that there is room in me for a second large and timeless life, Rilke says with the authority of experience. What happens? There may be sudden insight, a so-called “paradigm shift” – or a slow evolution. It can be a small step, like admitting that you enjoy writing more if you do it slowly, just a bit of it at a time. It can be something bigger, like taking a year off to do “something entirely different,” in order to see if you really miss writing, painting, acting, or whatever it is that you’ve made endless sacrifices for. 

“Must I write?” Unless the answer is Yes without the slightest hesitation, drop writing immediately, Rilke advises the Young Poet. Why torture yourself if the pathological compulsion just isn’t there? And no, it’s not a matter of “wanting to share your thoughts and feelings.” You write because you must, because you are compulsive, and not for any noble reason. (Yes, yes, of course you love humanity – but not on an individual basis.)

Or you may toss all advice and stop tormenting yourself with self-imposed goals and deadlines. You may start teaching a class on your own rather than wait for a college to employ you. Or, in the spirit of “dream adjustment,” you self-publish rather than continue entering manuscript contests. Why be a cash-cow for po-biz and starve, living on hope, if you can indeed share your work in a different manner? Every success story (by “success” I mean the opposite of a suicide) is different.


Fine, you may say, let’s celebrate the artists who do not commit suicide – but what about the “sacred romance”? After the death of the original dream, can we still talk about romance? Is life worth living without the ecstasy of romance, sacred or otherwise?

Here, unexpectedly, Freud says something useful; in fact I find it the wisest thing that Freud ever said. Asked what is most important in life, Freud replied, “Love and work.” I translate “love” to extend beyond romantic love and include “loving kindness” toward others (as for toxic people, people who are masters at creating stress, I have learned to run for my life).  I particularly treasure simple affection and tenderness. Adrienne Rich’s “Without tenderness, we are in hell” has made an indelible impact on me. Kindness, compassion, generosity – all these are as important as the delights of Eros; long-term, maybe more so. My mother used to say, “Friendship is more important than love.”

As for “work,” it is not only making a living, but unpaid work as well, the kind of work that is its own reward. That doesn’t mean that a job, something we wouldn’t do unless paid to, is to be disparaged. Life experience, including a series of jobs that were not exactly exciting, taught me that dedicated work, though it is more effort, is ultimately more satisfying.

So, in terms of “attainable felicity,” as Melville puts it, I feel no need to posit a world beyond. Love and dedicated work provide satisfaction enough. Add to this the beauty of nature and music, and my cup runneth over.

(True, first I had to kill the dragon of thirsting after fame. "Think big" has led to despair; "think small" has been my salvation. Settling for a smaller story, i.e. the involvement with the local community, turned out to be not a diminishment, but a life-saving grace that let me continue to be a writer.)

Still, the delights of romance swirl about the psyche forever, and our yearning for it – usually in the form of an attractive human being rather than an invisible “spirit person” – cannot be denied. And if not romance, than at least “living passionately.”

Yet when it comes to creative work, perhaps the more fruitful model is not romance, but a “happy marriage.” After all, one’s relationship with creative work is long-term, with ups and downs – the proverbial agonies and ecstasies, doubts about one’s worth and one’s vocation, periods of abundant inspiration, periods of drought. And yet, over the years, as in any good marriage, there is a deepening of love, and always – always – surprises. Just the curiosity about what’s next is enough to keep me alive. 

That, and the glimmer of the belief that there is indeed in us "room for the large and timeless life." There exists that larger other self who is dreaming a great dream. It’s that Kingdom that is within, a state of mind we can enter without believing in the "invisible man in the sky" (alas, the authors' concept of God still points to that image, even if "lover" is substituted for "parent"), and definitely without believing that "Jesus died for our sins" -- an archaic (some would say “barbaric”) notion that goes back to human and animal sacrifice. 

There is also a mystery as to just how anyone’s life evolves – a creative person’s life in particular. Unpredictable developments in the world outside are enough to sustain my curiosity, but I am also fascinated by the way I evolve as a poet and a person. My life has evolved in ways I would have never predicted – not even ten years ago, much less twenty years ago. Some of my attitudes have become the exact opposite of what they were back then.

As for talent, I think development is practically everything – and it’s not something that we can control. As Rilke observed, the future enters us as suffering – or at least in amazing disguises. Rilke would probably agree with the Jungian psychologist James Hollis, who differentiates between fate and destiny: fate is the circumstances we are born into, including our genes and parental income; destiny is the future that pulls us toward it. 

A Walk

My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance –

and changes us, even if we don't reach it,
into something else which we already are;
a gesture waves us on, answering our own wave . . .
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke



Impatient Reader, we are now finally going to bring Simone Weil (1909 – 1943) into this wild ride, this reckless trust. A radical mystic and theologian in her own eccentric and anorexic way, she did buy the idea of courtship, but thought that both the arrows (what she calls AFFLICTION) and the roses (i.e. beauty) were God's means of courting the soul. Weil saw the beauty of the world as the “tender smile of Christ.” At the same time, make no mistake about it: beauty is God’s ambush for the soul. It draws us from the sty of this too, too solid flesh up to the zero-gravity divine, Weil insists. In fact, for Weil beauty is the best proof of the existence of God. (Somehow it doesn’t occur to her that the existence of beauty proves only the existence of beauty.)

I love beauty, so let me deal with the more difficult part of Weil’s message. Now, if a suitor believed that suffering (“affliction”) would make us fall in love with him, that he’d win our heart most reliably when we are writhing in pain, especially if there is no one else to turn to, no Adult Protection Services for a case of shattered dreams, we’d see courtship through affliction as an abusive relationship. Yet in the writings collected in Gravity and Grace, Weil goes so far as to state, Evil is the form which God's mercy takes in this world    
(Astonished Reader, are you thinking “Give me a break”?) To console us further, Weil goes on, Buried deep under the sound of [our] own lamentations is the pearl of the silence of God. (Reader, if you don’t understand this, no need to blame yourself for not being Wittgenstein.)

This seems close to the Jungian idea of “god as trauma.” If so, then it might be more useful to speak of “the gods” the way some great writers have done, meaning all those forces and circumstances over which we have no control. Thus we get the impression that we are “the sport of the gods.” That’s certainly what the authors of Sacred Romance would call the Message of Arrows, on par with “Things will never change” and “No matter what you do, you can’t win.”

And yet we sense that Weil is right about the power of affliction to make us seek “invisible means of support.” Why is suffering given a place of honor in sermons and non-stop pleas for mercy? Because affliction can really throw you to your knees. Talk about learning to pray in a hurry!

When affliction strikes, you can take practical action, you can give up, or you can pray (or you can write poetry, I dare say). If practical action is impossible, prayer seems a marvelous alternative. Even if the prayer is not answered, praying is at least an action of sorts. But I am suspicious of the depth of such need-based faith. What happens if life gets peachy again? Interesting, though: both poetry and faith seem to depend on some degree of desperation.

For centuries, the main strategy of Christian churches was to make use of affliction as divine punishment. Even if the plague was not raging, the church could still make you bad about yourself: you are a miserable sinner ("a wretch like me") and you are surely going into the flames of hell, but, because Jesus died for your sins, there is salvation (roses in the sky, i.e. heaven) if you behave. Here are the rules to obey and the donations to make. Presumably, the more broken in spirit you are, the more devout you will be. Catholics in particular have a whole S&M theology about the benefits of suffering, including self-inflicted suffering (flagellation, anyone?). I am so glad that at least the western world is moving away from that nightmare, and the medieval doctrine that suffering is good for you.

On the other hand, I admit to being somewhat attracted to the idea that those millions of wild daisies on the sides of the freeway after the spring rain are God’s bouquet intended to court my soul. If there must be a divine invasion, I’ll take beauty any time. Nor would I want to discard all religious stories, rituals, and metaphors. Carefully selected (I am all for religious eclecticism) and intelligently interpreted, these can help us live. That is essentially the position of the "Sea of Faith" theologians who admit that God exists only in the human mind (including the collective psyche, of course), but is still a useful concept; religion, stripped of archaic cruelty, can be used to inspire us to do good.

It also helps to remember that Catholic saints were always “wandering on the outskirts of heresy” (as Milosz describes his own struggles to sustain faith). Saint Therese the Little Flower used to kiss the statue of Christ on the mouth, and not on the feet, as is custom. Talk about eroticism, not even disguised! No, the saints did not believe in the monster God that the Church used for intimidation. They were able to love God only because, in spite of the hellfire sermons, they managed to imagine a loving deity – and in some cases at least, God as a Lover. That was the selective interpretation of the official religion that helped them live.

(A digression: must we insist on “Lover”? Might “Friend” be a more useful metaphor? Not a he, she, they, it, but a kind of inner, all-accepting, friendly “you” with whom to have a soulful conversation? The Inner Voice, the Observer, the Inner Artist, the Larger Self? After all, “the kingdom is within.” Or, as Emerson writes in his Journals, “Blessed is the day when the youth discovers that Within and Above are synonyms.” As for that tricky matter of the Above, or the Outer, who knows what kind of configuration of the universe it takes to stimulate the right neural circuits and produce an inspiration?)


Art as the artist’s personal religion (or call it “spirituality,” since religion is rapidly becoming a politically incorrect word) can be that which drives the person to suicide – but, if done right, with slow passionate patience, art can also be the fulfilling activity which helps him or her live. Creative work can save you, if you develop the right work habits (hint: do it every day). And the beauty of your art can save you. In the video you can click on below, the amazing centenarian Holocaust survivor identifies God with music. Music was the wonderful other world that she could enter even in a concentration camp.

By “intelligent” and “selective” interpretation of religion, I mean the kind of reading that fits the experience of the reader, just as dream interpretation requires the context of the dreamer’s life. In terms of the creative life, so rich in both heartbreak and joy, what is the lesson that lies there? Is creative life a “sacred romance” with art?

I think it is, though not in the literal sense that art is a deity – though at times it may seem a goddess, courting our soul so that we devote ourselves to creative work to an extent others would find insane – and not groaning under the yoke but grateful for our great privilege.  The enormous challenge is not to be discouraged by the inevitable suffering, the poverty, the humiliation. Giving up would also deprive of the joys of creation and of sharing it, be it with only a small circle. With heroic persistence (or should I say, “Are you compulsive enough?”), praised and yet never praised enough, artists produce gifts that enrich the soul.

My stay at Vermont was a rich mix of the “message of the arrows” and the “message of the roses.” Above all, it was a confirmation that with the right life philosophy you can take disappointments in stride. There is no failure, only learning. And there are those interesting surprises that, even in the absence of roses can keep me going. (Roses? Let’s face it: chrysanthemums and marigolds will do).

Speaking of roses, I think not arrows but thorns would be more consistent. This reminds me of Zbigniew Herbert’s poem about Saint Ignatius Loyola, which ends

                roses and thorns
                thorns and roses
                we pursue happiness

-- almost a summary of life, though some of us are different: we pursue meaning rather than happiness. Or we pursue excellence, or some other great dream, knowing it’s about the journey rather than arrival.  


It will never go away, the wish that the hardship disappear, and creative work become easy, a child’s play. But the Inner Artist must not to be confused with the Inner Child –


I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.

~ John O'Donohue

Alas, that river is the artist’s own cold sweat. Yet there must be surprises and moments of effortless-seeming insight to make it rewarding enough. There needs to be the feeling not just of drowning, or of strenuous swimming, but also of being carried. Of being the Beloved.

Our best poems may have been twenty years in the making; but in the moment of hot inspiration, they feel like pure gift. That’s when the impulse to say “thank you” arises: a thank you both to one’s own miraculous brain and the whole universe that had to be exactly right to make the inspiration possible.

Thus the divine in art is both the striving and the letting go, effort and non-effort. Most of all, it is recklessly going for a stroll, trusting that the right words will come at the right time.


So what did I get out of reading the kind of book I’d normally never even browse through, a one-time Christian best-seller that in an unlikely way found its way to the Vermont Studio Center library? Maybe the phrase, “Recklessly trust that wonderful things are ahead.” After all the broken dreams, to walk on in a kind of “second trust” (this sounds like “second childhood,” my ironic inner voice reminds me).

A book that I'd call "pulp religion" by analogy with pulp fiction. A never-mind-the-broken-dreams-be-happy kind of book. And yet, and yet . . . this is wisdom. If you mind the broken dreams, you remain broken. Or you can decide to be happy. It’s life itself that is – or can be – a “sacred romance.”

After a life as rich in disappointment as mine, a failed life by most standards, I got a meditation on irrational trust and decided that there is nothing to lose. True, I could translate this into the language of creative process, part of which is recklessly trusting that wonderful inspiration is ahead. But fantasy is its own pleasure, even if none of it comes true. It’s the beautiful music of the soul that I am sure nourishes the brain.

The trick is not to allow those fantasies to become expectations. To enjoy them, but to trust the unexpected. To trust that even the bad will be good. At the very least, it will be material. 


Based on a lot of melancholy experience, I already knew that meeting a famous poet is not going to change my life. But I also knew that unexpected good things – or at least interesting things – were likely to happen, so that in the end I would not regret having gone. And I can say this without any reservations: I am glad I went, and suffered, and enjoyed. And to the nagging voice that, in spite of all I said, still asks if Vermont was really worth the stress and the considerable expense, I quote the ending of AZ’s poem “Was It” (meaning “Was it worth it?”)

yes no yes no 
Erase nothing.


Addendum, February 28, 2113 GOD IS A LOUSY LOVER
The idea of god as a lover may be appealing, especially to those who have no human lover. I am not bothered by anyone’s eroticizing god (Jesus lends himself splendidly to this project). But here is what I found on the Happy Atheist website, about the number one benefit of being an atheist:

No need for that tortured "love/hate/fear" relationship with God any more. Let's face it, God is a lousy lover. He never calls, he never writes, and everybody's terrified of what he'll do when he finally shows up! In fact, they're so terrified that they call it Judgment Day! Does this really sound like a healthy relationship to you? 


REMINDS OF THE OLD JOKE ABOUT A GIRL AT THE ZOO WHO GOT MAULED BY A GORILLA. She was recovering so the doctor asked why she's depressed and she replies "he doesn't call, he doesn't write..."

I like the part where the writer says and "everybody is terrified of what he will do when he shows up!!"

I'm not an atheist but have given up on the Hebrew God and the Christian one by association (as much as one raised in the church can.) but having trouble giving the universal god a name. Seems harder to talk to.


I also kept hoping that some "real god" will reveal itself, but unless it's a synonym for the universe, there is no sign of anything that fits our wishful thinking: all powerful but also all good. For whatever reason immensely concerned about billions of us, each person being special, but also each sparrow, each plant etc. These are all HUMAN values, and we have to stop undervaluing the human. Here in the West we may be over "contempt for the world/the body/the human genius," but we still undervalue what humans working together can achieve.

I have found a source of strength in atheism. As soon as I truly slammed the door shut, so much energy got liberated! And no more of this sadness that "he doesn't call, doesn't write, doesn't visit." But liberation from guilt and shame -- that's a life-long recovery for those whose childhood was poisoned with a toxic god.

As for the soul, that's a left-over of the Cartesian body/mind dualism, as if the mind had nothing to do with the body except that it “resides” in it. But now we know the two are inseparable.

I think it's still the more shocking statement: There is no such thing as an immortal soul, compared with There is no god (or at least no one up there in our image). I don't mind "mortal soul" as long as "soul" is defined in terms of brain activity (which is the most amazing thing in the universe).
Charles Sherman: Raven Tree, Rosicrucian Temple, Oceanside, CA


Lovely posts, ideas, words and poems.  One can talk around it and ask but unless one devotes one's time to these questions, it's just circling around like a vulture.  God as lover . . . can tell you this much.  We are that God.  No ifs, ands, buts. 

And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the
      deep.  And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Gen 1:2)

Love the stark raven tree against the red bougainvillea.  Have not visited that Rosicrucian Temple but hope to one day.


Love your brave comment, especially "We are that God." Yes, the kingdom is within. By the way, St. Teresa of Avila more-or-less said that “we are the Christ.” She didn’t put it quite so boldly, not wanting to be burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition, but she said, “The only eyes Christ has now are your eyes . . . The only hands Christ has now are your hands, to do good with.”

Everyone loves the raven tree photograph. Poor Caspar Friedrich (the painter) is completely eclipsed. 


Michael Peterson, posting from Italy:

Yesterday, on the way back from a quick trip to Milano, I laid over in Firenze for an hour. It was 10:30pm, the city was settling for the night but young men and women sat talking and laughing on the steps of the cathedral, chatter that is ancient and new (an extraordinary building of pink, green, and white marble). Rilke has been there, and Michelangelo. And I thought, damn, I wish stones could talk.  

I saw another stone in Milan at a Boticelli exhibition. In an adjoining room (my apologies, I don’t know the name of the artist or the sculpture), I touched a white marble statue of a young, nude widow, kneeling and looking toward heaven. There is no anger on her face, nor in her posture. No grief. A touch of sadness, perhaps, but mostly trust. And I woke this morning thinking, what bullshit. The sculptor condemned this woman to a posture from which she can never be hugged, her one best hope for any meaning in life. Had he struggled as you have, as I have, he would have carved her in a standing position, looking around, where, rather than pitied, she could have been hugged by the millions who have only looked and wondered. Her eternally cold, marble body may have been warmed.

I saw other stones--the mosaic of a bull laid into the street. Where his balls should have been was a cup size hole, worn by the hopeful. For good luck, the tale goes, place your heel on his balls and turn around three times. I did this. The promise these stones make is as good as that of the Place toward which the eternally cold woman gazes.

I do not mean to literalize the notion of a hug. Hugs can be found in many places: a visit from the Muse is a hug, a compelling image, a memory, a laugh. I can’t abide pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. Wasted too much of life looking heavenward.

So might life be thought of as a search for hugs?


It might indeed. I'm glad that you defined "hugs" more broadly as positive experiences (pardon the dry abstraction of that phrase). I know "strokes" has been used in the same fashion – we seek "strokes." The religious might call these "moments of grace," or "transcendence," but I think you mean the beauty of this world and the warmth of human affection rather than anything supernatural and "transcendent." Yes, if the widow receives enough empathy and affection, she will go through the process of mourning and then move on and be able to be happy again. (Speaking of the healing power of affection, one finding about those who lost a spouse or child on 9/11 was that getting an affectionate dog, e.g. a golden retriever, was better therapy than "grief counseling.")

Thus dogs turned out to be more effective than human “grief counselors.” It doesn’t surprise me.  It’s not just that dogs are so loving; it’s also that we love them back, and the display of affection is simple and physical. In a recent issue of Time, under the headline “Love Conquers All,” I read the summary of a study in which student volunteers had a heat-probe applied to their hand while they were looking at a photo of their girlfriend or boyfriend, and later (or before then, depending on the group they were in) at a photo of a platonic friend. Brain imaging revealed a reduced pain response while the students were gazing at a photo of the person they loved.

Now, it’s possible that certain individuals might have a reduced pain response while looking at an image of Jesus or Mary, but most likely the study would not get funded. It would also be interesting to examine the analgesic power of beautiful nature imagery. Music has already been shown to be effective. For me classical music is an ecstatic hug.

For Simone Weil, beauty is a proof of God’s existence. While that’s the most appealing of all the proofs, I am afraid that the existence of beauty proves only the existence of beauty – more specifically, of the human capacity to appreciate that which we call beauty. 

A motto I learned from my parents: In nature there is nothing supernatural. I am embarrassed when I think how often I have used the term “transcendent” to describe beautiful music, a sublime landscape, an “eternal” moment. All those do not come from a world beyond, but from this world. This corner of the cosmos, which we can never praise enough. 

Florence Cathedral; photo: Michael Peterson


The idea of God as a lover does not seem convincing to me.

Charles Sherman's photo is more breathlessly beautiful than the painting but retains an ominous quality (Halloween), a tree leafed in black – ravens instead of leaves.

Rilke is, of course, my favorite poet. "I love the dark hours of my being" is wonderful.

Curiosity is enough to keep me alive, too. What's round the next corner? Is there a poem I want to write? I'm never bored.

Thinking about “secret America,” does that mean an underground, hidden America, a "closet America?"

It's the people who don't conform to the norm that made me fall in love with San Diego. I couldn't love the flora or fauna or the wonderful weather or anything until I discovered the poetry community.


Since the best-known Christian prayer starts with the words, “Our Father,” the shift from father to lover is a tricky one. Nevertheless, mystics in many religions have come up with the notion that God is a lover, and the human soul the beloved. Or the other way – I suppose there is a subtle distinction depending on which of the two is more active versus being a more passive recipient of love. Julian of Norwich said, “We are His [God’s] lovers.” I think it takes a mystic to have a fuller sense of this. Note that mystics usually did not have actual human lovers (Rumi may be the exception here).

There is an erotic dimension to religious mysticism, but mystical bliss is supposed to a serene bliss, I’ve read. I imagine it feels like the post-coital sense of calm and fulfillment. I’ve experienced states like that, but without thinking of God as a lover – doesn’t love, like friendship, assume a degree of equality? And not just a one-sided plea for protection, when you couldn’t possibly reciprocate? I see love as mutual nurturing. And I do wonder about the sanity of those mystics who seemed to have a relationship with God as an imaginary lover in the absence of any love relationships with other people.

I am also rather disturbed by those evangelical writers who exploit the human need for romantic love to try to seduce you to think that the proper object of such love is God.  That, by itself, would be fine in the mystical framework, but alas, those writers soon slide into the Crucifixion and the Precious Blood and the rest of the cruel, archaic S&M sort of theology, promising that the wicked will be destroyed in horrific ways. 

Back to poetry. In “I love the dark hours of my being,” Rilke seems to say that adolescent dreams must die for mature development to take place. But there is a sense of sadness too, the adult poet being like a tree growing on the boy’s grave. It’s a wonderful image. 

I can understand the lack of hope in some situations, but not a lack of curiosity about the future. Life is endlessly surprising.  My life always keeps turning out different than I expect! Thus, I correctly predicted that I’d be “disappointed” with AZ in terms of what might be called “making a connection,” but I was still willing to go to Vermont (and this is an outrageously expensive colony, especially given that so many colonies are free) because I knew that even “disappointing” would still be “interesting.” I didn’t want to miss a rich experience, even if it should turn out to be mostly negative. I agree with Jackleen Holton that “even the bad is good” when it’s interesting enough. (Not that the experience was negative; it was mixed.)

By “secret America” (note how similar that sounds to "sacred America"), I don’t mean hidden, underground, but just not as loud and visible as the extraverted mainstream. (By the way, who’d ever guess that introverts are not a small minority, but almost half the population? It’s just that we are quiet.) With me, likewise, it took people who might be described as unconventional in some significant way before I realized, “This is my America.” That’s why I felt immediately more at ease in California than in Milwaukee.

And I mean specifically non-materialist, non-consumerist. “Who needs this junk?” is a sign I fantasize of affixing over whole stores, or many aisles in a lot of stores. But it’s considered a patriotic duty to support the economy by buying stuff we don’t really need. Recently, though, a study showed that people get more lasting happiness when they “buy experiences” (e.g. an interesting vacation, or “adult education” classes) than when they buy things. I don’t think the economy would collapse if people became more interested in experiences than in things. True, some sectors of economy would see diminished demand, but other sectors would thrive. There would be more beauty, more cultural activities.

The Sacred Romance was such an unlikely book for me to be reading, in Vermont or anywhere . . .  but it hooked me, because it threw the challenge of how to deal with the Message of the Arrows and the Death of a Dream. I can see myself becoming a counselor in the field of disillusionment, with a sign over my office: Dream Adjustment.  

(An important aside: in our preoccupation with the artist, let us not forget the unsung heroes – those who nurture the artist and make his or her development possible.  The mother, the patient spouse, the teacher, the generous friend – their sacred romance is with the ideal of nurturing. They too deserve gratitude, praise and encouragement. )

Steve MacDonald:

I recognized the "message of the arrows." Among other things, it made me think of Hamlet's "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Arrow wounds, of course, can be wonderful, albeit painful, gifts. The divine wound is a gift, in my view, that one often doesn't value until long after the fact. Many people prefer to think only of the loving, enfolding God, not the God that brings with it a deep wound that forever changes the bearer of it. 

I enjoy the range and breadth of your ideas in those posts. And the exchanges after them are thought-provoking.


This is in line both with Simone Weil’s idea that God uses both affliction and beauty as “ambush for the soul,” and with Jung’s idea of God as trauma. The wounds I sustained in the first half of my life – the immigrant trauma; the heartbreak of bad relationships and the depression related to being rejected and simply not being loved; the poverty and feeling trapped in a life that did not allow me to travel or have many other experiences that I knew would serve my development – the immense desperation of those years (with some respite, as when I had my breakthrough as a poet) ultimately served my poetry.  The immigrant trauma in particular seemed a “divine wound.” Likewise the loss of the beloved. Contentment is the mother of mediocrity. Poetry takes emotional intensity. Best poetry comes from loss. 

One of my friends, Jackleen, wise beyond her age, said that given the right situation, e.g. an interesting trip, “Even the bad is good.” It’s especially so for a writer.

I would love to think that happiness too is conducive to creativity. Alas, I think I can write good essays and articles when reasonably contented. In fact that’s the only time when thinking can be “straight,” and not distorted by this or that inner wound. So in this current period of relative contentment, having closed the door on depression (at least one person warned me that it’s very unwise to do so without first finding an equally potent outlet for the soul – or call it release or escape), I’ve been writing prose. 

Hyacinth told me that “depression strokes the feathers of the Muse.” She may right (I typed “write”), though I’d substitute the word “melancholy.” There is a spectrum of depression, and a relatively mild degree can be fine for creativity. But in my experience, it’s coming out of severe depression that produces a wonderful burst of creativity. But then so does falling in love, and, later, the loss of the beloved. I wonder if those complex matters can ever be adequately summed up.

On the whole, I agree: the divine wound changes the person forever, and all great achievers had at least one such wound. What is often forgotten is that they also had someone very supportive, or a whole circle of supportive people. I’d call that the “message of roses.” And we don’t need to use the theistic language: the arrows come from abusive people (generally, though it can also be a serious illness; but the illness can be related to abuse ), and the roses from loving, supportive people.

My post on the artist’s need for “just the right degree of trauma” needs a supplement: and “just the right degree of support.” As has been often said, at least one person has to totally believe in you.

Rather than “arrows and roses,” “thorns and roses” would be a more consistent metaphor. Zbigniew Herbert has a poem ending,

Thorns and roses
roses and thorns
we pursue happiness

("St. Ignatius Loyola")

– but maybe he is wrong. We pursue meaning


Charles (yes, the one who took the photograph of the raven tree):

I don’t think suffering is as important as the will, the total desire to become an artist. You have to be willing to sacrifice everything to become an artist.

Personally, I didn’t suffer all that much. The average, I think. I thought I’d devote myself to art when I retire from business. Then I realized that I’d never retire from business. Not only that, but at 32 I realized I was a failure at business. And that’s when I started putting everything into art.

I know people who suffered a lot more than I did, but they never developed into artists. The desire wasn’t deep enough. They tried a million things and never found a focus. I think it’s the desire that gives you the focus.


You are so right about focus. We have many talents, but those who can't focus on one, or at most two, will not become artists. 

I also think that the moment when you realize you’re a failure can be crucial in development:  then art can become salvation. I was failing to make it in America, I was failing at getting loved; in most people’s eyes, including my parents’ and my own, I was a failure in life. Poetry was an alternative to suicide. I ran the fan in the bathroom to drown out the TV, and that’s where I read Wallace Stevens.

I also agree with the idea of having to have a terrific drive. We can romanticize the “divine wound,” but it’s the drive (probably a genetic trait) that makes you do the huge amount of work it takes to develop as an artist. I always had drive, starting in childhood, but I rarely had an adequate outlet for it. Laid-back people can probably never understand the torment of having drive and high energy without an adequate outlet. With luck you become productive rather than destructive, though often it’s both.  


My inner self is childlike, always was and, hopefully, always will be.  I may doubt the world, but never the cosmos. It helps that I'm not inclined to try to define it. I'm willing to let the mystery be.

I believe the universe is friendly. I also believe there is an interest in those who have a reciprocal interest, or that the interest can be sometimes be detected by those who are interested. I just detect friendliness, neither judgment nor courtship.

This has nothing to do with formal theology which seems to work very hard to suppress any such idea or feeling, except in those exceptional situations where the church provides a shelter.


Your “neither judgment nor courtship” reminds me of the ending of Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Werki,” from his posthumous collection Second Space:

The priests taught us about salvation and damnation.
Now I have not the slightest notion of these things.
I have felt on my shoulder the hand of my Guide,
Yet He didn’t mention punishment, didn’t promise a reward.


If only we managed to purge our thinking of the concepts of crucifixion-bought salvation and eternal damnation, we could indeed explore more inclusive ideas such as cosmic “friendliness” and the (possibly) psychoid nature of reality.


I love the raven tree, especially CS's behind the bougainvilla.  A great photograph.

It's alien to me, the thought of god as a lover. My image is more like the angry god of the Sistine Chapel casting Adam out. My childhood feeling was that I was unloved by God, or at least that he was angry at me and I wasn't good enough for the religion I was raised in. Freud's theory that god is a father projection probably says more about my own father than anything else. I read once that children of a very weak father are often unable to form a god image, and that may be the case with me. That god loves me or cares for me is not part of my inner furniture...which is sad, I guess, but also it made me what I am, and some of what I am is okay.



Thanks for an excellent response. As for the author's problem with his own father: the one who went on to finish the book had an alcoholic father.

I think it's easier for a mystically inclined woman to think of God as a lover -- both St. Teresa of Avila and Therese the Little Flower saw Jesus in that light. St. John of the Cross sounds pretty homoerotic in his Canticle of the Soul -- though there's always the "exit strategy" of being able to claim that the soul is feminine.

For me God as presented by the Catholic Church was always primarily a judge, spying on me to collect evidence that would send me to hell, reading my mind to see my sinful thoughts. Christ's message that sins will be forgiven and forgotten got overwhelmed by the image of judgmental, cruel God the Father (who even required the torture and death of his son before humans could be forgiven and admitted to heaven).  

The constant asking for mercy, chest beating (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa), the emphasis on sin and how sinful humans are, how "every time you sin, you drive a nail into the flesh of Jesus" -- all this made us feel that we are wretched sinners. To make matters worse, we were supposed to love God, so I felt guilty also about not loving God. I felt affection for Jesus and Mary, but I wasn't able to love the horrendous hellfire terrorist presented to us as God the Father, who after all was boss. I realize Catholicism has moved away from that kind of negativity, but the psychological damage to our generation cannot be completely reversed. Some of it, alas, is forever in our deep brain structures, and possibly even in every cell of our body. Talk about child abuse! And I know that evangelical churches, carrying on about the "blood of the Lamb," can be even worse.

In terms of the desire for a protective father, I think Freud was right, and the projection is parental. I don't know how mystics manage to shift tracks and swerve from the parental to the erotic projection; my guess is that the bliss experienced during meditation has something to do with this identification of the divine with Eros – an interesting difference from God as Logos.

For the artist, the "sacred romance" is with art. The true reward is the moment of creation, not anything that might be the equivalent of an "afterlife." Looking back at periods of intense creativity, I already feel, with Hoelderlin: "Once I lived as the gods. More is not needed." 

Addendum, January 6, 2011

I have only now become aware of the Buddhist "parable of the two arrows." The first arrow is the bad thing that happens; the result is pain. The second arrow is our reaction to the negative event; the result is suffering. Buddhists believe that they can lessen suffering through their special practices. "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional" may have originated in the parable of two arrows (or at least it picks up the same theme, attesting to the universality of wisdom). 

The Sacred Romance suggests we disregard "the message of arrows" and expect wonderful things to happen anyway. The Buddhist approach focuses on the "second arrow," our response to a negative event. As I learn more, I hope to return to this topic. 


  1. Why don't you read and post something by Hadewijch (or Hadewych), a Beguine from the Low Countries, ca. 1300, translated into English by Mother Columba Hart, who was at first an actress and then a Benedictine (not Scholastic!) nun in a monastery somewhere. I wrote about Andriessen's opera on this topic, and sent my article to the monastery, alas, it reached it after Mother Columba's death. Love mysticism is all Hadewijch wrote about. A very interesting medieval poet.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. I've had a long-term interest in women mystics. I like the way they are not concerned with depravity and damnation, but sound instead like women in love with Christ (or Krishna, or another divine figure, depending on the religion).

    In my (admittedly limited) experience, however, a person can experience a state of bliss without any supernatural belief. It's a natural right-hemisphere function, to make us feel blissful.

  3. PS. Aside from listening to great music, doing something at the level of excellence is my most reliable way of entering a positive mood. And to do something at the level of excellence, I have to focus on it, reducing my activities to the fewest possible. My motto is "Do less."

    One positive outcome of my inability to believe has been discovering all kinds of secular paths to feeling good.

  4. Reflections much later: possibly the best thing to have come from my stay in Vermont was reading this book, a pure accident (like so many important things in life). I had to translate it from religion into my own language; once that happened, I saw that it deals with the universal problem of how to thrive in spite of unavoidable disappointments and misfortunes. I continue to believe that the best answer is to be strongly focused on work -- that is under our control. Having supportive friends is great, and that tends to happen as one of the consequences of developing a strong focus. You break through to a certain depth and quality, and radiate that depth to people you meet; this takes care of having supportive friends almost automatically. Another quality that seems to develop is a generosity of spirit. When your life is in order because it has a deep focus, you are more willing to give of yourself, to share the riches of your mind -- and that too strengthens supportive friendships.