‘Stillness in Rhythm’: Hesychastic Poiesis
January 11, 2017
by Michael Centore
In his 1947 essay “Poetry and the Contemplative Life,” the Trappist intellectual Thomas Merton wrote:
If the intuition of the poet naturally leads him into the inner sanctuary of his soul, it is for a special purpose in the natural order: when the poet enters into himself, it is in order to reflect upon his inspiration and to clothe it with a special and splendid form and then return to display it to those outside. And here the radical difference between the artist and the mystic begins to be seen. The artist enters into himself in order to work. For him, the “superior” soul is a forge where inspiration kindles a fire of white heat, a crucible for the transformation of natural images into new, created forms. But the mystic enters into himself, not in order to work but to pass through the center of his own soul and lose himself in the mystery and secrecy and infinite, transcendent reality of God living and working within him.
While Merton would later temper his view of the dichotomy between artistic “action” and mystical “contemplation” in the essay “Poetry and Contemplation: A Reappraisal” (1958), this statement remains an encapsulation of his struggle as a young monk to define—and, in the process of defining, assume a sort of mastery over—the spiritual and creative impulses that would course throughout his life. It is subtle but clear on which side of the divide the Merton of 1947 stands, or wants to stand: the air of condescension when describing the poet as worker, the veiled accusation of artistic vanity with the patronizing “special and splendid form” and the promenading verb “display” point to a writer who aspires to speak with God rather than about him. Merton was a poet by nature who longed to become a saint, and the difference in preposition is no lexical nicety but the moral crossroads at which he would stake his vocation. Indeed, “Poetry and the Contemplative Life” was intended as a public farewell to the art form when it appeared in the pages of Commonweal—the July 4th issue, to be exact, as if to quietly underscore it as a declaration of independence.
Biographical details aside, Merton’s crisis is well known to the Christian poet. In a fallen world, it is one thing to write religious or “spiritual” tracts that will help mend man’s brokenness through the illumination of the faith; it is quite another to commit oneself to poetry’s realm of the unsayable, a region of literature that exists to articulate the moments most inaccessible to speech in language at its most heightened. For the Christian poet, the risk of such a commitment is two-pronged: the “natural images” and “new, created forms” of poetic speech can easily become idols in and of themselves, flirting with the stigma of “art for art’s sake” if the poet is not careful with his inspiration; and second, in this age of spiritual depravation, environmental degradation, humanitarian crises, and other global atrocities that demand direct and unambiguous response, the Christian poet feels most acutely the limitations of his art. If the role of poetry is continually being called into question—particularly today, as technology erodes the stillness necessary for a relationship between poet and public—all the more so for the poet of faith, whose creative destiny does not end with the poetic act but flows forth into his prayer life and participation in salvation history. Like a sluice gate lowered in a waterway, Merton’s dualism stops this flow by imposing an artist-mystic divide. Yet in a world inundated by information and starved, in many ways, for deeper communion with mystery, it is precisely this divide that Christian poets need to bridge if they are to realize the full scope of their calling.
One way to begin this process might lie on the other side of Merton’s tradition, with the hesychastic monks of the Christian East. Hesychia, or “stillness,” is an all-encompassing spiritual path aimed at acquiring not only inner tranquility but a mystical union with the Holy Spirit. It is not a prescribed procedure but rather a set of theories and practices revolving around attentiveness to breath, a concentration of the intellect within the heart to hone its contemplative faculty, and an unceasing remembrance of God through repetition of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”). The French Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément, upon quoting John Climacus’s definition of a hesychast as “one who seeks to confine the incorporeal within the corporeal,” construes the purpose of hesychastic prayer: “The Holy Spirit, the breath of God, is linked to the Word from all eternity. Therefore when a person’s intellect and breathing utter the name of the Incarnate Word—Jesus—they are united with the Holy Spirit, and the person breathes and thinks in the Spirit.”
“Breathes and thinks”: this is the key phrase here, for Clément’s conceptualization shows us that the mind, even in the midst of prayer, might retain its cognitive and visionary functions. And while cognition and vision come together to form the seat of the poet’s soul, his imagination, there is inherent danger in trying to apply the techniques of hesychasm to those of poetic composition. At base is hesychasm’s distrust of images and image-making, a theme that runs throughout the eighteenth-century compendium of hesychastic literature, the Philokalia, as well as related texts such as the Russian saint Theophan the Recluse’s widely influential translation of a sixteenth-century classic of Catholic spirituality, Lorenzo Scupoli’s The Spiritual Combat. In Theophan’s version, re-titled by its Greek translator Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain as Unseen Warfare, we read: “Since imagination is a force devoid of reason and mostly acts mechanically, obeying the laws of association of images, whereas spiritual life is the image of pure freedom, it stands to reason that its activity is incompatible with this latter life.” This aversion to the imagination has biblical precedent, with the concept of an evil “imagination of the heart” introduced in Genesis 6:5, reaching prophetic heights in its many recurrences in Jeremiah, and carrying forth into the New Testament in Mary’s fiat (Luke 1:51) and Second Corinthians 10:5. Unsurprisingly, then, when one looks for it, it can be found in Christian spirituality of virtually every age. The question then becomes: Is there space for reconciliation between the poetic imagination and the hesychastic heart, or is the Christian poet condemned to keep swapping out dualities in an endless, unbridgeable chasm between art and life?
The editors of the English translation of the Philokalia—the Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware and the late poet and philosopher Philip Sherrard among them—seem to think that there is such a space. In their glossary entry for fantasy, a loaded term for artistic and mystical aspirants alike, they write: “[I]t is true that images . . . may well be projections on the plane of the imagination of celestial archetypes, and that in this case they can be used creatively, to form the images of sacred art and iconography.” But what about an art or poetry that is not explicitly “sacred,” that does not exist to fulfill a particular ecclesiastical or liturgical function but attempts—perhaps futilely, but attempts nonetheless—to embody the free movement of the Spirit as apprehended through prayer, particularly hesychastic prayer? Such a poetry would go beyond canonical vocabularies of religious experience, reconstituting them within the poet’s soul to the point where they might not appear “religious” at all. This would expand the definition of “sacred art” to presume a renewed view of the imagination, one in which we entrust it not only to the “celestial archetypes” but also—and herein lies the danger for the mystically minded—the sensory impressions accumulated in our day-to-day existence here on the material plane.
To navigate this delicate balance between celestial and sensory, the poet might start with the one component that spans both artistic and devotional pursuits: his internal rhythm, the point where the preverbal pulse of his syllables meets the unique cadence of his heart beating in prayer. Stanley Kunitz, quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, called this rhythm “the taste of self.” In a 1977 interview with the Paris Review, he elaborated:
You cannot write a poem until you hit upon its rhythm. The rhythm not only belongs to subject matter, it belongs to your interior world, and the moment they hook up there’s a quantum leap of energy. You can ride that rhythm, but it will carry you somewhere strange . . . You have to triumph over all your diurnal glibness and cheapness and defensiveness.
This, to me, sounds remarkably like prayer in its depiction of abandonment: the glib, defensive self getting out of its own way to link the interior world of rhythm to the exterior world of subject matter. In that eviscerating word cheapness, it is hard not to hear echoes of Nikitas Stithatos’s warning against the soul’s “futile propensity to cheap arrogance” in the Philokalia. For the would-be hesychast-poet, the poem could become the tool by which he overcomes this “futile propensity” by putting himself in the service of a mystery he can participate in but not control. Speculating on how such a process might unfold underscores the parallels between hesychasm and poiesis—parallels striking enough that a unified approach should be attempted, and could plausibly yield results.
In preparing to compose his poem, the hesychast-poet might first set himself in a posture of receptiveness as aided by the Jesus Prayer. Cultivating silence around his creative conscience, he lets the rhythmic lineaments of the poem emerge beneath the measure of his prayer. He begins in this process of inward listening the collected concentration of language and intention at their most focused. Like Climacus’s hesychast confining the incorporeal within the corporeal, he trains his stillness on Diadochos of Photiki’s definition of patience: “with the eyes of the mind always to see the Invisible as visible”—and, one might add, to hear the Inaudible as audible. Slowly, breath and mind modulating around the Divine Name, intellect re-centering in his heart, the line between inspiration and reason tautens and thins. To set out to follow this line would be to attempt, insofar as possible, a hesychastic openness to the mystery of the Word as it energizes the multiplicity of words surging into the pattern of the poet’s rhythm. With the inspiration of the Spirit operative in his soul, the listening-act and the speech-act merge into a singular utterance that initiates the life of the poem.
One way for the poet to sustain this life throughout the compositional process would be self-denial, the ascetical component of hesychasm. In the act of writing, this means dying to the vanities of artistic ego and one’s position as “author,” as well as the temptation to manipulate language as a tool for building up or justifying the self. This is especially true for poetry, which more than any other type of writing operates on rules of its own accord that will not always deign to serve the poet’s ends. Emerson’s famous distinction between meter and “meter-making argument”—the latter, for him, the telltale sign of a true poem as “a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing”—gives us a sense of poetry’s unruly resistance to our own designs, as does the late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky’s belief, related by Joan Acocella, that “poetry was not something contained in language as much as it was, itself, a language, speaking truths only found there, and which you ignore at your peril.” What statements like these tell us is that the poet must be prepared to cross over into the poem’s inner life, leaving behind his thoughts about the poem as well as his expectations of himself as poet, if he is to participate in its creation.
At one point or another, all poets must make this crossing; for the hesychast-poet, it would be preceded by an initial descent into the mystery of the Word. The two movements would work in confluence: the Jesus Prayer opening the poet’s eyes (and ears) to a spiritual comprehension of created things, including the words welling up within him, and his “leap of faith” into the suprarational structures of the poem providing the occasion to subdue the self—and thereby opening more space for the prayer’s propulsion of his intuition and its guidance of his spiritual vision. In practice, this might come to resemble John Bryant’s characterization of Herman Melville’s approach to poetry as “a way to ‘annul’ himself . . . and let a given subject find its shape on its own terms, like a sculpture emerging out of stone.” The poet must decrease so the poem might increase—and not just as a work of art, but a partnership and collaboration with the Holy Spirit. The poem becomes an exercise in following the fits, feints, and starts of the Spirit as it draws the poet out of himself and into the mystic of Merton’s dialectic: the “infinite, transcendent reality of God living and working within him.”
As hesychastic and poetic practices are allowed to illumine, inform, and embolden each other, the practice could even become a means of building up the virtues, such as that of discrimination or discernment: the poet sifts through images not by free association but by offering each one to Christ within the cycle of his prayer. Each image becomes fuel for the fire of his heart, burning with the purifying grace of prayer as it sends up smoke to sacralize his imagination. Images are transformed as he sees them with the “eyes of Christ”: no longer peering into stationary matter, even the “matter” of words and images, he beholds their inward fluidity,
the motions of the viewless winds,
Embodied in the mystery of words
which Wordsworth writes of in his Prelude. The poet is not rendering images so much as their continual becoming. Containing it within the fixed form of his poem, he expresses something of God’s “dynamic stillness,” the union of motion and stasis mirrored in the swift passage of inspiration itself.
Yet fixed does not mean finished, for that would imply the motion of the poem ceases with the compositional act. This would neutralize the poet’s inspiration and turn it into that inert “display” so slyly derided by Merton. The living poem, as all things a means of self-transformation, record of self-offering, and revelation of the mystery of the poet to himself at his most spiritually alert, must surpass mere “display” to arrive at a communion with its reader or hearer. As the Polish poet (and frequent Merton correspondent) Czesław Miłosz had it:
In the act of writing, a transformation occurs: the direct data of consciousness, our feeling of ourselves from the inside, is changed into an image of other individuals, similarly feeling themselves from inside, and thanks to that, we can write about them, not only about ourselves.
The hesychast-poet would act on Miłosz’s vision by not simply describing spiritual states for public consumption, but embodying an entire program of preparation, purification, and action. His poem is a vapor trace of the Spirit at work within him; when shared, it is a vehicle for the transference of the Spirit that it might work within his reader. Speech, pushed to its outer limits, creates a space for solitudes to meet. In this communion is the fulfillment of the poem as a mystical act: one in which a moment of private inspiration is recognized as belonging to all.
Of course, no matter how successful a poem is in conveying the spiritual or mystical reality of its maker, artistic criteria—whether or not the poem is any good as a poem—still stand. Perhaps attempting to work through the very difficulty of bringing together hesychasm and poiesis into a unified approach is what, at least in part, may generate compelling material. It may even lend itself to greater clarity of thought and poetic diction: like the iconographer who must “renounce aesthetic joy for its own sake and use all the signs of the visible world in order to suggest spiritual reality,” the hesychast-poet, in theologian Leonid Ouspensky’s words, “must be very clear and very precise, just as the Fathers, when they speak of the spiritual world, use particularly clear and vigorous expressions.” While the iconographer is very strictly canon-bound in a way that the poet is not, a hesychastic poetics could find many useful parallels within the rigorous iconographic tradition, particularly in the construction of a spiritualized space that aims to bring the viewer—or, in this case, the reader or listener—into a state of participatory contemplation.
Yet for all of this we must ask ourselves why, considering the long traditions of hesychasm and poetry, no such type of “hesychast-poet” is widely known to us. The truth is that most accomplished poets are not overt hesychasts or practitioners of some kind of Christian orthodoxy; and, inversely, among monks and other hesychasts there are few noteworthy poets. The clearest reason is that the monastic vocation, the main forum for the practice of hesychasm, provides a space to relegate the will that the monk labors to be filled by God alone. Thus the monk has no need to make; or, more pointedly, the poet submits to the point of making something, while the monk leaves nothing behind. But for the Christian who still feels the stirrings of the creative conscience, a hesychastic poetics may be a means of honoring certain instincts of his spirit while orienting those instincts toward their fulfillment in the deepest experience of his faith.
Perhaps there is no better argument for this than the case of Merton himself. In 1957, he returned to poetry after an eight-year hiatus with the publication of The Strange Islands. It seems that the pull of those “special and splendid” forms was too much even for him. Nearly sixty years later, in his 2015 address to the United States Congress, Pope Francis singled Merton out as “a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the church.” One wonders how much of his ability to inspire men and women of faith can be traced to Merton’s poetic practice—both as a record of his soul’s interior peregrinations that “those outside” could follow, and as a means of centering his mind that enabled the precision of his thought, prayer, and prose. It may be that the hesychast-poet’s own version of Merton’s praxis, without his early compunction, will prove a source of refreshment for a world in which stillness is as forgotten as the hope of finding meaning in it.
Michael Centore is a writer based in Connecticut. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Mockingbird, Killing the Buddha, and other publications.