Apr 08 2015

mundane effort

The most mundane effort,
when approached with a sense of service
and a questing heart,
becomes an act of beauty.

No responses yet

Apr 03 2015

Ryokan – The I Ching States Happiness Lies in the Proper Blend

Published by under Ivan's Story,Poetry

The I Ching States Happiness Lies in the Proper Blend of:
by Ryokan

English version by John Stevens


— from Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan, Translated by John Stevens

/ Image by x-horizon /

A reminder for us today from that master of wisdom-foolishness, Ryokan, to walk the slim pathway between the extremes, to touch both but not be held by either.

Absolutes are for fundamentalists and those weary of the journey. The rest of us continue to navigate that hidden line where opposites meet. We learn the way by knowing our hearts.


This is a tension I myself have wrestled with in my own journey. As a passionate young seeker, I so wanted holiness, which I understood mostly in terms of physical purity and isolation from the world. I ate only very specific foods, not much of them, and often fasted. I lived much of my 20s and early 30s in retreat, seeking out remote, natural environments to call home.

And, you know what? It worked. My energies began to take on a more sustained, deeply meditative state. I found myself opening in profound ways. I found a way to embody holiness. It worked… for a while.

Sure, I could have continued living in that way, with ever more precise refinements in my practice, and possibly deepening the sense of holiness I felt, and that would have satisfied a certain hunger in my soul. But I started to see a problem with all of that. When I was entirely honest with myself, I noticed that I was becoming more brittle and ethereal, disconnected from people and less able to interact with society. I had created a safe bubble of “purity” around me, and I easily lost my balance whenever that was even slightly disrupted.

I came to the decision that true spirituality was not about some sort of aloof, fragile perfection, but must include an embodied mastery that required grounding and human interaction and the humility to be less than perfect. Much of my journey since then has been about strength, stability, and connection — facing my weakest qualities, instead of retreating into elevated states. I moved back to more populated areas. I began to eat more food, and eat more solid foods, which took a significant mental shift. I even went through a period of lifting weights in order to put some muscle on my overly thin body so I could feel more physically present in the world. And I created the Poetry Chaikhana as a way to connect and share with a much wider world.

Today, my path lacks the certainty it once had. And I am less likely to be floating in blissful states as often as I once did. There are days when I consider that perhaps I should return to the sweet intensity of that interiority. But I remain committed to the long journey — a more rounded sense of embodied mastery. And I am still a stumbling beginner in so many ways.

Like a tree, we need our roots to sink deep into the earth, thickening their grip; that gives us the strong foundation to grow and reach and spread new branches heavenward season after season and not fail at the first gust of wind.


We need to integrate it all. We need wholeness to experience lasting holiness.

We might just notice that opposites are not opposed, but joined. And we dance along the seam of connection.

One last bit of advice: When you dance, dance slow-fast!

(That’s the long and the short of it… :)


If you celebrate Passover, may it be a day of protection and liberation. If you celebrate Easter, may it be a day of renewal and new life!

Recommended Books: Ryokan

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan Haiku: The Gentle Art of Disappearing
More Books >>

Ryokan, Ryokan poetry, Buddhist poetry Ryokan

Japan (1758 – 1831) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

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11 responses so far

Apr 03 2015


Innocence is not naivete.
Naivete must be carefully removed.
Innocence is your true nature.

No responses yet

Apr 01 2015

Jacopone da Todi – As air becomes the medium for light when the sun rises

Published by under Poetry

As air becomes the medium for light when the sun rises
by Jacopone da Todi (Jacopone Benedetti)

English version by Serge and Elizabeth Hughes

As air becomes the medium for light when the sun rises,
And as wax melts from the heat of fire,
So the soul drawn to that light is resplendent,
Feels self melt away,
Its will and actions no longer its own.
So clear is the imprint of God
That the soul, conquered, is conqueror;
Annihilated, it lives in triumph.

What happens to the drop of wine
That you pour into the sea?
Does it remain itself, unchanged?
It is as if it never existed.
So it is with the soul: Love drinks it in,
It is united with Truth,
Its old nature fades away,
It is no longer master of itself.

The soul wills and yet does not will:
Its will belongs to Another.
It has eyes only for this beauty;
It no longer seeks to possess, as was its wont —
It lacks the strength to possess such sweetness.
The base of this highest of peaks
Is founded on nichil,
Shaped nothingness, made one with the Lord.

— from Jacopone da Todi: Lauds (Classics of Western Spirituality), Translated by Serge and Elizabeth Hughes

/ Image by YorkshireSam /

As we approach both Passover and Easter, I thought this poem by the Franciscan monk, Jacopone da Todi, might give us some good things to contemplate…

As air becomes the medium for light when the sun rises,
And as wax melts from the heat of fire,
So the soul drawn to that light is resplendent,
Feels self melt away…

What I find fascinating about these opening images is how much they sound like the sort of metaphors Indian yogic masters use.

With these simple, comprehensible images, we can begin to get an idea of how the soul is transformed in exalted states. In nearness to the Eternal, the soul, like wax near a fire, melts. The self is no longer a fixed, hardened thing, but something fluid, formless, dynamic. And, in this responsive, formless state, the soul loses its dull opacity, becoming clear, allowing the light to shine through it.

Its will and actions no longer its own.
So clear is the imprint of God
That the soul, conquered, is conqueror;
Annihilated, it lives in triumph.

The old, inanimate self melts away, and this new fluid self moves. But it moves naturally, not of its own accord. The liquid self moves as it is moved.

In yielding, it discovers its own life.

So it is with the soul: Love drinks it in,
It is united with Truth,
Its old nature fades away,
It is no longer master of itself.

This concept of yielding, of freeing oneself of will, is a difficult one to understand and accept in any age, but especially so in the modern era when accomplishment through strong will is culturally idolized.

The soul wills and yet does not will:
Its will belongs to Another.

The most immediate objection is that without will, we can do nothing. On a certain level, we prove our existence by doing, by taking action in the world, right? There have been enough statements by mystics and saints throughout the world about the importance of non-will, that we should explore this question more deeply…

Deeply examined, we find that will is not what we thought it was. Or, rather, that there are different expressions of the will. We can say that will is volition or the impulse to action, or we might broadly define it as freedom of choice, as in “free will.”

Mystics often use phrases like “self-will” to express a more fundamental understanding of what the will is and how it works. You can say that self-will is selfish will, in opposition to the will to be of service, for example, but that doesn’t quite get at the heart of the matter. Self-will is will that is tainted by the petty self, the unmelted self, or the ego. Self-will is not just selfish will. It’s quite possible to perform great philanthropic works and have it still be from self-will. Self-will is will that is under the control of the ego, compels action that serves the ego, and compels action that reinforces the ego. Self-will renews the trance of the ego.

Consider, is there a way to drop this self-will, to be free from its clutches, without becoming an inactive lump on the couch? Is there a form of will that does not originate with the ego and constantly return our attention to it? Finding this second will, what is it like? This other will is profound, immense, powerful, yet not our own. It is a form of will that does not serve the little self. It is not possessed by us, and it does not concern itself with possession of things or experiences. To unleash this will in our lives requires an elegant balance between yielding and stepping forward, between passivity and attentive action, between selflessness and presence. Actions take place through us, but we are not the actors. What we normally think of as the self is not directing the action.

This frees up a great portion of psychic energy, and we become awestruck witnesses to life playing out through us and all around us — a vision of immense beauty!

It has eyes only for this beauty

Thank You

I want to again thank everyone who has made a donation recently in response to my request for help from the Poetry Chaikhana. I know that even sending a few dollars is an effort. It requires writing out and mailing a check or figuring out how to fill out the PayPal page. After all, the poetry emails themselves are free, there is no actual requirement to step out of our comfort zone and reach out in this way. So, to everyone who has willingly changed your day’s rhythm in order to make a donation and help me out, I truly thank you!

Recommended Books: Jacopone da Todi (Jacopone Benedetti)

Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty Jacopone da Todi: Lauds (Classics of Western Spirituality) All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time

Jacopone da Todi (Jacopone Benedetti), Jacopone da Todi (Jacopone Benedetti) poetry, Christian poetry Jacopone da Todi (Jacopone Benedetti)

Italy (1230 – 1306) Timeline
Christian : Catholic

Continue Reading »

One response so far

Apr 01 2015

not fully present

What we call the ego
is the individual’s particular way
of not being fully present.

No responses yet

Mar 27 2015

W. S. Merwin – Just Now

Published by under Poetry

Just Now
by W. S. Merwin

In the morning as the storm begins to blow away
the clear sky appears for a moment and it seems to me
that there has been something simpler than I could ever
simpler than I could have begun to find words for
not patient not even waiting no more hidden
than the air itself that became part of me for a while
with every breath and remained with me unnoticed
something that was here unnamed unknown in the days
and the nights not separate from them
not separate from them as they came and were gone
it must have been here neither early nor late then
by what name can I address it now holding out my thanks

— from The Pupil: Poems, by W. S. Merwin

/ Image by phuket /

A noticed moment. The noticed essence within the moment.

In the morning as the storm begins to blow away
the clear sky appears for a moment…

This is so often the way of it. Whatever it is we continuously search for, whether a spiritual recognition or merely contentment in the midst of a frantic world, we conceptualize this “thing” we want, we search for it, we strain for it… and it eludes us. But then, through weariness or surrender or silence, somehow we fall into the present moment, and there we discover what we have been searching for. But, while it is what we wanted, it is not what we imagined at all. It is simpler than the complicated fabrication of our minds, less defined, somehow just there.

and it seems to me
that there has been something simpler than I could ever
simpler than I could have begun to find words for

It is strangely familiar, as if it has been quietly unnoticed all along. As if we just lacked the quiet eyes that could see it. “…remained with me unnoticed / something that was here unnamed…”

We so want a goal that we can acquire and claim, that we can name among our many named possessions. What do we do when the thing found is no thing at all, nameless, ungraspable, yet undeniably there in the still spaces?

by what name can I address it now holding out my thanks

We are left with a choice: We can name it nonetheless, expanding and refining our definitions, bringing it into the realm of what is known — yet haunted by the knowledge that it is but a thin sliver of what remains unnamed. Or we can yield into the mystery of it and dwell there, in the quiet unnamed spaces, taking its home as our own.

…Or we can play the game of poets, juggling words to hint at the wordless, taunting the known with the undefinable, making our home in the spaces in between.

Recommended Books: W. S. Merwin

East Window: Poems from Asia Migration: New & Selected Poems The Pupil: Poems Present Company Sanskrit Love Poetry
More Books >>

W. S. Merwin, W. S. Merwin poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry W. S. Merwin

US (1927 – )
Secular or Eclectic

More poetry by W. S. Merwin

2 responses so far

Mar 27 2015

every corner

In every corner of the world,
the entire mystery of life and death
can be found.

No responses yet

Mar 25 2015

Rainer Maria Rilke – I find you, Lord, in all Things

Published by under Poetry

I find you, Lord, in all Things and in all
by Rainer Maria Rilke

English version by Stephen Mitchell

I find you, Lord, in all Things and in all
my fellow creatures, pulsing with your life;
as a tiny seed you sleep in what is small
and in the vast you vastly yield yourself.

The wondrous game that power plays with Things
is to move in such submission through the world:
groping in roots and growing thick in trunks
and in treetops like a rising from the dead.

— from Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, Translated by Stephen Mitchell

/ Image by Ben Frdericson /

First, let me say “thank you” to everyone who has sent in a donation in response to my request for help on Friday. And thank you, also, for the many notes of support and encouragement. I am deeply moved by the broad community response. Wow.


Now, for today’s poem. It has been too long since we had a poem by Rilke…

and in the vast you vastly yield yourself.

Isn’t that a great line? But it’s not just a nice poetic turn of phrase. In the second verse Rilke is really saying something of deep insight about this:

The wondrous game that power plays with Things
is to move in such submission through the world…

The “power” he is talking about is obviously not power over; not the domination of the warlord or the predator. Following on his first verse, we can read power as the power of the Lord “in all Things.” It is the power of life itself, awareness, presence. The use of the word “power,” makes us question the assumptions of common language: Perhaps this is real power, rather than the fleeting hold of force and fear. How are life and presence the greater power…?

This real power plays a game in the world of things. It asserts its power through submission, rather than control. Like water, it yields and so finds its destination. It allows, and so fulfills its purpose. It is supremely humble, and so able to be humbly present everywhere, in all things, without prejudice or rejection. It rises from the lowest to the highest, vivifying everything it touches–

groping in roots and growing thick in trunks
and in treetops like a rising from the dead.

This power flowing through us and all our “fellow creatures” binds us all with the same life. You’ll notice, it is not even our life at all. Rilke says “your life,” the Lord’s life. It is something we participate in, a current we ride as it flows through us and the world, but it is not our own. Rilke is hinting at a larger vision in which there is only one Life flowing through a million “Things.”

Hildegard von Bingen, the great medieval mystic, called this the Viriditas or Greening power of God.

Too much of our relationship with the natural world is built on ideas of separation and domination. Such foolishness can only ever harm us. When we see clearly, we see as Rilke does that we are part of the same shared Life. To harm the natural world is to rebel against God. Is that language too religiously loaded? Reread Rilke’s poem, and then think about it.

Have a lovely day in this lovely green world!

Recommended Books: Rainer Maria Rilke

The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke The Soul is Here for its Own Joy: Sacred Poems from Many Cultures Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God In Praise of Mortality: Rilke’s Duino Elegies & Sonnets to Orpheus
More Books >>

Rainer Maria Rilke, Rainer Maria Rilke poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Rainer Maria Rilke

Germany (1875 – 1926) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic

More poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke

2 responses so far

Mar 25 2015

like a tree

We don’t float to heaven.
Like a tree, we sink roots deep into the rocky soil,
and so, year-by-year, reach higher into the heavens.

No responses yet

Mar 20 2015

Support Poetry on This Spring Day

To goslings
just hatched, the entire world
is a spring day

by Ivan M. Granger

/ Image by Tristam Brelstaff /

Ivan M. Granger
Happy spring! It is also the new moon and an eclipse today. A potent time to look up. Or look within. Or look around in appreciation of the new life emerging everywhere…


Among my deepest satisfactions in my Poetry Chaikhana work is being able to read the emails you send me. I get to savor your thoughts on spirituality, wisdom, enlightenment, and art. The most touching to me are your notes about how much a particular poem or commentary has meant to you. Even when I am unable to respond, I read and cherish your messages. That is a big part of what fuels my commitment to the Poetry Chaikhana.

But, although it is difficult to admit, I am struggling right now.

It always feels uncomfortable to bring up directly, but I need to request more financial support from the Poetry Chaikhana community.

While I do have a regular job, I can only work so many hours before chronic fatigue patterns kick in, especially when I also dedicate so much time and energy to the Poetry Chaikhana. During the past year, I have been pushing myself in my day job to work through exhaustion in order to meet my basic expenses. While exercising that sort of steely determination has its own practical and spiritual values, it also has made it difficult for me to focus with full energy on the Poetry Chaikhana.

You may have noticed that the Poetry Chaikhana emails have not been as regular in recent weeks.

Donations and Publications

I am working to shift the Poetry Chaikhana’s dependence on donations over to income from publishing, but that is a long-term goal. And while your enthusiastic reception of The Longing in Between was a huge help at the beginning of the year, book sales have dipped now that it has been out for several months — which is entirely natural. I do have plans for additional anthologies and future publications but, of course, those take time and significant energy to bring to completion.

For the moment, at least, the Poetry Chaikhana is still primarily dependent on your financial donations.

The Poetry Chaikhana Community

I am still amazed to be able to say that we have 9,000 people on this email list! Another 5,000 follow the Facebook page. With such a large community, I believe that collectively we can support my continuing work with the Poetry Chaikhana.

Without enough community support, I may have to drastically trim back the time I dedicate to the Poetry Chaikhana, which would be a shame. Even though I will continue forward with the Poetry Chaikhana in some fashion, such as future publications, I have always felt that the regular communication with you through these emails is the heart of the Poetry Chaikhana. For me, these emails feel personal, a long-term conversation with you on the nature of spirit and art, and how the two interweave and contribute to each other — enlivening us all in the process. While much of that conversation can take place through the patient medium of books, I would miss the immediacy and friendly dialog of our emails.

Around the World

/ Photo by woodleywonderworks /

One of the purposes of the Poetry Chaikhana is to help us recognize the unity behind the world’s religions as expressed through the poetry of mystics. Poetry, being a very personal medium that is largely free from dogma, reaches across cultural divides, softens prejudices, and sheds light on misunderstandings. Sacred poetry can be a powerful healing balm when cultures clash.

Also, it is worth remembering that, through the Poetry Chaikhana’s global community, each of us is connected to people and places all over this world we share. The Poetry Chaikhana has had visits from more than 220 different countries and territories! That’s nearly every country in North America, South America, Europe, and across all of Asia. We’re only missing a few countries in central Africa, and we’re also waiting for that first visit from Antarctica. (Any poetic penguins out there?)

As I have said in a previous email… The next time a poem touches that warm ember deep in your chest, and your thoughts stop, and your mind clears, and a quiet smile spreads across your face… reach out and feel who else on this planet is feeling exactly the same thing. It could be someone who wears different clothes or has different colored skin, someone who speaks with a different accent or an entirely different language, someone who sits or kneels or bows to worship. Reach out and recognize that person as a brother or sister who, like us all, is walking through the human journey, pausing occasionally to sing songs of the Divine.

The Poetry Chaikhana is an important resource for people all over the world seeking to more deeply understand their own wisdom traditions as well as the spirituality of other cultures in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Your Help

It is a joy to do all of this, but it isn’t easy, and I can use your help.

For me to keep doing this work, I need the support of the Poetry Chaikhana community.

If you feel a connection to the Poetry Chaikhana, please consider making a donation.

Please, never contribute more than you can comfortably afford, however. A modest amount from many people is immensely helpful. Many contributions from many people makes the Poetry Chaikhana a stronger community project, maintained by many helping hands.

/ Photo by SaxX69 /

Ways you can contribute:

– You can make a secure online donation in any amount through PayPal by clicking the “Donate” button on the Poetry Chaikhana home page at www.poetry-chaikhana.com

– You can sign up for a voluntary monthly donation of $2/month or $10/month by clicking either the “Subscribe” or “Support” PayPal button.

(A regular monthly amount is often easier on your pocketbook — and easier to justify as less than the cost of one snack or drink per month.)

– You can send a check or money order in US funds, addressed to:

Poetry Chaikhana

PO Box 2320

Boulder, CO 80306

– Purchasing copies of The Longing in Between and Real Thirst is another excellent way to help. You also support the Poetry Chaikhana when you purchase other books through the links on the Poetry Chaikhana website.

I want to also make sure I gratefully acknowledge that several of you have been generous with your contributions to the Poetry Chaikhana in the past, through donations, through notes of thanks, through supportive thoughts and prayers. Every contribution, whether financial or energetic, is sincerely appreciated.

Heartfelt thanks to everyone! And have a beautiful beginning to your springtime!

Ivan M. Granger Ivan M. Granger

US (1969 – )
Secular or Eclectic
Yoga / Hindu : Advaita / Non-Dualist

More poetry by Ivan M. Granger

6 responses so far

Mar 18 2015

Yuan Mei – P’u-t’o Temple

Published by under Poetry

P’u-t’o Temple
by Yuan Mei

English version by J. P. Seaton

A temple, hidden, treasured
                        in the mountain’s cleft
Pines, bamboo
                  such a subtle flavor:
The ancient Buddha sits there, wordless
The welling source speaks for him.

— from A Drifting Boat: Chinese Zen Poetry, Edited by J. P. Seaton / Edited by Dennis Maloney

/ Image by nurpax /

This poem feels like a brush painting. A few simple strokes suggest the scene: A temple. A mountain’s cleft. Pines, bamboo. A Buddha.

That’s all we need to be brought, with the Buddha, to wordlessness and the “welling source.” Mm.

Recommended Books: Yuan Mei

The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) A Drifting Boat: Chinese Zen Poetry I Don’t Bow to Buddhas: Selected Poems of Yuan Mei Yuan Mei: Eighteenth Century Chinese Poet Censored by Confucius: Ghost Stories of Yuan Mei

Yuan Mei, Yuan Mei poetry, Buddhist poetry Yuan Mei

China (1716 – 1798) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

Continue Reading »

3 responses so far

Mar 18 2015

most sacred place

You live in the most sacred place
in the universe:
right here,
right now.

No responses yet

Mar 13 2015

Wendell Berry – The Real Work

Published by under Poetry

The Real Work
by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

— from Standing by Words: Essays, by Wendell Berry

/ Image by myINQI /

Ooh, I just like this, don’t you? As I get older and encounter more of the world and more of myself, I grow increasingly wary of answers. It’s the questions that awaken the soul.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

Berry is reminding us that struggle and confusion — and wonder! — are signs that we are on a good path, that we are paying attention, that we are still seeking and discovering, that we are alive. The scariest people are those who’ve grown tired of questions and so brutalize the world with simple answers.

Okay, a poetic confession: This was not originally a poem in verse. I did a bit of research and found that this is actually an excerpt from one of Wendell Berry’s essays that someone later versified. It’s been circulating as a poem ever since. I guess you can’t trap a good poet in prose for long. My apologies to the poetry purists out there.

Now, let’s discover a new path through this magical, unknown day…

Recommended Books: Wendell Berry

The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982 Selected Poems of Wendell Berry Given: Poems A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 The Mad Farmer Poems
More Books >>

Wendell Berry, Wendell Berry poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Wendell Berry

US (1934 – )
Secular or Eclectic

More poetry by Wendell Berry

2 responses so far

Mar 13 2015


Each kind act
and simple insight
is a victory.

One response so far

Mar 10 2015

Ko Un – A Smile

Published by under Poetry

A Smile
by Ko Un

English version by Brother Anthony of Taize

Shakyamuni held up a lotus
so Kashyapa smiled.
Not at all.
The lotus smiled
so Kashyapa smiled.

Nowhere was Shakyamuni!

— from What?: 108 Zen Poems, by Ko Un

/ Image by GaryKo /

This poem recalls for us a famous story about the Buddha’s “Flower Sermon.” The Buddha (sometimes referred to by his clan name “Shakyamuni”) gave a sermon in which all he did was to hold up a lotus flower. All of the Buddha’s disciples were confused, except for his disciple Kashyapa, who smiled in understanding and enlightenment.

But, no, Ko Un says that’s not how it happened. “Not at all.” Here’s what really happened: The lotus smiled, so Kashyapa smiled back. The Buddha, being utterly free from the limits of self and identity, was not there at all.

The other disciples saw a man holding up a flower. Only Kashyapa saw an open field of spaciousness upholding the glow of enlightenment. And the enlightenment within himself reached out in self-recognition.

Instead of grasping at nowhere present Buddhas, like clutching at the continuously flowing river, perhaps we can, like Kashyapa, recognize the smile in all things until we feel it reflected back from within ourselves. Then, who knows, maybe we cease to be there too and, instead, we are wherever the smile goes.

Recommended Books: Ko Un

What?: 108 Zen Poems Ten Thousand Lives The Three Way Tavern: Selected Poems Little Pilgrim: A Novel Flowers of a Moment

Ko Un, Ko Un poetry, Buddhist poetry Ko Un

Korea (1933 – )
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Mar 10 2015


Joys, hurts, hopes, history,
hold them
— while practicing contentment.

No responses yet

Mar 04 2015

R. S. Thomas – Via Negativa

Published by under Poetry

Via Negativa
by R. S. Thomas

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

— from Through Corridors of Light: Poems of Consolation in Time of Illness, Edited by John Andrew Denny

/ Image by tanakawho /

This is a haunting poem, yet lovely and uplifting at the same time. God is a kind of a ghost in this poem, a tangible absence.

…God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence

And that is really the poet’s point. So often we struggle to imagine what God is, the qualities and awareness associated with that immense… Something. But this poem is a meditation on the Via Negativa, that is, the recognition that the Eternal is not a “thing” at all. Every definition or description or quality we attach to the Divine is necessarily a limitation on the Divine Nature and, therefore, incomplete. To turn God into an object that can be described is to make God a subset of Existence, when the Eternal is the Whole of Existence and beyond. The idea behind the Via Negativa is that God cannot be adequately conceptualized by the limited human intellect with attributes of a limited physical reality, and so God is best discovered through negation. In other words, God is all-encompassing, and therefore perceived as a sort of vibrant Absence, a sort of haunting Presence within the empty spaces of our perception…

…He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow…

That ache we universally feel, that absence can feel to the soul like an existential betrayal inherent within reality. Most of us reflexively turn from that feeling and run from it, endlessly distracting our awareness so we don’t feel it so painfully. But, ultimately, that’s not very effective, and it is never satisfying.

We put our hands in
[the empty space that is the wound in Christ’s] side hoping to find
It warm.”

Mystics encourage us to look deeper, to sit with that ache, to embrace it. Eventually we discover to our surprise that that terrible void is, in truth, filled with immense life and bliss, and that our very being flows from its spacious no-thing-ness. This is the truth of the Via Negativa.


Apologies about the unexpected hiatus in the poem emails. I have been recovering from an injury. Those of you who have been receiving the Poetry Chaikhana emails for a while may remember that several years ago I broke my ribs in a martial arts class. (One reader quipped that I should be “more artsy, less martial.”) Well, a couple of weeks ago I reinjured my ribs. Nothing martial about it this time, however. I was playing with my dog, chasing him among some trees, when I took a bad step and tripped, falling hard on my side. I am fine, and the worst of the discomfort has passed, though I still notice it when I turn or bend at certain angles. The price paid for inhabiting an active body in a bumpy world.

Sending love to everyone! Take care.

Recommended Books: R. S. Thomas

For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics Soul Food: Nourishing Poems for Starved Minds R. S. Thomas: Selected Poems R. S. Thomas (Everyman Poetry) R. S. Thomas: Collected Poems 1945-1990
More Books >>

R. S. Thomas, R. S. Thomas poetry, Christian poetry R. S. Thomas

Wales (1913 – 2000) Timeline

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