The Mood of Awakening, Part One

Stages of Spiritual Development

Again, I’ll turn to poets, artists, and saints to get a sense of what an Awakening to the Wound of Divine Love might feel like, how it might express itself within an individual soul. Let’s consider, first, this poem by Anna Kamienska, another 20th century Polish poet.

by Anna Kamienska

To be transformed
to turn yourself inside out like a glove
to spin like a planet
to thread yourself through yourself
so that each day penetrates each night
so that each word runs to the other side of truth
so that each verse comes out of itself
and gives off its own light
so that each face leaning on a hand
sweats into the skin of the palm

So that this pen
changes into pure silence
I wanted to say into love

To fall off a horse
to smear your face with dust
to be blinded
to lift yourself
and allow yourself to be led
like blind Saul
to Damascus

Kamienska became a devout Roman Catholic after the death of her husband in 1967, when she was forty-seven years old. I think it’s safe to say that there were many story worlds vying for dominance during her lifetime. She was born in 1920, when the Christian story world was still predominant in much of Europe, although it faced many challenges. As a young woman she lived through the Nazi occupation, surrounded by, and resisting, the propaganda of the fascist story world. After the war, the soviets brought their own story world to bear on the life of the Polish people, and, although the church wasn’t outlawed, there was an anti-religious campaign that tried to create an atheistic culture. Given all of this, it isn’t surprising that Kamienska’s poem doesn’t start from an understanding of Christian faith, but moves outward from a cataloging of what’s happening within her soul to a recognition that the events within her bear a great deal of similarity to Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus.

She starts by trying to find words to describe the ineffable, the task of any poet who tries to speak about a spiritual awakening. My favorite line of that first stanza is “to thread yourself through yourself,” because it speaks to the challenges to the self that awakening entails. If we take our awakening seriously, we will begin to change, and the old and the new self will engage in a dance, a dialog, a daily weaving of our sense of who we are. But all of those metaphors in the first stanza could take place in an entirely secular world, just as any awakening that arises out of natural beauty can take place in a secular world. 

A shift happens in the second stanza. All of her metaphors might end in silence, an acknowledgment of their failure to describe what she’s experienced, and this silence would be honest and hold its own truth. But she chooses instead to speak of love. She allows herself to begin making meaning of her experience, and once we begin doing that, we start to look for stories and ideas that can edify, support, and challenge the meaning that we’re trying to make. In order to make meaning, we need ideologies and stories. We need to be in conversation with something beyond ourselves that isn’t expressed as ineffable silence. We need to compare our experience with other people’s, to allow their meaning-making to influence us, knowing that all the words we use when speaking with them will never truly express the largeness of our encounter with the divine. But we need to speak those words anyway, because our minds need something to grasp and our responses need something to adhere to.

And so, in the last stanza, Kamienska enters into conversation with The Acts of the Apostles, written by the evangelist Luke, a doctor who knew and traveled with the Apostle Paul two thousand years before she was born. My experience of transformation has left me blind, she says. I don’t know who I am, or how to interact with the world. But I’m not alone in this. Other people have gone through this, too. And although it’s scary to be blind, to have my words fail, to be unable to make sense of what has happened to me, it’s deeply reassuring to know that the Apostle Paul experienced the same confusion, that there were people who took care of him in his blindness, and who eventually healed him. All the more remarkable that these people were his enemies, members of the church that he’d come to persecute in Damascus. He trusted them in his weakness, in his blindness. Might not I, Kamienska asks, also learn to trust the story world of the church in the midst of my transformation?

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