Beautifully Limited

The poet Alice Oswald once described her medium as ‘beautifully limited’ and, in this, she was likening it to music. In the same interview, she talked about her sense of what it was to be a poet and used phrases like; ‘it’s a question of paying attention’ and ‘you get drawn into the big human questions: how to live’. I respond very strongly to these descriptions and they strike me as deeply spiritual. In the spiritual life, the ‘methods’ at our disposal are also beautifully limited. Our practices, our historic texts, our liturgies are all abundantly rich in meaning and offer the most profound encounters, and yet we know them to be limited. They are beautiful forms, but they are just that. They should not regarded as of ultimate value, only of proximate value.

The spiritual life is, like poetry, a matter of paying attention. It is nothing more and nothing less than our response to the invitation to see clearly and a simple discipline of attentive, concentrated silence, of radical openness to what is in front of us, of seeing the connections. And it is, above all, concerned with the question of how to live. The spiritual life can never be reduced to theory (though I wish more theologians took seriously the task of considering spirituality in an analytical, conceptual and contextual way…) and is always a matter of vital seriousness (though one of its hallmarks is self-forgetting humour).

So if poetry and the spiritual life have so much in common, I wonder if we might not gain rather a lot by applying Alice Oswald’s thoughts to our primary spiritual texts – what we call sacred scripture. If we read these texts as ‘beautifully limited’ expressions of faith, then we might see their succinct and incomplete character as strengths rather than weaknesses. The Bible is not all we have to say about faith, but a way to open us up to encounter with the Absolute. Not definitions but invitations. And if reading the Bible is a matter of paying attention, then our encounter with it is a school for contemplative consciousness. And if we come to it with the question of how to live, seeking not instructions but a mirror to be held up to our most challenging experiences, then we will find hope, honesty, love, betrayal, fear, wisdom reflected back at us in new clarity.

Maybe that’s a good way for us to read the accounts of Christ’s Passion this week. I’ll give it a try!

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