I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to our Monk in the World guest series from the community. Read on for Justin Coutts’ reflection “The Mystical Path of Poetry.”
There is an ancient teaching in the Christian tradition about the soul’s journey into God. The spiritual journey is understood as a threefold path which begins by healing our spiritual wounds, passes through the beauty of creation, and culminates in ineffable union with Christ. You can read an introduction to the triple way which I wrote a little while back HERE. In this article, I will give you a brief glimpse into the way chanting sacred poetry fits into each of the three stages.
In the ancient church, there was a beautiful understanding of the way in which psalmody (the chanting of the psalms) heals the soul. Both the words and the melodies are spiritual medicines which can heal the wounds we all carry within us. The Book of Psalms contains a wide spectrum of human emotion and experience. It gives voice to things we all feel. There are psalms of lament and psalms of praise. Some speak of betrayal and violence, some speak of the beauty of nature. As we chant the psalms, all of these rich images stir up our emotions and bring them to the surface.
The work of the music is to bring harmony to the emotions which the psalms bring up in us. Music is harmony and so it has the potential to restore harmony to a soul which has fallen into chaos. Our minds, bodies, and spirits come into a peaceful unity with one another when we chant or sing for long periods of time. Our thoughts and emotions come into harmony like the strings of a harp and we are restored to our natural condition of inner peace.
In medieval Celtic Christianity, poetry was understood as a vehicle of divine blessing. There was a long tradition of passing on the sacred poetry of great saints from one generation to the next. These traditional poems were believed to be inspired by the angels and to have emerged from the deep mysteries of Heaven. The Welsh bards spoke about a mysterious force they called Awen. The word itself translates directly as “inspiration” but they had a much deeper understanding of what poetic inspiration is and where it comes from.
Awen is a spiritual water which flows through rivers in the hidden recesses of nature. It is a mighty wind which affects the world without ever being seen. When a poet learns how to participate in this divine mystery, they are able to create the sorts of poems which impact the world around them. The bard who sings (as well as those who listen) lifts the veil and glimpses the spiritual world.
There is very little which can be said about the third stage of the triple way. It is empty silence, divine darkness, wordless contemplation. Chanting is a tool which can help us set aside our thoughts, allowing us to encounter that which is beyond all thought. There are times when chanting poetry shifts from a practice filled with words to one which is devoid of them. The words still remain, and we ourselves are singing them, but our mind sees past them into something deeper.
If you desire to approach the gate of Heaven, then chanting poetry is an excellent way to do it. Allow the words to wash over you like a mighty river. This torrent of imagery and insights will carry with it all of your own thoughts. Learn to let go of both. Receive and let go, receive and let go. This is the entire practice.
I explore these concepts in greater detail in my recent book Psalter of the Birds, including an original poem written specifically for each stage. It is a collection of 150 Celtic poems from across the centuries which have been translated and arranged in such a way that they can be chanted or used for reading and meditation.
In the introduction I explore the ancient Celtic idea that birds are angels in disguise and that their melodies are themselves a form of psalmody – for those with ears to hear. The birds of the forest sing sacred songs of worship in participation with the music of the spheres. In the spiritual realm, these angelic birds live in the Tree of Life, the branches of which are the nine orders of angels, and whose roots reach into the depths of God herself.
Psalter of the Birds includes instructions for how to chant that work for musicians and non-musicians alike. It also includes music for use in Simplified Anglican Chant based on the traditional Celtic Harpers three types of tunes: weeping, dancing, and sleeping. By chanting these ancient sacred songs, we join the angels and the birds in praise of the God of all life and are lifted up into Heaven.
Justin Coutts lives on Manitoulin island in northern Ontario with his family. 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 new book Psalter of the Birds is available here.