I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Justin Coutts’ reflection “A Hermit’s Prayer for Beauty” which originally appeared on his website In Search of a New Eden.
One of my favourite poems from the Celtic tradition is this little piece written by a monk who is fantasizing about how they would like to live in the wild and pray. One of the reasons I love it so much is because it is incredibly relatable. This is basically what I’ve been dreaming about for the last fifteen years. A simple life of prayer and gardening is universally recognized as good for the soul. It was just as true in the middle ages as it is today.
I was very happy to be able to include this poem in Psalter of the Birds, my new book scheduled for release in September. Perhaps chanting this poem along with some beautiful harp music will be the prayer which helps make it a reality, one can dream anyway. Here is the poem as it appears in our psalter.I wish, O Son of the living God
O ancient and eternal kingFor a hidden little hut in the wilderness
Where I can live out my days
A graceful lark who is grey
Living in the trees beside meA clear pool to wash away sins
Through the grace of the Holy Spirit
To be surrounded on all sides
By a beautiful green forestTo take care of the songbirds
Hiding in the shelter of the woods
A south facing opening for warmth
A little brook across its floorA fruitful land with many gracious gifts
That are good for every plant
A few sensible friends there with me
We will decide how many
Who are humble and obedient
That we may pray together to the king
Four times three, three times four in number
Enough to meet all of our needsTwice six people in the church
Both in the north and in the south
Six pairs of people besides myself
Praying forever to the king who makes the sun shineA lovely church with a linen altar cloth
A dwelling for God from heavenShining candles above the pure white scriptures
One house for everyone to shareA place to care for our bodies
No rudeness, boasting, or evil thoughts
This is the way in which I would farm it
I will not hide the food which I would choose
Fragrant leeks, hens, salmon, trout, and bees
Enough clothing and food for our needs
All this would be a gift from the king of fair fame
And I would spend all my timeSitting in meditation for a while
Praying to God in the beautiful places
There is something so natural about praying to God in beautiful places. The modern Celtic expression “thin places” expresses this so wonderfully. We are naturally drawn to these places in the landscape where the raw beauty of God’s creation is able to penetrate our hearts and pierce us with the arrow of divine love. There is a deep sort of homecoming which we experience in these places. In a certain poetic sense, we are drawn into the source of our own being when we pour our hearts outwards into the natural world of God’s artistic expression.
When we bring our inner world into harmony with the outer world, the magnificence of the beautiful can heal us. Harmony is the natural result of the beauty which permeates all things and all creatures long for beauty precisely because it is the source of our being. Perhaps this understanding of beauty in all things is best expressed in philosophical terms by Dionysius when he said,
“From the beauty of God comes the existence of everything, each being exhibiting its own way of beauty. For beauty is the cause of harmony, of sympathy, of community. Beauty unites all things and is the source of all things. It is the great creating cause which bestirs the world and holds all things in existence by the longing inside them to have beauty. And there it is ahead of all as Goal, as the Beloved, as the Cause toward which all things move, since it is the longing for beauty which actually brings them into being.”
This poem is a perfect expression of the longing for beauty which is natural to our condition. We come from beauty, it is the source of our creation. And yet, we are drawn towards beauty as we live in this world. It is an unequalled mystery that beauty is the cause of our being and also the end towards which our being strives. In fact, it is the longing for beauty which brought us into existence in the first place.
To set up a little hut in the wilderness with a garden and a sanctuary is to participate in that beauty. To play the human part in the symphony of natural beauty. The very human expressions of beauty described in this poem are equally of God. The birds in the forest and the monks at the altar both come from the same well of beauty in the divine and they both move towards the longing for beauty which God has placed in their hearts.
So, dear sisters and brothers, if you feel the need for beauty in your bones, then know that this comes from God. Never imagine beauty to be frivolous or without purpose, because it is the very purpose for which this world was made. We exist to express God’s beauty and there is no greater gift which we can be given.
Justin Coutts lives on Manitoulin island in northern Ontario with his wife and son. He has had a diverse religious life including growing up Quaker, spending many years involved in indigenous ceremonies, and a period of time in seminary with the United Church of Canada. He is the founder of New Eden Ministry, a primarily online community which seeks to revive the Christian contemplative tradition by creating a virtual space for people who feel called to contemplative practice but who do not have a local community in which to do so. His forthcoming book Psalter of the Birds will be released by Anamchara Books. Look for updates at NewEdenMinistry.com