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Posted November 14, 2014

Book: Prayer and Poetry: Helen C. White
Editor: Rene Kollar, O.S.B.
Archabbey Publications. Latrobe, PA. 2014. Pp. 51

An Excerpt from the book:

Helen C. White was a distinguished literature scholar who won numerous awards and fellowships for her work. But much of her work also involved the connections between spirituality and literature. Her studies of William Blake, John Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, among others, analyzed the spiritual and religious dimensions of their work and how one informed the other. In addition, she distinguished herself with her activities involving UNESCO, women in the military, and the National Association of Arts. In all of these ways, White was both a pioneer of women's role in academia and the professional world, and an exemplary practitioner of Catholic values in both her professional and private life.

In Prayer and Poetry, White argues that the poet and the mystic both reflect the spiritual aspects of life; and although they do so in different ways, they ultimately reach the same point. Prayer and Poetry was the eighth lecture in the Wimmer Memorial Lecture Series (1947-1970) at Saint Vincent and was given in 1954.

An excerpt from the book:

Prayer and poetry, while differing profoundly in their surface manifestations, have fundamentally very much in common. Both spring from the same deep ground of the spirit which has commanded man's fascinated attention from the dawn of consciousness, and which still eludes his most sophisticated probings in even this most self-conscious of centuries. Those hardy pioneers of the mind, the ancient Greeks recognized the ageless challenge in the legend they put above the portals of the Oracle at Delphi, "know thyself", and in the speculations of their wisest and greatest, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, discovered that they had embarked on an unending quest.

And conversely, some eight centuries later another hardy adventurer in the undiscovered realms of the spiritual universe found that all searchings came home to that familiar mystery. "O Thou Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Cried Saint Augustine of Hippo in one of the most ringing passages of his Confessions, "Too late I loved Thee! And behold, Thou wert within, and I abroad, and there I searched for Thee; deformed I, plunging amid those fair forms, which Thou hadst made."

But as both the Greeks and St. Augustine so well knew, it is no simple thing for man to penetrate into that realm within himself, and it is hardly to be wondered at that he shrinks from attempting it unless he is driven to it by what amounts almost to compulsion. It takes a very special kind of experience to disturb the calm waters of everyday acceptance and shake the consciousness out of its lethargy and its complacency. And this is true both for the poet and the man of prayer, for diverse as the manifestations of poetry and prayer often are --- even on occasion to what seem the extremes of opposition --- both have their roots in the same type of experience. The first mark of this experience is surprise, with its handmaid, wonder. The great poet-critic of the English Romantic Movement put it very well for the poets when he said it was part of his friend Wordsworth in the epoch-making Lyrical Ballads: "to give the charm of novelty to things of everyday, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us." The masters of the spiritual life have, also, agreed that the distinctive mark of high religious experience is that it makes all things new, and particularly the man who beholds them. So the converted Paul exhorts the Romans to "walk in newness of life" and the Ephesians to put on the "new man." Men have long tried to explain what it is that creates this extraordinary disturbance in the depths of the consciousness. Some years ago a German writer, Rudolph Otto, in his analysis of what might be called the concept of the holy suggested the term, the "numinous."

This sense of something divine is a very general thing, for the experience is a widely diffused one. Sometimes it attaches itself to places. One recalls the Lord's admonition to Moses in Exodus, "Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from of thy feet, for the place whereon you stand is holy ground." The Old Testament is full of such episodes, and so is classic literature. More often it is people who give this sense of the presence of the divine. The famous definition of the small boy in a stained-glass window parish, that saints are people through whom the light shines, expresses a very ancient experience. One thinks of the Apostles and their unrecognized Companion on the road to Emmaus --- "Did not our heart burn within us, while he walked with us by the way?" and on the other hand, the lover's sense that there is something divine in the object of his love is not lightly to be dismissed either as a blasphemy or hyperbole. The sense of the numinous is the common ground of both poetry and prayer.

I have said the experience is disturbing and that is true. Divinity is too much for the finite spirit. One hides one's face; one seeks relief from the unexpected burden. There is something of terror in all awe, as Aristotle understood very well, and the mortal spirit seeks refuge from it. And yet there is a magnetism about the numinous. It pulls the sensitive spirit out of the safe refuge of its mediocrity. Like a child, one is afraid, and yet one cannot but draw near. All the world's great religions have recognized in this fascination the evidence of the soul's inalienable participation in the divine.

Table of Contents:

Foreword, Rene Kollar, O.S.B.

Introduction, Wulfstan Clough, O.S.B.

Original introduction: The Wimmer Lecture

Wimmer Memorial Lectures

Prayer and Poetry