Tag Archives: soul

Lectio Divina

Last night I had dinner with my friend Linda (visiting from New York), her beau Terence, and their friend Brother Fred. This morning I pulled the following remarks from Emily.

#652, c. 1862

A Prison gets to be a friend —
Between its Ponderous face
And Ours — a Kinsmanship express —
And in its narrow Eyes —

We come to look with gratitude
For the appointed Beam
It deals us — stated as our food —
And hungered for — the same —

We learn to know the Planks —
That answer to Our feet —
So miserable a sound — at first —
Nor ever now — so sweet —

As plashing in the Pools —
When Memory was a Boy —
But a Demurer Circuit —
A Geometric Joy —

The Posture of the Key
That interrupt the Day
To Our Endeavor — Not so real
The Cheek of Liberty —

As this Phantasm Steel
Whose features — Day and Night —
Are present to us — as Our Own —
And as escapeless — quite —

The narrow Round — the Stint —
The slow exchange of Hope —
For something passiver — Content
Too steep for looking up —

The Liberty we knew
Avoided — like a Dream —
Too wide for any Night but Heaven —
If That — indeed — redeem —

So Brother Fred, who is affiliated with the Benedictine order although he is not a priest, explained the topic of his doctoral thesis. It concerns preaching through a meditative practice called lectio divina, which relies on readings from scripture as a springboard into contemplation, the idea being that the holy spirit awakens through “eating” and “savoring” the words. Not reading them for meaning or analysis, but absorbing the words as a slide that plunges one into a non-ordinary state of consciousness that lies beyond words—the realm of holy spirit or awareness of “god within”. The monastic orders of the 12th century popularized this practice, most notably through the Rule of St. Benedict. The practice requires first that one quiets the mind and body by establishing a regular time for meditation in a place that is free of all distractions—no newspapers, email or horoscopes.

Also called “feasting on the word”, lectio divina consists of four steps or rungs in the “monk’s ladder.” First you take a bite (lectio) which is to read the words. Then you chew on it (meditatio), which means writing it down or reading it aloud. Here the mind wants to grasp the meaning. Then you savor it (oratio) which is to place the printed page away from you and wait for the word or phrase that wants to stick to the soul do its work. By meditating on the words, one waits passively for the words to manifest. The idea is that whatever portion of the passage is most relevant, that part rises to the surface. Not necessarily the whole passage but whatever small part of it is most needed, one word perhaps. The soul knows what it wants to hear.

The last part is digestion (contemplatio) which is that you stand up and go about your business with the word (engaged by holy spirit) active within you. You let the word inform your day. Allow the word to manifest itself to you and through you.

When Brother Fred described this practice to me, I shouted, “My god! I’ve been practicing lectio divina with Emily! All this time, and I didn’t even know it.” This took some explaining, but Brother Fred agreed that the text one uses for meditation doesn’t really matter. The scripture is not regarded as the literal word of God, but a tool for the practitioner to awaken the “god within”. The words are a mirror reflecting back to the reader what may be dormant and yearning for expression. You could do it with nursery rhymes . . . theoretically, at least.

Here I had been communing with Emily, having lively conversations with her in my sleep, and thinking that I had gone well and truly buggy—when in reality I have been experiencing just a regular old mystical encounter with the divine. What a relief.

It’s also nice to have this doughty Latin phrase for what I’m doing. Lectio Divina! With a feminine suffix, no less. I remember that much from high school Latin. And how nice to know I am in the company of St. Benedict and all the others.

Thank you Brother Fred.

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Another Turn In the Wheel

Today is my birthday, and Emily has given me a lovely birthday gift.  Her poem concerns each individual’s life purpose and . . . interestingly . . . reincarnation.  See what you think.

It’s a longish poem so I’ll just give you the parts that hit me the hardest.

#680, c. 1863

Each Life Converges to some Center —
Expressed — or still —
Exists in every Human Nature
A Goal —

She begins by telling us that each of us has a special purpose, a reason for manifesting into flesh.  Then she spends few more stanzas reassuring us that this goal may be too far to reach, that’s okay, it’s expected and no reason to stop pursuing the goal.  Then here’s her kicker at the end.  Emily goes for the gymnastic leap into another realm altogether at the very end.  Her dismount is always spectactular.

Ungained — it may be —by a Life’s slow Venture —
But then —
Eternity enable the endeavoring

Again.  Again, she  says.  You get to try it again after death.  So now does that mean your soul gets to continue pursuing this goal after it leaves your body?  Or does she mean that your goal may continue its existence with the next fleshy manifestation?

If you miss this train, Em says, it’s okay. There is another one coming down the track.

The poem makes me wonder what did Emily think that her  life’s goal was.  I  mean the one she didn’t reach.  Expressed or still, the goal remains.  The girl who wrote a poem every day for years, almost all her life.  If that wasn’t the center that her life had converged on, what was, I wonder.  What did our wonderfully prolific and productive poet think she was supposed to be doing but then considered that would not be hers in this life time?

This sounds to me like divine discontent.  She answers it with a suggestion that Eternity give us a chance to endeavor onward.  The ending on that single word, “Again” is a shivery promise.

I don’t know if Em considers reincarnation a possibility.  She may have meant that this goal is a spiritual perfection that is unreachable in this “Low Venture” we have on earth.  That only after death when we are finally liberated from the limitations of our physical cage, can we achieve that goal.

She could go that way.  It would be the conventional way to see this.  But I don’t want to go the conventional route here.

I can’t get away from that shivery, solitary “Again” standing there at the end.  Her solid dismount off the end of this poem lands on “Again”.  This is starting over.  Flipping back onto the wheel of life.  Each time we may or may not come closer to that goal.  What could it have been for her?  Finding the right word?  Was that it, Em?  You wrote all those poems because you had to burrow down to the right word.  Was each one a near miss?  I can see her looking at this mass of work and thinking she had only come close to her goal.  Clearly she never rested on the last poem.  Another one had to come out because the last one didn’t do it.  Didn’t come quite right to the point.

This is her existential crisis.  She produced all those words in a mania to reach an unreachable goal.  The perfect poem.

Or was it something else, Emily?  What did you want that you didn’t get?  I could guess, but I’m afraid my vision would fall short of yours.  My dear friend, I hope you taste fulfillment where ever you land again.

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Devil’s Work

The crape myrtle overhead has exploded with pink blossoms.  Ah, guilt-free beauty.  Here’s the poem (c. 1865) for today:


Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays.

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust—

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crash’s law.


I have noticed, now that I am deploying the Genius of Random Chance in selecting a poem each morning, that chance gives me the freedom to land in Emily’s later, more mature work.  So now that I am rolling in the meat of her career, I can’t give you a thumbnail synopsis of the poem.  I have to reproduce the whole thing here for you because the later poems are impossible to summarize.  They are so densely packed, each word is a stick of dynamite.  As Emily went deeper into her own genius, she left behind more of whatever coughing and sputtering that most of us do before arriving at our first authentic word.  She taught herself, through practice, to arrive instantly at the core knot, the nut, the still beating heart of whatever she was aiming for.  She did this (I imagine) by shaving away, gradually and constantly, anything that smelled even slightly of preparation.

To my ears, this density rings of a crazed, elemental urgency.  As if she had grown wildly impatient with anything unnecessary.  I can almost see her experiencing the same impatient dismay toward the body that encloses the soul.  It’s all preparation.  Get to the center of it.  Why waste words or time?  Get to it!

My experience of today’s poem is to be reminded that I should not be surprised by any of my current destinations.  Wherever I find myself now, at nearly 47 years of age, is a result of who I am, not outside forces.

If I don’t like my current destination, if I feel a failure, I need look no farther than my own habits of thought for the cause.  What Em calls “Devil’s work” I call “habit of thought.”  This “Cobweb on the Soul” begins small but gathers force and strength over time.  These habits direct us toward a goal that we set for ourselves by not doing our own inner housekeeping.  By not clearing out the rust and cobwebs that accumulate over time, we move in a certain direction.  It’s the lack of attention to process that actually moves the process.  It will move on its own.  We have to recognize what we set in motion.

I do not think that Emily believes our failure in encoded in our DNA, or that character is destiny.  I don’t believe she means to say we are fated to arrive at certain giant failures, but that we direct ourselves that way with our smaller failures and our neglect of the conditions that created them—by allowing the cobwebs to remain.  A cobweb is a filmy thing, minor, easily cleaned away at first.  The junk cluttering up the soul may begin with the Devil, some outside force, but if we allow it to remain, if we fail to clean away the first signs of decay—yes, then surely the later grand undoing, our Crash, is our own doing not the Devil’s.

Also this Crash is slow in coming.  We can see it before it happens, or ought to.  In slipping there is plenty of time to observe oneself about to crash and save oneself.  If we don’t avail ourselves of that time, we can’t blame the Devil.

“Cobweb on the Soul” are habitual patterns of thought.  These influence how we act and react,  how we choose and how others respond.  We all know when we’re having an uncharitable thought, when we’re being mean-spirited or irresponsible, not our best self.  We all know when our thoughts are making us smaller not larger.  This cumulative process of thinking is the slip toward the crash.  Habits of thought are just that—habits.  They can be cultivated or discouraged.  They are grooves that go deeper with repeated use and become harder to get out of and harder to see.  As we go deeper into the uncharitable thought groove, the sides of the channel rise higher overhead so we cannot see beyond this thought into another, different thought.

Before too long, we can become convinced that our thoughts are real.  Now that’s the hell where the Devil lives.

I do think Emily means we have some control and choice in this slow decay.  She doesn’t offer an explicit way out, but she does let us know who is allowing the decay.  It’s all a process, therefore it’s a pliable thing.  Human nature is not fixed but plastic.  Her view is not hopeful but responsible.

Finally Emily says:  Don’t kid yourself about who is really in charge.

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