Sunday, May 8, 2016

On Manna, the Dead Sea and the Divine

My final project as the Sixth Poet Laureate of Sunland-Tujunga was an anthology of poetry on religious and spiritual themes, entitled Meditations on Divine Names (Moonrise Press, 2012).

Almighty, Loving, All-seeing, Compassionate, Silent, Omniscient, Forgiving, Knowing, Merciful, Graceful, Beautiful, Kind, Sublime, Absolute, Patient, Just, Wise, Awesome, Sovereign, Peaceful, Hidden, Perfect, Holy, Giving, Unknowable, Eternal, Light, Love, Life, Power, Supreme, Lord, Goddess, Mother, YHWH, Christ, Yehovah, Allah, Shekinah, Krishna, Lada…

The “divine” of the title is a word introduced into English in the 14th century; it stems from the Latin “divus” or “god.” This word, in turn, is related to the ancient Sanskrit term “deva” meaning “deity” and originating in the Proto-Indo-European “diwos” (“celestial” or “shining”). “Divine” pertains to, or relates directly to “deity.” The ancient Greeks and Romans had many different gods, who ruled over various spheres of existence. The 21st century world has many gods, too, though monotheistic religions predominate, at least in numbers.

The mystery of the divine may be approached from many directions. The heart of the visible matter is invisible. Science makes inroads into understanding how matter works, but the more you read about science —especially at the outer ends of the spectrum, in the areas of quantum physics and cosmology—the more it sounds like religion. This last word, oft maligned and distorted into fanaticism and hatred, actually focuses on connections between people, between humans and the divine.

The word “religion” stems from a Latin root, variously translated as “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods,” or “obligation, the bond between man and the gods.” St. Augustine connected this word to “re-reconnecting” (“re-ligare”); contemporary theologians emphasize the connectivity inherent in all religion. Connection to what? Typically, religions connect like-minded people into groups sharing the same beliefs, languages, and customs. Their dogmas may become immutable, fixed, and hostile to everything and everyone outside the chosen group. Remember the wars between the Protestant and Catholics in Ireland? During the tumultuous period of Reformation the whole European continent was in flux. It still is...

Religions, at their core, also connect people with the Ultimate Source of Life, the Higher Being, the Absolute, the One... Here, despite the divisiveness of language, similarities begin to emerge. Poets, who belong to different religions or religious denominations, see the manifestations of the divine in many aspects of life: personal prayer, religious ceremonies, singing of psalms, family relationships, nature, sun, bread making, dying, loving, and love making. They admire the colors of the sky and the liquid nourishment of water. They praise the clarity of mountain air and the gentleness of human touch. They cope with the loss of a loved one and cherish the affection that reveals the essence of the Divine. From the four letters of YHWH to Lada or Pele, the anthology catalogs some unusual divine names. Poets reflect on the act of naming, describe the manifestations of the divine, and dispute the very possibility of knowing of our God(s). They give testimony to their hopes and beliefs, and share what they find beautiful and inspirational. There is darkness around and death, but the poets look for ways to ascend above the turmoil and dreariness of the profane; they seek illumination.

The 136 poems by 62 poets are arbitrarily arranged in ten sections: Naming, Names, Earth, Water, Air, Fire, He, She, Being, and Loving. Simultaneously, the Pythagoreans’ perfect number of ten is organized in five pairs: naming names, earth and water, air and fire, he and she, being and loving. The framework eschews conventional divisions into Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, or Light and Darkness. Similarly, there is no separation of poems into those belonging in different religious denominations and spiritual traditions. Yahweh, Christ, and Allah, or Father, Son and the Holy Spirit of the great monotheistic religions appear alongside less known deities worshiped by Hindus and followers of Kabbalah, Scientology, Wicca, and Sukiyo Mahikari. The Bread of Life, the Unnameable Absolute, and the Goddess… Themes are intertwined in each poem and new meanings arise from the juxtaposition of distant religious traditions. Sometimes, additional thematic threads arise within a theme—bread, light, birth, mountains, solitude, and joy... Many poems are about love and acceptance; many focus on creation, charity, serenity, gratitude, and contemplation.

This project, initiated in 2008, has grown to its final scope in four years, thanks to the contributions and encouragement by many poets. The original idea stemmed from a meditation during a workshop on Rumi and spiritual practice. For thirty minutes, under the guidance of a Sufi mystic, I meditated on a Divine Name I selected. Puzzled by the interplay of absences and revelations in my life, I thought of “Hidden” and came home with a very strange poem about the mysterious, unknowable God, Playful (Via Negativa).

Each life is different and each person has an individual way of experiencing the world and sharing this experience. My way to religion and to meditating on divine names was not simple. I was raised as an atheist, went through a dramatic and traumatic conversion in my late twenties, and was baptized at the age of 30. I was not born into my community of faith. I could have become Jewish, or Baptist, or Eastern Orthodox… Instead, I ended up as an usher in a Catholic church, attending the Mass every week. How on Earth could this have happened?

My path is unique and I feel an obligation to express it. Sometimes, I recognize an echo of my own spiritual experience in another poet’s words (T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets!). In turn, my experiential truth may resonate in someone else. It is good to know we are not alone. It is good to reach beyond “Either/Or” of Kierkegaard’s, stop seeking differences and divisions.

I am grateful to all the poets who shared their thoughts with me and who made this anthology such a special, light-filled volume. I am particularly glad that I managed to persuade members of my poetry groups to join me: the whole Spiritual Quartet (Taoli-Ambika Talwar, Lois P. Jones and Susan Rogers), and the whole Village Poets Planning Committee (Joe DeCenzo, Marlene Hitt, Barry Ira Geller, and Dorothy Skiles). I am thankful for their words and their faith in me.

As a sample of poems in the anthology, I'll use two of my own. The first poem, “Dead Sea Alive” describes a visit to a San Diego Museum where I saw an exhibition of fragments from the ancient manuscripts found near the Dead Sea. Having seen many medieval manuscripts and the Gutenberg Bible in the past, I was not prepared for the impact of the emotional encounter with shreds of papyrus over two thousand years old. The words are still alive, even though the material documents are barely there.

The second poem, “Manna” is about the experience of Communion, a ritual of Christians who are spiritual cannibals and eat their God to become fully Divine. Manna, of course, is the miraculous angelic food that Israelites found on the ground during their forty years of Exile in the desert. Each morning, they had to gather and eat it fresh. If they tried to store it, it went bad the next day. This manna is the symbol of spiritual renewal, the ultimate "refreshment." However, "manna" in Polish refers to "kaszka manna" - a wheat cereal cooked in milk for hot breakfast, and later served in cubes with fruit or jam. It is also used to give texture to Polish cheesecakes and, though kind of boring by itself, becomes indispensable and nourishing. "Manna" for Catholic is an image of daily Communion, the white bread that needs to be eaten each morning, or, at least, every week. This is our bread of angels.

Both poems have previously been published elsewhere (in an online journal Quill and Parchment and in my book Miriam’s Iris, respectively), but I like them, and hope my readers like them, too.



Dead Sea Alive



An archipelago of broken words
A mosaic of ill-fitting pieces
Torn ribbons with angelic voices
Coded by crooked signs

Scholars decipher, assemble patterns
The dust of ages obscures the meaning

Here: “Blow your trumpets, slay the guilty”
There: “He heals the badly wounded, makes the dead live”
I see: “YHWH” - four letters in an ancient script
I hear: “Halleluiah!”

Two thousand years, two hundred days
And two hours. I too offer a sacrifice
Of my mind to the eternal presence

The angels are here with us
Hovering on iridescent wings
Just above red boxes with fire blankets
Just beyond a row of glass screens
With miniature shreds of holiness inside

© 2009 by Maja Trochimczyk



Snow Alight

love falls on me
gently
like snow from high sky

I stand here
waiting for snowflakes
of communion

I look into the eyes
of the man
who holds love
my love
in his hand

abyss calls to abyss
ocean’s depth touches
the deepest core
of my sorrow

my bread and body

“Noli me tangere”
said the One called Rabbuni

my eyes close
whiteness dissolves

this love will shield me

I count my blessings
bless the Holy Name

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