In an interview with Robert Bly, the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda makes a remarkable distinction between two kinds of poetry—one written in closed rooms and another, by implication, written in the open air:
Well, I make a distinction between kinds of poetry. I am not a theoretician, but I do see as one kind of poetry the poetry which is written in closed rooms. I’ll give as an example Mallarmé, a very great French poet. I have sometimes seen photographs of his room; they were full of little beautiful objects—‘abanicos’—fans. He used to write beautiful poems on fans. But his rooms were stuffy, all full of curtains, no air. He is a great poet of closed rooms and it seems that many of the New World poets follow this tradition: they don’t open the window and you not only have to open the window but come through the windows and live with rivers and animals and beasts.1
The degree to which we have embraced the closed room in North America would have been incomprehensible to him. Many of our buildings—office towers, hospitals, schools, museums, and even our churches and our houses—have windows that don’t open at all. They’re stuffy, all full of curtains, there’s no air. What’s worse, those same buildings have many rooms with no windows at all. And how can you open the windows and walk through them if the windows don’t open, or—worse yet—if there aren’t any windows at all?
As COVID-19, which thrives in closed rooms, rips through our closed-room world, we’ve been forced by necessity to open some windows. I recently heard that a parish I once attended is holding masses outside, and for a moment I felt relief and hope that a global pandemic could motivate us to push aside the curtains for a moment. As a mother of four children, several of them still young and restless, I have spent the better part of the past decade attending mass from outside the building, where my children always want to be. They run around happily and sing their joyful songs to the Lord, while I walk around or sit quietly contemplating the sky and meditating on God’s grace and creative goodness. The truth is I’m grateful that my children never manage to sit through an indoor mass, because I’m not comfortable there, either. I don’t like to be around crowds of people in interior spaces where I can’t breathe fresh air or see the world God created. Mass is just as valid out of doors as it is in a closed room with closed-room music and small, perfunctory windows. It might even be hopeful.
As the earth continues to heat up and the evidence of industrial destruction piles up all around, so many people, especially but not exclusively young people, are beginning to feel desperate for a return to a more natural way of life, a simpler, humbler, and more ecologically-minded living that forgoes the empty, indifferent things money can buy and machines can make in favor of greater care for the earth and for each other. I meet so many people who are turning for inspiration to indigenous peoples and pre-Christian ways of living and seeking God, searching for a more meaningful existence than the present-day configuration of bureaucratic institutional society will allow. They want to be closer to the earth and closer to their family and friends. They want to spend time together living and working in ways that do not cause harm to the earth that sustains them. Many of these people are suspicious of or downright hostile towards Christianity, which they perhaps wrongly, but understandably, consider to be part of the problem.
Thank God we have St. Francis (everybody loves St. Francis!). In keeping with St. Francis’ legacy of nearness to and love for God’s creation, Pope Francis (in his wonderful and challenging encyclical Laudato Si) and subsequent movements in the Church (such as the Global Catholic Climate Movement) have begun making some headway in overcoming the stigma of Christianity’s perceived ‘man-dominates-nature’ spirituality. But it seems to me we must humbly admit that we have a very long way to go searching out and learning to embrace ways of living, working and worshiping that evidence greater degrees of ecological sensitivity.
The need for Christians to find their way to a deeper relation to creation was articulated nearly a century ago by French-Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel. Writing about the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose profound sensitivity to the spiritual nature of creation and the destructiveness of industrial ways of life is unsurpassed, Marcel makes the following observation:
The interconnected consciousness of death and resurrection which pervades [the Sonnets to Orpheus] like a breath of air from another world is the principle of a pious reverence for souls and things of which the secret has to be rediscovered today. Shall I say what I really think? I believe this to be true of most Christians, even those who have been genuinely touched by grace.2
Marcel had the feeling a century ago that we were losing a sense for the deeper reality felt in every aspect of creation, from the humble rock to the great mountain, from the tiniest critter to the tallest tree, from the drop of water to the sea—if only we will look and listen attentively.
That we, as a people, and even sometimes as Christians, have forgotten almost entirely how to look and listen to creation is evident in our closed-room houses and work-places, in our screens filled with virtual “windows” that take us even farther away from the real world outside our real but unopened and unopenable windows. It is evident in our cars and planes and trains that rush through the created world at inhuman speeds, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. It is evident in our industrial farms and food production factories that make us and the earth sicker every day; and evident in the screens we now carry with us that consume more and more of the precious hours we spend walking around in the outdoors, not looking at the things God has made or listening to what he has to say to us in the birdsong and the wavesong, in the quieter but still audible song of the tree and the blade of grass, of stone and sky, of all things that bear the mark of the maker. It’s almost impossible to miss the striking resemblance this screen-world bears to the images flickering on the walls of Plato’s cave where prisoners chained facing one direction cannot (or will not) turn around to see the light of the real world behind them.
This is the first part of a two-part essay. Look for part two soon, with examples from two amazing poets of the New World, Nicholas Black Elk and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
1 “The Lamb and the Pine Cone: An Interview with Pablo Neruda by Robert Bly” in Neruda & Vallejo: Selected Poems, edited by Robert Bly, Beacon Press, Boston, 1993, p. 158.
2 “Rilke: A Witness to the Spiritual: Part II” by Gabriel Marcel. Translated by Emma Crafurd and Paul Seaton. Homo Viator: Introduction to the Metaphysic of Hope, St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, IN, 2010. pp 256-57.